Universalism in Islam

“Many Western academics specializing in the field of religious studies, including all the so-called traditionalists, support the notion of universal validity of all religions.  How can this be after the coming of revelation to the Prophet (sallAllahu aleihi wa sallam)?”

As to your question, I believe Dr. Nasr would find problematic the phrase you used, namely “universal validity of all religions” to define his perspective on Islam’s view of “other religions”. Accepting or believing in an inner or transcendent unity of religions is not identical to believing in “the universal validity all religions”. First of all, from Dr. Nasr’s perspective not all religions are “valid”. Only a religion which originates in an authentic Divine Revelation is considered as authentic or as a “valid” religion from the point of view of its Divine Origin–that is Allah (swt). Therefore, there cannot be a “universal validity of all religions” from a Traditionalist point of view since those religions not rooted in divine revelation are false religions. Secondly, certain revealed religions have ceased being living realities which provide a means to salvation and/or sanctification for its followers. The ancient Egyptian and ancient Iranian religions are examples of this category. Thirdly, there are revealed religions which are still “alive” today but have gone through periods of religious and spiritual decline, decadence as well as “renewal” while still preserving the possibility of salvation and even sanctification. In this category one may place religions such as certain forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. However, Islam as the final revealed religion and seal of Prophetic Tradition in this cycle of humanity can be viewed to have certain formal qualities which render it a very preserved and vibrant means of faith and spirituality. By this admission, Dr. Nasr would not mean to say that Islam is “now” the only intact religion or means to salvation or sanctification or the only form of Tradition, or even “absolutely superior” to other Traditions (this term understood as synthesis of the Islamic terms, al-Din, As-Sunnah and al-Silsilah). It is unfortunately obvious to many Muslims now that there are certain decadent or deviant currents within Islam. Rather as the last revealed religion, Islam has a kind of religious and spiritual “youthful intensity” when compared to other living revealed traditions. Moreover the way in which Allahu ta’ala revealed Islam makes of it a most opportune and practical form of Tradition to practice in the contemporary world we live in–both East and West. Qualities such as having direct access to God without the need of an institutionalized intermediary such as the Church (for example) and being able to pray the canonical prayers anywhere on earth make of Islam a very direct, practical and even primordial form of religion to practice. Fourthly, a particular religion becomes “valid” for a particular person once they have “faith” (iman) in that revealed religion–a faith (iman) which comes from God–and therefore, although all “authentic religions” are “universally valid”, all authentic religions cannot be “equally valid” for every person in the same way. Moreover, even within any authentic religion there are orthodox and unorthodox (right and wrong) ways to understand the beliefs–or practices of the religion. This means that not everything which is labeled as Islamic or Christian or Hindu for that matter is true or correct from the point of view of the authentic teachings of these revealed religions which are still living traditions. From the point of view of a transcendent unity of revealed religions,  universal validity is seen more as an “essential equality”  rather than a “formal equality” of religions. Therefore, there is a “universal validity” of religions but only for authentic forms of religion (al-Din) and with the above qualifications.

This is why the notion of a “universal validity of religions” can be a problematic way to understand what is meant by the Traditionalists when they posit a “transcendent unity of religions”. What Dr. Nasr, the other Traditionalists, and even some of their predecessors in the Islamic tradition of Sufism who are more open to other revealed religions (such as Rumi, Ibn Arabi and certain, infact many and arguably countless Sufis in India and Africa) have in mind when they speak of the spirituality, truth, holiness or beauty of other religions is to assert the Qur’anic principle of the universality of Revelation or Prophecy in a manner which appreciates a unity of revealed religions which transcends their formal diversity and differences–a diversity and difference willed by Allah HimSelf who Willed to keep the diverse religious traditions distinct from one another in space and time. All revealed religions and the traditions they produce are unified on a metaphysical or spiritual level which transcends their formal and theological differences, difference which are Sacred and Willed by God.

Could you please indicate some evidence for such a notion in the traditional sources of Islam?”

