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A Muslim Perspective on Judgement and Salvation

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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In Islam, a person’s own effort is not at all decisive for their own salvation in the sense that the salvation is not regarded as the sole result of that effort. This point is emphasised in the famous hadith in which Ayesha is told by the Prophet that none can enter paradise except by God’s grace. When she asked him if this applied to him as well, he answered that it did. For a Muslim this one fact, that even the Prophet Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be the best example to humanity, is dependent on God’s grace, emphasises the significance of that grace for salvation as forcefully and effectively as the entire theology of the Cross may do for a Christian.

Divine grace

The Muslim tradition emphasises the role of divine grace after a person has attained faith and done their best.
Thus in Islam a person is saved by two acts of divine grace:
•    one by which a person acquires faith and the type of qualities and conduct which God loves
•    the other by which any shortcomings, misjudgments or sins are forgiven and a person is rewarded with paradise.
The effort that a Muslim exerts in doing good is not, according to the Qur’an, an act of sheer will on the part of the Muslim. It is a natural result of his character, the type of heart and mind that he acquires as a result of the first act of divine grace. That is why much of what the Qur’an expects the faithful to do, or not to do, is stated not as commandments (You shall, or shall not, do this) but as descriptions of the characteristics of the faithful. Believers are those who do, or do not do, such and such an action. Moreover, in the Qur’an a code of law, and adherence to it, is not in the forefront. It is rather faith, a relationship with God, and doing good deeds (‘amal saleh) that are generally mentioned in Qur’anic promises of salvation. But clearly a code of law is a necessary element in every religion, like Islam, which organises a community.

Salvation is offered to all

Islam rejects the idea that salvation begins by identifying a group of people in some mechanical way, like those  performing a special type of pilgrimage, or agreeing to profess a system of dogmas or adhere to a code of law, and then promises salvation to all members of that group while declaring the rest of humankind to be doomed. Rather the Qur’an indicates, and attempts to inculcate, certain attitudes, qualities and a stage of spiritual development. It promises salvation to all those who have attained those attitudes and qualities and warns those who hold other attitudes of divine punishment. The following passages give a fair idea of the basic attitudes and qualities of those who are assured of salvation:
Verily those who say our Lord and Supporter (Rabb) is God and thereafter stand firm (in their faith in God) - no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. They are destined for paradise, therein to abide permanently as a reward for what they did.
(Qur’an, 46:13-14)
And they (the Jews and the Christians) claim, none shall enter paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. Such are their vain thoughts. Say, produce your proof, if you are truthful. Nay, but whosoever surrenders his self to God and is a doer of good, shall have his reward with his Lord; and all such need have no fear nor shall they grieve.
(Qur’an, 2: 111-112)
Behold, surely, those who have close relationship with God (lit. are friends of God) – no fear need they have, nor shall they grieve – those who have attained faith and have been mindful of God. For them there is the good news (of peace and contentment) in the life of this world and in the life to come – nothing can alter the promises of God - this is the triumph that is supreme I.
(Qur’an, 10:62-64)
Surely those who have believed (in the Prophet Muhammad) and the Jew, the Sabians and the Christians – any who have faith in God and the Last Day and do good – on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
(Qur’an, 5:69)
Many scholars are of the opinion that the verse above universalises the promise of salvation. What this verse is suggesting is that God does not go by the ‘religious labels’ that we have put on ourselves giving salvation only to those people who identify themselves with the group carrying one particular label. Rather, anyone, no matter which group they belong to, is offered God’s mercy and promise of salvation, and is capable of accepting it.
The Qur’an states in another verse that every soul that is born is born in its natural predisposition. Since every soul has come from God, it must have first met Him and knows it.

