Are earlier religions accepted in Islam?

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 10 February 2023

“Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward with their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.” — ch. 2, v. 62

اِنَّ الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا وَ الَّذِیۡنَ ہَادُوۡا وَ النَّصٰرٰی وَ الصّٰبِئِیۡنَ مَنۡ اٰمَنَ بِاللّٰہِ وَ الۡیَوۡمِ الۡاٰخِرِ وَ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَہُمۡ اَجۡرُہُمۡ عِنۡدَ رَبِّہِمۡ ۪ۚ وَ لَا خَوۡفٌ عَلَیۡہِمۡ وَ لَا ہُمۡ یَحۡزَنُوۡنَ ﴿۶۲

“And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.” — ch. 3, v. 85

وَ مَنۡ یَّبۡتَغِ غَیۡرَ الۡاِسۡلَامِ دِیۡنًا فَلَنۡ یُّقۡبَلَ مِنۡہُ ۚ وَ ہُوَ فِی الۡاٰخِرَۃِ مِنَ الۡخٰسِرِیۡنَ ﴿۸۵

I have discussed the issue of abrogation in the previous Khutbas. In the case of these two verses as well which I have just read, the same issue has been brought in by some commentators and scholars of the Quran. Apparently, the first verse says that Muslims, Jews, Christians and Sabians — whose religion which was a mixture of the Jewish and Christian religions — in fact, anyone who believes in God and the Day of Judgment and does good, will have reward from God and shall have no fear of not having done their duty nor any feeling of grief that their lives were wasted. The second verse seems to be clear that Islam is the only religion acceptable from anyone in the Hereafter, and anyone following another religion will be a loser of God’s favour in the Hereafter. This has led some Islamic scholars to believe that the second verse has cancelled the first verse. However, both these meanings are a misunderstanding. These two verses are not contradicting each other, as I will show later.

 However, before I explain the correct meaning of these two verses, I would like to point out that it is absurd to say that the second verse has cancelled the first. Abroga­tion or cancellation, even if true, can only apply to commands and not to principles. For example, many Muslim scholars say that when the command was revealed that Mus­lims should fast, it gave each Muslim the choice of either fasting or feeding a poor person instead, but that later on fasting was made compulsory. While that is not correct, at least it is not an absurd and ridiculous point of view. Many Muslim scholars also say that at first the Quran told Muslims to make wills before their death for the inheritance of their properties (2:180), but later the Quran fixed the shares of the heirs, and the earlier verse was abrogated. Again, this opinion is wrong, but at least it cannot be called absurd and ridiculous. But to say about a principle which God has revealed, that God later overturned that principle is indeed ridiculous. Abrogation in the case we are discuss­ing means that first Allah revealed that He will accept as true the faith of anyone who “believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good”, whether he is a Muslim, Jew or Christian. Then Allah overturned this by revealing that He will only accept the faith of a Muslim as being the true faith. Now the first verse was revealed at Madinah in 2 A.H. the second verse was revealed the following year in 3 A.H. Moreover, both these verses were being proclaimed to the same groups of people living in Arabia. No change had taken place in the condition of all these people in a period of one year, that the principle applying to them needed to be completely changed. If abrogation is accepted, it would mean that a year earlier certain groups had been promised entry into heaven and now they were denied it.

The fact is that it is a misunderstanding to take the first verse as meaning that Muslims, Jews, Christians and some others will be accepted by God as being on the right path because they claim to believe in God and the Day of Judgment and to do good deeds. What the verse is saying is that it is these principles that really matter, and that it is not by having the name Muslim, Jew or Christian that a person becomes approved of by God. The people mentioned here, belonging to different religions, all accept these principles, but the question is: do they have in their minds the true concept of these principles, and are they believing in and doing other things which are preventing them from acting on these principles in the best and most perfect way? Now the spiritual state mentioned in this verse, of having no fear nor grieving, feeling content that you have done your duty, is in fact a matter of degree. It is not something binary, that either you have it or you don’t. Therefore, to whatever degree or whatever extent someone follows these principles, whether he is a Muslim, Jew or Christian, it is to that extent that he reaches this state of inner contentment and accept­ance by God. The claim of the Quran is that it presents these principles, regarding what is God, what is the Hereafter, and what are good deeds, in their most perfect form, and it provides people with a way to act on them to the highest extent, removing all hindrances that prevent them from doing so.

