Religious knowledge is something that should be an important factor for every believer. For instance, during the time of the prophet, God commanded that some of the bleievers should not mobilize for war, but instead study the religion to stay religiously informed.
[9:122] When the believers mobilize, not all of them shall do so. A few from each group shall mobilize by devoting their time to studying the religion. Thus, they can pass the knowledge on to their people when they return, that they may remain religiously informed.
وَمَا كَانَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لِيَنْفِرُوا كَافَّةً فَلَوْلَا نَفَرَ مِنْ كُلِّ فِرْقَةٍ مِنْهُمْ طَائِفَةٌ لِيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنْذِرُوا قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَجَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُونَ
But many people make the mistake of thinking that someone who has lots of religious knowledge is more righteous because of their understanding. Except this form of knowledge does not make someone more righteous, but instead just makes that person more responsible. For instance, the responsibility on someone who has the Quran and understands Arabic, is higher than someone who doesn’t have the Quran and is illiterate.
Knowledge is like any other provision, such that if someone has lots of provisions and uses it wisely in the cause of God then it is to their credit, but if they use it unwisely to repel from the path of God then it is to their own detriment.
[42:27] If GOD increased the provision for His servants, they would transgress on earth. This is why He sends it precisely measured to whomever He wills. He is fully Cognizant and Seer of His servants.
وَلَوْ بَسَطَ اللَّهُ الرِّزْقَ لِعِبَادِهِ لَبَغَوْا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَٰكِنْ يُنَزِّلُ بِقَدَرٍ مَا يَشَاءُ إِنَّهُ بِعِبَادِهِ خَبِيرٌ بَصِيرٌ
The challenge with gaining religious knowledge is that it inherently feels righteous. Most people think that if God bestowed this knowledge upon them that it naturally must mean that they are on the right path. While this can be true, the irony is that rarely does someone realize that their knowledge is causing them to be self-righteous or arrogant. so how do we tell if the knowledge we gain is pushing us in the right or wrong direction?
The Quran provides us a simple rule of thumb that we can utilize to make this determination through the example of the Children of Israel and the recipients of the previous scripture.
[45:16] We have given the Children of Israel the scripture, wisdom, and prophethood, and provided them with good provisions; we bestowed upon them more blessings than any other people. [45:17] We have given them herein clear commandments. Ironically, they did not dispute this until the knowledge (الْعِلْمُ) had come to them. This is due to jealousy (بَغْيًا) on their part. Surely, your Lord will judge them on the Day of Resurrection regarding everything they have disputed. [45:18] We then appointed you to establish the correct laws; you shall follow this, and do not follow the wishes of those who do not know.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: when we receive religious knowledge does it cause us to dispute and divide or to refine our understanding and draw closer to God?
For the most part, why has there been unity among the Children of Israel for all the multitude of Jewish prophets that God sent them, but when God sends His final scripture in Arabic to another group then they reject it. Do you think they would have behaved in the same manner if the Quran was in Hebrew and given to a person from the Children of Israel? This does not mean that the Jews did not dispute and bicker about understandings, but despite this they all identify as Jewish.
Typically when there is a new movement forms the first generation is aligned against a common enemy or goal, but as they gain prominence in society the core values that created unity among the group slowly gets deprioritized and individuals in the group start bickering and dividing over more of the minutiae of their understandings.
Sigmund Freud coined the term “the narcism of small differences” where two groups of people who are close in belief or proximity will see greater disputes over the smallest of differences compared to other groups who are either physically or ideologically distant. And we see this pattern is not unique to the Children of Israel, but consistent for just about every community that God blessed with scripture and knowledge. In the following verse, God informs us that the people used to be a single community, and that it wasn’t until they received the clear proofs that they broke into sects.
[2:213] The people used to be one community when GOD sent the prophets as bearers of good news, as well as warners. He sent down with them the scripture, bearing the truth, to judge among the people in their disputes. Ironically, those who were given the scripture disputed only after the clear proofs given to them. This is due to jealousy (بَغْيًا)on their part. GOD guides those who believe to the truth that is disputed by all others, in accordance with His will. GOD guides whoever wills in a straight path.
Isn’t it strange that with more knowledge and information, rather than providing people more reason to coalesce it actually had the opposite effect. And as recipients of the Quran we are no more immune to this pitfall. In the following verse we see that we have done the same thing as the Children of Israel and the recipients of the previous scriptures with the religion of Submission/Islam.
[3:19] The only religion approved by GOD is “Submission.” Ironically, those who have received the scripture are the ones who dispute this fact, despite the knowledge (الْعِلْمُ) they have received, due to jealousy (بَغْيًا). For such rejectors of GOD’s revelations, GOD is most strict in reckoning.
Part of the problem is that the other groups are abrasive towards any new scripture, but the other part of the problem is that we use this scripture and the knowledge therein to differentiate ourselves from these other communities. God tells us in the Quran what it means to be constituted as a believer.
[2:62] Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Christians, and the converts; anyone who (1) believes in GOD, and (2) believes in the Last Day, and (3) leads a righteous life, will receive their recompense from their Lord. They have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالنَّصَارَىٰ وَالصَّابِئِينَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
Yet, despite this information we continue making excuses to why certain groups or people are not privy to God’s mercy. We act that by being dismissive we are better stewards of the purity of our religion, rather than realizing that by doing so we are breaking the very commandment that God is warning us not to do. That said there is a temptation to label any person who has a belief we do not agree with as an idol worshipper. The logic is typically if one believes that their understanding is form the Quran and God then if someone has a difference of understanding on some topic, therefore they must be following another source and therefore committing idol worship and are an idol worshipper and could be dismissed. God warns us about such abuse of this kind of thinking.
