A wealthy sultan of the Muslim faith, Saladin, once approached Nathan the Wise, a Jewish scholar, with a question: “Your reputation for wisdom is great,” said the Sultan. “You must have studied the great religions. Tell me, which is the best, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity?”
Nathan the Wise found himself in a predicament. If he answered “Judaism” his Islamic friend would be insulted, but if he answered “Islam” he would lose his own integrity. Nathan the Wise thought for a moment then responded with a parable.
“Once upon a time there was a king who possessed a magnificent opal ring. It glowed with thousands of colours, but its true power lay in the fact that it made a person beloved of God and others. For many generations the ring was passed down from parent to favourite child, until finally it came to a king who had three children all equally favoured. What was the King to do? He decided to fashion two more rings, each identical in appearance to the original. He then gave one to each child, with each believing they had the original ring.
But instead of harmony the three rings brought conflict. Each child believed they possessed the true ring and therefore the right to inherit the throne. The tension was escalated when the rings were examined but differences between them could not be determined.”
At this point Saladin interrupts. “But surely my friend you are not suggesting that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the same? Surely there are great differences between them?”
“You are right Saladin” replied Nathan, “but each of these religions is based on faith and belief, and who can prove that one is superior to the other? But let me continue with my tale, for it is nearly at an end.”
“The quarrel among the three children became so great it was brought before a judge. The judge listened as each child explained their case. When the time for judgement came all listened with great interest. ‘I have been asked to decide which of these rings is the original.” began the judge. ‘As the original ring made its wearer beloved of God and people I can only conclude that none of you have the original ring, for your rings have brought hatred and strife between you. None of you is loved by the other, so I must conclude that the original ring perished with your father and that all three you possess are counterfeits. Or it may be, that you father, was weary of the tyranny of a single ring, and made duplicates which he gave you. So let each of you prove his belief in his ring by conducting yourselves in a manner that befits those beloved of God and people.”
Source: Adapted from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan der Weise (1779).