Marco Demichelis on Mohammad Hassan Khalil’s Islam and the Fate of Others and Between Heaven and Hell
While outsiders often view Islam as an exclusivist religion, the fate of non-Muslims has provoked significant theological discussions from the classical period of Islam (9th-12th centuries CE) to the modern day, without any consensus regarding the interpretation of the Qur’an and Tradition. Long before a number of modern Islamic exegetes — such as the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the Sudanese Mahmoud M. Taha, the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, and the Indonesian Nurcholish Madjid — advocated a pluralist interpretation of Islam, the ninth-century collection of ahadith called Sahih al-Bukharī transmits this famous tradition of the Prophet Muhammad:
Bring out of the fire every one in whose heart there is faith or goodness to the extent of a mustard seed, so they will be taken out having become quite black; then they will be thrown into the river of life and they will grow as grows a seed by the side of a river.
The tradition suggests that it will be easy for God to release the damned from a temporary or non-eternal Hell. But other Qur’anic passages indicate that only the Islamic religion finds acceptance with God (Q. 3:19; 3:85), and some verses criticize the beliefs of other faiths, particularly the Christian concept of Trinity (e.g. Q. 5:72-73; 112). These cases contrast with the general picture of God’s eschatological decisions presented in the Qur’an, that God’s basis for judgement will be human behavior, and that believers enter heaven if their righteous deeds outweigh their sinful ones: “And We shall set up the just balances for the Resurrection Day, so that not one soul shall be wronged for anything … ” (Q. 21:47). The message of Muhammad appears continuous with the earlier Abrahamic revelations and, although there are clearly major differences (such as the concept of prophecy), common tradition on the attributes of God and eschatology binds these religions together. According to the Qur’an: “Those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last Day, they shall have their reward” (Q. 22:17).
Mohammed Hassan Khalil’s monograph, Islam and the Fate of Others, emphasizes the emergence within the medieval period of the notion of a shared and pluralist Islamic redemption. He concentrates on four prominent Muslim thinkers, the first three of whom contributed decisively to the establishment of early Muslim civilization: al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE), especially as represented by his inclusivist essay, “The decisive criterion for distinguishing Islam from infidelity”; Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240 CE) with his universalist and comprehensive path to God; Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE), whose “The rejoinder to those who accepted the idea of annihilation of the Garden and the Fire” discusses a redemption policy for humanity; and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE), a cautious universalist. Because of the respect these scholars have earned throughout Islam and their obvious deep engagement with these issues, the decision to highlight them as representatives of pluralism proves effective.
In al-Ghazali’s essay Fays al al-tafriqa, a later work, the Persian author discusses what constitutes orthodoxy and what qualifies as unbelief within Islam. He assigns to damnation only those who stubbornly rejected Islam after encountering it in its allegedly true form. Al-Ghazali also suggests that some non-Muslims can be saved, since God will excuse those who did not hear the Prophet’s message, those who heard only negative things about the Prophet, and those who were moved to actively investigate the Islamic message after encountering it in its true form.
Living in the days after the Mongols had annihilated the caliphate and sacked Baghdad in 1258, the Hanbalite jurist Ibn Taymiyya doubted the eternal nature of Hell and supported a universalist paradigm of salvation. He argued in Radd ‘alā man qāla bi-fanā al-janna wa-l-nār that “the people of the Fire will not simply perish within Hell, but, on the contrary, they will spend the rest of eternity in Paradise,” as Khalil summarizes his teaching. In line with the suggestions contained within Jon Hoover’s Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism and Mohammed Rustom’s Triumph of Mercy, Khalil illustrates Ibn Taymiyya’s support for universal salvation. But he also stresses the difficulty of maintaining this position, which brings with it the need to defend the eventual salvation of believers, while preserving God’s attribute of justice. A rational position must preserve Allah’s theodicy in relation to his Mercy.
A less pluralist image of eschatological salvation has emerged in modern times, for two main reasons. First, the decline of Islamic empires (Ottoman, Safavid, and Moghul) in contrast with the rise of European nations and colonialism has led to a historical period of decadence of Islam. Second, few Muslims today study the medieval authors mentioned above. Rashid Rida, a member of the Salaf (revivers of Islamic Studies), expressed his cautious universalism in his analysis of the writing of the Egyptian Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1351 CE), whose Qur’anic commentary suggests that God’s expansive mercy and justice are not contrary to reason. In Rida’s view, Muslims (including converts) still stand in a preferred position over non–Muslim believers who actively search for the Truth.
In opposition to this view, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), an Egyptian supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, advocated an exclusivist interpretation, such that transgressors will remain in Hell for many ages (Q. 78:23). Although he knows the works of authors such as Rashid Rida and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Qutb does not mention them so that he can reinforce the impression that only Muslims will be saved. He can cite in support Q. 5:72: “If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him or her from the Garden, and Hell will be his or her home. No one will help such evildoers.” Khalil contrasts Qutb’s view with that of contemporary pluralist works such as South African theologian Farid Esack’s Qur’ān, Liberation and Pluralism and American academic Abdulaziz Sachedina’s Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. Sachedina highlights the Qur’anic phrase, “Your Brothers in Religion or your equals in Creation” (Q. 59:9-10), a phrase reflecting the importance of religious mercy in the time of its author ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth rightly-guided caliph.
