08/29/2012 05:19 EDT | Updated 10/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Should Good People go to Hell?


A faculty member at an elite educational institution in Pakistan mentioned in his recent Express Tribune blog piece that more than 80 per cent of his students replied in the negative on the question of Mother Teresa's entering Heaven. The overwhelming majority of students reasoned that despite saving thousands of lives, she was not a Muslim.

Some things never change. As a young student in 1997, I recall getting perturbed by discussions on the fate of Mother Teresa. The essence of all these discussions was that notwithstanding good deeds, it was the correct belief that decided salvation. Years later, when I allowed myself to accept progressive Muslim voices, I confirmed my intrinsic value that being a good human being trumps religious beliefs and rituals any day.

However, given the uncertainty of life and the mystery beyond death, it was not easy to break free of religious authority. In my mind, as an undergrad student, I was trying to find religious reasons to shield the various people I had come to know from Hell fire.

I tried to square the supposed obligation of wearing the headscarf with the reality of many women who did not wear one. I tried to reconcile the obligation of the five daily prayers with the many young and old Muslims who did not follow through all the ritual prayers.

As a follower of tradition, I could not expect myself to espouse any radically different viewpoint. Yet, apart from poring over traditional texts, I was drawn by Sufi tales of wisdom and moved by both Christian and Hindu hymns. I still remember standing intentionally, shoulder to shoulder, with a lone Ahmadi Muslim colleague to pray in the direction of Mecca. To date, Ahmadi Muslims continue to be persecuted in Pakistan.

Pursuing my grad studies in Alberta allowed me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I recall preaching in my usual manner on the Israeli Palestinian situation that followers of the Abrahamic faiths were brothers. It was then a good friend interjected that we were all brothers, alluding to the presence of our Hindu friend.

The aftermath of September 11 not only brought scrutiny to Muslims but also facilitated several changes in Muslim norms. Some religious scholars opined that the headscarf was not an obligation, whereas others allowed room for female led mixed-congregational prayers. I not only realized that religious opinion was shifting from the dogmatic to the reasonable but also recognized that this would be a slow moving process.

While conservative Muslims were slowly accepting some changes, progressive Muslims pushed for radical reform on a whole array of issues including same-sex marriage and religious pluralism. My own search for answers brought me to the Southminster Steinhauer United Church, where I finally found the courage to affirm my own intrinsic values.

Some congregation members had come from other denominations where they found emphasis on the law at the expense of the human being. Conservative Muslim leaders like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf have echoed this sentiment by stating that the law was meant to serve human beings instead of the other way around. However, conservative religious authorities usually do not follow through such opinions.

I like to refer to the Southminster Steinhauer Church as my Church and its minister Reverend Dr. Nancy Steeves as my minister. Whenever I go to Church, I find meaning as a Muslim for I can connect with Reverend Nancy through past Muslim Sufi poets -- Rumi, Hafez and Bulleh Shah.

Reverend Nancy has inspired me with her themes of "building a spacious table" and "drawing the circle wide." When she wrote that the divine was not a stingy Grinch who needed to be praised or thanked, I reconnected with the 8th century female Sufi Rabia Basri who rejected reward- and fear-based worship.

Conservative Muslim leaders try to break barriers based on physical appearance, economic status and skin colour, yet in doing so they erect one based on religious affiliation. In contrast, the Prophet's teaching that keeping good relations with people is better than fasting, prayer or charity cannot be clearer.

I have found this teaching of the Prophet echoed through various sources. I found it when Calgary-based Muslim Dr. David Liepert wrote that agnostics show the most respect to God by not putting him into a box of their own making and when C.S. Lewis wrote that a sincere prayer made even to a false God was accepted by the true God.

The teachings of several Muslim sages contain elements of such religious pluralism. While, the 11th century Ali Hujwiri equated self righteousness with idolatory, the 13th century Shams Tabrizi equated disrespecting the beliefs of others with not respecting God. Likewise, the 13th century Ibn Arabi cautioned on interfering with the beliefs of others indicating that God was found in every form of belief.

In light of such teachings, one begins to feel too small in musing over the question of Mother Teresa's salvation. In short, while a younger me would have treated religion like a cult by wanting people to become Muslims, I would not affirm that today. Rather, all I would hope for others and for myself is to be a better human being -- to love one another. This, for me, is the first commandment against which all else pales in comparison.