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A complete explanation of salvation in Islam – fine print included.
SALVATION IN ISLAM
Salvation: “The act of saving; preservation from destruction, danger or great calamity.”1 Every great monotheistic belief offers salvation of one sort or another: Judaism, offers some concept of Abraham’s’ Bosom (which roughly equates to heaven) and Sheol (which roughly equates to hell) although these ideas were irresolute and not universally believed. The sacrificial system, and adherence to the Mosaic Law, was the means by which man avoided God’s displeasure and gained God’s acceptance. In Christianity, the need for salvation is more pronounced, since hell is more established and intimidating: In Christianity hell is an eternal, inescapable abode, where the damned experience conscious suffering – a literal reading of scripture supports this. Thus, salvation is essential in Christianity as a way to escape hell and enter heaven. The word, “salvation” is used only once in the Quran, and not with connection to anything that might be termed an Islamic version of salvation. However, although the word does not appear in the Quran, salvation is a logical necessity in Islam. Islam holds that heaven exists, and hell exists. In Islam, the descriptions of hell are terrifying enough to make a clear, “way of salvation” an essential requirement. (Besides this, salvation is at the heart of religion. After all, If there is a God, and God created us and he gave us one life and thereafter we would be judged and go either to heaven or hell, then it is logical to view life as a test of some sort and that the main purpose of religion (besides bringing glory to God) must allow us to pass that test. That is the whole function of religion: to help us negotiate life, in order to have a favourable afterlife (or to duly warn us, if we are heading to a less favourable destination). Thus, any religion that offers some version of heaven and hell, must offer us some clear way of salvation, if it is to be considered a credible religion and the true faith. In addition, if any religion wishes to assert that is the only way to heaven, it ought to provide a way of salvation that is in some way superior to that offered by other religions.)
FIRE, WATER AND CHAINS Orthodox Christianity holds that hell is an eternal, inescapable place, filled with conscious suffering. A literal reading of Christian scripture supports this. Some overzealous dark-age monks and mystics (and storytellers2) interpolated certain details, such as the levels of hell and the specific tortures of hell, yet none of these convoluted details is found in Christian scripture. The Quran, by contrast, is filled with graphic descriptions of the torments of hell, the sort of descriptions you’d expect to find depicted in medieval tomes and etchings: in hell, the skin of the wicked is roasted and renewed continuously. 3 In hell the wicked gulp boiling water but cannot swallow it.4 In hell, the wicked are covered in pitch and their faces are set alight.5 In hell, the wicked will have scalding water poured over their heads, that melts their insides and skins and they will be beaten with spiked metal clubs.6 Further than that, there’s a lot more fire, boiling water and chains.7 The level of detail approaches that of the descriptions of deviant Christians, the only difference being that these details are recorded in holy writ, not in a deranged monk’s notebook. A cynical person might think that Mohammad was influenced by these (at the time) commonplace descriptions of hell, spread by fire-and-brimstone Christian representatives, while not realising these were not truly representative of Christian scripture. One would hope that these lurid descriptions of hell are metaphorical, yet the level of detail (including spiked metal clubs) makes a metaphorical reading unconvincing: general descriptions of hell as fire or water could be metaphorical, but tar on bodies and fire on faces seems too particular for metaphor.
Dante’s Inferno; Milton’s Paradise Lost. Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: As often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (4:56) 4 In front of such a one is Hell, and he is given, for drink, boiling fetid water. In gulps will he sip it, but never will he be near swallowing it down his throat: death will come to him from every quarter, yet will he not die: and in front of him will be a chastisement unrelenting. (14:16-17) 5 And thou wilt see the sinners that day bound together in fetters;- Their garments of liquid pitch, and their faces covered with Fire; (14:49-50) 6 These two antagonists dispute with each other about their Lord: but those who deny (their Lord),- for them will be cut out a garment of Fire: over their heads will be poured out boiling water. With it will be melted what is within their bodies, as well as (their) skins. In addition there will be maces of iron (to punish) them. (22:19-21) 7 Read: 11:106; 25:11-14; 37:62-68; 55:43-44; 56:41-44; 67:6-8; 69:30-32
Fortunately, although the Quran describes hell as eternal8, hell is not always described as inescapable. In Islamic theology every event is subject to the will of God – people only go to heaven if God wills it or to hell if God wills it and there is some evidence that God might repeal an eternal sentence.910 Additionally, there is some evidence for a purgatorial view of hell, where even believers enter a type of hell, but are admitted to heaven after a time.11 Nevertheless, these verses do not guarantee that anyone can escape hell or explain the conditions for God removing a person from hell and, by all indications, very few people will ever be removed from hell. So this is a ray of hope but only a very minute one, which cannot be counted on. A COMPLETE UNDERSTANDING OF SALVATION The severity of hell in Islam makes the issue of salvation in Islam (how to avoid hell) all the more crucial. However, the issue of salvation in Islam is not all that clear – not because the Quran is not clear – but because the Quranic view of salvation is frequently misunderstood, taken out of context and misrepresented. Opinions on the matter are often wildly divergent and slipshod and it is difficult to find a complete, unified explanation of this topic anywhere. A common problem, surveying the many contradictory views of salvation, is a
