Tuesday, July 5, 2016



Dr. Ishanand Vempeny

(Published in Jeevadhara, Vol.XLVI, No.273, May 2016, pp.66-85)


a.       Fundamentalism:

‘Rootedness without Openness’: This could be a brief description of fundamentalism, accurate as far as it goes. The word comes from the Latin word fundamentum which means, base, foundation, root and the like. Fundamentalism can be not only in Religion but also in history socio-political theories, chemico-physical sciences, etc.

The word fundamentalism began to be applied to religion primarily in the context of American Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language gives the following description of Religious Fundamentalism: “A movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible, in all matters of faith and doctrine, accepting it as a literal historical record.” A little more satisfactory description of this concept is given by Collins Concise Encyclopedia: “Conservative, mainly Protestant, religious movement of 20th century upholds traditional interpretations of Bible against modern textual criticism and scientific theory (e.g. Darwinism). Movement organized in 1909, esp. influential in US.”  

b.      Fundamentalist and Scientific Interpretations of the Bible

A brief note:

          For a man of science and modern thinking, the first two chapters of the first book of the Old Testament known as Genesis can be dynamite to his brain. The first question one would ask is the division of God’s action of creation into seven days. Let us read verses 1:3-5 from the book of Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came; the first day.” (Gen. 1:3-5)

In this verse we read about light and darkness and day and night. After this God creates the sky, the waters, the earth, vegetation, etc. And in verses 14-16 we read: “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and let them indicate festivals, days and years. Let them be light in the vault of heaven to shine on the earth.’ And so it was, ‘God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, the smaller light to govern the night, and the stars.” (Gen. 1:14-16)

The above descriptions are just a part of the creation story consisting just 6 of 56 verses of the first two chapters. In these 6 versus a critical mind can see a number of inconsistencies. We shall just pay attention to a couple of the obvious ones. The Bible says about the division of day & night and of the first day of creation. How were the day & night recognized without the sun, moon and the stars? How were the days of the week reckoned without the heavenly bodies?

An orthodox and critical Christian would consider the narrations of the creation in the Bible are stories said thousands of years ago to communicate an important message. At that time people from different religions worshipped sun, moon and stars and some people worshipped certain animals and trees. Here the author wants to teach that these have been created by the Supreme Being, Yahweh, and they all depend on Him as creatures.

A fundamentalist, however, would not like to look at the Biblical passages with the critical mind of a scientist. They would find answers to the critical questions in very farfetched ways. They do not like to think that light has to depend on the heavenly bodies. They try to understand the descriptions literally. A man of science can remain faithful to his religious teachings and at the same time he may postulate the scientific theory of the ‘Big Bang’ and the theory of evolution.

In Christianity one of the typical examples of the conflict between science and religion was the Galileo Controversy. Galileo with his own telescope proved Heliocentric (sun-centered) while the fundamentalist Christians, quoting some Biblical passages insisted on Egocentrism (earth-centered) as the normal eye-cite warrants. On the other hand if Christ had said 2000 years ago that the earth is round and the sun moves around the earth, he would have been crucified in the first year itself of his public life.

The critically orthodox Christian scholars have developed various scientific methods (Historical Criticism, Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, etc.) which help one to find out the meanings which the sacred authors had intended. These methods to understand the real meaning of a text in the modern context are generally known as ‘hermeneutical methods’. The truth of the Bible or any scripture can be found out through these hermeneutical methods. Dr. Sukthankar of the Bhandarkar Institute, Pune, used these methods to prepare the critical edition of the Mahabharata.

c.       The Holy Quran interpreted by the Medieval Holy Men

          In the history of Islam too there were many commentators who interpreted the Holy Quran according to the contextual challenges. Al-Ghazālī was one of the most revered commentators of the Holy Quran. This is what the Wikipedia writes about the status of Al-Ghazālī in early Islam:

