Note: This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.
By Mohammad Hassan Khalil
Professor of Religious Studies, Director of the Muslim Studies Program, Michigan State University
Various Western writers draw a correlation between Muslim terrorism and the Muslim belief that all non-Muslims will be eternally damned. Leaving aside the simplistic nature of this correlation, a closer look reveals that some of the most influential theologians in the history of Islam affirmed the eventual salvation of at least most of humanity.
In his New York Times bestseller “The End of Faith,” the prominent new atheist author Sam Harris proffers that the 9/11 tragedy “proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain 21st century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.” What is more, Harris asserts, those who read the Qur’an “with the eyes of faith” will come to see that “the people who died on September 11 were nothing more than fuel for the eternal fires of God’s justice.” To support this claim, Harris quotes 60 Qur’anic passages that, as he sees it, “convey the relentlessness with which unbelievers are vilified.” The first five passages he cites are as follows:
“It is the same whether or not you forwarn them [the unbelievers], they will have no faith” (2:6). “God will mock them and keep them long in sin, blundering blindly along” (2:15). A fire “whose fuel is men and stones” awaits them (2:24). They will be “rewarded with disgrace in this world and with grievous punishment on the Day of Resurrection” (2:85). “God’s curse be upon the infidels!” (2:89).
After citing all 60 passages, Harris states, “I cannot judge the quality of the Arabic; perhaps it is sublime. But the book’s contents are not. On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict.”
As Harris sees it, when the Qur’an condemns “unbelievers,” or “infidels,” it is condemning all non-Muslims. Needless to say, there are numerous Muslims who see things similarly. For such believers, God will consign each and every non-Muslim to hell.
But this exclusivist doctrine was actually rejected by many of the most influential theologians in the history of Islam. The prevailing view in Islamic theology is that although the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation supersedes other revelations, God may save at least some non-Muslims in the life to come. Thus, to be non-Muslim is not necessarily the same as being a damned unbeliever. (It should be noted that the Arabic term for “unbeliever,” kafir, also denotes “one who conceals the truth” and “one who is ungrateful.”) As for which non-Muslims might be saved on Judgement Day, theologians such as the 14th century traditionalist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) included only those individuals who never encountered the Islamic message, that is, the “unreached.” A couple of centuries earlier, the extremely prominent 12th century Ash‘arite theologian, al-Ghazali (d. 1111)—famously hailed by some as “the greatest Muslim after Muhammad”—asserted that God, out of his overwhelming mercy, would save most of humanity. This would include non-Muslims who never encountered Islamic revelation in its “true form” as well as those who at least actively investigated it after becoming “reached.” In the 20th century, the Salafi scholar Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) would cite and modify al-Ghazali’s criterion for non-Muslim salvation while affirming the latter’s optimism regarding the fate of humanity. For Rida, merely encountering Islamic revelation in its “true form” would not render a non-Muslim “reached” in the eyes of God; more than this, one would have to encounter the message in a manner that would move one to regard it as at least possibly divinely revealed (for even scholars of Islamic studies may be conditioned to treat the Qur’an as strictly the product of human minds). This relatively liberal criterion for non-Muslim salvation was hardly a modern innovation. Centuries earlier, the giants al-Jahiz (d. 869) and Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) would make similar claims. Interestingly, through mystical insight, Ibn ‘Arabi saw that there were 5,105 degrees of paradise, and that only 12 of these were designated specifically for the community of Muhammad. Even more interestingly, the aforementioned Ibn Taymiyya would go a step further than this shortly before his death: in the last treatise he wrote before his pen was confiscated while he was imprisoned in the citadel of Damascus, he asserted that every single inhabitant of hell — indeed all of humanity — would eventually be saved and admitted into paradise.
These myriad views on the salvation of non-Muslims were grounded in, among other things, the repeated scriptural affirmations of God’s overwhelming mercy. Indeed, the Almighty is called “the Lord of Mercy, the Bestower of Mercy” in the basmala formula that precedes almost every chapter of the Qur’an.
All this is to say that most Muslim theologians would likely balk at the assertion that the non-Muslims who died on 9/11 were all simply “fuel for the eternal fires of God’s justice.” Yet even if this were the prevailing Muslim belief, what would this tell us exactly? After all, the exclusivist may go to great lengths to impress nonbelievers as a way of encouraging conversion. Of course the exclusivist may just as easily look down upon nonbelievers and treat them as “the damned.” In any case, just as it would be problematic to cast Islam as an inherently exclusivist tradition, it would be simplistic to draw a straight line from religious exclusivism to terrorism. Indeed, any serious discussion of the latter must account for multiple factors, including, among other things, widespread perceptions (real and/or imagined) of injustice.
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 246 note 5.
 Harris, The End of Faith, 117.
 Harris, The End of Faith, 117
 Harris, The End of Faith, 117–118.
 Harris, The End of Faith, 123.
 I examine Harris’s treatment of Islam and jihad in Mohammad Hassan Khalil, Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), chapter 6.
 W. Montgomery Watt, Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963), 180.
 Everything mentioned in this paragraph is discussed in detail in Mohammad Hassan Khalil, Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Bestower of Mercy” (bi-smi llahi l-rahmani l-rahim).