First of all, it should be noted that there is no general statement or decree in Islam that those who live in non-Islamic countries will go to Hell. Rather, the decree is this: if those who heard the message and invitation of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, and witnessed the truth and light of Islam, reject it out of spiteful obstinacy and shut their ears and turn away from it, they will go to Hell. To pretend to more mercy and compassion than the Compassion of God is the worst sort of impertinence. Whether those who have heard the Divine Message live in Islamic countries is less to the point than whether they heed and obey that Message: those who do not will indeed go to Hell and suffer eternally.
The question is one that has been treated at great length by the scholars of Islamic theology who have spoken and written fully on the import of Qur’an and Hadith on the subject. But why, when there are so many pressing issues today, do people dwell upon this sort of question? If they get the answer to it, how will it affect and change their lives? What will they gain concerning their life in the Hereafter? How will the answer affect the daily practice and lifestyles of those who ask it or of those on whose behalf it is asked?
Is there a difference between those who have gone into unbelief willfully and those who have had no opportunity to hear about Islam? Will the latter go into hell and suffer the same punishment? The answer will be given in the light of the views of the imams of Islamic theology.
The Asharis held that one who has not heard the name of God and has not been communicated to about Him, wherever and however he lives, will not be punished but rather ‘excused’: God, as He wills, rewards such people to the measure of the good they have done and they enjoy the blessings of Paradise.
The view of the Maturidis is somewhat similar to the Mu’tazilis. They hold that if one finds his Creator through the use of his reason, even though he does not now His Names or Attributes, he will be saved. But, if he does not find and know the Creator through his reason, he will not be saved. In fact, this position is not so different from that of the Asharis, although they do sound different at first hearing. According to the Maturidis, it does not matter where one lives. Whether a man lives in the mountains, in a desert or on an island, he can observe the rising and the setting of the sun and moon, the sparkling light of the stars, the balance and order of the creation, the splendour and regularity amid the enormous variety on the surface of the earth, the grandeur of mountains and the gentle, easing breezes on their slopes, the thrilling colours and movements of flowers, trees and animals. All these are signs of the Owner, Creator, Sustainer and Administrator of all things. One can thus observe and acknowledge the absolute existence, power and grace of the Creator without knowing His Names and Attributes, or His Books and Messengers. Such a person is among the excused. That is why, one should not rashly assert that people who live in non-Islamic countries will go to Hell if they do not believe in God. Rather, one must, at least, keep silence, given the views of the imams of Islam.
Imam Ashari deduces his judgement from the verse of the Qur’an: We would never visit our wrath on any community until We had sent a Messenger to give warning (al-Isra’, 17.15). So, someone may not be punished for a wrong until due warning has reached him through a true Messenger.
According to the Maturidis, reason (‘aql) is an important faculty capable of discerning good from evil, but it would be wrong to go too far and say that reason is able to work everything out by itself. That is why God commands the good and forbids the wrong, and never leaves the matter wholly to human judgement and experience which are fallible. He conveyed His commands and prohibitions to people through Messengers, and thus has never left them in obscurity. The Maturidi argument goes like this: ‘Aql can work out that adultery and fornication are evil, because genealogy and lineage are interrupted and lost, with consequent problems of, among other things, how to divide inheritances. ‘Aql can work out that theft is evil, because if it were normal to steal the belongings of one who acquired them by long hard labour, no one could live in any degree of security. ‘Aql may discover that drinking is evil, because it causes one to lose one’s consciousness, damages health and makes one vulnerable to many illnesses, and can even affect one’s offspring. The same is true for what is good. Justice, doing well by others, etc., are all recognized as good by ‘aql.
