‘Comparative Religion’: The solution for religious intolerance?

If we teach the children ‘Comparative Religion’ without strengthening their beliefs in Islam, this would cause them to eventually change their faith, which is dangerous.

If we teach the children ‘Comparative Religion’ without strengthening their beliefs in Islam, this would cause them to eventually change their faith, which is dangerous.

Recently the infamous journalist, Mubasher Lucman, ‘revealed’ that the subject of ‘Comparative Religion’ was being taught at the 55 Main campus of Lahore Grammar School (LGS). He also claimed that the subject of Islamiat had been removed from the curriculum. This issue caught the attention of the public and became a hot topic of discussion, and eventually the Principal of LGS 55 Main responded to the speculation denying the claims that the subject of Islamiat had been removed from their curriculum. The Principal also explained the purpose of teaching ‘Comparative Religion’. There have also been rumors that Mubasher Lucman spread half-truths and misconceptions out of his personal vendetta against the LGS. Furthermore, according to former LGS students, the subject of ‘Comparative Religion’ is optional and not mandatory.  Mubasher Lucman is infamous for false and biased reporting and has been involved in scandals in the past, therefore one would have to be naïve to take his stories regarding the LGS at face value. However, the LGS 55 Main’s Principal’s response on the issue has stirred a new debate about whether ‘Comparative Religion’ should be taught at school-level in order to promote peaceful coexistence. In the following article, I will offer a detailed response against the arguments put forward by the Principal of LGS 55 Main and others who are in favor of teaching ‘Comparative Religion’.

The main argument put forward in favor of teaching ‘Comparative Religion’ to children is that it helps in spreading tolerance and promoting peaceful coexistence. In light of the recent sectarian clashes and violence against minorities, it seems logical to address the very core of the problem and change the way one sees the people belonging to other sects and religions. However, this argument implies that Islam promotes religious intolerance and it does not teach us about previous nations, their beliefs, their rituals and their practices. Upon reading the Holy Qur’an, one realizes that this is simply not true. The Holy Book is filled with stories of the people of the past, such as the people of Ād, Thamud, Midian, Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh, the sons of Israel and Saba’ etc. We also find stories of these nations in various ahadith. We learn about the wrongdoings of these people, the prophets and the messengers which were sent to them, and the eventual punishment given to them after they refused to abandon their polytheistic rituals.

We also learn that the previous holy books and scrolls were either corrupted or lost. This, in my opinion, is one of the major differences between learning about other religions from our own Islamic sources and learning about them from the current versions of their own books. As Muslims, we believe that the current holy books, such as the bible, have been distorted by man and are not the actual books which were sent down to the prophets and messengers by God. As a consequence of that, we also do not believe in many events and concepts which are found in those books, such as considering Christ as the son of God or the trinity. The above points are mentioned in the Holy Qur’an as follows:

فَبِمَا نَقْضِهِمْ مِيثَاقَهُمْ لَعَنَّاهُمْ وَجَعَلْنَا قُلُوبَهُمْ قَاسِيَةً ۖ يُحَرِّفُونَ الْكَلِمَ عَنْ مَوَاضِعِهِ ۙ وَنَسُوا حَظًّا مِمَّا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ ۚ وَلَا تَزَالُ تَطَّلِعُ عَلَىٰ خَائِنَةٍ مِنْهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا مِنْهُمْ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاصْفَحْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ ﴿۱۳﴾ وَمِنَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّا نَصَارَىٰ أَخَذْنَا مِيثَاقَهُمْ فَنَسُوا حَظًّا مِمَّا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ فَأَغْرَيْنَا بَيْنَهُمُ الْعَدَاوَةَ وَالْبَغْضَاءَ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ ۚ وَسَوْفَ يُنَبِّئُهُمُ اللَّهُ بِمَا كَانُوا يَصْنَعُونَ

