Unity of faith

Published October 15, 2021
The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.
The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.

IS there unity among religions or does each religion stand alone, with no relation to the other? Prima facie, the diversity of faiths makes it almost impossible to see a consistent message, leading critics to argue that faiths do not agree on anything. They may ask: how can there be so much interfaith bloodshed if the source of these religions is divine? Why do followers of religion, and by extension, sects or subsects, keep on fighting with each other, laying ‘exclusive’ claims to the truth?

However, my argument is that despite many apparent contradictions or inconsistencies, there lies a strong bond of transcendental unity between faith traditions, with their messages reflecting common threads. Those studying the transcendent unity of religions argue that, while religions show many apparent contradictions, at their core, esoterically speaking, they share many common teachings. Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s simile of elephant and observers guides us to understand this ‘riddle’ of the multiplicity of faiths and their claims to the truth.

Till modern times, religious traditions were largely cocooned in their own limited geographical or experiential territories; it was difficult to imagine they could have ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ or even ‘cousins’, in far-off lands, sharing more or less similar, if not the same, aspirations regarding spirituality, sacredness, grace, enlightenment and a sense of transcendence.

For centuries, many sages, mystics, Sufis, gurus etc have been asking us to realise that there is, in spirit, unity in the apparent diversity of faith traditions. This observation sensitises us to the phenomenon of the transcendent unity of religions, when seen from a spiritual, esoteric and metaphysical angle. Insightful studies on a variety of religious teachings leads us to transcendence — a sense of the sacred, a spiritual urge to transcend what is material, an ethical framework, respect for varieties of life, awe and wonder, multiple paths to search for enlightenment, plus intuition, inspiration, revelation and a beatific vision.

There is unity in the apparent diversity of faith traditions.

The argument that there is an essential commonality linking religions despite external contradictions goes back to ancient thinkers such as Plato, and later, the Neoplatonists. Within the context of Islam, many Muslim thinkers, such as Abu Hatim al-Razi, Ibn al-Arabi and others have argued similarly. In modern times, eminent scholars, such as Frithjof Schuon and Nurcholish Madjid, argue for a more pluralistic vision of Islam and its traditions. Particularly, Schuon, a German philosopher, poet, painter and a prolific writer, whose Muslim name was Isa Nur ad-Din, is known for promoting esoteric unity. One of his much-publicised books is The Transcendent Unity of Religions. In this work, Schuon shows how religions, though apparently mutually exclusive, are in their essence unified at the higher metaphysical level.

Concurring with this view, Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment says, “All spiritual teachings originate from the same Source. In that sense, there is, and always has been, only one master, who manifests in many different forms.”. Tolle concludes, “Although all spiritual teachings originate from the same Source, once they become verbalised and written down, they are obviously no more than collections of words…”

These reflections from eminent scholars suggest that we need to look at faith traditions from a positive perspective, searching for shared concepts and ideas that inform religious traditions across the board. This approach to transcendental unity of religions can be found in many traditions, including in Islam. The Quranic approach to this way of looking at faiths is a fascinating subject in its own right.

In sum, in order to look at cross-current themes and subjects in world religious traditions, we need to look at the sacred texts — and faith traditions — with a perspective undergirded by pluralism; we need an enlightened eye to see essential commonalities, an educated mind that is familiar with multiple traditions, and an open heart that can look at other faiths empathetically. We should not approach other faiths as objects of cynicism and criticism, but as subjects of genuine curiosity.

Our sources of information should not be books that have been written in a hostile spirit but literature that is relatively objective, and that provides an insider’s view, keeping in mind that ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’. Fortunately, literature about the study of communities and interpretation, guided by a multidisciplinary approach that uses original sources, is available and can be found in encyclopedias, journals and the like.

The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2021

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