With everyone offering their opinion about what Islam is really about, with even far-right voices cashing in on the furore, Muslims are in danger of allowing the essential message of their religion to be drowned out in all the hullabaloo. And while it’s not always easy to essentialize the faith, to sort out Islamic principles from Muslim practices, this much has to be clear:
A Muslim, by definition, is anyone who has sincerely uttered the Declaration of Faith; the shahadah: bearing witness to the fact that God is One, unique, perfect, having no partner or associate, with none deserving to be worshiped except Him; bearing witness also that Muhammad is His final Messenger sent to all humanity. Since we cannot rip open hearts to read their secrets (unless they are explicitly or unequivocally revealed through word or deed), judgement about sincerity is left with God. These words of the Prophet ﷺ speak to the reality that la ilaha illa’Llah isn’t something to merely be uttered by the tongue, with no understanding of its meaning or sincerity to its demands: ‘The person most delighted by my intercession on the Day of Resurrection will be the one who says, la ilaha illa’Llah sincerely from his heart.’1 And this: ‘Whoever bears witness to la ilaha ila’Llah, sincerely from his heart, will enter Paradise.’2 Also these words: ‘Whoever dies knowing that there is no god [deserving of worship] except Allah, will enter Paradise.’3
Of course – and rightly so, few would consider this is sufficient in practice, unless such a Declaration is taken to include affirming the necessary consequences which flow from it. One of Islam’s early pietists, Wahb b. Munabbih, was once asked: ‘Isn’t la ilah illa’Llah the key to Paradise?’ To which he explained: ‘Indeed! But there isn’t a key, except that it has incisions (asnan, lit. “teeth”). If you bring a key that has [the right] incisions, the door will open; if not, it won’t!’4 What is meant by these “incisions” are the duties and obligations instated by the faith. In other words, while the Muslim believes in the One true God, in the angels, in all the messengers sent to mankind for their guidance from the beginning of the human saga, and in the divinely-revealed books – the Qur’an being the final Word of God, unaltered and unalterable; Muslims also believe in the obligation to uphold the religious obligations, at the head of which are the “Five Pillars” of Islam which are: the Declaration of Faith, the five daily prayers, the payment of zakat, the fast of Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Makkah by those physically and financially able to do so. A Muslim may, to their own harm or ruin, neglect to practice one or more of the pillars (except the first one), or fail to fulfil one or more of the religious obligations, and still be counted as a Muslim; albeit a sinful one. But if he denies their necessity; their obligatory nature, he has placed himself beyond the community of believers and outside the fold of Islam.
The world would indeed be a fine place if people only judged Islam by its clear, normative teachings, instead of how Muslims may or may not have practiced it throughout the ages. Nor does a writer have any duty to defend or justify the way in which Islam is practiced in any historical period by those of its followers whose blips show up on the radar of history. For when it comes to human beings, good men and women are by no means thick on the ground. And vice learnt a long time ago that it could pay its tribute to virtue by dressing in the garb of religion. Which brings me to my main point:
It wasn’t so long ago when Muslims would still identify a person by the religion they were born into, rather than their nationality or ethnicity. In such a weltanschauung, Europeans were habitually described as Christians, even if large swathes had forsaken their ancestral religion for no religion or for atheism. For their part, the ‘Christian’ West usually regarded anyone from a Muslim majority country to not just be Muslim, but to somehow represent the ‘Muslimness’ that Islam as a religious way of life extols – whether that person was an ordinary citizen, filthy rich playboy or tycoon, or shabby tyrannical head of state! During the latter part of the 20th century, the image of Islam was veiled behind the daily tabloid escapades of Arab tycoons, playboys, dictators or despots. But the faith has seldom been discoverable in the lives of such tycoons, leaders and official spokesmen – but those who seek it, will surely find it.
