By Yusuf Sulaiman (5th Year Alim Student, DarusSalam Seminary)
In recent times, the concept of eternal punishment has become increasingly difficult for many individuals to comprehend. Some proceed to work around the issue by mitigating Islām’s theological framework or hoping that disbelievers will be forgiven. Thus, it is pertinent to understand what mandates eternal damnation.
This discussion is rooted in a theological debate: are the rational faculties (ar. ʿaql) enough for one to be considered duty-bound (ar. mukallaf)? In other words, if Allāh did not send a prophet to a nation, or if the Prophet Muḥammad’s Message did not reach an individual, is that individual still held responsible to conclude that God exists through the intellect alone?
The Mātūrīdiyyah represent one of Ahl al-Sunnah’s stances on the issue. According to Imām Abū Ḥanīfah, Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī, and others, one who has a sound intellect is duty-bound to recognize God, His oneness, and any other Divine Qualities that are rationally derivable. Thus, one who did not meet a prophet is still responsible to believe in God’s oneness.
The Ashāʿirah, on the other hand, don’t attribute taklīf (being duty-bound) to those who have not received the Message of Islām. Imām Suyūṭī mentioned:
“Our scholars, who are proficient in scholastic theology and legal theory, agree that whoever dies without receiving the Message is saved.”
Some explain this difference of opinion as purely semantic (ar. khilāf lafẓī). However, others, such as Abū ʿAdhabah, maintained that there is an actual difference and the ruling of one who hasn’t received the Message differs between the two schools.
This essay will focus on the opinion of the Ashāʿirah and analyze the statements of various Ashʿarī scholars. They deduce their position from the following two verses:
مَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“We would never punish until We send a messenger.”
ذَٰلِكَ أَن لَّمْ يَكُن رَّبُّكَ مُهْلِكَ الْقُرَىٰ بِظُلْمٍ وَأَهْلُهَا غَافِلُونَ
“That is because your Lord would not destroy the cities for wrongdoing while their people were unaware.”
The verse from Q 17:15 is a universal maxim established by the Qurʾān. That is why, as Imām Bājūrī mentions, khabar wāḥid reports that may indicate the opposite will not undermine the above-mentioned principle. There are multiple verses that allude to the same concept. For the sake of brevity, I have excluded their mention from my paper and included them in the endnotes.
Imām Bājūrī mentioned four conditions for a person being duty-bound (ar. mukallaf) and taken to task on the Day of Judgement. They are:
(3) Receiving the Message.
(4) Intact Senses.
Furthermore, Imām Ghazālī categorized non-Muslims in terms of receiving Prophet Muhammad’s Message into three groups:
(1) Those who never heard of the Prophet.
(2) Those who received the Message but rejected it.
(3) Those who received an altered form of it.
As for the first and last group, according to Imām Ghazālī, they will receive salvation.
The discussion on the condition of the Prophet’s parents in the Hereafter illustrates the central question of taklīf. Imām Suyūṭī asserted that many opined that his parents are nājīn, or in other words, saved from eternal damnation. Since they passed away before the Prophet’s advent, they are spared punishment. He attributes this position back to his teacher’s teacher, Shaykh al-Islām Sharaf al-Dīn al-Munāwī.
Further substantiating the claim, Suyūṭī mentioned that an individual cannot be treated as an enemy until he has been invited to Islām, such that, if the individual is killed, diyah (trans. blood money) and kaffārah (trans. expiation) are mandated. Imām Baghawī and Imām Rāfiʿī also stated this.
Imām Nawawī expressed an argument like Suyūṭī’s under the discussion on the children of polytheists. He stated that the foremost opinion is that they will go to Paradise due to the verse from Sūrat al-Isrāʾ. Nawawī argued that if the pubescent individual who had not received the Message would not be punished, then by a fortiori reasoning, a non-pubescent child would not be.
Additionally, Suyūṭī further discussed those who passed away prior to receiving the Message and those who had handicaps that impaired their ability to understand it. He mentioned that they will be tested on the Day of Judgement. He cited various aḥādīth from various sources, including of Imām Aḥmad’s Musnad, Bayhaqī’s Iʿtiqād, and Bazzār’s Musnad.
The aḥādīth indicate that Allāh will command these individuals to enter the Fire. If they obey, they will find comfort and coolness. This is the imtiḥān (trans. test) that is found in the ḥadīth corpus.
To summarize, the Ashʿarī theologians maintain that those who did not received the Message will not be punished. They are not duty-bound to recognize Allāh through their intellectual faculties. Rather, one will be accountable only when he or she encounters the pristine Message. Lastly, scholars have elucidated an imtiḥān that will take place in the Hereafter for those who did not have a chance to accept the truth in this temporal life.
The theologians of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamāʿah did not hyperbolize any ṣifah [trans. attribute] of God. They did not mandate upon Allāh punishment for sinners since He is “al-ʿAdl” or “the Utterly Just.” Furthermore, they did not view forgiveness for disbelievers necessary for Him because He is “al-Raḥmān” or “the Most-Merciful.” Only the All-Knowing knows the reality of what is in the hearts. Thus, we judge based on the apparent and leave the internal reality to Allāh, understanding that He is both al-ʿAdl and al-Raḥīm.
His judgement reigns supreme with no taint of injustice. As He himself proclaims to his creation:
إِنَّ اللهَ لَا يَظْلِمُ النَّاسَ شَيْئًا وَلَٰكِنَّ النَّاسَ أَنفُسَهُمْ يَظْلِمُونَ
“Indeed, God does not wrong people in anything. But rather, people wrong themselves.”
إِنَّ اللهَ لَا يَظْلِمُ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ
“Indeed, God does not commit an atom’s weight of injustice.”
Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyuṭī, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Abī Bakr. al-Ḥāwī li al-Fatāwī. (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1424/2004).
Abū ʿAdhabah, al-Ḥasan b. ʿAbd al-Muḥsin. al-Rawḍah al-Bahiyyah. (Hyderbad: Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif, 1322)
Ibn Kamāl Pāsha, Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad b. Sulaymān. Masāʾil al-Ikhtilāf Bayn al-Ashāʿirah wa al-Māturīdiyyah. (Jordan: Dār al-Fatḥ, 2009)
Shaykh Zādah, ʿAbd al-Raḥīm b. ʿAlī. Naẓm al-Farāʾid wa Jamʿ al-Fawāʾid. (Egypt: al-Maṭbaʿah al-Adabiyyah, 1317)
Al-Ḥumayrī, ʿIsā b. ʿAbd Allāh. al-Qalāʾid fī Taḥrīr al-Farāʾid. (1430/2009)
 Q, 17:15.
 Q, 6:131.
 Q, 10:44.
 Q, 4:40.