Seeking Ethical Foundations in Pluralistic World

Book Review by Atif Munawar Mir of the book “The Dialects of Secularization

What should be the main source of morality and law in a pluralistic world? In pre-modern times, religion was the source of morality and law. The members and leaders of religious societies would consult scriptures when formulating laws and making moral decisions. The rise of modernity replaced scripture with science and reason. The principles of free market economy, and freedom and equality, as conceived by the western world, became the guiding principles of society. In an increasingly pluralistic world, however, new principles of morality and law are needed that can also accommodate the non-western world views. In their book “The Dialects of Secularization: On Reason and Religion”, Habermas and the Pope Benedict XVI[1] discuss as to what should be the main source of morality and law in a pluralistic world. They conclude that in today’s world, reason and religion have to play a complementary role not a competing one, in order to develop both a universal moral standard and an ethical code law. According to Jurgen Habermas, religious traditions, which had arguably retreated in the face of modernity, have assumed importance once again. Why?  Religious traditions, as per Habermas, can help strengthen the faltering unity of secular democracies.[2]


In the Pope’s understanding, religion, however, has to be more than just a source of solidarity in secular democracies. The Pope states that increased global interdependence and the destructive power of science have made the need of globally accepted legal and ethical controls over human power absolutely necessary.[3] The Pope emphasizes that science has failed to be a source of global ethics.[4] Science has given us atomic bombs and other inventions that are potentially fatal for the future of humanity.[5]  The Pope has limited faith in democracy as well since democracy expresses the will of the majority and does not necessarily guarantee the freedom of or justice for the minority. As such, democracy cannot be trusted to provide the ethical foundations of law.[6] The Pope also acknowledges that major world religions do not have a perfect report card. Evidence of this is the fanaticism that plagues the world. Which is why, according to the Pope, both reason and religion are needed for humanity’s moral and ethical success, as both may purify each other and guide one another.[7]

The Pope also stresses the need for all major religions of the world to participate in this purification, on the condition that they treat reason and faith as complementary to each other “so that a universal process of purifications (in the plural!) can proceed.” [8]

He acknowledges, however, that the “rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or, at least, it is unattainable at the present moment. This is why the so-called world ethos remains an abstraction”.[9] With this acknowledgement, he agrees with Habermas’ remarks that in a “post-secular society”, science and all major religions should recognize “self-limitations” and show a “willingness to learn from each other”.[10]


 The Pope has performed an insightful analysis of reason and revelation in an age of global pluralism. His analysis, however, was based on three fundamental assumptions that a follower of Islamic faith would disagree with:

The three fundamental assumptions made by the Pope in his analysis are:

  • Islam and other religions did not come from the same God
  • Religion can only be purified by reason not by religion itself
  • Reason and religion are not naturally complementary to each other

Assumption 1: Islam and other religions did not come from the same God

According to Islam, the source of all world religions is the one God i.e. Allah. The Holy Quran tells the stories of Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, Jacob and many other prophets who were sent by God to provide guidance to mankind.

Say ye: ‘We believe in Allah and what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob and his children, and what was given to Moses and Jesus, and what was given to all other Prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between any of them; and to Him we submit ourselves.’ (2:137)

It is for this reason that Islam does not claim that the believers of the Islamic faith have a monopoly on salvation. The Holy Quran says:

Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians — whichever party from among these truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds — shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (2:63)

According to the Islamic tradition, God has sent more than 124,000 prophets. Allah sent the prophets to various tribes according to their moral standing and needs. On other occasions, when the message of one prophet becomes diluted, distorted or forgotten, Allah revived the message by sending a new prophet. The new message revives the essence of the old message while reflecting the new realities of the world

Similarly Muslims believe that Islam is a continuation of the teachings of Christianity, Judaism and other previous religions while incorporating new realities of the world. As such, Islam ultimately advocates freedom of conscience because as already mentioned in the Quranic verse above that God is the ultimate judge of good deeds.. The Holy Quran also says:

There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong…(2:257)

Thus Islamic teachings are very conducive to intercultural and interreligious peace as it establishes freedom of conscience and promises salvation to those who do good deed regardless of faith.

