Do major world religions share a common purpose?
Religion plays a pivotal role in the day to day lives of people around the world and is an integral part of cultural heritage. A person’s beliefs, values and actions are often governed by their religion associations. In a world that is facing the challenge of populations of increasing diversity, it has become an imperative to understand and respect the major world religions. After having studied the tenets of major religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism, it can be said that, while the religions may differ in their specific rites, rituals, and forms of worship, they all promote a common cause – the attainment and maintenance of a peaceful and prosperous society. The manner in which each of these religions suggests this purpose may be achieved, the themes of obligatory worship, resistance to immorality, sanctity of life, and respect for others, is common.
There are great similarities between Christianity and Islam, to the extent that Muslims consider Christianity to be their ‘Sister-religion’. The most noticeable similarities between the two most followed world religions is a shared history and strikingly common tenets. On the other hand, the most glaring differences can be seen in certain fundamental concepts and laws. However, the similarities greatly outweigh the differences between the two.
The most striking similarity between Islam and Christianity are the basic principles of faith. Muslims around the world believe that the laws and code of ethics given in their holy book, the Koran, are the word of God. The ethics of Islam are based on the attributes of Allah, the Arabic name for the single, all mighty God in Christianity and Judaism. Islam literally means ‘the submission of one’s will to God’. It should be noted that, if a Muslim is expected to submit his or her will to Allah, they cannot then act in difference to his Attributes . The religion has a set of key beliefs that are followed by every sect: a) There is no God but Allah, b) Prophet Muhammad is the final messenger of Allah, c) believing in angels as well as earlier holy books including the Injeel or Bible, d) believing in all prophets of Allah such as Ibrahim or Abraham, Isa or Jesus, Adam, Musa or Moses, and Dawood or David, e) Believing in the Day of Judgment . It is due to these similarities, and the fact that Muslims are obligated to believe in several aspects of Christianity, that they consider Christianity to be a sister religion along with Judaism.
However, there are also certain key fundamental beliefs in Islam that either do not exist in Christianity or, at the very least, are not compulsory for Christians to follow. Muslims are required to fulfill the Five Pillars of Islam, which are: a) Shahadah – declaring the submission of one’s will to Allah, b) Salah – five daily prayers, c) Zakat – alms and charity, d) Sawm – fasting throughout the Islamic month of Ramadan, and e) Hajj – a once a year pilgrimage to Mecca to be performed at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime . A Muslim who does not fulfill even one of these ‘pillars’, is not considered a practicing Muslim. Based on historical events, Muslims celebrate specific days based on the lunar calendar. Prominent Muslim Holy days are: a) Eid-ul-Adha, b) Eid-ul-Fitr, c) Eid Milaad-un-Nabi, d) Laitat-ul-Qadr, and e) the month of Ramadan. Muslims generally celebrate these days by worshipping Allah, giving charity, and visiting family and friends.
Christians, on the other hand, believe in the existence of the Holy Trinity, three parts of one God. While Muslims believe in the existence of one God, they do not consider Jesus to be His son but only his messenger. They also believe that the Holy Spirit to be the same as the Archangel Gabriel. Christians do not have any obligatory pilgrimage prescribed to them while charity and alms, although encouraged, are also not obligations. Finally, while Christians are required to attend Church, they do not have daily prayers prescribed to them as Muslims do.
Islamic Law, known as the Sharia, is often confused to be a predecessor of Islamic ethics. On the contrary, the Sharia law is derived from the ethical teachings of the Koran, the word of God. Islam prescribes a strict code of ethics on all its followers. This code, mainly listed in the Holy Koran, covers all spheres of life. Furthermore, the Sharia laws have been formed to make sure the ethics are followed and those breaking the tenets of Islam face the prescribed retribution. The Sharia gives capital punishment to major crimes like murder, rape, armed robbery as well as use and trafficking of drugs. The victim’s family has the right to waive the capital punishment by either forgiving the perpetrator or demanding a monetary recompense (Koran 2:178).
Peace within the society is of great significance in Islam, with Muslims being asked to ‘Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses for the sake of Allah, even if this may go against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin’ (The Holy Quran 4:135) and ‘let not the enmity of a people cause you to turn away from justice. Do justice, for that is closer to piety’ (The Holy Quran 5:8). Muslims greet people by saying “Assalaam-walaikum”, which translates as ‘Peace be unto you’ . The critics of Islam point out that the religion lists harsh punishment of crimes, including death for murder, rape and drug trafficking, and the cutting off of hands and feet for each instance of theft, however, scholars maintain that it is the implementation of such strict laws that has kept the crime rate in Islamic countries low. For a Muslim, murdering an innocent, whether a Muslim or a non-Muslim, carried the sin of killing all of mankind – an unforgivable crime, even in the hereafter.
On the subject of global peace, Islam preaches the concept of universal brotherhood and rejects any prejudice based on race or gender, and its achievement of eliminating race consciousness was a ‘crying need’ of the modern world: ‘It is conceivable that the spirit of Islam might be the timely reinforcement which would decide this issue in favor of tolerance and peace’ . The term ‘Jihad’ has been used by Muslim extremists to exemplify a ‘holy war’ that, in fact, finds no mention in the Koran or Quran, the holy book of Islam. The concept of Jihad is ‘a constant struggle’, requiring the followers of Islam to constantly strive for betterment. This includes internal struggles against personal weaknesses as well as opposing aggression .
Judaism, also considered to be a sister religion by Muslims, the religion originated with the prophet Abraham and continued with Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. The Israelite scripture, Torah, is also considered a holy book in Islam. Most of the history noted in the Torah, Bible and Koran is similar, having the same prophets and messengers. Further, Jerusalem, said to be the seat of Christianity and Judaism, also holds a significant place in Islam. It is considered to be a holy land by Muslims as well, with the Holy Mosque being the direction in which Muslims, including Prophet Mohammad, prayed during the early years of Islam. Hence, it can be said that the differences between Christianity, Judaism and Islam has more to do with their practice than their beliefs. The three biggest world religions have common histories of prophets and basic belief in a single, Almighty God. The difference lies in what each faith ‘requires’ its followers to practice and its implications on their day to day lives.
Often confused as being a part of Hinduism and even Islam, Sikhism is a separate religion, having its own beliefs, divine scriptures, rites and rituals. The youngest of the major world religions, the origins of Sikhism can be traced 500 years ago to the 15th century A.D. Sikhism, as the name of the religion, was mainly coined by Westerners, just as Judaism or Buddhism. It is derived from the word Sikh, which itself is derived from the Punjabi word ‘Sikhna’, which means ‘to learn’. All Sikhs consider themselves to be disciples or students of God and the Guru. They often call their religion as ‘Sikhi’, ‘Gursikhi’ and Gurmat’ while the Sikh community at large is known as the Panth . The religion is based on the belief in an all powerful, all loving God whom the Sikhs call ‘Waheguru’. All of the religion’s beliefs, rites, rituals and way of life are recorded in scriptures derived from the teaching of 10 successive gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak.
Sikhism proclaims that there is only one God and all human beings are His students/ disciples and children. Hence, all human beings are considered equal, regardless of their race, religion or castes. Sikhs are to live their lives in a manner that will ultimately lead to ‘mukti’ or liberation. In order to do so, they are to follow the teachings of God and the ten Gurus. There are five sins or vices that deter human beings from the right path. These are: a) Lust, b) Greed, c) Material or worldly attachments, d) Wrath or Anger, and e) Pride or Arrogance. In order the overcome these vices and bring oneself closer to God, Sikhs follow these three main practices: a) Naam Japo – repeating the ‘Gurmanter’ or the name of God ‘Waheguru’ as a form of meditation and prayer, b) Kirat Karo - making a living in an honest, honorable and fair manner, and c) Vand Chakko – Doing charity by by giving food through the Langar or community kitchen at the Gurdwara, donating 10% of income and spending 10% of time doing social service.
A Sikh is to always five symbolic items which clearly demarcate him as being a follower of Sikhism. These ‘Five Ks’ are: a) Kesh or Hair – Sikhs do not cut their hair, men are not to shave, b) Kangha or Comb – Sikhs are to use a small comb to keep their hair tidy and wear it in their hair, c) Kirpan or Sword – A small, dagger like sword is worn at all times to remind a Sikh to fight for justice, d) Kara or Bracelet – a bracelet made of steel and worn at the wrist, to remind one of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, and e) Kachchera or Boxer shorts – made of cotton, this is to remind Sikhs about purity, self control and that adultery is forbidden.
As can be seen, Sikhism too shares the same fundamental beliefs of the singularity of God, the sanctity of life, emphasis on purity and justice, focus on charity, and a strict code of worship as in Islam as well the concept of seven major sins in Christianity. Hence, it can be said the three religions have great commonalities. It should be noted that these similarities hold despite the fact that Christianity and Judaism originated in Palestine, Islam in Saudi Arabia, while Sikhism originated in India, the monotheist aspect binds them together. In particular, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are considered sister religions.
Buddhism, also a major world religion, has beliefs that are quite different from Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian price who gave up his materialistic life and became a monk in search of the truth of life, Buddhism does not per se worship a God. It is based on the principle of Four Noble Truths of suffering, namely: a) Suffering, b) cause of suffering, c) end of suffering, and d) the path to the end of suffering . The world is considered to be in a constant state of inevitable suffering which is caused by desire and ignorance. The end of this suffering can take the form of the end of the current life or the attaining of the state of Nirvana, where a person is free from suffering and from life.
In order for suffering to be ended, a Budhhist must follow the Noble Eightfold Path. The path contains eight steps in the right way, namely that of: a) understanding, b) thought, c) speech, d) action, e) livelihood, f) effort, g) mindfulness, and h) concentration. A Buddhist seeks to walk this path through his Karma or actions, which can be good, bad, or neutral. Based on the good karma accumulated by a Buddhist, his fate after death is decided. Buddhism believes in a cycle of rebirth, wherein a man may be reborn in the form of a god, demi-god, man, animal, ghost, or be sent to hell. It considered fortunate for a person to be born as a man as this gives them the opportunity to attain nirvana. Buddhists have very strict rites of worship. Chanting and praying in the morning and evening, whether at a monastery, temple or home, is obligatory. Every week, Buddhists mark Observance Day where monks and laity gather at the monastery to share understanding and encourage discipline and offer sermons .
Although Buddhism is not a monotheist religion, its fundamentals are quite similar to the four major religions covered earlier. The Observance Day ritual can be likened to the Friday prayers of Muslims or Sunday Masses for Christians. The aspects of the Eightfold Path have great similarities with the tenets of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. However, none of these religions include the cycle of rebirth, which is a crucial aspect of Buddhism. While Hinduism does have the concept of rebirth, it believes that the soul is everlasting and keeps returning to the world in new physical forms. It also believes that the karma of past lives may be punished in current ones. In Buddhism, however, the concept of a soul does not exist and past karmas are not transferred to the present life.
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