The Elephant and the Religious Blind Men: A Look into Religious Pluralism
This article aims to provide insight about and expose the weaknesses of the notion of religious pluralism through simple intellectual and Qur’anic arguments. Pluralism – the idea that all worldviews are correct and everyone will reach eternal felicity
– is an increasingly common notion in today’s world. Major portions of Islamic society have adopted this view without taking the time to analyse and discuss it and understand its incompatibility with Islamic teachings. The topic is of utmost importance because it deals with the notion of truth, the veracity of religion, and other fundamental theological beliefs. Therefore, this article aims to discuss the key arguments of religious pluralism, and prove firstly, that the fundamental premise of this belief is logically flawed; and secondly, that according to the Qur’anic viewpoint, pluralism in truth does not provide a correct understanding of inclusiveness in eternal salvation. Rather, Islam presents a better solution that is both just and logical.
Once upon a time, there was a village inhabited by blind men. However, these were no ordinary men. Despite their blindness, they always wanted to know reality, to “know things as they are.” One day, they heard whispers about an elephant in the woods. They had never heard of such a thing before so they went looking for it, blindly following the sound of this unknown creature. When they felt they were close, they extended their hands to touch the mysterious beast.
“I have found the truth! An elephant is a small snake, and swings right and left with force,” said the first blind man.
“You are wrong my friend; it cannot be a meagre snake! An elephant is a big column, rigid as a tree trunk, firm as a mountain!” said the second blind man.
“You are both wrong, brethren. This elephant is nothing but sharp bones!” said the third blind man.
“No, the elephant is as our brother said, a snake; but not a small one, rather it is a very strong and powerful snake,” said the fourth blind man, finally. The four men continued to argue over what an elephant really was, all claiming to have fully understood it. Of course, the first blind man had was holding nothing other than its tail, whilst the second was holding its leg. The third had grabbed its tusk, and the fourth had seized its trunk. The leader, strongest and most blind, subdued his fellow villagers, forcing them to accept his understanding of the elephant and beating them up for denying it.
Meanwhile, a man from the village west of the river, where people still possessed eyesight, passed by. The man, having seen the whole elephant for what it truly was, said to them,
“Do not fight, fellow humans. You are all correct in your own ways. You have all found the reality you seek, so do not fight over that which you all agree upon in different ways!”
And thus the blind men returned to their village, pleased to have discovered the reality of an “elephant”, and happy to be saved from dispute by the visionary man of the western village .
Likewise, as human beings went in search for the truth, different groups arrived at different conclusions. Some thought that truth was to be found in the ideas of Christianity, whilst others thought that Islam was the correct way, and yet others found reality in Buddhism. Every religion has a set of specific beliefs with the firm conviction that the truth is exclusively belongs to itself. But it does not stop there. Many religions suggest that only those who follow their specific edicts will attain eternal salvation, and all others will be damned forever. The damaging effect of this exclusivist philosophy reached its peak in pre-Enlightenment Europe, when the Church and its adherents looked down upon, mistreated, and often abused members of other religions. Years passed, during which religious authority conducted society, passing the last verdict, approving or disapproving a theory, judging and condemning scientists, making pretexts for war and persecution, and, in summary, using religion to impose incorrect and unjust views upon the ignorant masses. But the innately compassionate human and Jesus-loving Christian was naturally concerned with this misuse of religion; thus, as the Church became a barrier for social integrity and the establishment of a society in which all “humans” rather than just “Christians” were respected, post-Enlightenment religious thinkers aimed to reconcile the conflict between the extremist worldview of the Church that condemned all others to hell and the all-embracing humanist worldview. This effort to reconcile different and often diametrically opposing viewpoints was the driving force behind modern religious pluralism, which is outwardly based on the principles of Divine scriptures but in reality is imbued with a pluralistic and humanistic ideology.
Pluralism: A Logical Fallacy
Similar to the reconciliation effort in the elephant story, one form of pluralism suggests that different understandings and interpretations can be derived from a single truth or reality with each one being correct. This is possible because the truth is infinitely complex and difficult to grasp fully . Consequently, every religion is true in what it proclaims, as each one has taken hold of one aspect or part of the big truth. As such, what seems like contradictions between the different interpretations is nothing but different perspectives of the one truth. The implications of this idea are very appealing: if everyone is right in his own way, there is no reason to fight and argue. Additionally, no one is eternally condemned to hell since adherents of all worldviews have belief in the truth, which is the presumed requirement for eternal felicity. And this is how pluralists attempt to solve the conflict between the religions and relieve human consciences of worrying about eternal damnation.
