A Favorite Passage from the Qur’an


“Compete with one another in virtues”


“If God had so willed it, he would have made you a single community.  But [he has chosen] to test you in what he has given you.  So compete with one another in virtues.  God is the goal of you all, and he will inform you regarding that wherein you used to differ.”  (Qur’an 5:48, my inadequate translation.)


It’s difficult not to think, in this context, of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s famous German Enlightenment play Nathan der Weise (“Nathan the Wise”).


The centerpiece of Nathan der Weise is the so-called “Ring Parable,” which Nathan tells when the great Muslim sultan Saladin (Salah al-Din), with whom he’s been playing a game of chess, asks him which religion, Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is true.


A ring possessing the power to make its owner pleasing in the eyes of God and humankind, goes the parable, had been passed from father to son for many generations, being given to the son the father loved most.  However, when the time came for one father to make his choice, he couldn’t.  He had three sons, and he loved them equally.  So, in “pious weakness,” he promised the ring separately to each of them.  And then, desperately looking for a way to keep his promise, he had two replicas made, each of which was indistinguishable from the original ring.  Finally, on his deathbed, he bestowed a ring on each of them.


Predictably, the brothers quarrelled over which one of them owned the real, magical, ring.


Upon their appeal, a wise judge informed them that it was impossible to tell, by that point, which of the rings was the real one.  In fact, he said, expert examination couldn’t even rule the possibility out that all three rings were replicas, that the original one had been lost at some point in the past.  In order to find out whether one of them had the real ring, they would need to live in such a manner that their rings’ magic could prove real.  That is, they would have to live lives pleasing to God and humankind rather than expecting their rings’ possible miraculous powers to make their case for them.


Nathan is, of course, talking about competing religious traditions, rather than about rings.



"Religion poisons everything!" (8)
New Testament 141
"Who will stand?"
New Testament 140
  • http://nathanrichardson.com Nathan000000

    That play was put on when I was in college, but I missed seeing it. Drat! Every time I hear about it, it sounds really good.

  • Eric

    This Summer in Vienna I enjoyed seeing the busts of Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller on the front of the Burgtheater as I rode by in the streetcar. The Third Reich had Lessing’s bust removed for reasons such as the play cited above. Fortunately he’s back.

  • Brock Mason

    Hmm. Isn’t the problem, though, about whether all religions are created equal? Certainly there are great things in every religion, but does that mean we equate them? Also, are we willing to discount the importance of belief entirely? Are we willing to discount the importance of belief for action? Is there something unique about a belief in Christ that makes it worth having? Or is that more of an afterthought? Love the parable, raises all of these questions! Your thoughts?

  • Stephen Smoot

    I read Nathan der Weise in one of my BYU German classes earlier this year. It had a life-changing affect on how I approach inter-religious dialogue, and the study of religion in general. Really a must read, especially in our modern pluralistic society.