If there is only one God why are there so many religions? A good question that I as a Rabbi have often been asked.
This is my answer. The Qur’an declares that Allah could have made all of us monotheists, a single religious community, but didn’t in order to test our commitment to the religion that each of us have been given by God.
“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 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.
So how did this intolerance come about, and how can we eliminate religious intolerance from the Abrahamic religions. Greek philosophy, with its requirement that truth must be unchanging and universal, influenced most teachers of sacred scripture during Medieval times to believe that religion was a zero sum game; the more truth I find in your scripture the less truth there is in mine.
Instead of understanding differing texts as complementary, they made them contradictory and declared the other religion’s sacred text to be false.
In 1065 Pope Alexander called for a Crusade against the Moors in Spain. Then in 1073, Pope Gregory issued official proclamations urging Christian princes to recover lands occupied by Muslims in Spain, over which he claimed papal sovereignty on the basis of previous Christian rule and right. These decrees were really the beginning of the Christian Crusades against Islam.
Pope Gregory’s ideas about Christian war, were also extended to fighting against domestic enemies of the Church (like Protestants). For example, in 1209, Pope Innocent III urged a band of northern French nobles to rally an army that swept into southern France, where they unleashed a crusade so bloody it included the sacking of Beziers by an army under papal authority. Just before the attack, which would kill 15-20,000 men, women and children, the pope’s man on the scene, Arnaud Amalric, is reported to have uttered one of history’s most famous orders: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”
The next 4-5 centuries of religious military war in Europe and the Middle East was the result of the previous 2-3 centuries of all-out verbal polemic war between Christianity and Islam. Religious truth became a zero sum game: anything positive said about another religion was seen as a weakening of your own side. The goal was not to modestly try to harmonize various religious perspectives of the one and only God; but to self-righteously exaggerate religious differences, well beyond any reasonable understanding of the two sides.
If religion is to promote peace in our pluralistic world we must reject the zero sum game ideology and develop the pluralistic teachings that already exist within our sacred scriptures. After all “all prophets are brothers. They have the same farther (God) but different mothers (mother tongues, motherlands and unique historical circumstances that account for all the differences in their scriptures).
“Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all people to Jesus, son of Mary. Prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.” (Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith #652) Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion however; is one“. (Muslim, Book #030, Hadith #5836)
I am a Reform Rabbi who first became interested in Islam when I studied it at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem 60+ years ago. I have continued my study of Islam off and on for many years and for some time I have consider myself to be a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Hebrew. Actually I am a Muslim Hebrew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi.
Prophet Abraham was the first Muslim Hebrew as Qur’an 3:67 states: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyaun, "a Jew", nor Nasraaniyyaan, "a Christian", but rather a Haniifaam, “a Muslimaan, i.e. “a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham's descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel), into a great multitude of monotheists called the People of Israel-Banu Israel.
Prophet Isaiah said: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, are the offspring of Abraham, my friend;” (Isaiah 41:8) So the biological offspring of Prophet Abraham (the Banu Israel) became the first ongoing monotheistic community when God rescued them from Egyptian oppression; and made an ongoing covenant with them at Mount Sinai. Prophet Abraham was not born a Jew, but his descendants from his grandson Jacob/Israel became the Banu Israel—the Jewish People.
For 1,200+ years after Prophet Moses, the Banu Israel was the only ongoing monotheistic community in the world. Unlike the other monotheistic communities that rose and fell during those centuries; most, but not all, of Banu Israel remained loyal to the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Hebrew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice.
These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. In many ways statements in the Qur’an about Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Ahadith relating Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some 12-13 centuries later.
I could have written this essay about religious pluralism by using quotes only from the Hebrew Scriptures, such as: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in His paths. Torah will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord God has spoken. All the nations will walk in the name of their gods, and we (Jews) will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:1-5)
Or I could have used a pragmatic argument like a Jewish leader named Jephthah offered when he tried to avoid a war by appealing to an invading king as follows: “Do you not hold what Chemosh, your God, has given you? So we will hold on to all that Adonai, our God, has given us.” (Judges11:24)
Jephthah does not believe in Chemosh, nor does he think that Chemosh is just another name for the Holy One of Israel. He knows that the One God of Israel does not allow Jews to have any other god. But Jephthah recognizes the king’s religious beliefs and wants the king to equally recognize Israel’s.
Thus, Adonai the One God of Israel, is the only God for Jews; but others can have a different view of God that they submit to, as long as this God leads them to practice virtue. As the Qur’an declares, “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning the matter, but continue to call people to your Lord… God will judge between (all of) you on the Day of Resurrection about what you used to differ”. (Qur'an 22:67&69)
I choose to use Qur’an and Hadith to illustrate that all religions, as well as my own, have statements proclaiming and endorsing religious pluralism. They also have other statements that appear to claim religious exclusivity. These opposing views are the will of God, so that we may be tested.
Choosing between good and evil is a moral choice that even agnostics and atheists can do. Believers should believe in all God’s words (plural), but if we value kindness, humility and peace we are obligated to choose to understand the seemingly exclusive statements in the context of the accepting statements.
This is the will of God so that believers may be tested in their commitment to kindness, humility and peace.