Tolerance and Pro-existence: understanding each other’s language – Moch Nur Ichwan

“Is Father Hermen already a muslim?” The question came from Rev. Djaka Soetapa. Father Hermenegildo de Almeida looked dazed. Wasn’t he a Catholic, a priest in East Timor? Yes, he had enrolled as student at the State Islamic University of Yogyakarta, in which non-Muslims are allowed to enrol. He was following my course on Contemporary Religious Movements. But that was only to broaden his knowledge, in the context of an MA in religious studies. He had no intention of converting to Islam. And now this Reverend Djaka Soetapa, honorary lecturer at the same university, was calling him a muslim! To make matters worse, Rev. Djaka added: “I have been a muslim for a long time.” Father Hermen laughed politely, but he was perplexed.

I, on the other hand, knew exactly what he meant. He was referring to the subtle distinction made by the progressive Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid between islam and Islam; between muslim and Muslim. He used the capital letter for the organised religion initiated by Muhammad. The small letter he reserved for what is much more important: submission to the Good, to God. He understands

“Inna ‘d-dīna ‘indallāhi l-Islām” 3 Al-‘Imran, 19


“The Religion before God is islam, (submission to His Will)”

This verse does not refer to organized religion but to a far more fundamental submission to the Divine. Indeed this and the next verse argue that the People of the Book, that is Jews and Christians, can be muslims in principle, though they might stray from God in practice.

“And say to the people of the Book and those who are unlearned: “Do you submit yourselves?” If they do, they are in right guidance…” 3 Al-‘Imran, 20

According to Nurcholish every religion which teaches submission to God is islam. Everyone who submits to the Divine, to the Truth, to the Good, is a muslim. On the other hand, if a Muslim, that is someone who confesses Islamic faith but in practice sins against humankind and against God – a Muslim who for instance kills innocent people – is not a real muslim (with a little m).

When this Indonesian intellectual presented his ideas in the 1980s, he was criticised by many Muslim activists. They accused Nurcholish of being secular and having gone astray. However many Muslims supported his interpretation. A number of non-Muslims, spokesmen of other faiths said that if this was the concept of islam, they were “muslims” as well. Rev. Djaka was among them.

Most non-Muslims are astonished and perhaps even irritated by the Qur’anic statement that Abraham was a ‘muslim’. The relevant verse reads:

“Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith (hanif), and bowed his will to God’s (which is islam), and he was not of the idolaters.”

3 Al-‘Imran, 67

Revealed in Medina, the verse implies, first of all, that there was a hanif or religious movement in Mecca and Medina, which adhered to Abrahamic monotheism; and, secondly, that there was a debate between Jews and Christians in Medina, in which each party claimed for itself the most intimate relationship with Abraham.

“You People of the Book! why do you dispute about Abraham, when the Law and the Gospel were not revealed till after him?” 3 The Heifer, 65

The Qur’an argues that it was impossible to claim that Abraham was a Jew. Or, as Karen Armstrong1 puts it:

“Living before the Torah and the Gospel, Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian but represented a simpler faith that reflected the unity of God.”

However, as a matter of fact, Abraham initiated some of the major parts of the Jewish religion. Yet, the children of Israel (Jacob) had to wait for Moses to receive God’s law (Thora). Of course Abraham couldn’t be Christian in the literal sense, for he lived centuries before Jesus Christ was born, although Christians might call themselves ‘sons of Abraham in faith.’ In the same way one could hold that the term Muslim is irrelevant for anyone who lived before Muhammad received the Qur’an.

But the Qur’an claims that both Abraham and indeed Jesus and his disciples were muslim in the inclusive sense explained above. Muhammad’s religion presented in the Qur’an as similar with, and indeed a continuation of Abraham’s religion. Muhammad explicitly builds on prophets before Abraham, such as Adam and after him, such as Moses and Jesus. All of them were characterised by their submission to God.

Written with a small i, islam is a perennial religion flowing from Adam to Muhammad, and far beyond, however its particular expressions might be called. In this sense all the messengers and prophets of God whom we meet in the Qur’an, are muslims, chosen bearers of messages of ‘islam’. So in this anthology we meet Abraham and his son Ishmael who pray:

“Our Lord! make of us muslims, bowing to Your (Will), and of our progeny a People muslim, bowing to Your (Will);” 2 The Heifer,128

In the Qur’an we meet Jesus surrounded by his disciples.

“Said the Disciples: “We are God’s helpers: We believe in God, and you bear witness that we are muslims (obedient to God ed.).” 3 Al-‘Imran, 52

But is this inclusive approach developed in the Qur’an valid only for the three monotheistic faiths, the so-called Abrahamic religions? Does the generous approach hold only for Jews and Christians, for the People of the Book? What about other religions?

