THE SALVATION OF NON-MUSLIMS
A MUSLIM VIEW
[Al-Ghazālī was writing to reply his adversaries who quoted two adīths which Acurtail the mercy of God@. The first relates that God said to Adam, AOf your descendants 999 out of a thousand will be resurrected for the Fire@. Ghazālī replied that the 999 would only spend a moment in the Fire, to be purified, and then they would go immediately to Paradise; only one of a thousand would spend eternity in Hell. Ghazālī himself quoted another adīth, in which `A=isha relates how she saw Mu£ammad in prayer, surrounded by light, with Gabriel announcing to him that more than 14 billion of his faithful would be saved. since his own community would never be that large, the number would have to be completed with non-Muslims. Al-Ghazālī then talks of the salvation of non-Muslims:]
Hadīths similar to this, which indicate the great mercy of the Most High, are numerous. This one indeed refers to the community of Muammad─may prayer and salvation be upon him. And in my opinion the Divine mercy includes a great number of lesser communities as well; though the majority of their members may well be handed over to the Fire, either very briefly, for a moment, for the wink of an eye, or for a certain length of time, enough to justify the term AResurrection for the Fire@. Furthermore, I would say that the majority of Turks and Byzantine Christians of our time come under the divine mercy, God willing. I refer to the inhabitants of the Byzantine and Turkish regions most distant from us, whom the call has not yet reached to embrace Islam. For there are three categories of Byzantines and Turks: first, those who have not yet heard the name of Mu£ammad at all; these can be excused. Second, there are those who have heard the name of Muammad and who know of his prophetic gift and of the miracles he accomplished. These are the people who neighbour Muslim territory or even live among Muslims - they are unbelievers who have strayed from the right path. In the third category, between the two preceding, are those who have heard of Mu£ammad, but not of his gifts and prophetic powers. Or rather they have heard since their childhood of a lying impostor, a fraud, by the name of Mu£ammad, who claimed to be a prophet - just as our children hear of a lying impostor called al-Muqaffa`, raised up by God, who in defiance of all falsely declared himself a prophet. These last, to my mind, are in the same situation as those of the first category. For the first category, who have not heard of Mu£ammad, have therefore not heard anyone attribute to him qualities contrary to those he actually possesses; and those of whom we are speaking (the third category) have only heard attributed to him qualities contrary to those he actually possesses. And that is not enough to motivate the reflective powers.
[Al-Ghazālī then moves on to the second of the £adīths Arestricting the mercy of God@. It is the celebrated £adīth: AMy community will divide into more than 70 sects, of which only one will be saved@. According to al-Ghazālī, another version of this text would have instead AOnly one will be lost@. Or else one must understand it as meaning that only one will be saved and go straight to Paradise without need of intercession. Al-Ghazālī concludes that one sect only will go to eternal Fire - those who treat Mu£ammad as a liar. From there he passes to non-Muslim communities:]
As regards the other communities, some have heard of the appearance of Muammad, of his prophetic powers, of his extraordinary miracles, such as the split in the moon, the praise given by the stones, and the water that gushed from between his fingers; they have heard of the inimitable Qur=ān, thanks to which he was able to defy people of consequence, who were powerless to imitate him; and all this is in accordance with a well established tradition. And if they regard Muammad as a liar, if they have heard of all this and turn away from it, reject it completely, without reflecting on it and enthusiastically assenting to it, then it is they who are the frauds and the liars ─they are the rebels. But the Byzantines and Turks whose homes are far distant from the land of the Muslims are not included in this group. On the contrary, it is my opinion that if anyone has heard all this, the instinct for enquiry must be aroused in him, to clarify the truth of the matter - at least, if he is on the side of the people of religious bent, and not with those who love the life of this world more than that of the next; for if the instinct is not aroused in him it is because he relies only on the life of this world, because he has no fear of God and attaches no importance to matters of religion. This is unbelief. If the instinct is aroused, and he gives up the enquiry, this also is unbelief. On the other hand, once someone has been given signs of the appearance of a prophet through his miracles, no matter what his religion, if he has faith in God and in the Last Day he cannot weaken in the search. If he makes it his task to reflect and to search, if he does not give up, even should death take him away before he has reached the full truth, he will receive pardon and will benefit from the vast mercy of God. Extend therefore the mercy of the Most High, and do not measure the divine against cramped official standards.
Reflections on this text
This follows logically from al-Ghazālī=s doctrine on the faith of Acertitude@. Whoever calls himself a Muslim must arrive at this faith by scouring clean by asceticism and meditation the mirror of his soul, his Aheart@, so that the truth of Islam, which is inscribed in the nature of all men, might be perfectly reflected. We find here the traditional doctrine of Islam that AEvery man is born a Muslim. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian@. So if anyone makes a real attempt to rid himself of all transmitted or acquired errors he will find the true religion which is inscribed on the hearts of all men: Islam. One can see that this perspective is somewhat different from Christian theology on the salvation of the non-evangelized. Instead of beginning with the notion of a religion inscribed on men=s hearts (compare the Anaturally Christian soul@ of Tertullian), Christian theology emphasises the supernatural light given by God to all souls of good will. This is forward looking, if you like, while Islam looks back. But in both theologies there is insistence on the duty of sincerely looking for the truth.
The need for inquiry after the true faith, taken up in the second passage, on is rare among traditional Muslim authors and is worthy of admiration. It would be easy to interpret the passage in a Christian sense. Contemporary theology on the salvation of the non-evangelised lays great emphasis on the salvific value of the search for absolute truth. One can encourage such people on the need for a continued effort in the search for religious truth, even if success does not come in this life.
Al-Ghazālī expressed in this text a broadness of outlook which is quite rare in Muslim tradition. The vast majority of authors are of the opinion that every Muslim will be saved, whether or not he passes through a temporary hell, while those who are not Muslims, no matter how virtuous they may be, will be condemned.
The Qur=ān mentions the possibility of salvation of non-Muslims: AThe Believers, the Jews, the Christians and the Sābi=ans, those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good, will have their reward with their Lord. They will not have to fear or come to shame@ (2:62)@ Classic commentators say that this verse came before 29:46 where Muammad tried to get those who already had a scripture (the Jews) to accept his own scripture as well. Since they refused, say these commentators, verse 2:62 is cancelled by 3:85: AIf anyone desires a religion other than Islam it will not be accepted from him, and on the Last Day he will be among the losers.@ But most contemporary Muslims do not believe in abrogation, and say that 2:62 is still valid, and that in 3:85 Aislam@ should be written with a small Ai@ and understood as Asubmission to God@.
In spite of this the conviction is deeply rooted that only Muslims will be saved. AIt is a pity that you are not a Muslim@, many Muslims say when they wish well of a Christian whom they admire. But more and more we find the belief that every man of good will will be saved. This may come from a certain religious indifferentism or syncretism which has come from the western world. It is also, perhaps, a reaction of a healthy nature, which cannot easily accept that the sincere and good man may be eternally damned.
Tr. & comments by R. Caspar, Bulletin of the Secretariat for non-Christians, n. 5 (June 1967), 87-97, with my adaptations.