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Question 50: Religious Pluralism and different Interpretations of Religion

Question: Please explain what religious pluralism is and the difference between it and the interpretations of religion.

Pluralism is multiplicity. It has different meanings in the philosophy of religion, ethics, law, political science, etc. The common factor that holds true for all of these is to acknowledge multiplicity or plurality in contrast to unity or exclusivism. Religious pluralism means that felicity is not exclusively reserved for a particular religion or religious sect. Truth and felicity not being limited to a specific religion in its turn means that all religions have a certain amount of truth to them. As a result, following the laws of any of them can be a means for man to reach felicity and to gain salvation. The Acceptance of this viewpoint means that the battle of truth and falsehood that exists between religions ceases to exist. The enmity and war that we find between religions gives way to peace and solidarity.

Brief Answer

1. Pluralism is multiplicity. It has different meanings in the philosophy of religion, ethics, law, political science, etc. The common factor that is true for all of these is to acknowledge multiplicity and plurality as opposed to unity or exclusivism. Religious pluralism means that felicity is not exclusively reserved for a particular religion or religious sect.

2. Pluralism can conceivably be applied between various religions or between different sects of one religion.

3. From the point of view of Islam, religious pluralism is incorrect because we have clear proofs that Islam is the true religion and that the other religions cannot be on par with it. Also, the fact that the Noble Qur`an has not been tampered with and that Islam is the final and conclusive religion effectively amounts to the abrogation of the religions predating Islam.

4. The various interpretations of religion or “religious hermeneutics” is another branch of religious research. The followers of this school believe in the validity and effectiveness of all the presuppositions of every interpreter of religion when he attempts to understand a sacred text. In the various modern interpretations of religion there are numerous perspectives, the most important of which are held by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

5. Even though the discussion of religious hermeneutics is a modern discussion in the philosophy of religion and was taken from the West, the fact remains that in depth discussions on the interpretation of sacred texts has a long history in the Islamic sciences, especially in the field of Usul.

6. In the aforementioned schools and areas of research, not enough importance has been placed on the principles by which we can truthfully judge the validity of the different interpretations of religion. In reality, this leads to a form of relativism in understanding.

7. Religious hermeneutics and religious pluralism are properly two separate categories, but hermeneutics can be seen to be one of the instances of religious pluralism and hence the bridge which links the two topics. In other words, we can explain the multiplicity of religions because it is possible that we can understand one thing in many different ways

8. The objection that can be levied against this view is that one cannot judge every interpretation to be correct. It cannot be denied that the understanding of human beings follows the rules of speech and conversation. While attempting to understand a text there are principles that are to be used such as: paying attention to the meaning of the speaker or writer, the system of words he is using, the language that he speaks, his attitude while speaking, his seriousness or his joviality, and the fact that he has definitely intended certain meanings from his text.

Detailed Answer

A Brief History of Religious Pluralism

Religious Pluralism was first born in the Christian world and in the last ten years was presented and propagated by John Hick (1992).

Religious pluralism can be considered between various religions in the sense that we consider them all to be true, or at least to all contain some element of truth. Or within any particular religion, various sects can be considered to be valid. For example, the Shi’ite and Sunni sects are two sects within the fold of Islam—each claiming to be the pure Islam. But from the point of view of religious pluralism, both of these groups can be valid, or it can be said that both sects contain some truth to them. In other words religious pluralism can be divided into inter-religious and intra-religious pluralism.

The intellectual foundations of religious pluralism can be delineated as follows:

1. The differentiation between the kernel and the shell of religion—giving prominence to the kernel of religion, to the detriment of the shell. In this regards, the teachings, especially the mannerisms and the exoteric rituals, are usually considered to be the shell of religion.

2. This interpretation lays great emphasis on “revelatory” and religious experiences and, in principle, sums up religion as religious experience. Religious experience is naturally always different when it is being formally related or interpreted. This is because on the level of forms, various factors such as culture and intellectual perspectives come into play. In the end, the multiplicity of religions becomes a reflection of some common type of religious experience as it is seen through the mirror of various cultures.

3. This interpretation is a humanistic one. It holds that religions should stick to down to earth realities that are common instead of laying stress on matters of sublime doctrine; they should keep the latter for themselves.

4. All religions have one message and with a little analysis, the differences between them disappear. In reality, the differences between religions arise from the differences of interpretations and languages, and are not real.