Faith in God is also a good that ‘aql can grasp because faith leads us to satisfaction and inward contentment. Even in this world, we begin to sense the contentment that we will have in paradise. The way to faith is not so difficult as to be inaccessible by ‘aql. As in the case of the Bedouin, who came to the Prophet and explained how he attained faith: ‘Camel droppings point to the existence of a camel. Footprints on the sand tell of a traveller. The heaven with its stars, the earth with its mountains and valleys, and the sea with its waves- don’t they point to the Maker, All- Powerful, Knowing, Wise and Caring?’ This bedouin attained faith in God through the use of his mind, therefore we must not underrate the role of reason and thinking in faith. Setting out from this point, Maturidi says that one may find the Creator through one’s reason. There are many good examples from pre-Islamic times. One of them is Waraqa bin Nawfal, cousin of Umm al-Mu’minin, Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. Waraqa felt that the coming of the Prophet would be in his lifetime. When the first revelation came to Muhammad, upon him be peace, he saw the Angel Gabriel, filling up the horizon and the heavens with his grandeur. The Prophet came back to his home and, with still quaking heart, told Khadijah what he had seen and heard, begging her to cover him. Khadijah went to Waraqa to seek his advice, and he confirmed the truth of Muhammad’s mission and revelations. Waraqa was among those who knew and had felt many of the predicted signs of the Prophet’s coming, upon him be peace, which had already been fulfilled. So, understanding that no good would ever come from the idols, Waraqa ignored them, and through the use of his own judgement believed in the existence of the One God. Another such person was Zaid bin ‘Amr, the uncle of ‘Umar bin al-Khattab. He too did not incline to idols but worshipped the One God. He despised the idols and told people that they were false and no good could come from them. He knew that the coming of a Prophet was imminent. However, as God willed, he did not live long enough to see the prophethood of Muhammad, but intuitively knew of its coming. He called his son Sa‘id and ‘Umar and other family members to his death-bed, and said: ‘The light of God is on the horizon. I certainly believe that it will emerge fully very soon. I am already feeling its signs over our heads. As soon as the Prophet comes, without losing any time, go and join him.’ What human beings have themselves made cannot be God or answer their needs. For such things themselves need man. How can something which is itself in need and want, answer and provide the call of man? Through such simple reasoning a man can come to know of his need to know the Lord of the earths and the heavens. However, when a person gives the direction of his mind and reason to the Revelation, his need to know is itself met and the way to eternal bliss opened for him.
In sum, those who saw or have heard about the Prophet and the Qur’an, but have felt no need to investigate and learn about them will go to Hell. However, those who have remained in darkness involuntarily, and who have not had the slightest chance to hear and learn about the Qur’an and the Prophet, we may hope that they may benefit from Divine Grace, and not be blamed and punished for such wrongs as they may do in unwilled ignorance.
This question brings to mind the difference between the early and the present-day Muslims, and the duties of Muslims towards non-Muslims.
The first Muslims lived Islam fully, and represented and spread the Message revealed to Muhammad, upon him be peace, over a large area and awakened the collective conscience of mankind. Many centuries later, when we read their life histories, we can see such greatness in their Islamic thinking and living that it becomes obvious why people were not indifferent to the Message they brought. They were so fearless and indomitable, and so disregarded the concerns, the pleasures and sufferings of worldly life, that they made a lasting impression upon the world. Thanks to their sincerity and zeal, a great number of people heard the message of Islam within a very short time. They were so lofty, profound and thorough in their bearing and spirit that, by the time of Caliph ‘Uthman, the light of Islam had spread from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Aral Sea, from the stretches of Anatolia to the Great Wall of China. During the time of Mu’awiya, the Muslims reached the Atlantic Ocean. All of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were under the glorious flag of Islam. In less than 30 years, after the last revelation to the Prophet, Muslims reached these lands and laid the foundations of Islam there. Since they themselves lived Islam thoroughly, most people in those lands loved and respected them, and so admired and then embraced Islam. The Christians and Jews of those lands preferred government by the Muslims to that of their own people. When once the Muslims had to leave Damascus, the Christians together with their religious leaders gathered in the churches and prayed for them not to leave; then when the Muslims did go, the Christians promised them to live under their rule and pay the due tax if the Muslims were able to return in the future. Moreover, the sincerity of the Muslims brought a great number of people to enter Islam. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how it could have been otherwise when those people saw the early Muslims so many of whom were each an ‘Umar in sincerity and commitment. They kept long vigils in the night and were legendary warriors on horseback during the day (rukhbanun fi l-layli wa fursanun fi n-nahar). They won over so many hearts and impressed people that all believed that the gates of the whole world would soon he open to them.
If we consider how people in the present age cannot successfully provide security even in a small area for even their own community, we begin to understand how great an achievement the early Muslim administrations were. In return for their security, reliability, wisdom, subtlety of mind and piety, the doors of many castles and cities were opened to them, not as honorary title-holders or visitors, but as governors and rulers.
