Comparative Religions in Islamic Thought

Comparative Religions in Islamic Thought

by Sheikh Ali Gomaa

The discipline of comparative religion is characterized by investigation into religious doctrines, study of the extent of their verity, the points of commonalities as well as differences among them, and other related matters. Here we shall expound certain matters necessary to understand this discipline, its aims, and the possibility of achieving them. We shall not try to reconcile various contemporary scholarly positions, as they range over varied methodological and thematic approaches.

At the outset, a number of methodological questions ought to be raised: Is it possible to simultaneously understand the manifest aspects of different religions thematically and also to approach them comparatively? And, if so, what comparative method ought to be followed? More broadly, how might we define the discipline of comparative religion? What are the necessary elements of such definition, that we might articulate what is necessarily included within it and what is necessarily excluded? Then, what is the theoretical foundation on which to formulate a scholarly method for studying the religions—that is, its philosophical, social, or discursive foundation? Is it sufficient to describe these varied religious creeds while assuming their validity, or should one make a decision regarding their error or rectitude? And, finally, what are the topics addressed in this comparative study of religion?

This research paper seeks to comprehend the scholarly approaches to these questions and others concerning the discipline of comparative religion and the possibility of a thematic comparison.

Understanding “Religion”

Lexically, the word din bears multiple meanings in Arabic, among them are property, strength, beneficence, worship, dominion and authority, self-abasement and subjection, submission (Islam) and monotheism, and a host of other meanings. Among Muslims, however, the word has a specific meaning for ‘what God sets forth encouraging those possessed of sound intellect to choose righteousness in the present life and felicity in the hereafter’; or, ‘what God sets forth seeking to guide people to truth in their beliefs and to good in their conduct and affairs.’

Technically, the term din encompasses idolatrous creeds, those worshipping animals or plants (or animists venerating the power of nature), the mythological rites of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, the Persian fire-worshippers, and so on. The Qur’an used the word din for all such traditions in Quran 3:85 (And whoever seeks a religion [din] other than Islam—it will not be accepted from him, and he will be among the losers in the Hereafter) and Quran 109:6 (unto you your religion [din], and unto me, mine).

In Qur’anic idiom, “Islam” (lit. “submission”) is the term for the religion (din) shared and proclaimed by all the Prophets. Noah, upon him peace, said to his people: I am commanded to be of those who surrender [to Him] (Quran 10:72). Jacob, upon him peace, enjoined his children: so do not die save having surrendered [unto Him] (Quran 2:132). Moses, upon him peace, said to his people: O my people! If you have believed in God then trust in Him, if you have truly surrendered [unto Him]! (Quran 10:84). The disciples said to Jesus: We believe in God—bear witness that we have surrendered [unto Him]! (Quran 3:52).

Islam is nothing other than attending to God, the sustaining Lord of the Worlds, in sincere obedience, without the hint of idolatry, in firm faith and confident belief in everything that He revealed, in whatever language, age, or location, without rebelling against His ruling, without personal distinctions, and without splintering into factions or partisans of one scripture over another of His revelations, or of one Messenger over another of His Messengers.

Thereby the Qur’an said: And they were not enjoined with anything but to serve God, sincere in religion (Quran 98:5); and: Say [O Muslims]: We believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what has been revealed to Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and what Moses and Jesus received, and what the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction [of preference] between any of them—and unto Him have we surrendered (Quran 2:136).

Islam is the religion (din) brought by Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace, as Judaism followed from the law (shari‘a) of Moses (upon him peace) and Christianity from the law (shari‘a) of Jesus (upon him peace)

Introduction to the Discipline of Comparative Religion

From a linguistic perspective, Arabic dictionaries indicate that the root form q-r-n (to compare) means to accompany something. For example, “qiran” is to make things equitable between people, and to reconcile between spouses. It includes also multiple senses such as achieving, reconciling, accompanying, making equal, connecting, and sharing. In English, the word “compare” is to weigh or evaluate in order to come to know similarities or dissimilarities. As such, they may define it as “a means for dividing things in order to arrive at a judgment.” The term “comparative religion” is short for “the comparative study of religion.” At the time of its emergence in intellectual circles in the West, it was synonymous with the term “religious studies” or what is known in German as “religions wissenschaft.” It has also been known by a variety of other names such as history of religions, religious studies, and the science of religion. All of these indicate, to varying degrees, the intellectual effort which aims at studying religious phenomena in a comparative manner.

In the West, “comparative religion” refers to a host of disciplines related to the phenomenon of religion including the history of religions, philosophy of religion, religious psychology and religious social sciences. If what was meant is that we take religions in general and religious beliefs, or different religions and sects, as a subject of study in an objective manner it expected it would have established principles inquiry and particular specifics used by the students of this field. Islamic thought has been open to the religions of the world since the third century, and made them an independent subject of study and research. Muslim scholars have set out precise methodological frameworks to describe and analyze religions, to compare between them, to record their histories, to criticize some of them. They would define each religion from their original sources. As such, it became an independent field with a sound methodology.

H. Pinard de la Boullaye indicated in his book L’étude comparée des religions that Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi was the pioneer in the field of comparative religion, not just among Muslims but in the history of human thought. Eric J. Sharpe maintains that the honor of writing the first book on the history of religions belonged to Al-Shahrastani, who categorized the ten religions of the world known at the time, based on a precise historical methodology. Adam Metz said that the greatest difference between the Islamic and Christian empires in the Middle Ages was the existence of scholarship on a large number of different religions in Muslim lands, and that each of these enjoyed a sort of tolerance unknown in Europe at the time. The indication of this tolerance is the formation of the field of comparative religions, i.e., the study of different religions and sects, and the passion with which they undertook it. Franz Rosenthal said in Encyclopedia Brittanica that the West recognizes with all honesty that the study of comparative religion is considered one of the great accomplishments of Islamic civilization. It contributed to the advancement of human thought

There are many reasons and motivations behind the emergence of this field in Islamic thought. It was supported by the scholars. They encouraged creating this new intellectual field and developing it in an objective and principled manner. As well, the Qur’an often indicates to other religions and beliefs. Finally, the tolerance of Muslims and their openness to dialogue and debate is another reason. All of this came to pass in a climate of great civilizational flourishing which gave rise to a deep feeling of responsibility for the rest of humanity among Muslims.

The discipline of “comparative religion” proper did not itself develop as an intellectual field of Islamic thought (as did, for instance, legal theory or Hadith or history). As an “interdisciplinary” science, it naturally took place as entangled in the topics and problems of other disciplines; thereafter it differentiated itself from them in its tasks and objectives. Those scholars who wrote in this field include al-Jahiz, al-Jubba’i, Abu ‘Isa al-Warraq, al-Tabari, al-Kindi the philosopher, al-Nawbakhti, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, al-Hasan bin Ayyub, al-Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi, Abu al-Walid al-Baji, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, al-Baqillani, Abu al-Ma‘ali al-Husayni al-‘Alawi, Abu al-Hasan al-‘Amiri, al-Biruni, al-Juwayni, al-Ghazali, al-Khazraji, al-Qurtubi the exegete, al-Shahrastani, Ibn Taymiyya, al-Tufi the jurist, al-Samu’il bin Yahya al-Maghrabi, Nasr bin Yahya the doctor, and ‘Abd Allah al-Tarjumani, al-Mas‘udi, al-Ya‘qubi, al-Maqrizi, Rahmat Allah al-Hindi, and many others beside.

The historian of religion Eric Sharpe says that “severe closed mindedness and partisanship were behind the belief that any study of other religions could never lead to a contradiction with Christianity.” However, Islamic thought included, in its study of other religions, the facts of history, principled analysis, and objective analysis, which are considered the core of any comparative religion by any contemporary measure.

-Islamic methodologies for studying religion

1. The method of history and description

The history and description of religions has occupied a vast area in the thought of Muslim scholarship. They set out for it foundations and principles previously unheard of. They made judgments with integrity. The scholars of Islam grounded this methodology and then applied it with objectivity and integrity on the various religions of the world. They had the honor of writing the history of all religions more than ten centuries before Europe. A scholar might write a book on disputation and criticism, and another on history and description, such as Abu ‘Isa Al-Warraq (one of the thinkers of the third century) who wrote on disputation a book called Al-radd ‘ala firaq al-nasara althalath, and a book on history called Maqalat al-Nas wa ikhtilafuhum. There are several books called Al-Maqalat, including the ones by Abu Al-Qasim Al-Balkhi, Abu Al-Hasan Al-Ash’ari, Al-Mas’udi, etc. Then Al-Nawbakhti wrote Al-Ara’ wa’l-Diyanat. Abu Al-Ma’ali Al-Alawi wrote Bayan Al-Adyan. Abu Al-Abbas Al-Iranshahri wrote Dark al-Bughya fi al-Adyan wa’l-Ibadat. Many wrote books under the title Al-Milal wa’l-Nihal, such as Al-Baghdadi, Al-Shahrastani, and others. Yet others wrote books called Al-Burhan fi Ma’rifat al-Adyan.

2. The method of analysis and comparison

The scholars of Islam did not simply stop with description and histories. They went beyond it to an analytical-comparative methodology. It is worth mentioning that comparison did not take a single form for them. Rather, its meaning was wide and took on various forms. For example, a researcher might study an aspect (or more) of two or more religions and compare them. Or, he might treat one religion and study it in depth in all its aspects. Or, he might offer introductory methodological frameworks for another researcher. As well, comparison might mean a study of the founder of a religion or its prophets, such as a comparison between Jesus (peace be upon him) and Buddha or Krishna. Another example is studying journeys or pilgrimages revered by certain religions and often noted by Western scholars.

3. The method of critique

In their works, Muslim scholars sometimes studied religions, or aspects of them, in a critical manner. They would analyze a specific dimension or many dimensions of a given religion and critically analyze them. Among them are the study of Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi of the Old and New Testaments; the study of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali; Muslim studies of the Christian claims of trinity, crucifixion, original sin, and penance; reincarnation in Indian religion; and others.

4. The method of dialogue, debate, and refutation

Islamic thought knows a living form of disputation, which would take place in public gatherings or elite audiences, between Muslims and non-Muslims from a variety of religious backgrounds. This was an application of the Qur’anic verse: Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good worlds. And debate with them in a manner that is best. God is more knowledgeable of who has strayed from the path and of who has been guided. (Quran 16: 125). There are also debates compiled in letters and books. These include the letter of the monk Cluny in the south of France to the prince of Zaragoza in Andalusia; and the response of the Qadi Abu Al-Walid Al-Baji to it. There are also dialectical studies concerned with refuting a given issue, or more, such as the book of Abu Isa Al-Warraq, Al-radd ‘ala firaq al-Nasara al-thalath, and the letters of Al-Jahiz, Al-Mukhtar fi al-Radd ‘ala al-Nasara. We may also include those works compiled by Jewish and Christian Scholars who became Muslims such as the two books of ‘Ali bin Rabn Al-Tabari, Al-Din Wa’l-Dawla and Al-Radd ‘ala firaq al-Nasara, and Al-Hasan bin Ayyub in his letter to his brother ‘Ali bin Ayyub.

The Integration of Other Religions in Islamic Perspective

All the heavenly dispensations, in the Islamic perspective, are true and integral, each of them confirming the others. There are certain principles and laws shared between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, such that they significantly overlap in their law, ethics, and etiquettes. The noble Messenger articulated this similarity in a parable: “My similitude in comparison with the other prophets before me, is that of a man who has built a house nicely and beautifully, except for a place of one brick in a corner. The people go about it and wonder at its beauty, but say: ‘Would that this brick be put in its place!’ So I am that brick, and I am the last of the Prophets” narrated by Bukhari

The issue of integration of the laws, ethics and conduct of the three religions does not mean that the later laws may not contradict some of the rulings of earlier laws for the Gospel came to abrogate the Torah. Jesus (peace be upon him) announced that he came to make permissible for the Israelites some of which was impermissible for them. He said to his people as reported in the Quran (I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me. And to make lawful to you part of what was (Before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear God, and obey me. (Quran 3:50).

Similarly, the Qur’an came to abrogate some of the rulings of the Gospel and the Torah. Therefore, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) came to make permissible all good things, prohibit all evil things, and to release them of some of their burdens: Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them. He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is wrong. He will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the fetters that they used to wear. Then those who believe in him, and honor him, and help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him: they are the successful. (Quran 7:157)

As for the Old Testament, which is sacred to the Jews who believe it is revealed from God, it is made up of 39 books, including the Torah of Moses and David (peace be upon them), Prophets, the books of Solomon, Job, and others. (The word Torah is Hebrew, and it means law).
As for the New Testament, it is made up of 27 parts: the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Epistles, and revelation. (The word for Gospel in Arabic is Injil, taken from the Greek, and meaning Good News, or Light).
Muslims believe in all the Prophets preceding our Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, including Moses and Jesus, upon them peace. Likewise Muslims believe in the scriptures revealed to them both, the Torah and Evangel—but these scriptures as extant today, and proclaimed by Judaism and Christianity, are not (in the Muslim perspective) the complete or authentic scriptures revealed by God. Rather they are narrations recorded well after the Messiah by scribes in their languages and tongues, and attributed to be those scriptures. This is why one finds such discrepancies between the recessions of the Gospel—Matthew contradicting Luke, and the like. Such discrepancies are well-established by critical Western scholars as well as by Muslim scholars.

Matters Shared Between the Three Religions

Various matters are shared among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite the tampering and textual drift that historically occurred to the other revealed scriptures. These shared matters include belief in God, the angels, the Messengers, the revealed scriptures (although the Jews and Christians do not believe in the prophethood of Muhammad); belief in the Day of Judgment, the Final Reckoning, and the reward of the righteous and punishment of evildoers; praise of virtue and censure of vice; a general obligation to establish prayer, give in charity, fasting, and worship, though the specific forms are not shared; and lenience, mercy, altruism, and excellence.

The Noble Qur’an enjoined Muslims to believe in everything He revealed to prior Messengers of God: Say [O Muslims]: We believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what has been revealed to Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and what Moses and Jesus received, and what the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction [of preference] between any of them—and unto Him have we surrendered (Quran 2:136). Likewise, the Qur’an further says: They surely disbelieve who say, Lo! God is the Messiah son of Mary. The Messiah [himself] said, O Children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! Whoever ascribes partners to God, God has forbidden him paradise and his abode is Fire. For evildoers there shall be no helpers (Quran 5:72); and Is it a judgment of the Age of [pagan] Ignorance they seek? Who is better than God for judgment to a people certain [in faith]? O you who keep faith, do not take the Jews and Christians for allies. They are allies of one another—and whoever is an ally to them, indeed he is of them. Lo! God guides not the wrongdoing. And you see those in whose hearts is a disease race toward them, saying: We fear lest a change in fortune strike us. God may bring [upon them] conquest, or a commandment from Him. Then will they be regretful over what they concealed within themselves (Quran 5:50-52).

After enjoining belief in the scriptures revealed to the Prophets and Messengers, the Qur’an clarifies that it is the “guardian” (muhaymin) of those scriptures. That is, it protects them; and it rejects what has been added to them over centuries of textual drift and interpolation. It exposes too what was concealed of them at the hands of rabbis and priests. God Most High said, O People of Scripture! Our Messenger has now come to you, expounding to you much of what you used to hide in the scripture… (Quran 5:15). The Qur’an challenged and restricted the rabbinical alterations: Say: Bring the Torah and recite it, if you are truthful (Q 3:93). At the same time, the Qur’an preserves—on firm foundation—what was stipulated by earlier revelations and also adds to them what God wills.
The law of the Torah for example has regard for first principles of conduct, such as “Do not kill,” “Do not steal,” etc. Its prominent characteristic is the specification of rights and the search for justice and equality. Then, the law of the Gospel came confirming these ethical principles and emphasizing them. Then, it advanced and added to them. The distinguishing characteristic of it was tolerance, mercy, and doing good deeds. Judaism was a law of justice and equality, while Christianity was a law of virtue and goodness. Finally, we come to the law of the Qur’an, which confirms both preceding sets of principles in one framework. The Qur’an says, God commands justice and goodness (Quran 16: 90), giving each of them a place on the scales of values, and distinguishing between which is more preferable and which less. God says, The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God: for (God) loveth not those who do wrong. (Quran 42:40). He also says, If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient. (Quran 16:126). The Qur’an adds new chapters to the etiquettes and modes of virtuous conduct, such as greetings, seeking permission, etiquette for sitting in gatherings and addressing one another, as we see in the Chapters Al-Nur, Al-Hujurat, and Al-Mujadala. This is not even to mention judgments on how to organize one’s life in a Muslim society, the relationship between the Muslim nation and other nations, and the political, economic and social systems.

In this manner, the heavenly dispensations together construct a religion and code of ethics. So, it is appropriate for the Qur’an to declare that it is a completion of this edifice and to affirm its main pillars: This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor unto you, and have chosen for you as religion al-Islam. (Quran 5:3)

Muslim scholarship on Comparative religion

Adam Metz is just one of many historians to have recognized that the field of comparative religion is an Islamic contribution to the world, and that it formed thanks to the tolerance towards other religions for which Muslims were known.

Islam’s position towards other religions may be divided into two: a theoretical component, and a practical component. Theoretically, Islam declared that it was the final link in the chain of heavenly religions. Practically, it recognized the existence of non-Muslim groups, and the Qur’an even presented the beliefs of the pagans and the people of the book, before refuting them. As such, those who commented on the Qur’an addressed also these religions in detail.
The field of comparative religion in its theoretical dimension has been a part of Islamic culture since its very beginning. As such, kalam works have appeared since the third hijri century, which aimed to study different religions and sects, the history of their formation, and their doctrinal beliefs. The reader of these works will not take long to notice their efforts in comparing religions without using express words of comparison. So they might say “nations and religions” or “a sect among the sects”. So they undertook the concept of comparative religion without actually using the word “comparative.” Despite this, they studied the religions and beliefs through descriptive, analytical, and critical frameworks in order to point out the essential and formal differences between them and the teachings of Islam.

The earliest features of comparative religion were found as a part of kalam works, because it was kalam that undertook the task of explaining beliefs and defending them. However, comparative religion came to be an independent field with the work of Al-Amiri (d. 381 AH), Al-Biruni (d. 440 AH), and other giants in the history of Islamic thought who realized the inadequacy of the disputational mode and its inability to properly study others’ beliefs.
We note the importance of specifying first the purpose and methodological landmarks of this discipline before specifying the concept itself in the works of historians of religion. In his book, Al-I’lam bi Manaqib al-Islam, Al-Amiri regarded this as one of the ‘ulum milliyya, and mentioned that it is the science through which we are able to study religion and establish it on an intellectual footing. Its purpose, he said, was “to allow man to know religious truths” on condition that it is based on intellectual bases “which admit neither doubt nor mistakes.”

In his opinion, extreme intellectual positions (disbelief and rejection) are inappropriate for studying religion because they lead either to beliefs unsupported by reason and thus to confusion; or they lead to beliefs “which impact people in this life, and distract them from the next one.” These two sets of beliefs, in his opinion, represent an arbitrary intellectual state, and stand in contradiction to the objectivity needed for studying religion. To safeguard objectivity in comparative religion, Al-Amiri made reason the measure by which to make comparisons. Therefore, it is imperative for the historian of religion to ensure that “the inclination which moves him towards one of four possible doors is not due to the beliefs of his predecessors, but rather the result of a clear mind.”

Al-Amiri also depicted the principal objective features of religious tradition, and stipulated two important matters for their success. The first is that the writer not undertake comparisons except among similar forms. What is meant is that he not compare the noble to the debased, nor the foundations of some thing to the subsidiary aspects of another. The second is that he should refrain from falling prey to his subjective and preconceived views and attempt rather to approach a particular religious traditions with all fairness and objectivity.

