Most people have at one time or another wondered, 'If there is only one God, why are there so many religions?' The Qur'an declares that Allah could have made all of us monotheists, a single religious community, but (didn't) in order to test us in what we have been given.
“If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God's plan is) to test you in what He has given you: so compete in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is to (please) Allah who will show you on judgment day) the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (Qur'an 5:48)
This means that religious pluralism is the will of God. Yet for centuries many believers in one God have chided and depreciated each other's religions, and some believers have even resorted to forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitions. Monotheists all pray to the same God, and all prophets of monotheistic faiths are inspired by the same God.
For almost 14 centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims have read each other’s holy scriptures from an adversarial perspective. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding of our own scripture.
But in the middle ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis, rather than a multiple win co-operative sport like mountain climbing. In a zero sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture, somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the widespread use of scripture for missionary purposes; to win over others and not to share equally with others.
The situation has not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired.
Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own scriptures are Divinely inspired. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature.
Uniqueness of Qur'an
One of the wonderful aspects of the Qur'an is that it is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. Thus, the Qur'an states that there have always been (since the days of Adam) humans inspired by Allah who urged their community to avoid destruction by turning away from their corrupt and unjust ways; and turning to the One God who created all humans.
“The same religion was established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah – which We have sent by inspiration to you – and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: Namely, that you should remain steadfast in religion, and make no divisions therein…” (Quran, 42:13).
Also “The Prophet (Muhammad) believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord and (so do) the believers. Each one believes in God, His Angels, His Books, and His prophets (saying); ‘We make no distinction between one or another of His prophets…’” (Quran, 2:285)
Thus, when there seem to be contradictions within each sacred scripture or even between them, they should either be harmonized; or understood as different perspectives for different people at different times; but always coming from the One God of Abraham. This is taught by the sacred month of Ramadan.
According to a Hadith cited by ibn Kathir in elucidating Qur'an 2:185; Ramadan is a very special month because this one month in the Islamic lunar calendar was the same month when four of God's books of revelations were sent down to four special Prophets: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.
Ibn Kathir states: Imam Ahmad reported Wathilah bin Al-Asqa` said that Allah's Messenger said: “The Suhuf (Pages) of Ibrahim were revealed during the first night of Ramadan. The Torah was revealed during the sixth night of Ramadan. The Injil was revealed during the thirteenth night of Ramadan and Allah revealed the Qur'an on the twenty-fourth night of Ramadan.” (Ahmad 4:107 and Musnad 177025).
I do not know how Christians would understand the revelation of the Injil on the thirteenth day of Ramadan, but the Jewish holy day of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses and Banu Israel, falls on the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan, which in that year must have coincided with the month of Ramadan.
Christians use the solar calendar of the Roman Empire to calculate the birthday of Jesus, but they do use a lunar date for Good Friday and Easter. Jews, who do use the lunar calendar for all their religious dates, modify the length of the year with a leap month seven times in every nineteen year cycle, so as to always keep the harvest pilgrimage festival of Hajj Sukkot in the fall harvest season.
Thus, it is not obvious that these four revelations, which happened so many centuries apart, actually occurred in the same lunar month, and so Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all equally share a sacred month of revelation. In 2019 Shavuot will be celebrated by Jews throughout the world on (June 9) just after Muslims throughout the world were celebrating Laylah al-Qadr on one of the ten days prior to June 5.
This only happens nine or ten times in a solar century; so I pray that some Imams and Rabbis will be stimulated by the close occurrence of Laylah al-Qadr and Shavuot to include some kind thoughts to offer insight into each other’s Sacred Scriptures. To start this process, I offer a Jewish teaching that is also referred to in the Qur’an.
For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah), states, “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)
And the Quran states, “One who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” [Quran, 5:32]
Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is four centuries earlier than the Qur’anic one, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina.
But I believe Muhammad was a prophet of God who confirms the Torah of Prophet Moses. Muhammad has no need to learn this statement from another human being. God is the source of all Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention things from the oral Torah. My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures cannot in reality oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; it is as if they have the same “father” (God) and different “mothers” (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras).
All of these factors produce different rituals and legal systems, but their theology can differ only in small and unessential details. Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where sacred Scriptures differ, they do not nullify each other; they only cast additional light on each other.
