Those who ask this question imply: "Since we believe in God and His Prophet, we will go to Paradise. But those who were born and live in non-Islamic countries do not benefit from the Divine Light and Guidance, so they will go to Hell." The question is a debating ploy, claiming on one the hand a greater concern for non-Muslims than that possessed by God and, on the other hand, sneaking in a criticism of Islam.
First, there is no general statement or decree in Islam that those who live in non-Islamic countries will go to Hell. Rather, the decree is this: If those who heard the Prophet's message and invitation, and witnessed the truth and light of Islam, reject it and turn away from it, they will go to Hell. Whether those who have heard the Divine Message live in Islamic countries is beside the point; what matters is that they heed and obey that Message. Those who do not do so will go to Hell-even if they were born and lived in Islamic countries.
Many Muslim scholars and theologians have spoken and written on what the Qur'an and the hadith say on the subject. But why do people dwell upon this sort of question? How will an answer affect or change their lives? Will it gain them anything in the Hereafter? Is there a difference between those who are willful unbelievers and those who do not believe because they have never heard of Islam? Will the latter go to Hell and suffer the same punishment?
The Ash'aris held that one who has not heard the name of God or the teachings of Islam will be "excused". God, as He wills, rewards such people for the good they have done, and they enjoy the blessings of Paradise.
The Maturidi view is somewhat similar to the Mu'tazili view. If such people find the Creator through the use of reason, even though they do not know His Names or Attributes, they will be saved. If they do not do this, they will not be saved. This position is not so different from that of the Ash'aris.
According to the Maturidis, it does not matter where one lives, for anyone can see the sun and moon rise and set, the stars sparkle, creation's balance and order, the splendor and regularity amid the enormous variety of creation, the grandeur of mountains and the gentle easing breezes on their slopes, and the thrilling colors and movements of flowers, trees, and animals. All of these are signs of the Owner, Creator, Sustainer, and Administrator of all things. Therefore, people can observe and acknowledge the Creator's absolute existence, power, and grace without knowing His Names and Attributes, or His Books and Messengers. Such people are among the excused. That is why, when asked this question, we should refer to the view of the great imams of Islam.
Imam Ash'ari deduces his judgment from: We never punish until We have sent a Messenger (17:15). People cannot be punished for a wrong until due warning has reached them through a true Messenger.
According to the Maturidis, reason can distinguish good from evil. But it would be mistaken to say that reason can work everything out by itself. This is why God uses Messengers to relay His rulings of what is good and evil, and leaves nothing to fallible human judgment and experience. The Maturidi argument goes like this: Reason can work out that adultery and fornication are evil, because such practices interrupt genealogy and lineage and cause it to be lost, which, in turn, cause problems in inheritance and other matters. Reason can work out that theft is evil, for it allows no one to live in any degree of security; and that alcohol and other intoxicants are evil, because they cause people to lose consciousness, damage health, make them vulnerable to many illnesses, and can affect their offspring.
The same is true for what is good. Reason can grasp that faith in God is good, for it leads us to satisfaction and inner contentment. Even in this world, we begin to sense the contentment that we will have in Paradise. The way to faith is not so difficult. A bedouin once came to the Prophet and explained how he attained faith: "Camel droppings point to the existence of a camel. Footprints on the sand tell of a traveler. Heaven with its stars, the Earth with its mountains and valleys, and the sea with its waves-don't they point to the Maker, All-Powerful, Knowing, Wise, and Caring?" As he attained faith in God through his mind, we cannot underrate the role of reason and thinking in faith.
Setting out from this point, Maturidi says that one may find the Creator through reason. There are many examples from pre-Islamic times. One is Waraqa ibn Nawfal, Khadija's cousin, who felt that a Prophet would come during his lifetime because many of the signs had been fulfilled. When the first Revelation came to Muhammad, Khadija sought Waraqa's advice. He confirmed the truth of Muhammad's mission and revelations. Understanding that no good would ever come from the idols, Waraqa ignored them and, based on own judgment, believed in the existence of the One God.
Another such person was Zayd ibn 'Amr, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab's uncle. Knowing that the coming of a Prophet was imminent, he ignored the idols and worshipped the One God. Although he died before Muhammad's Prophethood, he intuitively knew it was coming. On his deathbed, he called his son Sa'id, 'Umar, and other family members and said: "The light of God is on the horizon. I believe it will emerge fully very soon. I already feel its signs over our heads. As soon as the Prophet comes, without losing any time, go and join him."
Any human-made "god" or "goddess" cannot be God or answer people's needs, for such things need those who created them. How can something that has needs and wants answer and provide for those who call upon it? Through such simple reasoning, we can realize our need to know the Lord of Heaven and Earth. When we direct our mind and reason to Revelation, our need to know is met and the way to eternal bliss is opened.
