By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
18 July 2020
For the Rwala Bedouins of Northern Arabia, heaven was a place below the earth, with abundant rain and lush greenery. Hell was above the ground with a scorching sun, making life miserable. Heaven was reserved for the Rwala; all non-Rwalas were to be consigned to hell. The Rwala had no regard for the dominant religion of the area, Islam. Like all non-Rwala, Muslims also were destined for a ‘life of hell’ above the ground.
The peculiar Rwala belief can surprise many but it is certainly not uncommon. Most religions and faith systems have a way of announcing to the wider world that they are the chosen people of God. Especially within the Semitic traditions, this leads to the division of the world between believers and non-believers. The theology that develops consequently also divides the afterlife into heaven and hell. Heaven is where believers will rejoice and hell is where non-believers will rot. Most of us progressive Muslims tend to think that such primitive ways of thinking is characteristic of simple or tribal societies. But we are wrong. Dominant religions of the world today hold a view which is not very different from the Rwala.
In order that we see this clearly, we need someone like Zakir Naik to remind us that our religions, including Islam, still define themselves in opposition to others. Notion of reward and punishment, heaven and hell continue to be the most important features of religions.
Zakir Naik arriving during the opening ceremony of the Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 on 19 December, 2019. (AFP Photo)
Zakir Naik was asked whether ‘good non-Muslims’ would find a place in heaven.
The context of question was Ravish Kumar, the popular news presenter on Indian
television and one of the few journalists who still believes in speaking truth
to power. Zakir Naik showered abundant praise on the likes of Ravish Kumar who
are dutiful in their profession and even acknowledged that they will be
rewarded in this world, but certainly they will not find a place in heaven.
Naik argued, and perhaps rightly so, that in the eyes of Allah, shirk
(associating partners to Allah) was the gravest crime. So even if a person is of
good character but does not believe in the oneness of Allah (Tauheed), then all
his good deeds will be cancelled and he will be consigned to hellfire after
“This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed my favour upon you and have chosen for you Islam as religion” (5: 3).
implication is very clear: since Islam is chosen by God, everyone should follow
this religion. Islamic supremacy derives from such clear verses of the Quran
which forbid Muslims to reflect on any other path to salvation. This
understanding of Islam is the reason why in another video, Zakir Naik
criticises the Pakistani government’s efforts to construct a Hindu temple in
Islamabad. After all, if Islam is the perfect religion, then what is the need
of other religions in the world? [See the video here
For Muslims, if there is any non-Muslim who should find a place in heaven, then it should ideally be Abu Talib. And yet the Sunni theology is completely convinced that because he did not die a Muslim, he cannot be in heaven. Even after his death, Muhamad pleaded with Allah to forgive the sins of Abu Talib only to be reprimanded by the verse:
“It is not for the prophet and those who believe, to pray for the forgiveness of polytheists even if they were their relatives, after it has become clear to them that they are the people of hell” (9:113).
The Shias have laboured hard to prove that Abu Talib had in fact recited the shahada but the intent behind this has been to rescue the family of Ali rather than being a search for salvation of non-Muslims within the Islamic doctrine. Certainly, there have been attempts to differentiate between non-Muslims and Kafirs; and some have argued that Kafirs refer to only those who are ungrateful of God’s mercy. Stressing that Allah is al-Rahman (the Merciful), some theologians have also argued that only God, in his divine wisdom, knows who will eventually go to heaven and who to hell. This however, remains a minority opinion within both Shia and Sunni theology.
Theologians like Ghazali have argued that true to His nature, God will eventually rescue all of humanity, including those non-Muslims who never heard of Islam. Nearly two centuries later, Ibn Taimiyya would spend much of his life arguing for the subjugation and humiliation of non-Muslims so that they accept Islam. Towards the end of his life, locked up in a prison in Damascus, he would write that God will save everyone from hell and indeed hellfire itself will be extinguished. However, neither Ghazali nor ibn Taimiyya could ever argue against the very idea of a ‘good non-Muslim’ going to hell.
This is certainly not a problem which is unique to Islam. Judaism and Christianity suffer from the same problem. If the Quran itself is making it abundantly clear that those who do not believe in Allah are ‘people of hell’, then why are we surprised when Zakir Naik is saying the same thing? People like him are only the reflection of a deep rot within Islamic theology. Till the time we do not understand that there can be multiple paths to the same truth and that Islam is just one of those paths, we will keep condemning ‘good non-Muslims’ like Ravish Kumar to hell.
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist.
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