Abu’l-Rayhan Al-Biruni was a well-known Muslim scholar. Upon reading his works (most notably his description of the cultural and religious traditions of India) and translating them into English, the German Orientalist Edward Sachau described him as “the greatest mind known to history.” Al-Biruni presented a view not dissimilar to Al-Amiri’s. In his introduction to the book Tahqeeq ma li’l-Hind min maqula maqbula bi’l-aql aw mardhula, Al-Biruni indicates that achieving objectivity when writing about others is not an easy matter. He considers it almost impossible, though he stops short of doing so. Al-Biruni treats the foundations of the method for studying religion, mentioning that this field may be seen as a type of report. And comparing between reports and writings, he considers writing on other religions to be a sort of reporting on them. Thus, in his opinion, “If the traces of the pen had not lived on, it would have been exceedingly difficult for us to know of other nations.”

However, he then returns to his position that speaking about others and their beliefs is not an easy matter, because it is something that “countenances both truth and falsehood in one guise. Both are worthy of being reported from the point of view of the reporters, due to the disparity in their concerns, and disagreements between nations.” According to Al-Biruni, reports or writings about a thing may be categorized from the perspective of reporters or writers as being true of false, precise or objective. Here we see the importance of objectivity in reporting or writing about others and their beliefs.

Al-Biruni goes on to say that the spirit of theological dialectics, or studies that aim to depend the beliefs of the writer against the beliefs being studied, are not appropriate for comparative religion works. Similarly, improperly conveying the tradition of another or imprecise engagements with their sacred texts does not lead to reliable conclusions. The fundamental criteria of this field are honesty and intellectual integrity in both relaying and criticizing reports, and not relying on words conveyed improperly or impolitely. He believed that “the purpose” of the analysis of sacred texts and cultural traditions of a given society “is to simply convey the beliefs, without prejudice or embellishment.” The point of the discipline remains to arrive at the truth.

Finally, Al-Biruni mentions the importance of avoiding theological disputations in this field. Speaking about his own work, he says, “This book is not one of disputation and debate, so that the proofs of the opponent may be conveyed and then argued with. It is simply concerned with relating the words of Indians, and appending to them those of the Greeks so that the two may be compared.”

Based on this methodological framework, the modern study of religions in Islamic thought may be defined as “the science which studies nations, their origins, development, spread, and followers; the beliefs and principles the various nations focus on, and the points of agreement and disagreement among them; and includes comparisons, discussions and refutations.” This makes clear that the science is not limited to simply describing and analyzing, as is the case with Western definitions. Rather, it includes debate and refutations. These latter are evaluative elements which move the field from one that is simply descriptive to one that is normative. Based on this, we might say that comparative religion on this reading is “a discipline which compares between religions in order to extract their points of similarity and disagreement; to discern what is correct and what is corrupt in them; and to make apparent the truth by virtue of certain proofs.” All this is done by reference to the history of their origins and formation, an analysis of their intellectual and doctrinal contents, an evaluation of their social impact, and the nature of their spread and their followers.

On the feasibility of studying religions:

Historians of religion like Al-Amiri, Al-Biruni, and Ismail Al-Faruqi (the comparativist who produced extremely valuable studies) in his book Christian Ethics, and Eric Sharpe in his compendium Comparative Religion: A History, and Jordan in Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth spoke about the possibility of an objective methodological framework for studying the religions and beliefs of others, though they admitted the difficulties and complications in setting one up.

Despite this belief in the possibility of such a framework, there are objections and questions that arise from time to time. These include:

1. Since religion incorporates subjective elements – including psychological and spiritual ones – it is difficult for the researcher to evaluate them in an objective manner through an empirical scientific method. I add to this that comparing religions is a two-pronged operation, consisting of the culture of the writer and his intellectual formation, on the one hand, and the necessity of engaging with the beliefs under consideration in an objective manner, on the other. Each of these two has its own set of demands. With respect to the first, it is necessary to take account of the beliefs and accumulated intellectual tradition prevalent in the culture of the writer, which have a great influence on his manner of thinking and conceptualizing the culture and beliefs of others. On the second count, it is important that he show due regard for the religions he studies, and a desire to engage with them objectively. It is extremely difficult to give each of these their due, though not impossible.
2. Some people add the following objection: If it is impossible for a person to believe in more than one religion at the same time, how can it be possible for him to study a religion other than his in an intellectually honest manner.
3. The matter is complicated by the fact that the manner of coming to know the teachings of a religion about God, ritual, sacred obligations is not a sensory one, but rather through revelation. It is not easy to attain this knowledge in an empirical objective way. So, there is no objective test that guarantees you have achieved this knowledge. As such, how can you be assured that you have understood the true nature of these teachings?
These objections and others render – in the opinion of some of them – the quest for an objective methodology for studying religion almost impossible. However, and allowing that these objections express serious questions, they render us incapable of studying religion. However, this leads to a neglect that is unjustifiable on both theoretical and practical grounds.

This is why the majority of researchers of religious thought insisted on the possibility of studying religion. They opined that religion – even though it is essentially concerned with psychological and spiritual matters – can at least be studied theoretically by describing the phenomenon which itself consists of many overlapping dimensions. These include the theoretical dimensions that specifies the theoretical principles that represent the bases of doctrine; and the practical dimension which includes the ethical system, religious festivals, and ritual worship; and the administrative dimension which includes temples and churches; the existential dimension which is exemplified in engineering, poetry, music, and the arts.

