By Haidar Hobbollah
Translation: Shayan Shirazi
Many jurists, exegetes and traditionists, from different Islamic schools, have examined the issue of seeking forgiveness and mercy for non-Muslims. Likewise, they have examined the issue of praying for goodness for them, in this world and the hereafter. The commonly held view among them is that it is permissible to pray for worldly goodness for non-Muslims, like asking God to provide them with wealth and children—although, some have prohibited doing so as it appears from Shaykh Jawād al-Tabrīzī. As for otherworldly goodness and seeking forgiveness, the famous view among Muslims is that it is forbidden if the person for whom forgiveness and mercy is sought is dead. In fact, some generalised this to the living also.
Shaykh Muḥammad Āṣif Muḥsinī held the view that it is permissible to seek forgiveness for non-Muslims, without exception, unless it is known that they are blameworthy (muqaṣṣir) and obstinate to the truth (muʿānid). Some scholars of Ahl al-Sunna—particularly contemporary ones—have made a distinction between seeking mercy for them in the general sense, which they permit, and seeking forgiveness for them, which they do not permit. This is on the basis that mercy may encompass the reduction of punishment, whilst forgiveness relates to the lifting of punishment, absolutely. When Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī prayed for God to have mercy on Pope John Paul II following his death in 2005, it ignited a major debate among the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna, and from Salafī scholars in particular.
The conclusion I have reached—and God alone knows best—is that it is permissible, as a primary legal category (ʿunwān al-awwalī), to pray for non-Muslims as it relates to worldly interests, and some texts even indicate this. Similarly, it is permissible to pray for their guidance, and it is even permissible to pray for forgiveness and mercy for them so long as they are alive, on the condition that the one praying does not intend to pray that they are forgiven even if they obstinately remain on their idolatry until death, in accordance with the view of many jurists.
However, after their death, there are two cases:
The first case: that the non-Muslim is not an idolater, in which case it is permissible to pray for them, without exception.
The second case: that the non-Muslim is an idolater, in which case:
- If they are obstinate to the truth and blameworthy, it is known that God will not forgive them, by virtue of what God, Glory be to Him, has informed us. Thus, it is not permissible to seek their forgiveness or otherworldly mercy. Rather, it is also poor etiquette with God, Glory be to Him, and a kind of transgression in prayer, as some have termed it. This has been discussed in many verses, along with some narrations, such as the story of Abraham (upon him be peace), the story of Noah (upon him be peace), and likewise the divine command to the Prophet (upon him and his family be peace) and the believers on this same issue with regard to the idolaters (al-Tawba, 112-113), and so on.
- However, if they are not obstinate to the truth nor blameworthy, then it is permissible to seek mercy and forgiveness for them, without any difference between the two. One of the consequences of this meaning of seeking forgiveness is that God will forgive their other sins in behaviour and practice.
The Qur’ānic verses are clear in discussing idolaters—not all—on the basis of the law of their deeds coming to nothing through idolatry (ḥabaṭ al-aʿmāl bi l-shirk). Thus, there is no sense in obtaining reward for a righteous deed, because of idolatry. However, there are restrictions within these texts such as it being known that they are inhabitants of the Hellfire or that they are an enemy of God, and other such statements that are contained in the verses, which does not allow for absolute generalisation. This is especially so given our premise that ‘the disbelievers’ who the religious texts have in mind, and those who opposed the prophets, were predominantly those who were obstinate; those who saw the truth and miracles but denied them in the interests and aims of desire and seeking worldly gain.
As for the texts which state that God’s punishment for the disbelievers is to remain in Hell forever, this does not negate the possibility of some of them attaining forgiveness. In exactly the same way as we say that disobedience entails punishment, but this does not negate the possibility of God forgiving it. Rather, the Qur’ān is explicit that God forgives everything—as a possibility—except for idolatry, despite a lack of repentance. So how can we use the Qur’ānic text to draw the conclusion that the ruling here is absolute, as several others have done?!
As for the narrations, they are few in number, the majority of their chains are weak, and some of them do not have relevant signification. By virtue of this, they do not provide any more than the Qur’ānic texts. For example, the narrations about seeking forgiveness for the Prophet’s (s) mother or uncle—based on the claim of those who believe they are disbelievers—or other such texts. The most that this would prove, by combining it with the Qur’ānic verse, is that the mother and uncle of the Prophet (s) were obstinate idolaters. Thus, these narrations do not expand the signification of the Qur’ānic text here—though bear in mind that there is a lot of dispute around the claim that the Prophet’s (s) mother and uncle were disbelievers, which won’t be discussed here. Therefore, only a few negligible texts remain and they do not reach the strength of a solitary report.
As for the consensus (ijmāʿ) of Muslims, it is clearly madrakī (based on known sources). In fact, many explicitly rely on Qur’ānic texts here, and their understanding of the sources isn’t an authoritative proof (ḥujja) upon us if there are supporting evidences (shawāhid) and information for our understanding that led us to build on it and enabled us to dispute them. Rather, the main claims of consensus among Sunnīs perhaps date back to the 5th century AH and beyond.
Moreover, I have examined some aspects of this issue—especially the story of Prophet Abraham—in my book (Qawāʿid fiqh al-ʿallāghah maʿa al-ākhar al-dīnī, pp. 445-544, first edition, 2020), as part of the discussion on the principle of al-walāʾ wa al-barāʾ in Islam, which you can refer to.