“An Olive-tree – Neither of the East nor of the West” : So whose Religion is true anyway?

Photo taken inside the Mecca Mosque. Couplet by Hafez Sherazi, Translation:
Photo taken inside the Mecca Mosque. Couplet by Hafez Sherazi, Translation: “Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love which is faultless

Today I was looking at Chaper 24 al-Nur (The Light) in the Quran, when I came across this verse. Verse no. 35:

Quran (24:35) Translation by Muhammad Asad, in 'The Message of the Holy Quran'
Quran (24:35) Translation by Muhammad Asad, in The Message of the Holy Quran

This verse analogizes God to Light, emanating from an ‘olive-tree that is neither of the east nor of the west’. Neither of the east nor of the west, I thought, is a curious phrase which must be reflected upon. Footnote 52 explains this phrase:

From Muhammad Asad's Message of the Holy Quran. Chapter 24, Footnote 52
From Muhammad Asad’s Message of the Quran. Chapter 24, Footnote 52

I find this explanation so important and so beautiful that, I believe, it deserves to be reemphasized. ‘Neither of the east nor of the west’ is “an allusion to the organic continuity of all divine revelation which, starting like a tree from one ‘root’ or proposition – the statement of God’s existence and uniqueness – grows steadily throughout man’s spiritual history, branching out into a splendid variety of religious experience, thus endlessly widening the range of man’s perception of the truth.” This reminds me of a fascinating idea based in perennial philosophy which likens all religions to different cascades of water issuing forth from the same Divine Order, illustrated by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Religion and the Order of Nature, and by Lord Northbourne in Religion in the Modern World. Once, in one of my classes of Religion and World Politics, the professor asked us as to what do we think about our religion Islam’s position in relation to other religions. To answer this, I cited my favourite verse from the Quran (5:48).

“And to you We have revealed the Book containing the Truth, confirming the earlier revelations and preserving them. So judge between them by what has been revealed by God, and do not follow whims, side-stepping the truth that has reached you. To each of you We have given a law and and a way and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people. But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel in good deeds. To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance.” (Quran 5:48)

This verse expounds the timeless principle that Islam confirms the Truth that came before it, and if God had wanted He could have made you into one people, but He gave a different law and a different way of life to different people; so they will be judged according to what has been given to them. Meanwhile everyone should try to excel in good deeds. I find this particular verse to be of immense significance because of three very crucial claims inherent in it: i) God admits that Islam does not hold a monopoly over Truth. ii) If He wanted He could have made everyone alike but He preferred to preserve a considerable degree of heterogeneity, diversity in the world, iii) Instead of nitpicking and squabbling over whose version of truth, or whose way of life is superior, one must introspect and focus on his own good deeds. Furthermore, I also cited this fascinating analogy based in ‘philosophia perrenis’ which I referred to before. The mystical school of Islam also subscribes to this belief: All religions are like cascades of water gushing forth from the Spring of the Unity on the mountaintop (God). They are all similar in that they are all composed of water, but each has a different form and a different trajectory. There may be correspondences between different streams but there are never exact repetitions.  All cascades originate from the Spring on the top and none from each other. The oneness of their origin is the source of similarities found between them, and the different terrains and trajectories on which they flow reflect their differences. Moreover, “only at the Spring Itself are all the cascades one and nowhere else should complete unity be sought among them” (Nasr 13). This, I believe, entails that the more God-conscious one is, in terms of this analogy the closer one is to the Top, the more one realizes the conception of these cascades gushing forth from One Spring, and the more affinity one is bound to feel towards them – all of them. I remember my professor added that life is too short to try to make one cascade fall into another; just embrace all of them as they are for and respect them for where they come from. An idea all the more pertinent in our society which is still faced with the reprehensible instances of forced conversions. The same idea is explained by Muhammad Asad in the inserted footnote above: “organic continuity of all divine revelation which, starting like a tree from one ‘root’ or proposition – the statement of God’s existence and uniqueness … branching out into a splendid variety of religious experience.” I feel even if one is not a devout believer in matters pertaining to metaphysics or religion, this analogy is a touching, beautiful exemplification of the intrinsic bonds of affinity present between humankind, despite all the differences in the outer forms. Jalal al-din Rumi illustrates similar concept in the following couplet and states that peace can be possible with the realization of meaning – the essence – beyond forms. “The difference among creatures issues from forms (surat), When one reaches the world of meaning (ma’na) there is peace.” – Masnavi

So if all religions are branching out from one root, then which Religion is true anyway? And from the vantage point of God, how much does it matter? What if the essence of all of them is the Truth? That is the essence: the meaning, beyond forms. A variety of religious traditions growing out of God’s existence “endlessly widen the range of man’s perception of the truth,” to quote Asad. William C. Chittick writes that many Quranic verses leave “plenty of room for openness towards other religions. The position Muslims take on this issue depends largely on their own understanding of God’s reality” (174). It is interesting to believe that the way you conceive God is largely reflected in how you treat His creation. If you believe that God, being Al-Wudood, emanates Love, or if you believe “God is love” (1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16b), you will naturally embrace all his creation, with the same love, regardless of the faith.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in Traditional Islam in the Modern World : “To melt the hardened heart into a flowing stream of love which would embrace the whole of creation by virtue of love for God is to perform the alchemical process of solve et coagula inwardly: a ‘work’ which is none other than an inner battle (jihad) against that which the soul has become, in order to transform it into that which it ‘is’ and has never ceased to be if only it were to become aware of its own nature.” In this extract, he implies that the original tendency of human soul is to ’embrace the whole of creation by virtue of love for God’, and, interestingly, one of the hues of jihad is to rediscover the natural tendency to embrace and love amid the distorting forces that have caused the soul to become what it is not: incapable of embracing whole of God’s creation.

