Lecture by Shaykh Yasir Qadhi | Transcript by Hayley B.
The following is the video and transcript of Shaykh Yasir Qadhi’s lecture “Salvific Exclusivity.” The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity.
Thank you very much. It’s very daunting to come on stage after Tariq Ramadan, but I’ll try and do what I can.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the social contract, on the very last pages of his work, he wrote and I quote directly “Those who distinguish between civil and theological intolerance are mistaken in my opinion. Those two types of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with those one believes to be damned. To love them would be to hate the God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary to either reclaim them or torment them. Whenever theological intolerance is allowed, it is impossible for it not to have some civil effect.” End quote.
Now one thing that these quotes prove is that the issue of salvation is not merely a theoretical one. Rather, it goes to the very core of a person’s values, of how you will define and treat the other. Therefore, this topic has philosophical, theological, civil, moral and political ramifications.
However, we can’t discuss all of them in any one lecture and I’m coming to the podium primarily as a theologian or a theologian in training. So I will have to approach this issue purely from the theological dimension. My talk will be divided into two sections, followed by a conclusion. In the first section, I will point out the positions of the main theological movements of our religion Islam, regarding salvation, and the primary Qur’anic evidences that they use to justify that position. In the second section, I will examine specific evidences that some modern reformists have used to argue against the classical understanding of salvific inclusivity for salvific exclusivity. In my conclusion I will offer some personal comments on the issue.
The Theological Positions of Islam on Salvific Inclusivity Versus Exclusivity:
It shall come as not great surprise to anybody familiar with the Islamic tradition that every single systematic theology that was developed in classical and medieval Islam viewed the religion of Islam as being the sole path to God. And it’s not just Muslims, we are talking of a time when pretty much every religion viewed itself in a similar manner. In fact, far from allowing salvation outside of the religion, the discussion was between the sects and whether other sects would be saved or not. By and large the Mu’tazilites made takfir of the Ash’arites, the Ash’arites made takfir of the Hanbalites. All of them made takfir of Falasifa and the Batinites, so on and so forth.
But intra-Muslim politics does not concern us here. The fact of the matter is that religious communities not belonging to Islam, the true other in our vernacular, were assumed to be outside the grace of God and in need of God’s guidance. As far as I have read and researched—and I have read plenty of works of theology of all of these movements that we are going to talk about—the possibility of finding salvation in another religion while consciously and knowingly rejecting Islam was simply never even seriously entertained by any theologian or any scholar of any of the established schools of theology in the pre-modern era.
The main theological issue that concerned classical and medieval theologians was not the salvific potential of other faiths -the absence of which was simply taken as a given- but rather the fate of those who had never heard of Islam or exposed to falsified teachings. With regards to those who had never heard of Islam, the common term tablīgh al risāla. Did they get tablīgh al risāla or not? The rationalists inclined Mu’tazilites along with the Mataridis. They general gave quite a lot of weight to the human intellect. Hence they believed that a person would be legally responsible “mukallaf” to reject idolatry and affirm a monotheistic vision of God, even if no revelation exists. Failure to do so warranted eternal punishment – damnation.
Because, the rational mind according to the Mu’tazilites could potentially lead to monotheism. The Ash’arites on the other hand, their typical reaction was against the Mu’tazilites and all of their doctrines, they claimed that anybody who had not heard of the message of Islam would be forgiven, even if they were pagans and idolaters. This was based on their theological premise that the human mind independent of revelation cannot judge good and evil.
The tripartite categorization of Abu Hamid al-Gazali best illustrates this point. He categorizes mankind into basically three categories.
Number one: people who have never heard of the message of Islam and who live in far away lands such as the Romans. These will be forgiven unconditionally.
Number two: people who have been exposed to a distorted understanding of Islam and have no recourse to authentic information. These too will be forgiven.
