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“Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq on Religious Pluralism”

SHAFAQNA-By Dr. John Andrew Morrow


Delivered on Saturday, July 6, 2019, at UMAA 2019: The Conference of Imam Sadiq, Held in Washington, DC


There are those in our community who reject religious pluralism. They claim that it contradicts the Qur’an which states that “whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers” (3:85). Speaking of the People of the Book, however, the Qur’an also says that: “no fear shall be upon them nor shall they grieve’” (2:62; 5:69).

As Almighty Allah says in the Qur’an: “Verily, those who have attained to faith, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabaeans—all who believe in God and the last day and do righteous deeds, shall have their reward with their Sustainer” (2:62, 5:69).

The verse identifies communities that have the potential of being saved; however, it does not limit them to salvation: it specifically states that “all who believe in God and the last day and do righteous deeds, shall have their reward” (2:62; 5:69). This includes all pious monotheists from all times but not obstinate unbelievers who reject the prophets after complete knowledge has reached them.

There are those who claim that these pluralistic verses were abrogated. That is an opinion and one that is not shared by all authorities. Many scholars of the Qur’an reject the concept of abrogation. There are those who claim that the verse in question applies only to the People of the Book prior to Islam. It is more reasonable, however, to believe that it is universal in nature. In the words of Rumi, “The lamps are different but the Light is the same; it comes from beyond.”

There are those in our community who claim that only Muslims can go to heaven and that the prophets did not believe in religious pluralism. However, the very social system created by the Prophet Muhammad was pluralistic as confirmed by the Constitution of Medina and the Covenants of the Prophet. The Prophet never imposed religious uniformity.

As the Qur’an states, “There is no compulsion in religion’” (2:256). What is more, it condemns those who claim that they and they alone shall be saved: “And they say: None shall enter the garden (or paradise) except he who is a Jew or a Christian. These are their vain desires. Say: Bring your proof if you are truthful” (2:111). As Almighty Allah said in a sacred saying: “A man said: ‘By Allah, Allah will not forgive this person!’ Allah Almighty said: ‘Who is he who swore by me that I will not forgive someone? I have forgiven him and nullified your good deeds’” (Muslim).

It would be wise to remember the teachings of al-Ghazzali. It was his view that the Christians who had not been reached by Islam would come under God’s Mercy and that only those who were cognizant of his teachings and virtues, namely, those who obstinately rejected him despite recognizing the truth, could be called unbelievers.

Anyone who believes in one God is a believer. Unbelievers are atheists, pagans, and polytheists, not the People of the Book. The Prophet himself, peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny, described them as mu’mininor believers but not as muslimin or submitters. So long as they were friends and allies of the Muslims, the Messenger of Allah treated the People of the Book as believers. Allah Himself warned us against calling people unbelievers: “say not to anyone who offers you a greeting of peace: You are not a believer!” (4:94).

The Prophet invited the People of the Book to Islam but he did not compel them to do so. In fact, the Messenger of Allah stated in his “Letter to the Jews” that they were only obliged to follow him if they found him mentioned in their scriptures. If they found him not, explained the Prophet, they would not be held accountable. In fact, in the Treaty of Maqna, he specifically told the Jews that “If you will listen and obey, God will respect the honorable amongst you and forgive the sinners.”

There are those in our community who claim that Allah sent Islam “to prevail over all religions” (9:33). The Arabic verb in question also means to manifest, to proclaim, and to uplift.  It is not a call for world domination. Islam prevails over the other religions not by conquering them, but (as it were) by summing them up. “If your Lord had so willed,” says the Qur’an, “He would have made humankind one community” (1:118).

God calls for diversity, not homogeneity. “Were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others,” states the Qur’an, “there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned” (22:40). Allah Himself presents pluralism in a positive light. It is part of His Plan.

Allah did not say that Islam would prevail. He said that “the Religion of Truth would prevail” (9:33). Exoteric Islam is the realm of the Shari‘ah or Law. Esoteric Islam is the realm of the Tariqah or Spiritual Path. It is colored by a formal legislative faith, which no true follower of Tariqah has ever rejected. The Religion of Truth, however, is the realm of the Haqiqah or the Esoteric of the Esoteric. It is colorless, universal, and timeless. This is the teaching of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt and of the ‘Arifun among the Sufis. As Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq said: “Our affair contains an exoteric (ẓahir), an esoteric (batin), and an esoteric of the esoteric (Batin al-batin).”

