Plenary Address at the 2016 Doha Interfaith Conference: the Place of Islam in Human Unity

16 Feb 2016
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Dr. Mohammad Sammak

Plenary Address at the 2016 Doha Interfaith Conference: the Place of Islam in Human Unity

Not all believers in religion are followers of a holy book

There are books other than the Qur’an, the Bible and the Torah.
According to a statistical study conducted in 2012 by the US Pew Research Centre, Buddhists constitute 15 percent of the world's population, and they have a book (books) they believe in.
Hindus constitute 7.1 percent, and they have a holy book they believe in too. In addition to these two Buddhist and Hindu faiths, there are many other faiths:
There is Shintoism, Genism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, and Waskia, in addition to those who are known as those who follow folk beliefs spread throughout Africa and among the indigenous native Americans in the Americas, who constitute 5.9 percent of the total world population.
As for those who do not subscribe to any religion, these constitute 16.3 percent. However, 44 percent of these non-believers believe in the presence of a higher supernatural power.

As for the people of the book, they combined constitute 54.9 percent of the world's population, and in the following manner:

31.5% are Christians, 23.2% are Muslims, and 0.2% are Jews.

This general picture about religious diversity and multiculturalism demonstrates just how difficult it is for a single religion to form the sole moral force for common spiritual human security. What adds to this difficulty is the religious culture which is based on the monopoly of the truth and the means for salvation, a culture that is ingrained in every religion and every faith. Islam, however, and contrary to the image presented by the Takfiri extremists who annul the different Other, even from within Islam itself, may be eligible by virtue of the sound values, principles and foundations on ​​which is it based, to play this role.

The high percentage of belief in religion (84 percent of people, or about 5.8 billion people) and the high proportion of overlap between the followers of religions (two thirds (2/3) of Christians in the Third World, one-third of Muslims in the advanced world) together affirm the importance of the role of religion in the twenty first century. This paper will address the place of Islam and its intellectual and religious principles in human unity, based on two premises;

The first is that Islam presents itself as Allah's message the worlds.

The second is that Islam is being accused today of denying the non-Muslim other.

Islam and the People of the Book:

Two verses from the Qur’an are interpreted in a manner that suggests that Islam monopolizes religion and annuls the legitimacy of other religions.

The proponents of this interpretation attribute the accusation of religious monopoly to the holy verse that states: "Religion with God is Islam." (Al Imran - 19).  They rely in their religious annulment of anything that is non-Muslim on the holy verse that states: “Whoever seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers.” (Al-Imran - 85).

In so doing, they classify Islam as a religion that stands against human unity, and  consequently, not eligible to realize the spiritual and intellectual security at the general human level, as this important noble spiritual human mission is impossible to achieve through monopoly or denial, let alone by both?

To illustrate this dilemma, we must clarify Islam's conception of Islam. It is a concept based on the belief in the heavenly revelation revealed to Muhammad peace be upon him and those before him, especially Jesus Christ and Moses, peace be upon them, and the belief that the God of Muslims and the God of the peoples of the book is one God.

This principled fundamental position is repeated in detail in the holy Qur’an., especially in the verse of the Almighty: Say, "We believe in God, and in what was revealed to us; and in what was revealed to Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses, and Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we submit."  (Al-Imran - 84).

According to the content of this verse, the general definition of Islam is belief in all the prophets and messengers of God, without any distinction between them - and this is a fundamental issue in faith relations- and belief in all the messages of God that these apostles and prophets carried from their Lord.

The holy Qur’an always ties faith in the one God to Islam (submission) to the one God:

Say, "It is revealed to me that your God is One God. Are you going to submit?" (The Prophets - 108).

"Those who believed in Our revelations, and were submissive."(Al-Zukhruf - 69).

Therefore, Islam requires first belief in one God and all His holy books and messages, and all the apostles and prophets.  Reform and good work go hand in hand with Islam and are complementary to it, and they form a pillar of religion, such that good work is always linked with belief in the one God. Also, repentance to Allah can only be realized through submission to the One God.

