The Qur’an castigates the Jews and Christians of the early 600s AD for their exclusivist theories of salvation. Alan Race and John Hick have identified three possible stances by one religion toward the prospects of going to heaven for members of other religions.
Exclusivism is the position that only members of your own religion are saved, and people who follow other spiritual paths are damned to hell. This notion is common among Evangelicals today, and used to be the position of the Catholic Church (extra Ecclesiam nulla salus— outside the church there is no salvation). Fundamentalist Muslims hold this view.
Inclusivism is the position that your religion has the whole truth but other religions have part of the truth. This was the stance adopted by the Vatican II Council toward other religions such as Islam and Buddhism.
Pluralism is the notion that there are many true religions that lead to salvation. This position is common among some Hindus, the Quakers, and many Sufis such as Jalaluddin Rumi.
I discuss this issue with regard to the Qur’an in my new book:
The Qur’an in the chapter of The Cow (2:111–112) complains about the exclusivism of the Jews and Christians of its era, saying, “They maintain that no one will enter heaven but Jews or Christians. Such are their vain notions. Say: produce your proof, if you speak truly. Rather, all those who submit to God and do good works will receive their recompense with their Lord, and no fear will be upon them, nor will they sorrow.” Later in The Cow (2:135), the Qur’an complains, “They say: ‘Become Jews and Christians and be guided.’ No, the Word of Abraham, the pious gentile. He was no polytheist.”
The Qur’an proclaims that all righteous monotheists are going to heaven– Jews, Christians and believers in Muhammad’s mission. I think there are signs that the Qur’an also accepted as among the saved the Zoroastrians and what have been called “pagan monotheists” or Godfearers (those pagans who came to see Zeus or one of his local manifestations as the sole, supreme deity and reduced other members of the pantheon to mere angels).
That is because all monotheists follow the Word of Abraham.
The word for “Word” in this passage is usually transliterated as millah, but it is not an Arabic word. It is an Aramaic loan, melta. Melta is the Aramaic/Syriac term for “word.”
Melta in turn is underlain by the Greek Logos, which means way more than just “word.” It can mean the mind of God, or the reason immanent in the universe. It is used in New Testament in John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people.” The Greek here is “Logos,” and in the Peshitta or Aramaic New Testament, “melta” is used.
But Logos was also used in Late Antiquity (200-700 AD) to mean “religion” or “spiritual path.” Celsus, an anti-Christian pagan, called his polemic “The True Word,” by which he meant traditional Greek religion.
The Word of Abraham could thus be glossed as “the philosophy of Abraham” or “the religion of Abraham,” or “the Cosmic Principle of Abraham.” Whatever it is, it is a much bigger concept than most commenters or translators recognized. In later centuries, “millah” in Arabic took on the connotation of “community,” but that isn’t what it means in the chapter of The Cow. It means Logos.
I did lots of keyword searches in Greek and other languages in hopes of discovering whether the Qur’an was the first to use this term, the Logos of Abraham, with the sense of monotheistic thinking. I finally came across Philo’s essay “De Migratione Abrahami,” 70–73, in Philo in Ten Volumes, edited and translated by F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, 10 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1932 ) 4:170/171–172/173.
The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (d. 50 CE) is one of the few authors who used this conception of the Word of Abraham, in his essay on “The Migration of Abraham.” There he referred the blessing that God bestowed on the patriarch in Genesis 12:2, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Philo identified the blessing that God will bestow on Abraham as both reason and speech, the two meanings for him of the Greek Logos or Word, which “in the understanding resembles a spring, and is called ‘reason,’ while utterance by mouth and tongue is like its outflow, and is called ‘speech.'” Philo believed that God’s blessing on Abraham was the bestowal of “right reason” and “excellent speech,” both of them avenues to cosmic understanding and godliness.
In the current state of research, it isn’t possible to connect the Qur’an passage about the Word of Abraham being a universal path of salvation to Philo’s more narrow, Hellenistic Jewish conception of the Word of Abraham as God’s bestowal on him and the Jews of the Logos (=both “Reason” and “reasoned discourse”). But I couldn’t find evidence of any other use of this phrase by any other authors.
