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Dialogue with the Polytheists

By  the Religious Authority Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah(ra)

At the outset of the Islamic call to God's way, the Prophet (p.)  faced the problem of people setting up partners to God. The problem manifested itself in the plethora of idols that were worshipped in accordance with a set of ceremonies and practices; Idol worshipping had permeated the entirety of people's life and psyche. It was so ingrained in their hearts and minds that they considered it to be an absolute truth and consequently they were dismissive of anything that might run contrary to that established belief, without any discussion or thought.

Their psychological state

The following Quranic verses throw light on the psychological and mental state the polytheists were in when they were invited to worship the One and Only God:

"Has he made the gods (all) into one God? Truly this is a wonderful thing" And the leaders among them go away (impatiently), (saying), "Walk ye away, and remain constant to your gods! For this is truly a thing designed (against you)! We never heard (the like) of this among the people of these latter days: this is nothing but a made-up tale" (38:5-7).

Thus, to their mind, the question was not one that was worthy of response or discussion; rather, it was perplexing matter and nothing more. The discovery made them panic, when it required them to show steadfastness and forbearance, as a response to something they had never heard of in the former faith, only to conclude that it was nothing but lies.

Theism and polytheism doing battle

In that situation, polytheism represented the greatest challenge to the progress of the prophetic mission, as it was the biggest hurdle preventing the message from getting across to the people. It was not a transient thing in their life, as it was a way of life and a social system. On the other hand, the Islamic message symbolized a great challenge to the polytheistic mentality, as it was the creed on whose rock polytheism would break up, as would all norms or conduct and customs based on it, even the inner human feelings, which encapsulated man's relations with others and with God. This is called hidden polytheism; one of its aspects is akin to the conduct of a hypocrite who goes about his business apprehensive of others as well as of God.

The opening salvos of the battle began with full force. Following the Prophet's style of dialogue and management of struggle, Islam did not start the battle in the way they had expected it to be conducted. This was because the sphere within which the challenge of Islam's noble task was moving was different from the sphere in which polytheism was moving. In the former, the mission of Islam has started from the position of an ideology linked to the wider realities of universe and life. In the latter, polytheism had started from the position of a custom intertwined with the sentimentality of the heritage of fathers and forefathers, and from a base of concessions granted to the ruling elite.

It is obvious, therefore, that the difference in the nature of the challenge would leave its impact on the approach each camp used in the progress of struggle.

Reason versus rage

The methods used by the polytheists in managing struggle had been characterized by tensions that left no room for meaningful intellectual exchanges of ideas. Thus they resorted to provocative tactics through swearing, insults, and manufacturing countless unjust accusations. They brought yet another tactic into play, i.e. that of whipping up public hysteria against the callers to theism. The result was that the practice of oppression and torture against them was commonplace. This, needless to say, has been the means to which tyrants, who are bereft of strong proof to present their adversaries with, turn. They make use of all the tools at their disposal to suppress resistance.

On the other side of the spectrum, Islam's mission had espoused the calm approach that was capable of winning the hearts and minds of the polytheists to the cause of monotheism both in thought and in practice. It had set out to gradually free their conscience from all aspects of polytheism in a well-thought-out plan that had catered for all eventualities. Some situations might have called for jolting the minds of the idol worshippers, with a view to rousing them into thinking about their beliefs. The need might have arisen for making the opponents poke fun at their own convictions, after they had discovered the weaknesses and drawbacks within it.   

This was the method the Prophet of Islam put into practice, guided by the Quranic approach to dialogue. There was no other way he could have tried, for he was firm in the knowledge and confidence that his argument was stronger than that of his opponents. Thus he was aware that the outcome of the struggle would be the triumph of his beliefs. Yet, in his struggle, he was not in it for point scoring against his adversaries, as though he were in a competition. Rather, his objective was that they should move with him to a newfound common ground, having seen the strength of his argument. His approach was one that never lost sight of the goal ahead, although the journey might have been long and arduous. This might have been induced by the struggle between man and his inner urge for speed and haphazardness.

Polytheism loses the argument

The start was made from a very well established position. The idea that had governed the position was one that was armed with proof and evidence, as well as knowledge. The Prophet asked his adversaries to provide all those things, should they wish to support their position, in the same measure as he required it from himself with all that he was calling them to, i.e. belief and ideology. He used to mount the challenge from the point where he could expose their position, by questioning their convictions and asking for evidence to prove that they were right. His questions were not affirmative, i.e. those of someone who wanted to acquire knowledge about their beliefs. Rather, they were posed in a negative mode, with a view to dismissing the allegations of the other party as baseless. This is succinctly captured in the following Quranic verses:

Say: "Do ye see what it is ye invoke besides God? Show me what it is they have created on earth, or have they a share in the heavens? Bring me a Book (Revealed) before this, or any remnant of knowledge (ye may have), if ye are telling the truth!" (46:4).

