- Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
The Road To Religious Harmony
Follow One, Respect All
What the world needs today—perhaps more than anything else—is an acceptable formula for the attainment of religious harmony. This being currently one of the most important topics under discussion, the Islamic viewpoint in this regard is presented here.
If anyone seeks a religion other than Islam [submission to God], it will not be accepted from him; he will be among the losers in the Hereafter. (3: 85)
A few commentators of the Quran take this verse to imply that salvation according to Islam is destined exclusively for Muslims. Islam thus appears to uphold the superiority of the Muslim community. But this is an out-of-context interpretation and is certainly not correct.
Salvation, by Islamic standards, depends upon the individual’s own actions, and that it is not the prerogative of any group. No one can earn salvation by the mere fact of associating with a particular group.
Another verse of the Quran serves as an explanation of the above-quoted verse. It states that:
The believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans—all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds—will be rewarded by their Lord; they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2: 62)
This verse rules out the concept of community superiority for any given group, in so far as Muslims have been bracketed here along with other religious groups. The content of this verse makes it very clear that salvation, by Islamic standards, depends upon the individual’s own actions, and that it is not the prerogative of any group. No one can earn salvation by the mere fact of associating with a particular group. Salvation will be achievable only by a person who truly believes in God and the world Hereafter, and who has given genuine proof in this life of having lived a life of right action.
Another important aspect of Islam is that it does not advocate belief in the manyness or multiplicity of reality. On the contrary, it stresses reality’s oneness. According to Islam, reality is one, not many. That is why, in describing monotheism, the Quran states:
That is God, your true Lord. What is there, besides the truth, but error? How then can you turn away? (10: 32)
The above verse talks about Monotheism (i.e. one Lord being the Creator, Sustainer and object of worship). Islam does not propagate the manyness of reality and does not accept it even as a hypothesis. Both of the above-mentioned points—(a) the oneness of Absolute Reality, and (b) salvation as the prerogative of the true believer in this oneness—form a major part of Islamic ideal. Just being born into a certain group or community, or associating oneself with others of similar persuasions, does not entitle one to salvation.
But it is a fact that; in practice, different kinds of religious groups do exist. Given the various kinds of differences separating them, it is a pertinent question how to bring about harmony between them.
Experience has shown that repeated attempts to bring about harmony on the basis of considering all religions as one have been a failure. The Mughal ruler Akbar (d. 1605) attempted to achieve religious harmony by state enforcement of his newly formed religion, ‘Din-e-Ilahi’. Dr Bhagwan Das (d. 1958) spent the best part of his life producing a one-thousand page book titled Essential Unity of All Religions; Mahatma Gandhi (d. 1948) attempted to spread this ideal at the national level by a countrywide movement whose slogan was ‘Ram Rahim ek hai,’ meaning Ram and Rahim are one and the same. But events have shown us that all failed in their attempts to achieve the goal of religious harmony.
Salvation will be achievable only by a person who truly believes in God and the world Hereafter, and who has given genuine proof in this life of having lived a life of right action.
Islam’s approach to the entire problem is much more realistic in that it accepts ideological differences. Once having accepted these differences, it then advocates the policy of tolerance and respect for one another in everyday dealings. This is on a parallel with the principle expressed in the English saying: ‘Let’s agree to disagree.’ In this connection, one of the commands of the Quran is that, in principle, ‘there shall be no compulsion in religion’ (2: 256).
At another place it declares that ‘you have your religion and I have mine’ (109: 6). It was as a result of this commandment that, when the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Madinah, he issued a declaration re-affirming his acceptance of the religion of Muslims for the Muslims and the religion of Jews for the Jews. In order to perpetuate the atmosphere of mutual harmony, the Quran enjoins the Muslims in their dealings with people of other faiths: ‘Do not revile those [beings] whom they invoke instead of God, lest they, in their hostility, revile God out of ignorance.’ (6: 108)
This principle formulated by Islam is best described not as religious harmony, but as harmony among religious people. This is a principle whose utility is a matter of historical record. It is evident that in the past as well as in the present, wherever religious harmony has existed, it has been based on unity despite differences, rather than on unity without differences. It is not based on agreeing to agree, but on agreeing to disagree.
Although Islam believes in the oneness of reality, it lays equal stress on the practice of tolerance in everyday dealings.
One revolutionary example of this principle is to be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. It concerns the conference of three religions which was held in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. This conference is described by Mohammed Hussein Heikal in his book, The Life of Muhammad:
The three scriptural religions thus confronted one another in Madinah. The delegation entered with the Prophet into public debate and these were soon joined by the Jews, thus resulting in a tripartite dialogue between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This was a truly great congress which the city of Yathrib (another name of Madinah) had witnessed. In it, the three religions which today dominate the world and determine its destiny had met, and they did so for the greatest idea and the noblest purpose.
Although Islam believes in the oneness of reality, it lays equal stress on the practice of tolerance in everyday dealings, even if it means going to the extent of permitting people of other faiths to come to an Islamic place of worship for religious discussion, and if it is time for their prayers letting them feel free to perform their worship according to their own ways in the mosque itself.
Tolerance has been the rule throughout the history of Islam. It has, in fact, been one of the main underlying causes of its successful dissemination. Encyclopedia Britannica makes a note of this fact:
Islam achieved astonishing success in its first phase. Within a century after the Prophet’s death in AD 632 (the early generations of Muslims), it had brought a large part of the globe—from Spain across central Asia to India-under a new Arab Muslim empire.
Despite these astonishing achievements other religious groups enjoyed full religious autonomy.
Although the necessity to bring about harmony among different religions is not a newly-felt imperative, endeavours towards that end are still only in the formative stages. If progress towards that goal has been slow, it is because of the established positions which ancient religions have secured in the hearts of their followers, simply by virtue of their antiquity. Trying to bring about changes in these religions per se has never brought about harmony, because instead of old religions being brought closer together by this process, they have developed rather into new religions, a process which has either left the problem of disharmony unsolved or further aggravated. There are many examples of such abortive efforts in the past.
It is evident that in the past as well as in the present, wherever religious harmony has existed, it has been based on unity despite differences, rather than on unity without differences. It is not based on agreeing to agree, but on agreeing to disagree.
In view of this historical reality, it is clear that the suggestion made by Islam on producing harmony among different religions is the only viable solution. Any alternative suggestion, however attractive it might appear, would be either impracticable or counterproductive.
A religious scholar said, ‘We have been attempting to bring about interreligious harmony for the last one hundred years, but the results have been quite dismal. It would seem that there are insurmountable obstacles in the way.’
The goal we want to attain is certainly a proper one. It is simply that the strategy we employ is impracticable. Religious harmony is without doubt a desirable objective. But it cannot be achieved by attempting to alter people’s beliefs—a policy advocated by more than one scholar in this field. The only way to tackle the problem is to encourage people to show respect for others’ beliefs and to be compassionate at all times in their dealings with adherents of other religions. It is very much possible to inculcate this attitude without in any way tampering with long-cherished credos. It should never be conceded that the goal of religious harmony is unattainable simply because people’s beliefs differ from one another. It is certainly a possibility provided that it is seen as a matter of practical strategy and not as a pretext for making ideological changes.
‘Practical strategy’ is something which people regularly resort to in matters of their daily existence. As such, it is a known and acceptable method of solving the problem. Since no new ground has to be broken, either for the religious scholar or for the common man, it should be a very simple matter for people to extend their everyday activity, to include an honest and sincere effort towards global religious harmony. It is simply a question of having the will and the foresight to do so.
Source: Spirit Of Islam