A Summary of the Qur'anic Teaching on Salvation
By Callum Beck
The doctrine of salvation in the Qur’an is not easy to unravel. Some passages seem close to the Protestant idea that salvation is by ‘faith alone,’ others seem closer to the Catholic doctrine that salvation is by faith plus works. Some stress Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, others speak of an exact balance that will weigh our good deeds against our bad ones. Still others are very similar to the Calvinist doctrine that God predestines some to heaven and some to hell. Issues like intention (nia) and the intercession of the prophet(s) also come into the discussion. In trying to understand this doctrine I re-read through the entire Qur’an and catalogued every passage related to this topic. In May of 1995 I presented my conclusions to a group of Muslims at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which was followed by a long and stimulating discussion on the topic. This article is a re-working of that talk.
The Qur'an suggests four pathways to salvation, belief, works, repentance and predestination. When discussing how one can be saved Muslims also will mention things like intention, the intercession of the prophets and a purgatory like state, but these are not really separate categories but fit under one or more of the above four. Our intentions will be taken into account when our works are weighed, the prophet’s intercession is part of Allah’s merciful actions, and the idea of spending a short term in hell is payment for our evil deeds.
The real important questions are how do all of these relate together, and which teachings(s) is (are) primary? At my talk in Montreal some of the Muslim respondents emphasized faith, others works and yet others Allah’s mercy, and a few felt one’s intentions were of paramount importance. None believed in predestination but this doctrine, historically, may be the most common position held by Muslims. Probably the average modern Muslim, however, would believe that salvation is by works, though some modern Muslim debaters, in response to the Christian affirmation of salvation by grace, are particularly starting to emphasize belief and repentance. From my study, however, it seems clear that the Qur'an puts works and/or predestination as the primary concept(s). Belief then, in effect, is the first and most important work, and repentance impacts the Balance as a work which removes some of the weight of our evil deeds. The issue then is this: Does Allah predetermine all of our actions or do we freely choose them? We will now discuss the Qur’anic teaching on each of these pathways in some detail.
The Qur’an teaches that only believers will be saved: “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; cf 33:43; 41:30; 47:11).1 Conversely, those who do not believe will be condemned: “Fear the fire which is prepared for those who reject faith” (3:131; cf 2:104).
This belief encompasses the five main articles of faith (iman) in Islam: “Any who denies Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Day of Judgement, have gone far, far astray (4:136; cf 2:136,177,285; 45:32-35; 57:21). Some would also add the doctrine of qadar (predestination) to this list: "There is no doubt that the belief in destiny is categorized as an article of faith in Ahadith. On the basis of these the basic articles of faith are six rather than five. Truly speaking, faith in predestination is a part of faith in Allah and has been described accordingly in the Holy Qur'an" (Mawdudi 94).
Some Qur’anic ayahs seem to teach that believers in other faiths will be saved. Surah 2:62, for example, asserts: “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabians, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness - their wage awaits them with their Lord” (Arberry; cf 2:111-112; 5:69). This, however, raises a problem. As part of what must be believed in order to be saved is the prophethood of Muhammad (2:137; 3:83-84; 4:135-137,150-152; 7:156-157), it would seem that even very pious people of other faiths could not be saved. Also if Christian belief in the Trinity implies that Christians are blasphemers (5:72), then surely they will be damned for this belief. So it would seem that the devout of other faiths must follow the pattern of Sura 5:83-85 and accept Muhammad as a prophet in order to be saved. Both Mawdudi (p 84) and Hamidullah agree with this conclusion (p 81). Surah 3:85 also can be read to support this idea – “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” – though it could also be argued that the religion of Islam is more than just the religion delivered to Muhammad. Some Muslims resolve this dilemma by suggesting that pious believers of other religions who have not heard the call to Islam will be saved, while those who have heard and rejected it will be outside of the Pale.