In the end, here is a relevant passage out of Sachiko Murata and William C Chittick’s The Vision of Islam, Chapter: Islam and Other Religions, I just read. The parenthesized anecdote will leave you with a smile (at the reductionist folly of those who believe everyone besides them is damned).

Page 174-5
Page 174-5
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2 thoughts on ““An Olive-tree – Neither of the East nor of the West” : So whose Religion is true anyway?

  1. @Author. Interesting read. I do have a few questions though.

    But isn’t it written in the Quran
    “Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam…..”(3:19)

    And about perennial philosophy . How can someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God and another who says that Jesus is a slave of God and Son of Mary, be the same in the eyes of God?

    One of the absolute core beliefs of Islam and also stated in the Quran is the belief in the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad(pbuh). How can everyone who does not adhere to this reach God?

    Looking forward to your reply.

    • Thank you for showing your interest Ahmed. I can only try to answer your queries, but you have the right to disagree 🙂

      First of all, about the verse you have quoted (3:19), yes it is true that a number of verses in the Quran attempt to make a case for ‘religious exclusivism’ i.e. establishing Islam’s superiority. Naturally, every religious tradition attempts to claim its supremacy in order to preserve its uniqueness and its orthodoxy.

      However, it must also be noted that, as I have mentioned in the article, there are also a large number of Quranic verses that “leave plenty of room for openness toward other religions.” When trying to explore Islam’s view of other religions, both types of verses must be taken into account, and must be understood in the context they have been revealed. In numerous places, Quran confirms the messages of Truth that preceded it, and explicitly recognizes that even though first Shahadah never changes, the domain covered by the second Shahadah differs from message to message. It also avers that Muslims must not differentiate among the prophets of God, as each was sent by God with guidance, and the same primary message (2:136, 2:285, 3:84). But the details of the messages brought differ from each other, and so any distinction to be made between the messengers has to be made on the basis of the difference in their messages:
      “And those messengers – some We preferred above others. Among them was he to whom God spoke, and He raised some in degrees. And We gave Jesus son of Mary the clear explications, and We confirmed him with the Holy Spirit.” (2:253)

      In places where Quranic verses seem to criticize the followers of other religions, it must be kept in mind that Quran is not making a universal judgement against those ‘religions’, but is rather criticizing ‘some’ followers of those religions: for instance, those followers who either deliberately distorted the message, or failed to live up to God’s message to them. This does not give us a reason to believe that Islam and Muslims are exempt from these sorts of distortion and criticisms. Muslims who continue to distort Islam in the present day would, I believe, deserve and receive the same kind of disapproval by God. This does not mean that the fault lies in Islam, but with ‘some’ of its followers.

      Please see the following verse to appreciate how God’s magnanimity extends over different faiths:
      “Those who have faith, and those of the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans – whoso has faith in God and the Last Day and works wholesome deeds – their wage awaits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be upon them, neither shall they sorrow.” (2:62, 5:69)

      This verse should partially answer your second query. Do you believe that God will deny salvation to all those great many people who came before Muhammad (upon whom be peace) was born? Do you believe that the prerequisite to reach God is adhering to the tenets of Islam only? I might be in the wrong, but my conception of God does not allow me to believe in this 🙂 And these beliefs go against the ideas of perennial philosophy I mentioned in the article.

      Now coming back to Jesus (peace be upon him). As we already know, Jesus was given an extremely exalted position by God (Quran 4:171).
      For Christians, God’s word is Christ, the “Word made flesh.” Of course, this idea is difficult for Muslims to comprehend because they are accustomed to looking at other religions in terms of Islam, which in their eyes is the perfect religion. Followers of all religions naturally tend to see an alien religion through their own perspective, which sometimes clouds an empathetic analysis. Muslims tend to take the idea of Jesus’ ‘sonship’ in a literal sense (that God took a female companion out of which Christ was born). You will be surprised to know that no Christian theologian has ever imagined such a thing. For Christians, Jesus’ sonship is a “reality, but it cannot be taken in a physical sense.” Many formulations of the Trinitarian doctrine assert and preserve God’s Unity, and many Christians believe that Trinity does not negate tawhid, rather preserves it. The question of the relationship between the three and the one is an interesting debate within Christian theology. Chittick writes that “even an elementary knowledge of any Christian catechism tells us that God is not ‘the third of three’. Rather, God is one and three at the same time. ” This is referring to the Christian belief that God is simultaneously manifested in the idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But again this notion is difficult for Muslims to grasp because it is completely alien to their beliefs.

      As a post script: Even if some Christians want to believe in the literal, physical sonship of Jesus, I really am in no position to judge or declare that they do not stand a chance to “reach God” as you perhaps imply. “…To Him belongs judgement… (28:70)” Have you heard that beautiful saying that there are as many ways to God as there are people on earth 🙂

      I have written a rather long response. I hope it answers some of your questions, or perhaps you have not been satisfied. In that case, write back to me and we can have further discussion on the subject. I am only a student, and we can both learn through sharing and receiving ideas.
      But God knows best.
      Sarah.

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