[4:94] O you who believe, if you strike in the cause of GOD, you shall be absolutely sure. Do not say to one who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the spoils of this world. For GOD possesses infinite spoils. Remember that you used to be like them, and GOD blessed you. Therefore, you shall be absolutely sure (before you strike). GOD is fully Cognizant of everything you do.
We are quick to dismiss and label rather than killing our egos. God warns us if we do this that we will be considered a transgressor.
[6:52] And do not dismiss those who implore their Lord day and night, devoting themselves to Him alone. You are not responsible for their reckoning, nor are they responsible for your reckoning. If you dismiss them, you will be a transgressor. [6:53] We thus test the people by each other, to let them say (mockingly), “Are these the people among us who are blessed by GOD?” Is GOD not aware of the appreciative ones?
God decreed the same religion for all of us, and rather than finding excuses to divide we should seek excuses to unite.
[42:13] He decreed for you the same religion decreed for Noah, and what we inspired to you, and what we decreed for Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: “You shall uphold this one religion, and do not divide it.” The idol worshipers will greatly resent what you invite them to do. GOD redeems to Himself whomever He wills; He guides to Himself only those who totally submit. [42:14] Ironically, they broke up into sects only after the knowledge had come to them, due to jealousy (بَغْيًا) and resentment among themselves. If it were not for a predetermined decision from your Lord to respite them for a definite interim, they would have been judged immediately. Indeed, the later generations who inherited the scripture are full of doubts. [42:15] This is what you shall preach, and steadfastly maintain what you are commanded to do, and do not follow their wishes. And proclaim: “I believe in all the scriptures sent down by GOD. I was commanded to judge among you equitably. GOD is our Lord and your Lord. We have our deeds and you have your deeds. There is no argument between us and you. GOD will gather us all together; to Him is the ultimate destiny.” [42:16] Those who argue about GOD, after receiving His message, their argument is nullified at their Lord. They have incurred condemnation, and have deserved a severe retribution. [42:17] GOD is the One who sent down the scripture, to deliver the truth and the law. For all that you know, the Hour (Day of Judgment) may be very close.
It is part of God’s system that we each have different rites and revelations, and we should respect each other for this, and realize that the hostility we feel towards other groups is a test that we do not want to fail.
[5:48]…For each of you, we have decreed laws and different rites. Had GOD willed, He could have made you one congregation. But He thus puts you to the test through the revelations He has given each of you. You shall compete in righteousness. To GOD is your final destiny—all of you—then He will inform you of everything you had disputed. [5:49] You shall rule among them in accordance with GOD’s revelations to you. Do not follow their wishes, and beware lest they divert you from some of GOD’s revelations to you. If they turn away, then know that GOD wills to punish them for some of their sins. Indeed, many people are wicked. [5:50] Is it the law of the days of ignorance that they seek to uphold? Whose law is better than GOD’s for those who have attained certainty?
The only unforgivable sin, if maintained until death, is idol worship. And this is something that as a believer we should never compromise on when it comes to unity. But at the same time if we label anyone with a difference of understanding as an idol worshipper then we are only deceiving ourselves. And while it is impossible to share 100% of the same understanding as anyone else, what we can do is unite with people based on common ground and the things that we agree upon.
[3:64] Say, “O followers of the scripture, let us come to a logical agreement between us and you: that we shall not worship except GOD; that we never set up any idols besides Him, nor set up any human beings as lords beside GOD.” If they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we are submitters.”
قُلْ يَاأَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْا إِلَىٰ كَلِمَةٍ سَوَاءٍ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ أَلَّا نَعْبُدَ إِلَّا اللَّهَ وَلَا نُشْرِكَ بِهِ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَتَّخِذَ بَعْضُنَا بَعْضًا أَرْبَابًا مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ فَإِنْ تَوَلَّوْا فَقُولُوا اشْهَدُوا بِأَنَّا مُسْلِمُونَ
It is a fools errand that if in an effort to purify our religion and rid ourselves of any form of idol worship, that we commit the very act of idol worship by breaking into sects in the process.
[30:30] Therefore, you shall devote yourself to the religion of strict monotheism. Such is the natural instinct placed into the people by GOD. Such creation of GOD will never change. This is the perfect religion, but most people do not know. [30:31] You shall submit to Him, reverence Him, observe the Contact Prayers (Salat), and—whatever you do—do not ever fall into idol worship. [30:32] (Do not fall in idol worship,) like those who divide their religion into sects; each party rejoicing with what they have.
So let’s try our utmost to avoid making the same mistake as the previous generations that God repeatedly warns us about in the Quran. Let’s find reason to unite and not divide.
[3:103] You shall hold fast to the rope of GOD, all of you, and do not be divided. Recall GOD’s blessings upon you—you used to be enemies and He reconciled your hearts. By His grace, you became brethren. You were at the brink of a pit of fire, and He saved you therefrom. GOD thus explains His revelations for you, that you may be guided. [3:104] Let there be a community of you who invite to what is good, advocate righteousness, and forbid evil. These are the winners. [3:105] Do not be like those who became divided and disputed, despite the clear proofs that were given to them. For these have incurred a terrible retribution.