Of course, 9-11 changed that; not just in the West, but globally. Islam’s image would now be associated primarily with acts of terror and violence of the al-Qaeda or ISIS type. Some will say that this is the default perception of Islam’s image in the West. For if it isn’t the Muslim terrorist blowing up people, it’s Muslim fundamentalists on the rampage, burning some innocent book or publication. And if not that, it’s ruthless dictators; or even earlier still, the image of the Muslim Saracen with his menacing face, wielding his sword against the innocent ‘infidel’! The West, it seems, can’t stop caricaturing the entire global Muslim population in one negative way or another. Beneath the surface, however, and invisible to the media or to the wider public, are the countless ordinary men and women – exemplary Muslims, faithful and compassionate – whose lives could help redeem much of this false image, if godliness and humility were commodities that sold newspapers, made headlines or attracted social media clicks and likes!
Some Muslims will insist that image doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t bother us what the non-Muslims think of us. And that’s true: but only partially. It’s true in terms of the message and its content. We cannot change Islam or water down its teachings merely to please peoples’ whims or sentiments, or to better our liberal credentials. Islam is what it is, and that’s that! To this, the Qur’an states: Perhaps you might feel the inclination to omit part of what is revealed to you, and be distressed because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or why has no company of angels been sent with him?’ You are only a warner, and God is a Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] In other words, wisely and faithfully deliver the message as it is, then leave the rest to Allah. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad strikes the right chord when he explains: ‘[I]t’s human nature, given that we’re weak, to crave praise, and to have arguments that are publicly respected. And when we’re not praised, but despised – or the victims of Islamophobia, or whatever you choose to call it – where our arguments are not respected, the ego is dented. And that can be dangerous and that can lead to aberrant behaviour in our communities, or depression, or lead to a determination to change the religion in order to please the people who are regarded as having opinions which matter. And all of this is subversive. But the real Muslim really doesn’t care what people think; he only cares about what Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, thinks.’5
As for how the message and its content are to be delivered, then image – or perhaps we can say: presentation – does indeed matter. Here, one does have concern for form, not just content. The Holy Qur’an stresses: Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] A healthy share of Islamic knowledge, wisdom, gentleness, the art of persuasion, prioritising the contents of the message, and a familiarity with audience type are core qualities necessary to make the call conform to the above Quranic description.
We ask Allah, the Gracious Lord, for His kindness.
1 Al-Bukhari, no.99.
2. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.7, and its chain is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2355.
3. Muslim, no.26.
4. Al-Bukhari, in ta‘liq form, preceeding hadith no.1237; commencing the Book of Funeral Prayers. The complete chain is given in his al-Tarikh al-Kabir, no.261.
5. The citation is from a 2013 lecture entitled: Master Classes on Imam Al-Ghazali – 3. The clip starts at 34:55.
In principle, there’s good cause to counter the allegation that, historically, Islam impeded the development of modern science in the medieval Muslim world. In practice, this must not translate into the belief that scientific progress is an absolute value upon which the credibility of Islam must actually rest.
In principle, a Muslim scholar possessed of sound theological learning has every right to declare a particular act or utterance to be disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs necessitate this. In practice, this is very different from declaring a specific individual who may have ignorantly, mistakenly or coercively committed such an act, or uttered such a profanity, as being a kafir; a disbeliever. The rule of thumb here is: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief [necessarily] becomes a disbeliever.’1
In principle, the believer ought to have a calm loathing for liberalism and its attempts to dismantle an engendered world. In practice, one must have pity for the shrunken victims of this insane, ungodly monoculture and help them back to the path of sanity and Adamic humanity: But God has endeared faith to you and beautified it in your hearts, and has made unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are the rightly guided. [Q.49:7]
In principle, anyone who does not declare the shahadah in this world is considered to be a non-Muslim in this world. In practice, some non-Muslims (kuffar) shall have an excuse or an amnesty in the Hereafter for only having heard a distorted message of Islam while in this world. The Qur’an says: Nor do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [Q.17:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with, will be among the denizens of Hell.’2 An-Nawawi explains: ‘In its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’3 Imam al-Ghazali ecumenically wrote about those who only heard a distorted message of Islam; filled with lies, half-truths and propaganda: ‘These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and an imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet … This party, in my view, is like the first party [which is excused]. For though they’ve heard of him, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this doesn’t provide enough incentive for them to look into [his true status].’4
In principle, an atheist may feel smug by countering the supposed theistic assertion that: ‘Everything must have a cause for its existence’, with: ‘So what caused God?!’ In practice, no Muslim theologian (nor any Jewish or Christian one) has ever asserted this. Rather the theistic belief is: ‘Everything that comes into existence, from non-existence, must have a cause for its existence.’ God, however, did not ‘come into existence’. He necessarily exists. God’s eternal attribute of life is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, His holy Essence.
