Volume > Issue > The Futility of Trying to Derive a Religion from a Book

The Futility of Trying to Derive a Religion from a Book


By Howard P. Kainz | November 2018
Howard P. Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of 25 books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over 100 articles and op-eds in scholarly journals, print magazines, and online magazines. He was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for 1977-1978, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1981 and 1987-1988. His website is http://academic.mu.edu/phil/kainzh/.

For those of us with a literary bent, it might seem a godsend to receive a book from God that gives clear and failsafe instructions about how to attain salvation. There would be no more wondering whether we’re on the right track, whether our final destiny will be Heaven or Hell. If we have questions about sex, property rights, truth-telling, relations with unbelievers, or forgiveness of sins, we could just check the appropriate place in the divinely bestowed book to get a satisfactory answer. The book becomes the source of belief and inspiration. Among both Christians and Muslims, this approach to salvation is widespread, and it often leads to fundamentalism.

Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, specifies certain religious groups as “people of the book” because, like Muslims, their scriptures inculcate belief in one God and a Final Judgment. This classification includes not only Jews and Christians but Zoroastrians and Sabians. (It is not clear who exactly the “Sabians” were, but the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, was apparently considered an imperfect rendition of Allah.) Buddhists and Hindus also possess revered religious books, but theirs are not “scriptures” in the Islamic sense: Hindus are not monotheistic, and Buddhists do not even claim to be theistic.

Down through the centuries, “people of the book” in Islamic jurisdictions have been eligible for something like Mafia protection: They have at times been allowed to remain in Muslim lands as second-class dhimmis, practice their religion privately, and even own property — as long as they pay special taxes and show proper submission to the superiority of Islam. Other non-Muslims, Kafirs, who refuse to convert to Islam but who don’t possess a “book,” are subject to annihilation or slavery and are supposedly doomed to eternal punishment in the afterlife. But this condemnation can include “people of the book” who live and believe like Kafirs: “The Kafirs among the People of the Book and the idolaters will burn for eternity in the Fire of Hell. Of all the created beings, they are the most despicable” (Sura 98:6).

However, in Islamic doctrine, the status of even “faithful” Jews and Christians and their “book” is ambiguous, to say the least.

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