Short Answer: This question has been debated for hundreds of years. The agreed upon idea is that if someone has never heard of Islam at all, they must still believe in the overall Oneness of God. But if they have no concept of Islam as a religion OR they have only been given a very distorted, twisted version of Islam, they are not held accountable in front of the All Merciful God.
Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question.
What you should know to begin with is that the issue has been dealt with by many Muslim scholars and from many theological schools.
First, there is a theological technical term which deals with the subject matter, “ahl al-fitrah“, the people who existed during the time of messengers, without having heard of them.
Following the two orthodox schools of theology, the Ashari and Maturidi, there are two opinions.
The respected opinion of Maturidis is that while the stipulations to follow the law of certain message is dropped from such people, they nonetheless have to believe in the oneness of God, most-High.
This is because human intellect on its own is perfectly capable of reaching this end of belief.
For the Asharis, as stated by the highest seat of Sunni Islam scholarship and its mouthpiece, Dar al Ifta, the ruling is that such people who existed before Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and after Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him), are saved from Hellfire.
This is the opinion of many revered and notable scholars, including, from the early generations (like Imam Al-Qurtubi) and from the later generations (such as Imam Al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar, Al-Manawi, and Al-Suyuti, among scores of others).
Proofs for adopting this position are based on many evidences, including the Quran:
[…] We never punish until we have sent a messenger. (Quran 17:15)
Now to directly answer your question, many scholars, including Imam Al-Ghazali, believe that the same ruling of ahl al fitrah applies to anyone at any time, assuming they either did not hear about Islam or only found distorted views about Islam.
Finally, we always have to remember something that God, majestic in His praise, His mercy, as He ascribed to His transcendent self, is utter justice.
I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.
(From AboutIslam’s archives)