Non-Muslims in an Islamic afterlife

By Mohammad Hassan Khalilscholar What does Islamic scripture really teach about the fate of non-Muslims in the life to come? … Continued

By Mohammad Hassan Khalil

What does Islamic scripture really teach about the fate of non-Muslims in the life to come? This is a common question these days, and its implications are not merely theological. Some even think that it has a bearing on some of our most pressing international, and indeed global, challenges. At the very least, it affects how Muslims regard non-Muslims — and vice versa.

Scholars, both within and without the faith, offer a very wide variety of responses. According to exclusivists, the Quran leaves no hope for non-Muslims: “If anyone seeks a religion other than islam, it will not be accepted.” But what does the word islam here mean? Pluralists assert that islam should not simply be equated with the religion of Muhammad — Islam with a capital I. After all, its primary meaning is submission to God. Accordingly, a muslim is anyone who surrenders him or herself to the Almighty. The Quran itself refers to the prophets Abraham and Joseph as muslims. Thus, goes the argument, one need not be a Muslim — with a capital M — to be a muslim.

It is true that the Quran condemns the unbeliever, or kafir. But as any specialist in Arabic will tell you, the term kafir itself connotes a conscious, active rejection (or “concealment”) of the truth. It is also true that the Quran chastises those who attribute partners to God, as well as “those who say, ‘God is the Messiah, son of Mary.'” But pluralists generally maintain that a careful study of scripture shows that this chastisement is limited to particular individuals and groups who developed an antagonistic attitude toward the early Muslim community. Have, then, the exclusivists misunderstood Islamic scripture by overlooking its nuances, context and spirit?

According to some pluralists, the Quran could not be clearer on the matter. It explicitly promises heavenly rewards to “the Jews,” “the Christians,” and “all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good.” (Many pluralists also hold that certain atheists will walk in the Garden.) Exclusivists, however, provide an array of objections to this reading of scripture. They may, for example, contend that “the Jews” and “the Christians” here are ancient pre-Muhammadan People of the Book — Jews and Christians who adhered to the “uncorrupted” scriptures of the prophets Moses and Jesus. Other exclusivists argue that such passages refer to individuals from Jewish and Christian communities who recognized Muhammad as a true prophet, accepted his message and followed his law. And the list of objections — many of which find support in the reports ascribed to Muhammad — goes on.

In my own research, I have found that some of the most influential Muslim theologians historically were neither true pluralists nor true exclusivists. Instead, they tended to affirm both Islamic supersession and divine mercy for certain non-Muslims. But the thinkers that reached this conclusion were fallible. Might they have missed something?
Later this week, the University of Illinois Department of Religion is hosting what may very well be the first ever international symposium on salvation in Islamic thought. The purpose of this symposium, and an associated book project and documentary, is to present and assess different, sometimes conflicting, approaches to the question, “What does Islam say about the fate of others?” Through healthy debate, some of the world’s most prominent Muslim and non-Muslim scholars –representing a spectrum of views and backgrounds — will hopefully initiate constructive dialogue on a controversial and consequential topic.

Mohammad Hassan Khalil is assistant professor of religion and visiting professor of law at the University of Illinois. He is currently writing a book on salvation in Islam. He is also the organizer of the international symposium, book project and documentary project “Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others.” The symposium is April 16 and 17 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

  • tlwinslow

    Sorry, but the Quran is filled with horrible punishments promised to all unbelievers, whether they “understand” Islam or not first, and it orders all believers to spread Islam worldwide by force and violence and terror, summarily killing all unbelievers who are not “People of the Book”, i.e., Christians and Jews, and them too if they don’t “feel themselves subdued” and submit to Islamic domination along with a yearly jizya (punishment) tax, failure to pay bringing execution. So, in an era when Muslim disinfo. artists attempt to take advantage of widespread of ignorance of Islam to soften Westerners up for mass Muslim immigration, it’s wise to take time to study Islam and its history so you will know what kind of supremacist ideology they will be bringing with them. Learn the key facts free with the Historyscoper at

  • tombo77

    MMMM… from what I have seen in my religious journey is there are 2 truths. 1 There is a higher power. 2 There is no one true religion. We are all God’s creations but because we all have come form different places and different experiences, God has set up several paths to God. It is with The Divines understanding and wisdom that One can come to understand; that because God made all of us different there must be a Religion to fit each in his/her own way. God did not wish us to be drones that all think the same way, but for this reason we will not all have the same religion.