Take for example, the prophet and priest Ezra. Was he a prophet and priest like Ezekiel, or a “son of God” like Jesus? Ezra was a good target to attack because he is specifically mentioned in the Quran as ‘Uzair:
The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of Allah, and the Christians call the Messiah a son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (thus) they only imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say (pagans believed their many gods had many divine or semi-divine children). Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!” [Quran 9:30]
Now there are half a dozen different places in the Qur’an where the Christians claim that Jesus is the “son of God” is refuted and denied. For example, “Jesus son of Mary, did you ever say to people, ‘Worship me and my mother as gods beside Allah?’ and he will answer, ‘How could I say what I had no right to say?’ [Quran, 5:116] Also, “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger of Allah…do not say “Trinity.” Stop saying that.” [Quran, 4:171]
And general statements like: “Those who say, ‘Allah has begotten a son’ have no knowledge about it, nor did their forefathers; this is a monstrous word that comes from their mouths. They utter nothing but a lie.” [Quran, 18:4,5] [Also see Quran 5:72-75, and 9:30.]
Indeed, the verse that follows 9:30 (above) specifically applies to Jesus: “They take their priests (ahbar) and their monks to be their Lords in derogation of Allah, and (take as their Lord) the Messiah, the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but One God: there is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him: (Far is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him).” [Quran, 9:31]
So how shall we understand the Quran’s statement: “The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of Allah”?
Al-Tabari and Abdallah ibn Ubayd state that only one Jew (Pinhas)[iv] viewed Uzayr[v] as a “son of God.” Ibn Abbas and Qurtubi say only four Jews, whose names they record, believed Uzayr as a “son of God.” Ibn Hazm said that just a small group of Jews in Yemen worshipped ʿUzayr as a “son of God” in some remote period.
Since the Jews of Yemen, who have lived there since the third or fourth century CE, do have an old tradition not to name their children Ezra, so perhaps there was such a small heretical sect in Yemen that later generations wanted to forget about.
But most Christians to this day, proudly proclaim that they do indeed worship Jesus, as “the Son of God.” Jews, however, have always vehemently denied that they worship any partner or other deity except the one and only God.
So how can we understand the difference between the two seemingly parallel statements in ayah 9:30?
There is a Sunan Al-Tirmidhi hadith which says that the Jews worship their Rabbis. One of the Companions said that this is not true. Then Muhammad said that they accept what their Rabbis say over the word of God; so in this way they worship them. This hadith provides an important clue.
Christians actually do venerate and pray to both Jesus and his mother Mary; but only a small minority of Jews figuratively venerate their rabbis as Muhammad says because, “They accept what their Rabbi’s say over the word of God, so in this way they worship them.”
This hadith is correct. Orthodox Jews do believe in both a written Torah and an oral (unwritten) Torah which first started being passed down over 3,200 years ago. They often observe Judaism according to the rabbinic interpretation of this oral Torah in the same way that Muslims use hadith to understand and apply verses in the Qur’an to the Sha’riah .
For example, the Torah states that the new Jewish year starts: “On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a day for you to blow ram horns.” (Torah, Numbers 29:1)
This one-day holy day was turned into a two-day holy day some 17-18 centuries ago, when most Jews lived outside the Land of Israel and could not be sure exactly when the lunar new year calendar began. A similar issue exists for Muslims in determining the start of Ramadan, which is why in some years two different days mark the beginning of Ramadan in various parts of the world.
Thus, different circumstances produce different rituals and legal systems, but basic theology can differ only in small and unessential details. As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49)
So we should emphasize our common beliefs and respect our particular differences because,
“To each among you, We have prescribed a law and a clear way. If Allah willed, He would have made you one nation, but (He didn’t in order to) test you in what He has given you; so strive (compete) as in a race to do good deeds. You all will return to Allah; then He will inform you about that in which you used to differ.” [Quran, 5:48]
I myself see the Torah's description of the descendants of Prophets Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel as destined to become the first chosen people, as a testimony about the significance of Prophet Abraham himself, who Islamic tradition asserts received a Sacred Scripture in Ramadan as the Qur'an states: ”Indeed, this is in the former scriptures; the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. (87:19) and “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses and Abraham (53:36)
For very many centuries Abraham's faithful descendants within the Children of Israel were the only monotheistic community that survived. Jews could have credited this situation to their own spiritual qualities. But the Torah teaches Jews not to be proud of themselves for being the first monotheistic community to survive long after their messenger was gone; because it was God's choice to choose them.
Their only choice was to always be conscious of, and obligated by, God's choice; to remain loyal to their ancestors pledge at Mount Sinai: “We will do.” In every generation a party failed, and another party remained loyal. Thus, it will be for all Jews and for all other religious communities until Judgement Day.
Rabbi Maller's web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi's Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon.