The question over who can go to Heaven has constantly troubled my mind, even when I was Catholic and people used to tell me, only if you believe in Jesus then you can be saved! Now that I am Muslim, I read verses in the Quran which speak of eternal Hellfire for disbelievers.
Its not very nice to know that many of your friends, or family even, are going to Hell because of their religion even though they might be really good people. It's also not very nice to know that this wouldn't sit well with others who already hold misconceptions about Islam being a violent religion- see, they say, you get burned for eternity if you don't believe in Allah!
But there should be more to Islam, after all it is a logical and reasonable religion. So the whole basis all boils down to...
Who Is The "Disbeliever"?
The original, Arabic word for "disbeliever" in the Quran is "Kafir", which means “he became a rejecter of, or a denier of”. It never explicitly stated Christians, or Jews, or other non-muslims. Even Moses was called "Kafir" when he rejected Pharaoh's tyrannic rule. Yet we all get confused when we read the translated versions of the Quran and think that "Kafir" refers to all non-muslims- Christians, Hindus, Buddhists etc. That's a prreeeetty scary misconception isn't it?
In fact, "Kafir" is a term to describe the person who covers/ hides/rejects. Hence in the Quran, "Kafir" refers to the person who rejects the message of Islam. But for this rejection of the message to occur in the first place, the person committing "kafir" has to obtain the message first.
This leads us to splitting all the people on Earth into 3 groups:
- Those who are totally ignorant to Islam
- Those who receive the message of Islam and believe
- Those who receive the message and disbelieve (which includes those who have heard of but have incomplete/misguided knowledge (many of us), and those who have knowledge but reject it.)
Since this is going to be about Islam here, it will be taken from the viewpoint that "Kafir" refers to the disbelievers of Islam.
The First Group: The Totally Ignorant
This group of people have never heard about Islam, and most probably exists where they lack total contact with Muslims or things they could use to find out about Islam (eg. internet)- practically an impossibility since there are Muslims in almost every part of the world. The deaf, insane, and people who lived between the interval time (Fatrah) of Jesus/Isa and Prophet Muhammed (s.a.w) would fit into this category.
For these people, they wouldn't be punished, as they did not have the chance to know about Islam, and hence cannot reject what they do not know.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it for his own good; and whoever goes astray, goes astray at his own peril; no bearer of burdens shall bear the burdens of another. Nor do We punish until We have sent forth a messenger to forewarn them. - Surah Al-Isra' [17:15]
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the way you see it), Singapore is a multi-religious society and we see Muslims on the streets everywhere, and we interact with them on a frequent basis. Plus, information is at the touch of our fingertips. So most of us do not fall under the category of the total ignorant.
The Second Group: The Disbeliever
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ ٱلْجِنَّ وَٱلْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
And I created not the jinns and humans except they should worship Me. - (51:56)
For as long as human history has gone, people have been worshipping higher, divine power(s). Though the form of worship developed differently across cultures, places and times, how do we explain this common phenomenon of worshipping even though we cannot see or determine the existence of this power?
Because in all of us, there is an instinct deep down that tells us there IS a God. This was succinctly and very well-put across by one of my friends who believes in God(s) but not in religion, "For you to be THAT SURE to say that God(s) do not exist would mean that you have absolute knowledge of everything in the world... but you don't."
This subconscious instinct in us becomes a responsibility to be thankful to the God(s) who has created us, like how we are thankful to our parents for bringing us into this world. And before we are thankful, knowing about this God is absolutely necessary to make sure we aren't thanking a non-existent 'God'. Who exactly is this God, what this God likes or dislikes... that's where the search for knowledge starts.
In Islam, ignoring this subconscious instinct and responsibility to learn about Allah is a form of ignoring and hiding from the Truth, and disrespect to Allah. And this is the beginnings of a Disbeliever.
It is not possible to attain complete knowledge of who Allah is, because we can never understand him completely. In this case, receiving even the slightest bit of message of Islam counts as knowledge. Ignoring or rejecting the message be it through arrogance, personal desires, sticking stubbornly in what they already know, it is still rejection.
And the punishment for the disbelievers has been repeated over and over again in the Quran,
Verily, those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the Fire of Hell, abiding therein. They are the worst of creatures.
Isn't It Unfair to People who weren't Born Muslims?
Since knowledge had been gifted to Muslims since birth, they didn't need to find that subconscious instinct and responsibility to know about Allah. So for the rest of us who grew up in our other religions, we had to start this search somehow... I was lucky to have met someone who introduced it to me, but what about others? Isn't it unfair to punish them just because they grew up in a family of another belief?
When you know that Allah is Fair and Equitable in all His decisions, you see that yes, we as non-Muslims had the challenge of retrieving that inner disposition to question our faith and seek Him, but once we revert back to Islam, all sins we have committed in the past are erased and we start afresh as if we have been given new life. Yet for those who were born as Muslims, their sins were counted from the very beginning. Obstacles they had to face during the trying periods of youth and young adulthood made them more fallible to mistakes and sins.
So, which is better?
Good Non-Muslims and Bad Muslims
Because "Kafir" refers to the person committing the act of disbelief, and not a specific group of people, everyone is put on equal ground, and judgement is delivered after knowledge is given. Muslims too are equally vulnerable, if not more so, as a simple action of not doing the obligatory prayers can be already considered as an act of disbelief.
A lot of people are closer to Islam than they or others realise. If a Catholic already believes that there is One God, that they already love Jesus (a.s.), that they believe in the previous Scripture, that Jesus (a.s.) will return as the Messiah, that there are angels, that there is a Heaven and Hell and a Day of Judgement; all that puts them ahead of those who do not even believe this.
The Universality of It All
Ultimately, it is still the intention of the person that matters. So for the people who do good for the sake of Allah, they earn their reward with him in Heaven. For the people who do good for the sake of feeling good for themselves, they earn their reward with themselves. How can people who not believe in Allah or Heaven request the reward from Allah or from Heaven? They would have to at least believe in His existence the slightest bit to even make the request.
In the end, there is no pin-pointing of religions. And we cannot dictate who goes to hell, because we do not have the power to do so. We cannot say a person is a Disbeliever because we do not know what is truly in his heart. So in the end it is all up to Allah's Mercy and Judgement, and Allah Knows Best.
Here's a short video which sums up really, the entire topic in a neat 7-minutes.
*Thanks to all those who have helped to answer my questions, you know who you are. :) And may Allah (s.w.t.) forgive me if I said any wrong, and provide me guidance.