Islam and the Other Religions – Dr. Ahmad Mohamed El Tayeb (the new Shaykh al-Azhar)

The following is the transcript of a speech given by Dr. El-Tayeb, the new Shaykh al-Azhar, at an interfaith program at the Washington National Cathedral.

Washington National Cathedral : Summit : About the Four Principals and Participants

Islam and the Other Religions

Professor Dr. Ahmad Mohamed El Tayeb
President of Al-Azhar University

Islam is the last link in the chain of “divine religion” revealed to all the prophets and messengers, beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad—may God’s peace and blessing be upon them all.

Pondering the verses of the noble Qur’an, would immediately realize how the appellation Islam (lit. submission) is not meant to refer just to the particular message revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but it is in fact a generic name, covering the revealed messages of all the prophets, regardless of time or place. It is thus quite normative to describe the prophets preceded Muhammad as having been Muslim (muslimun: lit. submitted to God) and that Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, like Muhammad, should be equally called Muslim. It is thus sufficient to read the verses of the Qur’an: 128, 132, 133 of the second chapter of “The Cow” (al-Baqara); verse 52 of the third chapter “The Family of ‘Imran” (Al ‘Imran); verses 84 of the chapter “Jonah” (Yunus) and verse 91 of the chapter “The Ants” (An-Naml); to become convinced that these luminous names in the tablet of prophethood are all called “Muslims” by the Qur’an.

This shared religion between Islam—the final revelation—and the revelations that came before it, is not simply a common name or title, but it goes much deeper to indicate a commonality of what constitutes the very content of “Islam,” its substance, and its reality. Thus inquiry into what Muhammad has brought, in terms of essential doctrines, fundamental morals, and exhortation to worship only go to show that it is of one nature with the religion of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets and messengers, which proves that the Muslim position does not conceive of God as having vouchsafed it a new religion, but that the religion revealed to their prophet is only the one universal religion revealed to all the earlier prophets:

“The same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah—the which We have sent by inspiration to thee—and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: Namely, that ye should remain steadfast in religion, and make no divisions therein: to those who worship other things than Allah, hard is the (way) to which thou callest them. Allah chooses to Himself those whom He pleases, and guides to Himself those who turn (to Him).” (41:13)

Now, this shared religion between the Muslims and the religious communities of old, is the religion of “Absolute Divine Unity, of assent in faith to the Messengers of the Divinity as well as to the revealed Books.” The hallmark of such a faith is that it should be free from ethnic or sectarian prejudice, of favoritism toward one messenger or one revelation to the exclusion of another:

“Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).” (2:136)

According to this understanding, Islam must not be conceived as being different from, opposed, or alien to the earlier divine messages.

Now, to say that all divinely revealed messages share a single universal religion is not to say at the same time that they must also share a single earthly path or law (Shari’ah). For religion is about the nature of universal reality and as such possesses an immutable content that does not vary or change from one revelation to another, but paths can vary and change from one message to the other. By religion here, we mean the essential divine enunciation of doctrine, ethics, and worship, not the (earthly) path of divine laws that have the object of ordering the social life of the faithful or determining social forms as such. The latter are indeed susceptible to change from one age or one place to another, within the parameters of the essential values. When one peruses the Qur’an, it becomes quite evident that divine unity represents the pivotal message of all revelations and that the summons of the prophets concur in all essentials. Thus the Qur’an says:

In the words of Noah:
“O my people! worship Allah. Ye have no other god but Him.” (23:23)

In the words of Abraham:
Abraham: behold, he said to his people, “Serve Allah and fear Him…” (29:16)

In the words of Hud:
“O my people! worship Allah. ye have no other god but Him…” (7:65)

In the words of Salih:
“O my people! worship Allah. ye have no other god but Him…” (7:73)

In the words of Shu’ayb:
“O my people! worship Allah. Ye have no other god but Him…” (7:85)

In God’s address to Moses:
“I have chosen thee: listen, then, to the inspiration (sent to thee). Verily, I am Allah. There is no god but I: So serve thou Me (only), and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise.” (20:13-14)

In the words of Jesus:
“Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst command me to say, to wit, ‘worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord’…” (5:117)

In all the above verses we note the divine emphasis put on the idea of “religion” as a shared heritage of revelation between all the prophets; being of one nature, religion may not be subject to disagreement, discord, or contradiction, in any age or message.

However, if the essence of religion, according to the philosophy of Islam, can only be one, the “earthly paths” traversed (Shari’ah, lit. means path, way, or road) cannot; for they must diverge, in accordance with the differences of peoples, environments, ages, places, and the general conditions of humanity, etc. The Qur’an thus emphasizes the necessary divergence of paths amongst the communities of faith:

“To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah. It is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute…” (5:48)

Nevertheless, one must stress the fact that despite the divergences of the earthly paths traversed by the different communities of faith, the oneness of religion as such still possesses the ability to nurture good relations between people, in the same manner that relations of kinship can bond communities to each other, even when the paths followed are different ones. In the Islamic world, which encompassed communities from all the great religions of the world, Muslims have always coexisted with other religions—with Christians and Jews in the western flank of Islamic dominions and with Hindus and Buddhists in the eastern flank. One can always find examples, in this context, for a bonding of people that spring from the inner gestures of a humanity deeply enriched by its life of faith. This has indeed been my own personal experience, in Upper Egypt, where Muslims have lived side by side, for centuries, with their Coptic Christian brethren.

If we take a further step, to better illustrate the relationship of Islam to the other religions, we come to realize how the sense of an organic unity never stops at the limits of essentials, such as doctrine, morality, or worship , but extends to include the relationship of the Prophet of Islam himself to the earlier prophets as well as the relationship of the Qur’an to the other revealed books.

The Prophet of Islam confirms his brothers the prophets, he believes in them and he fulfills what they have initiated, by calling people unto God. Indeed, as the Qur’an is recited, by day and by night, the Muslim’s hearing is repeatedly pierced by this understanding of things:

“The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His angels, His books, and His apostles. ‘We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His apostles.’ And they say: ‘We hear, and we obey: (We seek) Thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys.’” (2:285)

Muhammad (peace be upon him) portrays this organic unity that binds him throughout history to his brothers the prophets and messengers in a beautiful and most eloquent expression when he says:

“I am more entitled to Jesus the son of Mary in this world and the next, for the prophets are brothers who are born of different mothers (‘allat) , yet they are fathered by a single religion.”

He thus likens the prophets to brothers, issuing from a single father, even when they are born from different mothers; the single father is the universal religion that binds them together and the mothers are the times and the places that must differ from one prophet to another and from one messenger to another.

The same could also be said of the noble Qur’an: it confirms the divinely revealed books in their original form and insofar as they remain faithful to the intention of the divine source. Indeed, we learn from the Qur’an that the Gospel confirms the Torah and supports it, and so does the Qur’an confirm and support the Gospel and the Torah, as well as all the scriptures that came before it:

“It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong). Then those who reject Faith in the Signs of Allah will suffer the severest penalty, and Allah is Exalted in Might, Lord of Retribution.” (3:3-4)

“It was We who revealed the law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah’s will.” (5:44)

“We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah.” (5:46)

Such Qur’anic principles have indeed formed Muslim perceptions since the very birth of the community of Islam, leaving their indelible imprint on the relationship that binds them to the followers of other divine revelations. We believe in Moses and Jesus, just as we believe in Muhammad. We hold that the Torah and the Gospel are books revealed by God and that they contain guidance and light for mankind. It might cause you some surprise to learn that many scholars of Islam are of the opinion that if a Muslim should not touch the Qur’an, unless he or she is in a state of ritual purity, then he or she should also not touch the Torah or the Gospel too, unless in a state of ritual purity.

Islam’s Tolerance for other Religions

A religion in which the philosophy that governs the relationship to other religions is founded upon the organic unity of all revelation, as we have tried to point out in the previous paragraphs—citing unequivocal texts wherein there is hardly ambiguity or abstruseness—such a religion can only create a tolerant civilization; one that is open to all others; dealing with them from a perspective that reaches out for knowledge and inclusivity, not from a perspective of conflict and exclusivity. However, to seek corroboration for this thesis, will require from us more than the time allotted to this lecture. But I shall content myself here with registering the following facts:

  • The Qur’an, which countless Muslims memorize by heart, states unequivocally that if God has willed to bring just one religion, one creed, one color of skin, or one language, He would’ve done so, but in fact He has not willed it so; instead, He willed divergence to continue to the end of time.“If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute.” (11:118)
  • As consequence of the divergences that God has willed for mankind, religions and doctrines must also diverge and must remain divergent, until God inherits the earth and whatever is on it. Thus we can safely say that doctrinal divergence is both a Qur’anic and a universal truth. Indeed, no Muslim could ever imagine a humanity in consensus about a single creed or religion or one being entirely reduced to one religion, even if this religion is Islam itself. If such be the case, then the relationship of the Muslim to the non-Muslim is one of seeking to know each other (ta’aruf) or to learn about each other, and this is what the Qur’an defines most unequivocally in the verse that says:“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (49:13)

When one reviews the history of the Islamic civilization, one finds a great degree of adherence to these Qur’anic principles of which we speak, whatever is religion or the civilization or the people in question. Obviously, we cannot delve into the history of Islamic civilization in this context, but we shall try to focus—only very briefly—on the history of Islam and its tolerance to Christianity in particular, as a message, messenger and adherents.

The Qur’an contains the most beautiful discourse about Jesus (peace be upon him) and his virgin mother (peace be upon her). Indeed, a whole chapter (surah) is entitled “Maryam” (the Arabic for Mary). Another chapter is entitled “ar-Rum” (the Romans or the Byzantines), referring to the eastern Christians on the borders of the Islamic empire and its closest of neighbors. According to the records of history, the pagan Persians defeated the Byzantine Christians, causing the pagan Arabs to ridicule the Muslims and shame them on account of the defeat of the Christians. When the Muslims complained to the Prophet (peace be upon him), a promise was revealed to him that the Romans will in a few years come to defeat the Persians and that on that day the faithful, both Muslim and Christian, shall rejoice for God’s victory. In this context, let us recite the words of God:

“The Roman Empire has been defeated. In a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious. Within a few years. With Allah is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice. With the help of Allah. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful. (It is) the promise of Allah. Never does Allah depart from His promise: but most men understand not.” (30:2-6)

The promise of God was indeed kept and the Muslims rejoiced for the victory granted to the Christian Romans. But what is remarkable about this verse is the fact that the Qur’an applies the word “faithful” equally to the Muslims and to the Romans. This is what we mean by the “unity of religion” that we speak of, which almost turned the two camps into a single community, vis a vis the community of paganism and polytheism. The chapter of “The Romans” is one of the earliest revelations of the Qur’an, which means that the “fraternal” relationship between Muslims and Christians was an established norm from the very earliest years of Islamic history and that it continued to the last years of the Muhammadan mission. We thus read in the chapter of “al-Ma’ida” (The Banquet) an address from God to His Messenger in which He says:

“And nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, ‘We are Christians’: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant.” (5:82)

Moreover, when one ponders the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him), throughout his mission, in Makkah and Madinah, it will be difficult not to detect the special “regard” with which he viewed the Christians or the Nazarenes (an-nasara), as they were known at the time. This was quite apparent during the episode called the “flight or migration of the oppressed” among Muslims, to Christian Abyssinia, to seek refuge with its Christian king. There were two migrations in all, in the Makkan period, with the migrants including ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan and his wife Ruqayyah, the Prophet’s daughter. The Prophet (peace be upon him) dispatched these persecuted people among his followers saying: “In the land of Abyssinia, there is a king under whose charge no one is oppressed, so hasten unto his country, until such a time when it pleases God to grant you relief from your present predicament.” History narrates that the king of Abyssinia gave the Muslims a very warm welcome into his realm, offering them asylum and protection and refusing to surrender them to the delegation of the Quraysh, which came to demand their surrender as escaped dependents who must return to their masters in Makkah. But when the delegation despaired from the collaboration of the Christian king, ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas, their leader, devised a ruse, so as to drive a wedge between the king and the Muslims. He thus said to the Negus: “Oh king! They say an abominable thing about Jesus.” Upon this, the king then summoned Ja’far ibn Abi Talib and asked him of the matter. Ja’far replied: “We say about him that he is a servant of God, His Word and His Spirit, which He cast unto the Virgin Mary.” He then recited verses from the chapter of “Mary,” whereupon the king wept and granted the Muslims asylum. It was thus like what Um Salamah, the Prophet’s wife, said: “We were guests in the best of abodes and lived next to the best of protectors; he granted us security of religion and we feared no oppression on his part.”

