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Surely there have been many human beings throughout our history who have, despite not believing in Islam, have been extremely decent, kind people.

Some of them of course were born before the Prophet, so it would be unreasonable to expect them to be believers without knowing what to believe. If one of the tenants of Islam is to profess the shahada, how would an ordinary person living in, say, ancient Egypt be expected to know about monotheism, much less Mohammad?

Now others of course were born later, but maybe they had not heard of Islam, they were prohibited from following Islam, etc.

My question is: is there any room, in mainstream Islam (Sunni or Shia), for such people to avoid hellfire? Is there an Islamic purgatory? Are there exceptions for righteous people who live decent lives?

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Before we categorize people, you have to know that Islam as a belief existed from the first day humans were created. It didn't come with Prophet (PBUH). Every messenger came with that same exact message. Believe in the oneness of God and follow his commands. The commands changed a little bit from Prophet to Prophet but the belief message was the same. This what the majority of Muslims believe. As an example, Jesus (PBUH) came with the exact same message as Mohamed, you should worship one god and follow his message. What Muslims believe is that the message was distorted/changed/altered after Jesus was raised by God into the heavens.

According to Islam there are 4 main categories of people:

  1. People who will go to Paradise/Heven الجنة: According to Islam those who had the following:

    • Believed in the ones of God
    • Believed in the 6 pillars of Islamic belief.
    • Repented of all their bad deeds and had more good deeds "الحسنات" over bad deeds "السيئات" at the day of Judgment.
  2. People who will go to Hellfire النار :

    • Totally disbelieved in oneness of God although the clear message of Islam ,By Any prophet since Adam (PBUH) till Mohamed (PBUH) the final and seal of all messengers, has reached them.
    • People whom committed crimes/sins either against other people or themselves and didn't repent from it. (There is a doubt about their fate if they belief in the oneness of God. They might fall in the 4th category.)
  3. People who will go to place called Al-Araf الاعراف and eventually go to Paradise or not (There is a dispute if they will go eventually to Paradise or not.) Al-Araf is a place between Hellfire and Paradise which is neither punishment nor something good. There is a chapter in the Quran named after those people, search for it using the arabic word mentioned above:

    • People whom didn't receive the clear message for the oneness of God but they were good and kind people and that applies till today. Even if they heard about Islam, but the message was distorted.
    • People who believed in the oneness of God, but committed good deeds and bad deeds which are exactly equal. It's not enough to either send them to Paradise nor it's enough to send them to Hellfire.
  4. People who will to to Hellfire for a while and then go to Paradise at the end:

    • People who believed in the oneness of God, but committed good deeds which is less than their bad deeds. They will stay in Hellfire for the length of time corresponding to how much bad deeds overflowed their good deeds.

A very good reference about this topic is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqZpNj76HtI

References:

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    Great answer - I was aware of the belief that all Prophets were Muslims (ie even Adam) so I was wondering how they could have known about Mohammad when he had not been born yet – tacos_tacos_tacos May 31 '15 at 21:06
  • Thanks May Allah useful for you. And guide us to the correct path. This video is a very useful reference as well that discuss this topic. youtube.com/watch?v=fqZpNj76HtI – jikolp May 31 '15 at 22:13
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There is no purgatory in Islam. everybody will end up in either the garden or the fire.

Quran 36:54 says about the day of judgement "So today no soul will be wronged in the least, and you will not be recompensed except for what you used to do."

One of God's name in Quran is [translation] The Most Just, so God will not punish anyone except those who extremely deserve it.

God will only hold a person responsible for which He gave the person:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Capacity

God says in Quran 2:286 "On no soul doth Allah Place a burden greater than it can bear"

Quran repeatedly promises severe punishment for "Kafirs" who are rejectors of God's guidance, rebellious, ungrateful, and/or enemy disbelievers.

And God knows best.

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