Note: This post is an excerpt from the full Reviewing Yaqeen Institute report.
One of the most egregious papers published by Yaqeen Institute is titled: “The Fate of Non-Muslims: Perspectives on Salvation Outside of Islam,” written by Jonathan Brown.
The essay prompted two rebuttals that came shortly after it was published in 2018. Mobeen Vaid and Sh Dr. Mateen Khan strongly denounce Brown and Yaqeen for promoting clear deviancy. Sh Mateen sums it up thus:
“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.”
What is so problematic about Brown’s essay? A great deal. The entire paper reads like a tormented soul grappling with the question of whether non-Muslims will be saved in the Hereafter. Brown grasps for anything that might open a door for non-Muslims, anything that could be taken as an alternative to the unanimous consensus position in Islam. What is this consensus? That, all else being equal, believing in Islam and being Muslim is required for salvation and, that Allah does not forgive shirk and those who die upon shirk will not be forgiven by Him. This is explicit in the Quran:
“Indeed, Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills. And he who associates others with Allah has certainly fabricated a tremendous sin.” [Quran 4:48, also see 4:116.]
But apparently this is not enough for Brown. His desperation takes him to aberrant views from modernist reformists like Farid Esask, Fazlur Rahman, and Rashid Rida. But those readers not aware of the heterodox inclinations of these academics wouldn’t get that impression from Brown. Brown presents them as firmly within the Islamic tradition when he says:
“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? As far as I understand, three answers have been offered in the Islamic tradition. Please note: at this point I’m not advocating any one of them. I am merely presenting them and trying to lay out arguments for and against them. […]
1. Islam is the Only Path
This school of thought is exclusive. It holds that only by embracing the message of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, only by adopting the religion we know of as Islam, can one attain salvation in the Hereafter. […]
2. Belief in God and Doing Good Deeds
One might call this the moral theism school of thought. It holds that anyone who believes in God and does good deeds can attain salvation. […]
3. All True Paths Lead to the One
An even broader approach to the questions of salvation and truth is sometimes known as the Perennialist school.”
Brown frames these three positions as being “in the Islamic tradition,” which by itself is an egregious distortion. He presents two deviant views from self-described reformists as being on par with the singular correct Islamic position and even says that he isn’t advocating any particular one. This is a microcosm of Yaqeen’s “muddying the water” approach. The clear cut consensus Islamic position goes against liberal Western sensibilities, so that position is mitigated by inclusion of everything but the kitchen sink. The confused reader can then pick and choose from the alternatives, whatever makes him feel most comfortable. This is Yaqeen’s “compassionate orthodoxy.”
To make his deviance on this issue absolutely clear, Brown writes:
“The question of whether or not there lies salvation outside of Islam—or of any exclusive religion—is too daunting for any particular conclusions to be drawn (at least by me).”
Now, it should be pointed out that Brown does say at the end of his essay the following: “Islam is the only valid religion in the eyes of God.” This is Islamically sound, right?
But remember that this is not a paper about whether religions other than Islam are valid. The paper is about whether kuffar and mushrikin can attain salvation after rejecting Islam, and Brown is, at best, ambivalent about this and presents numerous arguments that contradict the Quran and Islamic orthodoxy.
He underscores this ambivalence towards punishment of kuffar in the Hereafter with this:
“Here one massive question looms: does one believe that accepting the specific religious message of Muhammad ﷺ, as it has been preserved and transmitted down to our times, is so important that rejecting it means suffering eternally in Hellfire, whether that punishment is physical or a spiritual alienation from God? Put more simply, is believing in Islam so important that you’re willing to declare that non-Muslims have no hope for peace in the Afterlife?”
The sheer irreverence of the question leaves one speechless. Is believing in Islam so important? YES. That is the whole point of revelation, messengers, the struggle of billions of believers throughout the eons of history. Indeed, it is the whole purpose of our existence as creations of Allah. Yet Brown questions the importance of belief and spends the whole essay reflecting on the value of polytheists who are nonetheless “good people.”
He also says “you’re willing to declare” as if this is something we as individuals “declare” from our personal opinions, as opposed to what Allah and His Messenger have asserted.
There are numerous other significant errors in the essay. For example, this passage:
“When it comes to [the salvation of] specific individuals the tradition of Muslim scholars has been to withhold judgment. We can pass judgment on the correctness or falsity of religions, but we do not know the fate of the individual people who follow those religions. Because of the enormity of God’s mercy, and because the scope of His cosmic justice so far exceeds our ken, the result is that we cannot know who will enter Heaven and who will not.”
Brown is either confused or he is purposely distorting the Islamic position. Yes, it is correct that we don’t pass judgment on individuals, even kuffar, and say definitively that so-and-so person is in the Fire. But this withholding of judgment is not because there is a possibility that God’s mercy and His cosmic justice, as Brown puts it, will result in forgiveness for that person’s kufr and/or shirk. We may withhold judgment because we do not know if the person secretly was a believer despite appearances. So, Brown twists this Islamic position to serve his own argument.
The original essay had even more flagrant distortions and deviancy. Originally, Brown wrote:
“As far as I know this is only my opinion, but it thus seems entirely possible that a non-Muslim who believed in God and did enormous good deeds, even one who had committed shirk (the grievous sin of associating partners with God), might face only temporary punishment for their error before attaining salvation in the Garden.”
He adds to this with:
“To be clear, what follows here is just my idea: it thus also seems possible that God could forgive the sin of shirk for a reason other than repentance, perhaps as an expression of His immeasurable mercy.”
This is clear cut deviancy and contradicts the Quran and the unanimously established creed of Sunni Islam. Confirming this, Sh Mateen writes: “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.”
Ust Mobeen underlines this:
“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.”
Sh Mateen then goes on to denounce Yaqeen for agreeing to publish such an essay, thereby exposing their audience to deviance presented as sound Islam:
“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? […] 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. […] 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.”
About a month after publication, Yaqeen decided to quietly remove the two above-mentioned sentences about Allah forgiving mushrikin. It is customary for academic publications to include editors’ notes about any corrections and changes to a text that occur after the text is published. This is to alert people who read earlier versions that there were mistakes. But, as with other examples discussed in the report, Yaqeen includes no such notes, as if the offending sentences never existed. But they did exist and many people read those sentences, and those who didn’t know better came away with a distorted understanding of Islamic creed.
Brown tries to explain why a proper correction wasn’t made in a podcast interview. He claims that noting the correction will only cause more confusion since more people will be exposed to the deviant belief. But this makes no sense. If Yaqeen is trying to teach a correct understanding of salvation, then should clearly specify both what is correct and what is deviance as deviance. If Yaqeen could make it crystal clear:
“In a previous version of this paper, we advanced the view that mushrikin and kuffar who rejected Islam could still attain salvation. We retract this view because it is completely false and deviant and goes against the sound aqida of all Sunni scholars.”
Why can’t Yaqeen make such a correction?
Doesn’t Yaqeen have a responsibility to not only own up to its mistakes but also take steps to rectify the damage? More significantly, how could such a deeply flawed, heterodox piece be published in the first place on a platform that claims to have over a dozen scholarly advisors, editors, and directors, led by an imam as its president?