The contributions of Ibn Hazm and Al-Shahrastani to the field of comparative religion:

As a result of his studies and research, especially the encyclopedic Al Fisal Al-Milal wa Al-Nihal, Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi is considered one of the most prominent writers in the field of comparative religion. He made it into a discipline with a methodology, principles, and criteria for evaluation, as well as organizing and analyzing thoughts in the field. This was a result of his comprehensiveness, erudition in the beliefs of religions and sects and their historical development. The Orientalist Miguel Asin Palacios translated this work into Spanish, and published it with an introduction in a volume that exceeded 340 pages. In it, he recognized that Ibn Hazm was a pioneer in the field of comparative religion, as well as in his specific critical methodology which was unknown in Europe until the twentieth century. The Orientalist H.A. Gibb said that Ibn Hazm did a great service to the West by establishing the discipline of comparative religion.

Ibn Hazm’s Methodology: In his founding of the field of comparative religion, Ibn Hazm followed a specific methodology consisting of the following steps:

1. He relied on the findings of reason, and on a comprehensive view of the great religions and sects found in the world.
2. He affirmed that all books – except the Qur’an – were exclusive to a specific people, so distortion and substitution were found in them.
3. He insisted on the principle that every book in which there are untruths are invalid and incorrectly attributed to God.
4. He did not recognize plurality. For the truth is the truth, whether people believe it or not. The masses are always more than the scholars and thinkers.
5. He concentrated on doctrinal matters in discussing the different religions and sects. This is because there is nothing in particular rulings of law that compel reason to accept or reject a religion. Many rulings may be possible. However, when definitive proofs are given that necessitate acceptance of a given religion’s beliefs, they entail acting on it and all that follows from those beliefs.
6. He dedicated a chapter to each religion, including what it contained and its history.
7. He then spoke of general matters present in some form or another in all religions, such as heaven and the temptations of Satan.
8. He stuck to a balanced, academic methodology, free of digression, complexity and prejudice.
9. He adopted a comparative methodology in studying religions. So, he compared between Jews and some Christan sects, and between pagans.
10. He adopted a dialectic style when discussion the religions and their beliefs, and criticized those who took on a more narrative style.

He also set down guidelines for ethical debate:

1. That the purpose of the debate be to arrive at the truth, and that each side must rid themselves of partisanship.
2. That the claim being debated not be entirely baseless.
3. If a debater permits his opponent to ask a question, he is obliged to answer it, for if he does not, he falls into ignorance and tyranny. It is mandatory that debates be conducted in a state of security, so that each side may offer their arguments without fear.
4. That a mistake not be responded to with a mistake.
5. A lot of proofs do not harm a debate.
6. Accepting obvious and accepted premises, for insisting on denying these is not appropriate for a seeker of truth.

The methods of argumentation in discussing religions and sects, for Ibn Hazm, are:

1. An affirmative interrogation. This is to interrogate with respect to premises and obvious matters in accordance with a method that no one may refuse, because of its being based on logic.
2. Agreeing with an opponent on invalid premises, so that he may be pointed out its unacceptable or impossible conclusions.
3. Asking the opponent to correct his claim or establish his falsehood. This is like God’s refutation of the Jews and Christians that the fire would not afflict them except for a limited amount of time: And they say: The Fire (of punishment) will not touch us save for a certain number of days. Say: Have ye received a covenant from Allah - truly Allah will not break His covenant - or tell ye concerning Allah that which ye know not ? (Quran 2:80)
4. Stating what is entailed by an opponent’s claim to refute him. For example, the discussion that the Torah says that Abraham married his sister. It is mentioned that this refers to a relation, and not a blood sister; or to a sister in religion as the hadith in Bukhari and Muslim states.
5. Establishing that that which is claimed by the opponent is void of any proof, or that the proof given also proves a contradictory claim – all so as to refute the given claim.

We would be remiss if we did not mention here Abu Al-Fath Muhammad bin ‘Abd Al-Karim bin Abu Bakr Ahmad Al-Shahrastani (479-548 AH), the author of the book Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, considered one of the most famous traditional books in the field of comparative religion, because it summarizes and refers to many fields. It may have been that this book diminished the appreciation of Al-Shahrastani and his intellectual standing, because there is exaggeration and some fabrication in it. We tend to the position of Muhammad Sayyid Kilani, who called it a concise encyclopedia of religions, schools of thought, and sects, and also of philosophical opinions in metaphysics known at the time.

A quick glance at the contents of the book confirms the broad coverage of the book as well as his method of summarizing. For example, when Al-Shahrastani speaks of the Mu’tazila, he mentions more than 12 sub-sects, like the Wasiliyya, Hudhayliyya, Nazzamiyya, etc., indicating his methodological disposition for thoroughness in investigation. At times he mentions obscure sects that hardly anyone knows. This is also how he dealt with the Murji’a, Shi’a, and Khawarij, as well as other religions and philosophical opinions.

