I was raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian family, and remained within that type of Christianity until I was 36 or 37 years old. One of the basic tenets of this brand of Christianity is that one must be a Christian (of the fundamentalist or evangelical persuasion, of course) in order to be “saved” and “go to heaven” when one dies. There was no ‘give’ on this point. Those who believed otherwise among “so-called” Christians were considered to be “liberals” and not genuine Christians.
When the “foundations” of my faith were demolished (around 1987 or 1988), I deliberately began to read other (non-Christian) viewpoints: Buddhist, Hindu, and “New Age”. I rapidly reached the conclusion that the “Religion of God” embraced all of the major religions. There was a common thread of the Oneness of God which ran through them all (as well as common moral and ethical values) – even in those like Buddhism and Hinduism which are generally today seen as being polytheistic.
The “Buddha” denounced “the gods” so strongly that many believe (wrongly, it seems to me) that he was either agnostic or atheistic.
Knowledgeable Hindus consider the “gods” of Hinduism to be metaphorical representations of the characteristics and attributes of the One. The One is incomprehensible to humankind; so in order to attempt to get across some idea of His/Her/Its reality, male and female anthropomorphic images were used. But no knowledgeable Hindu considers those images to be “real”; in reality there is only the One.
I began to see clearly that there were two major divisions in “the Religion of God”: ‘Eastern’ religion which views God as impersonal ‘Beingness’, and is ‘monistic’ (meaning God is not “separate and distinct” from creation, but is “All in all” – creation is “part of” God, though God was “before” creation and exceeds creation no matter how vast that creation is); and ‘Western’ religion which is ‘monotheistic’. It tends to view God as a personal Being who is “separate and distinct” from creation. Some monotheists will consider it blasphemy to think of creation being “part of” God, and they’ll label such a belief “pantheism”. That’s a condensed and no doubt simplistic presentation of “Eastern” and “Western” religious beliefs, but I believe it gives the essential concepts.
Being a long distance truck driver, I had plenty of opportunity to think about these things while I was sitting behind the wheel of my truck rolling across the USA. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself uncomfortable with the “Western” personal monotheism and comfortable with “Eastern” monism. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that both viewpoints were valid ways of expressing the reality of God. No one perspective can give the entire truth of God. From the human standpoint, the two major views of the One were simply the result of human endeavor to understand God; from the Divine standpoint, they were the result of the kindness of the One in revealing Him/Her/Itself to humanity according to our varying capacities to receive the knowledge about Him/Her/It.
One of my favorite books was Autobiography of a Yogi by the Hindu “missionary” to the USA, Paramahansa Yogananda. I found this to be one of the most truly spiritual books I had ever read. In it, Yogananda commented that his guru, Yukteswar, was equally comfortable with either perspective in his conversations with people about God. Yukteswar used to ask people he was talking to (particularly if they were not from India) which perspective (personal or impersonal) they were more comfortable with. I found – and still find – that to be the best kind of attitude to take, and strive to attain to it.
When I began to read the Qur’an and Muslim writers, I was mostly just trying to find out if the allegations were true that Islam is vicious and terroristic, teaching its adherents to kill all unbelievers. I really didn’t expect to find Islam to be as open minded and “liberal” in its attitudes to other religions as I had become; but I wasn’t so sure that it was so intolerant that it demanded others to be murdered.
As I have shown in previous articles, I was quite right in my assumption that Islam couldn’t possibly be that intolerant. But what a pleasant surprise – amounting almost to shock – it was to find that the message God gave through Muhammad (peace be with him and his family) in the Qur’an was in fact very “liberal”. It’s true that this revelation uses the imagery found in personal monotheism; but it nevertheless embraces the validity of the “Eastern” perspective also.
There are several places in the Qur’an which speak of both east and west belonging to God. For example, consider this passage from Sura 2:111-115 (Muhammad Asad’s English Version):
[2:111] AND THEY claim, “None shall ever enter paradise unless he be a Jew” – or, “a Christian.” Such are their wishful beliefs! Say: “Produce an evidence for what you are claiming, if what you say is true!” [2:112] Yea, indeed: everyone who surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good withal, shall have his reward with his Sustainer; and all such need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve. [2:113] Furthermore, the Jews assert, “The Christians have no valid ground for their beliefs,” while the Christians assert, “The Jews have no valid ground for their beliefs” – and both quote the divine writ! Even thus, like unto what they say, have [always] spoken those who were devoid of knowledge; but it is God who will judge between them on Resurrection Day with regard to all on which they were wont to differ. [2:114] Hence, who could be more wicked than those who bar the mention of God’s name from [any of] His houses of worship and strive for their ruin, [although] they have no right to enter them save in fear [of God]? For them, in this world, there is ignominy in store; and for them, in the life to come, awesome suffering. [2:115] And God’s is the east and the west: and wherever you turn, there is God’s countenance. Behold, God is infinite, all-knowing.
Notice that the passage begins by stating the Jews and Christians each assert that only those who belong to their party can enter paradise (just as I was raised to believe). And each asserts that the other has no foundation for their beliefs. Yet God’s Prophet clearly said that was only their wishful thinking. Everyone who wholly surrenders him/herself to God and does good will be rewarded by God. All houses of worship are to be honored and protected; and that not only applies to the “Western” religions, but to “Eastern” religions also. Both east and west belong to God, and wherever you go you will find the One.