There is also the story of the Christians of Najran, which is recorded in the Qur’an as well as in the annals of history. It narrates that a certain delegation of 60 Christian notables from Najran, led by their bishop, Abu Haritha ibn ‘Alqamah, came to seek dialogue with the Prophet (peace be upon him), regarding his new message. He received them, housed them, and conducted dialogue with them in his mosque; the dialogue took place in the courtyard of the Prophet’s mosque, in al-Madinah al-Munawwarah (lit. the Radiant City). When their prayer time was due, they said: “Oh Muhammad! It is our prayer time and we wish to offer it.” He said: “here is a section of the mosque that is all yours to pray in.” Thus the Christians prayed in the very mosque of the Prophet, the first mosque in the history of Islam, without him or the Muslims sensing any awkwardness in the matter. This particular incident encouraged me—when I was invited to lunch in one of the churches of Fribourg, Switzerland—to request the archbishop to allow me to pray. He graciously consented and offered me a small room, handing to me a copy of the Qur’an. As I prayed in that place, I experienced a special spiritual feeling and it was altogether an unforgettable moment of enchantment. I was thus confirmed in my erstwhile view, that when religions are not put to vile use, they can only radiate love and graciousness in the souls of worshipers, whatever is the place or the religion. Indeed, I am much fascinated by this incident of the Christian delegation, traveling for hundreds of miles on camelback, just to conduct dialogue with the Prophet of Islam and by the fact that this dialogue actually took place in the most sacred spot of Islam’s first capital; all, in a perfectly amicable atmosphere, despite the sensitivity of the circumstance and in view of the greatly critical questions under discussion, for both ends of the dialogue table. But the whole mission ended up in the perfect freedom of conscience guaranteed to both sides in their respective positions. A certain question comes to mind: Can one imagine that our mosques and churches today could conduct such a dialogue? And if they ever do so, will it end up so amicably and with no strings attached, like the dialogue of our ancient spiritual forebears? Or is it more likely that a dialogue conducted on such a high level of discourse, between believers of both the East and the West, would from the first moments only evoke a whole history of hatred, bitterness, partisan bias, and divisiveness? From what we know and witness today of the rampant bargaining that goes on in the market of international politics and conflicts, the second course is, in all likelihood, the more probable one.

I must not forget also to draw attention here to the personal example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in his attitude toward Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary, (peace be upon both of them), on the occasion of his victorious entry with the Muslims to Makkah, when he ordered the demolition of the idols that were placed around the Ka’bah. There were also some images that depicted prophets and angels, hung on the inside walls of the Ka’bah. He ordered the removal of all the images, with the exception of one image, which he covered with both his hands, in a gesture of protection. When they finished removing the other images, the Prophet took away his hands, revealing that the image he took such care to hide depicted the child Jesus with his mother, Mary. This was the only image that remained on an inside column of the Ka’bah, before it was eventually removed, at a time of renovation, after a long time had elapsed. Many of the Companions and the Followers saw this image. One of them, whose name was ‘Ataa ibn Rabah, was once asked: “Did you chance to see the image of Mary and Jesus?” He said: “Yes, indeed, I’ve witnessed a well-ornamented likeness of Mary, with Jesus sitting on her lap; there were six columns in all in the House (Ka’bah) and Mary’s image was on the column next to the door.”

What we’ve said about the position of Islam from Christianity can be equally applied in its essentials to Judaism too, which Islam encountered in Madinah, finding much in common between its concept of “divine unity” and its concept of “divine law.” The historical Scroll or Document of al-Madinah is enough to spare us further elaboration on the relationship of Islam to this Abrahamic religion. It is sufficient to point to one of the passages of this Scroll, which provides that Jews are a “community of muslims,” who have their own religion as the Muslims have theirs; they have their own financial obligations as the Muslims have theirs, which is a proof that Islam grants to others the freedom of religion as well as economic independence, all from the perspective of religious fraternity.

Beyond the Abrahamic Faiths

We have thus far considered the position of Islam vis à vis the divine religions as represented by the two greatest religions that were present in the vicinity of Arabia at the time of the birth of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. You must be wondering now about the position of Islam vis a vis the rest of the great religions of humanity, which are the ancient religions of India, China, and the other parts of the world that are so distant from the Arabian Peninsula.