  • e1313ruth

    There are not different paths to god…There were different paths to god via the astrology gods, but no more.. The only way back to god is through Jesus.. The real jesus who is son of god and who died for mankind…Not the wimpy Issa..

  • cpohlh

    The fact of the matter is that in Christ salvation has been purchased through His sacrifice/resurrection and cannot be earned. In Islam salvation is earned by one’s deeds or lack there of. Jesus, in John 14:6 said,”I AM the Way, The Truth and The Life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.” In short, there are not many ways to God and certainly NOT two ways. One leads to Life and the other to Death. It requires a choice on the part of each individual, but which would you want? One where you have to try and work for it hoping you did enough or one which has been provided by grace and love? You have only one choice, make it a good one!

  • faithfreedom2

    The Quran is so confused that Muslims can interpret it in any way they like, depending on from which direction the wind blows. However, there is a chronological sequence to the suras, which is not present in the Quran, but nonetheless known to the scholars of Islam. The rule is that the later suras abrogate the earlier ones. The last sura is sura tawba (chapter nine), This sura leaves no room for any misunderstanding. The People of the Book are regarded as unbelievers and the order is to subdue them and force them to pay the jizya, submissively or kill them. This sura nine abrogates previous suras that give the impression that Jews and Christians are also accepted by God and their religion is Islam. Furthermore, since according to Muslims, the Christians and the Jews have altered their books, the present Christianity and Judaism is not the original “Islam” that was sent by Allah. Hence the entire argument of this scholar of Islam is null and all he is doing is trying to make Islam less threatening to the westerners. In other words this gentleman is engaging in the game of deception (taqiyyah)

  • TheObserver5

    This is very interesting! It’s amazing how the comments below demonstrate precisely the naivete that this symposium will hopefully address. (I thought it was interesting that Prof. Khalil was accused of taqiyya because of his “argument.” He actually didn’t make any argument! :) This ad hominem taqiyya accusation parallels the kind of thing you’d hear from an anti-Semite who subscribes to the “Elders of Zion” conspiracy.Those who have studied Islamic theology know that the abrogation *theory* has in fact very little do with the debate discussed here. Some argue that Quran 3:85 abrogates 2:62. But even this is not at the core of the debate.

  • Max20

    Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Dose the Christian bible teaches love, respect, and tolerance for people of other faith? Let’s have a look shall we: Exodus 23:24 – Do not allow others to worship a different god. Conquer them and destroy their religious property.…And on and on its goes. Have you ever notice that everyone knows just what is wrong with other people’s religion except their own?

  • Quranist

    Anyone who believes in God and the here after is a believer. Sunni and Shia scholars have their own Islam. The Quran Islam is not sectarian Islam. Sunnu Shia Islam emerged in the 9th century, two centuries after the Quran. They are political movements that were formed to help the Abbasid empire create a theocrac and compete with the Byzantines. The Quran is crystal clear:O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into races and tribes, so that you may identify one another. Surely the noblest of you, in Allah‘s sight, is the one who is most pious of you. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Hujurat) 49-13″Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians — whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve” (5:69).124. If any do deeds of righteousness,- be they male or female – and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them. (4:124)There is nothing called abrogation. These are innovations introduced by the Sects. These sects follow the Hadiths(oral traditions) with each sect accusing the other of fabrication. In fact both are fabrication. Western scholars for a long time have deemed the Hadiths as fabrication. There is nothing called pluralist or exclusivist. tehre is something called Quran and there is somthing called hadith. Just like there is something called Torah and there is something called Talmud. Each contradict the other head to toe. The Quran came to confirm the Torah and Gospel. The scriptures speaks and nobody else.The Quran Islam is the real Islam. Quran is peace.