All those who follow any religion other than Islam are called Non-Muslims. This term is also used for those who do not follow any religion. It is not a term of derision. It is only an expression of the reality that they do not believe in Islam. They are generally also called kafirs (infidels). However, I have argued in my books that conclusive communication of the truth (itman al-hujjah) is needed to regard someone as kafir, and it is only God who knows and only He can divulge the information that the truth has been conclusively communicated to a person or a group and therefore now they can be called kafirs. Hence after the departure of God’s Messenger (sws), no person or group has the right to regard someone as kafir.
Similar is the case of people who renounce Islam and adopt another religion or who do not follow any religion. What can only be said about them too is that they have become non-Muslims. This is because nothing can be said with full conviction as to how convinced is a person who is a Muslim by birth about the veracity of Islam. This is something which only God can know and only He knows what is in the hearts. We should not dare declare a verdict about something which we do not know. If we have been blessed with knowledge, our duty is to only explain to people the difference between monotheism and polytheism and between Islam and disbelief. We should also keep elucidating to them the precepts of religion. This is because we are not in a position to go beyond this and decide the faith or disbelief found in a person or whether he deservers Paradise or Hell. Only God has this position and authority and such verdicts are only His prerogative.
After that are people who are Muslims, assert themselves to be Muslims in fact insist on this status but adopt a belief which is generally considered to be against the teachings of Islam or interpret a Qur’anic verse or a Hadith in a way which is regarded as erroneous by a scholar(s) or by the rest of the Muslims. For example, the belief of Imam Ghazali (d. 505 AH) and Shah Waliullah (d. 1176 AH) that the culmination of tawhid is wahdat al-wujud or the belief of Muhi al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 638 AH) that the termination of prophethood does not mean that the status and attributes of prophethood have terminated, it only means that a prophet has to be a follower of the shari‘ah of Muhammad (sws) or the view of the Shiites that the ruler of Muslims who is called imam is also appointed by God and that after the Prophet (sws) the Almighty Himself had appointed ‘Ali (rta) as the ruler of the Muslims on this very principle but this appointment was not accepted or the opinion of the celebrated thinker Allamah Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1930) that Paradise and Hell are not places but circumstances that will befall a person.
All these opinons and others similar to them can be regarded as wrong views and beliefs and even branded as erroneous and deviant but since their proponents adduce their arguments from the Qur’an and Sunnah, they cannot be regarded as non-Muslims or kafirs. What is the verdict of God regarding these views and beliefs? We should wait for the Day of Judgement to hear it. In this world, their proponents are Muslims as per their own assertion, should be considerd as Muslims and should be dealt with and treated in a way an individual among Muslims is. It is the right of the scholars to point out their mistake, to invite them to accept what is correct, to regard what they find as constituting polytheism and disbelief in their ideology and also inform people about all this. However, no one has the right to declare them as non-Muslims or to ostracize them from the Muslim community because only God can give this right to someone, and everyone who has knowledge of the Qur’an and Hadith knows that God has not given this right to anyone.
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)