In sum, the only people who will go to Hell are those who see or hear about the Prophet and the Qur'an but do not seek further knowledge of them. Those who remain in darkness involuntarily, because they had no chance to hear about these things, may benefit from Divine Grace and not be blamed and punished for their wrong deeds.
This question brings to mind the difference between the early and present-day Muslims, and our duties toward non-Muslims. The first Muslims lived Islam fully, represented and spread it over a large area, and thereby awakened humanity's collective conscience. When we read their biographies, we see such greatness in their thinking and living that it becomes obvious why those who came into contact with them embraced Islam. They were so fearless and indomitable, so unconcerned with the pleasures and sufferings of worldly life, that they made a lasting impression upon the world.
Thanks to their sincerity and zeal, many people learned of Islam within a very short time. By the time of Caliph 'Uthman (ruled 644-56), Islam had spread from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Aral Sea, from Anatolia to the Great Wall of China. During the time of Mu'awiya (ruled 661-80), Muslims reached the Atlantic Ocean. All of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria were under the glorious flag of Islam.
Since these Muslims lived Islam in its entirety, most people in those lands loved and respected them. Their exemplary lives led many to Islam. Indigenous Christians and Jews often preferred Muslim rule to that of their co-religionists. Once when the Muslim rulers had to leave Damascus, the Christian community and its religious leaders prayed in their churches that the Muslims would not have to leave. When the Muslims left, the Christians promised to live under their rule and pay the due tax if they could return.
The sincerity of these Muslims brought many people into Islam. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how it could have been otherwise when those people saw the early Muslims, for each of them was an "'Umar" in sincerity and commitment. They kept long vigils during the night, and were legendary warriors on horseback during the day. They won over so many hearts and impressed people that all believed the whole world would soon belong to Islam.
Today, Muslims cannot provide security even in a small area for just their own community. Given this, the achievements of early Muslim administrations can be seen in their true light and greatness. In return for their security, reliability, wisdom, subtlety of mind and piety, the doors of many castles and cities were opened to them-not as honorary title-holders or visitors, but as governors and rulers.
When the Muslims took over Syria and Palestine, the commanders asked for the keys to Masjid al-Aqsa. The Patriarch told them that he would give them only to the person described in their holy books, for only that man was worthy to receive them. While they were disputing, Caliph 'Umar and one of his servants set out from Madina. No one knew how he would travel. But the Patriarch and priests knew how the rightful holder of keys would come.
'Umar borrowed a camel from the state treasury, and he and his servant took turns riding it. When the Muslim commanders heard of this, they prayed that 'Umar would be riding when they had to cross the Jordan river. They thought that, as the Byzantines were used to pomp and magnificence in their rulers, 'Umar might shame himself if he were leading the camel upon which his servant was riding, and crossing the river with rolled-up trousers.
In fact, most political pomp is injustice and inequity, and 'Umar was trying to avoid it. What his commanders feared came to pass. 'Umar's garment, worn and battered by the journey, also had many patches on it. When the Patriarch saw 'Umar, he cried out: "This is the man whose description we have in our books! Now, I shall give him the key." Because of the special knowledge obtained from their books, the priests knew how 'Umar would look and how he would cross the river. Handing the key and Masjid al-Aqsa to the Muslims caused many people to embrace Islam.
With whole-hearted ardor, 'Uqba ibn Nafi' set forth to spread the word of Islam. The conquest of Africa fell to his lot. After successive victories, some people envied his fame and misinformed the Caliph about him. The Caliph was provoked, and 'Uqba was dismissed from his post, arrested, and kept from spreading Islam. Imprisoned for 5 years, his only sorrow and great longing were expressed thus: "I wish I could have spread Islam all over Africa. I was prevented from achieving this. That is the only thing I regret."
Freeing and then appointing 'Uqba governor of Africa, Yazid made it possible for him to relaunch the conquest of Africa and spread Islam. 'Uqba reached the Atlantic Ocean in a single campaign. He could not help riding his horse into the ocean and crying out: "O God! If this dark sea had not prevented me going further, I would carry Your Holy Name overseas!"
I relate these historical accounts to remind us of how Islam was represented in the past and how it is now. The early Muslims took present-day Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, North Africa, Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand-places that would produce Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, Biruni-within 25 years. These early Muslims carried Islam to almost every part of the then-known world, and made the glorious flag of There is no god but God, Muhammad is His Messenger wave over many lands.
As for ourselves, we scarcely can speak the Truth to our neighbors, let alone go to foreign lands and tell the people there. Some of our neighbors may be willing to listen, but we cannot persuade even them. Our words come back to us cold, as if from walls of ice. They leave our mouths but do not penetrate the hearts and souls of people.
