Saturday, May 21, 2011

Assurance of Salvation in Islam

From the manifestation of divine love in history, let us move to consider its manifestation in the hereafter: forgiveness and final salvation. Some people often contrast the Islamic position on this subject with that of Christianity by pointing to the following two differences:
  • In Islam salvation comes by the efforts of the Muslim in observing a code of law, whereas in Christianity it is given as a free gift to Christians; and
  • During his life a Muslim has no assurance of salvation, whereas a Christian already has the certainty that they will have salvation.
In Islam, man's own effort is not at all decisive for his salvation in the sense that the salvation is not regarded as the sole result of that effort. This point is emphasized in the famous hadith in which 'Ayesha is told by the Prophet that none can enter paradise except by God's grace and 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, the best of all beings after God, is dependent on God's grace emphasizes the significance of that grace for salvation as forcefully and effectively as the entire theology of the Cross may do for a Christian.
The tradition just alluded to emphasizes the role of divine grace after a person has attained faith and done his best, but as we noted above, the Qur'an also teaches that the establishment of a relationship with God, acquisition of faith and of good qualities and conduct are themselves gifts of divine grace that people who are to be saved receive.
Thus in Islam man is saved by two acts of divine grace:
  • one by which he acquires faith and the type of qualities and conduct which God loves,
  • and the other by which any shortcomings, misjudgments or sins are forgiven and he is rewarded with paradise.
The effort that the Muslim exerts in the way of doing good and obeying the Islamic Shari'ah or law is not, according to the Qur'an, an act of sheer will on the part of the Muslim but 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. 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 of good deeds ('aml saleh) that are generally mentioned in Qur'anic promises of salvation (see the passages quoted below). But clearly a code of law is a necessary element in every religion like Islam which organizes a community.
The view that divine grace is decisive for salvation and that man's efforts in the way of good and the acquisition by him of good qualities is part of the workings of that grace, inevitably leads to the idea of predestination, as expounded in many traditions such as the following:
"Verily God created Adam and then rubbed his back with His right hand and took out a progeny from him and said: I created these for Paradise and with the actions of the inmates of Paradise which they will do. Afterwards He rubbed his back with His hand and took out a progeny from him and said: I created these for Hell and with the actions of the inmates of Hell which they will do." (Bukhari)
This, of course, raises the question of why God's grace and salvation is given to some but not to others. This question is related to the problem of evil. It arises in every religion, since there is found in every religion [which are basically remnants of a prophetic teachings, who brought earlier versions of Islam - commitment to God to live in peace, or being in a harmonious submission to God's will and natural moral laws] the idea, in one form or the other, that God does not treat all people in the same way and that it ultimately depends on God how He treats His creatures.
There is really no answer to the question. It relates to the deepest mysteries of existence which we cannot solve, at least not in our present existence. One phenomenon we can reflect upon is that every person has been given a free will to choose between right and wrong, evil and good, but nevertheless it's a deep and difficult subject and since we cannot answer the question, hadith advises us not to enter into any arguments about it.
We now discuss the question of what kind of assurance of divine forgiveness and salvation Islam brings to humankind. In this regard we can state from the outset that the Qur'an rejects the idea of salvation - popular in all religions but given a more official position in some brands of Christianity and Judaism -- which begins by defining a group of people in some mechanical way -- e.g. as all those who undergo a ritual trip in the water, or agree 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.
The Qur'an rather indicates, and attempts to inculcate, certain attitudes, qualities and a stage of spiritual development and promises salvation to all those who have attained those attitudes, qualities etc; at the same time it indicates certain other attitudes, qualities etc. and warns those who possess them 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." (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." (2: 111-112)
[Note that the Qur'an first mentions "whosoever surrenders his self to God" then "and is a doer of good". Doing good deeds is a natural consequence of "surrendering one's self to God" since as the 'self' (nafs; soul). As it journeys through this life (a maturation ground for it), by surrendering to the Reality, it not only becomes in harmony with the Divine Laws, it also becomes aware of those deeds that are harmful to its development and those that are good. As it continues onwards in its journey to reach higher levels of consciousness, it also becomes natural for it to do good deeds as they provide the boundaries within which it has the maximum chance of developing.]
"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." (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." (5:69)
[this verse universalizes 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 and gives salvation only to those people who identify themselves with the group carrying a particular label. Rather, anyone, no matter which group they belong to, is being offered God's mercy and promise of salvation, and is capable of accepting it.
The Qur'an states in another ayât that every soul that is born is born in it natural predisposition. Since every soul has come from God, it must have first met Him and knows it.