So imagine my chagrin when I discovered the other day that I’d been scooped by about 130 years. Some time ago I had asked some undergraduates working with me to scan the 1885 ‘Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam’ as a wiki. As with most Victorian scholarship on Islam, it is a mixed bag, sometimes offensive and Orientalist, but occasionally containing useful information. And the entry on “Millah,” which I either never read myself or glanced over and promptly forgot, makes all the points above about melta and Logos and Philo!
Well, if I weren’t as original as I hoped, I also wasn’t in danger of being idiosyncratic. And, it is really interesting that the Hughes entry seems entirely to have dropped out of Western scholarship, since it wasn’t in the footnotes of any of the several recent academic articles and chapters on Abraham in the Qur’an that I read in connection with my book.
One thing is clear, the Qur’an is a deeper text than many observers have thought. Its use of the idea of Logos as a universal path to salvation for monotheists is clearly Neoplatonic. It is a text of Late Antiquity, speaking to the people not only of the Hejaz in Arabia but to the Roman Near East, in the latter’s own conceptual language (I and some others think people in Damascus, Bostra and Antioch used Greek as their formal language in the time of Muhammad, and the Petra papyri prove this is true for Petra).
`Abd al-Rahman Al-Suyuti (d. 1505) and other great Muslim scholars of the Qur’an freely admitted that there were Aramaic loan wards in the scripture. But that the word “millah” in Arabic took on the sense of “community” rather than “Word” or “religion” or “Logos” caused many later exegetes to misunderstand what was being said. It is that all the monotheistic religions partake in the Logos of the patriarch, and all their adherents can be saved by it.
Wikis > Dictionary of Islam > Millah
A word which occurs in the Qur’an fifteen times. Eight times for the religion of Abraham (Surahs ii. 124, 129; iii. 89; iv. 124; vi. 102; iii. 38: xvi. 124; xxii. 77); twice for the religion of former prophets (Surahs xiv. 16; xxxviii. 6); once for the religion of the seven children of the cave (Surah xviii. 19); three times for idolatrous religions (Surah xii. 37, vii 86, 87); and once for the religion of Jews and Christians (Surah ii. 114). The word is used in the Traditions for the religion of Abraham (Mishkat, book x. ch. v.).
According to the Kitabu‘t-Ta’rifat, it is expressive of religion an it stands in relation to the prophets, as distinguished from Din دين, which signifies religion as it stands in relation to God, or from Mazhal مذال, which signifies religion wills reference to the learned doctors [RELIGION.] Sprenger and Deutsch have invested the origin and meaning of this word with a certain amount of mystery, which is interesting.
Dr Sprenger says (Das Leben und die Lehre des Mohammad, vol. ii. p 276 n) —.’ When Mohammad speaks of the religion of Abraham, he generally uses the word Milla (Millah) and not Din. Arabian philologists have tried to trace the meaning of the word from their mother tongue, thus, Malla (Mallah) signifies fire or hot ashes in Arabic and Zaggag says (Thalaby, vol. ii. p. 114), that religion is called Milla because of the impression which it makes, and which may be compared to that which fire makes upon the bread baked in ashes.
Since the Arabs are unable to give a better explanation, we must presume that milla is a foreign word, imported by the teachers of the ‘Milla of Abraham” in the Hijaz. Philo considered Abraham the chief promoter of the doctrine of the Unity of God, and doubtless, oven before Philo, Jewish thought, in tracing the doctrine of the true religion, not only as far back as Moses, but even to the father of their nation, emancipated the indispensability of the Coran the law, and so prepared the road to Essaism and Christianity.”
Mr Emanuel Deutsch, in his article on Islam (Literary Remains, p 130), says: “The word used in the Quran for the religion of Abraham is generally Milla. Sprenger after ridiculing the indeed absurd attempts made to derive it from an Arabic root, concludes that it must be a foreign word introduced by the teachers of the ‘Milla of Abraham’ into the Hijaz. He is perfectly right. Milla=Memra=Logos, are identical; being the Hebrew, Chaldee (Targum, Peshito in slightly varied spelling), and Greek terms respectively for the ‘Word,’ that surrogate for the Divine name used by the Targum,by Philo, by St. John. This Milla or ‘Word, which Abraham proclaimed, he, ‘who was not an astrologer but a prophet,’ teaches according to the Haggada, first of all, the existence of one God, the Creator of the Universe, who rules this universe with mercy and lovingkindness.”