Our answer is as follows: since the region of Arabia or the Middle East, where Islam first appeared, is so distant from the world of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, it is expected that the Qur’an should not speak of beliefs and religions that are entirely unknown to the immediate hearers of its messages. Indeed, if the Qur’an were to do such a thing, the idolaters of Arabia would have considered it a great flaw on the part of its realism and its eloquence, which is attentive to the hearers’ situation. But the Qur’an nevertheless refers, in more than one place, to general standards and universal criteria, derived from the unequivocal statements of the text wherefrom one may glean its general position regarding all religions, which is not far removed from its position vis a vis Judaism and Christianity, as far as tolerance, respect, and fraternal gestures are concerned. We thus find:

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah 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)

More explicit than the above verse is the verse that obliges the Muslim to keep to charity and goodly ways (al-bir wa al-ihsan) in relation to all people, whatever is their religion or their creed, as long as such a person does not engage in warfare or aggression:

“Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just.” (60:8)

The foundation, on which this Qur’anic vision rests, is the general Qur’anic principle of the equality of mankind, who were all created from a single father and a single mother; as such, the non-Muslim is either a brother to the Muslim in religion or an equal to him in humanity. In the context of this unity of humanity, one allows no distinction between individuals, except in terms of goodly deeds. Yet, the Qur’an also reminds Muslims that there is no earlier human community to which God did not give guidance, sent messengers and raised prophets to call unto truth and warn against forgetfulness. Indeed, what has been narrated of the stories of prophets in the Qur’an is not the whole history of humanity, nor are Muslims, Jews, and Christians the only recipients of divinely inspired religion, for there are many nations of old—whether their traces and traditions are now extinct or still extant—whose stories have not been vouchsafed to us or vouchsafed only in fragments, who had been recipients of divinely revealed books, prophets, messengers, religions, and creeds:

“Of some apostles We have already told thee the story; of others We have not….” (4:164)

“To every people (was sent) an apostle: when their apostle comes (before them), the matter will be judged between them with justice, and they will not be wronged.” (10:47)

“Verily We have sent thee in truth, as a bearer of glad tidings, and as a warner: and there never was a people, without a warner having lived among them (in the past).” (35:24)

These Qur’anic principles all center around the unity of humanity and the universality of divine guidance, which are principles that give non-Muslims real rights that Muslims are obliged to preserve and respect, such as the right of man as such to dignity, regardless of religion, color, or nationality, and the right of beliefs as such to respect, even if they are different or at odds with Islamic beliefs.

One day a funeral of a Jew passed by, the Prophet Muhammad stood up for it, out of respect. Some of those present expressed surprise, since it was not one who believed in Islam or acknowledged it as a religion. The answer of the Prophet was this: “but is it not a human soul?” This practical demonstration on the part of the Prophet of Islam consecrates the equality of human beings as such, in both rights and duties, as we said before.

The present context does not allow us to narrate more examples from the history of Islam for the purposes of demonstrating Islam’s openness toward all nations, cultures, and civilizations or how Muslims were able, through such openness, to give to and take from many civilizations and cultures, to influence and be influenced thereby. But I may be spared the effort of proving this fact by the extensive translation works undertaken by the Muslims, whether from Greek philosophy, the books of Indian religion and mysticism or the Persian traditions, all at a very early date of the history of Islamic culture, such as al-Biruni’s book on “Indian Ideas” (kitab ma lil hind min maqula) or Ibn al-Muqaffa’s book of “The Major and Minor in Literature” (al-adab al-kabir was-saghir), or the renditions from the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Indeed, similarities are so strong between ideals such as asceticism, spiritual deliverance, or nirvana and their counterparts in Islamic mysticism (Sufism) that many who studied Islam in the West have tried to seek an Indian, Persian, or even Christian origin for Islamic mystical ideas, even when later research roots these firmly in the message of the Qur’an itself. I would even go further than that to say that the instructions of the Qur’an enabled Muslims to preserve the heritage of whole civilizations, without which contemporary civilization would not have achieved any of its feats of success in science and better conditions of living.

I thank you for bearing so graciously with me.

As-salamu alaykum wa ramatu Allah (the peace and mercy of God be upon you).