A Perennial Problem: Is Islam the Only Valid Path to God?
Is Islam (the religion and way of life the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ came with) the only path to God? Does the Qur’an extend the validity of religions beyond Islam; to any who believe in God and act rightly? Or does the Qur’an insist that Islam is the exclusive and only path to God? And what of the idea that some have culled from their personal reading of the Qur’an that at the heart of the world’s major religions and faiths, there is an essential unity of truth? This, Islam and the idea of salvific exclusivity, is our topic for discussion.
Our discussion concerning the above delicate and, in our current time, controversial questions is addressed through the following points:
1. The Qur’an is categorical when it says: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers. [3:85] Elsewhere it states: The [true] religion in Allah’s sight is Islam. [3:19] Whatever other verses may be marshalled in this issue, these two must surely lie at its heart.
2. Turning to the words of the Prophet ﷺ, we find him informing: “By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, shall be among the inhabitants of Hell.” Fleshing out the hadith’s theological implications, Imam al-Nawawi said: “It contains [a proof] that all religions have now been abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.”
3. Not only has the religion of Islam that the Prophet ﷺ was sent with superseded all previously revealed heavenly teachings, this last dispensation or “version” of Islam is a universal one too. The Qur’an says: Say: ‘O Mankind! Truly I am the Messenger of Allah to you all.’ [7:158] Al-Ghazali said in his magisterial Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din – ‘Revival of the Religious Sciences’: “Allah sent the Qurayshi unlettered Prophet Muhammad ﷺ with His divinely-inspired Message to the entire world: to Arabs and non-Arabs, jinn and mankind. The Prophet’s Sacred Law has abrogated and superseded all earlier revealed laws, except those provisions in them that the [new] Sacred Law has reconfirmed.”
4. Over the past eight decades or so a view has arisen which alleges that Islam affirms the validity of other religions, denying or failing to mention that they have long since been abrogated. Recourse has been taken to the following passage to justify the claim: Those who believe [in the Qur’an], the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans; whosoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right, shall be rewarded by their Lord; no fear will come upon them, nor shall they grieve. [2:62] This verse, it’s claimed, extends the validity of religions beyond just Islam, and the possibility of salvation beyond just Muslims, to whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day. The error of such a claim can be gauged from the next three points:
5. Apart from ignoring the above proof-texts to the contrary, this view stands against Islamic orthodoxy which states, as per Imam al-Nawawi: “One who does not consider a person who follows a religion besides Islam – like a Christian – to be a disbeliever, or doubts that such a person is a disbeliever, or deems their religion to still be valid, is himself a disbeliever – even if, along with this, he manifests Islam and believes in it.” Such, then, is the enormity of the error and the magnitude of its misguidance. Qadi ‘Iyad affirmed a consensus about this, saying that: “there is a consensus (ijma‘) about the disbelief of one who does not consider as disbelievers the Christians, Jews and all those who part from the religion of the Muslims; or hesitates about their disbelief, or doubts it.”
6. How then should the above verse [2:62] be read? Scholars of tafsir, along with their belief that the Qur’an’s message now supersedes all previous heavenly teachings, offer these interpretations for the above verse: [i] It is said to refer to those seekers of truth who believed in the imminent arrival of the final Prophet – like Habib al-Najjar, Qays b. Sa‘adah, Waraqah b. Nawfal, Zayd b. ‘Amr b. Nufayl, Bahirah the Monk, Salman al-Farsi and Abu Dharr al-Ghiffari. Some of them reached the Prophet ﷺ and accepted Islam at his hand. Others didn’t reach him but are nonetheless included among those who believe in Allah and the Last Day. [ii] It refers to the believers of previous nations, following the prophets of their respective times. [iii] It’s claimed to refer to those Jews and Christians who, prior to accepting Islam in the time of the Prophet ﷺ, followed the unaltered teachings of Moses and Jesus; peace be upon them both. [iv] A few say it refers to the hypocrites; which is somewhat odd. Whatever the correct intent of this passage is, the view which extends salvation unrestrictedly, to include even those who deny the Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood ﷺ, is conspicuous by its absence in the classical tafsir literature.