The need for divine revelation

Indeed, another verse  in the Qur’an states that God once recalled all souls and asked them who their Lord was. To which everyone responded by saying that it was Him. This suggests that the awareness of the Reality is already built into our consciousness. However, after a person has been born into this existence, which is of a physical nature and provides another dimension for the development of the ‘self’ (soul), as he grows, he is influenced by external factors. These include things like parents, society, books he reads and all have an influence on his thinking and the shaping of his beliefs. Through this period of development, a person’s beliefs about God may get corrupted so a divine revelation is needed to remedy that situation.
Now, what if, the true understanding of God is not reached by a person, who has developed an incomplete awareness of the Reality, in a meaningful and comprehensible form? Well, that’s precisely why we should not judge anyone in this life, and should leave this matter to God Alone. Only He knows the secrets of one’s heart
And to God belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth, so that He rewards those who do evil according to what they did and rewards those who do good with what is best – those who avoid great sins and shameful deeds (falling, perhaps, into) only small faults; verily your Supporter and Lord is generous in forgiving. He knows you when He brings you out of the earth and when you are hidden in your mother’s wombs. Therefore justify yourselves not. He knows best who it is who guards against evil.
(Qur’an, 53:32)
Verily God does not forgive if one associates others with God (in his allegiance, love and devotion to Him) but He forgives whom He pleases for sins other than that, for, one who associates other gods with God has indeed strayed far, far away.
(Qur’an, 4:116; cf. 4:48)
‘He forgives who He pleases’, when examined within the context of the Qur’an does not mean that God works in a random manner. Rather, it is done through specific divine laws, and He is all-Wise, all-Knowing, and Merciful.

A helpful analogy
An extremely simplistic analogy often drawn is that of a gardener tending his garden. He mows his lawn, trims grass, gets rid of weeds and cultivates fruits and flowers. He has the benefit and the health of the over-all existence of his garden in mind. However, one small piece of grass that has been cut does not have the view of the garden that the gardener has. It only knows of its own existence or the grass blades around it and is only concerned with its own existence and interests. It’s very selfish. If it were to be given consciousness and ability to speak, it would surely question why it was trimmed or cut. If it were a weed, it would complain why it was denied the opportunity for further growth. It would surely consider the gardener a very cruel person with no mercy or love for it. Even neighbouring plants would consider him evil to have destroyed their ‘friend’ weed. They don’t know it could have harmed them as well. But, since the gardener’s view of his garden is much more global and its overall health and beauty is the main concern, a weed cannot be allowed to grow wildly nor can the grass be left untrimmed.
Similarly, Muslims do not believe that the punishment of some people in the Hereafter means that God is not all-Merciful, since our view is like the view of a blade of grass, in reality, it is even smaller.

The last verse talks of forgiveness after a person dies without due repentance and reform. During one’s life, however, every sin can be completely washed away after a person duly turns to his Lord in sincere repentance:
Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against your souls! Despair not of the grace of God, for God forgives sins, all of them, for He is much forgiving, most merciful.’
(Qur’an, 39:53)

Many Muslim scholars observe that the Qur’an does not identify membership of any particular group as either essential or sufficient for salvation. In fact it criticises other faiths for such a view of salvation. The Qur’an makes its promise of salvation not for those who bear certain labels but for those who have certain types of attitudes, qualities and conduct, doing good or for avoiding actions that are generally recognised to be sinful and shameful. While the guarantee of salvation is given in the Qur’an only to such people, the possibility of salvation is open to all.

Only God has full knowledge

Muslims believe that the state of a person’s heart and his whole worth can never be known to us with certainty. Only God has that knowledge for certain, and He is Merciful and oft-Forgiving. There is also the unknown future; a person judged to be bad now may turn out to be very good later on and vice versa. Moreover, the relative value of a person’s deeds cannot be determined by humans. A single deed of love performed by a man in private, with only God watching him, may outweigh all the bad things that he was seen him doing, and, conversely, the private conduct of a person may make worthless many of their public virtues. For these reasons a Muslim is very cautious about making any categorical statement about the ultimate fate of specific individuals, including themselves.