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Last Updated: 2014/05/18
Summary of question
Given the fact that the religion of Islam is the only right religion, why does the Quran speak of the possibility of the followers of other religions being saved from the Fire?
What is the interpretation of verse 69 of Surah al-Maedah? Can we deduce with the help of this verse that Christians will also go to Paradise? Isn\'t such an interpretation opposed to the rightfulness of Islam?
Concise answer
It has been stated clearly in Islamic doctrines and in the most sacred book of Islam, i.e. the Qur'an that those non-Muslims who stay on their pure God-gifted nature and do good deeds while Islam is not made known to them, they remain protected against the Fire.  Reference has been made to this fact in different parts of the Qur'an.  Obviously, that does not at all mean that Islam is not the right religion; rather, according to the Qur'an, the scope of salvation and happiness is broader than rightfulness. That is to say, those who did not see the Holy Prophet of Islam (S) (or better say they did not understand Islam and its truth), but at the same time, their deeds were in accordance with their pure nature (fitrah), they believed in God, stayed away from evils and obscene actions which God forbade such as lying, adultery etc; believed in the Hereafter and they kept thinking about heavenly duties and responsibilities, performed righteous deeds, they are, according to the Quran, people who are not afraid of being held responsible in the Afterworld.
Detailed Answer
Before discussing the verse in question and issues surrounding it in detail, it is necessary to provide an introduction to the subject.  All the religions have set a goal for themselves. In other words, every religion pursues a goal. Generally, the beliefs and religious deeds are aimed at materializing that defined goal. One of the most important goals of religions is to guarantee happiness and salvation of human beings in this world and in the hereafter. Therefore, every religion promises to save its followers and guarantees protection for one who follows it in the real sense. As of this point, all the religions have something in common since they all promise to save their followers.
In the next step, the question is that, does every religion believe in some sort of salvation for the followers of other religions?  Are the followers of other religions, who are morally good, fair, just and even God-fearing, deprived of protection simply because the rightfulness of the right religion is not proved to them?
At first, it is necessary to note that we must differentiate between rightfulness and salvation. Naturally, all divine religions maintain that they are true and they are following the right path but there are some religions that believe the scope of salvation is wide and more expansive extending also to the followers of some other religions.
Christians predominantly believed that salvation is achieved only through belief in Christianity and in Jesus Christ; otherwise there is no way to salvation possible. For many centuries, they continued to believe as such until the modern century after the Second Vatican Council[1] when they started gradually inclining to the idea that non-Christians also attain salvation, albeit because they are bestowed with Jesus Christ's grace.[2]
However, the story is quite different in Islam. Contrary to Christianity and church authorities who, after sixteen centuries, accepted  that non-Christians too may attain salvation, Islam admitted in its most sacred text in the very first time in which it was revealed that if human beings remain on their pure human nature, do righteous deeds and Islam is not revealed to them as the right religion, they will be protected against the fire of Hell due to their inculpable ignorance. This has not been stated or implied in one verse of the Quran. In fact, explicit reference has been made to this fact in many a number of verses telling humanity that although Islam is the right religion, people other than Muslims who have failed to recognize Islam will also attain salvation. Thus, they will not be punished, if they are not guilty of accepting the right religion.
In this respect, there are a few points to note:
1. The fact that Islam speaks of the possibility of the followers of other religions attaining salvation does not imply that Islam is not the right religion. There is not doubt that Islam is the right religion but based on reason and verses of the Quran, the scope of salvation goes beyond truthfulness.
2. This belief does not run counter to some verses of the Quran which say that only Islam will be accepted from a human being[3]; because these verses are about those people who lived in the time of the Prophet, saw him and realized that Islam was the true religion. In this case, no religion is accepted from them except Islam. As for those who could not really get familiar with true Islam due to their own special circumstances or because of Muslims not doing enough to disseminate the teachings of Islam, yet they believed by dint of nature in God and the Day of Judgment and performed good deeds, naturally such people would not be entitled to punishment or else it would be against divine justice.[4]
One of the verses which make clear reference to this fact is the following:
«إِنَّ الَّذينَ آمَنُوا وَ الَّذينَ هادُوا وَ النَّصارى‏ وَ الصَّابِئينَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَ الْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَ عَمِلَ صالِحاً فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَ لا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَ لا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ»[5]
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. This verse has been repeated in Surah al-Maedah with little variation.[6]
Interpretation of the Verse:
A) "Those who believe" refer to those who vocally and apparently express their faith in Divine Unity. These are the very hypocrites who are not real Muslims.[7] And "those who are Jews, and the Christians" refers to Jews and Christians.[8] When it comes to who the Sabians are, there are different beliefs, some saying they are the worshippers of stars[9] but based on the context of the verse which makes reference to the People of the Book and considers salvation to be for them, it is unlikely of them to be the worshippers of stars.[10] In fact, there is another saying advocated by many scholars and exegetes and it seems more likely that Sabians believed in a religion which is the middle way between Judaism and Christianity and they have a book which they ascribed to Prophet Yahya bin Zakariya.[11] As well, there are other views in this regard.[12]
It can be, therefore, said in the interpretation of this verse: Men who did not see the Prophet and did not live in the time of the Holy Prophet (S) (or better say they did not understand Islam and its truth), but at the same time, their deeds were in accordance with their pure nature, they believed in God, stayed away from evils and obscene actions which God forbade such as lying, adultery etc; they believed in the Hereafter and did what they thought to be their heavenly duties and responsibilities. As well, they perform righteous deeds. The Quranic verse says that they are people who are not afraid of being held responsible in the Afterworld.[13]
B) There is another interpretation for this verse; God, the Exalted, seeks to say in this verse that the naming and names such as believers, Jews, Christians, Sabians etc. have no value in the eye of Allah. They neither make you entitled to reward nor do they save you from punishment. An ostentatious belief especially without good deeds is worthless irrespective of whether it is from Muslims or from Jews and Christians or followers of other religions. Only pure and sincere belief in God and the Day of Judgment accompanied by good deeds will be rewarded by Allah, the Exalted. Only this program results in peace and tranquility and earns reward.[14]
Based on the second interpretation, "those who believe" does not refer to hypocrites; rather it refers to Muslims in a general sense including all those who vowed allegiance to Islam.[15]

[1] The Catholic Church Council was set up with the aim of addressing disseminational and devotional needs of churches in the twentieth century. This council introduced substantial changes to Catholic activities as well as to their theological nations and tendencies; Veyor Mary Joy, Introduction of Christianity, translated by Qanbari, Hasan, 488, University of Religions and Denominations, Qom, 1381 (Persian calendar).
[2] Yusufiyan, Hasan, Modern Theology, p. 282, Preparation of Islamic Academic Books of Universities (Samt), Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, third edition, 1390 (Persian calendar).
[3]  The Quran says:
«وَ مَنْ يَبْتَغِ غَيْرَ الْإِسْلامِ ديناً فَلَنْ يُقْبَلَ مِنْهُ وَ هُوَ فِي الْآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخاسِرينَ»
And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.
[4] For further information, vide: Divine Justice and Unfamiliarity of Human Beings with Shi'ism
[5] Al-Baqarah: 62
[6] Al-Maedah, 69:
«إِنَّ الَّذينَ آمَنُوا وَ الَّذينَ هادُوا وَ الصَّابِئُونَ وَ النَّصارى‏ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَ الْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَ عَمِلَ صالِحاً فَلا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَ لا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ».
Surely those who believe and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians whoever believes in Allah and the last day and does good-- they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve.
[7] Tabarsi, Fazl bin Hasan, Tafsir Jawami' al-Jami', vol.1, p. 50, Tehran University Press, Management Office of the Islamic Seminary of Qom, first edition, 1377 (Persian Calendar); Shubbar, Sayyid Abdullah, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Karim, p. 49, Dar al-Balaghah for Printing and Publication, Beirut, first edition, 1412 A.H.: Zamakhshari, Mahmood, al-Kashaf 'An Haqaeq Ghawamedh al-Tanzil, vol.1, p. 146, Dar al-Kitab al-'Arabi, Beirut, third edition, 1407. A.H.
[8] Sharif Lahiji, Muhammadbin Ali, Tafsir (Commentary) of Lahiji, Husseini Armawi (Muhaddith), Mir Jalaluddin, vol.1, . 60, Daad Publication's, Tehran, first edition, 1373 (Persian calendar); Husseini Shirazi, Sayyid Muhammad, Taqrib al-Qur'an elaa al-Azhan, vol.1, p. 138, Dar al-'Ulum, Beirut, first edition, 1424 A.H.
[9] Qummi, Ali bin Ibrahim, Tafsir al-Qummi, researched and corrected, by Musavi Jazaeri, Sayyid Tayyib,vol.1, p. 48, Dar al-Kitab, Qom, third edition, 1404 A.H.
[10] Fazlullah, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein, Tafsir min Wahy al-Qur'an, vol.2, p. 71, Dar al-Malak for Printing and Publication, Beirut, second edition, 1419 A.H.
[11] Tabatabai, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein, al-Mizan fir Tafsr al-Qur'an, vol.14, p. 358, Islamic Publications Office, Qom, fifth edition, 1417 A.H.
[12] Makarem Shirazi,Naser, Tafsir Nomumeh, vol.1, p. 288 – 291, Dar al-Kotob al-Islamiyah, Tehran, first edition, 1374 (Persian calendar); Fakhruddin Razi, Muhammad bin Umar, Mafatih al-Ghayb, vol.3, p. 536, Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, third edition, 1420 A.H.
[13] Mughniyah, Muhammad Jawad, Tafsir al-Kashaf, vol.1, p. 118, Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyah, Tehran, first edition, 1424 A.H.
[14] Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur'an, vol.1, p. 193; Tafsir Numuneh, vol.1, p. 283.
[15] Gunabadi, Sulta Muhammad Tafsir Bayan al-Sa'adah fi Maqamat al-'Ibadah, vol.1, p. 100, Al-A'lami Institute for Publication, Beirut, second edition, 1408 A.H.
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