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Letter to the Editor ( 14 Jun 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A Letter to The Fraternity of Muslim Scholars and Intellectuals: Is Salvation Outside Islam Possible and Problems Thereof?

By Muhammad Maroof Shah for New Age Islam

 14 June 2020

Dear Fraternity of Muslim Scholars

 Asalam-u-Alykum Warahmah

                 Given current misperceptions and distortions about Islam as intolerant and sectarian across the world and the need to present our self-understanding of the same and take cognizance of resources for engaging with the religious other, your kind attention is hereby sought to the following points regarding the above captioned subject. The aim is to help document current understanding amongst Muslim scholars and intellectuals of diverse hues on an important issue and attempt to understand why there is a drift towards more critical exclusivism or inclusivism of various sorts amongst believing communities in general:

 ·          What, if any, incontestable evidence is in a) scripture, b) in hadith literature and c) in classical canonical statements of belief (aqeedah) that religions other than Islam are ineffective for felicity/salvation (understood here as being saved/delivered from hell,  not in the precise Christian sense associated with particular theology of original sin) and as such condemned as they stand and thus doomed to pass away someday (on the advent of Mahdi/Jesus)?

 ·         Why haven’t Muslim communities/States so far shown great interest or commitment to convert the non-Muslim world? Is there sufficient realization of the challenge of converting the whole world (which ideally should have been attempted if exclusivist view of salvation for Muslims alone were taken as the norm) that has hundreds of minor religions including wisdom traditions and archaic religions besides certain major religions and thousands of languages about which little or no attempt has so far been made to study or understand or reach out to/through? Thousands if not lacs of professional missionaries are needed to be produced annually to accomplish reaching out even to one tenth of potential converts in the world.  And huge number of specialized scholars would be needed for this work amongst tribes speaking languages hardly known to anyone outside tribal boundaries. They must work intensely to acclimatize themselves with tribes – a process tribal people often resist – and then they would be able to communicate with them. Muslims must open big dawah universities/dawah departments in every university or constitute dawah desks or cells in every embassy which train scholars in each of around 6000 or so languages and numerous religions and myths and philosophies of target audience. Conversion drive would need writing invitation letters to all spiritual, religious, philosophical, literary giants. Currently more than  two third of world population has not heard of Islam in a compelling or attractive style and millions haven’t even heard of Islam  at all and may not do so in near future.

 ·         Isn’t it the case that in all probability we are heading towards a world where religions would stay as they stand with some change in number of adherents and none would succeed in total conversion towards itself?  Doesn’t the Quran imply that diverse religions are going to stay? Is there any warrant for hoping that religions are going to be extinct or transformed into one or the other religion of the world? Isn’t it implied in the Quran that mass conversion drive will only have a very limited success? Does God want all to accept what is called historical Islam/one religious community? If so, doesn’t it amount to campaigning against preserving temples, churches, monasteries as elsewhere the Quran mandates?  Doesn’t the call for support on common issues that the Quran extends assume other religious communities are expected to stay?  Or it is only a painful realization that they are not going to go, at least in near future? There can be no dialogue except in the sense of invitation to conversion if exclusivism is accepted. Comparative religion departments, other scriptures, other cultures are written off at one stroke of pen.  Most Sufis/philosopher-sages agree with salvific pluralism in principle. Exoteric theologians who have dominated debates on creed are no decisive authorities in hierarchy Islam accepts (as presented in the work Shah Ismail Shaheed in Abaqaat that builds on the work of Shah Waliullah) of prophet followed by muhaddas followed by hakeem (sage) followed by saint followed by exoteric scholar/jurist.

 ·         When and how did the popular belief that post-Muhammad (SAW) all believing communities are delegitimized and have become unacceptable to God get currency? What is the precise time when this becomes operational according to belief of its adherents? Is it at the conquest of Mecca or when emissaries were received in neighbouring nations or at the death of the Prophet or conquest of neighbouring Empires later? Or when a particular individual or community receives the Message of the Last Prophet in the attractive style?

 ·         Does the view that Islam is the only acceptable religion imply all non-Muslims (a term to be distinguished from Kafirs for many modern theologians) will go to hell? Number of towering scholars down to recent times (Murtaza Mutahari is a recent example) have maintained otherwise.

