Alhamdulilah, an answer to 'A Common Word' has been compiled and is now available from http://www.htspub.com/. [UPDATE (19/08/2017): The article is now available on the Jurjis blog.]
Alhamdulilah, it is good to see that most Muslims here in Morocco are clear about salvation and what it means to be an Orthodox Muslim as opposed to a cultist or disbeliever. However, it is Muslims inhabiting English-speaking contries in the west, i.e the UK, the US and Canada, that are having difficulty grasping this absolutely fundamental axiom of our faith: Islam is THE Truth and the only gateway to salvation.
This is not suprising considering how our so-called 'community leaders' have immersed themselves heavily in inter-faith and regularly use terms such as 'Abrahamic faiths', and then go on to refer to Jews and Christians as 'believers', even though Allah has made it clear that Ibrahim, alaihi as-salaam, was neither a Jew nor a Christian (see 3:64-68, which interestingly enough comes right after the verse that was used to support 'A Common Word'. If only they had kept reading.) and that the believers are only those who believe in Allah and His Messenger (see 24:62 and 49:15).
The Qur'an has been translated into English several times and is widely available. While the threat of eternal judgement can and will cause offense to many, it is much better to be open and honest about this matter. We, as Muslims, do not believe that salvation is possible unless one submits to Allah and believes that there is no god but Him and Muhammad, salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam, is His Slave and Messenger. At this juncture I would recommend that people refer back to the article 'The Purpose of Life' at http://www.newmuslims.co.uk/, [Update: this article is now available here.] which contains several unequivocal verses from the Qur'an. I myself have come accross many instances, online and in person, in which a Muslim has tried to dance around this issue and a disbeliever then grows frustrated and starts quoting what Allah has said regarding eschatology, at which point the Muslim tries to retreat and back away, only increasing the disbeliever's sense that he is being lied to and/or something is being hidden from him.
These same voices in the west spend a lot of time and effort talking about 'religious tolerance' and start muddying the water and confusing common believers about the use of terms such as 'kafir' and 'non-Muslim'. First of all, religious tolerance is not the issue, and we have been commanded to tolerate kufr, i.e. the kufr of the people of the Book. We have not been commanded to accept it, though. This is made clear by Allah in 3:85. Playing around with the word 'kafir' is also problematic.
Imam Al-Maidani, the great Asha'ari Hanafi scholar of the 13th century AH, in his commentary on Imam at-Tahawi's creed text, explains that if something carries the attribute of size it should be called 'big' and if it has the attribute of smallness then it should be called 'small', so if someone carries the attribute of kufr then of course he or she is a 'kafir'. (p.90) The term 'kafir' is not derogatory but is merely a theological classification, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, may Allah be pleased with him and raise his rank, said that 'kuffar' (plural of kafir) come in three types: the ignorant, the arrogant, and the antagonisic. The first type has not been presented with the faith, but this does not mean he is entirely ignorant because this person testified to Allah's Lordship before entering this world. See 7:172. This verse also indicates that the default state of a human being is belief in Allah, not kufr, and this is why the verb kafara also means 'to cover up'. The second and third categories have been presented with the faith but the latter is more rigid in his rejection, such that he actively works against Islam. These last two categories are understood.
Back to the first. This person has not accepted Islam, so regardless we have to present the faith to them. He or she is still technically a kafir. There is no third option. Labelling them 'non-Muslim' on the grounds that they may accept faith later, i.e. 'how do we know?', is a baseless argument because Allah has not commanded us to make judgements and verdicts regarding that which we don't know and can't know. We have only been commanded to judge by what Allah has made us privy to. If someone is not a Muslim they're a kafir, and if they're not a kafir they must be a Muslim. Because I don't know the future I have no way of knowing that all the Muslims I know personally will die as Muslims. Of course I pray that they do but does that mean I should refer to them as 'non-kafirs'? I can only judge by the here and now, and right now they're Muslims. I don't what they will be like in the future and I don't even know what they're like when they're not in my presence. However, based on what I do know and what they've told me, they're Muslims, and that's enough.
In closing, I remind myself and whoever may be reading this that we must show love and compassion to disbelievers and pray for their guidance. Our differences with them are theological; not personal. See 28:56. We should love them and love for them to be guided. What we hate is kufr. Allah hates to see them reject faith (see 40:10) and so should we.
And with Allah alone is every success!
Your brother in Faith,
p.s. Regarding the words 'non-Muslim' and 'kafir' and their usage, you will notice that it is most common amongst Asians and Arabs. It should be noted that the traditional Muslim lands that these people come from, i.e. from Morocco to India, have been subjected to brutal wars and oppression for over 200 years now, by and large at the hands of Europeans and Americans. You will notice that while most Asians and Arabs (and I am generalising), especially the older generation and those who have emigrated to the UK and/or US, are bitter towards the Americans and Europeans , at the same time they are full of admiration and yes, fear. Hence, when face to face with the descendants of their ancestors' colonial masters (e.g. anything from an inter-faith meeting to the workplace), the term 'non-Muslim' is used, but in private, and especially when angry about some recent event, the term 'kafir' is used, and is definitely meant in a derogative fashion.
If you are a new believer or a newly committed believer, please bear this point in mind. Arabs and Asians are collectively suffering from a very severe inferiority complex and carry an acute vicitim mentality due to what has happened over the past 200 years, most notably the events of the colonial period. Time and time again these people have been invaded and defeated, invaded and defeated, invaded and defeated. What just happened in Gaza, may Allah help those people, is just the latest in a long, long series. It shouldn't come as surprise that these people are not full of self-esteem and confidence, but they are full of anger and resentment. Think of a child at school who is bullied on a daily basis. In public he respects the bully, but in private he is very bitter.
The cry 'why are we a defeated ummah?' is not only expressed by the laity but confirmed by their scholars, even though the Messenger of Allah, salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam, described this Ummah as marhuma, i.e. one that is shown mercy, and its punishment is in this life while its reward is in the next.
Therefore, while there are many brilliant scholars in the Arab world and the Indian sub-continent, who can teach many or all of the sciences, be wary of taking on their social and political views and mindsets. A victim mentality or inferiority complex is very dangerous for a new or newly committed believer, who needs to have confidence and pride in his or her faith.
And our last call is All praise is due to Allah, Lord of all Creation!