Prof Hashim Kamali’s Religious Pluralism Reconsidered


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.


Yang benar

Muhammad Uthman El-Muhammady (27 Feb 11)


Nahmaduhu wa nusalli ‘ala Rasulihil-Karim




Bi’awnika Ya Latif! Due to certain historical circumstances destiny has made it that Malaysia has been given the tremendous task of forging harmonious collective life among its inhabitants consisting of various religious and cultural groups, especially during the post-merdeka period. The citizens of the country consisting of representatives of such diverse civilizations as Muslims, predominantly Malays, Buddhists, predominantly Chinese, then Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and others, have to live with each other as neighbours. Compared to many societies with such multi-religious and multi-cultural nature, our country, due to the wisdom, tolerance and the spirit of giving –and take of its leaders, has emerged as a successful one. History has proved it clearly, in spite of comments to the contrary from certain quarters which would like to see it otherwise, for reasons known only to them.

There are challenges, of course, to improve upon the situation, so that that harmony will continue, and will improve, making the situation a better one, especially after September 11 with Islam being made the target of suspicion wherever there are Muslims. It is an unfortunate turn of events that a civilization which has been victimized a number of times in history with such devastations as the destruction of its civilization and “ethnic cleansing” of its adherents for a number of times with events in Spain and then the Crusades and recent events in modern times has now been stigmatized as “terrorist”, whereas others are not so stigmatized, in spite of terrorism having been perpetrated by some of its adherents.

Track record of a high degree tolerance of this civilization has been historically proven in the Muslim period in Spain, with Christians and Jews living in harmony with Muslims, with the Jews achieving their golden period, never achieved again thereafter, and non-Muslims living in harmony during the Ottoman period with the “millet” system, should give some lessons for people of the present times. The recent comments by the Secretary-general of the UN about the world organization and the acts of omission and commission of some countries should lead thoughtful and sincere people committed to ethics, morality and real human rights to reflect and do some introspective thinking before giving adverse comments about other nations. Recent events seem to suggest that humanity has not improved, if not to the contrary, in terms of practicing compassion and human brotherhood, in spite of all the rhetoric and talk about high-sounding noble values and aspirations.

Malaysia is a small country, and it has in its own way tried to put into practice the lesson of living in harmony and tolerance among such diverse cultural and religious groups as mentioned above. Of course there are so much more to be done, and by God’s Grace we hope to achieve much more in future. Those who would like to give adverse comments about our performance, we hope, will first set their own house in order, and then mention constructively, in the spirit of compassion among mankind, things which we should do to improve our situation. If this attitude is put into practice, the world would be a better place to live in. It is also in keeping with Christ’s “love thy neighbour…”, and the Prophet’s teaching about the brotherhood among the children of Adam and the creatures of God being figuratively “the family of God” (“iyal Allah”), and living according to the Tao in far eastern doctrine about the tao, of harmony with the way of heaven and earth, the harmony of the “yang” and “yin”. It is also in harmony with the disinterested action of the “Bhavadgita”.

There is the challenge of cool-headed dialogue among intellectuals and leaders of the cultural and religious groups, coming together, like the present one, with the idea of seeing the intellectual and spiritual contours of the various religions, so that the meeting points can be understood, not with the idea of blurring the real characteristics, the similarities and the differences, but with the idea of understanding where there are real differences, so that we respect the differences, and where there are similarities, so that we encourage the improvement in the similarities, for enhancing harmonious living. And this is done with intellectual seriousness and not with a false sense of superiority and disdain.

Then there is the necessity for respecting what can be called as “spiritual privacy” of the various collectivities; just as we have psychological privacy, privacy, in which we do not let out our secrets to people not relevant to it, the privacy of the body, in which we do not expose certain parts of the body, out of natural sense of modesty-barring aside people who already have lost this sense, for some reasons only known to them, the privacy of the bed-room in which we do not expose ourselves in that situation, barring aside other people who generate income from doing so, so there are spiritual aspects of privacy. The priest in the holy of holies has got to be alone there, cannot be disturbed in that spiritual privacy; the food in the Muslim yearly festival of sacrifice is of such a nature. This has got to be understood and respected, and this should not be construed as exclusive attitude as opposite of the inclusive attitude. Aspects of the Islamic sacred law fall into this category, and people who just have paper qualifications only, or know from personal readings only, should not comment adversely on these. Muslims are duty-bound not to do the same thing. The Qur’an teaches them not to vilify the objects of worship of others deemed not in harmony with the reality of the scheme of things from their perspective, for then they will vilify God worshipped by Muslims, and it becomes like they themselves are vilifying Allah. This serious attitude towards things deemed sacred should be inculcated; this is not about saying that things should be blurred so that people will think that things are all the same creating spiritual and intellectual confusion, creating more harm than good. This is about understanding things as they are and responding to them with spiritual and intellectual propriety.

