By Mohamed Ghilan
Contrary to popular approach, the way Islam should be viewed in relation to Christianity, Judaism, or any other religious tradition for that matter is not as an opposing religion to all others. When engaged in interfaith dialogues and debates, there’s a strong tendency for many Muslims to refute the validity of beliefs upheld by non-Muslims. However, neither does the Quran nor the Sunnah of the Beloved, peace and blessings be upon, him support such an approach.
After the Opening Surah of the Quran where it ends with the request for guidance, the second Surah (The Cow) begins by describing the qualities of the believers. One of those qualities is that they believe in what was sent before what was revealed in the Quran [2:4]. This affirmation of the previous Revelation is not an affirmation of relative truths. Although God further confirms in the beginning of the third Surah (The Family of ‘Imran) that He’s the One who has revealed the Torah and the Gospel [3:3], in the Fifth Surah (The Feast) Allah qualifies this confirmation:
وأنزلنا إليك الكتب بالحق مصدقا لما بين يديه من الكتب ومهيمنا عليه فاحكم بينهم بما أنزل الله
We sent to you the Scripture with the Truth, confirming the Scriptures that came before it, and with final authority over them: so judge between them according to what God has sent down. – [The Feast 5:48]
According to the Quran, Islam begins by first confirming that which came before it. At the same time it acknowledges the presence of differences that can’t be reconciled, in which circumstance for a Muslim – the final judge is the Quran. This is highly significant from a psychological perspective. People don’t respond very well to being told they’re wrong, especially when their “wrong” is actually partly right. This is why the command in the Quran to Muslims when speaking with Christians or Jews is:
قل يأهل الكتب تعالوا إلى كلمة سواء بيننا وبينكم ألا نعبد إلا الله ولا نشرك به شيئا ولا يتخذ بعضنا بعضا أربابا من دون الله
Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God and none of us takes others beside God as lords.’ – [The Family of ‘Imran 3:64]
The Arabic word used in this verse for arriving at a common statement literally means “elevate.” It’s an invitation to the higher calling. In fact, when calling to Islam, the command in the Quran given to Muslims is:
ادع إلى سبيل ربك بالحكمة والموعظة الحسنة وجدلهم بالتي هي أحسن إن ربك هو أعلم بمن ضل عن سبيله وهو أعلم بالمهتدين
Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way, for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way and who is rightly guided. – [The Bee 16:125]
Although many of these verses seem to speak about People of the Book, this is not to be understood as an exclusive address. It’s clarified in the Quran that not all Messengers have been mentioned [Ghafir 40:78]. Hence, the approach to non-Muslims that’s prescribed in the Quran is actually an approach to not just People of the Book, but to all people. It’s an approach that fulfills the command:
ولا تبخسوا الناس أشياءهم
Do not withhold from people things that are rightly theirs. – [Hud 11:85]
Similar to the Quran, the Sunnah is teaching the same message. The Beloved, peace and blessings be upon him, gave an analogy for how he should be viewed in relation to other Prophets:
مثلي ومثل الأنبياء من قبلي كمثل رجل ابتنى بيوتا، فأحسنها وأجملها وأكملها، إلا موضع لبنة من زاوية من زواياها، فجعل الناس يطوفون ويعجبهم البنيان، فيقولون: ألا وضعت هاهنا لبنة فتم بناؤه، فقال محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم: فأنا اللبنة
My likeness and the likeness of the Prophets that have come before me is the likeness of a man who built homes and beautified and adorned them, except for a spot missing a brick in one of the the corners. As people went around and admired the building they continued to say, “You should put a brick here to complete building it.” Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him said, “I am that brick.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
The approach Muslims are commanded to observe with regards to other traditions is an inclusive one. A Muslim is not ordered to respond to the claim that Jesus peace be upon him was the Messiah, Son of God by dismissively saying, “No! Jesus was just a Prophet.” Notwithstanding the disrespectful tone this reply carries, Jesus peace be upon him was not “just a Prophet.” He was more than that. He was Christ. The Messiah. Son of the Virgin Mary, peace be upon her. The same Virgin Mary who has a whole Surah in the Quran named after her. One could easily point to many qualities that set Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, apart from other Prophets and other human beings, while still maintaining his human nature. There’s no need to diminish his status or lower his rank because Christians elevate him beyond what Islam deems acceptable.
The Beloved, peace and blessings be upon him, said that every human being is born upon the Fitrah. We all share in a common innate dispensation towards the Truth. If a system of belief was wholly false it wouldn’t survive a generation, let alone thousands of years. Our Fitrah wouldn’t allow it. The Islamic perspective of other traditions is to acknowledge what’s consistent with Islamic teachings before pointing to the disagreements. Once that is done, the command in the Quran is not to continue arguing and debating about who’s right, but to let actions speak louder than words:
ولو شاء الله لجعلكم أمة واحدة ولكن ليبلوكم في ما ءاتىكم فاستبقوا الخيرات إلى الله مرجعكم جميعا فينبئكم بما كنتم فيه تختلفون
If God so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. – [The Feast 5:48]
Imagine what kind of a world we would live in if instead of focusing on winning a debate about which religion is right, we focused on winning a competition of who educated and fed the most people. This, while at the same time acknowledging where we agree, accepting our theological disagreements, and leaving it all up to God to judge as He decreed. That’s the Islamic view of the other. It’s time to make it the Muslims’.
Mohamed Ghilan is a Canadian Muslim originally born in Saudi Arabia. In 2007 he began his full time studies in the Islamic Tradition and has been consistently traveling to study various aspects of the Islamic sciences. He has given lectures and taught courses on a variety of topics, including Maliki jurisprudence and Islamic theology (‘Aqeedah). He is currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Victoria.