In summary, that which is presented by Al-Shahrastani indicates the depth and richness of the Islamic legacy in comparative religion.

The Methodological Basis of Interreligious Dialogue in Islam

The question of interreligious dialogue is one of the most researched and discussed topics today. It is also the most differed upon, even to the extent that it leads to conflict. The source of this difference and conflict is the broadness of interreligious dialogue in terms of its conception, treatment, and aims.

Interreligious dialogue might focus on religious problems on which the various religious differ, like the question of what is divine, prophecy, the divine books, secularism, the relation of religion to politics, daily life, and freedom of expression and belief.

Dialogue might also concern problems that are agreed upon and that are to be jointly refuted, like fighting terrorism of all kinds, killing innocent peaceful civilians, destroying public buildings, and military occupation. It also includes preventing killing in all forms, like euthanasia and abortion and belittling religion, prophets, and sacred beliefs.

Interreligious dialogue can also be about current issues, for example, the convening of a conference for religions to discuss the questions of insulting depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

As for the participants in the dialogue, they may be religious personalities that represent a religion or they may be academics or activists, or a mix of the various kinds of people.

The dialogue may involve only two of the revealed religions, like Islam and Christianity or three, or more by including other religions.

Interreligious dialogue might only concern religions from a particular continent or place or it can be international.
The dispassionate observer of interreligious dialogue will find that it can be useful in this distressing age. Indeed, it is so important and needed that it might be considered an obligation.

Dialogue in the Qur’an and Sunna

The Qur’an relies on dialogue in presenting its truths, because it is the best way of persuading and the easiest path to arriving at what is correct. It is using the mind, and sharpening one’s thought and imagination and it transforms bare thought into a live and clear form that leads to persuasion and influence.

The Qur’an in general is based on dialogue, the following being a few examples of it:

1. What took place between God and His angels, concerning the creation of Adam and between God and Satan in the Chapter Al Baqara.
2. What took place between God and His prophets, including Nuh, Ibrahim, Moses, Jesus, upon them be peace, in Al Baqara, Al Ma’ida, Al A’raf, and Hud.
3. The dialogue between the prophets and their people, in the chapters Yunus, Hud, Ibrahim, and Nuh.
4. The dialogue between the prophets and their children, like of Ibrahim and Nuh, upon them be peace in chapters Hud and Maryam.
5. The dialogue between the two sons of Adam in Al Ma’ida.
6. The dialogue in the story of the owner of the two gardens in chapter al-Kahf.
7. The dialogue of story of Moses with Pharoah and of Qarun with his people in chapter al-Qasas.
8. The dialogue of Moses with the righteous believer in al-Kahf.
9. The dialogue in the story of Sulayman and Bilqis in al-Naml.
10. The dialogue in the story of Yusuf, which indeed is nearly all a dialogue between him and his brothers, between him and the lord’s lady and the women, and between him and the prisoners.
11. The dialogue between the leaders and followers in the hereafter in al-Baqara, Saba, Ghafir, and between the people of Paradise and Hell in al-A’raf.

The examples are plentiful in the Qur’an. They in general present an invitation to Islam and call to debate and engagement with the mind, by evoking emotions and setting out proofs so that one is persuaded and convinced.

Dialogue in the Qur’an is sometimes presented in a brief or summary fashion and sometimes in detail.

Sometimes the Qur’an suffices with an indication and sometimes it points to a part of the debate leaving the rest to be worked out by the audience. Sometimes it focuses on the conclusions and lessons. All this is a part of the greatness of the Qur’an in terms of the range of its style as required by the context.

Dialogue in the Sunna

The call to Islam established by the Prophet (peace be upon him) was based on dialogue from the first word that was pronounced in Mecca on the Mount of al-Safa, when the following verse was revealed: “Proclaim what you have been commanded with and turn away from the polytheists”.

The examples of dialogue that are found in the Sunna include:

1. The dialogues that the Prophet (peace be upon him) with the polytheists of Quraysh when the Quraysh sent Utbah ibn Rabi’a to negotiate with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and to present him with various choices to leave his call to Islam. The Prophet (peace be upon him) reject Utbah’s offer and the first verses of Fussilat were revealed on this occasion.
2. The Prophet’s dialogue with his uncle, Abu Talib.
3. His dialogue with the people of Yathrib in the first and second pledge of Aqaba.
4. His dialogue with Suhayl ibn Amr who was sent by the Quraysh regarding the Pact of Hudaybiya.
5. His dialogue with the Jews of Madina.
6. His dialogue with the Christians of Najran in his masjid.
7. His dialogue with the hypocrites of Madina.
8. His dialogue with his Companions in teaching them and training them, like the hadith of Jibril on Iman, Islam, and Ihsan, the hadith on who is bankrupt, the hadith on the river in which on purifies oneself daily, his advice to the youth who wanted to do forbidden things, and his discussion with Khawla bint Thalaba regarding her husband at the beginning of al-Mujadala and so on.