Those who give partners (to God) will say: "If God had wished, we should not have given partners to Him nor would our fathers, nor should we have had any taboos". So did their ancestors argue falsely, until they tasted of Our wrath? Say: "Have ye any (certain) knowledge? If so, produce it before us. Ye follow nothing but conjecture: ye do nothing but lie". (6:148).

Thus, the Holy Qur'an introduces the issue from the perspective of common truths, in that it challenges their intelligence (by saying): If those whom you call upon besides God are gods, they should be capable of creation. Conversely, being gods does not make sense; where is that which they have created on the earth, or in heaven for that matter? Should the answer be in the affirmative, where would this leave the allegation? Should it be in the negative, where then is the evidence, i.e. be it a book or any piece of information, so that we can ponder it? In fact, they were helpless. In that situation, they had nothing to fall back on, except conjecture and telling lies, and both were shallow and boneless.

Monotheism proves the inconceivability of polytheism

As the dialogue progressed, Islam's side of the argument began to gather momentum. This was achieved by rejecting the doubters' argument from angle of rational thinking and logical inference. Thus, the debate had become uniform in both the situation in accordance with the two philosophical principles as regards "negation", in that the non-existence of proof on something means that there is no way it can be proved. And furnishing the proof for "nothingness" turns "negation" into rationalistic determinism. Employing this approach, Islam had demonstrated the inconceivability of polytheism as an abstract nation, regardless of its proponents and the nature of their justifications for holding such views. God says:

Or have they taken (for worship) gods from the earth who can raise (the dead)? If there were, in the heavens and the earth, other gods besides God, there would have been confusion in both! But glory to God, the Lord of the Throne: (High is He) above what they attribute to Him! (21:21-22).

Say: "If there had been (other) gods with Him, as they say, behold, they would certainly have sought out a way to the Lord of the Throne!" (17:42).

No son did God beget, nor is there any god along with Him: (if there were many gods), behold, each god would have taken away what he had created, and some would have lorded it over others! Glory to God! (He is free) from the (sort of) things they attribute to Him! (23:91)

The multiplicity of gods, the subject of the first verse, should assume that each of them has absolute power, for this quality is the most supreme that the gods could posses. This lends support to the Quranic assumption that each one of them could covet something the others desired, and there the conflict might erupt, in which case the orderly state of the universe might be put in harm's way. Reality points to the opposite, i.e. there is not disorder in the system of the universe. Consequently, we must reject the notion of the existence of more than one God.

The second verse takes issue with the exponents of the notion, using a different approach. The suggested existence of other gods, besides God, should assume that they are capable of competing with each other to reach Him, because sharing with the Lord should necessarily mean sharing His very characteristics. On top of these qualities is the attribute of absolute power, which would, as a consequence, give them the same capability to get to Him, do battle with and depose Him. This is not possible, as there is not trace of Him in the universe.

As for the third verse, it discusses the two angles taken up by the other two verses and adds to the assertions the idea of the divisibility of the universe by virtue of every god taking away what he created, without any leeway for letting other gods share it with him. This contention breaks up on the rock of reality, as we can see that the whole of the creation is governed by a single system, which is both uniform and faultless.

From the perspective of scholastic theologians

As is customary, scholastic theologians wished to tackle these Quranic verses from a philosophical perspective. They came up with a philosophical perspective. They came up with a philosophical argument they dubbed "unobjectionability". In his commentary on the first verse, the author of Majma'ul Bayan fi Tafseeril Qur'an (a Quranic exegesis) offers this interpretation in expanding on this argument:

Should there be another god, besides God Almighty, they would have been eternal; timelessness is most sublime of all characteristics; sharing this attribute would engender correspondence. It would then follow that both of them must be powerful, cognizant, and alive; in his own right, each of them can covet that which goes contrary to the wish of the other god, i.e. of causing death of life, stirring up or calming down things, causing poverty or prosperity, and so forth. On this supposition, their (contradictory) desires could materialize; this is impossible. Yet, should their wishes not come true, this would detract from their being all-powerful? If the desire of one of them would materialize to the exclusion of the other, the one who could not make things happen, without justification why it was not possible for him, would be branded powerless. Consequently, it is conceivable that there is no god but One God.