For example, a person may believe in God he may also believe that God has chosen his race or nation above others as His particular favourites. His capacity to deal justly with people of other nations and to do good towards them will be under­mined because of this view of his. His concept of the Hereafter will be that he will be treated more mercifully and leniently by God in that life than people of other nations or races. If a person believes in God but also believes that the burden of his sins has been lifted from him by the founder of his religion, and because of his belief in the founder of his religion all his sins are already forgiven even before he commits them, then again his concept of the Hereafter will be that in the after-life he will not have to answer or account for any of his sins. So his belief in the Hereafter ceases to act as a deterrent to wrong­doing and as an incentive to doing good to others.

So this verse means that whether you are a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, etc. what matters with God is not the name but the underlying reality when you peel off the skin. And it is to perfect that underlying reality of our belief in God and the Hereafter and what are good deeds, that the Holy Prophet Muhammad was sent with the teachings of the Quran. Also notice here that apart from belief, this verse requires the doing of good deeds. No person can attain the state of not fearing nor grieving by merely having belief in certain articles of faith. That belief must lead him or her to do good deeds.

As to the second verse, “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers” (3:85), what is meant by “a religion other than Islam” are the doctrines that followers of earlier reli­gions had added to the same fundamentals that Islam also teaches, and which they have made as more important and basic than the fundamentals themselves. In particular this relates to belief in revelation and in the prophets who brought that revelation. To see what is meant by “Islam” in this verse, which is verse 85 of chapter 3, all we need to do is to read verse 84, the verse which of course comes immediately before verse 85. In that verse Muslims are directed to declare the following beliefs: “We believe in Allah and (in) what is revealed to us, and (in) what was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and (in) what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord; we make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we submit.” The last words of this verse are: wa naḥnu lahū muslimūn, literally, “and we are Muslims to God”, meaning “we submit to God”. Since the word “Muslim” is used here as meaning one who submits to God, the word “Islam” in the next verse can also be taken to mean “submission to God”. The translation of verse 85 then becomes: “And whoever seeks a religion other than submission (to God), it will not be accepted from him”. In the religions before Islam, their religious scholars and priests had, in addition to sub­mission to God, introduced submission to religious figures and leaders. They stood between the people and God. You had to submit to them as a pre-requisite of submitting to God. Then there is also the submission to one’s own desires. All these types of submission also came into practice among Muslims, even though outwardly they worshipped only the One God. So this verse about those who seek “a religion other than Islam” includes Muslims as well.

As another interpretation we can also say that the verse before this verse, verse 84 which I quoted above, defines what Islam is in terms of its beliefs. After men­tioning belief in God and in the sending of revelation to all His prophets, and making no distinction between the prophets, Muslims are to say that this is what makes us Muslims. But the Jewish and Christian religions do make a distinction between prophets of God. Both hold that prophets of God only appeared among the Israelite people, and in no other nation in the world. Additionally, in the Christian religion a huge distinction is made between Jesus and the earlier Israelite prophets such as Moses, by recognising Jesus as uniquely the son of God, and the only one who was sinless, which is a status not attained or attainable by any other prophet. So when verse 85 says that “whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers”, the “religion other than Islam” means a religion that makes a distinction between the prophets of God. For making that distinction, and making some nations superior to others, such a religion is not accepted by God.

To conclude, the two verses I read at the beginning of this Khutba are not contradicting each other. It is not that one is saying that Jews and Christians will attain salvation just like Muslims, and the other is saying that only the religion of Muslims is accepted by Allah. The first is saying that God accepts you if you follow certain principles, and that rule applies equally whether you are Muslim, Jew, Christian or anyone else. The second is actually saying something very similar, that if someone seeks a religion which compromises and corrupts those principles, then it will not be accepted by God that he was right in his beliefs. Again, those seeking a religion other than Islam, a religion other than submitting to God, could be Muslims or Jews or Christians.

At the end of the Khutba, prayers were said for the victims of the Turkish earthquake disaster — that may Allah enable the rescuers to find more people alive, may Allah receive the dead in His mercy, and may Allah grant patience and perseverance to the survivors, and may they find shelter and be recompensed for their material losses, ameen. An appeal was made for donations to be sent for relief.