As for the underlying unity of the message of Tawhid (Unity of the Divine Principle) and the multiplicity of the Prophetic Messages. The following Quranic verse suffices:

“And We sent no messenger before you but We inspired him (saying): There is no God save Me, so worship Me.” (21:25)

All the Prophets are unified in the essential message of Divine Unity (Tawhid) which they are inspired with and teach their followers: “there is no God save Me”. However the Prophets differ in “so worship Me” through the particular and diverse nature of their revealed laws and teachings. In this sense, a Muslim can read this and other verses as indicating that although the underlying meaning of all revealed religions of the Prophets are one “in essence”, their revealed languages are different “in form”. This wisdom can be found in the following Qur’anic verses:

“For every community there is a Messenger” Qur’an (10:47)

“We never sent a messenger save with the language of his people so that he may make it (the message) clear to them” (14:4)

It is in this way that one may appreciate that although differences in authentic Prophetic teachings or “languages” may appear to contradict one another or actually do contradict one another in certain respects on more formal levels (such as the level of theology), they are unified in meaning on a higher level of spiritual and metaphysical (esoteric) unity through which the outer (exoteric) contradictions are resolved.

It is in this way that one can understand the following verse:

“To each We have given a Law and a Way: Had God Willed, He could have made you one community; but in order that He test you with what He has given you (He has made you as you are). So compete with one another in good works and virtue. And upon your return to your Lord, He will inform you of your differences”–(5:48).

In this light, there are many Qur’anic verses which indicate the universality and diversity of revelation, or the multiplicity of Prophecy:

See also Qur’an 2:1-5, 2:285, 3:84, 4:163-165, 22:67, 30:30,40:78, 41:43.

These verses nowadays are either not emphasized as much or not applied more inclusively by many scholars and Muslim figures. Rather, those Quranic verses which either criticize followers of other revealed religions or have a more restrictive or exclusive focus–rather than an inclusive meaning–are emphasized. In this light Dr. Nasr is a rare but much needed voice who has stated so nicely once that “among all the revealed scriptures of the world, the Qur’an is the MOST UNIVERSALIST and LEAST EXCLUSIVIST”. What this means to me is that Islam is very unique in its ‘explicit’ recognition of the existence, validity and truth, and even salvation inherent in other revealed religions. Yet because Islam is a religious form, it must have particular and exclusive elements which preserve its revealed formal qualities.

To give another example of a very explicitly inclusive and universalist Qur’anic verse is the Qur’anic doctrine or teaching of salvation:

“Verily those who believe, those among the Jews and the Christians–verily those who believe in God, the Last Day and do work virtue and righteousness, surely their reward is with their Lord, neither shall they grieve.” (2:62)

There is also an incident in the Sirah (life-story) of the Prophet (saw) which points to how the Prophet debated certain Christians about their belief in the divine nature of Christ (as). While disagreeing with them, the Prophet nevertheless allowed them to pray their rites (which by all accounts involve recognizing the doctrine of the Trinity) in his very Mosque which would not have been a possibility if the Prophet (saw) believed these Christians were blatant polytheists(mushrikun)) for believing in the Trinity! This Prophetic gesture demonstrates how theological disagreement can go hand in hand with spiritual and devotional acceptance of the holiness and Sacred of the Religious Other which is rooted in authentic Revelation. The incident during the “conquest of Makkah” when the Prophet allowed the clearing of all idols from the Kabah with the exception of an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus (as) is also a profound example in the Sirah of the Prophetic knowledge of the difference between manifestations of false religion (the idols) and authentic religion (the Christian icons).

As for other sources from the Islamic tradition, there are many, and perhaps the following advice from Ibn Arabi in the Fusus al Hikam can be recounted:

“Beware of being bound up by a particular creed and rejecting others as unbelief! Try to make yourself a prime matter for all forms of religious belief. God is greater and wider than to be confined to one particular creed to the exclusion of others. For He says, ‘To whichever direction you turn there is the Face of God [2:115] ”

And here is the diwan of Hallaj from 1000 years ago:

“Ernest for Truth I meditated on the religions. I found them all to be of one root with many branches.

Therefore impose on no man a religion, Lest it should bar him from the firm-set root.

Let the root claim him, a root wherein all heights And meanings are made clear, for him to grasp.

These Sufi voices demonstrate that their always has been in the history of Islam a valid difference of perspectives on the matter of how Islam understands religious diversity and the “spiritual validity” of authentic religions. Although many Muslim voices may have been exclusivist, there are some very significant, prominent, and profound voices that have always been inclusive of the religious Other in their own ways. In other words, although all the Muslims cited above have faith (iman) in the finality of Islam, their approaches to the status of other revealed religions even after the coming of the “Islam” of Muhammad (saw) has been diverse–especially if we include authorities from the more inner, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of Islam and not reduce Muslim authorities only to the level of fiqh (jurisprudence).