 ·         Does one’s view for or against the claim of salvific efficacy of other religions affect one’s claim to be a Muslim in authentic sense? Or holding a view against exclusivist is at best an error of Ijtihad if one fails to get to the right view?  Where do classical creedal statements that form bedrock of Muslim education imply one needs to reject saving efficacy of other revealed religions? We need to note that from the very beginning opinion of towering scholars in the Muslim world was polarized on the question of salvation of religious other or extent of possibilities of redemption or period of posthumous punishment. Continued contestation over the thesis of denial of salvation to religious other in post-Muhammaden period amongst Muslim schools/scholars in every period of Islamic history coupled with failure of achieving consensus on the theory of corruption in previous scriptures and whether this corruption has affected the content or living message to the extent that salvific efficacy of the same has been compromised imply that the doctrine concerning  delegitimation of other religions has not gone unchallenged. If the idea of possibility of salvation outside historical Islam is a deviation from Ad-Din then note that this is supported by a plain reading of dozens of very clear Quranic verses and prophetic traditions. This is granted in principle or implied in the end by generality of Sufis, philosophers, Mu’tazalites, some distinguished Ash’arites theologians including Ghazzali, poets, and now major modern scholars of religion, especially those specializing in philosophy of religion. Nevertheless, it should be made clear that it is revelation or religion to which prophets invite that is binding and efficacious for salvation and not any new school that speaks in their name.

 ·         How come such classical expressions of creed as Aqeeda at-Tahawi and Fiqh al-Akbar are marked by absence of any clause of denying someone’s claim of being a Muslim for affirming compatibility of other religions at metaphysical/esoteric planes?  Isn’t denial of salvation to religious other an issue of particular interpretation one chooses for select verses and prophetic traditions and not clear stipulation of any creedal statement? What did Shaykh Abdul Wahid Yahya mean by saying that by living Islam fully he has lived all other religions? Those who want to prove the case that Islam initiated a break with other religions can’t find support in the canon. Those who want to believe that God’s mission in sending previous prophets/books aborted or got irremediably distorted are a making a judgment for which they can’t garner unproblematic support either from history of religions/cultures or the canon. In light of these points isn’t it the case that those who think Islam called for a separate flag or colour (instead of God’s colour that is not a colour but the colour from which all colours derive) to be imposed on other flags/colours (it is tawhid and shirk rather than previous scripture and new that have been in opposition, in every tradition) are making an assumption that clashes with Islam’s claim to universality and primordiality they also defend?

 ·         Whether any world scripture denied/denies the message with which the Prophet (SAW) has been sent? Does any scripture oppose tawhid? Does any scripture deny God/Absolute/Sacred (attachment to which is the raison d’etre of prophetic mission) that grounds salvation?  Does any scripture deny Ad-Din-al-Qayyim – belief in God, other world, angels, revelations or essence of God’s self-disclosure or the notion of the Book or Revealed Norm /messengers/saving message from the non-self?

 ·         Now this question can’t be resolved by taking recourse to wrangling over interpretations of certain verses and traditions (because there are many irreconcilable positions within the Islamic tradition on the issue – Most Sufis, most Muslim philosophers, most Muslim poets grant salvation to other religious believers) but by attempting to see clearly if there is anything, in the historical religions as accessible in their current form from their scriptures and traditional authorities, that contravenes the message of Muhammad when understood not in theological terms only but in terms of what undergirds theology – metaphysical-esoteric-existential basis of theological notions.


·         Can felicity/alvation be linked to belief (aqeedah) instead of faith (iman)? What is the significance of Quranic choice expression iman as against aqeedah?

  ·         Do we find the Salaf have dismissed invoking of previous scriptures or asserted they should be thrown to dustbins of history or ignored/disrespected for being subject to certain distortion in interpretation (majority position) or words (minority position)? Claiming that the Quran says this and that scholar/school whom we choose to dismiss says something opposite presupposes one thinks the other is ignorant of the Quran or disloyal to it and one claims special status for one’s interpretation as the right interpretation. All we have is series of interpretations which in turn should academically enter into dialogue with one another rather than call names or presume as if God has mandated them with drawing lines in the name of Salaf.  Isn’t it the case that we have many interpretations of what the Salaf stand for and one can find Salaf respectfully disagreeing on such questions that we think closed?

 ·         Is felicity/salvation dependent on what distinguishes religions at theological/legal levels rather than what unites them at metaphysical/esoteric planes? If all grant that the Quran recognizes unity of revealed religions at esoteric level, one can’t conclusively show that salvation is necessarily dependent on exoteric aspect.  Linking salvation to historically changing formulations of shariah (exoteric theological-legal structure) would contradict Quranic assertion that the Deen is one and salvific while shariahs have been differing in exoteric theological-legal aspects. Put differently, how could the fruit of salvific efficacy be denied if roots (metaphysics as enshrined in La illaha Illa lah and if we note deeper metaphysical/esoteric meaning of another clause Muhammad Rasoolulah – in light of the metaphysical doctrine of Muhammadan Light/haqiqati Muhammadiya/Wahdat – even Muhammad Rasoolullah remains the same) life sustaining sap (iman) and leaves (aamal-i saliha/virtues) haven’t changed?

 ·         How does this thesis stand against the history that clearly questions any project that wants to erase religions, cultures, philosophies, traditions, paths or legal systems in the name of one standard “pure” Islamic way that is inalienably identified with exoteric structure?