The third category are those who have heard of Islam because they live in the neighboring cities and the neighboring communities around darul Islam. And they know the reality of Islam and they have access to authentic Islamic knowledge. These, according to al-Gazali, have no hope of salvation.
The Hanbalite position manifested in the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, was that the intellect could discern right from wrong. And thus a saying, rational mind should logically come to the conclusion that there is an all-perfect God. Monotheism is logical.
However Ibn Taymiyyah argued, in God’s infinite mercy and justice, God’s punishment would not be meted-out to any who had been exposed to a messenger. In other words, even if logically you come to the conclusion that there is a God, until God tells you so, he is not going to punish you if you don’t.
Ibn Taymiyyah based this on many verses in the Qur’an such as Surat Al-Isra;15 “We are not going to punish until we send a messenger”. So according to Ibn Taymiyyah those who didn’t receive a message or received a distorted version of the message, then neither are automatically forgiven nor automatically punished. Rather they shall be tested on judgement day with a special test. In any case, from this spectrum what we see is that the main issue is whether God might possibly forgive any who have not been exposed to the teachings of Islam.
The underlying assumption for all of these traditions is that Islam is the only path to God and anyone who consciously chooses other than Islam will simply not have it accepted on the day of judgement.
The Books of Fiqh
Pretty much the number one example that all four Sunni schools of law mention in their books of fiqh, is that if a Muslim claims that he is of another faith, or a Muslim claims that a person of another religion is morally in the acceptable region—that it is permissible to be a Christian or a Jew—this would in fact count for grounds for apostasy.
In other words, belief in the validity of a religious system was seen quite sincerely and casually as a rejection of Islam and this is unanimous across the four Sunni schools and I’m not an expert in the Shi’a school of law but I’m pretty sure that they would also say something similar. The question arises as to why there was so much unanimity with regard to this principle. I honestly think it is unfair, and honestly not very academic to dismiss this overwhelming predominant position because of, let’s say, calling it a literalist tendency. The Mu’tazilites are not literalist. Or to accuse all of these theologians of having a fear of the other. Or having selfish motives of wanting God’s mercy on themselves and not wanting on others.
I honestly believe that those theologians and scholars were better individuals than we are and their motives were more pure than our own. They were brave enough to discuss many controversies, including God and the nature of God. And yet amazingly this issue of the salvific potential of other religions was unanimously agreed upon by all of them. And the reason for this appears to be that there were numerous clear and explicit Qur’anic evidences. So clear, in fact, that despite the fact that these groups couldn’t agree about the nature of God, they could agree that the only path to God was this religion of Islam. Islam with a capital “I” as we are going to come to. The number of evidences that are quoted in works of theology and especially in books of tafsir.
The number of evidences are so numerous that honestly, many doctoral dissertations could be written on specific individuals. And what I’ve done for the sake of brevity, is to categorize these evidences under categories. Numbers of verses underneath each category and I’ll emphasize the category with some examples of the verses and in fact for every category that I mention, I’ll mention only four.
The First Category:
There are literally dozens if not hundreds of verses that support these categories. The first category, verses that suggest the religion of Islam is the only acceptable religion to God. We have heard such verses for the last day and a half.
And of these verses Professor Ramadan quoted them and other speakers as well, “The only religion in the eyes of God is Islam. Whoever who seeks a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him and in the hereafter he shall be of those who are lost”.
Many times we neglect two factors about these verses.
Number one: the context.
Number two: the word itself.
The context: the context of these verses, both of them occur in chapter three. And they discuss chapter three, ‘Ali ‘Imrān. It discusses Jews and Christians. It criticizes them for their deviations and praises them for their good. In the context of an ahlul kitāb discussion, when God is saying “I am only going to accept Islam”.
