In my last post, Does Islam Believe Jews and Christians Are Saved?, I wrestled with what the Koran has to say about the eternal destiny of Jews and Christians.
Outside of the text, I’ve encountered different perspectives. When I was in New York, I attended a liberal Seventh-Day Adventist church, and a moderate Muslim spoke to us one Sabbath. The speaker appealed to the “open” passages of the Koran to suggest that Islam thinks Jews and Christians will be saved.
At Harvard, however, I was discussing the issue with a Roman Catholic, who said he encountered Muslim discussions on the eternal destiny of “those who never heard.” In Christianity, there is a belief that one must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved. This generates a variety of discussions over whether a good and loving God would send to hell those who never heard the Gospel. Some say that God will do precisely that, since God is just. Others hold that God will offer people a chance to be saved after death. Still others maintain that a person can be a “Christian” without knowing the name of Jesus Christ, provided he responds to the light that he has.
According to my friend, Islam has the same sort of debate: people are supposed to believe in God’s prophet to be saved, but does that mean everyone who doesn’t explicitly embrace Muhammad is condemned? I’ve not encountered a full-fledged discussion of this issue, but I find the following passage to be intriguing:
Sura 5:97-100: “Surely (as for) those whom the angels cause to die while they are unjust to their souls, they shall say: In what state were you? They shall say: We were weak in the earth. They shall say: Was not Allah’s earth spacious, so that you should have migrated therein? So these it is whose abode is hell, and it is an evil resort. Except the weak from among the men and the children who have not in their power the means nor can they find a way (to escape); So these, it may be, Allah will pardon them, and Allah is Pardoning, Forgiving. And whoever flies in Allah’s way, he will find in the earth many a place of refuge and abundant resources, and whoever goes forth from his house flying to Allah and His Apostle, and then death overtakes him, his reward is indeed with Allah and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
I’m not entirely sure what this passage is about, to be honest. But I find it interesting that it distinguishes between two types of unbelievers: those who had the freedom and the opportunity to believe, and those who were helpless. According to this passage, God will have mercy on the helpless.
What I think is going on is this: the Islamic armies are about to attack a pagan, oppressive city, and the city’s inhabitants have a choice. Will they embrace the path of Allah and join the Islamic army? Or will they fight for the pagan, oppressive city? Some claim that they have a valid excuse not to leave the city, since they are oppressed. But Allah responds that they could have left anytime they wanted. At the same time, Allah acknowledges that some truly are trapped and may not know how to get out, so Allah has mercy on them.
Maybe this is a Muslim parallel to Christianity’s “those who never heard” debate, and maybe it’s not. On one hand, it looks like a clear choice for or against God is presented to the city, and that’s not really the case for those who never heard the name of Jesus Christ! On the other hand, the Koran takes into consideration the opportunity and ability of people to respond to God, affirming that God has compassion for those who lack knowledge.