John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis vs Said Nursi’s Qur’anic Inclusivism: A Short Critical Overview

Frolov Albert, MTS 

As once Meister Eckhardt said, “Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.”[1] Arguably one of the most important philosophers of religion of the second half of the twentieth century John Hick (d. 2012) seems, at first glance, to agree with Eckhardt. For him, all mysticism, nay all religion and theology, results from the Transcendent mysteriously “touching” the phenomenal world of humans?[2] However, might not it be that, on closer inspection, this divine “touch” is something so elusive and vague in Hick’s philosophy as to make any attempt to see what these mystics actually speak of, outright impossible? This article will briefly outline Hick’s so-called “pluralistic hypothesis.” According to the latter, given that different religions experience the ineffable Transcendent differently only due to the diversity of their relevant cultural backgrounds, there is no good epistemic reason for them to clash with each other over the ultimate question of truth.[3] This article will outline this approach and proceed to make some relevant critical remarks by drawing on the ideas of another influential religious thinker of the twentieth century, the Turkish theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960).          

Resting himself on the consensus of many a practicing mystic, Hick points out that the mystical experience is tantamount to religious experience “first-hand” and, as such, is the very core of religion. Indeed, if religion consists in one’s experiencing one’s life with reference to the Transcendent and leading this life in accordance with this experience, all those who are acutely conscious of them existing in the presence of the divine are mystics.[4] Further, if the words of the practicing mystics are true, the Transcendent is of the nature of mind, i.e. the infinite spirit, rather than of matter. This, in turn, implies that the nature of the Transcendent comes to be juxtaposed with the nature of the physical world and that the latter is to be perceived as something-other-than-the-Transcendent. This, in turn, entails the real existence of this physical world and the reality of the plurality of finite beings: they are real over against, as well as related to, the Transcendent.[5]

Having established the reality of the plurality of finite beings, Hick proceeds to stress the fact that humans continuously interpret reality in terms of their contemporary culture and epoch. For instance, had someone seen a modern ball-point pen a century ago, he or she would have made thereof something very different from what we make of it today. Further, it is not only our linguistic concepts differing historically and culturally that affects our perception of all reality – the Transcendent included – it is also our historical and cultural backgrounds evolving differently and strictly in accordance with a given climate, region, political situation, etc. For instance, beings from Mars, had they seen what happens on Earth, might have entertained a perspective quite different from that of humans.[6] Yet another vivid instance that Hick deploys is the well-known duck-rabbit picture from psychologist Jastrow which shows that people, depending on their perceptual experience, can see one and the same thing differently: one who has never seen a duck will surely take it for a rabbit, and vice versa. Hick also mentions the wave-particle complementarity in physics as another case in point: the same light beam is observed to have either wave-like properties or particle-like properties, all depending on the relative position of the observer.[7] Mutually exclusive as they are, both interpretations are equally valid.    

Hick’s emphasis on relativity, and concomitantly plurality, heavily draws on his “broadly Kantian epistemology” and the latter’s clear distinction between the phenomenal (knowable) and noumenal (unknowable) aspects of the world[8]. He draws a parallel between this Kantian approach and the distinction that most religions make between a personal divinity with linguistically expressible attributes and an impersonal ineffable divinity without attributes. This distinction corresponds, for instance, to that between Godhead (Deitas) and God (Deus) (Meister Eckhart), or to that between nirguna Brahman and saguna Brahman (Hinduism). To put it differently, it is the distinction between the Transcendent-in-Itself and the Transcendent-as-humanly-thought-and-experienced.[9] Hick thinks that this distinction is “unavoidable” – the Transcendent, in order for Him or Her to remain as such, can be circumscribed by no human words or thoughts. For Hick, one can say about this divine noumenon only very few general things: for instance, it is the “source and ground” of all religious and mystical experiences. In this sense, what mystics do is to experience the Transcendent through the prism of various human concepts, i.e. as “divine phenomenon,” rather than to experience Him or Her as “divine noumenon.”[10]This disparity, in Hick’s view, is caused not by the Transcendent Itself but rather by the way the anthropological, historical, sociological, climatic, geographical and other environing conditions of humans evolve[11]. As it were, one always perceives the Transcendent through the lens of a particular religious culture with the latter’s own concepts, myths, and historical exemplars.[12] It is this relativity bordering on agnosticism that underpins Hick’s hypothesis of religious pluralism. 