In fact, in one of the verses right after this, God says in 3:35 “innad-deena ‘indaAllahil-islām” – The religion in the eyes of God is Islam and the only reason that the people of the book differed was because of jealousy. In other words right after saying the only religion is Islam, God criticizes ahlul kitāb. Similarly, in the verse before this, God mentions some of the deviations of the Jews and Christians. These verses have to be looked at the context of where they occur. Additionally, the word itself is a proper noun. The connotation that al-Islam here refers to some type of verbal submission to God actually goes against—in my humble opinion also the opinion of pretty much all of the commentaries of the Qur’an—it goes against the word form.
God is not saying that the religion in the eyes of God is submission – Islam. He is saying “al-Islam” which is alif lam “The Islam” and that only occurs in a proper noun. You cannot have alif lam before a verb. Alif lam means it’s a noun. So what is being talked about is a specific, has been called a refined understanding of Islam.
Additionally, there are many other verses which don’t have it as explicit, but still have a very clear-cut message, that people have to believe in the message as it exists. In Surah Baqarah:137 once again the verse is directed to Jews and Christians and then it says “So if they believe as you have believed then they shall be guided, but if they turn away they are left in confusion”.
So it’s quite clear that the context of the verses has to be taken into account. You cannot cut and paste phrases of the Qur’an and ignore where these phrases occur.
The first was that Islam is the only acceptable religion, there are many verses there.
The Second Category:
The second category of verses are those that suggest a rejection of the prophethood of Muhammad is tantamount to rejection of God. The concept of prophesy is linked to belief and submission to God. One of the central tenants of the Qur’an is that belief in all the prophets of God is a fundamental precondition or at least co-condition, with believing in God.
In more than one verse, Muslims are told we don’t make any distinction between the prophets. In over fifty verses, various people throughout history have been criticized because of rejecting the prophets
54:9 “kaththabat qablahum qawmu noohin” – The people of Nuh rejected the prophet. The people of so and so rejected the prophet. In over four verses God’s punishment is linked to rejecting the prophet.
34:45 “fakaththaboo rusulee fakayfa kāna nakeer” –They rejected my prophet, see how my punishment was.
So in the number of verses, belief in prophethood is a key condition to accepting God and believing in Him. And yet another verse directed to the people of the book, in the context of our Prophet Muhammad :
In 3:81 there is a reference to a covenant that God took with all of the prophets, that you would believe in any prophet that comes after “latu’minunna bihi wa latansurunna”. So the context here is given, you must believe in every future prophet as that prophet comes.
In the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, once again within the context of ahlul kitāb, there is a verse that in my opinion is one of the most crystal clear of verses and it is not just my position. Actually, I have read over thirty tafsirs specifically regards to these verses and by and large the message is the same.
4:150 God talks about the people of the book and then he says “Those who wish to disbelieve in God and his prophets by trying to separate between God and his prophets and by saying we will believe in some prophets and reject other prophets.”
Now this is not a verse that applies to Hindus, or Buddhists or Atheists. We believe in some prophets and reject in other prophets. The Qur’an quite clearly says “ulāika humul kāfiroona haqqa” 4:151 – These are the people who have really denied.
Once again in chapter 7:155-158 within the context of discussing a very famous Jewish story of them meeting God and the seventy chosen people and those chosen people pray to God and they say “O God forgive us for our sins”. Right after that God says my mercy encompasses everything. A lot of our speakers have quoted this phrase. They kind of forget the very next phrase, therefore I shall write it – “fasa-aktubuhā”. My mercy encompasses everything but I shall write it to those who believe and who give charity and believe in our signs. Those who follow the unlettered prophet whom, they find mention in the Torah and the Injeel and their scriptures. Whoever believes in him and supports him and aids him, they are the ones who are successful.
Once again very clear-cut verse directed to the ahlul kitāb that they must believe in the chosen prophet. And we can go on and one of them is 4:115 “Whoever opposes the messenger after the guidance has been made clear to them and follows a path other than the path of the believers we shall lead him to that which he has chosen and take him to the fire of hell”.
And there are many, many other verses as well. The point being the centrality of believing in the prophet of God is a necessary pre or co-condition along with believing in God.