“On the other hand, for those who fear their Lord, are Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath; therein are they to dwell (for ever),- a gift from Allah; and that which is from Allah is the best (bliss) for the righteous.” (3:198) “But those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, We shall soon admit to Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath,- their eternal home: Therein shall they have spouses purified: We shall admit them to shades, cool and ever deepening.” (4:57) “Say: ‘Is that best, or the eternal Garden, promised to the righteous? For them, that is a reward as well as a final abode.’” (25:15) “Enter ye therein in Peace and Security; this is a Day of Eternal Life!” (50:34) “Taste ye then - for ye forgot the Meeting of this Day of yours, and We too will forget you - taste ye the Chastisement of Eternity for your (evil) deeds!” (32:14) “Such is the requital of the enemies of Allah,- the Fire: therein will be for them the Eternal Home: a (fit) requital, for that they were wont to reject Our Signs.” (41:28) 9 Those who are wretched shall be in the Fire: There will be for them therein (nothing but) the heaving of sighs and sobs: They will dwell therein so long as the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord willeth: for thy Lord is the (sure) accomplisher of what He planneth. And those who are blessed shall be in the Garden: They will dwell therein so long as the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord willeth: a gift without break.” (11:106-108) 10 “One day will He gather them all together, (and say): ‘O ye assembly of Jinns! Much (toll) did ye take of men.’ Their friends amongst men will say: ‘Our Lord! we made profit from each other: but (alas!) we reached our term - which thou didst appoint for us.’ He will say: ‘The Fire be your dwelling-place: you will dwell therein for ever, except as Allah willeth.’ for thy Lord is full of wisdom and knowledge.” (6:128) 11 “Allah is the Lord of grace unbounded," (8:29
disregard for context. Often, a small minority of Quranic verses – or hadith – are selected, which scratch one person’s theological itch, and thereafter little or no regard is given to what other verses say (on the same topic or related topics) or how the verses should be interpreted in light of the Quranic revelation as a whole. No attempt is made to identify, resolve or explain any difficulties which arise between this innovated interpretation and the rest of scripture. Thus, when it comes to salvation, certain well-intentioned Muslims frequently emphasise the mercy of God and the function of repentance, while not mentioning the various conditions that the Quran attaches to each. However, if we wish to properly represent any doctrine we must acknowledge that any doctrine must be constituted by the sum total of verses (or ayat) on the subject, not by only a few convenient verses. All these verses together should present a global picture of the doctrine (Islamic salvation). Additionally, any conflict arising between individual verses or groups of verses ought to be resolved either by reconciling the verses or – as a last resort – by abrogation, where it is applicable. It is only by considering scripture, in their totality, and resolving any problems that arise, that a complete, coherent and robust doctrine can emerge. MERCY IN ISLAM There are verses in the Quran, which describe God as merciful and willing to forgive sins, without attaching any conditions to this mercy.12,13 Thus, some Muslims choose to focus on these verses and to misrepresent Allah as a God who forgives easily and Islam as a religion that is reasonable in its salvation requirements. However, if we wish to understand the Islamic concept of grace or mercy, we cannot only look at one or two select verses, we must examine all relevant verses, to form a complete doctrine. If we do so, we will find that the Islamic notion of mercy does not resemble the Western (or Christian) notion of mercy: in the West mercy is regarded as,
”But Allah will choose for his special mercy whom he will - for Allah is lord of grace abounding," (2:105) 13 “Say: "O My slaves who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of God, verily, God forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (39:53)
“unmerited, unearned favour”. Thus, it would be oxymoronic to describe mercy as, “deserved” or “earned”. However, in Islam we find the opposite: obedience to God and the prophet (which entails performing other good works) are prerequisites to receiving mercy.14,15,16,17 Thus, in Islam, works precede mercy and forgiveness is a reward given only to the obedient. Thus, in a sense, the sinner, “earns” God’s mercy, but perhaps only in the way that a worker “earns” a salary that is too generous and (as in all things) Allah can choose to bestow or not to bestow the generous reward. Beyond this, the Quran makes it clear that there are some people that God does not forgive: God does not forgive, “people in guilt” and unbelievers.18,19 Therefore, to understand when God grants mercy, we must first understand what it means to be obedient to God and the Messenger (and the good works that this entails). Thus, the Muslim, who wants to be assured of his salvation, cannot rely on mercy, but he must first understand obedience, and decide whether he has been obedient or not. In other words, the Muslim, to receive mercy and hopefully salvation, must understand and apply the Muslim doctrine of, “salvation by works.” (This would seem to make the Islamic notion of mercy is somewhat irrelevant with regards to salvation or assurance of salvation.) In short, the Islamic notion of mercy does not provide the Muslim with any eternal security or assurance of salvation. If the Muslim desires (mercy) security, he must know and understand how to achieve salvation by works.
"O you who believe! be careful of (your duty to) Allah and speak the right word, He will put your deeds into a right state for you, and forgive you your faults; and whoever obeys Allah and His Apostle, he indeed achieves a mighty success," (33:70-71, M.H. Shakir). 15 ". . . But if ye obey Allah and his messenger, he will not belittle aught of your deeds: for Allah is OftForgiving, Most Merciful," (49:14). "If you obey GOD and His messenger, He will not put any of your works to waste. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful," (49:14) 16 "And He answers those who believe and do good deeds, and gives them more out of His grace; and (as for) the unbelievers, they shall have a severe punishment," (42:26, M.H. Shakir). 17 "O you who believe! If you are careful of (your duty to) Allah, He will grant you a distinction and do away with your evils and forgive you; and Allah is the Lord of mighty grace," (8:29, M.H. Shakir). 18 “If they accuse thee of falsehood, say: ‘Your Lord is full of mercy all- embracing; but from people in guilt never will His wrath be turned back.’” (6:147; Cf. 33:43) 19 "And He answers those who believe and do good deeds, and gives them more out of His grace; and (as for) the unbelievers, they shall have a severe punishment," (42:26, M.H. Shakir)
REPENTANCE IN ISLAM Similarly, there are verses that state that repentance will cause God to forgive a sinner’s sins.20 Thus, certain exuberant Muslims advertise repentance as a cure-all miracle salve, which can expunge any and all sins. However, if we are sincere, we must examine these and other verses and discover if there are any conditions attached to effective repentance (repentance which achieves forgiveness of sins). Even a cursory reading of the Quran reveals, first, that repentance is only effective for those who have sinned in ignorance.21,22 Second, we discover that repentance is only effective for those who are sincere23,24 and for those who realise the ugliness of their deeds. Thirdly, we discover that this repentance (for believers) must be swift25; that is, people cannot repent for sins committed long ago. Fourthly, we discover that for repentance to be effective, it must be followed by lifelong obedience. (Presumably the person who repents of the same sin continuously is not sincere in his repentance.)26,27 Notice, the scripture does not say that repentance must be followed by five minutes of obedience until one repents again; it stresses lifelong obedience, until death. (This also means that a person can only know that their repentance is successful at the end of their life – this is one reason that repentance does not provide eternal security.) Thus, repentance is not a continuous get-out-of-jail-free card. It is a
"O ye who believe! Turn unto Allah in sincere repentance! It may be that your Lord will remit from you your evil deeds and bring you into Gardens underneath which rivers flow, on the day when Allah will not abase the Prophet and those who believe with him. Their light will run before them and on their right hands; they will say: Our Lord! Perfect our light for us, and forgive us! Lo! Thou art Able to do all things," (66:8-9) 21 “When those come to thee who believe in Our Signs, say: ‘Peace be on you: Your Lord hath inscribed for Himself (the rule of) Mercy: verily, if any of you did evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented, and amended (his conduct), lo! He is Oft- forgiving, Most Merciful.’” (6:54) 22 "God accepts the repentance of those who have sinned in ignorance and who realizing the ugliness of their deed swiftly turn toward Him in repentance," (3:16) 23 "O ye who believe! Turn unto Allah in sincere repentance! It may be that your Lord will remit from you your evil deeds and bring you into Gardens underneath which rivers flow, on the day when Allah will not abase the Prophet and those who believe with him. Their light will run before them and on their right hands; they will say: Our Lord! Perfect our light for us, and forgive us! Lo! Thou art Able to do all things," (66:8-9) 24 "God accepts the repentance of those who have sinned in ignorance and who realizing the ugliness of their deed swiftly turn toward Him in repentance," (3:16) 25 "God accepts the repentance of those who have sinned in ignorance and who realizing the ugliness of their deed swiftly turn toward Him in repentance," (3:16) 26 “And verily, I am indeed forgiving to him who repents, believes (in My Oneness, and associates none in worship with Me) and does righteous good deeds, and then remains constant in doing them (till his death).” (20:82) 27 “Say to those who have disbelieved, if they cease (from disbelief), their past will be forgiven.” (8:38)
(just about) once-off deal, offered to those who sinned in ignorance and it must be followed by lifelong obedience. Repentance for Muslims is comparable to the repentance offered to unbelievers, which is intended as a once-off concession to expiate the sins that unbelievers had committed prior to conversion. Naturally, Muslims will argue (against their own scripture) that repentance is more reasonable than this, however, suffice it to say that repentance is not the one-way ticket to paradise that some Muslim people make it out to be. Repentance, therefore, does not guarantee eternal security. Repentance is powerful but it comes with conditions: First, a person must fulfil all the conditions of effective repentance (which are not easy to fulfil) and, second, a person must follow up repentance with lifelong obedience: thus, repentance directs us (just as mercy did) to the necessity of salvation by works. MERCY OR WORKS? One would be hard pressed to find any true mercy in Islam whatsoever; that is, and mercy which is not, “paid for” by obedience of one sort or another. This should not be regarded as a fault, for at least Islam is remarkable consistent in its demand for good works. Some would be tempted to argue that the constant mentions of God being merciful and oft-forgiving are misleading. However, a person cannot impose their definition of mercy on another religion: mercy in Islam can only be defined by its use in the Quran, not by a dictionary definition or anyone’s personal feeling. (If there is one unfortunate side-effect of the counterintuitive nature of, “earned mercy” it is that it causes the Muslim to continually look for mercy, half-expecting it to be lavished on them indiscriminately, only later to remember that all mercy must be earned. This paradox may get the Muslim in a loop: repeating the same knee-jerk optimism, only to be brought back to reality.) Irrespective, the fact is that all mercy in Islam can be said to fall under, “good deeds annul bad deeds,” principle, and there is no need to have any unearned mercy in Islam (unearned mercy poses certain difficulties, as we shall see). Mercy, we are repeatedly told, is granted to the obedient, hence, mercy falls under the principle, “good deeds annul bad deeds”. Repentance is only accepted when followed 7
