Religious Pluralism – Response to your guest columnist – Dr Chandra Muzaffar

Religious Pluralism – Response to your guest columnist – Dr Chandra Muzaffar
by Dr Musa Mohd. Nordin

Sunday 18 June 2006
Dr Musa Mohd. Nordin

Board Member,
Muslims Professionals Forum
c/o Damansara Specialist Hospital
119 Jalan SS 20/10
Damansara Utama
47400 PJ
Tel/Fax : +603-77293173

Dear Sir,

I read Chandra’s personalised inferences of the pluralist theology with much disbelief ! (What pluralism means to Islam; Sunday Star 18 June 2006). The pluralism as propounded by the likes of Chandra et al is of course very appealing because it embraces religiosity with a mega dose of tolerance, mutual respect and “muhibbah”. Unfortunately, what he scripted in his Sunday column has never been the bone of contention among theologians who are in the thick of the debate on religious pluralism. Quite obviously, he is missing the thread of the discourse on religious pluralism.

His sole reference to the social sciences paradigm of pluralism lacks research, hence much restricted and un-holistic. Simply put, he has done a gross injustice to the scholarly works of theologians of religious pluralism. I was not able to identify the writings of any pluralist theologian in his Sunday piece to substantiate his variant, personalized flavour or even mutation of the pluralist model.

I can only benchmark my grasp of the pluralist theology against the writings of renowned scholars of religious pluralism , the likes of Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), William E. Hocking (Re-thinking Mission 1932), Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000, Towards a World Theology 1981) and John Harwood Hick (1922-present) et al.

Despite our differing understanding and interpretations of religious pluralism, many would concur that John Hick remains the icon of the pluralist theology. Amongst the modern scholars of theology, Hick is probably the foremost in paying meticulous attention to the issues of religious diversity and theorizing religious pluralism in such a profound manner. He reconstructed the theoretical basis of the pluralist theology, theorized and popularized it to such an extent that it has now become synonymous with his name.

In his contribution to the The Encyclopedia of Religion, Hick defined religious pluralism as “…the term refers to a particular theory of the relation between these traditions, with their different and competing claims. This is the theory that the great world religions constitute variant conceptions and perceptions of, and responses to, the one ultimate, mysterious divine reality.the view that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate, and that within each of them independently the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness is taking place.” [Hick, John, ‘Religious Pluralism,’ in Eliade, Mircea (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), Vol. 12, p. 331].

Hick adds “Other religions are equally valid ways to the same truth”. It simply describes the different theophanies of the same truth.

To further elucidate this phenomenon of religious pluralism, another advocate, Paul Knitter contends “All religions are relative – that is limited, partial and incomplete, one way of looking at something. Deep down, all religions are the same”.

It would not be too far fetched to summarise that the pluralist truth claim asserts that all religions, theistic or non-theistic, can be considered as ways through which man can attain salvation, liberation and enlightenment. They all represent authentic responses to the same transcendent “Real” and are thus valid manifestations of the “Real”.

Herein lies the hidden yet clear danger of the pluralist truth claim. It is absolutist in the sense that it is all too eager to relativise all of the existing absolute religious truth claims. Epistemologically, relativising the truth claims implies (though rarely recognized by the pluralists and Chandra alike) denying or at the very least degrading the absolute truth claims.

In simpler terms, the theology of religious pluralism has undermined the absolute truth claims of all the religions on the world stage. It has relativised all the truth claims and have equated all religions as being relatively the same. Pluralism is degrading if not denying the absolute truth claims of these religions.

Secondly, it’s pluralistic-claim has inevitably added another “new ism on the block”, albeit man-made, to the phenomenon of religious diversity. Putting it differently, religious pluralism transcends the conflicting and relative truth claims among religions, claims a facade of democracy and world peace and is the “absolute messiah” to the phenomenon of religious diversity. That is, the other religions are not cool!

The late Ismail Faruqi wrote “The (truth) claim is essential to religion. For the religious assertion is not merely one among a multitude of propositions, but necessarily unique and exclusive”.

Thus any attempt to relativise the uniqueness and exclusivity of all religions, as Hicks et al has undertaken with their theology of religious pluralism, will inevitably add a new problem to the existing truth claims at best. Or at worst threaten the very existence of religions.

The pluralistic “all paths lead to the same summit” paradigm is not that benign, tolerant, democratic and embracing as first perceived! On closer examination, this pluralistic truth claim is in fact extremely problematic.

This “disguised enmity” of absolute religious truth claims is hardly surprising considering religious pluralism was gestated within the context of western secular liberalism; which had an innate abhorrence of anything metaphysical.

Wayne Proudfoot, in Religious Experience (1985) wrote “The turn to religious experience was motivated in large measure by an interest in freeing religious doctrine and practice from dependence on metaphysical beliefs and ecclesiastical institutions and grounding it in human experience”

The notion of religious pluralism is alien to Islamic ideological or theological framework. It began to encroach into Islamic thought after the second World War when Muslims were exposed to education in western traditions and hence the overt or covert onslaught of western cultural hegemony.

And the spread of this idea within the Islamic discourse has been partly encouraged by the works of Western Muslim mystics. Isa Nuruddin Ahmad better known as Frithjof Schuon emphasized in his book The Transcendent Unity of Religions, that deep down all religions are the same (esoterically they are the same); though their rules , morals and ritual may differ (exoterically different). He called this the Perennial Religion (Religio Perennis)

Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas argues that the transcendent unity of religion is not found even at the esoteric level because each religion has exclusive or differing concepts of god. He adds, such transcendent unity cannot be deemed “religion” only religious experiences.

Islam perceives religious diversity and plurality as a “Sunnatullah”, the behest of the Al-Mighty. Hence, a religious truth claim, is an absolutist doctrine, must be respected as such, not simplified or relativised, let alone negated.

Islam accords special status to Judaism and Christianity, categorically calling their adherents, “Ahl al-Kitab” (People of the Book). It identifies itself with the People of the Book as the “Abrahamic family” within the Semitic Tradition (Hanifiyyah), the tradition of Abraham who is recognized as the father of the three Semitic religions.

References to other religions is however less straight forward. They are mentioned in a generic manner as implied by the Quranic injunctions on :

  1. Universality of the prophetic mission; “And verily We have raised in every nation a messenger, (proclaiming) : Serve Allah and shun false gods …” (16:36)
  2. And the unity of mankind, “Ummatun Wahidah” ; “Mankind were one community, and Allah sent Prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and revealed therewith the Scripture with the truth that it might help judge between mankind concerning that wherein they differed…” (2:213) Islam’s concept of “al-Hanifiyah” is the divine prescription towards all other non-Islamic religions. It allows “all the other religions” to be fully “others” without any reduction, deconstruction or relativisation. It acknowledges the plurality of religions and allows the adherents of all religions the plurality of laws to govern their lives within the aegis of their religious beliefs and principles. This is the gift of “al-Hanifiyah” to humanity.

This unlike the wave of religious pluralism which deconstructs absolute truth claims, relativises religions and equates them within the parameters of human religious experiences of the Transcendental Reality. In short, it is unwilling to let others to be really others. Therein lies the clear and present danger of religious pluralism.