The Third Category:
The third category of verses: verses that suggest that a rejection of the Qur’an is a rejection of God. Again I don’t want to go into so many hundreds, as there are literally hundreds of verses that you must believe in this Qur’an as a revelation from God.
In 2:23-24 God challenges those who deny that this is a book from him and he says “Whoever doesn’t believe that this is a book from me produce another chapter or another Qur’an like it and if you don’t do so then your punishment will be the fire of hell”. Once again these are verses that are quite clear, quite explicit, quite numerous. Belief in the books is a precondition or co-condition to ultimate faith in God.
The Fourth Category:
The fourth category of verses are verses that criticize the beliefs of other faiths. And we have mentioned quite a few of them in the last day and a half. Numerous verses in the Qur’an criticize the belief of the idolaters, of Christians and of Jews. These are the three primary religious groups that the Qur’an came into contact with. The criticism of Arab paganism is a central thesis to most Makkan revelations. The pagans are castigated not only for their social practices but also for heterodox and superstitious beliefs. It is not just orthodoxy but orthopraxy that the Qur’an wishes for it’s people. The pagans are viewed as having strayed from monotheism and as having fallen into unjust social practices.
As for the ahlul kitāb, The view is quite clearly expressed that the ahlul kitāb were legitimate for their time frames. They were rightly guided people unlike the pagans. They had a book, they had a prophet. But over time they deviated and both the Jews and Christians concealed or deviated from the true teachings of the prophet. Hence, the need to reveal a final message through a universal prophet.
The criticism of key Christians doctrines is quite pronounced. Many times these doctrines are described by the verb kafara or the noun kufr which of course is the antonym of īmān. The trinity is described as kufr. Belief in Jesus as the son of God is described as kufr. Worshiping Jesus Christ is described as shirk. And therefore it is no surprise that ahlul kitāb are referenced in the Qur’an as being those who kafarū. The term kuffār or kafarū is used for ahlul kitāb in over five or six verses.
Of them is 2:105 “waddul latheena kafaroo min ahlil katābi walāl mushrikeen”, “The people who have done kufr both of the ahlul kitāb and the pagans do not wish for any good to come to you”.
Of them is 4:89 “waddoo law takfuroona kamā kafaroo”, “They wish that you become kafarū like they have become kafarū”. So the term kufr, and kuffār and kafarū is used for the pagans and it is also used for the ahlul kitāb. Simply because God calls them ahlul kitāb doesn’t mean that they are rightly guided. It simply means that they are the best of those who have disbelieved. They have much in common unlike the pagans who have less in common. And this has been the standard and dominant position of Sunnis and Shi’ites and Mu’tazilites and other theological positions that the ahlul kitāb are a category of kuffār and not distinct from the kuffār. And the ahlul kitāb have certain legal privileges that the non ahlul kitāb do not have.
Therefore any interpretation of any phrases or any verses that argues for the theological acceptance of other religions, must take into account the hundreds of verses that mention key critical tenets of the religion. And before we move on I’d like to mention of course that I have completely sidelined the hadeeth literature because it is not possible to formulate a pluralistic interpretation of Islam except by rejecting and neglecting the hadeeth tradition. If you are going to accept the hadeeth tradition, then really it’s a new point anyway. In addition to the Qur’an, hadeeth we have ignored, there is also ijmā’.
A number of Sunni theologians have unanimously mentioned, including al-Gazali and even in our times al-Qardāwee and others, have unanimously mentioned, that those who follow another religion consciously rejecting Islam, knowing Islam and rejecting it, that’s they key of course and we’re going to come back to this. Cannot be considered to be guided.
In addition to this there is also a logical evidence that a number of theologians including an-Nasafi have used and it is a simple logical premise and I think the same exists in Christianity. And that is that a claim that more than one religion is simultaneously valid is simply illogical. Because each religion has tenets that would be deemed blasphemous by the other. They can’t be all right at once, would be the simplest way of phrasing it.