Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2: 62)
...we come to know this is a part of the section actually addressed to the Jews who had made their faith more of a racist i.e. excluding creed and believed (and they still believe) that only Jews would enter the Blissful Paradise.
Even the Christians have the idea of Vicarious Atonement that suggests that only by belief in Christ one can find salvation otherwise, they say, 'all your deeds are like filthy rags.' I remember never in my discussions I found even a single Christian, not even priests, able to categorically explain as to what will happen to those who passed away before Christ's (PBUH) birth including the Jewish Prophets.
Here the Quran dispels the notion of attributing any such idea to the Noble Faith of Islam for its taste is different. The Jews i.e. Israelites before Christ (PBUH) who believed in Allah and the Last Day were infact Muslims and thus in the Hereafter they'll earn the reward for their Faith and deeds. Same goes for the Christians before the Last Prophet (PBUH) declared his prephethood and the Sabians as well (we cannot with utmost surety say who they actually were).And this is supported by the reports about the point of revelation of this Ayah.
Ibn Kathir with reference Ibn Abi Hatim narrates:
'Salman Farisi (RA) said, 'This verse was revealed when I made a mention of the of the prayers and fasting of those believers whom I had met before coming to the Holy Prophet (PBUH)'..(Ibn Kathir in his commentary to this verse)
(If we recall the story of Salman Farisi (RA) then we see that it goes exactly in line with what is written above)
Prerequisite for Salvation and good deeds of non-Muslims:
PREREQUISITE: To have an understanding as to what Quran says about goody goody Jews & Christians, we need to go through the rest of the Quran and authentic Ahadith.
"If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good)." (3:85)
This is conclusive!
GOOD DEEDS OF NON-BELIEVERS: About their good deeds like charity etc Insha'Allah they'll be rewarded in this world e.g. Mother Tresa got the goodwill and admiration from all people.
But the verse and Hadith above make it clear that a person who has known about the Holy Prophet (PBUH) for him belief in his prophethood along with all the fundamentals is an absolute necessity for salvation.
We may understand it as if good deeds are decimal powers and the Faith in Fundamentals are Natural Numbers varying according to the quality of the belief. So the decimal power (the good deeds) are of no use unless there is atleast 1 in the left most place.
Two other possible queries answered:
1)Now one may say that here only belief in Allah and the Last Day are mentioned and not the Articles of Faith like belief in the Prophets etc. But the fact of the matter is here the style and context conveys that enumerating the Articles of Faith is not the thing dwelt at. Any such idea is in direct clash with the numerous verses of the Quran and how can one believe in Allah and the Last Day without belief in the Prophets, Angles and the Revealed Scripts?
Further Belief in Allah is the first of the fundamental beliefs and faith in the Last Day is the last of the fundamentals and Quran here tells in its unique style that its a must to believe in all the articles from the first to the last.
2)Why are the Muslims mentioned along with Jews, Christians and Sabeans, isn't it known that they believe in Allah and all the rest of the fundamentals? Keeping in view the rich Quranic style we see that its just like a King while making a new Law says that it is applicable to all the subjects impartially and whoever will obey them will have its reward irrespective of the fact if he was previously a friend or a foe.
Hope that helps!
INDEED ALLAH KNOWS THE BEST!
...by Waqar Akbar Cheema