It was required by school regulations that everyone had to attend church. So for four and a half years I went during the school year to church every Sunday and also to vespers on Sunday evenings, when hymns were sung…My Islamic identity remained very strong, and at the same time this experience at Peddie brought me closer to understanding of what the Christians were saying.
In this excerpt, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr narrates one of his own childhood experiences. According to Dr. Nasr, the greatest discovery in the 20th century was not of a particular terrestrial phenomenon or a celestial body; rather he understands it to be the expansion of the world from one of single religious traditions, to a multiplicity and plurality of traditions. Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli is also among the renowned religious scholars of our time who has explored this issue of religious pluralism. And although he accounts for the complexity of religious pluralism, he denies its possibility based on a robust critique centered on the Qur?an.
Religious Pluralism according to Sayyid Hossein Nasr
Dr. Nasr approaches this issue of religious pluralism from a perspective that is varyingly called “Perennial Philosophy”, Philosophia Perennis, or “Traditionalism”. According to the Traditionalist perspective, the Ultimate Truth, namely God Himself, is the source of all the religions that have directed human history throughout the centuries, and that have inspired traditional societies, both in terms of aesthetics and forms of knowledge. This Ultimate Truth is greater than any particular concept or language; it is theAbsolute Reality that is reflected in all the following phrases from the various world religions: “l? ilah ill? All?h” (There is no deity but God) in Islam; “Neither this nor That…” in the Hindu Upanishads; “The Tao that can be named, is not the Tao…” in Taoism; “I am who I am…” in the Christian Bible.
It is this metaphysical perspective—which traces the root of all world religions to the Divine Reality—that distinguishes the traditionalist perspective from other theories that try to explain the multiplicity of religions.
Islam’s Interaction with other Religions
Dr. Nasr understands the exclusivity of a religion to be an imprint of the Divine Reality in a particular sacred tradition. This very exclusiveness shows us that the tradition presents its adherents with a complete worldview. In Dr. Nasr’s view, for centuries Jewish and Christian communities thrived in the Islamic world, and at times would have religious interactions with Muslims. And yet, they would each live within their own religious universes. This means that the modern study of other religious traditions is a direct consequence of the modern world, a world wherein all metaphysical and religious boundaries have disintegrated.
And because, Dr. Nasr argues, each sacred religion is a direct Divine manifestation on the human plane, it has both an exoteric and esoteric reality. On the other hand, because the esoteric is prior to the exoteric, and functions on a higher level of reality, it is only through the esoteric that we can really understand and attain the exoteric.
Religion and the Multiplicity of Prophets
Dr. Nasr defines “religion” in terms of its Latin root, religio, which means “to bind” or “to connect”, in other words, it is that which binds or connects man to the Ultimate Truth. He argues that all religions are ultimately based upon two principles or foundations:
1. A Teaching- the teachings of a particular religion fundamentally distinguish Absolute Reality, Truth, and Morality from relative reality, truth and morality.
2. A path/praxis- all religions have a particular path and praxis which allows for one to align one’s self with that Ultimate Reality, and to lead one’s life in accordance with that Reality.
These two principles, those of a sacred teaching and a particular path and praxis, exist in all traditional and sacred religions. The former provides the metaphysical framework for the adherent to understand the Absolute Truth and the relative falsehood, while the latter illuminates the means by which man can attain the truth. In reality, these two principles can be seen as the most important and most precious gems of any sacred tradition. No sacred tradition, according to Dr. Nasr, whether it be Islam or Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, can be devoid of teachings regarding Ultimate Existence; they differ primarily in the terms and forms used to describe that Reality. On the other hand, no religion can lack a path that allows its adherents to gain proximity to that Ultimate Truth, although there may be quite a large spectrum of variations between these various paths from one religion to another.
The Multiplicity of Religions According to Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli
Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, with an approach that is centered on the Qur?an, argues that there was always a single divine religion, and that all prophets without exception called to this religion. This would include not just the select prophets who were?ulu al-?azm(“possessors of decisiveness”), who were tasked with proclaiming a particular shari?ah, but also others whose function was to preserve that shari?ah. The Qur’an views the roots of all religions as fundamentally one, and only differentiates between their various shari’ahs and processes. According to Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, the Qur’an presents the prophets as forming a continuous chain of revelation, all of whom proclaimed the same religion. This single religion was in complete concordance with the various societies and times of its revelation, until it culminated in the revelation of the final Prophet, who proclaimed the most complete form of this same religion to mankind. This path has continued throughout millenia of human existence, and manifested itself in various ways depending upon the particularities of the times. It’s manifestations constitute the differentia which separate these different forms. This is why the Qur’an states, إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِندَ اللَّـهِ الْإِسْلَامُ, [The true religion with God is Islam.] Ayatullah Jawadi, based on this verse, sees Islam as that non-restricted reference to religion. He states that at our present time, any religion which is not defined in terms of this final differentia, which is derived from the Prophet Muhammad, cannot be termed “Islam”.