Based on these general rules of faith, we understand the words of the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, when he said: "I was only sent to complete good morals." Therefore, it was part of the noble morals of peace be upon him that he described the message revealed by God to him not as an annulment or undermining of the messages revealed before him, but rather as complimentary to them. And completion is based on the belief in the messages and those to whom they were revealed, and then building on them. It is also premised on the belief in the acceptance of the faithful of these messages and their love and respect for their faith. This was translated by Prophet Mohammad in his statements, conduct and covenants (the Medina covenant, which stipulates that Muslims and Jews are one nation, and the Prophet’s Covenant with the Christians of Najran after he received them in his home in holy Medina, which stipulated respect for their faith and their houses of worship). We find in all that an explanation for the words of God Almighty: "Today I have perfected your religion for you, and have completed My favour upon you, and have approved Islam as a religion for you."(Al-Ma’ida - 3). This means that that the message of Muhammad, peace be upon him, represents the completion of Islam (submission to God), and he is the last apostle and prophet, and because the Qur’an is also the last book of God and His messages, and because there is no revelation after it.

An Islam that does not monopolize faith or salvation, and that is complementary to other religions, is qualified in and of itself - not through its extremists or hijackers- to play its general and comprehensive human role as a spiritual and moral force for the common spiritual security of the human race.

Islam’s Belief in Heavenly Religions:

The Arabian Peninsula was familiar in the days of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, with Christianity, Judaism the Sabians and the pagan worship of idols.

The Prophet had brotherly relations with the Christians and the Jews until they turned on him. And he fought polytheism and the polytheists.

The Arabian Peninsula did not know the other convictions that were prevalent in the pre-Islamic world, especially in Asia, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and others. Therefore, there was no mention of these beliefs in the holy Qur’an.

What has been revealed is related to two issues:

The first issue is the words of Almighty God that there are messengers He did not tell the Prophet about them in the Qur'an, and there are messengers whose names and facts were indeed mentioned, and they are numerous. But who are the apostles He did not mention?

The holy Qur’an states: “Some messengers We have already told you about, while some messengers We have not told you about."(Al-Nisaa’ – 164, Ghafer - 78).

The mission of the apostles was to submit evidence to the people, and in that regard, the Holy Qur’an says: "We sent before thee messengers to their people and they brought them evidence" (Al-Roum - 37).

He also says: "Our messengers came to them with clarifications" (Al-Ma’ida - 32).

It is the wisdom of God that He introduced people to faith, i.e., the evidence. For God "chooses messengers from among the angels and from among the people" (Hajj - 75), and with these messengers, He sent down the holy Book and fairness, which is true to the verse: " "We sent Our messengers with the clear proofs, and We sent down with them the Book and the Balance" (Al-Hadid - 25).

As for the second issue, it is the justice of God Almighty that people are not held accountable without having received this evidence.

"Messengers delivering good news, and bringing warnings; so that people may have no excuse before God after the coming of the messengers" (Al-Nisaa’ - 165).

That is because God wants people to receive the message first, and hence His description of messengers as missionaries. But when people reject His message and when people become arrogant about the message of God, the messengers turn into carriers of warnings.

In this sense, the justice of God requires that no one should be held accountable unless they had received a message or warning from God. For that reason, God’s wisdom entailed that He would send His messengers to all people. God says in the holy Qur’an: "We sent messengers before you, and We assigned for them wives and offspring" (Al-Ra’ed - 38).

God Almighty re-assured, "As for those who believe in God and His messengers, and make no distinction between any of them-He will give them their rewards " (Al-Nisaa’ - 152).

He also warned (in His holy book) "Whoever rejects God, His angels, His Books, His messengers, and the Last Day, has strayed far in error" (Al-Nisaa’ - 136).

Based on these verses the following rule can be formulated, namely, that God sent messengers to all people, so that the call to believing in Him can reach them all, and that some of these apostles were mentioned in the Qur’an, while others were not.

And God says about His own self: " nor do We ever punish until We have sent a messenger " (Al-Israa - 15). And “Your Lord never destroys cities without first sending a messenger in their midst" (Al-Qissas - 59).

Based on these verses, we can also determine that God who created all people and created the differences between them has sent to each nation a messenger who speaks their own mother tongue, meaning their own language: "We never sent any messenger except in the language of his people, to make things clear for them."(Ibrahim - 4).

The mission of all those apostles of God mentioned in the Qur’an, or those who God did not mention, is to advocate for His worship: " To every community We sent a messenger: "Worship God, and avoid idolatry." " (Al-Nahel - 36).