Whatever conclusion one comes to on that issue, one thing seems beyond dispute – belief by itself is not enough for one to be saved but it must be accompanied by repentance and good works: “Soon, then, will they face destruction – except those who repent and believe, and work righteousness” (19:60; cf 23:109; 25:70); and “to those who believe and do deeds of righteousness has Allah promised forgiveness” (5:9; cf 7:42; 18:30). One Muslim scholar correctly observed that “there are very few cases in the Qur'an where belief alone has been mentioned, and even in these cases we can most often, on deeper reflection, discover an implicit reference to the moral and practical obligations that genuine faith must entail” (Ahmed 22). Even so, some Muslims affirm that as long as they believe in Allah and His messenger they will be saved, and some Hadith support this concept. Even Mawdudi seems to adhere to it, while noting that without works one could never become a complete Muslim (pp 19-20, 95). It does not appear to be a Qur'anic idea, however, for the Book almost always connects belief with good works and/or repentance. Ahmed thoroughly condemns this false concept when he asserts:
A false notion has taken hold of the great majority of Muslims, that salvation depends on the mere utterance of the declaration of faith, that the mere verbal confession of ‘faith’ is sufficient for salvation, and any practical application of it to his life is an additional goodness which will elevate him to higher stages (p 41).
Belief, by itself, is thus not sufficient to ensure salvation, but it is essential. Belief is the necessary pre-condition to make works and repentance efficacious. If one does not believe in Allah one is not likely to ask His pardon. Likewise if one truly believes in the Day of Judgement and the Balance, it can hardly help but inspire him to do good works (cf II Peter 3:11-12). Belief can also be conceived of as the first righteous deed, and a work upon which Allah mercifully increases the weight of our good works.
The Qur'an teaches that all our deeds, good or evil, will be weighed in a balance, and our eternal destiny is based on whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad ones. Life is a test to determine whether we are fit for Paradise or not:
If a wound has touched you, be sure a similar wound has touched the others. Such days (of varying fortunes) we give to men and men by turns: that Allah may know those that believe ... Allah's object also is to purge those that are true in Faith and to deprive of blessing those that resist Faith. Did ye think that you would enter heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard and remained steadfast (3:140-142; cf 2:143; 5:94; 8:27-28).
Those who perform good deeds will be rewarded with heaven (3:195), the wicked will be punished in hell (43:74-77).
These good deeds are described in general terms as obeying Allah and His Messenger (24:47-56), and doing deeds of righteousness (2:277). They include deeds of ritual purity, specifically performing the six pillars – recitation, prayer and zakat (2:110), fasting (33:35), the pilgrimage (2:196-200) and Jihad (9:111; 22:58-59). Dying in a Jihad is probably the only work that guarantees the salvation of a believer. They also include deeds of moral purity:
For Muslim men and women -
For believing men and women,
For devout men and women,
For true men and women,
For men and women who are patient and constant,
For men and women who humble themselves,
For men and women who give in charity,
For men and women who fast,
For men and women who guard their chastity, and
For men and women who engage much in Allah's praise,
For them has Allah prepared forgiveness and a great reward (33:35).
Other passages which bespeak of the need for moral deeds of righteousness include 3:134; 25:63-75; and 90:11-16.
On Judgement Day all our good and evil deeds will be manifested (3:30; 6:60). Allah will bring out the Book in which all our good and evil deeds have been recorded (18:49; 54:52-53). Each person's prophet (16:89) and one's own body (36:65) will also testify against the wicked. The righteous one will receive his book in his right hand, the wicked in his left (69:19,25). All of our deeds will then be placed on the Balance:
The balance that day will be true (to a nicety): those whose scale (of good) will be heavy, will prosper. Those whose scales will be light, will find their souls in perdition, for that they wrongfully treated Our Signs (7:8-9).
We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgement, so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least. And if there be the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it (to account) (21:47; cf 23:102-103; 101:6-9).
Yusuf Ali's comment on this last verse is most apropos: “Not the smallest action, word, thought, motive, or predilection but must come into the account of Allah” Each good and evil deed will receive its just reward or punishment (3:185; 45:21-22).
In spite of what appears to be a very exact reckoning of every deed and motive, certain passages suggest that Allah in His mercy will tilt the balance to one side or the other. Good deeds will often be rewarded more than their worth, up to 10 times as much (4:40; 6:160; 39:33-35; 64:17). Evil deeds may also be weighted more than their worth (25:69; 41:27), though some passages say they will only receive their due punishment (6:160; 28:84). See Yusuf Ali's attempt to reconcile this conflict (notes 1019 & 3129). Other factors also affect the balance. Good deeds can erase bad deeds (2:271; 39:33-35), and sincere repentance seems to be capable of wiping out evil deeds.