But is this the correct solution? Or is it merely an effort to shy away from having to pass judgement? If there was no eternal punishment at stake, would we still try to endorse as true the completely paradoxical views of different schools of thought? Definitely not, seeing as when it comes to religious people condemning an extremist among them for his “wrong views” or a scientist disproving another scientist’s theory, we do not attempt to justify both sides as being right “in their own ways and perspectives.” We should therefore search for the truth and accept it wherever we find it, even if it means having to choose a side or opposing our own pre-set worldview.
Now, is it possible for everyone to be “partly” right? In our fable, the only one who could perceive that all the blind men were talking about the same thing from different angles was the man who possessed the power of vision, and so knew what the reality of elephant was. Similarly, one must first have complete knowledge of the universal truth to then be able to judge whether all religions talk about the same thing from different angles or not. If proponents of religious pluralism do not know the entire truth from the onset (based on their own claim that the truth cannot be fully understood), then it is not possible for them to conclude whether each religion holds any truth, let alone parts of the truth or all of it, because it is plausible that none of the religions hold any truth, or that only some religions hold part of it and others not. On the other hand, if pluralists were to claim that they are already aware of the entire truth and on the basis of this awareness are able to judge that all religions do hold part of the truth, it would be meaningless to hold on to and defend the partially true religions – for instead they could present a new religion that contains the entire truth. Consequently, this would lead to another exclusivist religion, and the problem would stay unsolved.
Additionally, the man possessing sign in the story was actually wrong in his claim that all the blind men were correct. Each of the blind men believed that they had understood the whole truth, not a mere part of it, and thus each of their beliefs were false. It is not true that the whole elephant is from one perspective like a snake, and from a different angle like a stack of bones. What is correct is that a part of the elephant resembles a snake, and another part resembles bones. Similarly, it is a fundamental belief of most religions that they have grasped the whole truth, not merely part of it. Thus, with the presence of contradictory beliefs between religions, it is not possible to suggest that each religion holds all of the truth either. This is because holding all of the truth means to incorporate all its perspectives, and thus anything that is opposed to it would be perspectives of other-than-truth, i.e. falsehood. This is based on the logical principle that antitheses cannot merge.
However, there is another possible interpretation of pluralistic thought: the idea that truth is subjective and relative, not absolute. The complete refutation of this idea has been discussed in more specialized texts, and its details are out of the scope of this article. Yet a very simple and logical answer can be presented to refute this view: to suggest that there is no absolute truth is to suggest that there is no actual elephant out there for the blind men to gain knowledge of. That is to say, if there is no absolute truth out there, then what are the different interpretations actually interpreting? To make a statement about something means to first have a fixed understanding about it, and then to describe it. Hence, the statement that “truth is relative” is in fact the attribution of the notion “relative” to a fixed idea which a person sees as the truth, and this results in the paradox of attributing relativity to a fixed and absolute notion. At the least, the mere fact that there is something out there is in itself a truth that is absolute, because were it to be relative, one would be able to believe in its opposite, i.e. that there is nothing out there, which would render all statements meaningless and is therefore unreasonable.
In conclusion, it is self-evident that truth, whatever it may be, is objective and absolute, because truth is “what is really out there,” and that doesn’t just change depending on who interacts with it. Yes, “what is really out there” may be perceived from different perspectives, but that doesn’t mean that whatever one perceives is necessarily a perspective of the truth. More importantly, it does not suggest that the truth changes according to different perceptions. It is this absolute truth that religions claim to have cognizance of, and therefore every one of them cannot be true.
Islam’s Answer to the Dilemma
One of the main motivations for the development of pluralistic thought, as alluded to earlier, is the uncomfortable idea of eternal damnation. Religious doctrine seems to suggest that eternal felicity is a result of following the truth, and going against it results in damnation. Consequently, if only one religion was to be on the truth, adherents of all other schools of thought would be condemned to hell. The question therefore arises that would the All-Merciful God punish so many people? This, and not the idea of truth itself, may be the real motivation that lead to the rise and popularity of religious pluralism. It is clear that no one blames a scientist for disproving another scientist’s results and theory, as long as he brings an argument for it. The reason is simple: we all agree that it is possible for people to come to wrong conclusions. Similarly, it is conceivable that some have adopted wrong beliefs when it comes to God. Consequently, it becomes evident that the scepticism that fuels religious pluralism is largely related to felicity, not veracity. Whilst we are very comfortable with falsifying a person’s views, we are extremely reserved when it comes to eternally condemning him to hell for those views.