Therefore, it was necessary for those Apostles to carry God’s revelation to their people: " We never sent a messenger before you without inspiring him that " (Al-Anbiyaa’ - 25).

The Qur’an did not mention any doctrine of faith that did not exist or that was not even known in the Arabian Peninsula, positively or negatively. But He pointed out that there are messengers – and hence messages – revealed by God, and it was the wisdom of God Almighty that He did not refer to them in the holy Qur’an.  

Therefore, He divided Muslims into two categories: the people of the Book (Christians and Jews) and infidel heathens. But what about those who were not mentioned in the holy Qur’an? What about books? What about the messengers who carried God’s books and laws to them?.

In the sixth century BC, religions originated in India and China, among them was Zoroastrianism – in reference to Zradasht- who called for monotheism. Other religious movements that combined in their call between faith in God and justice among the people, also arose.

Then there was the Hellenic civilization in Greece, which spread through the expansionist campaigns of Alexander the Great (the Alexander with two horns, as described in the holy Qur’an) until it reached the Middle East, including Iran, and as far east as the borders of India.

These religions or creeds spread across Asia (before Judaism and Christianity). Therefore, God Almighty says in the holy Qur’an said: "And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours" (Al-Roum - 22). This variation implicitly includes religious differences. What reinforces this conclusion is the Almighty’s words:  "Humanity used to be one community; then God sent the prophets, bringing good news and giving warnings. And He sent down with them the Scripture, with the truth, to judge between people regarding their differences." (Al-Baqara- 213). It is this difference lies in the framework of the divine wisdom in terms of the multiple understanding of the contents of one book. God has willed that this difference shall continue until the Day of Judgment, because "Had God willed, He could have made you a single nation, but He tests you through what He has given you. So compete in righteousness. To God is your return, all of you; then He will inform you of what you had disputed. "(Al-Ma’ida - 48).

If we move from this generality to a measure of more specificity, we find that religious diversity in the holy Qur’an is reflected clearly in the verse when the Almighty says: "Those who believe, and those who are Jewish, and the Sabians, and the Christians, and the Zoroastrians, and the Polytheists-God will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection. God is witness to all things." (Al-Hajj - 17).

This holy verse addresses slam, Judaism and Christianity, that is between people of the holy books, and the Sabians, the worshippers of the stars and planets who were present at the edge of the Arabian Peninsula (Iran and Iraq). They were well-known to the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. As for the other religions in Asia (China and India), these were not known to the people of the Peninsula, and as such no direct reference was made to them in the holy Qur’an. However, the reference to the Sabians sheds light on the extent of the openness of Islam to the wider religious pluralism.

The intention behind shedding light on this topic is not to search for "flimsy facts" to extend a wall of mutual respect with the people of the various faiths who are not among the people of the book; but rather to place emphasis on the fact that the mercy of God is not a monopoly and is not confined to people of the book – the Muslims, Christians and Jews - and not others. For God is the merciful and the compassionate. The Qur’an says that God's mercy encompasses all things. This means there is no one is excluded from God's mercy. Additionally, God Almighty is the Creator of all things and the Almighty committed himself to mercy. It is a divine commitment to the divine self, based on the Almighty’s words: "He has inscribed for Himself mercy." (Al-An’aam - 12), which committed God to the love and mercy of man, every man. And one of the requirements of mercy to mankind is to introduce man to his Creator and guide him to the correct path, which can only be accomplished through God's prophets and messengers.

Two essential things should be avoided in this topic. The first thing is the attempt to attribute to the Qur'an things that it did not contain. For the Qur’an  did not name any particular faith, so it would be wise to comply with this principle and not go beyond it. But the belief that there are messengers that God Almighty did not identify in the holy Qur'an, and that there are messages He revealed that were specifically mentioned by name would build bridges of familiarity between the followers of these different religions on the basis  "that God judges us on the Day of Resurrection concerning where we are different." Therefore, changes and transformations may have occurred in some of the origins and principles of these faiths with the passage of time, especially that they existed several centuries before Islam, similar to what happened to Islam itself, and to the Christian and Jewish faiths as well, through the multiplicity of sects, churches, jurisprudence and theology.