7. Ibn Kathir helps put the above verse into context with his customary hermeneutics; he explains: “The faith of the Jews was that of those who adhered to the Torah and the way of Moses, peace be upon him, until the arrival of Jesus. With the advent of Jesus, those who followed the Torah and the Mosaic Laws, not leaving them to follow Jesus, were doomed. The faith of the Christians was that of whoever adhered to the Gospel and to the teaching of Jesus. They were believers and their faith valid till the advent of Muhammad ﷺ. Those who rejected Muhammad ﷺ, by not leaving the Gospel and Jesus’ way are doomed … This doesn’t conflict with what ‘Ali b. Abi Talha relates from Ibn ‘Abbas that: Those who believe [in the Qur’an], the Jews, the Christians, and Sabaeans; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day was followed by Allah revealing: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Afterlife he will be among the losers. For what Ibn ‘Abbas is simply informing is that no path is acceptable from anyone, nor any deed, unless it conforms to the shari‘ah of Muhammad ﷺ now that he has been sent. Prior to this, anyone who followed the particular prophet of his time was upon right guidance and the path of salvation.”
8. In the above light, philosophies that speak of the “Essential Unity of Religions”, or “Perennialism”, are disbelief (kufr). The metaphysics of these philosophies is such that they insist the world’s major faiths: Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, like Islam, all contain at their heart a core set of esoteric truths, despite them differing immensely in their external appearance, forms and practices – and even in many of their beliefs. They also believe that these major religions, again like Islam, still retain their validity even today. The metaphor used to describe the Unity of Religions is that of a bicycle wheel. The spokes represent the different religions; the hub symbolises God, the Supreme Being, the Transcendent Reality. Just as the spokes come closer to each other as they near the hub, so too, as each path comes closer to the One Reality, it comes closer to all other paths. Now as appealing as it sounds to some, it can never pass for authoritative, orthodox Quranic teachings – as has been shown.
9. Asserting that such Perennialist philosophy is clear disbelief (kufr) does not amount to an accusation that each specific individual who holds such a belief is necessarily an unbeliever (kafir) – as is well attested to in mainstream Sunni theology. The maxim in this matter runs as follows: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief, becomes a disbeliever.’ The shari‘ah upholds the distinction between a general charge of disbelief (takfir ‘amm), and the charge of disbelief upon a specific individual (takfir mu‘ayyan). Ibn Taymiyyah said: “They have not given proper consideration that making takfir has conditions (shurut) and impediments (mawani‘) that must be actualised if it is to be applied to a specific individual. Because a general declaration of takfir doesn’t imply takfir on a specific individual – until conditions are fulfilled and impediments lifted.”
10. The Perennialist Philosophy (religio perennis) was first propagated in the late 1930s. It was Frithjof Schuon who would bring this idea to its fruition. Among those who came under Schuon’s influence were those like Martin Lings, Gai Eaton and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (the first two also being converts to Islam). Such Muslims who, through a hugely errant ta’wil or interpretation that misled them into perennialism, are part of a highly learned body of authors and academics who offer some of the finest critiques of modernity from a traditional perspective, and profoundest spiritual expositions of Islam to modern beleaguered hearts and minds. That their writings have, by Allah’s grace, brought so many Westerners into the fold of Islam is beyond doubt. Perennial beliefs aside, their writings are a reminder that to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual and spiritual content is no longer possible in our modern world. For the spirit of our times asks questions, questions for the most part hostile to faith, which demands answers. And those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith; from adequate familiarity with modernity’s philosophical underpinnings; and from reflective study, introspection and meditation.
11. Interestingly, the late Martin Lings wrote in The Eleventh Hour about the theory of man’s evolution that if it is indeed true, why didn’t God tell believers about it to begin with, or at least gradually bring them into it? Why did He allow religion after religion to repeat the same old ways of thinking, and prevent prophet after prophet from ever divulging its true nature? Yet He allowed a mere non-prophet to discern its reality and propogate it in defiance of all spiritual authorities of the time. And yet a similar line of argument can equally apply to the belief in perennialism. For using the same rhyme and reason one could ask: Why didn’t Allah tell believers about this to begin with, or wean them steadily onto it? Why did Allah allow prophet after prophet to repeat the same ways of thinking, or prevent them from disclosing its true nature? And yet, we are to believe, He allowed a mere non-prophet to arrive at this great existential truth, propagating it in disregard to a scholarly consensus of the past sages and present-day spiritual authorities. The point being is that if Islam’s religious authorities all deemed the belief to be kufr, on what basis should Perennialism be accepted?
12. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not been conveyed, or they have heard about Islam and the Prophet, but in a distorted form? Here the Qur’an presents a far wider, ecumenical scope: Nor do We punish until We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] Also: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The idea of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, is vital in this issue; typified by the words of Imam al-Nawawi (which have already preceded in point 2) that ‘those to whom the call of Islam does not reach are excused.’
13. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of wilful rejection (juhud) of it or because of belying (takdhib) it. Others, however, choose not to hear the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) out of arrogance or prejudice against it, or hostility towards it – in some cases doing so knowing it is the truth: And they rejected them [Allah’s signs], although they inwardly recognised them, through injustice and arrogance. [27:14] Now it’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of discerning the revealed truths of Islam. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or losing their standing among people; having contempt for Muslims; arrogant prejudice against them; or just out of sheer folly and misguidance, many turn away from even considering the Qur’an. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.
14. As for those who have heard about Islam, but in a distorted form, I’ll suffice with what Imam al-Ghazali wrote about the matter: “In fact, I would say that, Allah willing, most of the Byzantine Christians and the Turks of this age will be included in Allah’s mercy. I’m referring here to those who live in the farthest regions of Byzantium and Anatolia who have not come into contact with the message. These people are of three groups: [i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who falls between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].”
15. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are non-Muslims; disbelievers. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this rule of thumb: “Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.”
16. As for the honourific distinctions given to the Jews and Christians in the Qur’an, in that they are referred to as People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), their chaste womenfolk are lawful to marry, and their ritually-slaughtered meat may be eaten, then this in no way excludes them from being a category of disbelievers. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi wrote, citing al-Qaffal, that “although the ahl al-kitab have acquired the virtue in this world of [us] being able to marry their women and eat their slaughtered meat. Yet this does not set them apart from the idolators in matters of the Afterlife, in terms of rewards and chastisements.”
To wrap up the discussion: The Qur’an insists that every prophet came with a core set of universal truths centred around Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). The Qur’an says: We have sent to every nation a Messenger [proclaiming]: ‘Worship Allah and shun false gods.’ [16:36] It is possible, therefore, for Buddhism and Hinduism to have been, in the ancient past, divinely-revealed. Yet it is equally true that the Qur’an insists of previously-revealed religions and their scriptures that they have long suffered alteration and corruption at the hands of men, and that whatever revealed truths were once present in them have long since been forgotten, changed, compromised or overshadowed by corrupted and idolatrous beliefs and practices. So while the world’s major faiths do show similarities with Islam, this does not prove their essential unity with it as they currently exist. For they haven’t only been altered, but have also been abrogated and superseded by what was revealed to the final Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is why: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers. Now whether such an explanation is passionate or dispassionate, narrow and unecumenical, or born of a “madrasah mentality,” it is the unanimous belief of Islam’s eminent sages, jurists and theologians. It is, in other words, the Quranic truth.
That said, I think it befitting to close with these words from Shaykh Bin Bayyah, one of contemporary Islam’s most revered and learned jurists: “Of course, a devotional life in this world should be lived in peaceful co-existence with others.” O Allah! Bless us with iman and aman – with faith and security; and make us of benefit to Islam and to humanity, and not a harm or a hindrance to them. Amin.
 Muslim, no.240.
 Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.
 Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:120.
 Rawdat al-Talibin (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), 7:290. Its like is seen in al-Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina‘ (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1983), 6:170.
 Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2002), 450.
 Cf. al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 1:57; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 65.
 Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1986), 1:107.
 Lings, The Eleventh Hour (Cambridge: Archetype, 2002), 28.
 Al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqah (Damascus: 1993), 84.
 ibid., 25.
 Al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 11:151, on Qur’an 5:5.