By Dr Hamid Hadji Haidar is an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Political Science, University College London. He is the author of Islam and Liberalism: Practical Reconciliation Between the Liberal State and Shiite Muslims (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
Many religious groups throughout the ages have claimed exclusivity of salvation, negating this possibility to outsiders. Hamid Hadji Haidar explains the authoritative theological position of Shi’a Islam and the various options it offers.
There have always been controversies among religious people of all persuasions as to who is qualified as a good person and who goes to Paradise. A parallel disagreement has also persisted among secular people on the conception of the good life worth being pursued by human beings. Questions are raised among religious people such as: What are the major requirements for salvation? Is goodness and righteousness defined in terms of a strict monistic criterion exclusive to a particular religion, or even to a particular sect within a particular religion? Or are there plural criteria for righteousness manifested in different religions? It seems that controversies over the pattern of the good human life can be settled neither among secular people, nor among religious people, not to mention between secular people and religious people. From the Islamic point of view, I shall introduce a perspective held by Shiite Muslim scholars on this crucial issue. In the history of Shi’i Islamic thought, the most explicitly narrow-minded perspective has been proposed by the great Shi’i theologian, Allama Bahrul ‘Uloom (1742-1798 CE). According to his views, only Shi’i Muslims can be conceived of as being righteous and eligible for salvation. In other words, the doors of Paradise are exclusively open to Twelver Shi’i, or Imamite Shi’i Muslims, rather than to all Muslims, let alone to non-Muslims. According to this perspective, not only did Islam abrogate all previous Divine religions, but it also manifested itself in Shiism. This exclusivist, narrow-minded perspective can be found among ordinary believers even in other religions. A second perspective, which is much more friendly towards non- Muslims, not to mention other non-Shiite Muslims, is proposed by three prominent Shi’i scholars – Muhammad ibn Hassan al-Tusi (995- 1067 CE), Mulla Sadra (1572-1635 CE), and Allama Muhammad Hussein Tabataba’i (1902-1981 CE). It should be noted that al-Tusi is the first great Shi’i theologian and interpreter of the Qur’an, and has broadly been recognised as the master of Shi’i theologians in the whole history of Shi’i Islam. As for Mulla Sadra, not only is he recognised as the founder of a new school of thought in the history of Islamic philosophy, he also, undeniably, is the master of all Shi’i philosophers in the last four centuries. Lastly, Allama Tabataba’i is the most prominent philosopher in the contemporary Shi’i world, as well as the most prominent interpreter of the Qur’an in the entire history of Shi’i Islam. These three figures share the view that not only is ‘righteousness’ not confined to Shi’i Muslims, but it includes other Muslims as well, and should also be applied to practitioners of other faiths. According to these theologians, the criterion for righteousness lies not in subscribing exclusively to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; rather, it lies in two general principles. The first general principle is faith in God and the Day of Judgement, whereas the second general principle is practising good deeds. Hence, whoever has faith in God and the Day of Judgement, and practises good deeds, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or other, is recognised as a good person and is eligible for salvation. The doors of Paradise are thus open to all practising faithful, accordingly. Among the three aforementioned scholars, Mulla Sadra is more explicit on the view that subscription to a particular religion has no crucial part in eligibility for salvation. In his interpretation of the Holy Qur’an, Mulla Sadra explicitly expresses that the major purpose of sending Prophets and Holy Scriptures to humanity was to establish faith in the Source and belief in the end of the world, as well as promoting the doing of good deeds. Hence, assuming that a person did not meet any Prophet from among all the Prophets nor heard about Prophethood at all, or lived in the era when there was no Prophet among the people, but nevertheless believed in God and the Hereafter and practised good deeds, then such a person would achieve happiness and salvation. It should be added that their evidence for such an open-minded view on the criterion for righteousness and salvation is derived from a Quranic verse which states: ‘Surely those who believe [Muslims], 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’ (2: 26). The three above scholars explain that this verse disregards the names of this or that religion, and rather puts its emphasis on general faith in God and the Afterlife, along with the doing of good deeds. What accentuates their openminded interpretation of the preceding Quranic verse lies in their affirmation that this verse has not been abrogated by other apparently conflicting verses of the Qur’an, not to mention by any tradition. Therefore, any Quranic verse that seems to be restrictive in this regard ought to be interpreted in such a way as to be compatible with this verse, which establishes a definite and general criterion for salvation. It should be noted further that, confirming the existence of ‘a broad paths to salvation’, as I would prefer to call it, is not the only openminded view on the crucial issue of the salvation of non-Muslims. An alternative open-minded view in this regard comes from Imam Khomeini (1900-1989 CE) who grounds his view on ‘the decree of reason’ and ‘the fundamental doctrines of Shi’i Islam’. In his book entitled al-Makasib al-Muharrama, Imam Khomeini distinguishes between two groups: (1) those who due to their enculturation in their particular communities or societies turn out to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, but nevertheless believe sincerely in the truth of their religion, and (2) those who are aware of the exclusive absolute truth of Islam. He argues that while the former cannot be rationally condemned for the rejection of Islam, the latter are rationally condemned for not submitting to what they know as the final Divine religion, which has abrogated all previous religions. He further makes a speculation in this regard and proposes that most Jews and Christians are found in the first group. Hence, according to Imam Khomeini, since most non-Muslim religious people are excused for not submitting to Islam, the doors of Paradise will be open to them, provided that, like pious Muslims, they have sincere faith in the truth of their religions and practise their religious duties. It is noteworthy that Imam Khomeini makes a particularly severe attack on Allama Bahrul ‘Uloom’s narrowminded view. Conclusion Among the great Shi’i Muslim theologians and philosophers, there are two open-minded views on the issue of the salvation of non- Muslims. Whilst one of these views is advocated by at least three great Shi’i scholars, the second is Imam Khomeini’s view. I propose to call the first three scholars’ perspective as ‘the-broad-path-to-salvation ’ and Imam Khomeini’s perspective as ‘the-alternative-paths-to-salvation’. The former is grounded in a Quranic verse, which is not susceptible to abrogation by other apparently conflicting verses, whereas the latter is grounded in human reason and the fundamental doctrines of Shi’i Islam. According to these two perspectives, all practising faithful people could be considered as being righteous and eligible for eternal happiness in Paradise.