So for their breaking of the covenant We cursed them and made their hearts hard. They distort words from their [proper] usages and have forgotten a portion of that of which they were reminded. And you will still observe deceit among them, except a few of them. But pardon them and overlook [their misdeeds]. Indeed, Allah loves the doers of good. [13] And from those who say, “We are Christians” We took their covenant; but they forgot a portion of that of which they were reminded. So We caused among them animosity and hatred until the Day of Resurrection. And Allah is going to inform them about what they used to do. (5:13-14)

In Tafsir Ibn Kathir, the above verses are explained (with the 5 verses prior to these two verses for the sake of context) as follows:

Allah commanded His believing servants to fulfill the promises and pledges that He took from them and which they gave His servant and Messenger, Muhammad, peace be upon him. Allah also commanded them to stand for the truth and give correct testimony. He also reminded them of the obvious and subtle favors of the truth and guidance that He granted them. Next, Allah informed them of the pledges and promises that He took from the People of the Book, who were before them, the Jews and Christians. When they broke these promises and covenants, Allah cursed them as a consequence and expelled them from His grace and mercy. He also sealed their hearts from receiving guidance and the religion of truth, beneficial knowledge and righteous actions… Allah then mentioned the punishment that befell those who broke His covenant and the pledge they gave Him, (So because of their breach of their covenant, We cursed them…) Allah states, because of their breaking the promise that We took from them, We cursed them, deviated them away from the truth, and expelled them from guidance, (and made their hearts grow hard…) and they do not heed any word of advice that they hear, because of the hardness of their hearts. (They change the words from their (right) places…) Since their comprehension became corrupt, they behaved treacherously with Allah’s Ayat, altering His Book from its apparent meanings which He sent down, and distorting its indications. They attributed to Allah what He did not say, and we seek refuge with Allah from such behavior. (and have abandoned a good part of the Message that was sent to them.) by not implementing it and by ignoring it. Allah said next, (And you will not cease to discover deceit in them,) such as their plots and treachery against you, O Muhammad, and your Companions. Mujahid said that this Ayah refers to their plot to kill the Messenger of Allah. (But forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds).) This, indeed, is the ultimate victory and triumph. Some of the Salaf said, “You would never treat those who disobey Allah with you better than obeying Allah with them.” This way, their hearts will gather around the truth and Allah might lead them to the right guidance. This is why Allah said, (Verily, Allah loves the doers of good.) Therefore, forgive those who err against you. Qatadah said that this Ayah was abrogated with Allah’s statement, (Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day). Allah said, (And from those who call themselves Christians, We took their covenant,) meaning: `From those who call themselves Christians and followers of `Isa, son of Maryam, while in fact they are not as they claim. We took from them the covenant and pledges that they would follow the Prophet, aid him, honor him and follow his footsteps.’ And that they would believe in every Prophet whom Allah sends to the people of the earth. They imitated the Jews and broke the promises and the pledges. This is why Allah said, (but they have abandoned a good part of the Message that was sent to them. So We planted amongst them enmity and hatred till the Day of Resurrection ;) Meaning: `We planted enmity and hatred between them, and they will remain like this until the Day of Resurrection.’ Indeed, the numerous Christian sects have always been enemies and adversaries of each other, accusing each other of heresy and cursing each other. Each sect among them excommunicates the other sects and does not allow them entrance to their places of worship. The Monarchist sect accuses the Jacobite sect of heresy, and such is the case with the Nestorians and the Arians. Each sect among them will continue to accuse the other of disbelief and heresy in this life and on the Day when the Witnesses will come forth. Allah then said, (and Allah will inform them of what they used to do.) warning and threatening the Christians because of their lies against Allah and His Messenger and their false claims about Allah, hallowed be He above what they say about Him. The Christians attribute a companion and a son to Allah, while He is the One and Only, the All-Sufficient, Who neither begets nor was He begotten, and there is none like unto Him. [“Cursing the People of the Book for Breaking the CovenantTafsir Ibn Kathir 10 Volumes Abridged (English). 1291-1295]

لَقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْمَسِيحُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ ۚ قُلْ فَمَنْ يَمْلِكُ مِنَ اللَّهِ شَيْئًا إِنْ أَرَادَ أَنْ يُهْلِكَ الْمَسِيحَ ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ وَأُمَّهُ وَمَنْ فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا ۗ وَلِلَّهِ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا ۚ يَخْلُقُ مَا يَشَاءُ ۚ وَاللَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

They have certainly disbelieved who say that Allah is Christ, the son of Mary. Say, “Then who could prevent Allah at all if He had intended to destroy Christ, the son of Mary, or his mother or everyone on the earth?” And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them. He creates what He wills, and Allah is over all things competent. (5:17)

Moreover, the stories of these people are not mentioned in the Holy Qur’an to amuse us, they are mentioned so that we may learn from the mistakes of these people and obey and worship God in the way which he has prescribed for us. God says in the Qur’an:

لَقَدْ كَانَ فِى قَصَصِهِمْ عِبْرَةٌ لِّأُو۟لِى ٱلْأَلْبَٰبِ ۗ مَا كَانَ حَدِيثًا يُفْتَرَىٰ وَلَٰكِن تَصْدِيقَ ٱلَّذِى بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَتَفْصِيلَ كُلِّ شَىْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ.

There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding. Never was the Qur’an a narration invented, but a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of all things and guidance and mercy for a people who believe. [12:111]

Therefore, Islam teaches us that all the previous religions and scriptures sent by God have become invalid due to them being corrupted by the people of the book. Therefore Islam is now the true religion as chosen by God, and we find evidence for this in the following Hadith:

It was narrated that Abu’l-Darda’ (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: ‘Umar brought some pages of the Tawraat to the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and said, “O Messenger of Allaah, these are some pages of the Tawraat which I took from a brother of mine from Banu Zurayq.” The expression of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) changed, and ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Zayd – who had been shown the adhaan [in a dream] – said, “Has Allaah taken away your mind? Do you not see the expression on the face of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him)?” ‘Umar said, “We are pleased with Allaah as our Lord and with Islam as our religion and with Muhammad as our Prophet and with the Qur’aan as our guide.” Then the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) relaxed [?}, and said, “By the One in Whose hand is my soul, if Moosa were to come among you and you were to follow him and leave me, you would have gone far astray. You are my share among the nations and I am your share among the Prophets.” [Narrated by Ahmad, 15437. Ibn Hajar said: All the isnaads of this hadeeth are such that they could not be taken as evidence individually, but when taken together they prove that this hadeeth is correct. (Fath al-Baari, 13/525)].

The idea that children in Pakistan need to learn about other religions from the scriptures and scholars of those religions comes from the misconception that Islam spreads hatred against other sects and religions. As terrorist organizations cause havoc across Pakistan and target people belonging to minority sects and other religions, people are starting to view Islam as a barbaric and medieval religion which has no place in the modern world. Such misconceptions arise when the observers judge a religion by a small minority of its misguided followers rather than its actual teachings. This is similar to judging democracy by its distorted versions being implemented in various countries today rather than by the actual concept itself. Once again, if we look at various ahadith, we will discover how Islam actually tells us to behave with minorities and people of other religions.

The Prophet said:

Beware! Whosoever oppresses a Muahid (i.e. Non-Muslim living in Muslim land with agreement) or snatches (any of) his rights or causes him pain which he cannot bear, or takes anything from him without his permission, Then I will fight against such a (Muslim) on the day of Judgement. [Sunnan Abu Dawud, Volume No. 3, Page No. 170, Hadith No. 3052]

In another hadith the Prophet (Peace be upon him) is more explicit, he says:

If any Muslim killed a Muahid (i.e. non-Muslim living in Muslim land with agreement) then he (muslim) shall not even smell the fragrance of Paradise although the fragrance of Paradise would have been perceived from the distance of travelling for 40 years. [Sahih Bukhari, Volume No. 3, Hadith # 2995]

We can also find plenty of verses in the Holy Qur’an which teach us that even though we oppose the beliefs of other religions, we are supposed to give them their due rights and treat them kindly, unless they are hostile towards Islam.