All this raises a lot of questions. As repentance is generally effective only if accompanied by good works (19:60), and as Allah accepts only the repentance of the righteous, he whose balance is heavy, then what has priority: works or repentance? Does one work and then confidently await his reward of mercy, or does one pray for mercy in order to make his balance heavy? Or is repentance simply another work? Discussion on this is continued in the next section and the conclusion. One thing is clear, the Qur'an teaches that man can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, that he can save himself by his works (66:6; 91:7-10).
The Qur'an is full of references to Allah's mercy, forgiveness and compassion. This is evident in the names of Allah. Each Sura, save #9, begins with the phrase: “In the name of Allah, the Merciful (ar Rahman) and the Compassionate (ar Rahim).” The former name is also used 56 other times, though surprisingly it is often used in a context of judgement (19:69; 25:26). The later is used another 115 times, almost always in conjunction with another attribute expressing Allah's mercy (e.g., 72 times it is used with the oft Forgiving). The verbal form rahima is used 148 times. Other names of Allah also manifest his merciful nature, including the oft Forgiving (over 200 times); the Pardoning (16); the Clement or Forbearing (11); He who turns toward the repentant believer (28); the Kind to the believers (11); and the Relenting.
It also comes through clearly in the specific things that are said about the mercy of Allah. Allah is declared to be "the most merciful [or best] of the merciful" (7:151; 12:64,92; 23:109,118, cf 7:155), is said to have prescribed mercy for Himself (6:12,54), and His mercy embraces all things (7:156; 40:7). While He is full of mercy, it is important to note that for the guilty He only has wrath (6:147; 33:43). That Allah forgives sins is repeatedly stated in the Qur'an: “O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins for He is oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Turn ye to your Lord and bow to His (will) before the penalty comes on you” (39:53-54; cf 2:285-286; 3:133; 9:104; 40:3; 42:25; 71:10; 85:14).
But what sins will Allah forgive? Some, like the preceding one, and Surah 4:116 suggest all of them. This includes homosexuality (4:16), theft (5:39), and the great sins of apostasy (3:89,127-129), shirk (2:51-54; 25:68-71), waging war against Allah (5:33-34), and missing prayers/ lust (19:59-60). Other passages suggest some sins are unforgivable (42:30,34). This includes the intentional murder of a believer (4:93), other intentional sins (4:17; 6:145), repeated sin (3:135; 4:18; 5:95), and the great ones (4:31; 42:37; 53:32) of apostasy (9:83; 18:57-58) and shirk (22:31). Believers are not even to pray for the idolaters (9:113; 63:6).
In order to receive Allah's Mercy the believer must seek it (3:133), ask for it (71:10), repent or turn to Allah (39:17,54), believe (5:36-37), make amends (2:160), change his or her behaviour (3:135; 5:39), obey Allah and Muhammad (3:31-32, 132), and do good deeds (3:193-195; 35:7). Repentance that is coerced (5:33-34), made on one's deathbed (4:18) or sought on the Day of Judgement (23:106-108) is not acceptable.
The basic picture in the Qur'an is that Allah simply blots out our sin without any payment, expiation or atonement being made (3:195). If there is to be a payment made for sins it is done by the sinner and not Allah (2:54,177; 2:271; 4:16; 4:92; 5:89,95; 24:2; 42:40-43; 58:2-4). Some Muslims believe that all sins must be punished and therefore everyone will go to hell and be punished there for sins that were not punished here. The basis for this belief can be found in the Qur'an (3:185; 19:71), but is even more prominent in the Hadith which deal with the bridge Seerat that crosses over hell, and over which everyone must pass. Sura 7:44-51 has also been interpreted by some to be a type of purgatory, but only for those whose good and bad deeds are evenly balanced. While most passages in the Qur'an teach the eternality of heaven (3:198; 4:57; 25:15; 50:34) and hell (10:52; 32:14; 41:28; 43:74) some suggest that they are not eternal but last only as long as God wills (6:128; 11:107-108; cf Yusuf Ali, nn 1608 & 1609).
