It’s hard for me to imagine that there are populations and populations who barely have clue what Islam is and yet it is the one true path. What will happen then to these people?
God’s purpose in building this universe was to make it possible for humans to exist who love Him and believe in Him without having hard evidence for His existence. That purpose could only be achieved if the universe was vast enough to hide its edges from us. And it could only be achieved if the world functioned according to reliable laws of nature. And that means that it should be possible for humans to think of themselves as abandoned in a vast universe without anyone caring about them, thinking that they have come into existence randomly and that there is no purpose for their existence.
These things are part of the setup of this universe. The universe should feel completely natural and should make almost perfect sense to an atheist, so that belief in God becomes a choice rather than being forced on us through too much evidence for His existence. God has designed the universe in a way that makes atheism possible. I discuss this in more detail in my essay on reconciling the Quran with evolution: Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template.
If a nation decides to abandon God, God will not intervene to save the day unless He wants to. He may allow things to take their course. The existence of non-believers is simply part of the background of the universe for us, similar to the existence of the trillions of other galaxies around us. It does not take away anything from God’s power to allow billions of humans to exist who do not believe in Him. They are all part of the story.
From God’s point of view, it is the story of His believers that is the main purpose of this universe. He wants them to believe in Him and follow Him in a world that is apparently controlled by secular powers. He wants to guide them through history and help them survive, grow and prosper regardless of the non-believers around them. The story of this world is the story of God’s believers, it is like a film directed by God, everyone else is part of the stage.
As for what happens to them, we have no certain knowledge about this. We know that God is kind and just and that He does not hold humans responsible except for that which they are able, therefore if a person’s circumstances make it impossible for them to believe in God (maybe they never learned religion properly), God will not blame them for that. He deals with each person individually, according to their own level of knowledge and responsibility. There is nothing preventing God from letting these billions of people all enter Paradise. God says:
And race towards forgiveness from your Lord, and a Paradise as wide as the heavens and the earth, prepared for the righteous. (The Quran, verse 3:133)
When the Quran says “the heavens and the earth”, that is what we call “the universe”. If Paradise is as large as the universe, God could easily give the non-responsible non-Muslims (who neither believed nor disbelieved, because they never had chance to choose either way) a star system or galaxy of their own to enjoy life there as they wish. It does not take anything away from God’s power to do that, and if that is the fair and just thing to do, then we can be sure that God will do that since God is fair and just.
I should clarify here that we do not believe that it is only Muslims who are the believers. A believer is anyone who believes in God and does his or her best to serve Him to the best of their knowledge and ability. Islam is one tool, and the best tool, for accomplishing this purpose (of serving God), but it is not the only tool. There are deeply spiritual Jews and Christians who also believe in God and try to serve Him, and the Quran does not tell us that their worship will be rejected. The Quran says:
113. They are not alike. Among the People of the Scripture is a community that is upright; they recite God’s revelations throughout the night, and they prostrate themselves.
114. They believe in God and the Last Day, and advocate righteousness and forbid evil, and are quick to do good deeds. These are among the righteous.
115. Whatever good they do, they will not be denied it. God knows the righteous. (The Quran 3:113-115)
Many Muslim scholars have interpreted what the Quran says about God’s rewards for Jews and Christians as only applying to those who followed these religions before Islam in light of certain hadith narrations and the opinions of certain Companions of the Prophet . But the Quran’s evidence suggests otherwise; that God deals with each human according to what they really believe in their hearts. When it comes to a Christian who really believes Christianity to be true and tries to serve God as best as they can, then it is much closer to the thinking of the Quran to think that such a person will be rewarded by God.
The Quran tells us that God accepts no religion other than Islam…except that it is talking about Muslims when it says that:
85. Whoever seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers.
86. How will God guide a people who disbelieved after having believed, and had witnessed that the Messenger is true, and the clear proofs had come to them? God does not guide the unjust people. (The Quran, verses 3:85-86)
Verse 85 above tells us that God will not accept any religion other than Islam. But verse 86 tells us that verse 85 is talking about Muslims, those who have “witnessed that the Messenger is true”. What the passage tells us is that even though God may accept the Christianity of Christians, Muslims are not allowed to convert to Christianity because they have already accepted the better religion that supersedes it. A Muslim who has accepted Islam but who converts to Christianity out of personal desire (maybe they are a politician in a Western country and think they are more likely to get elected if they are Christian), then such a person’s faith will not be accepted by God because they have knowingly rejected a better religion for a worse one out of personal desire.
Islam is not exactly the “one true path”, it is simply a re-statement of the religion of God’s previous prophets. God constantly sent prophets to different nations to call them to His way, in order to help humans attain the status of being God’s friends. It is not God’s purpose to make every human a believer. The Quran tells us in many places that God is capable of guiding all of humanity, but that it is not His wish to do that:
If you find their rejection hard to bear, then if you can, seek a tunnel into the earth, or a stairway into the heaven, and bring them a sign. Had God willed, He could have gathered them to guidance. So do not be of the ignorant. (Verse 6:35)
Had God willed, they would not have practiced idolatry. We did not appoint you as a guardian over them, and you are not a manager over them. (Verse 6:107)
Had your Lord willed, everyone on earth would have believed. Will you then compel people to become believers? (Verse 10:99)
We are free to ask if there wasn’t a better way of doing things. Why did the world have to be this way? We have no answer. We are thrown into this universe and have no choice but to play by God’s rules whether we like them or not. We have the choice of acting like Satan, telling God He is wrong that He made things in this way. There are some people who make this choice, they are angry at God, at society, at the universe, at the fact of their own existence. But that path only leads to our own destruction. We cannot harm God. Even if we do not understand why things have to be this way, we have no choice but submit to His decrees, knowing that He is infinitely wiser than ourselves, and that we cannot think a single thought that He Himself has not already thought. If we question God’s decisions, it means we think ourselves somehow superior to Him, as if the God who designed us somehow knows less than we know or is less wise or intelligent than ourselves.
So I agree that there are things we can wonder at, but since God is infinitely wiser and more intelligent than ourselves, we have believe that He knows what He is doing. If we dislike His choices for us, we are doing what Satan did in disliking His choice in preferring Adam over him. The wise thing to do, for which God will reward us, is to always seek to please God, to trust His wisdom and to admit that He can do whatever He wants, since He created all of this and no one has any power over Him.