“Al-Ghazālī has been referred to by some historians as the single most influential Muslim after the Islamic prophet Muhammad within Islamic civilization he is considered to be a Mujaddid or renewer of the faith, who, according to tradition, appears once every century to restore the faith of the community. His works were so highly acclaimed by his contemporaries that Al-Ghazālī was awarded the honorific title ‘Proof of Islam’ (Hujjat al-Islam). Others have cited his opposition to certain strands of Islamic philosophy as a detriment to Islamic scientific progress. Besides his work that successfully changed the course of Islamic philosophy – the early Islamic Neo-Platonism that developed on the grounds of Hellenistic philosophy, for example, was so successfully criticized by Al-Ghazālī that it never recovered – he also brought the orthodox Islam of his time in close contact with Sufism.”[1]

There was in the middle ages another famous Islamic interpreter called Avicenna:
“Avicenna (Latinized form of Ibn-Sīnā, c. 980–June 1037) was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. Of the 450 works he is known to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.”[2]
He was an orthodox Muslim very much loyal to the Islamic tradition. He was struggling to reconcile Islam with the contextual philosophies and religious trends. He was somewhat influenced by Neo-Platonism. Avicenna memorized by the age of ten, and as an adult, he wrote five treatises commenting the various on suras from the Quran. One of these texts included the Proof of Prophecies, in which he comments on several Quranic verses and holds the Quran in high esteem. Avicenna argued that the Islamic prophets should be considered higher than philosophers.
The Wikipedia writes about his theological interests:
“His aim was to prove the existence of God and His creation of the world scientifically and through reason and logic. Avicenna's views on Islamic theology (and philosophy) were enormously influential, forming part of the core of the curriculum at Islamic religious schools until the 19thcentury. Avicenna wrote a number of short treatises dealing with Islamic theology. These included treatises on the prophets (whom he viewed as "inspired philosophers"), and also on various scientific and philosophical interpretations of the Quran, such as how Quranic cosmology corresponds to his own philosophical system. In general these treatises linked his philosophical writings to Islamic religious ideas; for example, the body's afterlife… Avicenna considered philosophy as the only sensible way to distinguish real prophecy from illusion.”[3]  

Apart from these two great and orthodox Islamic thinkers of the Medieval Golden age of Islam, there have been many other Islamic theologians in different parts of the world. Our purpose in citing the examples of these two stalwarts is to point out that Islam was open to reinterpretations and renewal from its origin till the recent times. But due to the lack of recognized Mujaddids, fundamentalism like Wahhabism began to dominate modern Islam.

d.      The Semitic Religions and the Fundamentalist Exclusivism

Exclusivism is another aspect of fundamentalism. This exclusivism is expressed by the belief that the members of a particular religion belong to a “Chosen People”. All the three Semitic Religions believe that they had been specially chosen by the Creator God (Yahweh-Allah).  Because of this belief they consider themselves specially privileged and other religions secondary. The Jews called the members of other religions “Gentiles”, the Christians “Pagans” and the Muslims “Kaffirs”. This leads to ‘exclusivism’ which is another face of fundamentalism. This exclusivism leads to intolerance and paves the way for terrorism.

1.      Christian Ways of getting out of Exclusivism

There are a number of exclusivist passages in the Bible especially in the Old Testament (OT). These passages led the Christians consider the non-Christians not chosen by God. Yahweh tells his chosen people (Israel) to exterminate the people of Canaan. This is precisely what Joshua did. Here we shall cite a few exclusivist verses:  
“The same day Joshua captured Makkedah, putting it and its king to the sword; he delivered them over to the curse of destruction, with every living creature there, and let no one escape, and he treated the king of Makkedah as he had treated the king of Jericho. Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it and Yahweh put this, too, and its king at Israel’s mercy; and Israel put every living creature there to the sword, and left none alive, and treated its king like the king of Jericho. Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on from Libnah to Lachish and besieged it and attacked it. Yahweh put Lachish at Israel’s mercy, and Israel took it on the second day and put it and every living creature in it to the sword, as they had treated Libnah. Horam king of Gezer then marched up to help Lachish, but Joshua beat him and his people until not one was left alive.” (Joshua 10:28-33)

After the Vatican II (11 October 1962 – 8 December 1965) Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular began to be open to other religions and consider other religions as ways of Salvation. Vat. II declared: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” (Nostra Aetate, The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, No.2). Here the Church takes almost a U-turn from the previous exclusivistic thinking to this inclusivistic one.