5. This phenomenon is based on the difference between the “truth in itself” and the “truth as it appears to us.” In reality, there is an objective truth, but we do not have a perfect understanding of it. Yet the “truth as it appears to us” is a manifestation of this objective reality. The coming into contact of this [non-delimited] divine reality with [limited] man has meant that it has taken on different forms depending upon the differing conditions of man through the ages and in various cultures.

Aside from this, Allah (awj) has, in order to create an effective relationship, made his message to conform to the inner workings of every culture and era. It should not be forgotten that many serious objections could be levied against the aforementioned view, even though some of them (like the first) can be interpreted in such a way as to make it correct. For a more in depth and fuller explanation of the above, we suggest referring to the relevant books.

6. This explanation is a hermeneutical one. It is based on the belief that the presuppositions of every interpreter have a pivotal effect on his attempts to understand a sacred text. According to this viewpoint, the writer and the speaker are just like the interpreter–after the writer finishes the composition of a text he gives up his status as writer.

This view says that the text in itself does not have any meaning; rather it is the interpreter that gives meaning to the text by means of his presuppositions and his knowledge. To put it differently, the meaning that resides in any text is much like wax from which the mind of the interpreter forms different shapes according to his predisposition and mental acumen. So, the texts are not pregnant with meanings, rather they are, so to speak, hungry for meaning. It is the interpreters and the listeners that give meaning to texts.

The sixth viewpoint is the common denominator between religious pluralism and the hermeneutics of religious texts. It has some valid objections that we will now refer to.

The system of man’s understanding follows the laws of discourse and conversation. All sane people of the world follow those principles when conversing with one another. The following are principles of conversation: paying attention to the meaning of the speaker or writer, the system of words he is using, the language that he is speaking, his attitude while speaking, his seriousness or his joviality, and the fact that he has definitely intended certain meanings from his text. They are all principles that rational people use when speaking.

Even people who hold to the “interpretation” hypothesis outlined above cannot deny using these principles themselves. Of course when a text gives news of something, one must, according to the clues and the meanings of the words, strive to understand it. Also, because religious texts have abrogated laws, general and particular statements, unconditional and conditional sentences, etc. we must carefully examine the beginnings and the ends of each and every text before coming to a conclusion.

Therefore, in attempting to understand a text, certain presuppositions exist, like knowing the language of the speaker and the context, but there are also some presuppositions that prevent the listener from understanding it and one must stay away from those if one wants to understand the text.

A Review of Religious Pluralism

Aside from all the objections that can be raised against religious pluralism, one must not forget that according to us Muslims there are various sound proofs for the validity and truthfulness of Islam. With these proofs one cannot claim that all religions are equal. Some of these proofs are as follows: the reasonable nature of the teachings of Islam, the fact that Islamic texts are backed up by references, the un-tampered nature of the Noble Book of Muslims, the miraculous nature of the Qur`an, the comprehensiveness of the laws and their positive and practical nature.

Aside from these proofs a point that must not be lost sight of is the fact that Islam conclusively follows all previous religions. This is tantamount to the abrogation of the preceding religions.

The Various Interpretations of Religion

The various interpretations of religion or “religious hermeneutics” is another branch of religious research. The followers of this school believe in the validity and effectiveness of all the presuppositions of every interpreter of religion when he attempts to understand a sacred text. In the various modern interpretations of religion there are numerous perspectives, the most important of which will be briefly outlined below:

1. The view of Friedrich Schleiermacher: Hermeneutics is a method for interpreting religious texts and helps avoiding misunderstandings that may arise from the time separating the interpreter and the text itself.

2. The view of Wilhelm Dilthey: Hermeneutics is a theory used in the human sciences in contrast to the natural sciences. He believes that history interferes in the interpretation of an interpreter.

3. The view of Martin Heidegger: Hermeneutics makes clear the essence and nature of understanding and its conditions. He changed hermeneutics from a method to a philosophy (or the knowledge of being). Based on a theory relating to existence, he took hermeneutics to be the exposition of the quiddity and essence of understanding and its conditions.

4. The view of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Hermeneutics is the [study of the] confluence of different levels and perspectives. He presented the ontology of Heidegger as an epistemology and thereby established an “ontology of understanding.” The hermeneutics of Gadamer is for the most part an exposition of the process of the realization of understanding and has no concern with the correctness or incorrectness of understanding.

According to him, the mind of the interpreter is filled with beliefs and information that define his perspective. This perspective always moves along with the interpreter and changes or reaches an equilibrium as he continues to refer to the world and the things in it. The act of interpretation is the confluence of various perspectives and horizons of knowledge within the interpreter; it is the connection of these “horizons” and perspectives with one another.

