Prof Hashim Kamali’s Religious Pluralism Reconsidered

by:

Muhammad ‘Uthman El-Muhammady (a student of Islamic Thought)

In Hashim Kamali’s essay “Islam’s Religious Pluralism in Context” (NST 8 Feb 2011) a number of points was raised, hence the following response from this student of Islamic thought. Firstly it is stated that “whether Islam accepts religious pluralism as opposed to mere religious plurality…[m]uch depends, it seems, on how one understands religious pluralism and then the three Quranic verses that chatacterise Islam”. The three verses cited by him are: the verse meaning “surely the religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His will) (3:19)”; and the verse “whoever seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from him (3:85)”; and “this day I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour to you, and chose Islam to be your faith (5:3)”. These are often cited as evidence that Islam is the only true religion and only those who follow Islam shall be saved.

As a student of Islamic thought the present writer notices that Prof Hashim Kamali does not note the position of the classical commentators concerning those verses as well as the position of ijma’ or the consensus of the scholars on the matter of the finality of Islam in sacred history; he also does not mention the position of the Prophetic Traditions on the matter.

Secondly, he goes on to state that “Mainstream Quran commentaries consider Islam in these verses to be the exclusive name for the religion revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. But Islam is also the primal religion of submission preached by Adam to all his posterity who accepted God as their Lord, as in the divine invocation: “Am I not your Lord? They said: yes we do testify (7:172).”

Then he states “All humankind then, before time began, professed Islam in its widest sense of submission. Understood in this way, the verses recognize the validity of every religion that requires submission to God’s will. This understanding of Islam also tallies with the essence of universality that Islam manifests in its own messages, values and objectives”.

The question which emerges from such position is: is it valid to conclude (as being done by Prof Kamali) from the primordial situation of “[a]ll mankind then, before time began, professed Islam in its widest sense of submission” that “the verses recognize the validity of every religion that requires submission to God’s will” without qualification? It is necessary for Prof. Kamali to provide support for such a position from Muslim classical scholarship so as to make this in line with the mainstream position of the scholars of sacred scholarship of the umma; otherwise that will be presenting highly personal position resting only on personal credibility of Prof. Kamali as an individual, plus the untold spiritual risks with all that this implies.

Then related to this are a number of issues like:what about the mainstream position of the naskh or abrogation of dispensations with the advent of the Qur’anic revelation, apart from those elements endorsed therein? And are the Qur’anic critiques of those other dispensations count for nothing assuming that all come under that which ‘requires submission to God’s will’? It is a very challenging conclusion indeed coming from Prof. Kamali.

Third, then Prof Kamali goes on to mention the position of Toshiko Izutsu who, to him, “has convincingly demonstrated that in several Quranic verses Islam can be taken to present every previous revelation as a way of submitting, and that such verses present Islam as a universal religion. The first to declare himself a Muslim in the Quran is the Prophet Noah: “I was commanded to be among the submitters (muslimin) (10:72).” Concerning Abraham: “His Lord said to Abraham: submit. He said I submit to the Lord of the worlds” (2:31). The succeeding verse recounts that both Abraham and Jacob advised their sons: “Allah has chosen the religion for you. So do not die except in a state of submission (muslimun).”

The question is: does the mention of the verses about Noah, Abraham, and Jacob being involved in ‘previous revelation as a way of submitting’ (and the relevant verses manifesting Islam ‘as a universal religion’ validate those dispensations after the advent of the Qur’anic revelation? Granted the spiritual validity of the dispensations of those prophets (in mainstream position they are Muslims, bringing Islam in their times) but again, in line with progressive revelation, each prophet with his ummah and time, yet, again, what about the doctrine of the naskh , as stated before this, or abrogation of dispensations after the coming of Islam brought by Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)?

Further, other related issues are: what about the position of the Qur’an as muhaiminan ‘alaihi (5:51) ‘guarding it [the meanings in religions] in safety [so that religions do not swerve away from the correct position]’- and hence its critiques of certain positions among the People of the Book?

And next, related to the above position, what about the Muslims, the people of the Qur’an who are to be witnesses unto mankind just as the Messenger is witness for Muslims? (2:143; 22:78) So Muslims have to stand by their guidance in the Qur’an and ‘give testimony’ in case others swerve from the true path? If Muslims advocate pluralism in Prof Kamali’s sense, they cannot be witnesses anymore; they become the camp-followers of others. Answers to such questions will suggest spiritual and intellectual ‘inadequacy’ of the position of religious pluralism.

The position taken by the Dalai Lama in relation to this issue is sincere and laudable. He says for him the truth is Buddhism for the Muslim it is Islam, for the Christian it is Christianity; but he is on excellent terms with all with respect (and cooperation wherever there are avenues for this as is shown by his activities).

Fourth, Prof Kamali further observes “Every prophet of the Judaeo-Christian tradition has thus taught a different mode of submission to God. If Islam is taken to mean submission in the Quran rather than an institutionalised creed, it would pave the way for “a very eloquent understanding of religious pluralism, one wherein all revelations throughout history are seen as different ways of giving to God that which is most difficult to give — our very selves”.

