A Question on non-Muslim Children & the Hereafter
My young son asked me the following question: “if one is born deaf and dumb, or mentally handicapped, into a non-Muslim family and then dies, will he go to Jahannam because he doesn’t believe?”
When the scholars discuss one who is duty-bound (ar. mukallaf), they mention specific conditions for this state. Bayjūrī mentioned that they are: (1) pubescence, (2) sanity, (3) receiving the Message, and (4) intact senses.
In Arabic, one with intact senses may be termed “salīm al-ḥawāss,” meaning, he has the normal physiological functions that are found in humans that allow them to process information and perceive it. When it comes to the Sacred Law, one must understand the Message. Thus, if we consider the five senses, this matter pivots mostly on the sense of hearing. And that is because it is the main sense with which one can process and understand it.
One who does not have this is termed “fāqid al-ḥawāss.” In the instance that one was born this way, it may not be possible for them to receive the Message. For one who never had that opportunity during their life, the scholars discuss their status in the Hereafter.
Regarding non-Muslim children, Imām Nawawī mentioned that they will be in Paradise as Allāh says in the Qurʾān:
وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّى نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“We do not give punishment until we send a messenger.”
ذَلِكَ أَنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ رَبُّكَ مُهْلِكَ الْقُرَى بِظُلْمٍ وَأَهْلُهَا غَافِلُونَ
“[…] Your Lord does not destroy cities while their inhabitants are unaware.”
Some scholars understood these verses to establish that Allāh does not punish one until the Prophet’s Message reaches him. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī mentioned this in his commentary on the verse from Sūrat al-Anʿām (Q 6:131).
If one would be born with impaired senses, or if something impaired him prior to receiving the Message, it may be that the Prophet’s Message never reached him. For one who the Prophet’s Message never reached him, there are differences on this, like we indicated to.
In fact, even scholars who hold similar opinions have differences on how they describe the situation of such an individual. Ibn al-Subkī said that he is “nājin,” literally meaning one who is saved. Ghazālī said that he is “fī maʿnā al-muslim.” And others said “ʿalā al-fatrah.” The phrasing that Ibn al-Subkī used is also found in Qasṭallānī’s work. Commentating on Qasṭallānī’s passage, Zurqānī said:
وقد أطبقت الأئمة الأشاعرة…على أن من مات ولم تبلغه الدعوة يموت ناجيا – ويدخل الجنة
“Q: [The Ashʿarīs (… and he mentions other scholars here) agreed that one who dies without the Prophet’s Message reaching him, he dies as one who is saved.] Z: [And he enters Paradise].”
It is related that the Prophet (upon him be peace) said:
أربعة يحتجون يوم القيامة رجل أصم لا يسمع شيئا ورجل أحمق ورجل هرم ورجل مات في فترة فأما الأصم فيقول رب لقد جاء الإسلام وما أسمع شيئا وأما الأحمق فيقول رب جاء الإسلام والصبيان يحذفونني بالبعر وأما الهرم فيقول رب لقد جاء الإسلام وما أعقل شيئا وأما الذي مات في الفترة فيقول رب ما أتاني لك رسول فيأخذ سبحانه مواثيقهم ليطيعنه فيرسل إليهم رسولا أن ادخلوا النار فمن دخلها كانت عليه بردا وسلاما ومن لم يدخلها سحب إليها
“Four will stand trial on the Day of Judgement. A deaf man, a retarded man, a senile man, and one who died in an interval period between Prophets. The deaf man will say: ‘My Lord, Islām came while I could not hear anything.’ The retarded man will say: ‘My Lord! Islām came while small children hurled muck at me.’ A senile man will say: ‘My Lord! Islām came while I could not understand anything.’ Regarding one who passed away during an interval time, he will say: ‘My Lord! No messenger came to me.’ Allāh will accept their pleas. In order to establish their obedience, he will send a messenger who will tell them to enter the Fire. Whoever enters will find coolness and safety. And whoever does not will be placed in it.”
This report may seem slightly at odds with the unqualified presentation of the view that he is saved. The passage from Zurqānī, for example, says that one who dies in such a state will enter Paradise and does not mention a test. However, the view of “najāt” being qualified is indicated to. One will be saved with the condition that they pass this test. This test is tantamount to the Prophet’s Message reaching one during their life. Maintaining that there will be a test has been ascribed to Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī. Ibn Kathīr would be one who ascribed it to him. This is also Bayhaqī’s chosen view.
Still, the point of the test has been criticized – the authenticity of the ḥadīths have been called into question along with the possibility that the report contradicts more authoritative texts or core eschatological axioms. And rejoinders to these points are found too. Thus, there are those who discussed the matter without the qualification. And those who establish the test. The issue of qualification or not perhaps bespeaks of a reconciliation of the views, while other explanations of the topic seem to say that there are independent opinions; and perhaps the point of reconciliation is thereby an additional approach to the matter. Addressing this is beyond the purview of our answer.
To conclude, regarding the situation that is mentioned, there are opinions from the scholars that indicate to an individual receiving salvation when he lived his life without the Message reaching him.
If a retarded child born into a non-Muslim family dies, according to these scholars he will most probably be from the inhabitants of Paradise. Imām Nawawī stated that he will be in Paradise. Others mention undergoing the test.
Badr al-Dīn al-ʿAynī related from Imām Abū Ḥanīfah that he refrained from expressing an opinion on the children of non-Muslims who die. Rather than giving a definite judgement, he left what will happen to them to Allāh’s knowledge. And Allāh knows best regarding the reality of such matters.
By Mln. Yaqub Abdurrahman
 Tuḥfat al-Murīd, 67.
 Sharḥ Saḥīḥ Muslim, 12:50.
 Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb, 13:152.
 al-Mawāhib al-Ladunniyyah, 1:323.
 Musnad Aḥmad, 26:228.
 Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAzīm, 5:58.
 al-Bināyah Sharḥ al-Hidāyah, 3:236.