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion with five Christian fundamentalists in Manila. According to them, only baptized Christians could be saved. Even in this matter they limited salvation possibilities to only those who have been baptized by the Spirit, with the implication that the members of the main-line Churches who do not claim such a baptism would be excluded. When I asked them whether they believed in a God of love, they insisted that God is love and that His love is unconditional. I told them: “In spite of your parroting about God’s love, in practice your God is unjust, unwise and cruel. Your God fits in pretty well with my definition of the devil. He seems to watch with cruel pleasure a 1250 million Chinese, a 1500 million Muslims, some 800 million Hindus, some 500 million Buddhists and a 1750 million Christians of the mainline Churches moving towards eternal damnation. He does not seem to be willing to do anything effective to change this situation except appointing some fanatic preachers whose message is often philosophically illogical, psychologically unhealthy and ethically immoral.” Though they went on shouting “blasphemy, blasphemy!” I managed to put across the above thoughts.

Christian faith is rooted in the belief that God is love as taught by the New Testament (1 John 4:8 & 16, Rom. 3:24-25, 5:8, 8:31-39, Lk 15, et passim). How can a God of love can send millions of his children into hell with no fault of their own? The Holy Quran too teaches that God is merciful and loving.

In my books Krishna and Christ, Conversion, Inspiration in Non-Biblical Scriptures, I have enumerated a number of texts both from the Old Testament and New Testament, which are open to other religions. If however Christianity begins to be inclusive and open to other religions it is not only because of the Biblical texts but also because of other fundamental Christian beliefs. One of such beliefs is that God is an unconditionally loving ‘Father’. (Lk 6:36, 10:29-37, Mt. 25:31-46, et passim)

2.      Islamic Exclusivism and Opposition to Other Religions

Dr. Samir Kahlil Samir, an Egyptian scholar on Islam point out that the scriptures of the Semitic religions exhorted their followers to oppose the other hostile religions even with violence. As a typical example he gives the anti-gentile statements in the OT. He says: “In the OT, we have a lot of violence: When Jews entered the so-called Holy Land, they used violence – not because they were fanatics, but because they believed God ordered it. They had to use it, and when they refused, they were sinners.”[4]
Opposition to Other Religions in the Quran

As in the OT of the Bible, in the Quran too there are verses which are opposed to other religions demanding violence towards them. These texts have to be read in relation with the ones which are friendly towards other religions. After giving a few hostile texts we shall get into the friendly ones. 

The Google gives a number of Quranic verses which admonish people for war against those who do not believe in Islam. It gives 109 verses which teach to oppose the enemies especially those who do not believe in Allah. We shall cite just 3 or 4 verses for samples after verifying them from the Holy Book itself[5]:

Quran (2:191-193) - "And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing... but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)". 

Quran (4:95) - "Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled (by injury or are blind or lame, etc.), and those who strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred in grades those who strive hard and fight with their wealth and their lives above those who sit (at home). Unto each, Allah has promised good (Paradise), but Allah has preferred those who strive hard and fight, above those who sit (at home) by a huge reward." This passage criticizes "peaceful" Muslims who do not join in the violence, letting them know that they are less worthy in Allah's eyes.”

Quran (5:33) - "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement."

            The fundamentalistic and exclusivistic Muslims quote verses like the above independently of those which are friendly and open to other religions. We shall first give some of the texts friendly towards and inclusive of all other religions. Below we shall see the meaning and method of re-reading the scriptures in situations of Religious Pluralism.

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