However, if it is said that they do not have objection to each other's will to be executed, in that they happen to be wanting the very thing, the answer would be that what we are trying to prove it the validity of unobjectionability, not its incidence. Thus, the validity of unobjectionability is a sufficient proof that it is inevitable that the power of one of them is limited; consequently, it is inconceivable that he is god.

We can see that it is possible that the three Quranic verses, especially the first one, could lend themselves to the interpretation of scholastic theologians. However, the Holy Qur'an attaches more weight to the proofs it wants to establish, including rational ones, to those that have a bearing on the idea, away from all jargon or philosophical maneuverings. Thus we can identify in this holy verse the recognition of a natural truth that is dictated by the issue of multiple power centers in any given field. This is akin to what we see in real life situations. When each power centre has absolute authority and independence, i.e. in thought, management, and movement, this leads to disagreements, then conflict, then disorder, then victory, and eventually to winner-takes-all.

Besides, the method espoused by this holy verse is in line with the tendency of providing the polytheists with answers to what they argue of their belief in the context of debate. This is done in order to prove a case for rejection, without satisfying oneself with the negative trend, i.e. non-existence of a proof to support the idea. Abiding by the negative side would not negate the possibility of the idea; rather. It would disprove the existence of proof that it happened, by virtue or the rational thought, "Non-existence of proof should not lead to the conclusion that something does or exist". So, should others be in need of a proof to prove something, you should be in need of a proof on non-existence.

Polytheism in reality

A novel approach to conduction dialogue has been discussed in the Holy Qur'an. It required Prophet Mohammad (p.) to adopt it in his dialogue with the polytheists. The method was that of relying on rational reasoning. For a start, he anchored his position on rejecting the supremacy of their gods by denuding them of them attribute of divinity, which signifies omnipotence, capability of creation, and eternity, etc. He them went further than that, by stripping their gods of all the qualities that might make people hold them in any regard. This was bound to set them in place for mockery of their worth, not in a realm of divinity. This is beautifully depicted in the narrative of these Quranic verses:

Do they indeed ascribe to Him as partners things that can create nothing, but are themselves created? No aid can they give them, nor can they aid themselves! If ye call them to guidance, they will not obey: for you it is the same whether y call them or ye hold your peace! Verily those whom ye call upon besides God are servants like unto you: Call upon them, and let them listen to your prayer, if ye are (indeed) truthful! Have they feet to walk with? Or hands to lay hold with? Or eyes to see with? Or ears to hear with? Say: "Call your 'god-partners', scheme (your worst) against me, and give me no respite!" (7:191-95).

Yet have they taken, besides him, gods that can create nothing but are themselves created; that have no control of hurt or good to themselves; nor can they death nor life nor resurrection. (25:3).

To start with, it had been concluded that they could neither create anything nor could they be eternal. They were even unable to desire, or ward off, things like life, death, and resurrection. They were senseless for want of any faculty. If is a vivid picture that can produce nothing but laughter and degradation; how, then, could such gods be elevated to the rank of being worshipped?

On men! Here is a parable set forth! Listen to it! Those on whom, besides God, ye call, cannot create (even) a fly, if they all met together for the purpose! And if the fly should snatch away anything from them, they would have no power to release it from the fly. Feeble are those who petition and those whom they petition! (22:73).

This verse brilliantly illustrated the deep feeling of utter incapacity before one of the smallest and most vulnerable of creatures, where the ingredient of derision blends with the notion of divinity of those gods, which the idolaters worshipped to the exclusion of God. Imagine the two sights. The first one is that of the gods trying to collaborate to create a fly, yet they cannot despite the power they deployed. The second spectacle is that of the fly, with all the weakness and insignificance that it stands for, forging ahead to those "great" gods to snatch away something they possessed. The gods are then choreographed in a scene where they chase the fly to take back what it had robbed them of, yet they are unable to do so.

This skilful approach to dialogue was intended to denude those goes of the attributes of divinity on the one hand, and subject them to ridicule on the other. This would render untenable the position of those people who believed in and worshipped them, for their belief did not stand on solid ground, nor was it worthy of any respect; rather the opposite, i.e. sarcasm, scorn and contempt.

These were some Quranic samplings of the approach espoused by the Prophet (p.) in his dialogue with the polytheists. This was in keeping with the human reality in facing what he believed in or that which others believed in. the Islamic experience and application of this approach in a polytheistic society proved successful. Besides, it is not that remote from other fields of faith and conduct in the battle of competing ideologies in the cause of life.