There are those in our community who reject religious pluralism by citing the Qur’an: “Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers” (3:85). But which Islam is true Islam? The Islam of the Sunnis, the Twelver Shiites, the Usulis, the Akhbaris, the Sevener Shiites, the Fiver Shiites, the Ghulat, the ‘Ibadis, the Mu‘tazilis, the Zahiris, the Sufis… Where does such arrogance end? Nobody has a monopoly on truth.

If there is no possibility of salvation outside of Islam, then why did Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, peace be upon him, say that “Islam is a statement but Iman is action.” In other words, the mere profession and practice of Islam does not promise salvation: sincere faith in action does. A Muslim or “One who Professes Islam” is not necessarily a Mu’min or a Believer, namely, a person who has faith and conviction and who acts upon it.

If being a Muslim is not predicated on being a believer then being a believer is not predicated on being a Muslim. As Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq said, “Belief is superior to Islam and certainty is superior to belief.” And yet again: “Belief is above Islam by one degree. Piety is above belief by one degree. Certainty is above piety by one degree. Nothing is distributed so little among people as certainty is.” As he warned, “What you are holding to is very little of Islam. Pay attention not to lose it.” As the Imam asserted, “Belief is inclusive of Islam in appearance but Islam is not inclusive of belief esoterically.”

If the religions of the People of the Book were devoid of any validity, why would the Prophet and ‘Ali judge them according to the Torah and the Gospel? Why would the Prophet provide for their continued protection in his covenants? The answer comes from the Qur’an: “For each community, We have appointed a Law and a Way of Conduct [while the essence of religion is identical]. If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but He has not done so that He may test you in what He has given you; so, compete in goodness. To God shall you all return and He will tell you [the Truth] about what you have been disputing’” (5:48).

There are those in our community who reject religious pluralism by citing the Qur’an: “This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion” (5:3). Islam, however, can be taken in two ways: as denoting the specific religious form brought by Muhammad through the Qur’an, and as indicating that submission to Allah’s will is the essence of all true religion; this is al-Din al-Fitrah, the religion of the primordial human form.

As Muslims, we should respect the remnants of previous prophetic messages, however fragmented they may be. The ultimate arbiter is God: “In time, they must return to their Lord, and then He will make them understand what they have done” (6:108). People are judged based on both faith and action. As Almighty Allah promises, “whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it” (99: 7-8).

The Prophet and the Imams provided Universal Dhimmah or Protection. They viewed the subjects of their Ummah, both Muslim and non-Muslim, as their flock. Their communities were diverse. They exercised inclusive care. They distinguished between muslimin and mu’minin and between the elite and commoners. Simply because the elite were privileged in their faith did not mean that the commoners were condemned. The Prophet and the Imams did not place people in binary categories of belief and disbelief. Rather, they described a hierarchical gradation. This paved the way for co-existence and pluralism.

There are those in our community who claim that pluralism is un-Islamic. They believe that it means that all religions are the same and that they all lead to salvation. However, that is not the definition of religious pluralism. That is religious relativism. Religious pluralism is the belief that truth is not limited to a single religion and that some truth can be found in other religions. It is the opposite of religious exclusivism: the belief that only one religion is true and that all others are entirely false.

Although truth is found in all traditions, it is more concentrated in some that in others. However, nobody can claim to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. As Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq explained, “Belief is of ten stages like the steps of a ladder. To climb, one uses it one step after the other one by one. One who possesses two degrees of belief should never say to one who possesses only one degree that he does not have enough belief and so on up to the tenth degree or stage. One who is higher should not throw back the one below because the one above may also fall. If you see one below, you should help him climb up higher gently and do not burden him with what he cannot lift up; he may break down and if one breaks down a believer, he will be held responsible for compensation to him.”

There are stages and degrees of truth between and within religions. As Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: “People are of various grades in the sight of Allah” (3:163). And again: “He will regard everyone according to his merits” (11:3). I can assure you that a pious Christian monk is closer to God than a Takfiri terrorist. The differences between them are at times greater than those found between the Abrahamic faiths themselves. If only Muslims go to heaven, then who is a Muslim? There are thousands of different understandings of Islam. Which one is the one and only way? Every school of thought has scores of subdivisions. There are as many interpretations of Islam as there are Muslims.

For Diane Eck, “Pluralism is not diversity alone but ‘the energetic engagement of diversity.’ Pluralism is more than tolerance. We can tolerate without knowing anything about the religious other. Pluralism involves the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments… Pluralism is grounded in dialogue. Everyone has a place and the table with their identities and commitments.” If this is the definition of pluralism, then how could it possibly contradict the Qur’an?

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