I was born into a religious Shi’ite family in Iran. The Christian and Jewish communities in my hometown were tiny, yet numerous enough to make me think from early childhood about the question of religious diversity. Many theological subjects were debated in our families and schools by passionate participants.
Now that I reflect back, there were two main approaches. A group of people, mostly less educated, had the motto: literally, “Moses with his religion and Jesus with his,” which today could be taken as an endorsement of pluralism, the view that people of different religions are justified in practicing their faiths.
Can Truth Be Many?
But there was another approach. It insisted that religion has to do with truth, and truth cannot be many. Therefore, for them there was one true religion and all others were false. Furthermore, among the different views of Islam only the Shi’i version had the true understanding of the faith.
An old joke captures the exclusivist outlook: Two Iranian scholars were discussing religion. One of them asked the other, “In the last analysis, who goes to paradise?” The other, a poet known for his sense of humor, answered, “Well, it is really very simple. First, all religions other than Islam are obviously false. But among Muslims, some are Shi’ites and some Sunnis, and we all know that the Sunnis have strayed from the right path … That leaves the Shi’ites. But among Shi’ites, there are the common people and the ulama (religious scholars). Everyone knows that the common people don’t care about God and religion … That leaves the ulama. But the ulama have become ulama in order to lord it over the common people. That leaves you and me. And I am not so sure about you.” (The Vision of Islam by Sachiko Marata and William Chittick, Paragon House, 1994, p. 175)
Besides pluralism and exclusivism, there is a third option – a kind of inclusivism wherein one’s own religion is regarded as the more truthful version but other faiths are still considered adequate enough to provide at least a minimally successful path of salvation and truth for their adherents.
Among all these, pluralism is the most tenable option, I believe. God is merciful and loving according to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This central belief cannot be reconciled with exclusivism or with an inclusivism that says most people who do not adhere to “our” religion have arbitrarily less of a chance to salvation and truth. Further, we can find morally good and spiritually elevated people among all the world faiths. And it is reasonable to observe that most adherents identify with their religion because of an accident of birth rather than a strictly systematic intellectual endeavor that has born the fruit of commitment.
In my own life I became familiar with a profound mystical view emphasized by some Sufis. It captures a pluralistic spirit, declaring that different faith traditions offer various ways in which God has manifested to humanity or, alternatively, the ways humans have responded to God. This finds its best expression, in my view, in the following lines from Rumi, in a story about Moses who chastises a shepherd for imploring God in unfamiliar and theologically incorrect ways. After Moses scolds the shepherd, a revelation from God comes to Moses:
“Thou hast parted My servant from Me. Didst thou come (as a prophet) to unite, or didst thou come to sever? … I have bestowed on everyone a (special) way of acting, I have given to everyone a (peculiar) form of expression. In regard to him it is (worthy of ) praise, and in regard to thee it is (worthy of ) blame: in regard to him honey, and in regard to thee poison. … In the Hindus the idiom of Hind (India) is praiseworthy, in the Sindians the idiom of Sind is praiseworthy. … I look not at the tongue and speech, I look at the inward (spirit) and the state (of feeling). I gaze into the heart (to see) whether it be lowly, though the words uttered be not lowly. … How much (more) of these phrases and conceptions and metaphors? I want burning, burning: become friendly with that burning! Light up a fire of love in thy soul, burn thought and expression entirely (away)! … The religion of Love is apart from all religions. For lovers, the (only) religion and creed is – God.” (The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi, translated by Reynold Nicholson, vol. 2, pp. 311-312.)
As I see it, pluralism creates space for others to seek their own path to truth and avoid the exceptionalism and arrogance that is the cause of so much religious chauvinism in the world.
However, religious pluralism turns out to be a difficult position to hold for many. Here I just address one important problem, the charge of relativism. As the argument goes, if one concedes that other religions are valid roads of salvation and truth then one cannot make unique truth claims for one’s own tradition. There are different ways of averting the charge of relativism, but here I’ll suggest one – the analogy of language.
The fact that I can observe people of other countries using other languages effectively for their communication doesn’t mean that I cannot or should not use my own any longer. I am able to communicate with the people of my own country – that is what matters – and it may well be the only option available to me.
This implies that religions are like languages, whose main criterion is efficiency and practical consequences. This suggests that the non-practical dimensions of our religions should somehow translate into something practical and specifically ethical. In my view, this is what religious pluralism entails. All other dimensions of our religions – doctrinal, mythological, institutional, legal, experiential – should be fundamentally oriented toward human ethical transformation, away from self-centeredness and towards God/Reality-centeredness, to use John Hick’s important idea. I think this is a sensible price to pay in order to move away from violent exclusivism and toward social cohesion and intellectual credibility.
I conclude with a Qur’anic reference that in my view contains intimations both of pluralism and the centrality of a practical-ethical dimension of our religions: “We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had 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.” (Qur’an, 5:48, translation by Abdel Haleem)
Seyed Amir Akrami is a visiting lecturer in Islamic and Comparative Studies at YDS. In spring semester he taught Comparative Mysticism and Women in Islam. He is associated with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs. He has taught at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia and been a member of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy. He did his Ph.D. in philosophy of religion at McGill University.
All Together Now: Pluralism and Faith