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Muslims Must Reject Exclusivist Theology

12/22/2015 03:48 EST | Updated 12/22/2016 05:12 EST
Per-Anders Pettersson via Getty Images
Unidentified young boys read the Koran at a Madrasa Qur'an school on September 24, 2001 in Rawalpindi 10 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan. The students, age 5-18 come from all over the country to live and study at the school. Many of these schools are recruiting grounds for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, who are enforcing a strict law on the people of Afghanistan.

Some Muslim leaders have expressed "grave concerns" over the Study Qur'an, a recent translation and commentary of the Qur'an led by prominent Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Their main concern seems to be the promotion of perennialism, a philosophy of religion that views each of the world's religions as sharing a single universal truth.

Eschewing salvific pluralism and universalism, these critics promote exclusivism and supremacism.

For such Muslim leaders, the redeeming features of the Study Qur'an include listing the penalties for apostasy and homosexuality, and talking about the creation of Adam without mentioning evolution and patriarchal gender roles.

They are relieved that the Study Qur'an does not make any apologies for verses that appear "inegalitarian, malevolent" or incompatible with "contemporary liberal society."

In this context, one celebrity Muslim leader preached social ostracism:

"Even if a person does many many good deeds and 'is a good person,' their rejection of a

fundamental of faith renders all their good deeds invalid. As for one‟s interaction with them, one should

keep a distance and not fraternize with them."

For such Muslims, the right belief takes precedence over how we live. They reject salvific universalism as emanating from interfaith circles and from sympathy for one's non-Muslim parents. They scripturally bully fellow Muslims who uphold pluralism, labeling them heretics and threatening them with dire consequences in the hereafter.

This judgment of fellow Muslims is the first step towards dehumanization of others. Frank Parmir, the director of Muslims for Progressive Values in Columbus, Ohio, has aptly observed:

"ISIS has been executing people for the 'crime' of wrong-belief. And we local Muslims are quick to condemn that brutality. But I ask: If we think that all who are not Muslim deserve Hell's eternal fire; are our hearts not also cruel?"

Muslim exclusivists withhold the salvation offered in verse 2:62 from Jews and Christians. Through classical Qur'anic commentaries, they justify referring to Jews and Christians as those who have incurred wrath and gone astray, respectively. To buttress their theology of exclusivism, they marshal many verses which depict Jews and Christians as rejectors (3:70), disbelievers (98:1), oppressors (61:6-7), instigators of corruption (5:64) and as being punished (5:18).

They emphasize the requirement of belief in Muhammad through verses 2:137, 3:81, 4:64-65, 4:136 and 7:158, whose rejection is met with a threat of punishment through verses 48:13, 48:17 and 50:14. They also reference verses 3:19 and 3:85, which allude to Islam as the exclusive religion and condemn those who select a faith other than Islam. They reject inclusive interpretations of verses that distinguish between Arab tritheism and trinity, and which restrict the referred Jews and Christians to seventh-century Arabia.

Exclusivist Muslim leaders are afraid that universalism and lack of a fear-based religion would lead Muslim youth to leave the strictures of institutionalized Islam. Many of such leaders are themselves young and zealously committed to their ideology of exclusivism. Some of them even mention preferring the conditions of slavery in seventh-century Arabia to the decadence brought by "secular/liberal" ethics.

Dr. Khaled Abou Fadl aptly observed that "instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it is constructed into the antithesis of the West."

It is evident that instead of viewing religion as a flowing river of interpretations, they view it as frozen in a romanticized and idolized past. In a time when radical inclusion is needed to bring people together, such scholars wish to keep people divided by maintaining supremacist ideologies.

Their exclusivist reading presents Muslim youth with the binary choice between a supremacist religion and a pluralistic society. As such, a religion meant for spiritual comfort and helping others is reduced to an exercise in harsh judgment of others.

Jewish and Christian colleagues in interfaith circles often indicate how such Muslim "scholars" put down their respective faiths. They mention hearing arguments about the "superiority" of Islam over their "corrupted" faiths. Such negative arguments that seek to tear the fabric of multi-cultural societies must be deconstructed through a vision of religious pluralism.

Dr. Hashim Kamali quotes a Hadith to argue that it would have been asabiyyah (fanaticism) to expect everyone follow Islam. Indeed, the Prophet allowed the bishop from Najran to perform the liturgy in his own mosque and stood up in respect for a Jewish funeral.

Based on Mohammad Miraly's thesis, Dr. Farid Esack has argued that the pluralist vision of the Qur'an was suppressed through forced linguistic and exegetical exercises. He has also asserted that the supercession of Moses and Jesus by Muhammad's message is denial of that pluralism and that verse 3:85, interpreted exclusively, was initially considered as offering salvation to groups outside the Medinese community. Likewise, Muhammad Asad had argued that interpreting the word "Islam" as the institutionalized religion, instead of submission, is a post-Qur'anic development.

Perhaps the exclusivist verses can be circumscribed by verses that reject generalization of all Jews and Christians (3:113 - 114) and which affirm diverse paths (10:47). However, afraid of losing power over their followers, celebrity Muslim leaders will resist such inclusive readings.

Perhaps there is no way to reconcile the conflicting verses in support of inclusivism that will satisfy exclusivist Muslim methodology. If so, then the Gordian Knot may be cut through Dr. Abdullahi Naim's suggestion to give precedence to universal Meccan verses over the time-specific Medinese revelations.

Muslim philosopher Abdennour Bidar has offered a radical alternative. He has argued that religion must overcome the narrow understanding of a sadistic God that enjoys conflict between believers and non-believers.

He has also asserted that God does not enslave human beings and therefore the Muslim mind must become free of theological slavery. For him, Islam must be based on self-criticism and deep self-consciousness.

In essence, the true measure of a living faith is not how it treats its most zealous, exclusivist and fanatically literalist adherents, but how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized members and others outside the faith.

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