Muslims should be ready for meaningful inter-religious talks

By Muhammad
Maroof Shah

Although theoretically committed to inter-religious dialogue and having a legacy of nurturing model of coexistence, Muslims today aren’t reputed to be much interested in serious transformative dialogue with other traditions. The dominant impression today is that Islam came to supplant and not affirm other religions and one day will supplant other religions and dialogue, if any, is to be restricted to questions political and others and can’t be applied to basic theological assumptions of other religions as essentially historical phenomena that are now passé and no longer salvifically efficacious. The world is there to be converted or better reverted to Islam and our job is first to preach and second to enter into certain contracts at various levels as needed. We have with us the last word and what religion and the last book and the only preserved book. Before analyzing and putting in perspective these assumptions the following remarks may be noted.
Religions are not different brands of certain gadget that compete for customers. There is only one Religion God sent from Adam to Muhammad. Its core doctrine of unity of the Real (tawhid) and the essence of worship/prayer despite some changes in form remained the same. Laws, being forms and adapted to changing needs, have not stayed the same, even within given legal schools – and are continuously updated by ijtihad. What has remained unchanged is love of God and love of neighbour that ground/inform other commandments. Faith (iman), submission (Islam) and drive for seeking perfection (ihsan) have not changed though it appears that the grammar of God-talk has been differently formulated across traditions. However, this conclusion is often avoided on the basis of the following charges that are dealt with separately below.
The Charge of Abrogation: The Quran, as Abdulaziz Sachidna notes with classical scholars, introduces the idea of abrogation in connection with legal injunctions. And it is an illegitimate expansion of it if it is invoked in connection with Islam’s attitude towards former Abrahamic traditions. Tabatabai, amongst great scholars and Quran exegetes of the modern world, has clearly asserted earlier Shiite opinion that the divine promise in Q 2:62 (reward/salvation for different faith communities) had not been abrogated. Mutazilıtes amongst Sunnis and the majority of the Shiites conceded “the continuing salvific efficacy of the other monotheistic faiths on the basis of both the revealed and the rational guidance” and the ‘People of the Book’ are responsible for acting upon their revelation “whose substance has remained recognisable despite the neglect and alteration (tahrıf ) it has suffered.” He further notes that a “majority of the Muslim commentators believe that the introduction in the Quran of the term ‘the book’ in singular form, in spite of the plurality of the prophets, suggests the generic nature of revelation which shares an essential unit.”
It is evident that wisdom, metaphysics and ethical absolutes can’t be abrogated. God’s promise can’t be abrogated. God’s sunnah is not abrogated. The letter of laws is abrogated while the spirit of justice can’t be. Earlier laws and not books as such, cultures as such, myths and folk wisdom as such get abrogated.
The Charge of Corrupting the Scripture: Regarding the serious charge of corrupting the text of revelation, Sir Syed has written: “In the opinion of us Mohammedans it is not proved that corruption (tahrif-i-lafzi) … was practised.” He cites Bukhari and Fakhruddin Razi as agreeing with him. Razi in turn, summing up the view of early divines and advocating his opinion on the authority of Ibn Abbas states: “The Jews and early Christians were suspected of altering the text of the Taurat and Injil; but in the opinion of eminent doctors and theologians it was not practicable thus to corrupt the text, because those Scriptures were general known and widely circulated, having been handed down from generation to generation.” One needn’t reproduce view of Companions, classical exegetes and many modern Muslim scholars that go against the popular view of corruption amounting to loss of saving content in previous scriptures. There are a number of arguments that point out problems in accepting the view of corruption from employing a) essentially problematic method of higher criticism originally employed against the Bible by secularist thought and could be extended also against the Quran b) this cutting either way against the Quran itself as its affirmation of other scriptures becomes vacuous, c) it makes dialogue impossible as there is nothing to dialogue on as the canon itself is questioned that forms the basis of other party and d) it makes mockery of God’s plan to guide the whole world through prophets known and unknown in their own tongues, wisdom of sages and saving function of saints in various traditions and other cultural forms through which revealed Word has been preserved and transmitted across generations in absence of written documents that is historically recent addition and only complements the primordial and more prevalent oral cultural transmission.
Given both exclusivists cite verses from the Quran such as “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him” (3:85) and “religion in the sight of Allah is Islam” (3:19)against inclusivists who cite, among others, “Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish (Torah), and the Christians and the Sabians—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve”(2:62) and both cite prophetic traditions in their favour, our task is to reconcile/transcend the two positions. Winter suggests Prophet’s intercession applies for other communities and traditionalists note inclusivism can be affirmed at esoteric or transcendental plane – the plane of “divine stratosphere” – and not “human atmosophere” while others note that salvation is existential commitment to certain fundamentals that transcend given creedal formulations and is purely God’s choice.
The claim of consensus of medieval scholars against inclusivists resorting to hadith literature may be put in perspective by noting that various interpretative strategies have been deployed by major figures in the medieval Muslim world to leave room for salvation of religious other and non-eternal hell or damnation of only a minority of humans. Numerous hadiths can be cited (for instance, say la ilaha illallah and get felicity) that imply more inclusive view and clear statement to the effect that it is first shahadah – faith in Divine Unity – alone that is decisive for salvation. The claim from hadith literature is based on atomistic reading that can easily be problematized.
– The Author can be reached at