The question which emerges from the above is if every prophet ‘of the Judaeo-Christian tradition’ (to the Qur’an they are prophets and they are Muslims) ‘taught a different mode of submission to God’, yet they taught tauhid, with no elements of departure therefrom, with only certain differences in the sacred law, and they are spiritually valid in their cycles of prophecy, how can it be concluded that the Islam which they brought ‘would pave the way for ‘a very eloquent understanding of religious pluralism, one wherein all revelations throughout history are seen as different ways of giving to God that which is most difficult to give – our very selves”? Then, again, can we separate that ‘submission’ with the institutionalized creed? Do we separate the ‘submission to God’ from the institutionalized creed of the religion? In Islam, is the ‘institutionalized creed’ wrong? If we apply this to mainstream Islam, is the ‘institutionalized creed’ of Ash’ari wrong or if not wrong at least not in keeping with the submission to God? Is the institutionalized (as happened in history) understanding of the sacred law of the four schools ‘wrong’? It is helpful if Prof.Kamali clarifies these points for the sake of clarity for readers.

Prof Kamali further observes that “ imaan (faith) which rests at the heart of Islam occupies a much larger space in the Quran, occurring hundreds of times, whereas Islam occurs on only eight occasions. Imaan consists of a state of mind, manifested in the testimonial of the faith (kalimah shahadah), whereas Islam consists mainly of conduct — as in the Five Pillars of the faith”.

Fifth, this is followed by Prof Kamali with his observation: “Submission is sometimes said to be the very first step, but perhaps a shallow one if it is not espoused by imaan — as indicated in the following verse: “The Bedouin say: we believe (aamanna); say to them ‘you do not believe’. Rather say ‘we have surrendered (aslamna), for imaan has not permeated your hearts… (49:14).”

To the present writer, it is alright that the issue is although iman ‘occupies a much larger space’ and ‘Islam consists mainly of conduct’ yet both must be in the believer; the iman again must be in conformity with the established creed, not merely vague personal belief about something supernatural, but the belief which has been established in this community, as found expressions in the works of the scholars of sacred scholarship, and also Islam has already been established; history has shown that Islam as the institutionalized religion has been recognized as valid, until the end of time. There has been no accepted view in this religion that pluralism has valid space for it. Personal opinions cannot be a substitute for the position which has been taken by ijma’ after the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Sixth, finally the theological position of Prof Kamali does not reflect authentically the mainstream Sunni discourse. He observes: “In the context of theology, religious pluralism is treated under the three headings of exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist. The exclusivists believe that only their faith is true and all others are false; the inclusivists hold that their faith is true and others are included in it in some sense. The pluralists maintain that all faiths are true and show different paths to the same reality.” To say with the pluralists that all faiths without qualifications are true is unQur’anic and a highly personal statement. The Islamic position, that of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, is that the religions of the prophets are all true and valid for their cycles of prophecy, and with the advent of the shari’a of Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him they are superseded by his shari’a. That is the Quranic meaning of the statement of him coming as the ‘seal of the prophets’(33:40) acknowledging them and the validity of their dispensations. Other positions are Qur’anically indefensible. To disseminate this would open the floodgates of infidelity. God forbid.

Then seventh, Prof Kamali observes what he states as ‘the Quran is clearly expressive of the inclusivist impulse of Islam: Say, we believe in God and that which has been sent down to us and to Abraham and Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob… to Moses, Jesus and the Prophets from their Lord; we make no distinction whatsoever between them, surrendering as we do unto Him (lahu muslimun) (3:84). But he does not provide the authoritative commentators’ view on the meaning of the verse, and is satisfied with his personal view on the meaning of the verse. If he keeps that to himself, may be there are understandable reasons for such a position; but to express this for the Muslim public, that is something alarming indeed.

Then, eighth, the next observation of Prof. Kamali is laudable. He states “If the essence of religious pluralism is recognition, coexistence and cooperation with people of different religious persuasions within the same society, then Islam is pluralist. Lexicological accuracies apart, no civilisation in history has in fact demonstrated a more resolute commitment to pluralism than Islam.”

So also the following statement from him: ‘For not only the Quran but also the renowned constitution of Madinah are affirmative on religious pluralism. Article 25 of this document proclaimed the “Migrants, the Helpers-Muhajirun, Ansar and the Jews as one ummah”, and left open the possibility for others to join them in the spirit of unity and goodwill.

To him this is: “categorical evidence of Islam’s inclusivity and openness — also illustrating the Prophet’s judicious pragmatism at the expense almost of semantic accuracy. For ummah by definition signifies unity in faith, yet the Prophet went beyond that in the interest evidently of social harmony and cohesion.” Yet, to the present writer, it is necessary to add that ‘the ummah’ in the document, as found in the Sirah of ibn Ishaq, is used to mean the collectivity of people in the city-state of Madinah under the Prophet (peace be upon him) and not the theological meaning of the term. So the Madinah document is not about ‘religious pluralism’ in the sense understanding “of different paths leading to one reality” but about plurality of religions in Madinah.

Then, ninth, concerning the Quran recognizing the existence of other faith systems, including the worship of idols there is the verse in surah al-Kafirun (109:6) meaning: “to you is your religion and to me, my religion”. As for salvation in the Quran it is granted to Muslims, and all those who believe in God and do good deeds when they accept the prophets and finally Muhammad with his advent (2:4; 2:62; 5:69). It is necessary for us to state the authentic position of the religion of Islam and then promote cooperation among people of goodwill and practice the ethics of differences (including linguistic ethics) and not to sweep differences under the carpet. This will avoid spiritual confusion and serve genuine understanding.

Wassalam,

Yang benar

Muhammad Uthman El-Muhammady (27 Feb 11)

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