 ·         How does this thesis gel with certain key Quranic declarations that God has appointed different ways (Shariahs/Manahij) for people, that God will resolve differences of doctrines in the otherworld, that different religions are, apparently de facto recognized and accordingly dealt with, that marriages between believers of different revealed religions are solemnized, that God doesn’t want one path/ minhaj (as distinguished from Ad-Din – the Tradition – that grounds, at deeper levels, all revealed/authentic/sanctified paths) to lord all others.

 ·         Are we ready to accept on various grounds the implied thesis that denying – or at least decreasing probability of /risking – salvation to righteous believers of other religions disposes four fifth or at least two third of humankind to hell/eternal hell for purely accidental reasons of not being born in particular religion/land?

·         Isn’t the Sufi metaphysical understanding of the Prophet equivalent to Rahner’s understanding of Jesus as potential of every man and one needs only heed conscience9’s call to be saved by virtue of this potential? Isn’t the requirement to love the Prophet (SAW) more than oneself explicable in terms of such an insight? Can’t we read attention to the notion of fitrah/original or primordial nature in Islam in similar terms to help clarify basis of salvation? Aren’t  Muslim thinkers from Ibn Taymiyyah to Ismail Raji al-Faruqi appropriating something similar?

 ·         Don’t some Muslim theologians recognize the possibility of salvation by demanding only dispassionate use of intellect even if this apparently leads them to deny the premises of faith in divine unity? Isn’t man only responsible for right effort or right use of intellect and the conclusions arrived at? How would one exclude from possibility of salvation those claiming unwilling suspension of belief? If it is faith, not belief, and faith is more intuitive/existential than rational affair, intentions behind actions and not actions as such where agency is claimed, and opening to love and spirit of humility instead of obsession with rituals and self-righteousness that help in salvation, doesn’t it mean we are on a safer ground with theological models that are more inclusive as they avoid complicity with ego/agency/ratiocinatory calculus? The consistent and traditionally defensible case for denying salvation to religious other requires taking cognizance of all the above-mentioned questions individually and to the following summary of all the above-mentioned points.

 ·         Are Muslims committed to saving a particular religious community or all religious communities provided they have certain qualifications? Doesn’t the Quran consistently deny monopoly on salvation for any particular community/sect/school? Isn’t it very clear that salvation is a function of certain attitudes of mind and heart rather than conceding certain propositions/

The popular denial of salvation to non-Muslim believers needs to be scanned or put in perspective by noting

a)    numerous verses and prophetic traditions that are best understood in non-exclusivist paradigm,

b) diversity in Muslim understanding of the notion of salvific potential of previous revealed religions – and linking of this debate to the notion of unlimited divine mercy extending over everything – and

 c) continued divergence in construing precise nature and extent of abrogation of previous scriptures/religions and the explicit denial of abrogation in non-legal aspects of previous scriptures in Muslim scholarship,

  d) real significance and reason for wide gap between theory and practice regarding prerogative to preach and convert the other,

  e) self-understanding of major world religions and diverse communities claiming adherence to the revelations from the Other/non-self/ some revealed Norm/Book and revering sagely figures whose explications can be shown to be complementing well known Revelation centric paradigm/content of Islam.

 Independent arguments against salvific exclusivism formulated in last few centuries by

 a) advances in knowledge of other traditions by diverse sciences including anthropology, history, comparative religion,

 b) deeper understanding of philosophies, mythologies, folklores, shared artistic and literary resources, symbolism, traditional sciences,

 c)  clarification of the logic underlying salvation and attention to philosophical basis of notions such as virtues, certitude, beatitude, sin and redemption all converge in problematizing exclusivist interpretation.

  It is not for nothing that now major theologians of other traditions have increasingly given up exclusivist posturing and now it is hard to find a major voice in the Islamic world who maintains, without qualifications of various sorts and factoring such notions as mercy, recourse to grace and withholding judgment of particular people/community as such, simplistic and bland denial of salvation to religious other in the end. One can hardly name a major philosopher or historian or spiritual figure today who subscribes to salvation of his inherited religion/ sect/school only.

Recent Islam’s most distinguished scholars from Abduhu to Azad, most distinguished philosophers from Iqbal to Nasr, most distinguished spiritual figures and Sufi metaphysicians, writers, public figures and intellectuals have been either inclusivists of a sort or critical of standard exclusivist model.  Informed response to major contributors to anti-exclusivist thinking – from towering philosophers, Sufis, historians and Quran exegetes is needed.

  Amongst more recent contributors to this thinking one may mention as diverse people as Muslim reformists from Sir Syed to Fazlur Rahman, philosophers from Iqbal to Soroush,  liberation theologians from Asghar Ali Engineer to Farid Essack, Sufi leaders from Inayat Khan to Javed Noorbaksh, Quran scholars from Farahi to Ghamidi, a host of contributors to standard anthologies in pluralist thinking in the Muslim world and lastly but  more significantly dozens of towering traditionalists scholars including S. H. Nasr. 

Eagerly waiting for your response

 Muhammad Maroof Shah



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