Faithfull to “a broadly Kantian” approach of his, Hick believes that one cannot claim that one knows the ultimate reality; one cannot break through a solipsism that reduces the world to a modification of one’ own private consciousness.[13] For Hick, however, if an aspect of one’s experience is intrusive, persistent and coherent with the rest of one’s experience, then to reject it will be a “cognitive suicide.”[14] It means that one is able to make knowledge claim once one bases oneself on one’s experience. Contradicting his otherwise Kantian outlook, Hick concedes that “we are so made that we live … on the basis of our experience and on the assumption that it is generally cognitive of reality transcending our own consciousness.”[15]  For instance, Jesus’ direct experience of the Transcendent makes it rational for him to claim that he indeed cognized thereof.[16] Hence, for Hick, it is only rational for one to believe what one’s factual experience leads him or her to believe, whether the result be the acceptance or the rejection of the Transcendent. Both are the matter of one’s faith as one’s fundamental cognitive choice.[17] It is all-important, nonetheless, to ascertain that the person relating his or her experience of the Transcendent is “fully sane, sober and rational.”[18] While for Hick it is difficult to formulate the touchstone of such a person’s sanity or morality, his or her rationality is to be assessed on the basis of what he somewhat vaguely calls “public scientific knowledge.”[19] In the context of theism, natural or rational theology might prove of great avail to help the modern-day humans see that it is at least possible that there is God and that one’s genuine experience of the Transcendent – unlike that of, for instance, witchcraft or astrology – is something to be taken seriously.

For Hick, this epistemic hidden-ness of the Transcendent is the main condition of humans’ freedom and, concomitantly, their morality: one has to be an independent agent to exercise one’s moral choice. Indeed, for him, to perceive the equally infinite epistemic distance of all humans from the Transcendent has a salutary effect on the way humans relate to each other. That is to say, safe from a direct encounter of the all-absorbing tremendousness of the Transcendent, one preserves both his or her independence vis-à-vis the Transcendent and his or her empathy vis-à-vis other human fellows.[20] For Hick, this recognition of the human element in all religion opens new vistas for rational and ethical criticism in religion. In contrast, the state of being totally absorbed in the Eternal One might result in absolutism and intolerance due to the believers’ failure to sufficiently value the co-presence of other beings.[21] Thus, for Hick, the ideal of agape/karuna (love/compassion), which is observable in the moral fruits of the way one’s religiosity salvifically transforms one’s demeanor, is the basic criterion by which one is to access the religious traditions as totalities. Indeed, he believes that the function of religion is to provide contexts for one’s salvation/liberation, the latter being conceived by him as transformation of one’s existence from the state of self-centredness to that of Transcendence-centredness.[22] At this point, all religions and their followers are, again, equally distant from embodying the ultimate truth: 


People of other faiths are not on average noticeably better human beings than Christians, but not on the other hand are they on average noticeably worse human beings. We find that both the virtues and the vices are, so far as we can tell, more or less equally spread among the population, of whatever major faith.[23]  


Understandably, Hick is critical of the claims of religious exclusivity. He is not quite so charitable toward religious inclusivism, too, saying that the latter is a “vague conception” which, when fully developed, moves toward his own espoused position of religious pluralism.[24] Hick mentions Karl Rahner (d. 1984), an influential Catholic philosopher, as an epigone of inclusivism: while Rahner deems salvation possible in Christ, he also expects that the gist of the resurrected, heavenly Chirst, i.e. the eternal Logos, might be “at work,” so to speak, within other traditions. Indeed, for Rahner, one might be an “anonymous” Christian even if one follows a different religion.[25] It is here that Hick points out that inclusivism – in its final analysis and when applied by religions vis-à-vis each other – leads to a “plurality of mutually inclusive inclusivisms” and thus comes close to his own espoused idea of religious pluralism, for the salvific spirit of Christ, to be “at work” beyond history, must itself become an a-temporal source of salvation so universal as to be called now “Allah,” now “Tao,” now “Dharma.”[26] Thus, Hick comes to see the Transcendent, and not any concrete symbol thereof – be it, say, Nirvana or the idea of “God” itself – as an ultimate reality that is both at the center of all religions and beyond the latter.[27] This, in turn, means that all religions point to and serve this Transcendent, the one that is an unknown divine noumenon which impinges, through one’s subjective religious experience, upon one’s consciousness.[28] So, for Hick, even if such a Transcendent exists and the “multifarious field of human faith” is “not wholly projection and illusion,” it is all about an interface with a mysterious transcendent reality that is both “transparent and opaque.”[29] Apart from having certitude apropos the existence of Transcendent, one is to remain semi-agnostic in all other regards.                                                        Let us now turn to the ideas of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. In many an aspect, Nursi’s approach might be called “inclusivism” close to that of Rahner’s but unique in terms of his Islamic affiliation. As Ian Markham, the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary and a Nursi scholar, points out, “… Said Nursi … is committed to the truth of Islam … Yet he acknowledges that other traditions have a partial insight into the truth.”[30] The value that Nursi places on one’s accepting and understanding the culturally “others” can be better portrayed if we attend to his epistemology. First of all, Nursi incessantly underscores that all his ideas are, in some way or another, inspired by the Qur’an: he almost always cites the verse of the Qur’an at the beginning of key passages and provides exegesis of those verses.[31] In his “Qur’anic” outlook, he perceives everything in the world as intelligible and dialogic in the sense that all entities – different as they might be in appearance – are essentially beautiful divine “mirrors” telling something about God and requiring that their observers appreciate them: “Beauty and fairness desire to see and be seen. Both of these require the existence of yearning witnesses and bewildered admirers.”[32] That is to say, in his theology, all individual entities of the world – humanity first and foremost – partake of divine holiness due to them being loci of Allah’s manifested “superb names and attributes” (al-asma’ al-husna). In a way somewhat reminiscent of St. Palamas (d. 1359), Islamic Sufism tends to clearly differentiate God’s ineffable essence (Zhatullah) and God’s observable activity in the world (Shuunatullah), the latter being described in terms of Allah’s names and attributes.[33] Nursi places this division right at the heart of his theology:


