Q. In Islam, we believe that associating partners with Allah is an unforgivable sin. Even though Christians believe they are monotheistic, they also believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are one? What will be their fate?

Also, I was having a discussion with a Muslim brother about non-Muslims going to heaven. He said that the verses in the Qur'an that mention the Jews, Christians, and Sabians, etc. (see Q2:62) refer to those prior to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w). He went on to say that non-Muslims after the advent of Islam will be denied heaven, as they are obligated to discover Islam. Is this correct?

A. Certainly we believe that the idea of the trinity is shirk, however, the matter is far more complex than that. We are not sure exactly how many sects of Christians there were at the time of the revelation of the Qur'anic verses. For example, there were those who considered Mary as part of the trinity, and as some mufassirun tell us, there are those who were Nestorians, Jacobites, and so on. Taking all of this into perspective, the Christians themselves do not know what they mean, hence they say that God is one, but then they go on to try and explain how the trinity concept really adds up to one entity. For this reason, the Qur'an says: "We do not punish until We send Messengers." What does this mean? A Christian believes in the trinity, but does so out of faith rather than a proper examination of the facts, so the matter is for God to decide.

If God punished them for their invented beliefs, they could rebut that no Muslim ever let them understand the truth. How could they listen to Muslims, when they are so disunited and slaughtering each other instead of setting an example? That is why the Prophet Muhammad set the standard even before he delivered the message. They knew him as a trustworthy person to whom they could listen. The jist of the story is that only those Christians who are absolutely convinced of the falsity of their beliefs, and yet out of pride assert a trinity, may go to hell. For then they are kafir in the linguistic sense of the word, they are those who are thankless, rejecting the kindness of their Lord who has sent them a logical guidance.

Even then, we can never know what is in the heart. Will a Christian who gives up Christianity be subject among his peers to such trial that he feels it better to profess Christianity? The Qur'an allows a Muslim on the surface to reject Muhammad, while in the heart professing Islam. Why is it different with a Christian? For this reason, Islam places a high emphasis on works, works, and more works. Matters of belief, and the debates pertaining thereto can only be dealt with by God. Our duty is not to judge. For this reason, the Qur'an asks us not to argue with them on the issue. Rather, it asks us to debate with both the Jews and Christians on the aspect of their claims to exclusivity in terms of having the passports to heaven. As Fazlur Rahman says: "The goal of the Qur'an is to create a tolerant, pluralistic society."

As for the second part of your question, it is ironic that we are told to ask the Jews and Christians about their exclusive rights to heaven, yet some Muslims make the same claim. The Qur'an prides itself in its clear Arabic. We need to know what separated the Christians and Jews of pre-Islam from those of post-Islam. Is it the matter of Uzair and Jesus (a.s)? Certainly not, for we know that since 325 A.D, i.e. two centuries prior to Muhammad, the Christians had taken Jesus Christ as the son of God, meaning that they had formalized it, although they may have done so before that time. Next, the Qur'an states clearly "Christians and Jews," and does not stipulate before or after the Prophet or Qur'an, therefore anyone who makes such a distinction must provide proof. The rule in speech is that "the speech is assumed to be literal except when there is some proof that takes it out of such limitation." This proof must be in the text itself or proof of equal value, as the word "proof" suggests.

Now the hadith is not on the same level of the Qur'an, so from where is he coming? From the point of view of history and chronology, our friend is confused. From the standpoint of the clear Arabic of the Qur'an, he is also mistaken. Even from the hadith, we know that one of the Prophet's wives Safiyyah, who was Jewish, continued her ties with her people after Islam, and she, like all his other wives, had been threatened by God with the severest punishment for doing evil. It is unlikely that she would have given 100,000 dinars to a Jewish nephew (according to the traditions) who was destined for hell. We are allowed to marry these women, as wives who we are told in the Qur'an: "they are your clothing, and you are their clothing." What God is it that makes me clothe myself with the vestments of hell? The presumption of heaven supersedes that of hell. God says in the Qur'an that He has created humankind and jinn only to worship Him.

Finally, we know that the Jews and Christians carried out this worship, as evidenced from the various verses of sura Al-Baqara and also Al-Bayyinah. Of course, the main verse already alluded to "those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, the Sabians, and those who believe in Allah and the last day." If the Christians and Jews referred to are pre-Islamic, then so too is the first part of the verse - "those who believe (the Muslims)." If two are for pre-Islam, then all other terms must assume to follow the same ruling, since they are in the same verse. So it means that the Mumins before Muhammad are being referenced. It logically follows that the Mumins after Muhammad are not covered. Therefore, this is another case of "reductio ad absurdum" - an erroneous understanding of the Qur'an.

Posted March 1, 1999