by lifelong obedience. Hence, again, repentance coincides with the principle, “good deeds annul bad deeds”. In fact, there is no need for the Muslim to ever say that God grants any unearned mercy, where no good deeds were present to pre-empt mercy. However, if the Muslim desires to say that God sometimes grants mercy, irrespective of good works, the Muslim has a serious problem: mercy is not justice. Instead, mercy is the absence of justice. Therefore, if God grants mercy, without payment (in the form of good deeds) then he is not perfectly just, because justice is not done in that instance. People believe that being merciful is a good thing (often because they need mercy so badly themselves) but mercy is not justice. The source of (justified) mercy in Judaism was animal sacrifice; the just penalty is executed on a scapegoat. The source of (justified) mercy in Christianity is the cross of Christ; the just penalty for sin was borne by Christ. The source of (justified) mercy, in Islam, is good deeds, and outside of good deeds no other source is mentioned. Islam has no source of just mercy, besides good works. Thus, the Muslim cannot step out of the, “salvation by works,” framework or Allah will become unjust. For some Muslims this is not a problem, because they believe that God is above every law. However, Muslims who want to call Allah good or just (expecting that to mean something) and Muslims who want others to believe that Allah is good or just, cannot sweep this problem aside so casually. Thus, either salvation in Islam is entirely by works, or God is not just. SALVATION THROUGH WORKS All avenues in our search for salvation in Islam lead us to a single destination: salvation through works. (The notion of works entails believing certain things and performing certain actions.) Therefore, we must ask, what works must a Muslim perform in order to be accepted into paradise? The importance of obedience to Allah and Mohammad is established in the Quran beyond doubt.28,29,30,31,32,33
“Those are limits set by Allah. those who obey Allah and His Messenger will be admitted to Gardens with rivers flowing beneath, to abide therein (for ever) and that will be the supreme achievement. But those who disobey Allah and His Messenger and transgress His limits will be admitted to a Fire, to abide therein: And they shall have a humiliating punishment.” (4:13-14)
The importance of belief is also emphasised.34,35 Some of the beliefs required are, “to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers.” (2:177)36,37,38 Belief in the Prophet is continuously stressed.39 In terms of works, the Muslim must “be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity” (2:110), “complete the Hajj or Umrah”. (2:196) perform righteous deeds (2:277) be patient and constant, be humble, be chaste and must fast and remember Allah. (33:35) Orthodox Islam has codified these beliefs and actions in the form of the five pillars of Islam: the creed, daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage. Having outlined the various beliefs and practices required for salvation in Islam, it will be useful to explain how these good works help to achieve salvation. First, In Islam good deeds are weighed and if a person has enough they go to heaven and if they don’t, they don’t.40,41,42,43 (The notion
who obey Allah and the messenger are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of Allah,- of the prophets (who teach), the Sincere (lovers of Truth), the martyrs, and the Righteous (who do good): Ah! How beautiful is there fellowship!” 30 “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and beware (of evil): if ye do turn back, know ye that it is Our Messenger's duty to proclaim (the message) in the clearest manner.” (5:92) 31 “O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.” (4:59) 32“Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and beware (of evil): if ye do turn back, know ye that it is Our Messenger's duty to proclaim (the message) in the clearest manner.” (5:92) 33 “He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah. But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over them.” (4:80) 34 “That is because Allah is the Protector of those who believe, but those who reject Allah have no protector.” (47:11) 35 “In the end We deliver Our messengers and those who believe: Thus is it fitting on Our part that We should deliver those who believe!” (10:103) 36 “The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His angels, His books, and His messengers. ‘We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His messengers.’ And they say: ‘We hear, and we obey: (we seek) Thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys.’” (2:285) 37 “O ye who believe! Believe in Allah and His Messenger, and the scripture which He hath sent to His Messenger and the scripture which He sent to those before (him). Any who denieth Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messenger, and the Day of Judgment, hath gone far, far astray.” (4:136) 38 “Be ye foremost (in seeking) Forgiveness from your Lord, and a Garden (of Bliss), the width whereof is as the width of heaven and earth, prepared for those who believe in Allah and His messengers: that is the Grace of Allah, which He bestows on whom He pleases: and Allah is the Lord of Grace abounding.” (57:21) 39 Read 3:132; 4:13-14; 4:59; 4:80; 5:92; 9:29; 24:51; 24:54; 33:36; 48:10 40 "Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will be successful. But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in hell will they abide," (23:102-103). 41 “The balance that day will be true (to a nicety): those whose scale (of good) will be heavy, will prosper: Those whose scale will be light, will find their souls in perdition, for that they wrongfully treated Our Signs.” (7:8-9) 42 "And We set a just balance for the Day of Resurrection so that no soul is wronged in aught. Though it be of the weight of a grain of mustard seed, We bring it. And We suffice for reckoners," (21:47). 43 "They are those who deny the Signs of their Lord and the fact of their having to meet Him (in the Hereafter): vain will be their works, nor shall We, on the Day of Judgment, give them any weight," (18:105).