All the qualities and art displayed over the creation rely upon a name. In fact, the true science of philosophy is based on the name Hakim (All-Wise), true science of medicine on the name Shafi (Healer), and the science of geometry on the name Muqaddir (Determiner), and so on. Just as each branch of science is based on a name and eventually ends in a name, the realities of all scientific disciplines, human perfections and all levels of human virtues also founded on the divine names.[34]


At the same time, Nursi creatively synthesizes this “theology of names” with the purely Sufi idea that knowledge of God is attainable primarily within one’s interiority.[35] This approach is different from Hick’s semi-agnostic one in that it includes the possibility of one’s cognizing of the Transcendent through both one’s exteriority and interiority: 


Just as the Attribute of Speech (kalam) makes the Most-Sacred-Divine-Essence (Zhat al-Aqdas) cognized of through revelation and inspiration, so too the attribute if Power (qurdra) makes this Essence cognized of through masterly works – each of which act as an embodied word – describing a Powerful-Possessor-of-Glory by presenting the entire universe as a materialized form of the Qur’an.[36]


This approach explains the “touch” of the Transcendent as the latter’s cognitive penetration into one’s religious experience on the basis of an essential, and yet very nuanced, identity between the Transcendent and humans. Allah is transcendent vis-à-vis humans as far as our experience of His most sacred essence goes, and He is immanent vis-à-vis humans as far as His sacred activity in the observed Universe (what St. Palamas would call “energies”), goes. According to this view, the divine names and attributes are neither equal with His essence nor other than His essence.[37] Similarly, one cannot say “a thing is white but there is no whiteness in it,” or vice versa. Of course, this idea might invoke pantheism and, concomitantly, absolutism. To ward both off, Nursi bases his idea of beings as “mirrors of God” on the following two aspects: 

1)    In the same way as the darkness serves as a foil for the beauty of light to manifest, the impotence of being, their weaknesses, shortcomings and mistakes serve as a foil for the power of the All-Powerful, All-Subsistent and Perfect One to manifest.[38]

2)    Being only mirrors of the perfect names of Allah and not the authentic possessor thereof, beings fail to manifest the divine names and attributes in full. Rather than to inflate their ego, the names’ partial manifestation within humans is meant to highlight the existence of the corresponding names and attributes of Allah, ones that are all-embracing and universal.[39]