There is the challenge of all the religions facing the phenomenon of cultural trivialization and gradual loss of cultural identity and values, and how they should unite to face this danger. What is meant here is the gradual loss of interest to understand the deeper implications of the teachings and practices of the religions, and concentrating on the paraphernalia, not attaching them to the inner core of the principles and values. And added to this there is the cultural trivialization and concentration on entertainment culture from foreign sources. The consequences are seen: for instance we see young people dying their hair yellow so that they look like some one who is an icon of the entertainment media; it is if they are ashamed of coming from their culture and looking in that way and with that colour. Then there are cases of elderly people in some cities committing suicide because they are no more cared by the young because the young would like them to abandon their houses and live in old folk’s homes; the world is a stage for the youthful; the elderly should be in old folk’s home. Respect and care for the elderly is disappearing. This is happening in the society. Some people mention that this is the influence of Hollywood culture. Only God knows. But this is a challenge which must be faced by all the religions and cultures, and they must face it together.

The various representatives of Asian cultures of the country have to face cultural domination of foreign cultural elements, and this will be cultural disaster for the rich heritage of diverse cultures of the country.

Then there is the consumerism culture: people are behaving as if they are worshipping the devil of a cult: a cult of buying things more than what they actually need just to be with the times as fashionable consumers. This is against all the teachings and values of the eastern cultures and civilizations. So some people say: the new cult is that the temple is the mega-mall, the rite is the shopping spree, the sacred things are the colour TV, the refrigerator, the air-conditioner, etc. The religions and cultures have to face this challenge together so that the principles and values are relevant and effective in moulding members of the society who are moral, disciplined, serious, respectful of others, hardworking, good, law-abiding citizens and patriotic. Other issues are side-issues when compared to this principal issues. Others from outside our country or culture should be heard in relation to our ultimate interests according to our philosophies, and not otherwise. Exceptions can be made in relation to universal issues agreed upon by all the nations as done by the UN. One example of things done by seeing our ultimate interest was the Malaysian economic step taken after the recent crisis in the region because of international manipulators of the currency.

The other aspects of the challenge are related to globalization; how global trends are making people more stressful; people are no more related to each other directly, hence their relationship is becoming more “faceless”, only communicating through gadgets, hand phones, etc., people are traveling more often, hence there is no more concept of neighbourhood and the traditional association, and stable relationship and respecting people because you “know” them really because you are living in the same neighbourhood, etc. People are becoming more and more rootless, more and more drawn into “the technological intoxicated zone”.

Then there is the challenge of post-modernism thinking which consists of the rejection of the grand narratives- the religions and the fundamental discourses, the rejection of absolute values and criteria about the truth and right and wrong, and the blurring of reality and the images. All these will lead to the withering away of the principles and values in the civilizations. There is the spreading of liberalism of the religions. This is emptying of the religions and civilizations from sacred and fundamental values, including family values. This has got to be faced squarely by all the religious traditions of the country. Other issues will appear as non-issues when seen in this fundamental philosophical perspective. This is the evil dragon which will swallow all and everybody. All have to get united to face this evil dragon.

The representatives of the various eastern civilizations in Malaysia have to be united in facing these challenges. The fundamental values about human relationships in the various traditions have got to be re-learned and their relevance seen in the present global perspective.

Then the country is also facing the global competition. The various religions have to help the leaders of the country to strengthen the survival of the identity and the economy of the country in the face of globalization onslaught, based on free and unbridled play of market forces; otherwise there will be another form of imperialism.

These are some of the challenges which the religious and cultural diversity of Malaysia has to face or is in fact facing now, and they must get united in forums and other ways so that such challenges are met with effectively. What is of utmost importance is the integrity of the various religions and cultures are preserved, the harmonious life continued, and improved upon, the cultural identity of the people is intact, the country is strengthened, its principles and values are realized, and differences are resolved through amicable discussions and consultations, without outside interference. With God’s grace the country and the people will survive well and with success in facing the global challenge.

Wallahu a’lam.