From my reading of the Quran, the answer is an obvious “No!” – but this requires some explanation along with some beautiful insights that may have the power to positively transform the way we interact with each other, and with the Quran, insha’Allah.
The Quran is unequivocal about one thing: true believers (mu’minun) earn and deserve their place in Heaven and ‘Kafirs’ earn and deserve their place in Hell. I couldn’t agree more with this concept. All virtuous qualities, all noble values are assigned to the Quran’s description of the ‘believer’ and all vices and human faults that cause harm are assigned to the Quran’s description of the ‘disbeliever’ or ‘kafir’. Which begs the question…
What Is A ‘Kafir’?
There are two ways to explain the word ‘kafir’. The way the Quran actually uses the term, and the way Muslims commonly use it. Linguistically and spiritually, there is immense beauty in the way the Quran uses the term ‘kafir’. A ‘kafir’ is literally ‘one who covers or hides’. It is the active participle of the word ‘ka-fa-ra’ and refers to a farmer who’s job it is to cover up and protect his crop from the elements. So, the spiritual meaning of the ‘kafir’ is the one who covers up and hides the truth. My preferred translation: ‘the one who is in denial’.
This is the ultimate sin of the heart – having the truth in front of you, and even acknowledging that it is the truth, but denying it and hiding it because you might lose something – wealth, status or power – if you accept it. This was the main reason that during his time, some people did not follow Muhammad, peace & blessings be upon him.
Unfortunately, the way Muslims have come to use the term ‘kafir’ is very different from the way the Quran uses it. Muslims, originally for legal purposes, and now out of habit and social conditioning, have come to use the word ‘kafir’ to refer to anyone who is not Muslim. This is the beginning of a multitude of social problems Muslims face in the West.
Who Is A True Kafir?
The key distinction we need to draw for the Quranic concept of ‘kufr’ to have any relevance in real life is: we don’t know who is which. And we won’t know, until the Day of Judgement, at which point we won’t be concerned with anyone but ourselves.
It is a fatal error for Muslims, especially those in the West, to assume that:
a) All Muslims are ‘believers’ as the Quran describes them
b) All those who are not Muslim are ‘kafirs’ as the Quran describes them.
Unfortunately, the majority of Muslims – students and teachers – particularly in the Muslim world, make this generalisation all the time, as though it’s a fact, and as though if you challenge this misconception there would be a fault with your own faith.
This idea is completely wrong, and actually quite dangerous when taken to its logical conclusion. I can’t imagine how closed minded I would have to be, and how much hate I would need to harbour in my heart, in order to believe that my next door neighbours and dear beloved friends who are not Muslims, are actually “kafirs”, in the Quranic sense of the word. That 2 dimensional world view has lead to some disastrous consequences – including terrorism. No terrorist could kill innocent non-Muslims without first making the huge leap to equating “non-Muslim” to “kafir”.
If all Muslims were ‘true believers’ as the Quran describes them, we would never miss a prayer, we would all understand and purify ourselves through the Quran on a daily basis, we would never cheat in business, avoid taxes, touch intoxicants, fornicate, or commit adultery and we would all give to charity, help the needy, bring up orphans, and… you get the point. This is obviously not a reflection of reality.
If all non-Muslims were ‘kafirs’, then upon reading the Quran we would have to conclude that they are ignorant, arrogant, evil people who seek the destruction of Earth for no reason other than selfish greed. This is an equally inaccurate view of reality, if we take a look at the ‘non-Muslims’ all around us.
Many Muslims would agree that it’s true that not all Muslims are ‘believers’ as many Muslims profess faith, but their faith is weak or they don’t believe at all, which places them under the 3rd category that the Quran is explicit about: hypocrites.