of good deeds outweighing bad deeds is nowhere mentioned in the Quran.) Second, in Islam good deeds erase bad deeds.44,45 (Although good deeds are rewarded more generously46 than bad deeds are punished, the Quran does not anywhere state that one good deed might erase more than one bad deed.) Third, to expiate certain sins, the Quran prescribes certain actions.47,48 Thus, to enter paradise, the Muslim has two broad aims: erasing his sins and accumulating enough good works these aims can sometimes be achieved simultaneously. WORKS AND ASSURANCE OF SALVATION Thus, with a better understanding of salvation by works, we must again ask: can the Muslim ever know whether they are saved on the basis of performing good deeds? Several considerations prevent the Muslim from being assured of their salvation: first, each of the prescribed beliefs and pillars of Islam are difficult in and of themselves and are often accompanied by certain conditions – thus, a life of steadfast obedience is not easy to achieve. Second, many of the pillars, and conditions surrounding them are not sufficiently clear (and rely on hadith traditions for clarification) and this adds to the overall lack of assurance. Third, even someone who does not do wrong, and obeys the Quran perfectly might not admitted into heaven, if their balance of good deeds is too light (and we are not told what the benchmark is). Forth, it is nowhere said how many sins, or what type of sins, will prevent a Muslim from entering paradise – thus any Muslim (no matter how faithfully they observe certain
“Lo, Good deeds annul ill deeds.” (11:114) “If ye disclose (acts of) charity, even so it is well, but if ye conceal them, and make them reach those (really) in need, that is best for you: It will remove from you some of your (stains of) evil. And Allah is well acquainted with what ye do.” (2:271) 46 “Allah is never unjust in the least degree: If there is any good (done), He doubleth it, and giveth from His own self a great reward.” (4:40) 47 O ye who believe! Kill not game while in the sacred precincts or in state of pilgrimage. If any of you doth so intentionally, the compensation is an offering, brought to the Kàba, of a domestic animal equivalent to the one he killed, as adjudged by two just men among you; or by way of atonement, the feeding of the indigent; or its equivalent in fasts: that he may taste of the penalty of his deed. Allah forgives what is past: for repetition Allah will punish him. For Allah is Exalted, and Lord of Retribution.” (5:95; Cf. 2:54, 177, 271; 4:16; 4:92; 24:2; 42:40-43; 58:2-4) 48 Allah will not call you to account for what is void in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths ye have sworn. But keep to your oaths. Thus doth Allah make clear to you His signs, that ye may be grateful. (5:89)
duties) might not achieve salvation, if they have committed too many bad deeds (again, we are not told what the benchmark is). Fifth, there is no complete or thorough, “table of conversions” that details which good deeds will atone for specific bad deeds, and in the absence of such a device, assurance is impossible. Reasonably, a really bad deed would require a lot of good deeds to atone for it. However, who is to say that lying is not a really bad deed and that a thousand or more good deeds are required to atone for it? Thus, we see the absolute necessity of a table of conversions, of some sort. Without it, the, “good deeds annul bad deeds” idea is practically useless. In summary, we do not know how many (or what type of) good deeds the Muslim requires to enter, or how many (or what type of) bad deeds they require to be banned, and we do not have a table of conversions that would help to sort this mess out. Thus, overall, no Muslim can be even slightly assured of their salvation (even though God is oftmerciful and oft-forgiving (to the deserving)). Perhaps this is why certain prominent Muslims have died expressing doubts as to their own salvation. Abu Bakr reportedly told Aisha on his deathbed, “Oh my daughter, this is the day of my release and of obtaining of my desert—if gladness it will be lasting; if sorrow it will never cease.” Umar, Abu Bakr’s successor expressed similar doubts of his own salvation.49 THE FIVE PILLARS The word, “pillar,” suggests a stable structure, which supports a roof or some other edifice. “The five pillars of Islam,” seems to denote an impressive, monolithic structure, such as the Parthenon or a great mosque or cathedral. However, we have mentioned earlier (in passing), that these, “pillars” are not as secure as the wording suggests. For instance the creed entails that Muslims recite, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Yet this phrase is not found in the Quran. The closest we come to this phrase is,
‘...I am none other than as a drowning man who sees possibility of escape with life, and hopeth for it, but feareth he may die and lose it, and so plungeth about with hands and feet. More desperate than the drowning man is he who at the sight of heaven and hell is buried in the vision ... Had I the whole East and West, gladly would I give up all to be delivered from this awful terror that is hanging over me.’ And finally touching his face against the ground he cried aloud: ‘Alas for Umar, and alas for the mother of Umar, if it should not please the Lord to pardon me’.
“There is no God but Allah.” (And nowhere are we told to recite this verse in particular.) Additionally, orthodox Muslims believe that it is heresy to recite the creed from the Quran (as opposed to the orthodox creed).50 Regarding Muslim prayers, the various traditions and rituals that predominate the prayers in orthodox Islam are not found anywhere in the Quran. Additionally, some groups hold that the Quran only describes three times of prayer, while orthodoxy requires five separate prayer times. Certain hadith traditions evolved to excuse Muslim’s from saying their prayers and to minimise the stringency of this pillar, however, the Quran does not support these traditions. Rather the Quran singles out, “those who miss prayers,” as one of the features of a group heading for destruction. 51 Regarding almsgiving, Muslims usually give 2.5% of their wealth, however, this percentage is not mentioned in the Quran. It would be a shame if Muslims reached the day of judgement and discovered that wasn’t enough! Regarding the pilgrimage, the Quran states that the pilgrimage is compulsory “for those that can find their way.” (Notice, the verse does not say, “for those who can afford it.”) Certain hadith and Sunna traditions state that the pilgrimage only needs to be completed once, and only by those who have the means to do so. However, the Quran makes no such concessions. Muslims are repeatedly told to do only what is within their means, however, what is in their means is debatable. (For instance, walking is within most Muslim people means.) In addition, the pillars are not mentioned anywhere explicitly; the Muslim’s religious obligations are nowhere grouped under five neat categories, which will assure them of salvation. This is significant seeing as there are many injunctions in the Quran that are not mentioned in the five pillars, and many restrictions that are not mentioned in the five pillars. Thus, it would be foolish for the Muslim to believe that these pillars alone will get them to heaven, since there are many things that the Muslim is instructed to do that are not in the pillars, and many things which the Muslim is forbidden from doing which are not in the pillars. The five