Assumption 2: Religion can only be purified by reason and not by religion itself

In his book “The Dialects of Secularization”, the Pope shows a strong faith in reason’s power to purify religion. He says:

“We have seen that there exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a controlling organ. Religion must continually itself to purified and structured by reason; and this was the view of Church Fathers, too.”[11]

The Pope is right to believe that reason can serve as an instrument that can help us discover the true teachings of religion but the reality is that, it is God’s job to purify distorted religious teachings by sending new prophets. Religion does not necessarily need reason for its purification; it can be purified by another religion as well. All religions came to purify some other religion and Islam is no different.

The Pope is right when he observes that fanaticism has crept into religion. As an example, he mentions Osama Bin Laden.  Granted that fanaticism has found its way into Islam, such fanaticism, however, does not reflect the original teachings of Islam but represents the misguided faith of Muslims. That is why God had promised the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him) that such fanaticism will be purified with the coming of the Promised Messiah and this Messiah, Ahmadi Muslims believe, appeared in India more than 100 years ago. His name was Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and he founded the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam. He reinforced the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet (Pbuh) by declaring compassion to be a key ingredient of Islam and taught Muslims to show compassion to everyone regardless of his/her faith, embrace a pluralistic society, and show gratitude to those who treat them with justice.

Thus, the process of purification is the responsibility of God. The source of true purification is divine revelation, not human reason.

Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad says:

“… the recognition of God began through revelation and that the revival of the understanding of the Divine has always taken place through revelation….”[12]

Reason of course must play a role. But it is not the foundation of purity.  Rather reason serves to elaborate upon revelation, and provide insight into it and thus may help us discover the true spirit of religion. But in situations when the spirit of a religion suffocates beneath the forces of tradition and time, further revelation is the only means of true purification.

Assumption 3: Reason and religion are not naturally complementary to each other

The Pope also discusses the tension between rationality and faith inherent in all religions. He  says:

Although the secular culture is largely dominated by strict rationality…the Christian understanding of reality continues to be a powerful force. The closeness and the tension between these poles varies: sometimes they are willing to learn from each other, but sometimes they refject each other to a great or lesser degree. The Islamic cultural sphere, too, is marked by similar tensions. There is a broad spectrum between the fanatical absolutism of a Bin Laden and attitudes that are open to a tolerant rationality.[13]

The Pope claims that a variety of religious viewpoints across the globe are in tension with rationality and therefore finding an ethical system in today’s pluralistic world has proven to be a tough exercise. It must be noted, however, that the fundamental principles of science and reason are embedded within Islamic belief.

The Holy Quran teaches Muslims a prayer:

…O my Lord, increase me in knowledge. (20:115)

The Holy Prophet (Pbuh) said:

For him who follows a path for seeking knowledge, Allah will ease the way to paradise. [14]

The Pope is advocating the partnership of reason and religion as a sort of compromise between science and religion. In Islam, the partnership between reason and revelation has existed from the very beginning. Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, based on the teachings of Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet (Pbuh), states:

“…reason is the light…which draws man towards truth saves him from a variety of doubts…It is very useful, very necessary and is a great bounty…despite all this it suffers from the shortcoming that it alone cannot lead to full certainty in…understanding of the reality of things…reason needs a companion…If the operation of reason relates to matters which are metaphysical, which can’t be seen by the eye, or heard by the ear, or touched by the hand, nor can they be inquired about through history, then the companion that helps reason is revelation”

The notion of a dichotomy between Islam and rationality is unfounded. Abbas Poya explains:

“A discourse in which Sharia is contrasted with rationality, or Islam with reason, as if this involves some element of dichotomy is not to be found in the history of Islamic ideas. This is a modern dis-course forced upon Muslims in the post-colonial period as part of the rationalism that predominates everywhere – a rationalism on which the concept of human rights is based.”[15]

In the west, faith in human reason emerged only a few hundred years ago. People became tired of religious war and realized the power of scientific reason in unlocking the secrets of the natural world. While the west was immersed in the dark ages, reason and religion coexisted in the Islamic world.  During that time, Muslims not only made prominent contributions to algebra, chemistry, pharmacy, astronomy and philosophy but also laid foundations of tolerant societies where the rights of minorities were respected and protected..  Islamic Spain is a perfect example that reason and revelation coexisted in Islam well before modernity found its way into Europe.

