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An essay donated by Rabbi Allen Maller

The prophetic vision of religious
pluralism From Micah to Muhammad

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Webmaster's note:

The term "religious pluralism" has multiple meanings. 1It can refer to :

  • The belief that truth exists both in one's own religion and in other religions as well.

  • The belief that the teachings of two or more religions may conflict, but be equally valid within their own culture.*

  • A synonym of Perennialism: the concept that different religions may have claims that seem to be different, but actually share a single, universal truth. 2

  • A synonym of Ecumenism: promoting cooperation and understanding either among different religions or among faith groups within a single religion.

  • A synonym of religious diversity: that there exists a variety of religious beliefs in a given country or geographic area. Thus, religious pluralism in North America -- in the sense of the U.S. and Canada being religiously diverse -- is a statement of fact.

* This is the meaning that Rabbi Maller uses in this essay.

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"The Prophetic Vision of Religious Pluralism From Micah to Muhammad" by Rabbi Allen Maller

One of the most important visions of the prophets of Israel occurs in the words of the 8th century BCE biblical prophet Micah. He declared that until the end of history, and throughout the Messianic Age, religious pluralism will continue to be the norm, even among polytheists.

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)

The opening section seems to predict Jewish pre-eminence but it doesn't, because it says ”many nations will come” ((4:2) not “all nations flow to Israel” to be taught God's ways. The second section predicts the universal peace that will reign in the Messianic Age under God' rule. So far this agrees totally with the better known prophecy of Isaiah (2:2-4).

Then comes Micah's revolutionary addition. Micah declares that the verses of the first section do not proclaim Judaism's victory over all other religions, or even over all other God concepts. Even in the Messianic Age the other nations will still be loyal to their Gods just as we are loyal to our God as Micah says in (4:5) “All the nations will walk in the name of their gods”

Indeed, it is possible to understand this verse to mean that the Messianic Age of universal peace will come about because all the nations, including Israel, actually live up to the best principles of their own religions.

Biblical thought denies the legitimacy of other Gods (religions) for Israel; it does not deny the obvious truth that other nations do have other religions; and that these other religions do have other Gods; and that is O.K. for the other nations. Micah 4:5 is the first explicit statement of religious pluralism in the western world.

In India, about three or four centuries prior to prophet Micah, the Rig-veda, the oldest scripture in Hinduism, stated (Book 1, hymn 164, verse 46):

"Sages/Priests call the one God by many names."

But the word translated as God really means ultimate reality /truth and the usual translation of "Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti" is:

"Truth is one but learned men describe it differently".

I interpret this to mean that 'God/Ultimate Reality is one, but Hindu sages declare, define, discuss, differentiate it as many. A Hindu philosopher would say that when Hindus enter a temple and see perhaps a dozen different statues of Deities, in their mind, they see just one Divinity. The many religious streams making up Hinduism: the Vaishnava worship of Krishna, the Shaiva worship of Shiva and the Shakta worship of Durga are unified through the power of this simple verse.

To a Rabbi this verse is really not a statement about the one unique Divine personality who created the universe, and who should not be associated with any of the gods of polytheism. The verse expresses a philosophy of universal metaphysical truth called monism (the denial of meaningful fundamental distinctions) or as this philosophy is usually called by Buddhists: non dualism.

By religious pluralism I mean a conscious acceptance that there can be, and are, legitimate alternate values and views, that contain different truths for other peoples and religions. The Qur'an comes close to this view when it teaches about the Abrahamic religions; and in at least one passage, the Qur'an anticipates that traditional polytheism could be turned into a kind of monotheism if its adherents understood it that way, as many of today's Hindus and Zoroastrians do.

Those who believe (Muslims), those who profess Judaism, Christians and Sabaeans: whoever believes in God and the last day (of Judgment) and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they shall have no fear, nor will they grieve”. (2:62)

Traditional Muslim commentaries have suggested that the Sabaeans could be many different religious groups; among them Zoroastrians and Hindus.

About the same time as the Rig Veda spoke of many truths/gods/realities fundamentally being one and the same, a Jewish leader named Jephthah offered a different, more pluralistic, approach. 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.” (Judges 11:24)

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 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”. ((22:67&69)

Most Jews are aware of the Rabbinic teaching that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. Thus, on judgement day: morality is, and theology is not, the standard by which each person's life is judged. Jews are required to live up to Jewish rules and principles, and non-Jews must live up to their own religions rules and principles. Kindness, justice, mercy and humility are required of everyone.