Wikipedia, Criticism of the Quran But after them there followed a posterity who missed prayers and followed after lusts soon, then, will they face Destruction.” (19:59)
pillars might represent the core of what it means to be a Muslim but the pillars do not constitute a complete guide to heaven. (After all, the five pillars are remarkably self-serving. Even almsgiving is generally held to be only for poor Muslims, and although some of the pillars are often accompanied by charitable giving, the primary function of the other five pillars is to honour Allah and for personal and corporate spiritual development. Thus, it would seem strange for paradise to be awarded purely on the basis of insular religious rituals.) Overall, the five pillars have one or two cracks and chips (not to be underestimated), which make the integrity of these structures doubtful. How much eternal security can the Muslim derive from these pillars, which themselves are uncertain? After all, it is not as though these cracks are insignificant, some of these uncertainties could make the difference between heaven and hell. HADITH AND SUNNA TRADITIONS Many orthodox Muslims place their hope of eventual salvation in certain hadith and Sunna traditions, which satisfy their need for eternal security. Many traditions evolved in response to the difficulties associated with the five pillars of Islam (above). Many traditions supply details that are not found in the bare-bones, fragmented descriptions given in the Quran: the five prayers and modes of prayer are all related in greater detail in the hadith than in the Quran; the various rules surrounding the pilgrimage and the fast are found in the Sunna but not the Quran, etc. Other traditions attempt to solve the problem of eternal assurance in a more direct way. For instance, some traditions relate that God might choose grace and mercy instead of strict justice. Other traditions express that Mohammad himself will intercede on behalf of believers and that his intercession will be successful. Some traditions relate God’s willingness to forgive sins and how easily bad deeds are erased by good deeds, etc. Concerning these traditions, notice, first, that they clearly highlight the inadequacy of the Quran as a single source of guidance, despite the fact that the Quran describes itself as, “complete,” and, “fully detailed.” (6:11-116; 7:52) Thus, the Msulim’s reliance on these traditions arguably contradicts and undermines the 13
Quran. Second, notice that whereas the Quran is supposedly perfect, the sunna and hadith are not held to be inerrent. Muslim scholars concede that that certain traditions were invented to give credence to certain legal theories, etc. Additionally, many traditions contradict each other and the Quran.
“In their earliest stages, the hadith were muddled and totally unregulated, making the authentication almost impossible *…+ in less than two centuries after Mohammed's death, there were already some 700,000 at the end circulated throughout the Muslim lands, the majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimise their own particular beliefs and practices by connecting them with the prophet *…+ by the ninth century, there were so many false hadith circulating through the community that Muslim legal scholars somewhat whimsically classified them into categories: lies told for material gain and lies told for ideological 52 advantage.”
The hadith and Sunna are important sources of history. No doubt, any of the sayings recorded in them are essentially correct. Even the most trusted hadith collections have been shown to contain unreliable traditions. Although they are useful guides, they are not something to gamble your soul on. However, even assuming that these traditions are true, the Muslim still has to justify their use of the Sunna and hadith. Muslims ordinarily justify this thinking on the basis that the Quran instructs them repeatedly to, “believe in God and the Messenger.” “Believe in the prophet,” is taken to refer to Muhammad’s other utterances found in the Sunna and hadith. However, notice, that this connection is tenuous: it is not certain that, “trust the messenger,” means, “trust everything the messenger says,” or, “trust in something besides the Quran.” If this connection is not certain, then no assurance can be derived from these sources. It would be foolish and irresponsible for the Muslim to place their eternal hope in sources that contradict the Quran, which are unreliable and which are not specifically endorced by the Quran. Moreover, even if we excuse these criticisms, it seems inexcusable for the Quran to ommit so many important details relating to the allAslan, Reza. No God but God. Arrow books. 2006. p. 67-8
important topic: salvation – especially seeing as hell In Islam is so terrifying and salvation, ipso facto, is so important. Thus, these traditions fail to provide eternal security and instead the Muslim is left only with a glaring admission of the inadequacy of the Quran, and the Islamic doctrine of salvation. Thus, what was intented to establish assurance creates only more serious doubt. DO ONLY WHAT YOU CAN DO The Quran reassures Muslims that they need only do what is within their ability.53 This might be reassuring, if was not for the vagueness of the phrase, “within their ability.” For what a person is capable of, depends on how hard they push themselves. Thus, “within their ability” (with regards to any individual) encompasses every level of human effort, from the most slothful, to the most frantic endeavours. Thus, to say, “do what is within your ability,” is a remarkably vacuous, unhelpful epithet. Besides this, any relaxation, with regards to doing good works is diametrically opposed to success in a works-basedsalvation. Admittance into heaven, in Islam, is explicitly stated to be a matter of quantity (perhaps combined with quality) of good works (“Those whose measure is heavy”). Again, it is only the most pious (the most sincere, most diligent, etc.) that will be snatched from the fire. Thus, the more good quality (sincere, etc.) works, the better, and the less good works, the worse we will fair at judgement. Any neglect of duty, for any reason and failure to do one’s utmost for God, might have eternal and infernal consequences. Thus, any relaxation, with respect to performing good deeds, may lead to perdition. The two principles are contradictory: one verse tells us to do more, the other tells us to do less. The most prudent decision is always to do more, to stay on the safe side. (Moreover, the concept of the, “greater jihad” describes the struggle or fight for righteousness (“fight in the way of Allah”) and the injunction to struggle for righteousness is directly opposed to the, “do only what you can,” proposition.) Thus, No comfort or security can be gained from such verses.