The job of hermeneutics is to unite these perspectives and horizons and to create a dialogue between the interpreter and the text. What causes differences between various interpretations is the emphasis that is put upon certain presuppositions and horizons of thought over others. According to Gadamer, there is no one absolute viewpoint that could comprehend and embrace all possible perspectives.

Rather every act of interpretation is a specific perspective in itself. Therefore an unbiased and objective interpretation is not possible and an all-inclusive, definitive interpretation just does not exist. In reality, according to Gadamer, it is not important to discover the “real” intentions of the writer, because in the end, we cannot know the text to be a true representation of the mind of the writer.

A Review of Gadamer

We will now briefly allude to some objections that can be raised against Gadamer, seeing as his views have had more of an effect and have been used in theological and philosophical discussions quite often in recent years, and are therefore more important.

1. Why should we not pay attention to the intent of the writer? Should not the interpreter strive to differentiate between the predispositions of his own understanding and that of the writer?

2. Gadamer’s perspective leads to a sort of relativism, blurring or removing the distinction between correct and incorrect understanding. This is a kind of relativism that resembles that of Kant.

3. We can question the universality of Gadamer’s view and we can go on to hold that it is possible to avoid the effects of certain presuppositions and prejudgments.

4. If every understanding needs certain presuppositions, then in their turn those presuppositions are not exceptions to this rule; and this leads logically to an infinite or circular regress of presuppositions.

Some Points Worth Mentioning Regarding The Different Interpretations Of Religion

Until now we have explained hermeneutics and the different interpretations of religion, and we have also touched upon the different views regarding it. We have especially covered the viewpoints of Gadamer, mainly due to the fact that they had a far-reaching effect on his contemporaries. In order to complete the discussion we will remind our readers of certain important points:

First, although the subject of different interpretations of religion has largely been taken from modern philosophical hermeneutics, it should be noted that the discussion on the interpretation and understanding of religion has a long history in the Islamic sciences. This is especially the case in the fields of usul, Qur`anic commentary, and theoretical mysticism. Hence, the different kinds of intellectual, textual, symbolic, and mystical commentaries of the Qur`an, the commentary of the Qur`an by the Qur`an, the commentary by one’s own opinion, semantics, and the method of obtaining the apparent meaning of the words of a text, all serve to show the presence of this perspective in traditional Islamic scholarship.

Secondly, since the religious texts played an important part in shaping the culture of Muslims and in the formation of the different Islamic sciences, it is possible to say that investigations into the method of interpreting religious texts play a pivotal role in theological discussions. It is largely due to this that the arguments surrounding the different interpretations of religion have provoked much debate in this area.

Most of the views that have been put forward by Arab and non-Arab intellectuals in recent years have been for the most part borrowed from the hermeneutic philosophy of Gadamer. These intellectuals have tried to use the hermeneutic philosophy and methodology in the interpretation of the Noble Qur`an and the traditions, and in trying to understand religion in general. Some of their views in this regard can be summed up as follows:

1. Religion and the religious texts are quiet and do not speak to us.

2. The presuppositions of interpreters have an effect in their interpretations of the texts.

3. No interpreter can grasp the essence of any religion.

4. There is no one pure perspective. Rather we all use interpretations that are mixtures of truth and falsehood.

The third point is this: In the view of many of the thinkers mentioned above, no importance should be given to principles by which we can judge the various interpretations of religion. No effort is exerted towards separating the incorrect readings from the correct ones. In other words, according to this stance, all the different understandings are equal.

On the contrary and in line with the religious principles and viewpoints that are still prevalent in the traditional world, any interpreter must strive to separate the predispositions of his thought from that of the author of the text. He must strive to correct his line of thought and achieve a concordance with the intentions of the writer by using certain principles. If he does not do this, his views will lead not only to the relativity of the understanding of religion but also to the relativity of the methodology of understanding.

According to the views of Islamic scholars, the different understandings of religious statements are an unavoidable phenomena but this difference of understanding is a matter that is regulated by certain principles and laws, many of which have been clearly enunciated by the religious tradition itself.

The fourth and final point: According to what we have just said, the thought of the followers of religious hermeneutic philosophy and the different interpretations of religion revolves around the interpreter and sees him to be central. While on the other hand, the view of Islamic scholars revolves around the author and they attempt to find his original intentions (in the case of religion, the author is either Allah or one whom He sends). In this approach, the interpreter looks through the text—the Qur`an or the traditions—to the intentions of the author, allowing it to be called a “text centred” approach. It aims at revealing the intentions of the author or speaker as correctly as possible and uses all the means that can possibly assist him in this regard.

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