There is in fact a grievous misunderstanding in the positive association between belief in truth and attaining felicity, or in other words, between belief in falsehood and eternal condemnation. This misunderstanding arises from the fact that most traditional religious views claim that only their adherents will enter heaven, and the rest will be indiscriminately doomed for all eternity. However, Islam has once again provided the most balanced and rational approach, showing that there is no need for pluralism in truth to solve the dilemma of eternal damnation. Although Islam claims exclusive truth, it does not loosely condemn non-believers to eternal damnation. According to Islam, the people who ought to receive eternal damnation are those who do “kufr”:
وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا وَكَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِنَا أُولَـٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ النَّارِهُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ
But those who do kufr and deny Our signs, they are the people of hell and they shall be in it forever. (2:39)
Here the meaning of “kufr” must be understood accurately. Although it is often translated as “to disbelieve”, it really means to cover the truth, i.e. to recognize the truth and yet reject it:
وَمَن يُشَاقِقِ الرَّسُولَ مِن بَعْدِ مَا تَبَيَّنَ لَهُ الْهُدَىٰ
Whoever defies the Messenger, after the guidance has become manifest to him… (4:115)
Consequently, those people who were not exposed to, did not have access to, or were not able to grasp the truth will not face this consequence. Rather, the fate of those who were neither followers of the true religion nor were they aware of the truth (so could not have rejected it) will be decided by God’s justice and mercy. The Noble Qur’an says:
إِلَّا الْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ وَالنِّسَاءِ وَالْوِلْدَانِ لَا يَسْتَطِيعُونَ حِيلَةً وَلَا يَهْتَدُونَ سَبِيلًا. فَأُولَـٰئِكَ عَسَى اللَّـهُ أَن يَعْفُوَ عَنْهُمْ ۚ وَكَانَ اللَّـهُ عَفُوًّا غَفُورًا
Except the oppressed among men, women and children, who have neither access to any means nor are guided to any way. Maybe Allah will excuse them, for Allah is all-excusing, all-forgiving. (4:98-99)
The justice and mercy of God are established facts from the Qur’an and logic. Accordingly, His treatment and decision about this group of people will undoubtedly be fair and lenient. Therefore, although God has commanded us to accept the truth in order to be saved from eternal damnation, this does not necessitate that all those who are not on the path of truth will be eternally condemned to hell.
However, another question arises from the idea that truth is exclusive to only one religion: If God is known as al-Hādi, i.e. the Guide, wouldn’t the misguidance of the majority be in contradiction to this Divine Name and the Divine responsibility of guidance? The answer to this question lies in understanding God’s guidance as well as man’s free-will. God has two types of guidance: the first (al-hidāyah al-takwīnī) is embedded in the system of nature, in which every existing being that does not have free-will is intrinsically guided to achieve its own purpose. This guidance is all-encompassing in that every being receives it. The second type of guidance (al-hidāyah al-tashrī‘ī) is presented in the form of Divine Messengers and Divine Books and is specific for beings that have will-power, i.e. human beings (and jinns). This latter form of guidance, unlike the former, is in conformity with man’s free-will and is therefore not imposed on humans. We are free to choose to follow it or reject it. Therefore, God has fulfilled His role as a Guide towards non-conscious beings through an intrinsic guidance, and towards humans through sending messengers with sufficient arguments for those who seek the truth:
إِنَّا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ بِالْحَقِّ بَشِيرًا وَنَذِيرًا ۚ وَإِن مِّنْ أُمَّةٍ إِلَّا خَلَا فِيهَا نَذِيرٌ
Indeed, We have sent you with the truth as a bearer of good news and as a warner; and there is not a nation but a warner has passed in it. (35:24) 
On the other hand, it is the human being that stubbornly rejects God’s invitation to the truth, thus exposing himself to God’s damnation (as mentioned in verse [2:39] quoted above). God has provided all the necessary guidance for man to find and follow the truth; therefore, if the majority were to go to hell, it would not be in contradiction with Him being the Guide, rather, it would be the result of man’s own decision to reject God’s guidance and follow the wrong path.