     Thus, beings’ lofty attributes, the ones present both within and outside them, serve the mission of being “measurement units,” so to speak, for the corresponding lofty attributes of the Divine.[40] That is to say, humans, thanks to their unique self-awareness and on the condition that they are not self-conceited, are able to compare their activity/attributes with those of the Transcendent and come to appreciate the awe-inspiring superiority of the latter. Indeed, if one experiences the physical world as tremenda majestas of the divine names and attributes, one turns rather into an infatuated lover of God than a “semi-agnostic” pluralist. According to Nursi, if one looks at beings in this way, i.e. on the account of their creator and not on the account of their independent existence, one cannot but exclaim in amazement, “How beautifully they have been made! How exquisitely they point to their Maker’s beauty!”[41] Naturally, neither hatred nor animosity can be imagined to make inroads in the minds of those who can contemplate the Transcendent in this vein. This way, it is not beings’ equal “epistemic distance” from the Transcendent that makes unity within plurality something feasible, but rather the fact that they all equally partake of His ineffable being via His observable particular names and attributes. Even if one does not accept the Transcendent as reality, one is still the Transcendent’s mirror, epiphany, and masterpiece, which means that one is to be ontologically appreciated, not violated against. As usual, Nursi finds the proof of this understanding in the Qur’an: “O mankind! We have created you all male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you would know one another.”[42] Another practical instance of this approach is that, according to Nursi, the Quranic verse 5:15 that calls Muslims “not to take the Jews and the Christians for your friends” is only applicable when the Jews and the Christians demonstrate qualities of disbelief and impiety – and not when they are pious followers of their religion. Nursi also points out that the aforementioned verse should be interpreted within the more general context of Islamic Law. The very fact that Islamic law allows Muslim men to espouse Jewish and Christian women suggests for Nursi that, if this profound relationship is allowed, friendship between the communities has no inherent obstacle. Most naturally, the spouses will reciprocate love and compassion and will become most intimate friends.            These instances clearly show that Nursi is firmly rooted within his own religious tradition. Of course, he is highly original and creative in his attempted synthesis between the spiritual understanding of Islam (Sufism) and the more philosophical take thereon found in Islamic speculative theology (Kalam). However, while affirming the importance of conversation with, and even love toward, those who differ religiously or culturally, Nursi – contrary to Hick’s semi-agnostic pluralism – stands solemnly withintraditional form of Islam. As I. Markham writes, “Nursi’s approach could, in principle, be affirmed by any traditional Muslim.”[43]  According to Markham, since most people are not “semi-detached” from their tradition, Hick’s “pluralist hypothesis” will appeal to no one outside the place in which Hick himself is – that is, the audience of New York Times, liberal east-coast America, and post-Christian Europe.[44] Any God-talk is confessional, and it is unavoidable that we dialogue with others based on the initial and sometimes “non-negotiable” premises of our respective religions. That is to say, Hick seems unrealistic in his expectation that people of religion ever abandon their belief that their particular tradition describes the Transcendent more accurately than the alternatives. It is not entirely clear, too, whether Hick’s “pluralist hypothesis” itself is sufficiently inclusive toward the plurality of rival views. As Markham writes, 

John Hick has a highly cultivated English sensibility to avoiding all forms of potential offensiveness. … He thinks it is ‘offensive’ for one tradition to claim that it so more accurately describing the transcendent reality than the alternatives … As many scholars have pointed out, it is moot point whether Hick is that polite anyway. His insistence that every religious tradition should deny its distinctness and become semi-agnostic is offensive to every traditional believer in every religious tradition. He wants every traditional believer to ‘convert’ to his liberal pluralism.[45]

Indeed, any truth claim, whether it be made by a Muslim, Christian, or atheist, naturally implies the superiority of a certain position or outlook vis-à-vis the alternatives. For people of different religions, to avoid conflicts and achieve reconciliation, it is important to be ready to accept both the inevitability of their difference and the existential, nay epistemic, beauty thereof. Religion, as is the case with Nursi’s vision of Islam, might have its own inner epistemic mechanisms that might allow it to accommodate, nay rise up to the mystical love of, others. This love is something captured in the phrase of the famous Turkish poet Yunus Emre, “Because of love of the creator, I love whatever He creates” (Yaratandan oturu yaratilanlari severim).[46] In this regard, as Markham points out, Nursi’s approach is “bound to be more influential” than Hick’s “utopia of mutual religious affirmation.”[47]                                                                                                 All in all, both Hick and Nursi would agree that people of religion must, at the end of the day, “listen with ears of tolerance, see through eyes of compassion, speak with the language of love” (Rumi).[48] The starting point of their respective theories for achieving this blissful state, however, cannot be more divergent. Following Kant’s epistemology, Hick postulates an epistemic chasm between the noumenal and the phenomenal. According to him, insofar as we, humans, placed on the side of the phenomenal and can know nothing concrete about the noumenal, we would better give up on any truth claims made by any religion and instead appreciate the beauty of our natural diversity. It remains for Hick to clarify, though, what exactly would drive us to mutual appreciation rather than mutual resentment and memetic rivalry. Nursi’s approach seems to be more realistic and potentially more influential in that it bases its imperative to seek beauty in, and reconciliation with, other religion, squarely on a traditional religious outlook. Of course, both Hick and Nursi interpret religion to make it congruent with modern realities, but the former does so on the basis of his own epistemic claims while Nursi does so by creatively and synthetically engaging theological, spiritual and even legal legacy of classical Islam. While, for Hick, the divine “touch” behind humans’ experience of the world is too vague to be translated into any tangible epistemic premises, for Nursi, all of this experience is but divine messages to be deciphered by anyone who intends to seek truth and is willing to have look at the world through the “lenses” of the Qur’an. In the case of Nursi, it is this religious and, in some sense, mystic vision of the world that might serve as a philosophy to underpin interreligious and intercultural reconciliation, as, for the Qur’an, everything in the world is but an animate “sign” (ayah) of the Transcendent to be appreciated: “The seven heavens and the earth, and all those who are in them, declare His glory; there is not a single thing but glorifies Him with His praise” (Qur’an 17:44).[49] It might be said that Nursi’s hope was that his interpretation would attune his readers’ perceptive powers to witnessing the divine Tao of all things and would incite them to tap into the awesome harmony thereof. However, given the on-going conflicts, poverty issues, and low literacy rate in so many a part of Islamic world, it might still take a considerable amount of time to prove Nursi’s hope to be well-founded.


