By Izeth Hussain –
In my last article I claimed that Islam is the most widely ecumenical of all the world religions. I was referring to the wider ecumenism which seeks to establish common ground between the world religions, a movement that has been flourishing vigorously over several decades. I suppose the underlying reason is that in the global village the adherents of different religions are thrown together more than ever before in human history, and therefore there is a need for common understanding and tolerance as never before. The wider ecumenism can also be seen as an expression of the universalist drive in the modern world.
It is in that context that my claim that Islam is the most widely ecumenical of all the world religions should have a particular interest. My basis for making that claim is that Islam is the only religion that explicitly declares that those who follow other religions will also go to heaven, provided they believe in the one true God and lead virtuous lives. That declaration is made in two places in the Koran: sura 5 verse 69 and sura 2 verse 62. The first reads as follows: “Verily those who believe and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve”.
The Koran is explicit on the point that the Prophet was not making an original and unique revelation. He was merely reiterating the revelation of the one true God that had been given to humanity right down the ages, in which connection the Koran mentions no less than thirty two Prophets. Obviously therefore the revelation had been given among others to the peoples of the Indian sub-continent as well. The following question arises: What are the pointers to the fact that the revelation of the one true God had been given to Hindus and the Buddhists? The answer could be along the following lines. When a Hindu prays before a statue of Krishna or Shiva he is not indulging in idol worship or in polytheism but is worshipping the one true God of whom Krishna and Shiva are no more than representations. I believe that most Hindus would agree with that interpretation. In my own experience I have found that Hindus usually speak of God in the singular, not of Gods in the plural. As for Buddhists, they most certainly are not polytheists. They believe in Nirvana as the ultimate reality, which is conceived of in the singular as One and not as a plurality of gods.
The reader may wonder whether the claim I am making for a universalist Islam might be sound in Islamic doctrine but means little or nothing in practice, for Islam has been according to widespread notions the most exclusive and the most intolerant of all the great world religions. That certainly has been true of Islam at certain times and at certain places, more specifically of Islamic civilisation in its phases of decadence, but it is certainly not true as a generalization. The wider ecumenism of Islam was seen at its best within the Arab world under the Abbassids and outside it in India. The Mogul Emperor Akbar could be regarded as its greatest exemplar because he believed in the validity of all the religions, and even went to the extent of constructing a new universalist religion in the form of the Din Ilahi. The Islamic wider ecumenism in India had behind it the rich tradition of Sufi mysticism which had much common ground with Hindu mysticism, so much so that the great mystic poet Kabir could not decide whether he was Muslim or Hindu. I believe that we can see the wider ecumenism of India, not specifically Islamic, in full flower in Kipling’s great novel, Kim. The spirit behind Islam’s wider ecumenism can be seen at its best I think in an observation made by Sheikh Mohammed Abdu, the great Egyptian reformer of the nineteenth century: “I went to the West. There was no Islam there but there were many Muslims. I returned home to the East where there is Islam but no Muslims”. Perhaps we Muslims should declare that Angela Merkel, who shamed the entire Islamic world, is one of the greatest Muslims of our time.
If my view of a universalist Islam is doctrinally sound, how is it that Islam is widely perceived as the least universalist of all the world religions? The explanation I believe is that the Koran is replete with seemingly contradictory verses, so that varying interpretations of Islam become possible through selective readings of Koranic and other texts. Sometimes the interpretation could be determined by the ideological preconceptions and preferences of the power elite. In a seminar paper I presented a quarter of a century ago I wrote, reflecting Michel Foucault’s theories: “Knowledge confers power, but the knowledge-system does not operate in a vacuum. It is used to legitimate power, and power determines and sets the limits to knowledge”. I also quoted Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne, as follows: “Orthodoxy – in its Sunni or Shia version – is no more than the official religion resulting from the collaboration of the majority of the ulema with the state”.
The method most often used for the construction of ideologically slanted versions of Islam has been that of abrogation, which has been a matter of controversy for a thousand years. There is apparent sanction in the Koran for abrogation because it is stated that some verses are given fuller and better versions later. The way abrogation can serve ideological purposes has been shown by the construction placed on the famous Verse of the Sword, which projects an image of Islam as an intolerant and belligerent religion. It was taken as abrogating all the verses projecting an image of Islam as a religion of peace. The fact was ignored that the verses preceding and following the Verse of the Sword make it absolutely clear that that Verse applied only to non-Muslims who had broken Treaty obligations. It provides a clear illustration of the way ideologically slanted readings of the Koran became possible through the theory of abrogation.
There are two major difficulties with the theory of abrogation. One arises out of the fact that the Koranic material is ordered not chronologically but according to length. It means that most often it has not been possible to establish with any certitude which are the earlier and later verses. The other difficulty is that abrogation postulates a God who keeps changing his mind, and that surely is inconsistent with the notion of an omniscient God. The best explanation for apparently contradictory material in the Koran is the contextual one according to which some verses are time-specific, having validity only in relation to situations that are bounded in time and space, while the other verses have an eternal validity.
The translation of the Koran published by the Saudi authorities has exegetical notes by several reputed scholars. They say nothing to the effect that the two verses according to which Christians and others who lead good lives will go to heaven have been abrogated. The emphasis is on the cardinal importance of leading virtuous lives instead of scrupulously observing the mere forms of Islam. That may have been an appropriate emphasis at one time. Today the emphasis should surely be on the universalism of Islam.