“No burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear.” (7:42)
A GUARANTEE OF HELL If there was not already enough doubt surrounding the Islamic doctrine of salvation, and assurance of salvation, no treatment of the Islamic doctrine would be complete without mentioning the thorny Quranic verse which emphatically states that all Muslim people go directly to hell (the burning fire) and that only some pious Muslim’s might be saved. 54,55,56,57 (I include several translations.) Notice (1) that all Muslims (barring none) go to hell (2) that hell is a harsh environment; not just “fire” but “burning fire,” (in case we thought the fire was just for show) (3) that a limited number (“some”) are saved (4) that only the most pious are saved (5) that they are not guaranteed salvation (“might be saved”). Moreover, notice how Allah stamps his authority on the verse, saying, “This is an inevitable decree of your Lord.” As one might expect, traditions developed to moderate the obvious horror of the literal meaning of this verse. Thus, it was theorised that this verse does not describe hell but a sort of purgatory that all Muslims needed to quickly and painlessly pass through in order to enter paradise. In response, notice, first, that all the criticisms concerning the use of traditions to supplement the Quran also apply in this case (see previous paragraph). Second, notice that this verse clearly emphasises the harshness of the environment and the fact that only a limited number will be saved; thus, any tradition that relates the mildness of the environment and that many (or all) will be saved is, at least, deflating and, at most, contradicting the plain meaning of the text. The verse is not meant to be reasonable and it is dangerous to attempt to make it so. Thus, the Muslim has even more reason to doubt their salvation, and it becomes increasingly obvious that the Muslim cannot possibly have any
There will be no one of you who will not enter it (Hell). This was an inevitable decree of your Lord. Afterwards he MAY save some of the pious, God-fearing Muslims out of the burning fire. (19:71-72) 55 Every soul will taste of death. And ye will be paid on the Day of Resurrection only that which ye have fairly earned. Whoso is removed from the Fire and is made to enter paradise, he indeed is triumphant. The life of this world is but comfort of illusion. (Pickthall) 56 No one of you there is, but he shall go down to it. That for thy Lord is a thing decreed, determined. Then We shall deliver these that were God-fearing; and the evildoers We shall leave there, hobbling on their knees. (A.J. Arberry) 57 There is not one of you but will pass over it (Hell); this is with your Lord; a Decree which must be accomplished. Then We shall save those who use to fear Allah and were dutiful to Him. And We shall leave the Zalimoon (polytheists and wrongdoers, etc.) therein (humbled) to their knees (in Hell). (Muhsin and Hilali)
assurance of salvation (this verse is arguably intended to undermine the Muslim’s confidence.) Rather, the Muslim is assured of damnation and after some time God might decide to pluck them out, if they have been good and depending on how he feels. This is the inevitable decree of Allah and it is not anyone’s place to try to undermine the inevitable decree of God. A GUARANTEE OF HEAVEN There is only one way, given in the Quran, whereby the Muslim can gain complete assurance of their salvation: full assurance is given to those who leave their homes and die in the cause of Allah 58 and those that kill and are killed, “in Allah’s way,” are guaranteed heaven (the garden) by a binding promise.59 Thus, a religion with a stomachturning version of hell, and a complete lack of assurance of salvation, offers one foolproof ticket to paradise: murder or martyrdom. One has to question the wisdom of offering one (violent) way to heaven to a multitude of people who are desperate to get there and who see no other way. Intentionally or unintentionally, this verse is a perpetual inspiration towards violent conflict and martyrdom, which is the only sure pathway to heaven (and terrorism can’t be far behind). Whether this is a right or wrong application of these verses, the fact remains that many people will interpret these verses as an inspiration for war and it is reasonable to think that a wise God would have foreseen such a calamity and prevented it. Thus, either God means this verse to inspire violence (which is a terrible thought) or God did it by accident (an even more terrible thought). The reader may make up his or her own mind as to which alternative is more likely. CONTINUITY OF REVELATIONS In the Torah (the revelation of Moses) God authorised a system of animal sacrifice. The sins of the people were imputed to the beast
“Those who leave their homes in the Cause of Allah, and are then slain or die,- on them will Allah bestow verily a goodly Provision. Truly Allah is He Who bestows the best provision. Verily He will admit them to a place with which they shall be well pleased: for Allah is All-Knowing, Most Forbearing.” (22:58-59) 59 Surely Allah has bought of the believers their persons and their property for this, that they shall have the garden; they fight in Allah's way, so they slay and are slain; a promise which is binding on Him in the Taurat [Torah] and the Injeel [Gospels] and the Quran; and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Rejoice therefore in the pledge which you have made; and that is the mighty achievement.