Khalil’s edited volume, Between Heaven and Hell, focuses on the different positions of contemporary authors. Its six sections contain contributions from a number of leading Muslim and non-Muslim scholars engaging a variety of issues: the ambiguity of God’s word in relation to the presuppositions of the exegete; the tension within the Qur’an itself between pluralism and exclusivism; the reception of this tension in various Muslim authors, both Sunni and Shi‘a; and how the juridical aspects of this discussion have played out in different countries. The articles sometimes reveal disagreements among the various contributors: while some support the pluralist interpretation embraced by Khalil in his own monograph, others, such as the modern American cleric Yasir Qadhi, claim that God accepts no religion besides Islam, and Qadhi equates the rejection of Muhammad’s prophetic message with the rejection of Allah.
An important controversy emerges in Reza Shah-Khazemi’s article, “Beyond Polemic and Pluralism: The Universal Message of the Qur’an.” He rightly asks how one can go beyond the benevolent presentation of Islam, promoted by westernized Muslim academics and intellectuals, which has little connection with living Islam but more in common with the positions of pluralist Christian and Jewish colleagues. He cites John Hick’s view that “all religions are equal and equally salvific; one must abandon traditional claims to be the sole possessors of the truth, and one must affirm the equal truth of all religions.” But advancing a pluralist interpretation of the overall message of the Qur’an usually results in trivializing it. This problem of a false benevolent perception of Islam does not relate directly to the well-intentioned Muslims or Christians on both sides, though they do not share a common reaction to pluralism. The main difficulties are, on one side, the ontological understanding of the main literalist meaning of the Islamic message and, on the other, the ability of sharing this meaning within the majority of Islamic and Christian communities. Concerning the first problem, Khalil’s monograph points out that al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi, and Ibn Taymiyya adopted an approach that was pluralist but nevertheless strongly rooted in their interpretation of the Qur’an. However, such readings and interpretations of the Qur’an must be considered in their historical context, bearing in mind the religious milieu of the Prophet’s original message and the ages in which these Muslim religious experts lived.
A relevant answer to Khazemi’s article is Farid Esack’s contribution, “The Portrayal of Jews and the Possibilities for Their Salvation in the Qur’an,” which highlights the perennial problem of historicizing the Qur’anic text. According to an historicized exegesis, one must distinguish the Meccan and Medinian suras in relation to the Prophet’s political and religious context: in Mecca he opposes the authorities, in Medina he is the authority. Esack argues that the Medinian verses established a legal and practical framework for living with other religious communities, more so than the Meccan suras, which are involved in a discourse with pre-Islamic polytheists. Some Medinian verses refer directly to historical events that occurred at the time of revelation. In the Qur’an 5:61-70, Jews are first chosen by God as bearers of salvation through the Torah, but later they are accused of treachery and corruption of their own laws. The Qur’an is both a historically-rooted document and timeless divine revelation. These twin aspects have implications for the ways in which scholars read verses in the Qur’an that concern the role and status of Jews and Christians in Islamic theology. For both Jews and Muslims, salvation and condemnation relate to the correct behavior of the human being.
At the same time, authors such as al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi, and Ibn Taymiyya demand analysis within the context of their own personal experiences. But it does not seem to me that their pluralism is related to the openness toward other faiths characterizing Islam in their days; their very thought demonstrates that the military and economic decadence of the ‘Abbasid empire, from the tenth century to the sack of Baghdad in 1258, did not lead to a more rigid religious conservatism. On the contrary, for another century after the calamity of 1258, Islamic scholars encouraged research into problems related to the salvation of others, as Ibn Taymiyya’s last works shows. The encounter with Modernity ultimately provokes a movement toward less engagement with other faiths and an exclusivist view of Islamic Eschatology.
The contemporary Islamic world suffers from a lack of education, reciprocal understanding, and specific knowledge of medieval Muslim views on these questions. For example, Muslims who know something about Ibn Taymiyya usually regard him merely as a reviver of the Hanbali Islamic tradition (the basis of the contemporary legal system of Saudi Arabia) and as a literalist Qur’anic exegete. Yet his forgotten universalism contrasts deeply with the contemporary simplistic understandings of Hanbalism. In a post-historical phase marked by periods of colonialism and a “clash of civilizations,” teachers and preachers unfamiliar with the important medieval discussions on salvation have diminished the potential for a concrete dialogue between faiths. A process of mediatization of religion has resulted in a trivialization of the Islamic message, which since the 1970s has received sanction in Arab school systems due to underfunding and the influence of Political Islam. The legal and scholarly classes have failed to mount a significant opposition to the oversimplification of religion, and journalists with limited knowledge of Islam and Islamic scholarship do not help the situation.
Khalil’s volumes encourage us to perceive inter-religious dialogue on a deeper level than that of superficial do-gooders unable to understand the real difficulties of religious confrontation. Both works promote a more inclusive perception of Islamic thought on the salvation of others with attention to the historical evolution of the topic from al-Ghazali in the eleventh century to Rashid Rida in the twentieth. Islam and the Fate of Others underlines the pluralist understanding of Muslim eschatology by evoking contributions from some of the most relevant past and contemporary scholars of Islam. It thus becomes clear that well before the publication of Lumen Gentium by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Islamic theology was able to interpret the Qur’an rationally, considering it as a plural word of God. Between Heaven and Hell, with its inclusion of various views, leaves many questions open, especially in relation to the contemporary period: How can the theory of inter-religious salvation lead to real, practical dialogue? In what ways can the “salvation question” improve perceptions of the other?
Though there will always be those who can cite a sentence from the Qur’an to justify their limiting salvation to Muslims, Khalil’s volumes amply demonstrate that such a position stands in contrast to important classical and modern Muslim scholars. The main problem is the reception of this message in the contemporary Islamic world. The Word of God and the Tradition allow us to doubt the eternal damnation of non-Muslims of goodwill. But will the persistent sectarianism, dating back to the split between the Sunni and Shi‘a, grant this perspective a hearing?
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