We point this out only to draw attention to immeasurable distance between ourselves and the Companions. They conveyed Islam to all peoples and lived only to do this. When they could not do so, they felt sorrow and pain for the lands and people unaware of the Truth. By contrast, we cannot represent Islam fully in our individual lives, and still less can we convey its message to people abroad. We have neither abandoned our personal needs and preoccupations, nor given the highest priority to working in the way of God. We remember the ways to our homes, our jobs, and our worldly lives only too well. Those of us who went to non-Muslim countries did so for economic reasons, not to take the name of God to those lands. That is why we are so unable to spread Islam among them.
If non-Muslims are now lost in deviation, corruption, and unbelief due to our own ignorance, laziness, and incompetence, we shall be called to account for it. Giving lectures and organizing seminars and panels can be considered moving toward being on the way of God, not true service to Islam. If true service to Islam is likened to a great palace, we are still wandering around the first entrance. Because we have not yet entered upon the task, many people are going astray. Sometimes we speak to them of Islam, but we have not saved ourselves from futile internal disputes and conflicts.
We are nowhere near representing Islam at the level of 'Umar, 'Uqba ibn Nafi', and others of that caliber. Who knows how their opponents were struck with fear at seeing their determined courage, their indomitable devotion to God; or struck with wonder by their reliability, generosity, justice, and humanity, all of which moved them to wonder about and then embrace Islam. The fact that many of the countries in which Muslims now live were conquered by these early Muslims shows what absolute sincerity in the way of God can achieve.
Considered from this angle, the question of non-Muslims, especially those living in non-Islamic countries, takes on a different aspect. We need to see them with a greater tolerance, and say: 'Shame on us! We have not been able to convey Islam to them so that they can leave the darkness in which they live." It will help to narrate here the true story of a German family.
A Turkish worker lived with a German family. He paid great attention to his religious duties, and performed them sensitively. Except for working hours, whenever he was with the German family he told them about Islam. After a while, the father became Muslim. His wife said to him, as did the wife of 'Amir ibn Tufail: "We have always been together so far. Let's be together in the future, too, together on the Sirat Bridge and also in Paradise. If Islam really makes one reach heavenly realms, as you said, why should I stay back from such a blessing while you enjoy it?" So she embraced Islam. The children followed her, and the family group of Islam was completed and the home became an outpost of Paradise.
Several days later, the husband came and said these startling words to the Turkish worker: "I could not express my love and gratitude to you, because you have been an honored guest to us. However, sometimes I get very angry and wish to beat you up. You came and the Qur'an, the Prophet, and God followed you. My home became a heavenly abode. But I had a father. He was a very straight, good man. He passed away a few days before you came. Why couldn't you have come a bit earlier and told him of Islam as well?"
These words indeed represent the voice, the complaint, the rebuke of the whole non-Muslim world. We have failed to take Islam to them. Even in our own countries we have been unable to exert enough effort or support the cause of Islam to make our own people know it properly.
Another aspect of the question is this: Those who took us away from Islam always promised a Western standard of life. But 150 years later we are still beggars at the doors of the West. Little has changed, and we cannot say that we have progressed in any important sense. The West continues to treat us as servants who leave their countries in return for poor wages. Even if we presented its people with the golden principles of Islam, the message that will open the gates of Paradise for them, they will reject both Islam and us. In part, this is because we are despised laborers at their disposal. As usual, the rich have difficulty imagining that they need anything from the beggars at their doors.
Muslims have been defeated in so many fields many times over, and remain dependent on the West. Why should the West listen to us? Only if we can live and represent Islam thoroughly, go to the non-Muslims with a commanding confidence in our own honor, dignity, and greatness and only for the sake of God, can we hope that they will listen to us and accept Islam. We cannot continue to accept our negative image in their eyes, but how can we change this unless we regain and reassert our former identity?
In the Hereafter they will be asked why they did not embrace Islam, and we will be asked why we did not convey it to them. So, the responsibilities of both Muslims and non-Muslims should be considered equal. Any judgments about non-Muslims should be made justly and uprightly. We cannot condemn non-Muslims to Hell simply for being non-Muslims, nor can we dream that people will embrace Islam just because we ask them to do so.
We believe that the global balance will change in the near future. Especially in Turkey, Turkish Central Asia, Egypt, Pakistan, and some other places, Muslims will regain their consciousness and raise up strong individuals who will resemble the early Muslims in their desire to establish Islam and its high values in other lands. Only through sustained and sincere effort will Islam once again become a major and respected factor in the world, and will the voices of its followers be heard. This is not impossible. Those who will realize it will be Muslims of good character whose souls have bonded with Islam, not those inconsistent and inadequate Muslims who follow their bodily needs and desires and only concern themselves with Islam once in a while.