and the animal was killed in their stead. Thus, God received, “payment” (in blood) by death for sins committed. The penalty for the sin being committed is still executed, but on a scapegoat instead of the offender. In Christianity, Christ (being the Son of God) became the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – an infinite sacrifice, of infinite innocence, for all people, for all time. Thus, the sin is paid for (in blood) by death. (Notice the continuity between Judaism and Christianity: Christianity stays true to (and develops) the Jewish system. Christians believe that the previous system prepared people to accept Christianity and foreshadowed the Christian system; thus Christianity fulfils the Jewish system, rather than abolishing or contradicting it. Islam claims to be the final revelation, in a long line of revelations, therefore, how does Islam continue or develop previous messages? Muslims offer good deeds to atone for bad deeds. Perhaps this is progressive – no animal is slaughtered and God does not demand violent satisfaction. The problem with this is that the more progressive the Islamic system is, the more backwards the previous revelations were, and God was the author of these also (the Jewish sacrificial system is confirmed in the Quran, although the current Christian system is believed to be corrupt.) That leaves Allah demanding the slaughter of millions helpless animals for a few thousand years, when he really did not have to. This is ultimately a problem of God’s character: for God to use two unrelated methods of salvation makes God appear inconsistent and unsure of the best method to use. For God to abandon one method, in favour of a superior method, makes it appear that God made the mistake of using an inferior method. Thus, the Muslim must explain the disparity or continuity between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic moral systems, while not insulting the systems that Allah previously instituted. The Muslim must explain what the all-wise God’s perfect plan was with regards to salvation, and how and why he unfolded this plan. The fact that this problem of continuity has not already been addressed is a serious problem for Islamic thought, since salvation is such a crucial element of any faith. One must assume that such an explanation was not attempted because it is difficult or impossible
and because it highlights a serious problem in Islamic thought, which many Muslims would rather not think about. CONCLUSION Mercy is misleading; it’s only granted to the obedient. Repentance is not as bountiful as some would have us believe. Good deeds are required to escape hell, but these good deeds, and how to perform them are not clear; the five pillars are not worthy of so sturdy a name. We do not know how many good works ensure us of heaven or how many bad works consign us to hell. Thus, even if we do all these questionable works, to the best of our ability, we might not do them well enough or often enough – to reach the pass mark or to escape out sins. Good deeds cancel bad deeds. But which good deeds cancel which bad deeds? The Quran does not say. The result of these omissions is complete uncertainty: The most pious Muslim might not be saved; the most wicked Muslim might not be damned, depending on these unanswered questions. With these facts in doubt no person can have any reasonable expectation of going to heaven or hell. The most fallen Muslim has as much security (or lack of it) as the most pious Muslim; they are both equally in the dark. The most we can do is the best we can do, and we’ll have to hope that that’s enough, even though we have no idea. It’s like a test with no pass mark, no mark allocation and no method of marking that we know of. Why would anyone convert to a religion that offers not one iota of eternal security? The prospect of rigorous lifelong obedience, with not even the smallest reasonable expectation of heaven, is not all that enticing. The vast majority of Muslims might well be going to hell and when they get there they will not even be able to say that they have been mislead or that they had any reason to expected otherwise. In fact, every Muslim is assured of hell, while only the most pious might be saved. The only sure way to heaven is, “kill or be killed”. Every person with a conscience ought to worry about such incitements to violence and ought to reject their divinity. Why would anyone believe in a religion, which offers no hope of salvation and contains continuous inspirations for suicidal/homicidal fanatics? Out of desperation, Muslims turn to dubious traditions, which prove the Quran’s 19
insufficiency. Every Muslim who consults far-fetched extra-Quranic sources, confirms every word of this essay through their actions. Added to this, the last revelation has no continuity with earlier revelations, which has implications for God’s character. This further weakens Islam’s already strained credibility. When it comes to salvation, Islam fails to deliver or to convince. Thus, due to the critical importance of salvation in religion in general, Islam fails to qualify as a credible religion. Islam fails with respect to salvation, and, thus, any other successes are moot; Islam fails in this point, and, thus, it fails in all points. POSTSCRIPT: EXCLUSIVITY One of the more interesting asides, on the topic of Islamic salvation, it the question of exclusivity: is Islam the one exclusive way of salvation. Whether a religion is exclusive or not is an interesting trade off: if a religion is not exclusive, the religion gains points for tolerance and openness but it then lacks the power to convert people, who might just as easily believe in another religion. If a religion is excusive, it loses points for narrow-mindedness and intolerance but it justifies belief in that faith, over and above belief in other faiths. Many Muslims currently hold that Islam is the only way of salvation. They base this view on the various, “believe in the prophet and his revelation,” verses. However, it is possible that these verses apply only to Muslims, while Jews and Christians have different beliefs and practices based on their own revelations: “each to his own”. There are various reasons for believing this to be true: The Quran attaches Jews and Christians (people of the book) with protected status. The Quran oftentimes mentions, “unbelievers,” however, there is not reason to think that Christian and Jews are lumped into this category, since they are believers in God’s revelations. Jews and Muslims coexisted and cooperated peacefully in Medina. Many Islamic traditions were inspired by Jewish traditions; Mohammad introduced these traditions as a way to develop a connection to Judaism. The prohibition of pork is one example. Muslims originally faced Jerusalem, not Mecca, while praying. The fast originally coincided with the Jewish festival, Yom Kippur. The Muslim day of worship 20
(Friday) was specifically chosen not to interfere with the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Additionally, Mohammad told his followers to marry Jews as he did himself. One verse states that right-acting Jews and Christians will have nothing to fear on the Judgement: “Low! Those who believe and those who are Jews, and Sabians, and Christians – whosoever believers in either at the last day and doeth right – there shall be no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.” (5:69) The Quran never states that the Jewish or Christian revelations are corrupted – as many Muslims commonly believe – although it does attack particular teachings: the crucifixion, the trinity, the incarnation, etc. It seems, rather, that Mohammad criticised only disobedient Jews and Christians; those who did not live up to their own principles. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Mohammad envisioned Islam as the one exclusive religion. The idea that Islam was the only way of salvation arose during the Ridda wars – wars lead by Abu Bakr, after Mohammad’s death, intended to quell certain upstart holy men and make small nearby tribes pay their taxes to the fledgling Islamic state. Thus, Islam appears to fall into the nonexclusive category, as one true religion amongst a few others. If this is so, then one wonders why anyone would convert to, or remain in, a religion that is so deficient with regards to salvation, when they might just as easily convert to another. If one prefers salvation by works, then Jews have a far more organised code of behaviour in the Torah. If one prefers grace (which is inevitably followed by works), then Christians offer a more attractive alternative.
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