Note: This article was updated on Apr 12th, 2018 to reflect changes made by Dr. Brown on Apr 11th, 2018.
by Mateen A. Khan, Trenton NJ
The ulama, as representatives of the Prophet ﷺ after his demise, carry a great responsibility. Their role entails conveying the dīn as it is meant holistically through the lens of normative Islam. What is meant by “normative” is the cumulative path of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamā`ah. Shaykh Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī in his Husn al-Tanabbuh fī al-Tashabbuh wrote, “The path of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamā`ah is the path of the Prophet ﷺ, and his noble Companions and that is the path indicated by the majority of Muslim scholars (al-sawād al-a`zam) in each era.” This legacy of sacred knowledge is blessed with Allah’s guidance and help. Since the early generations (salaf), the lay Muslim has relied upon this group to guide them towards what is “Islamic” and direct them away from deviance in creed and from innovation in jurisprudence. They shepherded the community to a path of guidance and warned them against misguidance. Academic discussions are common among Muslim scholars and serve as a means of advancing ideas for scholarly critique, acceptance or rejection, before dissemination to the public. In this way, deviant beliefs and rare interpretations that were strongly warned against are filtered, thus shielding the public from potential confusion and misguidance. Hence, the role of Islamic scholarship is to responsibly advance knowledge and steer clear of deviance and innovation.
It is with this backdrop that I bring up Dr. Jonathan Brown’s article, “The Fate of Non-Muslims: Perspectives on Salvation Outside of Islam” published by the Yaqeen Institute. Yaqeen is to be commended on its mission to further Islamic thought. Similarly, Brown is to be commended for his past defense of traditional Islam in the face of significant criticisms. Unfortunately, he completely abandons that same tradition in this article, with Yaqeen providing the platform for sharing ideas that are more orientalist in approach than Islamic. After an introduction, Brown poses the question his article attempts to answer: “But what about non-Muslims who are informed reliably and accurately about Islam’s teachings and yet do not convert? What is their fate in the Afterlife?” Dr. Brown attempts to answer his question with three approaches. However, the three are not equal by any means. The first opinion is “the position of almost all Muslim scholars across the board for fourteen hundred years, and it is the position of all traditional schools of Islamic theology without exception” and “If one follows the scholarly tradition of Islam, transmitted and elaborated from the time of the Prophet ﷺ until today, then it is clear which of the above three positions is correct: Islam is the only valid religion in the eyes of God.” The last statement is particularly significant as it is the very definition of normative Sunni Islam and in which, the path to guidance is found. The next two opinions – both revisionist and deviant – are wholly inadmissible from the standpoint of Islamic tradition, and Dr. Brown seems to suggest as much. However, he then meanders through a short discussion on Allah’s mercy and suggests a deviant creedal opinion.
This opinion suggests salvation for the reached, unrepentant disbeliever. The evidence from the primary texts and scholarly consensus is completely overwhelming and resolute to the contrary. As Mobeen Vaid correctly points out, “To suggest a possibility of forgiveness that then militates against this creedal foundation upon which the very religion of Islam is built is not merely heterodox, but unfounded, unacceptable, and worthy of outright rejection.” In the face of this level of evidence, the opinions of Fazlur Rahman, Farid Esack, Rashid Rida, and anyone else who posits a new creedal idea are rejected outright as deviances from the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamā`ah.
The article’s logical inconsistencies are numerous, and its undermining of explicit text and Sunni creed is unacceptable, but those are secondary points to what I would like to highlight. Brown forwards a creedal stance against the explicitly stated creed of Sunni Islam and uses Yaqeen’s platform as a means of conveying that opinion to the public.
This brings me to the important questions: What is it that we expect from our Islamic scholars, speakers, and institutes in terms of Islamic guidance? In a post-modern world where everyone’s opinion – scholarly or unscholarly, deviant or orthodox – is seen as equal, is it responsible for Yaqeen Institute to advance non-normative, deviant opinions? Do we, as lay Muslims, even want this unfiltered exposure from sources we are supposed to trust? My concern is not solely directed at Yaqeen and Brown. Rather, it is a larger trend. From some traditional scholars’ vocal, unwithdrawn support of a pluralist leaning Study Quran to modernists’ explaining away the consensus on hijab and `awrah, do we expect their aberrations to be projected to the people as being on-par with time-tested tradition? Deviant opinions preluded with disclaimers such as: “The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in these papers and articles are strictly those of the authors”, are simply not good enough when approaching the Muslim public. One wonders if such a disclaimer will absolve them before Allah on the Day of Judgment as they hope to be absolved in this world.
When we undermine the basis of our theology and usūlī principles, the deen upon which it sits becomes shaky. Playing Jenga with your religion can only have one outcome. Far from leading to peace of mind, this type of ‘academic’ dissemination leads to further doubt. The Western academic approach to a field of study encourages exploring the possibility of novel beliefs and practices. For orientalist studies, Islam is a foreign subject matter to dissect and reconstitute with newfangled positions. However, this is contradictory to traditional Islamic scholarship whose very basis is transmission from Allah to His Messenger ﷺ to his Companions and so on. For Muslims, Islamic studies is sacred divine guidance, in which deviances and innovations have particularly real consequences here and in the hereafter. Traditional scholarship’s focus is centered on Allah’s pleasure alone, which cannot be divorced from the tradition handed down to us from prior generations. In this way, ulama have inherited the prophetic responsibility of guidance and build on this legacy. When speaking or writing to the public, opinions not in accordance with or accepted by the tradition are cast aside or clearly refuted. Muddying Islamic creed with notions borrowed from Liberal Modernist thought like, “… is believing in Islam so important that you’re willing to declare that non-Muslims have no hope for peace in the Afterlife?” is dangerous. Islamic creed states unequivocally that Allah has declared there is no hope for the one dying on disbelief provided they encountered belief. He has set down His rule in His dominion. We, Muslims, only listen and obey. Anything less than that invariably leads to flawed conclusions/questions like: why follow the primary texts at all when your approach easily discounts them with a “rational”, or rather emotional, sleight of hand? For example, the question presented at the start of Dr. Brown’s article presents an emotional judgement as being on par with religious certainty: “So the question is there, and the pain is real: my heart longs for those I love, those I know to be good, to be guaranteed supreme peace in eternity. But is that what my religion says will happen? How do we reconcile our feeling that it’s wrong for good people not to attain salvation after death simply because they follow the wrong religion with the claim of many religions that only their followers will attain salvation?” The flaws in logic and reasoning in this question are obvious. Given the authority and platform from which such pronouncements are being issued, an astute reader will walk away with only doubts rather than the pristine certainty that is Islamic creed.
Herein, lies the irony. When Muslim speakers and writers resort to proof gymnastics to arrive at creeds directly contradicting explicit texts and the al-sawād al-a`zam in an attempt to assuage moral guilt or arrive at rulings to appease public whims, they serve to undermine what it means to be responsible (mukallaf) and submitted (muslim) before Allah. In other words, when your goal is appeasement rather than submission, you’ve contradicted what it means to be Muslim. This is no hyperbole as the Qur’an states, “By your Lord, they do not truly believe until they make you (i.e. the Prophet ﷺ) the judge in which they dispute. Afterwards, they find no dislike in themselves over your decree, and they submit completely.”
If scholars and institutions claim to stand as representatives of Islam, they have a responsibility to remove and correct writings and other media promoting deviant ideas. They have a responsibility to continue the path of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamā`ah. Scholars who advocated for or are associated with deviance in creed and innovation in jurisprudence have a responsibility to publicly withdraw their support or offer the appropriate criticism. The Muslim public has this right upon them, and we should demand no less.
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that the Companions, who are our examples in dīn, were an entire generation of converts. Among them we find the likes of Abu Dharr al-Ghifārī and Salmān al-Fārisī. Upon just hearing that a man claimed prophethood, they went to great lengths to confirm the news. Some of the Ansār attempted to force their children and servants, who had converted to Judaism and Christianity, into belief saying, “Shall I just watch while a part of me enters the Fire?” Had there been another path to salvation, they would not have done this. The Prophet ﷺ, himself, left us an example of belief’s paramount importance when a man approached him and asked about his father, who died before the Prophet’s ﷺ mission. The Prophet ﷺ replied, “He is in the Fire.” Sensing his companion’s sadness, the Prophet ﷺ followed this up by saying, “Indeed, my father and your father are in the Fire.” The Prophet ﷺ, out of his beautiful nature consoled him without compromising the creed. If anyone would have been able to benefit his or her parents from disbelief, it would have been him ﷺ. Being a Mercy to the Worlds, he must have wanted to console his Companion with good news for his parents. However, belief in Allah and what He sent is greater than even that. It may not remove our sadness and guilt entirely, but it is reality. And, the latter is the point of religion. Not the former.
 The Prophet ﷺ is quoted in Sunan Abū Dāwūd and others as saying, “Indeed the `ulamā’ are the inheritors of the Prophets. Verily, the Prophets do not leave behind any dinar or dirham. They leave behind sacred knowledge. Whoever takes it, takes a large portion.”
 Ibn Mājah in his Sunan and others have attributed the Prophet ﷺ as saying, “Indeed, my ummah will never gather on misguidance. If you see differences, then hold to the largest majority (al-sawād al-a`zam).” The hadith comes through multiple chains with weaknesses. However, the meaning is sound, other hadiths substantiate it, and it is accepted by the `ulamā’.
 Quoted by Shaykh `Abd al-Ghanī al-Ghunaymī in his explanation of the al-`Aqīdah al-Taúāwiyyah pg. 44.
 The Prophet said, “My ummah will never gather on a misguidance.” Narrated by Imam Aúmad, al-Tabarānī, and others.
 Qur’an 4:65
 موسوعة التفسير المأثور
Before Islam, many of the Madinan children of Muslims had become Jewish or Christian. Many had already joined with their co-religion’s tribes or groups. With the coming of Islam’s light and the presence of the Prophet ﷺ, the Ansār accepted Islam, became his Companions, and were transformed. They saw in Islam worldly guidance and the only path to eternal salvation. They went to their previously converted children with the hope of giving them the gift of Islam. Instead, many of them found that their children had no desire to return with them. They argued with their children. They complained to the Prophet ﷺ and even requested permission to coerce them into Islam saying with a broken heart, “Shall I just watch while a part of me enters the Fire?” Still others had slaves who they thought to coerce into Islam. When one has ownership over another’s body, it is not a far leap to think one has ownership over their heart. Ayah 2:256 was revealed, in part, to prevent the forced conversion of their children and slaves.
 Sahīh li Muslim 203. The Prophet’s ﷺ parent’s situation in the Hereafter and the situation of the people of fatrah is a matter of longer discussion. This article is not the place for it. The narration is mentioned here to show an example of prophetic beauty of character without compromising on creed.