In our contemporary world in which the different and disparate religions and beliefs overlap, a minimum of respect for the different other forms basically is a must in order to achieve stability and avoid conflict and war. The golden rule laid down by Islam that governs the relationship with the people of other religions, as stated in the verse, "you have your own religion and I have my own," remains in effect.

Islam’s Belief in Human Dignity:

"In the name of God the Merciful and Compassionate" is the phrase that tops every Surah in the Holy Quran to reflect the truth, essence and spirit of the Islamic message in defining the relationship of God to His creation and how the relationship between people should be like in terms of compassion, love and affection.

Therefore, when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked who is a Muslim, he replied: "The Muslim is the person who does not hurt others with his hand and his tongue." This means that even a word that may hurt others, regardless of who this other is, is not an Islamic manner at all, let alone the slitting of throats, burning of neighbourhoods, desecration of sanctities and holy sites?

Islam talks about human dignity: "We have honoured the Children of Adam" (Al-Israa’ - 70). The sons of Adam make up the whole humanity, with all its people, state and differences. This means that the human individual, every human being, is dignified for his/her humanity, regardless of sex, colour, culture or religion or doctrine.

This principle establishes the foundation for totalitarian dignity, following Islamic principles:

First: Man is the successor of God on earth,” as God states: "When your Lord said to the angels, "I am placing a successor on earth." (Al-Baqara - 30). And the succession of God reflects the highest levels of divine honour of the human being.

Second, because man is the successor of God on earth, God has made available to him, "everything in the heavens and the earth" (Luqman - 20).

This means that God created the laws of nature, and He has put man on earth so he can be entrusted with the task of succeeding in the reconstruction of earth. "He initiated you from the earth, and settled you in it."(Hod - 61). So that the elements of the succession of God's universe is the building  and construction of the universe in service of humanity, rather than the sabotage and destruction of its environment, the killing of innocent people,  the captivity of free human beings and the destruction of life and architecture.

Third, that the succession in God is a trust. In other words, human succession in God (justice in ruling) is a trust. The succession in God in nature (is protection of environment), etc. is also a trust, and the trust is a great responsibility. "We offered the Trust to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains; but they refused to bear it, and were apprehensive of it; but the human being accepted it. He was unfair and ignorant. "(Al-Ahzab - 72).

Fourth: God created man such that he is capable of learning the truth and absorbing all the world science. "And He taught Adam the names, all of them" (Al-Baqara - 31), meaning that He taught him the keys of knowledge. Therefore, God urged man to speculate on both himself and his creation in the universe around him, so that he can realize that the ceiling of knowledge is high and its horizons are broad and that no matter how vast human knowledge is, there is more that he would need to use his brain and thought in order to discover. "And He taught Adam the names, all of them" (Al-Israa - 85). "And above every person of knowledge, there is one more learned. " (Youssef - 76).

Fifth: We created man in the best design. " (Al-Teen - 4), " and He designed you, and designed you well  (Al-Taghabun- 3)” of the living cell, from the genes and functions, to the thinking mind and what is can reach in terms of knowledge and the ability to infer and creativity.

Sixth: That a man would not be criminalized for a guilt he did not perpetrate: "No soul gets except what it is due, and no soul bears the burdens of another." (Al-An’aam - 164).

God’s honouring of man in Islam, in addition to His honouring of humanity itself, is a tribute to the role of man, which God created him to perform, which is the succession of God on earth. In other words, the human being is honoured, preferred and placed ahead of many of God's creatures and this honour, preference and status are directly linked to the will of God the Creator.

Therefore, any violation of human dignity is a violation of God's will.

Therefore, also linking human dignity exclusively to a particular faith, or specific doctrine, is not only wrong, but it is a distortion of the truth of the divine will, which was intended to honour the sons of Adam, or humanity as a whole. It goes without saying that this honour imposes on the human being obligations toward his fellow man, so as to respect their rights. And foremost among these rights is their right to differ, the right to faith and belief, on the basis that God, and God alone, is the one who adjudicates among people on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they differ. This means that no one has the right to search in the conscience of another human being, or humiliate the dignity of another human being simply because he disagrees with him in faith or in the profession of faith or even lack of faith. The ruling on what is in the conscience is the exclusive and absolute right of God alone. And the human being has no right to bestow this right on himself on behalf of God.

