(© Zubair Qamar 2013)
Many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, misunderstand Sunni Islam’s teachings on the possibility of salvation for non-Muslims. This, in part, is compounded by the statements of extreme figures, and is normally seen in a bi-polar way: “All Muslims are going to heaven; all non-Muslims are going to hell.” This understanding is simplistic at best and has become the ammunition of less knowing Muslims to eliminate any possibility of salvation for non-Muslims. It is an understanding that contradicts Sunni Islam’s position on the matter. Discussion of this issue is therefore needed to correct and balance this perspective.
Who Received the Message?
Sunni Islam does not reject non-Muslims wholesale as “disbelievers”. Salvation is contingent upon receiving the message of Islam in its pristine form. The Qur’an states: “We do not punish until We send a Messenger” (Qur’an 17:15). Contemporary Sunni scholar Nuh Ha Mim Keller says that Christian groups that did not receive the pristine message of Jesus until the time of Prophet Muhammad fall into this category from a Sunni perspective. Similarly, contemporary Sunni scholar Shaykh Salman from Seeker’s Guidance says:
“While we deem Islam to be the only true religion, it needs to be kept in mind that divine amnesty may apply to even those who were not on the Islamic faith.”
Hamza Yusuf, the Sunni scholar and founder of Zaytuna College in California, quotes the famous Sunni scholar and Sufi, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali:
I would even go as far as to say that most of the Christians among the Europeans and Turks in this time of ours will be embraced by the same mercy, if God most high wills. I mean specifically those who are among the remote inhabitants of Europe and Central Asia whom the call of Islam has not reached [will be embraced by this divine mercy] (Italics added by author).
The “Europeans” and “Turks” not of today, of course, but from the time Imam Ghazali lived. But how about non-Muslims living today?
Salvation for Non-Muslims Living Today
Nuh Keller elaborates on Imam Ghazali’s views by applying his statements to non-Muslims today:
The great Muslim scholar, Imam Ghazali, includes in this category those who have only been reached with a distorted picture of the Messenger of Islam (Allah bless him and give him peace), presumably including many people in the West today who know nothing about Allah’s religion but newspaper stories about Ayatollahs and mad Muslim bombers. Is it within such people’s capacity to believe? In Ghazali’s view, such people are excused until after they have had an opportunity to learn the undistorted truth about Islam (Ghazali: “Faysal al-tafriqa,” Majmu’a rasa’il al-Imam al-Ghazali, 3.96).
It is interesting to note, according to Nuh Keller, the people who have a distorted view of Islam, “presumably including many people in the West today who know nothing about Allah’s religion but newspaper stories about Ayatollahs and mad Muslim bombers” – or those people who have not “had an opportunity to learn the undistorted truth about Islam” are “excused”. One can only wonder how many Americans, Europeans, so-called “polytheists”, and others fit in this category today, especially when receiving much of their information from mainstream media that usually presents a skewed understanding of Islam and Muslims. Sunni scholars of past and present gave non-Muslims the benefit of the doubt when it came to issues of salvation.
In addition, while polytheism, or associating others in worship with God, is an unforgivable sin in Islam, the children of polytheists are still understood to be innocent according to Sunni Islam. Imam Nawawi, a leading jurist of the Shafi’i school of Sunni jurisprudence, said:
The preferred and soundest school of thought about them and the one most of the authoritative scholars have inclined toward is that they are in Paradise based upon God’s word, We do not punish a people until a messenger comes to them [17:15]. So if God does not punish an adult because no message has reached him, obviously, children would be even more secure.
It should be emphasized that according to Sunni Islam, all children who have not reached the age of discernment are considered to be innocent, whether their parents are Hindus, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Animist, Darwinist, Agnostic, Atheist, or of any other belief, or of no belief. Should such children die, they are believed to have a one-way ticket to Paradise. Militants who target them are accumulating major sins according to the same tradition they claim to follow.
Extremists of past and present who were and are quick to declare Muslims and non-Muslims heretics, some going as far as maiming or killing them, should think twice. Al-Qa’eda, for example, labels all Americans, non-Muslim and Muslim, as “infidels” worthy of extermination. This understanding reflects ignorance of Sunni tradition. Extremists should ponder over the possibility that certain, and surely many, non-Muslims are not heretics at all, but simply need to learn the pristine message of Islam through peaceful means. The assumption that every non-Muslim is a heretic is just that – an assumption that can lead to wrong and sinful actions, including depriving non-Muslims from having a chance to acquire the uncorrupted knowledge of Islam’s teachings. Imam Ghazali’s view that “kufr is an active denial, not a passive state of ignorance” must not be taken lightly. Extremists should fear Allah whom they claim to worship with unrelenting obedience. They should control their tongues and stop pointing weapons toward non-Muslims and children if they claim to be true to their faith.