Jews can't worship the sun or the moon, but other peoples can. As Torah teaches:

“you must not be lured into bowing down to them (sun, moon and stars) … or serving them. These the Lord your God has allotted to all the (other) nations under all the heavens.” (Deuteronomy 4:19)

Muhammad himself taught that even in the world to come it will not be clear if Moses or Muhammad is the supreme Prophet. A hadith is a narrative account by Muhammad's companions of situations involving God's messenger and rulings or statements that Muhammad made.

A Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira relates:

"Two persons, a Muslim and a Jew, quarreled. The Muslim said, ''By Him Who gave Muhammad superiority over all the people!' The Jew said, 'By Him Who gave Moses superiority over all the people!' At that, the Muslim raised his hand and slapped the Jew on the face. The Jew went to the Prophet and informed him of what had happened. The Prophet sent for the Muslim and asked him about it. The Muslim informed him of the event. The Prophet said, 'Do not give me superiority over Moses, for on the Day of Resurrection all the people will fall unconscious and I will be one of them. I will be the first to gain consciousness, and I will see Moses standing and holding the side of the Throne (of Allah). I will not know whether (Moses) had also fallen unconscious and got up before me, or Allah has exempted him from that stroke'." (Bukhari book 76 #524)

Jews, Christians, Muslims and all other religions should learn humility from this teaching of Prophet Muhammad.

If, even the messengers of God humbly admit that they do not know the answers to many questions, how much more should we ordinary believers refuse to claim to know it all. When it comes to religious truths, we can envision them, but only in part. The part we can see derives from the prophets and the holy scriptures that Jews, Christians and Muslims have been blessed with. As the Qur'an declares:

“Every people has a direction towards which they turn; so compete together wherever you may be as if in a race towards all that is good. Surely Allah will bring you all together.” (2:148)

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Religions are to compete with one another, but not by claiming to be in possession of a better or higher truth. Religions should compete in doing good deeds. This is a test of the commitment and effectiveness of each communities leaders, and the loyalty, sincerity and devotion of each religion's followers. Competing in doing good is a test for us as believers in our own faith. It is not a test for determining which religion has the truest truth.

This is why God made us into many nations, and many religions:

“For each We have appointed a clear way of life and a comprehensive system. If Allah had so willed He would surely have made you a single community: but (didn't) in order to test you by what (Scripture) He granted you. So compete together as if competing in good works. All of you will (ultimately) return to Allah and then He will make you understand what you have differed about.” (5:48)

Only after resurrection, and at the time of final judgements, will humans be able to understand the full meaning of their various sacred scriptures, and the truths contained in the differences between them. In this world, God has determined that religious humility must rule.

A few generations ago several non-Jewish Biblical scholars began applying the term henotheism, originally coined by Schelling to depict the early stages of monotheism when belief in one God did not mean the denial of the existence of other gods, to Biblical passages like those to which I have referred. This stage, in their opinion was a cruder, more primitive form of monotheism. But that is not the case.

What these Biblical critics call henothism in the Bible is actually monolatry: the worship of one God who alone is worthy of our worship, though other religious views of God or gods are known to exist for other nations. The religion of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Great Wife Nefertiti, is often described as monotheistic, but henotheism fits it better since Akhenaten didn't deny the existence of the other gods.

Biblical religion is monolatry, a view that supports religious pluralism; and this form of monotheism is both a much more sophisticated and mature form of monotheism; as well as being far more conducive to the more advanced and complex society we now live in. The idea that one God can have only one religion is simplistic. It is the result of the influence of Plato and Aristotle, starting with Philo and continuing up to recent centuries.

Large scale immigration, the ubiquity of modern media, and the Internet have transformed our world, and now require religious leaders to spend much more time and effort studying their own tradition to find and publicize ideas of religious pluralism.

I firmly believe that throughout human history, prophets and holy men have appeared in every nation and every tribe to speak God's words and demand the two basic requirements of ethical monotheism.

Assuredly We have raised up within every community a Messenger (proclaiming) worship God alone, and keep away from false Gods and the powers of evil. Among them (each religious community) were people whom God guided, just as there were among them those for whom straying was their just due. (Qur'an 16:36).

Thus, I am not surprised to find that every major religious tradition I have studied has some statements affirming the philosophy of religious pluralism. These texts were only theory in pre-modern times, when contact between different major religious communities was very limited. Thus, they were not accorded the emphasis and significance that they now deserve.

That needs to change.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Religious pluralism," Wikipedia, as on 2014-AUG-07, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

  2. "Perennial philosophy,"Wikipedia, as on 2014-JUL-24, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

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Rabbi Maller's web site is at: http://www.rabbimaller.com

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Originally posted: 2014-AUG-08
Latest update: 2014-AUG-08
Author: Rabbi Allen A.S. Maller

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