Let us now turn to the third article of faith, which is the belief in the books. Muslims are required to believe not only in the divine scripture revealed to the Holy Founder of Islam, which is called the Quran, but it is essential for every Muslim to believe in all such divine revelations as were vouchsafed to other prophets, from wherever and whichever age. It is an essential part of a Muslim’s belief that if anyone professes belief only in the divine origin of the Quran and refuses to acknowledge the divine origin of other books, such as the Old Testament and the New Testament etc., his profession of Islam would be invalidated.
This belief resolves some problems but creates others, and needs to be studied at greater length. It provides the only foundation upon which the unity of man can be built on earth, in accordance with his belief in the Unity of God. It removes the root cause responsible for inter-religious disharmony and mistrust. But this belief in the divine origin of all books raises some very difficult questions to answer.
As we study the books that claim to be of divine origin, we find contradictions not only in the peripheral areas of their teachings, but also in the areas of basic and fundamental beliefs. This could not be so had they originated from the same eternal source of light. The case in point can well be illustrated by the fact that many such books contain passages which are understood and interpreted by their followers to lead to the belief in lesser deities sharing divinity with the one Supreme Being. In some books, God is presented as the head of a family of gods, having spouses, sons and daughters. In some other books, saintly human figures are attributed with such superhuman powers as are only befitting to be possessed by God. There are other books in which the Unity of God is stressed so strongly and uncompromisingly as to leave no room for anyone to share God’s attributes in whatsoever capacity. The Quran stands out in this respect among all the scriptures of the major world religions.
How does the Quran resolve this dilemma? That is the question. According to the Quran, it is a universal trend of man to gradually interpolate the divine teachings which were vouchsafed to the founders of their religion. To change the concept of Unity to that of polytheism is a manifestation of the same trend. We can definitely discover evidence of the truth of this claim by tracing the history of changes in the text, or the interpretation of the text, from the time of its first revelation. This is why the Holy Quran pointedly draws our attention to the fact that all divine books concurred in their fundamental teachings only at the time of their inception. It is not necessary to go through the laborious exercise of pursuing the history of change, because logically there can be no other conclusion than the one made by the Quran. If there is no God other than the one Supreme Being, and if the claims of all religions that their divine books originated from God are to be accepted, then there has to be unanimity among all such books, at least in the fundamentals.
Having said that, one faces another important question regarding the manner in which one can ascertain the original doctrinal teachings common to all religions. One must find a logically acceptable methodology to sift the right from the wrong. The fundamental beliefs from the point of view of the Holy Quran are so attuned to human nature that they simply sink into the human hearts by the sheer force of their truth. They are as follows:
And they were not commanded but to serve Allah, being sincere to Him in obedience, and being upright, and to observe prayer, and pay the Zakat. And that is the religion of the people of the right path. (Quran 98:6)
This means that all the founders of the religions of the world were categorically told that they must worship the one and only God with all sincerity, dedicating them purely and completely to Him alone. They were also told to perform regular prayers (as institutionalised in their religion), and to spend (in the cause of God) for the needy and the destitute, and for other similar philanthropic purposes. It is hard to find disagreement with this, whichever religion one may belong to.
In this preliminary discourse we do not wish to involve ourselves in a lengthy discussion on the various different modes of worship as prescribed by God and the reasons for their being different. Presently we are focusing our attention on the reasons as to why religions appear to be different both in fundamentals and in the detailed teachings.
In short we can say that the hand of time is relentless, and the concept of decay is inseparable from the concept of time. Everything new must begin to grow old and change. One may look at the ruins of great castles and palaces with wonder, but even the buildings built by the same monarchs and designed by the same architects are no exception to this law. Sometimes they are added upon by later generations and are changed in design so drastically as to lose all resemblance to their original shape. Sometimes they are abandoned and become ruins. According to the Quran, the areas of uncompromisable differences in all religions are the handiworks of men belonging to later ages. In the light of this universally acceptable teaching of the Holy Quran, Islam seems to have paved the way for the unification of all religions, at least in fundamental principles. Thus it does away with man-made obstacles and barriers created to keep the religions apart as distinctly separate entities.
The reason mentioned above is not the only one responsible for the divergence in teachings observed in various books. Some differences were certainly not man-made, but were required by the dictates of time. As man gradually advanced in various areas of civilisation and culture, science and economy, at different stages of his history he required specific teachings related to that period of time, and a divine book would be revealed for his instruction. These time-related teachings were not universal, but related to specific situations and requirements. In certain ages, man lived a life not very far away from that of the sub-human species of life. His intellectual advancements were limited, his knowledge of the universe narrow. He was not even fully aware of the world that he inhabited. The modes of communication at his disposal were totally inadequate to help him understand the nature and vastness of the earth and the universality of man. Very often his awareness of existence was confined only to small areas of land or the country to which he belonged.
In many divine books revealed in those times, we do not find mention of the existence of the world beyond the limited domain of the people to whom the books were addressed. It does not necessarily mean, as some secular philosophers would have us believe, that this fact offers enough proof that the books in question were man-made rather than of divine origin.
