True religion isn’t a zero sum game

Rabbi Allen S Maller

By Rabbi Allen Maller

                                              True Religion Is Not a Zero Sum Game  

                                                             Rabbi Allen S. Maller

For most of the last half of the 20th century liberals confidently believed that racism and religious extremism would soon disappear from human society: but shockingly, they have revived in the 21st century. One reason for this revival is that for more than thirteen centuries most Jews, Christians and Muslims have read each other’s holy scriptures from an adversarial perspective.

Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other monotheistic scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture. But in the middle ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis, rather than a multiple win co-operative sport like mountain climbing.

In a zero sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the influence of Greek philosophy’s emphasis on the logic of the excluded middle. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradicted one another, one or both of them must be false.

This would mean that if my religion is true, yours must be false. In modern terms, light could not be both a particle and a wave at the same time. Yet we now have been enlightened and know that light is indeed both a particle and a wave at the same time, depending how you observe it.

This medieval situation did not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired.

Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own sacred scriptures are Divinely inspired; and believe in nothing but their own skepticism. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand a revealed religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature.

As a rabbi I follow a different model, one I learned from prophet Muhammad. For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah, states,  “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)  And the Qur’an states,”one who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (Qur’an 5:32) 

Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is several centuries earlier than the Qur’an, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina.

However, I believe Muhammad is a non-Jewish Abrahamic prophet of God who confirms the Torah of prophet Moses. Muhammad has no need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics might reply that the statement is not found in the written Torah; it appears in the oral Torah written by the Rabbis in the Mishnah more than 1000 years after Moses.

But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses through many generations; just as Ahadith have been passed down through the generations. Indeed, the Qur’an itself introduces this statement as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel “one who kills a human being …” (Qur’an 5:32)

No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. God is the source of all Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention things from the oral Torah. My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures can not in reality oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; they have the same father (God) and different mothers (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras). (Sahih al-Bukhari 3443 Book 60, Hadith 113)

All of these factors produce different rituals and legal systems, but their theology can differ only in small and unessential details. As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49) Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where sacred Scriptures differ they do not nullify each other; they only cast additional light on each other.

My belief is based on an important Hadith of prophet Muhammad. Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.”’

Following Muhammad’s teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an, I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was indeed a non-Jewish, Abrahamic prophet; and I respect the Qur’an as a  revelation to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other religion on earth.

How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur’an and my Torah? Unlike those in the past who played the zero sum game, I do not seek some verse in the Qur’an I can dispute or object to. Indeed, this is what the Qur’an itself teaches. “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67)

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon.