Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the summer of 2004.
The Reverend Dr. George F. Dole, translator of Heaven and Hell, Divine Love and Wisdom, and Divine Providence, presents a passage that addresses current issues.
“One of the rare and striking features of Swedenborgian theology is its combination of a profound reverence for Jesus Christ as God Incarnate and a profound respect for other, non-Christian faiths. There is no need to downgrade Christ in order to appreciate the beauty of other religions and no need to downgrade other religions in the name of loyalty to Christ.
At a time when Christian theologians are wrestling with issues raised through globalization and when faiths are being enlisted in the cause of violence there could scarcely be a more practical message. It is tells us simply that we cannot see the best in our own religion if we are unwilling to see the best in others. In the following passage from Divine Providence (§255), Swedenborg explains how the emergence of Islam shows God’s divine plan.” — George F. Dole
2. Strict materialists justify their rejection of divine providence when they see that Islam has been accepted by so many empires and nations. The fact that this religion has been accepted by more nations than Christianity can be a real problem for people who give thought to divine providence and also believe that we cannot be saved unless we have been born Christian, born, that is, where the Word is and people therefore know about the Lord. Islam presents no problem, though, to people who believe that divine providence is over everything. They try to discern where it is, and they find it. It is because of divine providence that Islam recognizes the Lord as the Son of God, the wisest of mortals, and a supreme prophet, one who came into the world to teach us. Most of them regard him as greater than Muhammad.
 To make it abundantly clear that this religion was prompted by the Lord’s divine providence in order to eliminate the idolatrous practices of many nations, I need to lay things out in sequence, so I shall start with the origins of idolatry.
Before Islam, the worship of idols was widespread over the whole world. This was because the churches that existed before the Lord’s coming were “symbolic churches.” The Israelite church was like this, with its tabernacle, Aaron’s garments, its sacrifices, all the furnishings of the temple in Jerusalem, and its laws. All of these were symbolic. Further, for our early ancestors the knowledge of correspondential relationships, which are also symbolic, was the essential knowledge of the sages. It was especially developed in Egypt, and was the basis of their hieroglyphs. On the basis of this knowledge they understood the meaning of all kinds of animals and all kinds of trees, as well as the meaning of mountains, hills, rivers, and springs, of the sun, the moon, and the stars. It was because their worship was symbolic, wholly made up of correspondences, that they conducted their worship on mountains and hills and in groves and gardens. That is why they regarded springs as holy and turned their faces toward the sun in reverence to God. Particularly, it is why they made statues of horses, cattle, calves, and sheep, even of birds, fish, and snakes, and set them up in their houses and elsewhere in patterns that embodied the spiritual characteristics of the church that they reflected or symbolized. They put similar images in their temples to call to their minds the holy things that they symbolized.
 In later times, when the knowledge of correspondential relationships had been forgotten, their descendants began to worship the images as holy in and of themselves. They did not realize that their ancestors had not seen anything holy about them, but saw them simply as symbolizing and therefore pointing to something holy by virtue of their correspondence. This was how the idolatry started that was to fill the whole world, including Asia, its surrounding islands, Africa, and Europe.
In order to uproot all these idolatrous practices, under the auspices of divine providence a new religion developed that was appropriate to the character of people of the Near East. In this religion there would be material from both Testaments of the Word to teach that the Lord had come into the world and that he was the greatest prophet, the wisest of all, and the son of God. The agent of this was Muhammad, which is why the religion is called Muhammadanism.
 This religion, which as just noted was suited to the character of the people of the Near East, was awakened under the Lord’s divine providence in order to counter the idolatrous beliefs of so many people and to give them some awareness of the Lord before they entered the spiritual world. This religion would not have been accepted by all these nations, it would not have been able to uproot their idolatrous practices, unless it had been made concordant with and suitable to the mental concepts and the lives of all these people.
The reason they did not recognize the Lord as the God of heaven and earth was that the people of the Near East believed in God as the Creator of the universe and could not grasp the idea that he had come into the world and taken on a human nature. Actually, Christians cannot grasp this either, so in thought they separate his divine nature from his human nature, associate divinity with the Father in heaven, and do not know what to do with the humanity.
 We can see from this that Islam too was started under the guidance of the Lord’s divine providence and that all its adherents who believe in the Lord as the Son of God and live by the laws of the Ten Commandments (which they also have) by abstaining from evils as sins, come into a heaven called the Islamic heaven. This heaven is divided into three heavens, the highest, the intermediate, and the lowest. Muslims who believe that the Lord is one with the Father and is the only God come into the highest; people who give up polygamy and live with one wife come into the second; and people who are starting on this path come into the first.
There is more on this in my Supplements on the Last Judgment and the Spiritual World 68–72, where Muslims and Muhammad are discussed.