It is interesting that the Qur’an says:

“For We have assuredly sent amongst every People (umma) a Messenger (with the Command), ‘Serve God, (the Divine, ed.) and eschew Evil’.” 16 The Bee, 36

This does not necessarily mean that in every umma there is only one messenger (the term used is messenger [rasul], and not prophet [nabi]). It could be two, such as Moses and Aaron, who in the Qur’an were messengers both for Israel and Egypt2.It means that the number of God’s messengers is at least as many as the peoples or umma existing in the world. That means there are umma which have more than one messenger. The Qur’an says that it mentions only a few of messengers God sent to humankind; many messengers are not mentioned.

“We did aforetime send Messengers before thee: of them there are some whose story We have related to you, and some whose story We have not related to you.” 40 The Believer, 78

The Qur’an even explicitly mentions both Semitic-Abrahamic messengers and ‘untold messengers’.

“We have sent thee inspiration, as we sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: We sent it to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. Of some Messengers We have already told thee the story; of others we have not – and to Moses Allah spoke direct.” 4 The Women, 163-164

This implies that they are included in the same overall religion of ‘islam’, (written for our purposes with a small i).

Seen from the perspective of human history, there were many “umma” outside the Arabian Peninsula. Of course God knew about them, He is All knowing. From archaeological artefacts, we know that there were umma who lived in Africa, Latin America, the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago, China, Europe, and so on. If God has sent a messenger to every umma, those umma had and have their own messengers. All those messengers taught their people to submit to follow the path of truth and righteousness, to submit to the Divine. So, in the inclusive sense, all those religions can be considered as islam, and their followers can be muslims in the sense that Abraham and the disciples of Jesus were.

However, one may ask, why are their norms and devotional ways so different? To this question, the Qur’an has a clear response: pluriformity is willed by God.

“To each among you have we prescribed a Law (shir‘a) and an Open Way (minhāj).” 5 The Table Spread, 48.

What further differentiates those umma are their religious rites;

(mansak; pl: manāsik).

“To every people We appointed rites, that they might celebrate the name of God…But your God is One God: submit then your wills to Him (in islam).”

22 The Pilgrimage, 34

Such difference of mansak is not to be disputed or discarded, 22 The Pilgrimage, 67 since it is willed by God. For every umma there is a messenger who teaches particular norms (shir‘a), methods (minhāj), and rites (mansak), but all have the same basic value, i.e. submission to the Divine. Many religious adherents get trapped in the rigidity and imagined superiority of their particular norms, methods, and religious rites. They forget the basis of every religion, that is submission to the Divine; islam. In this context it is relevant that humankind is in essence a “single people” (umma wahida).

“Mankind was one single nation, and God sent Messengers with glad tidings and warnings…” 2 The Heifer, 213

If He wanted to, God could easily forge the different nations into a single people, with a single set of rites and laws, all following the same Messenger. But He chooses to do otherwise. God sanctions diversity and calls upon men and women to strive for the virtues in different ways3.

“If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” 5 The Table Spread, 48

It is not up to human beings to decide what is right in morals and religious matters. Only God can know the Truth about the disputed differences among religious communities.

The appreciation of variation does not imply that anything goes. It is of even greater importance to find common terms or kalima sawā’ .3 Al-‘Imran, 64 It is the unity and similarity (formulated in Islam as the submissiveness to God), that should be emphasised, and not differences in norms, methods, and rites. For whatever our differences, we will all return to the One. Underneath the variety in norms and rites lies one basic human and divine value: Righteousness.

“O mankind, We made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he or she who is, ed.) the most righteous of you.” 49 The Inner Apartments, 13

This emphasis on tolerance of religious diversity does not mean that a follower of Muhammad should be sceptical of his or her faith or abandon the particular norms and rites belonging to it. On the contrary, Muslims should develop a strong faith in their own religion and spiritually submit their life to God as long as it lasts. Yet, the deeper his or her belief is, the more tolerant a Muslims or Muslima will be towards other religions. For by submitting to God they submit their claim to Truth to God. By understanding islam with a small letter as a universal subjection to the Divine, he or she discovers it in other religions and recognises real muslims amongst their adherents.

Such inclusive understanding is in line with the general cosmological teaching of the Qur’an which stipulates that all creatures—not only human—on earth and in heavens submit themselves to God, willingly or unwillingly.

“…all creatures in the heavens and on earth have, willingly or unwillingly, bowed to His Will (accepted islam)…” 3 Al-‘Imran, 83

Submission to God is the very essence of the “Religion of God” for the whole universe. For natural creatures, including the natural dimension of humans, this submission is reflected in their compliance to natural law, which is also God’s law. Thus the sun rises and sets and humans are born and die. But for humans, as rational and moral creatures, the willingness is essential. They possess freedom of choice, and therefore carry the responsibility for their own deeds. Unlike natural creatures, humans have reason by which they are able to differentiate between good and bad, right and wrong. Within this context, therefore, the concept of “no compulsion in religion” is very essential. For humans, choosing freely to submit to God’s law is what matters.

A comparable approach is also to be found on the Christian side. Here the relevant term is ‘anonymous christian’ (written here with a small c in analogy to muslim) introduced by Karl Rahner. He states that people outside Christianity have the possibility to receive God’s salvation through Christ, although they are not baptised, and even they reject Christianity.

“Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian;”

In Rahner’s view a Christian simply can’t believe even for a moment

“that the overwhelming mass of his brothers not only those before the appearance of Christ right back to the most distance past (whose horizons are constantly extended by paleontology) but also those of the present and of the future before us, are unquestionably and in principle excluded from the fulfillment of their lives and condemned to eternal meaninglessness? He must reject any suggestion, and his faith is itself in agreement with his doing so. For the scriptures tell him expressly that God wants everyone to be saved.”

Here Rahner refers to saint Paul:

“God…will have all men to be saved, and to come into the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:4

Influenced by Rahner’s concept of ‘anonymous christianity’, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), affirmed the possibility salvation outside the Church. In essence, ‘anonymous christian’ refers to the same as the word ‘muslim’; to a man or woman who chooses to let him- or herself be led by Divine inspiration and natural law to strive for Peace (Salaam). Many will appreciate that the inclusive stance implied by these honorary titles is not something negative if based on true understanding and sincerity; that is, if it is free from political manipulation, a sense of superiority and a drive for dominance. These are titles which are earned by those who practice an inclusive approach.

Of course, a Christian might resent being called a ‘muslim’ as a Muslim might resent being called an ‘anonymous christian’. However why should we not try to communicate peacefully and constructively using our different inclusive ‘religious language games’? Such inclusive terms as ‘muslim’, ‘anonymous christian’ or indeed other similar expressions from of other religions form an important element in developing a tolerant understanding of other religions, as a condition for co-existence and even pro-existence; the notion that the others’ difference is a value rather than a fault. The first step is the refusal to force others into conversion with the use of positive and negative sanctions; physical force, financial pressure or the offering of advantages in the welfare and educational field. This kind of conversion has been practised throughout history by Muslims and Christians alike. It is emphatically rejected in the Qur’an.

“Let there be no compulsion in religion.” 2 The Heifer, 256

Is there a common compliment which could be used by the Children of Abraham without psychological barrier? It is interesting that both the Qur’an and the Bible share similar term for Abraham, that is, “the friend of God” (khalīlu ’Llāh).

“Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in faith? For God did take Abraham for a friend.” 4 The Women, 125

Quite similarly, the Bible reads:

Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God. James 2:24

In other places, the Bible says: “Your friend Abraham.” 2 Chronicles, 20: 7 and “my friend Abraham” Isaiah. 41:8 The mention of Abraham in the Qur’an is related to the dialogue between the Abrahamic religions, implying that Abraham is their “common father”. This also means that the “common term” between these religions should use shared “Abrahamic language” and “examples”. Therefore it is important for these religions to learn about their father Abraham. The Qur’an mentions three major characteristics of Abraham: submitting his whole self to God, doing good, and having true faith. In the context of Abraham, true faith here refers to monotheistic faith. Because of these attributes Abraham is regarded by God as “the friend of God”. And whoever possesses these three attributes has better quality in religiosity.

In the Bible, Abraham is said to have two characteristics: believing (faith) in God and righteousness. Despite “submitting the whole self to God” (islam) is not mentioned explicitly, it is actually implied in both believing in God and righteousness. Believing in God requires submission to Him. The Qur’an has made it explicit according to its weltanschauung.

In Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures and traditions the title “friend of God” is given only to Abraham, and not to other Messengers. Because Abraham is the father of the adherents of these religions, it is logical that the latter could be called “children of the friend of God”. Despite this, it might be proposed that the title “friend of God” could be used also as compliment for all Children of Abraham: Jews, Christians and Muslims. The difference is that Abraham’s title was given by God, and that this compliment is now used by children of Abraham.

The Qur’an verse forbidding compulsion in religion implies that coercion in religious affairs is neither effective nor morally right, nor indeed acceptable in the eyes of God. That insight lies at the center of peaceful co-existence. Pro-existence goes an important step further. It opens up the mind and indeed the soul to the fascinating differences between the rites and norms of different faiths, and to their underlying similarities. Especially when performed in dialogue, as happens in this book, this search can be exhilarating and enriching. Let me end with a quote from that great peace-loving man, Mahatma Gandhi:

“To be a good Hindu also meant that I would be a good Christian. There was no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example,” 4

Let this be an inspiration for Muslims and Christians to share Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad and their teachings, as aspects of their common heritage.

1 Karen Armstrong, “Foreword: Abraham: Meeting Guests, Meeting God,” in Joan Chittister, Saadi Shakur Chishti, Arthur Waskow, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, xi.

2 (19 Mary, 51-53; 23 The Believers, 45; 26 The Poets,13; 28 The Narrations, 34), or more (36 Ya Sin, 13-14).

3See also 10 Jonah, 19; Hud 11:118; 16 The Bee 93; 21 The Prophets, 92; 23 The Believers, 52; 42 Consultation, 8; 43 The Gold Adornments, 33.

4 Millie Graham Polak, Gandhi, The Man, 1931, G. Allen & Unwin

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