Akbar S.Ahmed, describes:

“If we define a civilized society as one which encourages religious and ethnic tolerance, free debates, libraries and colleges, public baths and parks, poetry and architechture, then Muslim Spain is a good example. Take the example of a library, always a useful index of civilization. The library of the ruler of Cordoba in the tenth century contained 400,000 volumes – more, it is said, than in all the libraries of Europe at the time. “[16]

Islam encourages intellectual progress.. Take the example of Ijtihad in Islamic jurisprudence. Ijtihad describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources: the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Ijtihad is a perfect example of how reason is integral to Islamic jurisprudence… Abbas Poya explains:

“… the application of rationality can be observed in all spheres of Sharia law. Behind this practice are the many calls in the Koran and in the tradition for making use of rationality. The Koran repeatedly calls for reflection on nature, history, other traditions, this life and the beyond, personal action and its consequences. In some collections of hadiths there is even a special chapter on rationality and knowledge. Of course, in the Koran and in the hadiths this does not refer to the modern philosophical concept of rationality; this would simply not be possible. The Koran and the tradition are not philosophical texts, and they originated at a time when rationality in the modern sense was not discussed. However, the fact that the texts mention these terms and call for reflection in every respect was important and pointed the way ahead for Muslim practice. That is why there were no inhibitions about applying rationality with respect to Sharia law.”[17]

He continues:

 “…rationality constitutes an important element in the process of reaching legal decisions. In this the term ijtihad is of central significance. In consequence, and without entering into hair-splitting about definitions, it can be said that ijtihad is the informed application of reason when investigating the Sharia. Pragmatic considerations un-derlay the practice of ijtihad: people knew that new questions constantly arise in both profane and sacred matters – and also that not all these questions can be answered by way of the Koran or the Sunna. So it was thought important and even necessary to allow qualified experts the possibility of reaching new and practical judgements in accordance with new circumstances – in other words, to practice ijtihad.”[18]

 It is only when Islam is hijacked by radical elements that rationality became subservient to revelation, even though rationality is meant to provide insight into revelation. Islamic scholars closed the doors of ijtihad and started to rely on the literal word of the Holy Quran. Instead of abiding by the tolerant spirit of Islam and understanding the contextual rationale behind Quranic teaching, they manipulate and distorted the peaceful and knowledge-friendly beliefs of Islam into violent and oppressive ones.

The Pope treats reason and revelation as mutually exclusive sources of knowledge. In Islam, they have been closely intertwined from the outset.


All in all, the Pope seeks the purification of religion and reason by advocating collaboration of science and all major religions. It is a noble objective and Muslim religious leaders should welcome the Pope’s offer. One thing that must be kept in mind is that Islam views itself as a culmination of all other major religions and has always treated reason as a partner of revelation. Moreover, according to Ahmadi Muslims, those Islamic traditions that have lost touch with the original teachings of the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet cannot be purified with reason alone but have to be discarded in favor of authentic teachings and traditions. That is the message of Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Islam, it may be argued, when freed from political manipulations and radical interpretations, is well equipped to substantially contribute to the ethical foundations of law that transcend all faiths.

[1] Known as Joseph Ratzinger when he wrote the book. In this article, he is referred to as Pope

[2] Habermas, Jurgen & Ratzinger, Joseph, The Dialects of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006, p. 42

[3] Ibid, p.55

[4] Ibid, p. 56

[5] Ibid, p. 65

[6] Ibid, p. 60

[7] Ibid, p. 78

[8] Ibid, p. 79

[9] Ibid, p. 76

[10] Ibid. p. 78

[11] Ibid, p. 77

[12] Ahmad, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam, “Revelation, Inspiration, Vision and Dream” in The Essence of Islam, Vol II, Islam International Publications, Great Britian, 2004, p. 120

[13] Habermas & Ratzinger, p. 73-75

[14] Muslim (Riyadh As-Salihin, p. 232-233)

[15] Poya, Abbas, The Relationship between Sharia and Rationality,

[16] Ahmed, S. Akbar, “The Challenge of the Past: Empires and Dynasties” in Islam Today, I.B. Tauris Publisheers, London, 2001, p. 62

[17] Poya, Abbas, The Relationship between Sharia and Rationality,

[18] Ibid

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