I once had an atheist friend express surprise at my devotion to Quran. He saw me as a rational guy and religion just didn’t seem to go with my modern, progressive outlook. I explained to him about how I saw Quran as something much more than a religious text and about six months down the line, he told me that he believed it was revelation from the Divine. He then asked me if he could be blamed for not professing belief sooner considering how Muslims in the world acted. My instantaneous answer was ‘no’. How could a just Allah penalise anyone for that! It just did not make any sense to me.
A great number of Muslims believe that, considering that Prophet Muhammad was the final Prophet of Allah and he brought the final revelation, it would be catastrophic for one’s eternal fate to reject Islam. Therefore, if one were not already Muslim (whether from a Muslim background or through reversion), one would suffer eternal damnation.
This however begs the question, which Islam should one be brought up in or revert to? Ask a Sunni and he may say ‘my Islam, of course’. The Shia might answer the same but referring to something very difficult. There is a multitude of Islams each with its own set of beliefs. Did these differences come from Allah? Of course not. These differences came because Islam (with a capital ‘I’ denoting the culture, civilisation and people) is a human product. Human products are very divergent, quite unlike Quran. There is a single Quran which all Muslims acknowledge. This is just the text though, not the interpretations of that text.
Let us look to Quran for the answer to salvation. What does Quran say about how we achieve salvation? Perhaps we could look at Chapter 3 Verse 19 which says ‘verily the religion in the sight of Allah is al-islam’. That would seem to clinch the deal! It is only Islam which is acceptable by Allah. But this brings us back to the previous question – which Islam?
Notice the translation of 3/19 above translates every single word except ‘al-islam’. Why is this the case? Perhaps due to the need to identify the ‘islam’ of the Quran to the ‘Islam’ particular sects of Muslims already embraced! Why not translate the word ‘islam’? What would we conclude if we do so?
‘islam’ comes from the word ‘salam’ which means ‘peace’ in a variety of contexts (safety, security, deliverance). Therefore ‘islam’ is ‘attainment of peace’. Putting that meaning back in 3/19, we see that the only religion in the sight of Allah is the attainment of peace. Anyone who seeks to attain peace is working for islam, regardless of whatever label he or she uses.
This is also true for the word ‘muslim’ (small ‘m’ denoting the characteristic rather than the proper name ‘Muslims’ affect). A ‘muslim’ is one who works towards ‘wholeness’ and ‘soundness’ (silm in Quranic language). Though a muslim’s aforementioned actions, he will bring about islam in the world.
So as we can see, ‘islam’ is not limited to ‘Islam’. ‘islam’ is a universal principle which is exists in the universe any more that the use of computers is limited to computer scientists. Rather, islam permeates the universe. Anyone can access islam by acting towards peace. It is not a matter of conversion or even being born into a particular ethno-culture.
Quran is also clear about the multiplicity of ways of achieving islam. 29/69 tells us that whoever strives under the auspices of Allah, He will guide him to his paths (yes, in plural) and thus reward the muhsineen (those who work for goodness). Once again, we can see that it is about the universal principle of good and striving to realise the good. There is an infinity of ways to do this and whoever strives for this purpose will be guided to Allah’s paths.
Therefore it is incorrect to see people as those of ‘other faiths’ or worse ‘infidels’. Rather, see them as working for islam in their own ways. We may not agree with their theologies but at least acknowledge the common things between our paths.