The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well-known early attempts were the three-century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs of Makkah.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that —once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God—lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.
Hanukah also celebrates the first time that a religion was forced to fight for religious freedom and religious pluralism.
But the Greeks were polytheists and only monotheists are supposed to be narrow-minded fanatics, according to modern anti-religious atheists! This false belief is wrong because it was Greek philosophers who first formulated the concept that ‘truth’ was an absolute, unchanging, and universal entity —and thus truth must be what mathematicians call a ‘zero sum game.’
In a zero-sum game any value or true spiritual insight that I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the influence of Greek philosophy’s emphasis on the logic of the excluded middle. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradict one another, they cannot both be true at the same time: one or both of them must be false.
This would mean that if my religion is true, yours must be false. In modern terms, light could not be both a particle and a wave at the same time. Yet we now have been enlightened by new science; we know that light is indeed both a particle and a wave at the same time, depending upon how you observe it.
Things did not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion, which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired. In other words, God is missing from the process.
Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own sacred scriptures are Divinely inspired; in fact, they believe in nothing but their own skepticism. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand a revealed religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature.
As a rabbi I follow a different model, one I learned from Prophet Muhammad: Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other monotheistic scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture. So we should think of revelation not as a zero sum game like tennis, but as a multiple win-win co-operative sport like mountain climbing.
For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah, states,
“Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he had destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Similarly, the Qur’an states,
”One who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he had slain the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he had saved the life of the whole people” [Sûrah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:32]
Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement was made several centuries earlier than the Qur’an, then Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or some educated Jew in Medina and reframed it in his own words.
However, I believe that Muhammad is a non-Jewish Abrahamic prophet of God who confirms the Torah of Prophet Moses. Muhammad had no need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics might reply that the statement is not found in the written Torah; rather, it appears in the oral Torah committed to writing by the Rabbis in the Mishnah more than 1,000 years after Moses.
But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses through many generations —just as the Ahadith have been passed down through the generations. Indeed, the Qur’an itself introduces this statement as follows,
“It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel, “One who kills a human being …” [Sûrah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:32]
No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. God is the source of all Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that confirm things from the oral Torah. My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures cannot in reality oppose one another because they all come from one source.
“Prophets are all brothers; they have the same father (God) and different mothers (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras).” (Ṣaḥîḥ Al-Bukhâri ,3443 Book 60, Hadith 113)
My belief is based on an important Hadith of Prophet Muhammad:
Abu Hurayra relates,
“The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims), ‘ Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.”’
Following Muhammad’s teaching, I too neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an, I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). Now, I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was indeed a non-Jewish, Abrahamic prophet; I respect the Qur’an as a revelation to a kindred people, in a kindred language.
In fact, the people, the language, and the theology of the Qur’an are closer to my own people, language and theology than to that of the people of any other religion on earth.
How does this perspective affect my understanding of your Qur’an and my Torah? Unlike those in the past who played the zero-sum game, I do not seek some verse in the Qur’an in order to dispute or object to it. Indeed, this is what the Qur’an itself teaches.
“For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” [Sûrah Al-Ḥajj, 22:67]
When I celebrate the eight-day festival of Hanukah (December 10-18, 2020 this year), I celebrate not just religious freedom for Jews, but also the principle of religious pluralism for all humans everywhere. As the Qur’an states:
“For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had wanted, He could have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to do virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah (for judgement). It is He who will let you know [about] that in which you differed.” [Sûrah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:48]
O mankind, We created you from male and female, and made you peoples and tribes, that you may know (respect) one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [Sûrah Al-Ḥujarât, 49:13]
“Let there be no compulsion in Religion: truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah (the one God) has grasped the most trustworthy unbreakable hand hold: Allah hears, and knows all things.” [Sûrah Al-Baqarah, 2:256]
“Say: We believe in God and in what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and The Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another, among them, and to God do we bow our will.” [Sûrah Âli CImrân, 3:84]