In principle, it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; or even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. In practice, this must never lead us to believe that Adam had biological parents, or to somehow imagine that he was the offspring of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.
In principle, the sirah teaches us the socio-political importance of forming an “Alliance of Virtue” with non-Muslim seekers of social justice, as per the hilf al-fudul saga. In practice, the sirah also tells us that alliances of this sort must not come at the cost of compromising Islam’s core tenets or blurring the unchangeables. Thus, even as Quraysh’s big whigs put Abu Talib, the Prophet’s dear uncle, between a rock and a hard place, to get his nephew to tone down his message before they forcefully made him do so; and even as the Prophet ﷺ may have been torn between seeing his uncle under such pressure, on the one hand; and his duty not to compromise the message, on the other, we hear this from the nephew to his beloved uncle: ‘I am no more able to stop this [message] as you are to snatch a piece of flame from the sun.’5 And in a popular wording: ‘O uncle, if the sun were placed in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not give up this affair until either God grants me success in it, or I perish in its pursuit.’ The Prophet ﷺ then broke down in tears.6
In principle, Allah’s earth has been made for the whole of humanity’s use and enjoyment, not just for the privileged few: God created for you all that is on the earth. [Q.2:29] And: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31] In practice, partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we surely may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly, or in a way that upsets the balance, we may not: And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [Q.55:7-9] Currently we are not doing so well on this score; heading, as we are, to the brink of ecological disaster.
In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), but of joyous gratitude for God’s gift of guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’7 So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’8 Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure that your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance.9 Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْحَقِّ – ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’10
In principle, we may incline to measured political activism, or to a principled apoliticism; there is leeway in the prophetic Sunnah for either. In practice, if we wish to thrive and not just survive, we must each grow in inward and outward godliness and in practical degrees of worldly detachment (zuhd), in humility, in respecting neighbours and serving the poor; whilst also choosing our battles wisely and fussing less about Islamophobes, not being so antagonistic, seeking to win peoples’ hearts while sincerely working for their welfare.
5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.6526, with a hasan chain. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.92.
6. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:303. The chain is missing two successive links between the Prophet and the narrator, Ya‘qub b. ‘Utbah. Hence the chain is da‘if mu‘dal. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.909.
7. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 8:382.
8. Muslim, no.147.
9. See: Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 174.
10. The du‘a is cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.
‘People know that there has been, between the Hanbalis and Ash‘aris, much alienation and animosity. I was of those who strove my utmost to reconcile the hearts of the Muslims and sought to unify their ranks, in emulation of the [divine] command to hold fast to the Rope of Allah. I removed much of the alienation which existed in the hearts and clarified that al-Ash‘ari was one of the noblest of the discursive theologians (mutakallimun) to have ascribed themselves to Imam Ahmad, may Allah have mercy on him, as well as those like him who supported his way – as al-Ash‘ari himself mentioned in his works.’1
Those who know something of the historical context in which Ibn Taymiyyah was writing the above sentiment will not fail to see something of an irony in this. For although, for a variety of reasons (including his scathing rebuttals against some of his Ash’ari opponents) Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t bring about the outcome he perhaps hoped for, the spirit of uniting hearts and lessening the schisms between Muslims must be the concern of us all.