Ibn Taymiyah and Universal Salvation?
Militants at this point must be trying to seek refuge in the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah. Unbeknownst to them, however, their favorite role model had an even stronger view in favor of non-Muslim salvation in the Afterlife. I am not referring to non-Muslims who received a distorted understanding of Islam, as described above, but to non-Muslims who heard and learned the correct teachings of Islam and rejected it.
It is documented that Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Ibn Taymiyah’s closest student, had given Ibn Taymiyah a commentary of the Qur’an by a hadith specialist named `Abd ibn Hamid al-Kissi with a statement attributed to Omer, Islam’s second caliph, that the people dwelling in hell would eventually leave hell. This led Ibn Taymiyah to adopt the position “for temporal punishment and the eventual salvation of all people” from hell, including Muslims and non-Muslims. Mohammad Hassan Khalil, author of Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question, says the existence of the treatise by Ibn Taymiyah is “well documented” though “its title is disputed.” He says the treatise “was first published in its entirety in 1995 in Saudi Arabia under the somewhat misleading title al-Radd ‘ala man qala bi-fana’ al-janna wa-l-nar (The rejoinder to those who maintain the annihilation of the Garden and the Fire). Khalil refers to it, in short, as Fana’ al-nar (The annihilation of the Fire).
While some of Ibn Taymiyah’s ardent supporters deny that Ibn Taymiyah ever held such a view for various reasons, Khalil, after investigating the evidence, states that the
“available evidence leads only to the conclusion that it was most likely Ibn Taymiyya’s final work.”
He also says,
“we do not have a single report of any of Ibn Taymiyya’s contemporaries claiming that his universalist proclamations were misattributions”
“Whatever the case may be, Ibn Taymiyya was undoubtedly the earliest prominent figure of the post-salaf era to claim that Paradise is for all of humanity.”
Ibn Taymiyah was not alone. Ibn Qayyim, though more cautious on the matter, built “on [Ibn Taymiyah’s] Fana’” and “developed arguments for universal salvation”. Khalil explains:
The latter are laid out not only in the Shifa’ but, most famously, in a work entitled Hadi al-arwah ila bila al-afrah (Spurring souls on to dominions of joys). A more forceful version of these arguments appears in one of his final works, Sawa’iq al-mursala (The dispatched thunderbolts); however, all we have of the relevant discussion in the Sawa’iq survives in an ostensibly reliable abridgment by a certain Muhammad ibn al-Mawsili (d. 774/1372), a contemporary of Ibn Qayyim.
Militants who are keen to use, or rather abuse, Ibn Taymiyah’s statements to declare revolution or terrorism against “infidels” should ponder over his view of eternal salvation for Muslims and non-Muslims in the Afterlife, and, of course the genuine Sunni scholars who spoke of the possibility of non-Muslim salvation.
The possibility of salvation from the Sunni perspective for non-Muslims in the Afterlife must surely be surprising to many Muslims and non-Muslims today. After all, it is not what they are used to hearing daily on their radios and televisions, and even in some of their own mosques and Islamic schools.
A better use of time by militants, and Muslims in general, is if they pondered over their own salvation, and considered the possibility of whether they would be hell-bound or not. It is documented that a man who was resurrected by God on the Day of Resurrection thought he died in battle as a “martyr” only to be told by God: “You lie. You fought in order to be called a hero, and it has already been said.” The so-called martyr is then “sentenced and dragged away on his face and flung into the fire.”
 Seeker’s Guidance blog. Available: http://seekersguidance.org/ans-blog/2012/08/11/does-the-quran-affirm-the-validity-of-practicing-judaism-and-christianity/
 Imam Hamza Yusuf. “Who are the Desbelievers?”. Pg. 46. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf
 Imam Hamza Yusuf article on Who are the Desbelievers?. Pg. 45. http://www.mujahideenryder.net/pdf/WhoAretheDisbelievers.pdf
 Mohammad Hassan Khalil. Islam and the Salvation of Others. Pg.80.
 Mohammad Hassan Khalil. Islam and the Salvation of Others. Pg.88.