By MuslimAnswers.net Team
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم
A non-Muslim asked: “How can Allah be just if everyone who dies a disbeliever will go to hell? This is unfair as there were millions of people who died before Muhammad.”
We will answer this from the angle of the questioner, who seems to be concerned more about the fate of those who died before the message of Islam came to them, rather than being mainly preoccupied with the fact that Allah does send people to Hellfire.
With this supposition, we say that the rule for a person to be among those who go to Hellfire is that they should have heard the message of Islam and then rejected it. Thus, the situation of those who never heard about Muhammad ﷺ and Islam because the message did not reach them is in a separate category. Of course, this includes those who died before they could hear the message, whether from Prophet Muhammad ﷺ or from any of the previous Prophets or Messengers.
We do need to mention in here that there is a difference of opinion among the Muslim theologians as to what is the exact scope of human reason in acceding to at least part of the message even if a Prophet and his message do not appear before him. Thus, certain of our scholars have taken certain primary Islamic texts to signify that the person to whom the message does not reach at all in fully absolved of any responsibility whatsoever, and that he is not even held accountable if he did not believe in Allah the Exalted, let alone follow the injunctions of Divinely revealed Law (since such a law had yet to be revealed, so there is no way such a person could have followed it).
However, some other Muslim scholars say that while a person is indeed absolved from the ritualistic rigors of Sharia so long as the message has not reached him, that person is still required to logically arrive at the position that there is a Creating Deity who brought all the creation into being. Such scholars reasoned that since the world and the Universe at large give strong evidence (and for those more intellectually inclined, “solid proof”) regarding the necessity of a Creating Deity, it is not possible to conclude that everyone who had not lived to see the Messenger or the Message is absolutely excused in this respect.
This is one part of the answer. Another issue we need to consider (that is not addressed in the question per se but which is important in our day and age) is what happens when a non-Muslim hears only a distorted picture of Islam; the question is whether his lack of hearing the true message will be enough to excuse him from following Islam.
On this question, we have to say that there are also differing opinions, with some scholars throughout the history of Islam having formulated a lenient position on those disbelievers who only heard a distorted message of Islam. However, others point out that every human being has senses which receive the information from the outside world, and a brain to analyze all the information accordingly and give a judgment based on his examination of the situation.
For such scholars, the saying that one would be excused due to the difficult situation in which Islam was presented is invalid, since Islam does not allow a person to think with someone else’s brain. In such a case, the initial mention of Islam, whether positive, negative or neutral, should be enough to arouse an interest in the person to go and investigate the situation by himself, and so that by the grace and mercy of Allah he may enter into the fold of the Islamic truth.
We also need to remember that Islam has always been presented to people in what may be called a “difficult situation”, for the simple reason that almost all nations, from the ruling authorities down to the common person in the street, will initially have an apprehension towards a set of beliefs and a system of life that they are not intimately familiar with. However, this initial condition is not taken as a legitimate excuse to reject Islam, since as Allah says in the Qur’an, the person is responsible for his ears, eyes, and his “chest” (i.e. his heart), and whatever knowledge is connected to these senses will be taken up by Allah the Exalted in the Hereafter.
[To delve into the matter in a little more detail, Imam al-Ghazali (Rahimahulla) said that those who only heard that Muhammad was some person who came up with a false religion in Arabia, that Muslims worship a moon-god, pray to a black box, etc., would be in the same category as those who never heard about Islam to begin with. However, in today’s day and age, it is difficult to imagine that this is the situation – at least for the millions of people who are literate and have free access to correct information about Islam. If with the access to the correct information about Islam, a person decides to stick to the incorrect dogma and on top of that decides to belittle Islam, then we cannot put that person in the same category as the ignorant ones of past centuries who were illiterate and never had direct contact with Islam and the Muslims].
We hope to have cleared up the initial question, plus the related issue concerning those who hear about Islam in whichever form. If there is any need, we will expand on this article accordingly as the situation may demand.
 Note that in here, when we mention previous Prophets and Messengers, this is with the supposition that there was no follow-up Messenger or Prophet that such people had to follow. Thus, for example, if a person who was on the religion of Jesus (Alayhi Salaam) had heard that Muhammad ﷺ had come, then it is incumbent on the person to respond positively to what he has heard, since the proof has now been established upon him.