Finally, from an Islamic perspective, it is evident that Islam considers complete truth to be exclusive to itself, and thus a true Muslim cannot ascribe himself to religious pluralism. One of the most common concepts in the Holy Qur’an is the invitation towards truth and fighting against falsehood. This can be seen throughout the Qur’an: in the stories of God’s messengers who invite people towards their belief in Tawḥīd, in the verses refuting the beliefs of the Jews and Christians, in the threats of punishment for disbelief and evil actions, and so on . If Islam accepted religious pluralism, then inviting others towards itself and warning the disbelievers would be meaningless. The idea that Islam ascribes exclusive truth to itself is clearly summarized in the following verse:
وَمَن يَبْتَغِ غَيْرَ الْإِسْلَامِ دِينًا فَلَن يُقْبَلَ مِنْهُ وَهُوَ فِي الْآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ
Should anyone follow a religion other than Islam, it shall never be accepted from him, and he will be among the losers in the Hereafter. (3:85)
Any verse that outwardly suggests something opposite to this verse would need to be explained accurately, since the Quran does not contradict itself. The following verse is the most commonly quoted by those attempting to prove pluralism from the Quran:
إنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالنَّصَارَىٰ وَالصَّابِئِينَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّـهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
Indeed the faithful, the Jews, the Christians and the Sabaeans—those of them who have faith in Allah and the Last Day and act righteously—they shall have their reward from their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve. (2:62)
This verse must be looked at in light of the earlier explanation of Islam’s established view on exclusive truth and inclusive felicity. The eventual consequence of belief in Allah is belief in and submission to His instructions. Therefore, irrespective of whether one takes the word “Islam” in verse [3:85] to refer to a specific religion, or to just mean submission to God, belief in God must eventually lead to belief in the religion of Islam, because Islam is the most up-to-date and final word of God. Based on this, verse [2:62] says that those who followed these religions before the advent of Islam, i.e. in their own eras, or those who follow the original version of these religions after the advent of Islam – provided they did not know of Islam despite having searched for the truth – will also be rewarded. But it is understood from other verses that if the followers of these religions did have knowledge of Islam’s veracity and yet did not accept it, it would be considered as deliberate disbelief and direct opposition to God’s command to submit to His final word (i.e. Islam), and thus result in eternal damnation. In addition, other works on Islamic pluralism have discussed this and other verses used by proponents of religious pluralism, refuting them in detail .
In conclusion, religious pluralism makes two separate claims: firstly that all religions are true, and secondly that all will attain eternal felicity. The first claim is logically flawed and does not conform to self-evident reality. Its second claim seems to spring from one of the real motives behind the development of pluralistic thought i.e. the difficulty of accepting eternam damnation for some groups of humans. Islam, which claims exclusivity regarding truth, takes an inclusive approach to non-Muslims vis-à-vis eternal felicity, provided they did not deliberately oppose the truth. As a result, eternal felicity will not be exclusive to followers of the truth.
To end with our story, the man possessing sign from the western village was wrong yet again: in reality, none of the blind men even understood the reality of any parts of the elephant, let alone the whole elephant. This is because mere semblance is different from reality. Actually, it is impossible for the blind men to ever know what an elephant or any part of it really is, because they lack the means to know it (i.e. sight). This opens whole new discussions on what tools are needed for acquiring different types of knowledge (an epistemological discussion) and on the necessity of Divine Messengers (a theological discussion), which are dealt with in other places.
All Praises belong to Allah, the Absolute truth.
2nd year hawza student,
Madrasah Imam Khomeini,
Al-Mustafa International University,
Holy City of Qom,
Islamic Republic of Iran.
References The general concept of this story is taken from the Iranian poet Rumi, but its details have been modified by the author, whilst retaining the general concept.  John Hick, A Christian theology of religions: The rainbow of faiths. [Referred from a sermon entitled religious pluralism as the truth, by Dean Scotty McLennan, University Public Worship, Stanford Memorial Church, May 22, 2011.]  Other verses indicating to the same fact are: [2:38], [13:7], [17:15], etc…  A few examples: [2:147], [2:256], [4:170], [4:171], [5:84], [6:66], [26:3], etc…  See bibliography
Legenhausen M., Liberalism and Pluralism: Religious Pluralism in the Qur’an and Islam.
Maleki M. H., Qur’ān wa plūrālīzm
McLennan, Dean Scotty. “Religious Pluralism as the Truth” University Public Worship, Stanford Memorial Church. 22 May. 2011. Sermon.
Recommended reading on this topic
Islam and religious pluralism, Murtaza Mutahhari