[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
WARSAW – I was walking heedlessly in the Old Quarter of the Polish capital last Sunday until I saw a group of joyful singers on the street. Then I stopped and stared. They were about a dozen young Poles who were singing and clapping in the middle of a busy street and in the midst of a bitter cold. Soon, I realized that their art was very much related to their faith. As evangelical Catholics — a category which I just learnt that exits — they were praising God and calling on other people to do the same.
As a Muslim, I could well understand and relate to the theism of these Christians. They were, like me and my co-religionists, believing in a God who created everything that exists, and who cares for them. They were, like Muslims, praising the Lord for His grace and mercy, and trying to share this awareness with others.
But, Islamically speaking, were they on the “right path”? Or an erroneous one? And if the latter were true, were they condemned to divine disapproval, and even punishment? Would they, in blunter words, go to hell?
Matters of Faith
You might find this question totally irrelevant — and I would totally understand that. There might be a thousand valid reasons. Maybe you are a secular person who doesn’t believe in metaphysical categories such as heaven or hell. Maybe you are a Hindu who rather believes in Karma — a system of reward and punishment in this world, not somewhere else. Or maybe you are a deist who just believes in a Creator, but no revealed religion. Then, you would really not spend time contemplating what happens to which faith community after death.
But if you are a devout Muslim, or a devout Christian, then things will be different. Then you will be genuinely believing in the existence of heaven and hell, and thus wondering who goes where. And this will be important for not just matters of theology, but also society and even politics. For what we think about others often influences how we treat them.
Of course, both Islam and Christianity say that it is only God who has the ultimate authority and knowledge about these matters. But, on the other hand, both religions have an exclusivist tradition, which says that only their own followers will be “saved.” No wonder, for most evangelical Christians, “there is no way to God” other than via Jesus Christ. And for many Muslims, there is no other way to salvation other than that of Prophet Muhammad.
But is there any other way of looking at this question? Is there any chance to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, when it comes to divine grace?
As a Muslim, I have always thought so, and I have a good reason for it: There are verses in the Koran which explicitly say that all people who believe in God and do good things will be saved. Here is, for example, verse 62 of the second sura, i.e., chapter:
“Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.”
The “Sabians” noted in this verse were a south Mesopotamian group which professed some sort of monotheism. From that point on, some Koranic commentators have concluded that the God demands only monotheism and “being good” for eternal salvation. But interestingly, this ecumenical interpretation is not what all Muslims are comfortable with. That’s why quite a few Koranic commentators prefer to “explain” the divine text by noting that Jews, Christans, “Sabians” and others will be saved “once they profess Islam.” Yet this doesn’t make sense, because if they convert to Islam, then they are no longer Jews, Christians or “Sabians,” but Muslims.
When I noted this contradiction to a strongly exclusivist Muslim scholar a few years ago, I got a political rather than a theological answer. “What will happen do you think if we say non-Muslims are saved, too,” he asked. “Then there will be no need for conversion to Islam.”
Apparently the question boils down to what kind of a God we believe in: one whose grace and mercy is all-encompassing, or one who favors only our own tribe? I tend to believe in the former. To be sure, I can still say that my religion is the best way to God — but it may well be not the only way.
Here is a final note which will make all this theological speculation relevant to contemporary affairs. Hayrettin Karaman, a respected professor emeritus of Islamic law, wrote about this topic about a month ago in his column in daily Yeni Şafak. In a series of pieces titled, “The Salvation Question,” he noted that Islam does not necessarily ask Christians and Jews to abandon their traditions. It rather tells them to keep their traditions while respecting Islam as a sister faith. “We can’t aim to attain a single religion, or making all religions one,” Dr. Karaman also reminded. “This is against the nature of things.”
Now, Dr. Karaman is a reasonably conservative scholar, and Yeni Şafak is a paper which is proudly Islamic, and sometimes even Islamist. Ten years ago, you would not expect to read such views either in this paper or other conservative publications in Turkey. But apparently things are changing. And no matter what you believe about heaven or hell, you can believe that this is a good change.