The Motives for Dialogue in Islam

If the aim and goal of dialogue differs between Muslims and others, like the People of the Book, then there is no doubt that the motives will also differ. So this raises the question of what are the motives for Muslims in dialogue. The motive include:

To communicate the message of Islam

Because the Islam is an invitation to everyone in the world, from all races, colors and groups, Muslims, individually and collectively, should communicate the message of Islam. This is a divine obligation from God for those He chose for this important task. God states, “Let there be amongst you a nation that calls to the good, commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong. They are the successful.”

Communicating Islam to others requires dialogue and debate, and give and take, and questions and answers. Thus, dialogue is an important means of conveying the message of Islam. Islam is a practical call that is spread by rational persuasion and establishing proofs and demonstrations on the truth of its teachings and its consistency with reason, logic and intuition. Convincing people of the teachings of Islam requires dialogue that is based on wisdom and good-willed discussion. God says, “Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good speech, and debate with them with that which is best, your Lord is knows best who goes astray from his path and He knows best who is guided.” God also states, “Say this is my path. Call to it with insight, myself and those who follow me. Glory be to God for I am not a polytheist.”

The Nature of the Final Message

Some reasons that motivate Muslims to engage in dialogue concerns the nature of the final message that Islam advances, by which God had made the Muslim community a witness for humanity. God states, “In this way We have made you a moderate nation so that you may be witnesses for people.”

Then God discusses the necessity of mixing with the world and discussing according to Islamic principles so that the aim of dialogue is fulfilled: “Do not worship other than God and do not associate anything with Him, and do not take some from amongst you as Lords other than God.”

Correcting the Perception of Islam in the World

There are certain misconceptions regarding Islam that some people have adopted erroneously. This requires correcting and clarification according to proper Islamic understanding. It is possible to do this by sending to various places specialized preachers who are fluent in various languages to present Islam from its proper sources in a simple manner by which people can understand and comprehend its message. This can only be done by lectures and conventions that use the language of dialogue in addition to the Muslim population that reside there to correct misconceptions regarding Islam. This is done through their behavior and interaction with non-Muslims.

Decreasing the Sharpness of Conflict and Clash between East and West

Dialogue in the Islamic view is a human necessity because the Muslim does not live alone in this world and independently of the outside world with various religions and beliefs. Modern media has made the world a small village. People see and hear what is going on in the entire world in one moment, so that various cultures and civilization are exposed to one another. This leads to dialogue between these various cultures for the purpose of benefitting in worldly things and to avoid conflict which could lead to war and violence.

Recently the misunderstanding between East and West has increased to the extent that violence and belligerence has spread throughout the world. To arrive at peaceful solution for these conflicts at all levels, there needs to be objective dialogue rather than the use of force and violence.

The scholars of Islam encourage dialogue between religions for various reasons, which is summarized in the following:

1. Religious questions are an inextricable part of the reality of the world that we live in today.
2. Religious beliefs compose the background of many of the problems in the world today, since religion has a strong influence on people today and before
3. Religious dialogue is a necessary part of dialogue between civilizations, since religion is a central component of civilizations throughout the world and constitutes a central component of culture and civilization

In summary, Islamic teachings provides a strong foundation for interreligious dialogue in general, and dialogue with people on various topics. Islam sees that the “notion of differences between people is one of God’s principles in the world and occurs by God’s will.” Related to this is the principle of “the right to choose”, so that there is no compulsion in faith. Islam affirms that God created people, into male and female, and into various tribes and nations, so that they can come to know one another and it calls to cooperation and help amongst people. The Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, engaged in dialogue with the followers of Christianity and Judaism. The constitution that the Prophet established in Madina contained the principles of cooperation and living together and encourages continued dialogue. Since that time dialogue has continued to be enacted by people of various faiths in Islamic Arab Civilization.

The Aims of Dialogue in the Islamic View

The aims of dialogue are arriving at a common view in resisting oppression and doing good. God states, “Say, People of the Book, come to a common word between you and us, that we worship only God and do not associate partners with Him, and do not take any from amongst us as lords other than God. If they turn away, then say witness that we are Muslims.” (Al Imran: 64)

One of the goals that have priority is the goal of getting to know one another, which is achieved by knowing the other truly and by correcting one’s view and misunderstanding of the other. It is possible to bring together in this goal between the indirect approach that arises in discussing topics that concern both sides and the direct approach that concerns certain prioritized rules and misunderstandings.

Another aim is to cooperate in doing good and piety through examining matters of life concerning both sides. God states, “The truth is from your Lord, so do not be deceived. Everyone has a viewpoint that he takes. So seek good deeds. Wherever you are God will reach you all. God is all-powerful over all things.” (al-Baqara: 147-148)

Dialogue of life should stay away from matters of theological disputations, especially in open interreligious dialogue forums. That is, we should not be preoccupied with raising theological differences which are best to be deliberated among the closed circles of theologians of different faith traditions. God reminds us “You have you religion and I have mine.” The question of taking people into account for their beliefs and actions is God’s domain. “Those who believe and those who are Jews, Sabeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians, and those who ascribe partners to God, God will differentiate between them on the Day of Judgment. God is a witness over everything.” (al-Hajj: 17)

Please visit Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s website where you will find many such scholarly opinions on current issues of concern to Muslims from a mainstream Muslim view.