Those who are qualified and versed to thoroughly and meticulously investigate the Athari-Ash‘ari [Salafi-Ash’ari] theological controversies should follow whatever conclusions their research necessitates – regardless of whether that makes them uncompromising or not. What is also required of such people is that they be wise about how and how much they push such abstruse, theoretical controversies into the public domain, thus sowing further divisions, discord or enmity among this already vulnerable yet blessed ummah. It should also be expected of such seasoned theologians that although they may be fiercely critical of theological positions which contravene their own; and even take it upon themselves to write scathing rebuttals of beliefs they see to be unorthodox, yet let them be respectful as possible to their Salafi or Ash‘ari opponents and not attack or insult actual personalities; many of whom might well be known for their great piety, sincerity, devotional worship, worldly detachment, long service to knowledge, and love for the prophetic Sunnah and the sahabah – regardless of theological mistakes or blunders.
As for those who simply do not have the necessary theological grounding or intellectual prowess to justly and thoroughly evaluate both sides of the highly complex polemics, with what right – and with what knowledge – do they feel they can be unyielding or dogmatic about such matters? For they have no real grasp of these issues. They are just followers of their scholars; many of them bigoted, blind followers at that.
So let repentance be made and schism-mongering be stayed; and perhaps the Generous Lord will look kindly upon us so that we may all be saved.
Of course, one needs to ask how relevant many of these classical theological conundrums are to the current Muslim predicament? How useful are these matters in respect of helping Muslims grapple with perhaps more pressing contemporary theological concerns? While it would be a fool’s errand to imagine we could formulate robust critiques or responses to such challenges by ignoring the principles and insights classical Muslim theology has to offer, there is a growing sense that we are stuck in a phase of fossilised theology. These classical insights haven’t significantly engaged the theological, philosophical and ethical challenges of our time; they have yet to meaningfully deconstruct modernity’s wholesale reinvention of the human story. And whilst some headway is being made by a few Muslim theologians and public intellectuals, we are far from offering any robust responsa to the theological challenges of modernity or the post-modern world.
What are some of these challenges? Well they include, amongst other questions, issues of theology as they relate to science: Does science point towards atheism or theism, is one such question? Another is whether science is intrinsically naturalistic, or is naturalism a philosophy imposed upon the scientific method? Then there is the question of Quantum physics with its principle of indeterminacy and how that bears upon the understanding of causality or occasionalism. Quantum theory also makes itself felt in the question on the actual nature of time, and even the ideas of the soul and [Quantum] consciousness. And then, of course, there is Islam’s evolution question: less about fossils and palaeontology, and more about genetics and genomes. Does, for instance, the idea of ‘Theistic Evolution’ actually square with the Adamic saga or God’s omnipotence, as taught in the Qur’an? And how do we square the evolving fossil records of bipeds over two hundred-thousand years old that, for all intents and purposes, look very similar to us in terms of skeletal structure and cranium capacity, and who seem to be the very first hominids to hunt; use fire; make complex tools; look after their weak and frail; as well as ritually bury their dead, with the explicit Quranic passages speaking about Adam as being the very first Man, and not born of any creature or parent?
As for theology when it is compelled to rub-up against philosophy, there is the question of epistemology: What is knowledge and its nature, and how do they relate to concepts like religious [or revealed] truths, beliefs and justifications? Or to put it in simpler terms: How do we know Islam is the truth? Theodicy; the question of evil, desperately needs stating in a more coherent and convincing manner for modern minds, as does the status of reason or rationality in religious doctrine. Also, secularism’s alleged neutrality towards religious freedom needs to be interrogated, not only in light of its own claims, but also in regards to whether it helps religious practitioners deepen their awareness of the Divine Presence or weaken their sense of it?