[1] Yahia Lababidi, Revolutions of the Heart: Literary, Cultural, & Spiritual (Searcy Resource Publications, 2020), 39.

[2] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 8.

[3]David Cramer, “John Hick,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed Nov 23, 2020).

[4] John Hick, “Mystical Experience as Cognition,” in Mystics and Scholars, ed. H. Coward (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1977), 422-423.

[5] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 424-425. 

[6] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 426.

[7] Hick, Interpretation, 45-46.

[8] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 428, 433; Hick, Interpretation, 14. 

[9] Hick, Interpretation, 14.

[10] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 429.

[11] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 430, 432; Hick, Interpretation, 7.

[12] Hick, Interpretation, 8, 14.

[13] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 435.

[14] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 434.

[15] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 435.

[16] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 434.

[17] John Hick, Interpretation, 13.

[18] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 435.

[19] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 436.

[20] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 431; Hick, Interpretation, 12.

[21] Hick, Interpretation, 9, 12.

[22] Hick, Interpretation, 14.

[23] John Hick, “Varieties of Religious Understanding,” in Exploring The Philosophy of Religion, ed. David Stewart (New York: Routledge, 2016), 39.

[24] John Hick, “Varieties,” 44.

[25] John Hick, “Varieties,” 42-43.

[26] John Hick, “Varieties,” 44.

[27] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 429.

[28] Hick, “Mystical Experience,” 443.

[29] Hick, Interpretation, 9.

[30] Ian Markham, “Truth and Toleration: The Said Nursi Achievement,” in Bringing Faith, Meaning & Peace to Life in a Multicultural World: The Risale-i Nur Approach, 3-29. Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium on Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Istanbul: Nesil, 2004), 18.

[31] Ian Markham, An Introduction to Said Nursi: Life, Thought and Writings (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 18.

[32] Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Words, trans. Shukran Vahide (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1993), 80.

[33] Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani, A Commentary on the Creed of Islam: Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani on the Creed of Najm al-Din an-Nasafi, trans. Earl E. Elder (New York: Colombia University Press, 1950), 45.

[34] Nursi, The Words, 655.

[35] John Renard, Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism: Foundations of Islamic Mystical Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), 20. 

[36] Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Sualar [Rays], (Istanbul: Soz Basim Yayin, 2003), 200. The translation is mine.

[37] Abdur-Rahman Ibn Yusuf, Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained (California: White Thread Press, 2007), 72.

[38] Farid al-Ansari, Miftāḥ al-Nūr fī Mafāhīm Rasā’il al-Nūr (Miknas: Jami‘at al-Sulṭān al-Mawlā Ismā‘īl), 117-118.

[39] Al-Ansari, Miftāḥ, 115.

[40] Colin Turner, The Qur’an Revealed: A Critical Analysis of Said Nursi’s Epistles of Light (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2013), 179.

[41] Nursi, The Words, 145. 

[42] Quran 49:13. The translation is mine. 

[43]Ian Markham, Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (New York: Routledge, 2016), 63.

[44] Markham, Engaging, 63.

[45] Markham, Engaging, 64.

[46] Mehmed Durmus, “Yaratilani sevmek Yaratan’dan dolayi,” Fikir Verir Iktibas, (accessed Nov 22, 2020). 

[47] Markham, Engaging, 64.

[48]Mahmoud Masaeli and Rico Sneller, “Introduction,” in Responses of Mysticism to Religious Terrorism: Sufism and Beyond, ed. Mahmoud Masaeli & Rico Sneller (Oud-Turnhout: Gompel&Svacina, 2020), 8.

[49] The translation is mine.