When the Muslims took over Syria and Palestine, the commanders asked for the keys to the Masjid al-Aqsa. The Patriarch in charge of the keys told them that the description of the person who would take the keys was known to him, and that it was impossible to hand them over to any other person. While they were disputing, the Caliph "Umar set out from Madina. No one knew how he would be travelling. But it was known to the Patriarch and the priests how the one who would receive the keys would come. "Umar borrowed a camel from the treasury of the state (bait al-mal). He might have borrowed a horse, but he did not. He took it in turns to ride the camel with his servant who accompanied him on the journey. When the Muslims commanders heard about "Umar"s coming in that manner, they prayed that as they crossed the river of Jordan it would not be "Umar"s turn to walk. For the Byzantines were used to seeing pomp and magnificence in their rulers, and the Muslim commanders thought that it might be shaming for the Caliph to be seen by them leading a camel on which the servant rode while the Caliph held the reins with rolled-up trousers crossing the river. In fact, most of political pomp is injustice and inequity, and "Umar was trying to avoid it. However, everything was ordained by God, and what happened happened just as the commanders most feared. Moreover, "Umar" s garment, worn and battered by the journey, had many patches on it. When the Patriarch saw this figure, he cried out "This is the man whose description we have in our books. Now, I shall give him the key." Because of the special spiritual insight of their elders, the priests had already known how "Umar would look and how he would cross the river. The handing of the key and the Masjid al-Aqsa to the Muslims caused many to come into Islam. With whole hearted ardour, Uqba bin Nafi" was one of those who set forth to make other people hear about the Truth all over the world. The conquest of Africa fell to his lot. After successive victories, some people envied his fame and misinformed the Caliph about him. Thus, the Caliph was provoked and Uqba was dismissed from his post, arrested and kept from spreading Islam. Imprisoned for five years, his only sorrow and great longing were expressed thus: "I would like to have spread Islam all over Africa. I was prevented from achieving this. That is the only thing I regret". Freeing and then appointing Uqba as the governor of Africa, Yazid did one good thing to counterbalance his many injustices. He reopened the way to the conquest of Africa and the spread of Islam in the region which had all but come to an end with the arrest of Uqba. Uqba reached the Atlantic Ocean in a single campaign. He could not help riding his horse into the ocean and crying. "O God! If this dark sea had not prevented me going further, I would carry Your Holy Name to overseas lands." Had someone been there able to speak to him of the American continents, Uqba would surely have set about planning how to go over there. These are narrated just to make us think how Islam was represented in the past and how it is now. The early Muslims took the territories now called Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, North Africa, Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand—places which would produce Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, Biruni—within 25 years, less than a single generation. It seems to have been achieved almost in the saying of it, in a single breath. Those first Muslims carried the message of Islam to almost every part of the then known world and made the glorious flag of "There is no god but God, Muhammad is His Messenger" wave over many lands. As for ourselves we are scarcely able to speak the Truth to the people around us, let alone go to foreign lands and tell the people there. Some of the people around us may be willing to listen to us, but we, alas, are unable to persuade even them. Our words come back to us, as if from walls of ice, cold. Our words do leave our mouths but do not penetrate the hearts and souls of people. In saying this, it is not our purpose to express ingratitude for the blessings we do have; we mean only to draw attention to the great, indeed immeasurabIe, distance between ourselves and the quality of men who were the Companions of the Prophet. They conveyed the Message to all peoples, and held this task as the very reason for their existence; when they could not do so, they felt sorrow and pain for the lands and peoples unaware of the Truth. By contrast, we are unable to represent Islam fully in our individual lives, still less convey its message to multitudes abroad. We have not abandoned our personal needs and preoccupations; we have not given the highest priority to working on the way of God. We remember too well, alas, the ways to our homes and our jobs, our worldly lives. Those of us who did go abroad, to non-Muslim countries, did so to earn dollars, or pounds, or marks, or francs—not to take the name of God to those lands. That is why we are unable to make them hear about the great Truths. If today the non-Muslims live in deviation, corruption and unbelief due to our neglect, ignorance, inability, laziness and incompetence, we shall certainly be summoned to account for it. If a question is asked of them in the Hereafter; then definitely it is asked of us as well. Giving lectures and organizing seminars and panels are not the only way to spread Islam. Such activities can be considered as a movement in the direction of being on the way God, but they do not themselves constitute the true service to Islam. If true service to Islam is likened to a great palace, our efforts so far are just like wandering about around the first entrance to the palace: we have not yet entered upon the task. Therefore, many people are going