What is the state of the non-Muslims who are not informed about the religion of Islam?

Details of the Question
If Islam does not reach to a person, will s/he go to Hell or Heaven?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Every human being is born with the fitrat (innate potential from creation) of Islam; there is faith in the human nature. For human has the capacity to know that not even a simple table can be made and built by itself. Even idolaters have known that a being created them, but they have not been able to know this being correctly and they have wrongfully tried to satisfy the need for worship in their nature through lifeless objects.

Just like it is not guaranteed that each human being born in a Muslim environment or in a Muslim family will definitely be Muslim, it, too, is not certain that everybody born in a non-Muslim vicinity or a family will be a disbeliever.

In addition, although He has given each human the reason to comprehend the truth, Allah states that He will not punish the people whom Islam did not reach. (The Qur'an, Al-Isra', 17:15)

Human has responsibility in accordance with being informed about Islam or not. In other words, this does not mean that everybody who is not Muslim will definitely go to Hell. So, then, what is it to be informed about Islam?

Fatrat (interregnum) means pause and interval. As a religious term, it refers to the time between two prophets.

In a hadith mentioned in Bukhari, fatrat refers to the time between Prophet Jesus and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon them). (1)
It is understood in some verses that the Arabs before Islam knew quite a little about the prophets that were sent to peoples. In the Qur’an, it is mentioned that the Arab idolaters said: “… Had it been the will of our Lord (to send us Messengers to warn us), He would certainly have sent down angels.” (2), and thus it is expressed how little they knew about messengership and therefore about the rightful religions.
Although the Arabs knew Prophet Abraham as prophet, they accepted that his prophethood was limited to his own time. Due to the three thousand years of time span between Prophet Abraham and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon them), there were not many who knew the decrees of the religion of Hanif conveyed by Prophet Abraham.
The scholars of Islam study the ahl-al fatrat (those who belong to the interval time) in three categories:
1. Those who contemplate and accept the existence and oneness of Allah with the help of his/her reason and intellect: Qus bin Saida and Zayd bin Amr, the father of Said bin Zayd who was given the good tidings of going to the Paradise, etc.
2. Those who tamper with and change the belief in one God and accept idolatry and those who invent religion at their own will and gather people around them: Amr bin Luhay who initiated idolatry among Arabs and other idolaters, etc.
3. Those who do not belong to either a positive or superstitious belief, neither believer nor idolater, and who passed their lives in ignorance, and who did not think about these matters. In the Age of Jahiliyya (the time of ignorance before the Prophet) there were such people, too.
Among these three categories, the second will go to Hell because they were idolaters. Those who fall into the third group will not be people of the Hell as they are truly the people of fatrat. This is because a prophet who would convey the right and the truth to them did not come to them and they did not show signs of unbelief; so they are among those saved. All the Ahl-u Sunnah (the mainstream Islamic belief) agreed on it. (3)

Qus bin Saida and Zayd bin Amr mentioned in the first category will, on the other hand, be resurrected in the Hereafter individually as separate ummah (community) by Allah, as they were believers in Allah’s existence and oneness among thousands of people, as they were not the community of any prophet because then no prophet was sent, and as they could not reach the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They are the people of salvation and they saved their eternal lives because of their faith. When resurrected, they will be present in the place of gathering on the Day of Judgment as “community of only one person”. These are ‘exceptional’ people and will be bestowed with Allah’s favors and benevolence.

It is obvious that the people of fatrat are not responsible for worship and religious decrees. However, there is a disagreement between the two sects of belief of Ahl-u Sunnah, Maturidi and Ash’ari, about whether they are responsible for believing or not. According to the belief system of Maturidi, those people must make use of the reason and intellect given to them by Allah and thus understand the existence of Allah by contemplating the heavens and the earth and what is between them. According to Ash’ari, on the other hand, the people of fatrat are not obliged to believe in Allah. This is because they were not sent a prophet. Allah says in the Qur’an: “We would never punish (a person or community for the wrong they have done) until we have sent a messenger.” (4). Therefore, they do not deserve punishment because they were not sent a prophet.

Bediuzzaman, an Islamic scholar who lived and published works in the 20th century, brings the mentioned verse as evidence and says:

The people who lived in the time between prophets are among those saved. It has been stated unanimously that they are not punished for their mistakes in secondary matters. According to Imam Shafi'i and Imam Ash'ari, even if they are deniers and do not believe in the fundamentals of faith, they still are among those saved. For responsibility before God occurs through the sending of prophets, and when prophets are sent, responsibility is established through knowledge of their mission. Since heedlesness and the passage of time obscured the religions of the former prophets, they could not provide the proof for the people of that time. If they obey the former religion, they receive reward; if they do not, they are not punished. For since it was hidden, it cannot he a proof." (5)
Imam Gazali, an important Islamic scholar, studies the people after the messengership of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in three categories:
1. Those who did not hear about the message of the Prophet and were not informed about him, too. Those who fall into this group are definitely the people of salvation and will go to Paradise.
2. Those who heard about the message of the Prophet, the miracles he worked and his high ethics, but did not believe. This group of people will definitely be exposed to torment.
3. Those who heard the Prophet’s name, but did not hear about anything except for the negative propaganda, and nobody told them the truth and thus encourage them into belief; for these reasons, they stayed indifferent. I hope that they will also be among the people of salvation and thus go to Paradise.

Badiuzzaman, who states that at the end of time, a kind of fatrat is being experienced, points out that such kinds of innocent people who die in the world wars will also be among the people of salvation. Beadiuzzaman says:

“As at the end of time (akhir zaman), there came over the religion and the religion of Muhammad (PBUH) a veil of indifference to the degree of fatrat, and as at the end of time the real religion of Prophet Jesus will reign and will become shoulder to shoulder with Islam. For all these reasons, of course the calamities suffered by the Christians who follow Prophet Jesus are a kind of martyrdom for them.” (6)

Sources

1. Bukhari, Manaqibu'l-Ansar: 53.
2. The Qur’an, Fussilat , 14.
3. Tajrid-i Sarih trns, 4:544.
4. The Qur’an, Isra, 15.
5. Letters (Mektubat), 360-361.
6. Kastamonu Lahikası, p. 77.
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