All divine teachings were related to not only the requirements but also the information possessed by the people of the age, otherwise people of the age could have raised objections against the messengers of the time, accusing them of contradicting commonly established facts. This could have presented an insoluble dilemma for the prophets, as they themselves shared the same knowledge as the people. Many interesting examples of the same can be quoted from the Quran, where the understanding of nature as known to the people of the time was to be proved false by the men of learning of later ages. Whichever position the Quran adopted, it would still remain vulnerable to objections, either by contemporary people or by people of a later age. It is amazing how the Quran solves this problem, and in no way can it be criticised by present day philosophers and scientists either.
The following illustration would be of particular interest. A man of this age does not need to be highly educated to know that the earth rotates on its own axis; but if someone had made this statement fourteen hundred years ago and dared to attribute it to God, either he would have been rejected out of hand as being absolutely ignorant, or God would be ridiculed as having no knowledge of things which He professes to have created. The Holy Quran being a universal book for all ages could not have avoided the mention of this subject altogether, or the people of later ages, such as ours, would have rightfully blamed it for possessing no knowledge of the universe. Meeting this challenge squarely, the Holy Quran speaks of the mountains in the following verse, presenting them as floating or coasting like clouds, while people perceive them to be stationary:
You see the mountains and imagine them to be stationary whereas they are moving like the moving of clouds. (Quran 27:89)
Obviously the mountains would not be floating without the earth moving along with them. But the tense used is that of future (Muzaria) which is common to both the continuous present and future. So the verse may be translated as: ‘The mountains are moving constantly in a coasting motion without making the least effort on their part.’ It can also be translated as, ‘The mountains will move as if they were sailing.’ People of that age might have taken refuge in this second option, but they forgot to take notice of another part of the same verse which says, ‘While you think they are stationary.’ How could the man of any age think the mountains to be stationary if they suddenly started moving? The description of their movement leaves no room anywhere for anyone to be alive on earth and watch quietly the amazing phenomenon mentioned in the verse.
Logically therefore, the only valid translation would be: ‘While you consider the mountains to be stationary, in fact they are constantly in motion.’ There are many other similar examples which can be quoted from the Quran, but I have already illustrated them in another address of mine entitled Rationality and Revelation in Relation to Knowledge and Truth. Any reader interested in further study could refer to the same.
We know for certain that during the remote past when the Vedas were revealed for the benefit of the people of India, the Indians had little knowledge of the worlds lying beyond the seas. Hence there is no mention of any country or people outside India, across the natural boundaries of the Himalayas on the one side and the seas on the other. The silence of the Vedas on the subject may be an appropriate and well understood silence on the part of God. It must be made clear that the facts mentioned in the divine books are of two categories. The first category comprises these worldly facts, which can be understood and verified by all human beings regardless of which religion they belong to. These are the facts that we are referring to in the above discussion. As far as facts belonging to the otherworldly things are concerned, any man can make any claim about them, because they lie beyond the human reach of verification.
Despite differences however, the fundamental points of similarities are always traceable if one digs deeply into a study of original books. As an archaeologist can reconstruct the design of the original plan from a study of the ruins, so also it should not be difficult for a keen observer to read the message of Unity even through the veils of fog and mist created by the followers of the religions as they move away from the time of the founding prophets.
We briefly mentioned some differences which were intentionally designed as against those which resulted from the interpolation of man. To illustrate the former, we can refer to a teaching of the Torah which seems to deprive the Jewish people of the option of forgiveness. To a casual observer, from the vantage point of the modern age, it would appear to be a rather ungodly teaching, unbalanced in the favour of vengeance. Yet a closer examination of the requirements of that age would present the teaching in a completely different light. We know that the Children of Israel, under the oppressive and despotic rules of Pharaohs, were deprived of all their fundamental human rights. They were forced to live a life of abasement and slavery, which did not recognise their right to defend themselves and hit back at the oppressor.
Some two centuries of such an abject way of life had virtually robbed them of their upright noble human qualities. They would much rather give up their right to avenge in the name of forgiveness, just another name for utter cowardice. Had they been given the clear option to either take revenge or forgive, few there would be among them who would dare take the former option. As such the teaching of the Torah, though seemingly harsh and over-much one sided, is the most perfect teaching in relation to the requirements of that time. It was a diseased state which was meant to be cured with the bitter pill of this injunction.
About thirteen centuries of practicing merciless vengeance had indeed hardened the hearts of the Israelites into those of stone. It was at this juncture of time that the Messiah came, who was himself forgiveness, love and modesty personified. Had God granted the Jews of his time both the options of forgiveness and revenge, they would certainly have opted for revenge without even dreaming of forgiveness. The question arises as to what should be the perfect teaching relevant to the time of Jesus? Forgiveness of course, but without the option of revenge. This is exactly what happened. This illustration makes it amply clear that certain teachings, though apparently contradictory, in fact serve the same purpose and work in unison as far as the designs of God are concerned. The purpose is the healing of the sick which may need different medicines at different times.