Q&A: Michigan State Scholar Examines Muslim View of Salvation

While Muslims and non-Muslims alike may believe that Islam teaches that anyone who is not of that faith will be condemned to Hell, Mohammad Hassan Khalil says in his book Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question (Oxford University Press, 2012) that his reading of four leading thinkers in Islam argues for a more inclusive view of who will share in the ultimate salvation. He concludes that these prominent Islamic scholars believed, with varying nuances, that God’s mercy would trump other considerations and allow for most of humanity to be saved. This is significant because some Muslims have used the presumed damnation of others to justify acts of terrorism.

Khalil is an assistant professor of religious studies at Michigan State University.

Following are excerpts of Khalil’s interview with Diverse:

DI: Why do you think you personally were drawn to this subject?

MHK: Being raised as a Muslim in a largely non-Muslim society, the question of non-Muslim salvation is going to be in my mind, and it is going to be an issue when you have fellow Muslims saying that only Muslims can be saved. You look around, and you might have non-Muslim friends, Christian friends, Jewish friends and atheist friends — and trying to grapple with this can lead to many sleepless nights.

DI: I was particularly intrigued by your discussion that Islam says about the fate of non-Muslim s is important because “how one views the other affects how one interacts with the other.” Could you elaborate on that?

MHK: When you view the other as “the damned,” it will certainly affect how you interact with that individual. Now, the effect could be positive or negative. In my own life, when I viewed non-Muslims as being damned, I had both extremes. On the one hand, I might be very courteous, but on the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t value them as much. When I adopted a more inclusive view, I found that the line between them and me was very thin, if there at all. I think that when you can consider others as equal to yourself, it allows you to appreciate them more, to have genuine care for them and to have better interactions.

DI: Do you find that students are interested in these subjects?

MHK: Absolutely, be they Muslims or non-Muslims. When I was at the University of Illinois, I established a course called “Salvation in Islam.” We filled the class. The class was probably evenly split between Muslims and non-Muslims, and judging from the class evaluations, they clearly enjoyed the course. The topics are fascinating whether you are Muslim or not. If you are a Christian, you might be dealing with similar issues. If you are an atheist, how Muslims view you might be interesting to you. There is something for everybody in that kind of topic.

DI: Is part of the attraction to this topic the fact that we really can’t ever know until the end comes or until whatever you believe is going to happen takes place?

MHK: That is part of the attraction — the mystery of it all. You’ll see in my book that I don’t really provide any answers. All we really have is ambiguity. The idea of ambiguity is very prominent in Islamic thought. It is very rare that you will hear a Muslim say, “I am going to Heaven” because there is an uncertainty about it all.

There is this assumption that God will do as he pleases. But even for Muslims, there is this assumption that God is merciful. I suppose that what I am trying to say in this book is that that’s a general ambiguity that applies not just to Muslims, but to people in general.

DI: Are you seeing more or less religious tolerance on campuses?

MHK: We have been on a roller coaster ride. Prior to 9/11, the situation was fairly good (for Muslims). Immediately after 9/11, we saw two extremes: one that was extremely welcoming, extremely tolerant, and on the other hand you had hate crimes. The few years after 9/11, things were a bit more tense. The atmosphere has improved significantly. Now, you have many more Muslims involved in interfaith work. It’s only now, after 9/11, that you have Muslims in Congress (Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and. André Carson, D-Ind.), and one day, maybe there will even be an Arab-American in Congress. The fact that Barack Hussein Obama could be president — of course, he is not Muslim but [has] an obviously-Muslim middle name and Muslim grandparents — was for many Muslims a positive development. Of course, all the rhetoric about him being a Muslim was discouraging, because if you were a Muslim, you can just forget about running for president. On the other hand, you had people defending Muslims, people like Colin Powell who basically asked the question, “So what if he was Muslim?”

DI: Is Islamic studies a growing field?

MHK: Islamic studies have certainly grown tremendously in the past decade. The evidence of it is to look at the number of jobs that are being offered in Islamic studies. It has grown significantly since 2001. I went to dental school before pursuing this field. I was told I should avoid Islamic studies. Fortunately, when I made the switch, that’s when you had more and more jobs being created at universities throughout the country.