The main point of saying that east and west belong to God is that God is everywhere and belongs to all people (or rather all people belong to Him). But I can’t help believing that phrasing it that way is deliberate, indicating that both “Eastern” and “Western” forms of religion (monism and monotheism) are recognized by God as valid and belonging to Him and His one Religion. They are just 2 ‘attempts’ to express the inexpressible.
Consider also these verses just a little bit farther along in the same Sura 2:
[2:142] THE WEAK-MINDED among people will say, “What has turned them away from the direction of prayer which they have hitherto observed?” Say: “God’s is the east and the west; He guides whom He wills onto a straight way.” [2:143] And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you. And it is only to the end that We might make a clear distinction between those who follow the Apostle and those who turn about on their heels that We have appointed [for this community] the direction of prayer which thou [O Prophet] hast formerly observed: for this was indeed a hard test for all but those whom God has guided aright. But God will surely not lose sight of your faith – for, behold, God is most compassionate towards man, a dispenser of grace… [2:148] for every community faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself: for, verily, God has the power to will anything.
This passage is speaking of the direction people face when praying. According to a note in Muhammad Asad’s English edition of the Qur’an, Muhammad (peace be with him and his family) had originally been inclined to face the Kaaba in Mecca when praying. In order to express solidarity with the “people of the book” (Jews and Christians), though, while in Mecca he sought to position himself so that he would be facing both the Kaaba and Jerusalem (which “the people of the book” liked to face when praying). When he moved to Medina, though, facing both places at once was not possible, so he opted to face Jerusalem.
With this revelation in Sura 2, Muhammad was told to resume facing the Kaaba in Mecca, with which he was actually more comfortable anyway. The Kaaba was built by Abraham (“the father of the faithful”) and his son Ishmael, and facing that direction emphasized the direct connection of the message to and through Muhammad with the faith and religion of the great Prophet of God (Abraham). It also symbolized the fact that, in keeping with what Jesus Christ (peace be with him) had said, the kingdom of God would be taken away from the Jewish nation (symbolized by Jerusalem) and given to another nation – “the stone which the builders rejected”. That nation was the descendants of Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, who together with his father had built the Kaaba in what is now Mecca.
This change from facing Jerusalem to facing Mecca was objectionable to some, though. According to this revelation, their difficulty was due to their weakness of faith (or being “weak minded”). God’s response was that east and west belong to God, and He grants His grace to whomever He will. God’s kindness is not restricted to one people or one region of the world. His mercy is over all, and He is very generous in His benefits to humanity – including raising up prophets from other than the Jewish nation. The Jews and Christians should not be offended by Muhammad’s direction of prayer since God is omnipresent; but neither should the Muslims get upset if the Jews and Christians couldn’t bring themselves to join them in this new direction of prayer. For every community faces a direction of its own, of which He [God] is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works. Don’t argue with each other about which is “the correct” direction to face; if you have to compete with each other, compete to see who can be best at doing good works. God is everywhere, so whichever direction one faces, God is the “focal point”.
One of the intriguing things (to me) about this passage is that after saying in verse 142 that the east and west belong to God, verse 143 says that God had made the Arabic Muslim community to be a middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind. This is generally interpreted to mean that Islam, as revealed to Muhammad (peace be with him and his family), is a religion that avoids extremes (such as extremes of ‘materialism’ and extremes of ‘sprituality’ or ‘mysticism’). This is no doubt true; but I am convinced that – in this context – the idea is particularly emphasized that all people and all religions, both of the east and the west, belong to God. Islam is intended to take a middle position between east and west, in order that it can “reach out and touch” all nations and religions.
I would compare this to Sura 24:35 and 36, in which a beautiful parable about God’s light is given (Yusuf Ali’s version): 35. God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! God doth guide whom He will to His Light: God doth set forth Parables for men: and God doth know all things. 36. (Lit is such a Light) in houses, which God hath permitted to be raised to honour; for the celebration, in them, of His name: In them is He glorified in the mornings and in the evenings, (again and again).
As Yusuf Ali said in a note on these verses, “volumes have been written” about this parable alone; and I’m certainly not going to try to explain it in detail. The point I would bring out is that God, Who is the Light of the heavens and the earth, is compared to an olive tree whose oil fuels the flames in the lamps in God’s houses all over the world. God, the Olive Tree, is neither of the east nor of the west – He is not the “exclusive possession” of any region or religion – but His truth is manifested both in the east and the west. He guides whom He wills (or as Muhammad Asad renders it, those who will) to His truth, both in the east and in the west. Whether it’s the Buddha in the east, or Moses and Jesus in the west (peace be with all of them), they’re all God’s messengers to proclaim His truth as a guide of God’s elect (or those who choose to be guided).
Just as God is the Olive Tree which is neither of the east or of the west, so Sura 2:143 says that the Arabian Islamic community was set up by God as a middle way between the east and the west, in order to bear witness to both. The message of Muhammad can confirm the truth that remains in both perspectives, and correct errors which have crept into either. It calls all to that tenet which all hold in common (3:64, Muhammad Asad): Say: “O followers of earlier revelation! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God.”
God be praised! Or as the Arabic language expresses it, “Alhamdulillah”! I love it. I am very “liberal” and eclectic in my beliefs; yet in reality that is nothing other than “Islam” (submission to God). 😀