However, there is a 4th category that we’re missing out on here. It’s a category that the Quran alludes to but remains silent about. It’s a category that the majority of people on the planet fall under. Think about this for a minute:
Obviously, those that are not Muslim, but embody the noble qualities the Quran commends. What does the Quran say about these people (that might make up a few billion of our sisters and brothers in humanity today)? Nothing. At the most the Quran alludes to their existence, but doesn’t actually say anything about them – there’s especially no mention of whether or not they go to Heaven or Hell.
That’s a great question. My theory is that the Quran doesn’t talk about this category specifically because, in reality no-one falls under this 4th category. We ALL fall under ALL of the first 3 categories – Muslim or not. Let me explain…
Being born into a Muslim family isn’t enough to make you a ‘true’ believer as the Quran talks about believers. If it did, we wouldn’t need to fast or pray or do good, we would have a free ride to Paradise. That would be great for me – not so great for my friend Jonny Raynor who grew up down the street from me. Unfortunately virtually every page of the Quran emphasises that this is not the case. You simply cannot read the Quran and come away with the idea that because you were born into a certain family, you are saved. To the contrary, by talking about Heaven and Hell, the Quran emphasises that you must take full responsibility for every decision you make. Your choices must be conscious, as there will be consequences both material and spiritual, in this life and the Next – regardless of your colour, caste, tribe, family, etc.
Similarly, being born into a non-Muslim family just isn’t enough to make you ‘kafir’. You don’t get a free ride to Hell just because you were placed in the wrong club from birth. It doesn’t work that way – at least not from the Quran’s point of view. To get to Hell you need to do some seriously messed up, evil things and feel no remorse about them. Or let them happen in front of you and be silent, allowing your soul to decay a little each day on the inside (remember Nazi Germany?).
As for the ‘hypocrites’, well, in a way, we’re all hypocrites. We all have social masks we use to hide our true selves from other people. We all crave to have the people around us think of us as ‘good’ – we all want people to ‘like’ us. As a result, we sometimes make how other people see us a far more important part of our lives than how Allah sees us.
In reality, every one of us, Muslim or not, has all 3 archetypes living inside of us right now. As we read the Quran we’re brought face to face with the best and worst parts of ourselves. By making us face all parts of ourselves, the Quran purfies our inner ‘kufr’ and increases our spiritual strength & resolve.
Do Non-Muslims Go To Heaven?
This is a dumb question. You might as well ask: “does a human being go to Heaven?” Like I mentioned earlier, we all fit into one or more of the 3 categories laid out at the beginning of the Quran: true believer, kafir (rejector; one in denial of truth), or hypocrite. So a non-Muslim, just like a Muslim will be judged by the only One who can judge – the One who can see right through us. The One who happens to be the All-Loving, All-Knowing, All-Wise.
That being said, is it possible for someone who is not Muslim to fall under the Quranic description of the ‘believer’? From experience, I can safely say ‘yes!’. I know plenty of people who pray, meditate, fast, are extremely ethical and conscious of what they feed their bodies with, are constantly seeking answers to the big questions in life and yet are not Muslim because they were not born into Muslim families. Many of these people do not follow any religion, and some of them are atheists, sincerely seeking meaning in life. It seems obvious to me that if that person knew what I know of the Quran, they would believe in it whole-heartedly. If they were brought up how I was, and taught the Quran the way I was, of course they would believe in it as I do!
Ultimately, I can’t see into their hearts – only Allah can. I don’t know if I or they are true believers. Only Allah does.
We simply do not know who goes to Heaven or Hell. This knowledge is reserved for Allah alone.
So, whether you call yourself a Muslim or not, and whether you act in front of others as a Muslim or not, the Quran is drawing our attention to something much deeper, much more spiritual, and truly universal that goes on inside every one of us:
The ongoing battle between light and darkness within ourselves. The fight between the truth of who we really are, and the false images and masks we put on so people will like us. The struggle to do what is best for ourselves and humanity in the long term, versus the easy path of seeking our short-term selfish interests and immediate pleasures. This is the true battle between Islam and Kufr and it rages on inside each of us – Muslim or not.