It is the divine honour of man, “and greatly favoured them over many of those We created” (Al-Israa - 70). He even preferred him over the angels whose job is only to worship God, the angels whom He created from fire and light, and ordered them to prostrate to Adam, the man He created from dust. The elements of the honorary preference have emerged through knowledge which God willed to endow the human mind with, some of which He chose not to bestow on the angels themselves. "31. And He taught Adam the names, all of them; then he presented them to the angels, and said, "Tell Me the names of these, if you are sincere."32. They said, "Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. It is you who are the Knowledgeable, the Wise."33. He said, "O Adam, tell them their names." And when he told them their names, He said, "Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?" (Al-Baqara 31-33).

And by way of added human honouring, the faith in God in Islam is not hereditary (as in passed from mother's womb, for example), but it is the result of the individual will. "Whoever wills-let him believe. And whoever wills-let him disbelieve" (Al-Kahf - 29).

And faith cannot be forced: "There shall be no compulsion in religion; the right way has become distinct from the wrong way" (Al-Baqara - 256). And the use of “no” in this context is not intended to forbid, but also to negate, meaning do not force people to believe in God, in the sense that faith cannot be forced.

"We sent down upon you the Book for mankind in truth. He who follows guidance does so for the good of his soul. And he who strays in error does so to its detriment. You are not their overseer. (Al-Zumur - 41). This means that the Almighty God did not give even the Prophet himself the right to judge what is in the conscience.

Islam went as far as its respect for human freedom and for his representation of his self before God, in confirmation of the dignity of humanity, to the extent of cancelling any mediation between God and man. There is no authority over the authority of the individual's faith except for man’s own authority over himself in this world and the power of God over man in the afterlife with reward or punishment.

Based on this, we can determine the status of the other in Islam. The definition of the other cannot be done in isolation from the self. To understand the other and then to reach an understanding with him cannot be achieved without expansion of the self in order to accommodate the other. Thus, the more man is able to rise above himself and put aside his selfishness in generosity and tolerance, the more he is capable of finding in himself greater space for the other.  The truth does not rest exclusively with the self. It integrates with the other even in its relativity. It is not complete in its absolutism except with God, for God alone is the truth. He is the absolute truth. And dialogue with the other is a re-discovery of the self. Therefore, there is no life except with the other, but the other is not the other, unless he is different, and difference is something that God willed and wanted to continue in us and with us until the Day of Judgment.

For that reason, what Islam is facing today, in terms of unprecedented challenges, emanates from perceptions and behaviour and attitudes that have nothing to do with the essence of Islam and its teachings at all.

Muslims cannot confront these challenges which hurt them and hurt their relations with their fellow Christians specifically, if these relations continued to regress as a result of these violations; and if as a result of these violations, the Christian exodus from the Arab Middle East continued. The phenomenon of Islamophobia in the West is growing stronger and become more extreme against the backdrop of accusations that Islam rejects the other. This unjust accusation attempts to build part of its credibility on this Christian exodus from the East, which raises a big question mark in the Western mind, namely: How is it possible to coexist with Muslims in Christian communities if Muslims reject the non-Muslim other? It should be noted in this context that one-third of Muslims in the world, about 600 million Muslims live in non-Muslim communities.  Perhaps this explains the flourishing of European right-wing political parties that are increasingly hostile to immigrants, especially, Muslims, including even those who have settled and integrated into Western societies.

This is in spite of the fact that the difference in languages and colour is in the very nature of God's mercy in having different laws and curriculum, which was confirmed in verse 84 of Surah "each of you has his own law and way. If, God willed it, He would have made you a single nation, but He wanted to test you with how He created you. So anticipate good things, to God is your return the truth about what you disagree. "

However, we face today an anomaly for this general Quranic rule, which gives a class of people the same right to act as an authority, and the right to pass judgments about what we differ. This group of people has even given itself the right to issue convictions against those who differ with it and the right to carry out judgments to expel, rape, enslave, murder, confiscate the property and wealth of its opponents and to destroy the places of worship in which God himself has sanctioned for His name to be mentioned and exalted.

 This inclusiveness in the multiplicity of laws and methods and Islam’s belief in this plurality, qualifies it to carry the message that realizes the spiritual security that the entire humanity is in need of.