- A broad survey
Followers of the revealed religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to name the great three – broadly fall into two categories according to their beliefs, regardless of their professed religion, sect and subsect. Judging from these adherents then, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to claim that in the ultimate analysis there are only two revealed religions.
According to one religion, faith means a pledge to believe in a list of items. According to the other, belief or faith (more accurately imaan) is a list of things you have painstakingly verified for yourself. That belief is something one can never choose to have, but what involuntarily happens to one when one has considered the relevant facts – or else it’s self-hypnosis. That you cannot be reasonably expected to believe in something if you know better. That you are supposed to be able to give an account of your beliefs.
According to one religion, salvation depends upon professing belief in something. That what matters is associating and getting identified with a group. According to the other, it’s decided (one way or the other) by your beliefs and actions – not one, not the other, but both. Labels don’t mean anything when it comes to one’s ultimate success or failure.
According to one religion, to reason in religious matters is dangerous because it can lead one astray. An example is cited of those who, once (by their own testimony) they gave free rein to their minds in such matters, found themselves driven away from religion into atheism. Reason and revelation are therefore incompatible. According to the other religion, superficial deliberation could very well have this result, but a deeper examination has quite the opposite effect. That in religion some things may be beyond reasoning, but none of them is beyond reason. It acknowledges that reason alone is insufficient; that is, one could figure out a lot of things on one’s own, but there are things for the knowledge of which one needs revelation. But once those are revealed, there’s nothing unreasonable about them. How could reason and revelation be incompatible, when revelation must convince the human intellect if a man is to differentiate between revelation and what is falsely presented as such?
One religion relies heavily on private interpretation of religious texts, which feels free to declare any word or phrase that doesn’t support a certain narrative as metaphorical, and then proceeds to explain what it ‘actually’ means. Since it completely disregards the dictionary, grammar, literary conventions, etc, in the process, any meaning under the sun can be given to a verse. According to the other religion, the meaning derived from any verse cannot be indifferent to the text, or it’s just another opinion. It acknowledges that revelation, at times, does employ literary devices such as similes and metaphors; but it’s the context that decides whether something is literal or metaphorical. This context must come from within the text, not without – from the so-called historical sources or worse: from somebody’s imagination. No verse, then, can be torn loose from its context and given an arbitrary meaning.
According to one religion, only certain ‘scholars’ are qualified to interpret the revelation – scholars whose authority cannot be challenged. The other religion, while granting that scholars and teachers could be of immense help, contends that revelation is no secret; and anybody can understand it provided he acquires the necessary tools. That no scholar – however renowned – is bigger than the subject. Any opinion, to be taken seriously, needs to be based on the revelation itself, not somebody’s authority. To appeal to the authority of a scholar to prove that a verse has a certain meaning, when that very authority is claimed to be based on his ‘correct’ understanding of the revelation, amounts to circular thinking.
According to one religion, salvation depends upon professing belief in something
According to one religion, all verses of a religious text are of equal worth, any one of which can be pressed into service to support a position. The other religion argues that if you have based your interpretation on a verse that could have more than one meaning, then you haven’t really based it on anything. That in any religious text there are bound to be explicit verses that can have only the one meaning; and con-similar verses that could mean this or could mean that. That any interpretation must be based on the former, and not the latter. In fact, the latter also need to be seen in the light of the former.
One religion (with all the good intentions) glorifies prophets (peace be upon them) and some of their righteous followers (may God be pleased with them) to an extent that borders on apotheosis – even if it doesn’t cross the threshold – so that the emphasis shifts from the kingdom of God to fancy stories about these great men. According to the other religion, all prophets were loyal servants of God; and they would be the first ones to object to this sort of thing, if they were around.
According to one religion, some actions and beliefs are punishable because they are on an arbitrary list entitled ‘sins’. According to the other, you are not punished for your sins; you are punished by your sins. That the so-called sins are actions and beliefs that are harmful for you. That is, when you are guilty of them, you trigger a chain of events that is ultimately damaging to yourself, even if they are momentarily expedient or even pleasurable. That’s because just as there are unavoidable physical laws governing actions and their consequences, there are moral laws too, which are equally unavoidable – and equally real.
According to one religion, you can do a little bit of wrong here and there in order to achieve or realise a bigger good. According to the other, the ends never justify the means. Your actions and your goals need to be the same sorts of things.