04/27/2012 06:44 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

In Islam, Heaven Is Not Exclusive

He was trying to find his way.

While driving to the mosque for my Friday prayers, I saw him in my back view mirror, fidgeting with his GPS on a hot summer day. Driving up on Park Heights in Baltimore with a car full of children, this visibly Jewish man with a long wavy beard and thick black glasses was clad in a black suit. Say whatever you want, but this much was obvious: He had made some tough choices to please his G-d.

So why would your or my God not reward him for his commitment? What if this man was an organ donor? A volunteer firefighter? A caring neighbor? An honest trader? How could anyone declare with certainty that this man cannot go to heaven?

I don't know how, but people say this all the time: "He cannot go to heaven because he does not believe in [insert your Prophet or God's name here]." According to a 2008 Pew survey, one in five Christians in America believe that non-Christian faiths cannot lead to salvation. That number soared to 60 percent for white evangelical Protestants who attend church once a weak.

Frankly, I would have checked out of my faith, Islam, if it took such a position. Thank God (or Allah) that it doesn't.

Islam recognizes that the Jewish man mentioned above, who was probably lost and finding his way, is not alone; we are all trying to find "the way" in our own way. So it guards humans from the temptation of declaring who goes to heaven and who doesn't by proclaiming that "grace is in the hands of Allah. He gives it to whomsoever He pleases" (57:30).

Then why do people from almost every major religious tradition, including Islam, insist on some version of "I am the way and no one comes to God but through me"? They love to quote those parts of their Scriptures without a broader context. You know why? Because it's leverage -- it's self serving and it feels good. Did I tell you that a majority of such people are typically born into the same faith that they sell as "the way"?

On the contrary, Islam's holy Quran provides not one, but many ways to the heaven (29:69). Yes, some are straight -- like belief (3:85) and good deeds (5:10) -- while others are convoluted. It's like going to New York City. You could take the bridge, tunnel, ferry or simply fly into the Big Apple.

God's grace though, truly leads the way to salvation. "He forgives whom He pleases and punishes whom He pleases (5:19)" to me, assures that no matter which way you take, you won't hit traffic, accidents or bad weather.

To the Jewish man mentioned above, some Muslims may say: No way! How can a Jew or a Christian ever go to heaven? To them I present this from Quran: "Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians -- whichever party believes in God and the Last Day and does good deeds -- shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve (2:63)."

How can the Quran charge Jews and Christians of the notion of an exclusive heaven and then turn around to claim the same?

This is not a fringe interpretation, applicable to Jews and Christians only. Prophet Muhammad (sa) paved the way to salvation -- ultimately for all humans -- in a famous narration from the book of Muslim, "A man said: By God, God will not forgive so-and-so. At this, God said: Who is he who swears by Me that I will not forgive so-and-so? Verily, I have forgiven so-and-so and have nullified your good deeds."

Islam neither believes in an eternal hell nor in an exclusive heaven.

After the next traffic light, the Jewish guy driving behind me made a left turn. I came to the mosque, praying that may God guide him to the shortest, straightest, safest way to his destination.

Faheem Younus is an adjunct faculty member for religion/history at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland. He can be reached at