Theology as it engages the question of ethics and ultimate values raises all sorts of issues (some which may be better dealt with by our fiqh tradition than our theology one). There are issues starting to grow around AI: Artificial Intelligence, and its benefits to mankind. Theological ethics in this regard will have to focus on matters such as robot rights (which is not an issue if robots are little more than advanced washing machines or dish-washers; but not so clear if they are able to have, or to mimic, emotions and feelings). It will have to work hard to avoid discrimination and bias when developing algorithms for AI. It needs to address the concerns of AI as military robots, or as autonomous weapons without human intervention, in order to avoid the spectre of an AI global arms race or war. It must also confront the existential dilemma posed by AI as superintelligence: where robots begin to recursively self-improve themselves, to the point where they surpass human intelligence by leaps and bounds. We may also discern the growing relevancy of such inquiries if we recall that in 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first ever country to grant actual citizenship to a robot! The robot, called Sophia, now has more rights and entitlements – or at least, on paper – than many foreign workers or expats working in the oil-rich kingdom?
Muslim theological ethics also has more immediate concerns: the issue of gender fluidity, currently being championed by liquid modernity, and how it tallies with Quranic norms of celebrating gender in a gendered created cosmos? Then there are the strident demands of feminism (perhaps one of the greatest challenges to normative scriptural reading in our time). Not in the sense of whether women should be empowered, or accorded their rights and entitlements. Rather, in terms of comparing feminism’s narrative of equality and of its central belief of dismantling all forms of patriarchy, with the Qur‘an’s language of justice (and not equality) and honouring gender distinctions (prescriptively, not descriptively). In fact, ethics must ask an even more fundamental question: By what ethical standard does Western feminism; in particular, or Western liberalism; in general, have a unilateral right to impose its values on other peoples and societies? The crux of such an imposition is the belief in a secular modern trinity: autonomy, equality and rights. To claim, as Islam does, that there are obligations which could constrain our choices, or duties that puts a limit on our desires, is to utter nothing less than a monsterous modern blasphemy!
Theology as it refracts the concept of shari‘ah governance is an area inadequately handled over the past century or more. Here we must ask if the modern nation state, in its secular-liberal matrix, can accept religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould? Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right, indeed the duty, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life: from the personal to the political – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated and made into toothless tigers, or swiftly branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order?
A more foundational question is: Can shari‘ah governance and the modern nation-state actually go hand in hand? For a modern ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ is something of a contradiction in terms. For while an all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, a classical Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all. Traditionally, legislation belongs to Allah; as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. How that may be squared with the modern state – in which to practice law making; to be part of the legislature, is to be an agent of the state – has not been adequately tackled by Muslim theologians or Islamists. For there is no modern state sovereignty without state-manufactured law, which the state alone then wields so as to reengineer the social order. To make the state ‘Islamic’, then, we need to search for ways where law is not contaminated by state involvement. Yet ever since the Ottoman reforms of 1856, when the modern Muslim ‘state’ began to become sole master and legitimiser of legislation, the shari‘ah and its fiqh became subjected to a great deal of aberration and to a huge process of politicisation. The question then is, can Islamic governance – whose moral, legal, social, political and metaphysical foundations are radically different to that of the modern state; and whose law is primarily a set of theological principles and moral precepts underscored by legal principles – function independently of the state? Can there be a model of a modern state which divests itself of legislation? Is such an arrangement even possible as an integral facet in the modern patchwork of nation states? Such are the questions that need serious depth of thought – beyond the usual clichés; and beyond our current Western-inspired Islamist or state totalitarianism solutions.
The above, then, are some of the pressing issues Islam’s orthodox theological tradition[s] needs to engage if it is to reflect its truth-claims of being God’s final revelation, and if it wishes to retain its relevancy and vocation as being guide and healer to humanity. For a while now, our post-modern world has been in a crisis. Whatever good the Enlightenment birthed continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism, eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; and its Christian heritage seems long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its monotheistic message of hope, healing and happiness through God’s oneness can only truly illuminate times if its theological concerns are in tune with the needs of the time; when it is able to offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and is successful in delivering liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. Between now and then there is much to deliberate over, and much work to be done. Here’s to rolling up our spiritual and intellectual sleeves.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:227-8.