As a matter of fact, another ayât in the Qur'an states that God once recalled all souls and asked them who their Lord was and 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 also of a physical nature that provides another dimension for the development of the 'self' (soul), as he grows, he is influenced by external factors: parents, society, books he reads, etc. And, they all have an influence on his thinking and shaping of his beliefs.
Through this period of development, his beliefs about God may get corrupted. Hence a divine revelation is needed to remedy that situation. Now, what if, the true revelation of God does not reach a person, who has developed a corrupted 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. We don't know how the revelation of God has reached a person and what his level of intelligence and ability to comprehend is.]
"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 may be 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."' (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." (4:116; cf. 4:48)
['He forgives who He pleases', when examined within the context of the Qur'an does not mean that He is 'random' about it. Rather, it is done through specific divine laws, and He is all-Wise, all-Knowing, and Merciful.
Punishment of some souls does not mean that He is not Merciful. He has a global view of all existence in all dimensions and phases -- including the Hereafter, which is in a non-time zone and is, therefore, eternal and permanent.
Our view is extremely local and narrow. Compare to His view, our view is simply negligible. It's like when we mow our lawn, trim grass, get rid of weeds, we have the benefit and the health of the over-all existence of our little garden in our mind. We know what plants (weeds) are dangerous to the existence of other plants and grass. We know if we didn't mow and trim our lawn and get rid of the weeds, it would not only look ugly, but the neighbors are sure to complain about it and will consider us a very sloppy and unkind (to the plants and grass) person.
However, one small piece of grass that has been cut does not have the view of the garden we do. 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 given consciousness and ability to speak, it would surely complain 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 us a very cruel person who has no mercy and love for it. Even its neighboring plants would consider us very evil that we got rid of their 'friend' weed.
They don't know it could have harmed them as well. But, since our view of our garden is much more global and its overall health and beauty is our concern -- and we certainly love our garden and its plants, we can not allow a weed to grow wildly and not trim the grass.
Similarly, punishment of some people in the Hereafter does not mean that God is not all-Merciful, since our view is like the view of a blade of grass, in reality, 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." (39:53)
[Muhammad Asad comments on this verse: "Sc. 'whenever the sinner repents and turns to Him': Cf. for instance, 6:54 -- 'Your Sustainer has willed upon Himself the law of grace and mercy -- so that if any of you does a bad deed out of ignorance, and thereafter repents and lives righteously, He shall be [found] much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace'; or 4:110 -- 'he who does evil or (otherwise) sins against himself, and thereafter prays to God to forgive him, shall find God much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace'. "]
From the passages quoted above we see that the Qur'an does not see membership in any particular group as either essential or enough for salvation. In fact it criticizes the Jews and Christians for such a view of salvation. It makes its promise of salvation not for those who bear certain labels but for those who have certain type of attitudes, qualities and conduct, e.g. make God the sole object of their deepest devotion, allegiance and trust, have a submissive attitude toward His signs [in order to be in equilibrium with the Divine law], believe in the hereafter, do good and avoid doing things that are generally recognized 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 those who do not commit shirk. [i.e. do not elevate anyone to the level of the Reality in their devotions to Him, for this is the height of one's arrogance and conscious deviation from the path of Unity.]
Since total assurance of salvation is only for those who have firm faith in God and the Hereafter [i.e., conviction that one came from God and one is returning to Him in the eternal non-time, non-space dimension, where one will face reckoning and final destination of one's 'self' will be decided, which will be based upon the 'state' the self is at when leaving this existence that is within the confines of the physical body given as a vehicle for the 'self' to grow in consciousness], have an inner relationship of love and obedience with God [i.e., the self is in alignment with the natural laws created by the Reality that brings peace and harmony to the self as it is in equilibrium with God's will], and possess good qualities of heart and conduct, it is difficult in general for us mortals to say of any particular individual whether he is saved or not.

For the state of a person's heart and his whole worth cannot be known to us with certainty. [only God has that knowledge with utmost certainty, 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 us a single deed of love performed by a man in private, with only God watching him, may outweigh all the bad things that we may have seen him doing, and conversely, private conduct of another man may make worthless many of his public virtues.

For these reasons a Muslim is very cautious about making any categorical statement about the ultimate fate of specific individuals, including himself. He never presumes himself to be a soul already saved but humbly leads his entire life in a state of mind that lies between hope and fear. To abandon either hope or fear is considered a sin by him.

Thus the assumption made by some people that during this life a Muslim does not feel completely assured of salvation is valid but this neither because the Muslim believes in an arbitrary despotic God, nor because Islam is unclear about what is needed for salvation. Rather a Muslim's hopeful uncertainty about his final salvation arises out of the difficulty on the part of human beings of judging with complete certainty whether a man has what is needed to be saved