Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence

View of Manama, Bahrain (photo: Emirates News Agency).

Under the patronage of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain Dialogue Forum "East and West for Human Coexistence" was launched today with the participation of many representatives of religions from different countries including Pope Francis who is bringing his message of dialogue with the Muslim world to the kingdom of Bahrain.

At the same time Christians and Jews also need to learn that the Qur’an is a major supporter of Religious Pluralism as being God’s will.

Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation 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 influence of Greek philosophy's emphasis on the logic of the excluded middle. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradicted one another, one or both of them must be false.

This would mean that if my religion is true, yours must be false. In modern terms, light could not be both a particle and a wave at the same time. Yet we now know that light is indeed both a particle and a wave at the same time.

This medieval situation did 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 sacred scriptures are Divinely inspired.

They use the same kinds of explanation to understand a revealed religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature. As a rabbi I follow a different model, one I learned from prophet Muhammad.

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 Qur'an 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” (Qur'an 5:32)

Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is several centuries earlier than the Qur'an, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina.

But I believe Muhammad is a prophet of God who confirms the Torah of prophet Moses. Muhammad has no need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics might reply that the statement is not found in the written Torah; it appears in the oral Torah  written by the Rabbis in the Mishnah more than 1000 years after Moses.

But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses through many generations just as Ahadith have been passed down through the generations. Indeed, the Qur'an itself introduces this statement as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel “one who kills a human being ...” (Qur'an 5:32)

No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. 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 can not in reality oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; 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. As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but (basic) belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49) 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. My belief is based on an important Hadith of prophet Muhammad.

A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah's Apostle said (to the Muslims). "Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, 'We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.”'

Following Muhammad’s teaching I also neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur'an. If I believed in the Qur'an, I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur'an because I believe that Muhammad was a true Non-Jewish Prophet descendant from Prophet Abraham, and I respect the Qur'an as a  revelation to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other religion.

How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur'an and my Torah? Unlike those in the past who played the zero sum game, I do not seek some verse in the Qur'an I can dispute or object to. Indeed, this is what the Qur'an itself teaches. “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 this matter.” (22:67)

One of the major differences between the Qur'an and the Torah is the Torah's attention to details (names of people and places) and the Qur'an's emphases on universals. The Torah has long lists of geographical locations and genealogies that many people today, especially non-Jews, find boring.

The Qur'an rarely identifies locations, and often omits the name of the people it does mention, for example the name of the prophet who appointed Talut to become the first king of Israel.(2:246) Indeed, Muslim commentators disagree about many of these details. Some say the prophet who appointed Talut king of Israel was Samuel and others think it was Joshua or Simeon.

These disagreements occurred because; while some early Muslim commentators did use Biblical details to elucidate Qur'anic texts; most later commentators, especially after the beginning of the Christian Crusades in Spain and the Middle East, rejected using Israelite materials to fill in some details in the Qur'an.

The Qur'an's avoidance of detail points to the Qur'an's universal and ongoing Divine call for all human societies to repent and reform themselves. But it does not require ignoring information from a brother prophet's scripture.

On the other hand, many Rabbis get caught up in the details of the Torah and even expand them into super details. Thus, the rules relating to dietary observance of Passover and prohibited work on Shabbat have multiplied endlessly.

We need to learn from the Sunnah of the prophet as narrated by Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.  (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38)

Another important lesson from the prophet's Sunnah as narrated by his wife Aisha, says, “Whenever the Prophet was given an option between two things, he used to select the easier of the two as long as it was not sinful; but if it was sinful, he would remain far from it.” (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 56, Number 147)

This is the path that I and most Reform Rabbis have taken in the last two centuries. If Orthodox Jews in the time of Muhammad had followed the prophet's teaching, Reform Judaism (the largest of several different religious groups of Jews in North America) would have begun 14 centuries ago, instead of only two centuries ago.

The Qur'an was also far ahead of its time in many other ways. One of the most important ways is the Qur'an's oft repeated statement that believers (Muslims) should believe in all the messengers of God. This message of religious pluralism and toleration is sorely needed in the 21st century.

