Listening to critics: a surprising pluralism  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

I have always believed that it’s good to listen to critics, to give them a fair hearing. The reason is that they just might be onto something. Since I’m already convinced—and my wife confirms—that I fail to get everything right, a critic might spot something I should change, or rethink, or redo, or apologize for. Now, I don’t like the process involved, and usually feel rather annoyed when they get some criticism of me correct. Even if they in the process remind me how annoying other people can be. Sorry, I mean even if also they remind me how easily I can be annoyed.

Anyway. I believe the same thing about my faith. The best test, it seems to me, is not whether I feel confident in what I believe, but whether I can face the best challenges of the most thoughtful unbelievers and not only believe but with sufficiently good reasons.

Sometimes I am surprised by the challenges or questions issued by the critics of my faith. They hold a position I have not fully appreciated, or are bothered by something I had not considered all that important. Listening to the critics of the faith, in other words, has benefits.

I wish I could recommend A Muslim View of Christianity to everyone, but it is a scholarly book, produced by an Islamic academic for fellow scholars who are engaged in Muslim-Christian dialogue. Although well written and thoughtfully developed, Mahmoud Ayoub’s collection of essays tends to be academically demanding in the best sense of the term.

When I began A Muslim View of Christianity, I expected to find (among other things) thoughtful arguments about both the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity, serious questions about the veracity of Scripture and the historicity of Christ’s death and resurrection, and reflections on the conflicts between the two from the pages of history. Ayoub provided all that and more.

What I was surprised to find was a plea for pluralism. Not pluralism in the sense that differing religions live side by side in tolerance, but pluralism in the philosophical sense, that in a pluralistic world no ultimate truth claims can be made. Three quotes among many, taken at random:

“We now know that no religion can claim an exclusive monopoly on salvation and truth. We must accept the fact that our forebears knew far less about world religions than we know. Hence, we must see our faith in global perspective as one among many, each having its own spiritual heritage and civilization. In light of this, no religious” community or religio-ethnic group can claim a special and exclusive mission to mankind.” [60]

“The Qur’an, far more than Muslims have ever done, accepts the pluralism of religions and affirms the unity of faith. The only common elements it insists on are sincere faith in God and works of righteousness.” [21]

“True dialogue is conversation among persons and not a confrontation between ideas. If Muslim-Christian dialogue is to be at all meaningful, it must go beyond the letter of scriptures, creed, and tradition. Men and women of faith in both communities must learn to listen to the divine voice speaking through revelation and history, and together seek to understand what God is saying to Muslims through Christianity and to Christians through Islam. In more practical terms, this means that Christians and Muslims must go beyond the history of a reified religion and try instead to share in the commonality of faith. Then it will, we hope, be realized that although Christians and Muslims have followed different roads toward the goal of human fulfillment in God, the goal is one and the roads meet at many points.” [229]

One more thing: Although I am not at liberty to name my sources, I have it on good authority that more and more Islamic clerics are arguing for religious pluralism, especially among Shi’a scholars in Qum, the holy city in Iran.

This entry was posted at Tuesday, March 16, 2010 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Thanks for mentioning this, Denis. I look forward to reading it. I have one little semantic question for Ayoub: does "pluralism" really mean "relativism"? Religious pluralism is a fact of life in this world. Embracing philosophic relativism is a common response to it. In my opinion equating the two makes true tolerance more elusive.

March 19, 2010 at 5:08 PM

You raise an interesting question, and one I wish he could answer. My sense is that he would reply that he is not a relativist: God exists and has revealed himself in human history, in a succession of prophets ending with Muhammad. These prophets have all revealed the same God and called on his creatures to seek righteousness in submission to his will. Thus, rather than Islam being "against" Christianity, it fulfills it in the sense that Christians have mistaken the original message of Jesus. So, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims sit down in dialogue, all three must begin by recognizing the faith of the other two as true revelation from God. This is not only necessary for mutual respect as fellow believers but essential to bring peace to a conflict-ridden world. Then, Ayoub seems to take this one step further and apply it to all religious impulse in any form.

I realize the next question is whether this does not do damage to the actual teaching of the various religions, which brings them into conflict. I suspect he would argue that this mistakes the essential core of the various religions and proves the peaceful foundation of Islam as taught by the Qur'an.

To me the real surprise comes less in the details of the argument, which of course is open to debate. The real surprise is the number of Shi'a clerics now arguing for pluralism. This is not to say they will steer world Islam in a new direction, but their appearance is an interesting development to say the least. It also shows that Islam is not the simple single world-wide unified phenomenon we sometimes imagine it to be.

March 21, 2010 at 5:31 PM

Denis, thank you for your commentary!

I came across a video interview of Sam Harris on "Why to Ditch Religion". I know it's not a new idea, but its growing presence in the media (this video was on's homepage) makes me wonder if this view is more a bias of certain media outlets or if it is indeed a reflection of its increasing popularity in society. Or..?

What sources of news do you prefer? and why?

(the view is here:



March 26, 2010 at 3:49 PM

The views of the New Atheists, of which Sam Harris is one, are popular though I doubt whether they are all that influential. By that I mean that though their books are best-sellers and they attract a lot of attention, I doubt they have made many converts. Instead, they make unbelief more plausible, or at least reinforce the idea that people should be spiritual without committing to any religious tradition.

I get my news from a variety of sources that come from a variety of perspectives in an attempt to hear the best arguments from all sides.

March 26, 2010 at 3:59 PM

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