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.