Refuting Religious Pluralism
Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli understands pluralism and the multiplicity of religions as one of the most important issues in contemporary theology, philosophy, and religious studies. Pluralism as a theory is premised on the multiplicity of religions; in contrast is the theory of religious exclusivism and singularity. According to Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, any given era wherein a particular prophet reigns, for example the Prophet of Islam, does not allow a multiplicity of paths and laws. Therefore this notion of religious pluralism is incorrect.
Ayatullah Jawadi, in his book, Understanding Religion, responds to the pluralistic views of the modern philosopher, John Hick. His critique is rooted in a fundamental connection between his anthropology and study of religion, and is directed at the premise upon which Hick’s argument is based. According to Ayatullah Jawadi, the purpose of religion is to develop and cultivate a human being. And insofar as a human is a singular being with a single reality, any religion which cultivates that human must also be singular, and derive from a single reality.
Religious Pluralism and Legal Variation
One of the points of departure between Dr. Nasr and Ayatullah Jawadi is on the issue of legal variation in religions. Dr. Nasr states that the Qur’an itself refers to this issue of religious pluralism, for example when it proclaims that God has sent a prophet to all peoples. Or, for example, in Surah al-M??idah, where it states:لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا [“To every one of you We have appointed a right way and an open road.”].Meaning for each people, God has created a particular law and path that brings those people ever closer to Him. He states that the multiplicity of religions and revelations is a principle of Islam. Albeit, he does believe that Islam completes the cycle of revelation which began from Adam; in Dr. Nasr’s view, this chain of revelation continues until and ends with Prophet Muhammad. Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, however, begins by exploring the various dimensions of a human being. He states that the need for a variety of legal traditions is based primarily upon the natural variety among humans, all of whom have various potentialities and require various responses (to their issues and concerns).
Does Salvific Pluralism exist?
According to Dr. Nasr, the most essential and pivotal issue in any religion is the relationship between God and man. Each religion has explained this religion is a particular way. And yet, however much these various expressions and forms of this relationship may differ, at a deeper level, all of these teachings are rooted in a single reality. No religion would exist without the guidance of God through revelation in a general sense. In this way, Dr. Nasr believes that each sacred religion is a divine prerogative. If it does not suffer from serious alteration, that prerogative can lead its adherent to be saved from the difficult straits of this world. Ayatullah Jawadi considers such views to be incorrect, stating that such misgivings are based on the misinterpretation of verse 62 of Surah al-Baqarah. This verse is misunderstood as proclaiming the truth of Judaism, Christianity and the Sabean religion, and belief in these tradtions as leading to Divine Recompense. Rather, the verse actually implies a universal principle, that human deliverance is based upon belief in the principles brought by the final Prophet.
In the Islamic worldview, the fi?rah is a type of primordial and pure religion, a sort of“universal” religion that exists throughout time and space. And if all people were privy to this universal sense of religion innately, then the plurality of religions is not essential to religious experience; rather it is accidental. This innate inclination and orientation towards religion is that same Divine Unity which prevails over all heavenly religions. It is, in other words, that same submission (isl?m) to God. Islam is the most perfect and most complete link in the chain of divine revelation, in which the reality of this submission to God is fully manifested.
And as is clear from the above, Dr. Nasr and Ayatullah Jawadi-Amuli agree in certain respects. Both scholars argue that divine religions, including the most complete religion, namely Islam, are paths that allow an adherent to attain the ultimate goal of creation, that of reaching the Divine Reality and Absolute Truth. And yet, some of these paths are more expansive than others, providing their seekers with more suitable means to reach that ultimate perfection. And from this perspective, Isla—aspromulgated by the Prophet to all of humanity—guidesmankind towards salvation in the best possible way.
And it is precisely here, in the various issues related to religious variance and plurality, where the two scholars also differ. Dr. Nasr argues for the reasonability and permissibility of a form of religious pluralism, whereas Ayatullah Jawadi rejects the conception of pluralism that is most widely understood.