A man once came to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and asked: ‘What of a man who fights in a battle seeking the spoils of war and renown?’ The Prophet replied: ‘There is no [reward] for him [in the Afterlife.’ The man reiterated the question three times, each time he got the same reply: ‘There is no [reward] for him [in the Afterlife].’ The Prophet, peace be upon him, then added:
‘Indeed, Allah does not accept a deed, unless it is done sincerely seeking only His face.’1
There are a few crucial points that may be gleaned from this hadith which, in our time, have either been misunderstood and muddled, or denied by a misguided sense of Muslim humanism. Such points include:
1 – This hadith, and others like it, demonstrates that the righteous deed of a Muslim will not be acceptable to Allah, unless the deed is done solely intending the pleasure of Allah. This is what is meant by Allah’s words: فَمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُوا لِقَاءَ رَبِّهِ فَلْيَعْمَلْ عَمَلاً صَالِحًا وَلاَ يُشْرِكْ بِعِبَادَةِ رَبِّهِ أَحَدًا – Whoever hopes to meet his Lord, let him do righteous deeds, and let him not associate anyone with Him in worship. [18:110]
2 – If such is the case for a believer, what of a non-Muslim; a disbeliever, who does not do good deeds sincerely for Allah? The answer comes to us in this Quranic verse: وَقَدِمْنَا إِلَى مَا عَمِلُوا مِنْ عَمَلٍفَجَعَلْنَاهُ هَبَاءً مَنْثُورًا – We shall turn to the deeds they have done, and We shall make them as scattered dust. [25:23] And: وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَعْمَالُهُمْ كَسَرَابٍ – As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage. [24:39]
3 – But what of those non-Muslims who do perform good deeds solely for God’s sake and for intending His good pleasure? We have these explicit words of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, that speak to this very point:
‘Allah does not wrong the believer in terms of good deeds, for he shall be rewarded for it by provisions in this worldly life and [also] be recompensed for it in the Hereafter. As for the disbeliever, he will taste [the rewards] of his good deeds he did for Allah’s sake in this life, but in the Hereafter, he shall have no good deeds to be rewarded for.’2
4 – In other words, righteous deeds of disbelievers that were done sincerely for Allah will be rewarded in this present life; there will be no reward for them in the life to come. To this end, Allah, exalted is He, reveals in the Holy Qur’an: وَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِالإِيمَانِ فَقَدْ حَبِطَ عَمَلُهُ وَهُوَ فِي الآخِرَةِ مِنَالْخَاسِرِينَ – Whosoever denies faith, his work shall be in vain, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers. [5:5]
In fact, Imam al-Nawawi states: ‘The scholars have a consensus that there is no reward in the Afterlife for a non-Muslim who dies in a state of unbelief.’3
5 – Some of the more informed may, at this point, ask about the Prophet’s beloved uncle, Abu Talib: won’t his punishment in the Hellfire be lightened because of his good deeds in aiding the Prophet, peace be upon him, and protecting him against harm and persecution in Makkah? The response to this objection is found in the following hadith:
‘Perhaps my intercession will benefit him on the Day of Resurrection such that he will be placed in a shallow part of the Fire that reaches up to his ankles, but by which it causes his brain to boil.’4
Thus, rather than being rewarded for his actual good deeds, Abu Talib’s punishment is lightened due to the Prophet’s intercession (shafa‘ah) for him. If, for argument’s sake, we admit that this intercession for him was due to his good deeds of defending the Prophet, peace be upon him, then this would be an exception to the rule that there is no reward in the Afterlife for non-Muslims who did good on earth but who died in a state of kufr.
6 – A final point: as for those non-Muslims who did good and who subsequently became Muslim and died upon Islam, Allah will reward them for each and every good deed they did even in their state of disbelief. About this, our Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.
It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!
A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.
Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:
1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.
2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]
4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.
5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6
6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7
7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8
8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).
9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.
10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.
There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!
In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12
His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:
Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.
As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.
Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.
3. Muslim, no.365.
4. Muslim, no.240.
5. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.