Issue 99 / May - June 2014
Religion Is Not a Zero Sum Game
Allen S. Maller
The Turkish term for "tolerance" is "hosgoru" which means seeing or looking for the good side of another person. Unlike toleration, which is a passive acceptance of the other, hosgoru means actively looking for something good in the other. Tragically, religious communities have not always engaged in hosgoru when examining the sacred scriptures of other religions. For more than thirteen centuries many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have read each others 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 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. 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 situation did not improve 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 a revealed religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature. 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 the Prophet Muhammad's sayings 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 cannot 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 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 belief never changes" (Fihi Mafih 49). Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where the Scriptures differ, they 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 too 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 prophet 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 on earth.
How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur'an and my Torah? I practice "hosgoru." 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 of genealogies that many people today, especially non-Jews, find boring.
The Qur'an rarely identifies locations, and often omits the names of the people it does mention, for example 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 occur because many commentators do not use the Bible to fill in the details for the generalities of the Qur'an. Sometimes the Qur'an refers to nameless Messengers sent to a nameless town and no additional details can be added because there is no parallel in the Torah (36:13-29). In this case, even the punishment is only a vague "single blast and all became corpses" (26:29).
This lack of detail points to the Qur'an's universal and ongoing Divine call for all human societies to repent and reform themselves.
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 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 Zabur 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 generations after the death of Jesus, 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 Saint Augustine espoused, "No one can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation," are also wrong.
Tragically, during many centuries of Medieval debate between the three religions, everyone thought that religion was a zero sum game (one winner or one truth vs. many winners or 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, "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 ÔÇô not just their own ÔÇô 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 the 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 surely 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 Judgment Day comes. But many, perhaps most, theologians will learn that they might not be as smart as they thought they were.
In conclusion, it is very important to understand that "religious pluralism is the will of God" is very different from religious, moral, or cultural relativism. Relativism teaches that all values and standards are subjective, and therefore there is no higher spiritual authority available for setting ethical standards or making moral judgments.
Thus, issues of justice, truth or human rights are, like beauty, just in the eye of the beholder. Most people, especially those who believe that One God created all of us, refuse to believe that ethics and human rights are simply a matter of taste. Religious pluralism as the will of God is the opposite of cultural or philosophical relativism.
The fundamental idea supporting religious pluralism is that religious people need to embrace humility in many areas of religion. All religions have always taught a traditional anti self-centered type of humility. Religious pluralism also opposes a religious, philosophical, and self righteous intellectual egoism that promotes a tendency to turn our legitimate love for our own prophet and Divine revelation into universal truths that we fully understand and know how to apply.
Religious pluralism teaches that finite humans, even the most intelligent and pious of them, cannot fully understand everything the way the infinite One does.
This is true, for every human being, even for God's messengers themselves. When Prophet Moses, "who God spoke with face to face, as a person speaks with a friend" (Exodus 33:11) asks to see God face to face, he is told, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live" (33:20).
Similarly, in the Qur'an, Prophet Jesus admits to God, "You know everything that is within myself, whereas I do not know what is within Yourself" (7:116). When Prophet Jesus was asked, in private, by his disciples, "What will be the sign for your coming (back) and the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns his disciples about all kinds of upheavals and false Messiahs that will come. Then Jesus concludes by saying, "But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the son: only the Father" (24:36).
A similar statement was made by Prophet Muhammad when he was asked, "Tell me about the Hour." He said: "The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner" (Muslim book 1 Hadith 1&4).
God taught the general principle of epistemological humility through his Prophet who taught his followers, "I am no novelty among the messengers. I do not know what will be done to me, or to you" (Qur'an 46:9).
Only on Judgment Day will the answer to the theological differences that divide us now be resolved. "To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open path. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (He desires) to test you in what He has given you: so (compete) strive in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is Allah. He will (on Judgment Day) show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute" (5:48).