astray. Occasionally, we have gone to those people to speak of Islam, but we have not saved ourselves from futile disputes and conflicts amongst ourselves. We have definitely not yet come near to representing Islam at the level of "Umar, Uqba bin Nafi", and others of that quality. Who knows how their opponents were struck with fear at seeing their determined courage, their indomitable devotion to God; or struck with wonder by their reliability, generosity, justice, and humanity, and so moved to wonder about, then to embrace, Islam. The fact that many of the countries in which the Muslims live now, except far a few, were conquered by these early Muslims is evidence enough of what absolute sincerity in the way of God can achieve. Looked at from this direction, the question about non-Muslims, especially those living in non-Islamic countries, takes on a different aspect. We need to see those non-Muslims with a greater tolerance, and say: "Shame on us! We have not been able to convey the message of Islam, and bring them to the light out of the darkness they live in." It will help to narrate here the true story of a German family. A Turkish worker found accommodation in the house of this German family. He paid great attention to his religious duties and performed them sensitively. Except for working hours, he never omitted, when with the family, to tell them about Islam. After a while the owner of the house became Muslim. His wife said to him, as did the wife of "Amir ibn Tufail: "We have always been together so far. Let us be together in the future, too. Together on the Bridge Sirat and also in Paradise. If Islam really makes one reach heavenly realms, as you said, why should I stay back from such a blessing while you enjoy it?" She completed her words with the Kalima. With their children coming into Islam the family group of Islam was completed and the home an outpost of Paradise. Several days later the owner of the house came and said these startling words to the Turkish worker: "I could not express my love and gratitude to you, because you have been an honoured guest to us. However, sometimes, I get very angry and wish to beat you up. You came and the Qur'an, the Prophet and God followed you. My home became a heavenly abode. But I had a father. He was a very straight, good man. He passed away a few days before you came. Why couldn"t you have come a bit earlier and told him of Islam as well?" These words indeed represent the voice, the complaint, the rebuke, of the whole non-Muslim world. We have failed to take Islam to them. Even in our own countries we have not been able to exert enough effort or give enough support to the cause of Islam to make our own people know it properly. Another aspect of the question is this: Those who took us away from Islam have always promised a Western life of Western standard. 150 years later we are still beggars at the doors of the West. Little has changed and we cannot say that we have progressed, in any important sense. Throughout a century and a half, the West have considered and treated us as servants: servants who leave their countries in return for poor wages. Even if we took them the golden principles of Islam, the best of messages, which will open the gates of Paradise for them, the Christians and Jews, will not accept them from us, they will not recognize the quality and worth of Islam in us. In part this is because we are despised labourers at their disposal. As ever, the rich man has difficulty imagining that he is in need of something from the beggar at his door. Today, the Muslim world has not proved itself a worthy model for the rest of the world. Quite the contrary, it has been defeated in many fields many times over and become dependent on the Western countries. Only if we live and represent Islam thoroughly, and go to the non-Muslims with a commanding confidence in our own honour, dignity and greatness, and do so only for the sake of God, as our forefathers and the first Muslims did, then only have we a right to hope that they will listen to and accept the call of Islam. We cannot like, still less approve, their regarding us in the light of servants and beggars, yet, while we do not regain our true Islamic identity, we continue to give them an excuse to regard us so. Certainly, if they will be asked to account for their attitudes and behaviour in the Hereafter, so shall we, also, who have failed to convey Islam to them, be questioned and chastised for that failure. So, the responsibilities of both Muslims and non-Muslims should be considered common and equal. Judgements about them should be made justly and uprightly. We are far from any understanding that condemns all non-Muslims to Hell simply for their being non-Muslim. Equally, we are far from such vain day-dreaming as to suppose that by stepping out one day and in a perfunctory manner, mentioning the worth of Islam, we shall get people to follow us. We believe that there will be changes in the balance of the world in the near future. Especially in Turkey, the Turkic countries, Egypt, Pakistan, and in some other places, Muslims will regain their consciousness and raise up strong persons able to turn away from pursuing worldly interests for the sake of establishing Islam and its high values among other peoples and other countries besides their own. Only through sustained, sincere efforts, will Islam be a major factor in the balance of the world and be respected, and the voice of Muslims calling non-Muslims to Islam be heard. That is not something impossible. Rather it will certainly happen. But those who will manage it will be men and women of good character whose very souls are bonded with Islam, not those inconsistent and inadequate people who are under the impress of their bodily needs and who concern themselves with Islam, as it were, only in their spare time.