Hence, there is no reason for children to be taught the concepts of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence from the scriptures of other religions as the same concepts can be easily found in the teachings of Islam. Learning these concepts from their own religion is only logical since the children are Muslims themselves and they would understand these concepts better if taught from the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him).

The people in favor of teaching ‘Comparative Religion’ also argue that learning and understanding other religions should not threaten our personal beliefs. This is true, but the question arises: Are the personal beliefs of our children strong enough to keep them steadfast on Islam after learning about the other religions? Are we teaching Islam to them properly in order to strengthen their belief in this religion? We can answer this question by looking at the current state of our society and the various fissures within it. The children nowadays are more interested in the latest songs, fictional books, and film dialogues and consider film actors as their role models. Sometimes we see that children aren’t even taught the Holy Qur’an. Unfortunately, even when they are taught about Islam, they are encouraged to learn by rote instead of understanding the message of Islam. In some cases, due to lack of monitoring, children in madrassas are taught extremist and terrorist concepts which have no basis in Islam.  As a result we see the next generation slowly losing interest in Islam and its teachings.

Obviously, in these cases, the personal beliefs of the children are not strong enough (sometimes even non-existent) for them to be taught about other religions. Logically, the need of the hour is to teach Islam to the children in a proper manner to strengthen their beliefs, not to move away from it. If we teach the children ‘Comparative Religion’ without strengthening their beliefs in Islam, this would cause them to eventually change their faith, which is dangerous. When the children have fully understood Islam, why it is different from the religions which came before it, and its attitude towards the people of other religions, only then should they pursue ‘Comparative Religion’ as a university-level subject in order to further understand their own beliefs and the beliefs of the Jews and Christians etc.

The people in favor of teaching ‘Comparative Religion’ also argue that we live in a pluralistic and diverse society and learning about other religions helps us in understanding and respecting the beliefs of non-Muslims and creates harmony between the two groups. This is a shallow argument; as 96.4% of Pakistan’s population follows Islam and 85-90% of Pakistan’s population subscribes to the Sunni school of thought. This indicates that the Pakistani society is not even remotely religiously diverse, and while the non-Muslim minorities are free to practice their own religions and teach them to their children, it is against the principles of democracy to teach those religions to the children of the Muslim majority ahead of their own religion just for the sake of promoting religious tolerance, especially when this concept can be easily taught from the verses of the Holy Qur’an, the ahadith and the sunnah of the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him). There is another inconsistency which can be found in the arguments in favor of teaching ‘Comparative Religion’. The argument that ‘Comparative Religion’ helps children in understanding why Islam is better than other religions contradicts the argument that all religions (including Islam) are equal. The supporters of ‘Comparative Religion’ become less credible when they raise these arguments in parallel with the demands of removal of Islamic history from children’s textbooks for being “biased, incorrect and intolerant towards other religions”.  One can’t help but ponder whether the actual motive of the supporters of ‘Comparative Religion’ is not the promotion of religious tolerance, but something far more threatening.

In the end, since Islam teaches us about the people of the past, their beliefs, the invalidity of their beliefs in presence of Islam and how non-Muslims are actually treated in Islam, we can conclude that introducing the subject of ‘Comparative Religion’ at school-level is not only unnecessary but also harmful without sufficient prior knowledge of Islam. The subject should be introduced at the university-level instead where the students are more capable of understanding the difference between Islam and other religions. And lastly, teaching Islam properly, and not ‘Comparative Religion’, to children is the actual solution to religious intolerance and injustice towards religious minorities in Pakistan.

The blog was first published on Pakistankakhudahafiz.com on 20 December, 2013.

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