The Qur'an states: “They say that none will enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. That is their wishfulness. Say 'Produce your proof if you are truthful.'” (2: 111)

At the time of Prophet Muhammad both Orthodox Rabbis and Catholic Priests did claim that only their own believers would enter Paradise. The Qur'an instructs Muslims that this claim is not based on the Jewish or the Christian scriptures; but only on the desires of those people who make these claims. In truth, nowhere in the Torah of  Moses, the Zubar of David, or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible is this claim that only Jews will enter Paradise asserted.

The great Sage Hillel, who lived in the first century prior to the birth of Jesus, taught that ”The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise.”(Tosefta Sanhedrin)  Jesus also taught “In my Father's house are many dwelling places; if not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 12:2)

But decades after Prophet Jesus was gone, claims were made in his name, that only those who believed Jesus was the son of God, who died on the cross to save all humans from going to Hellfire, would be able to enter Paradise. In reaction to these polemical Christian claims, some Talmudic Rabbis began to counter claim that only Jews would enter Paradise.

Yet even then the Rabbis did not think that eternal punishment was the fate of all those excluded from Paradise. Gehenna-Hellfire was conceived of as a temporary abode generally believed to last a maximum of 12 months.

The great sage, Rabbi Akiba, stated. “ The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts 12 months.”  (Mishnah Eduyyot 2:10) This is repeated in the Talmud, (Shabbat 33b) and elsewhere it is stated that sinners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are punished in Gehenna-Hellfire for (up to) 12 months (Rosh HaShanah 17a).

Thus the Qur'an accurately states, “They say, 'the Fire will not touch us except for a fixed number of days”. (2:80)  The Qur'an instructs Muslims to say to both Jews and Christians, “If the abode of the Hereafter with God is reserved for you alone, excluding other people, then long for death...but they will never long for it.” (2:94-5)

So, the answer to those who claim that “none will enter Paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian” is “No! Rather , whoever submits his whole being to God as one devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing him, his reward is with his Lord, and all such will have no fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:112)

Thus, the Qur'an affirms that those Rabbis who strayed from the words of Hillel, “The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise.” were wrong. Those followers of Jesus who abandoned his teaching, “In my Father's house are many dwelling places” and instituted the doctrine that "No one can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation.” (Saint Augustine) are also wrong.

Tragically, during many centuries of Medieval debate between the three religions, everyone thought that religion was a zero sum game sport with only one winner and one truth; rather than a sport with many winners and many truths, i.e. soccer or tennis vs. hiking or mountain climbing).

Thus, some Muslim commentators also began to take the same exclusionary view condemned by Prophet Muhammad by adding specific details of theological belief to the statements in the Qur'an that stress a simple and firm belief in the one and only God: ”No! rather, whoever submits his whole being to God as one devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing him, his reward is with his Lord, and all such will have no fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:112)

And even more explicitly the Qur’an states: “Those who believe (Muslims), those who advocate Judaism, Christians, Sabeans, whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day, and does good righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, they will not fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:62)

Thank God, in 21st century America the majority of most religious groups now believe the teachings of the Qur'an cited above (2:112 and 2:62).

A survey of over 35,000 Americans in 2008 found that most Americans agree with the statement: many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life.

This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including 82% of Jews, 79% of Catholics, 57% of evangelical Protestants and 56% of Muslims. (From the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, © 2008, Pew Research Center.)

Thus, in 21st century United States most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected the zero sum mind set and believe in the Qur'an's teachings, “If God had so willed He could surly have made you a single community, but (He didn't) in order to test you by what he has given you. Strive then, in competing in good works.” (5:48)  For ultimately, “On the Day of Resurrection God will judge between you about what you differed.” (22:69)

Only those who reject God by disbelief or by unrepentant evil activities will be the losers when Judgement Day comes. But many, perhaps most theologians will learn that they might not be as smart as they thought they were.

The Qur’an refers to Prophet Abraham himself as a community or a nation: “Abraham was a nation/community [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (16:120) If Prophet Abraham is an Ummah then fighting between the descendants of Prophets Ishmael and Isaac is a civil war and should always be avoided.

If all Arabs and Jews can live up to the ideal that ‘the descendants of Abraham’s sons should never make war against each other’ is the will of God; we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel  will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5).


READ MORE: Al-Azhar’s grand imam to attend Bahrain forum alongside Pope Francis


  Category: Featured, Highlights, Life & Society
  Topics: Bahrain, Freedom Of Religion, Interfaith, Pluralism  Values: Harmony, Tolerance
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