For the Christian salvation is totally by grace, through faith, from beginning to end (Ephesians 2:8-9; I John 1:9). Some Muslims also hold to this idea and it does have some support in the Qur'an (17:57 - even those nearest Allah hope for His mercy) and the Hadith. Muhammad said that “without the mercy of God no one can attain salvation by virtue of his action.” His companions then asked, “Not even you, O messenger of God?” He replied, “Not even I. God will, however, cover me with His mercy” (cited by Geisler 126).
This doctrine, while attractive, seems to fly whole in the face of the concept of the Balance, and even opens up the Muslim to the charge he often lays before Christians – to wit, if works cannot save then what is to keep one from sinning? So we raise the question again, are works or mercy primary in the Qur'anic doctrine of salvation? One is probably most faithful to Qur'anic thought to give the primacy to works and to conceive of repentance as being basically a work. Allah's mercy is manifested first in providing a path to salvation (good works) and knowledge of how to attain it via his prophets. Second, it is seen in His providential care for human beings, especially the believers. Third, he accepts our repentance as a work which lightens the balance of our evil deeds. And fourth, He increases the weight of the pious believer's good works.
All of the foregoing, however, takes on a whole different aspect in the light of what follows. For, if predestination is conceived as being the primary factor in salvation then our belief, good works and repentance are totally the result of the sovereign decision of Allah.
IV. PREDESTINATION (QADAR)
While few Muslims in the West today really believe in the doctrine of predestination, historically it has been at the core of Islamic theology. This is in accordance with the Qur’an which teaches that everything which happens is by the will of Allah (3:145; 6:59; 7:188; 9:51). This implies that our salvation is therefore also by the will of Allah.
The Qur’an affirms that Allah predestines some people to go to heaven and some to hell, as the following passages demonstrate:
My sincere counsel will not profit you, [even] if I desire to counsel you sincerely, if God desires to pervert you (11:34 - Arberry; cf 4:88; 5:41; 39:23,37).
Allah sets on the right path whom He pleases (2:272; cf 7:178; 14:4; 76:31).
To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth. Whether you show what is in your minds or conceal it, Allah calls you to account for it. He forgives whom He pleases, and punishes whom He pleases. For Allah has power over all things (2:284; cf 5:18,40; 39:38).
Many are the Jinns and men we have made for Hell (7:179).
In accordance with the last verse above Surah 42:44,46 teaches us that there are some people whom Allah “leads astray.” Yusuf Ali translates the Arabic term adhallâ here as “leaves astray” but his “... translation is inaccurate and has obviously been adopted with a view to placing the blame for going astray on the human beings concerned” (Sherif 107). His bias is clearly seen by comparing his translation here with the same word when applied to Satan in Surahs 22:4 & 36:62. His bias is likewise apparent in his translation of aghwa (compare 11:34 with 28:63 & 37:32).
The Qur’an also teaches that Allah predestines our wills: “Let any who will keep it [the prophet's admonition] in remembrance! But none will keep it in remembrance except as Allah wills” (74:55-6); “Whosoever will, let him take a (straight) path to his Lord. But ye will not, except as Allah wills” (76:29-30); “It is not but a reminder unto all beings, for whosoever of you would go straight; but will ye shall not, unless God wills, the Lord of all Being” (81:28-9 - Arberry). Allah also predestines whether we will believe or not (10:99-100; 58:22).
Belief in predestination does not preclude man's ability to will, nor for his being responsible for all that he does:
If Allah had so willed, He could make you all one people: but he [leads astray] whom He pleases, and He guides whom He pleases: but ye shall surely be called to account for all your actions (16:93).
Say, "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe and him who will reject (it): ... And what is there to keep men back from believing, now that guidance has come to them, nor from praying for forgiveness from their Lord (18:29,55).
All the many passages in the Qur'an which speak of belief, good works and repentance, such as “I shall ordain my mercy for those who do right, ..., and who believe in our signs” (7:156), along with man's responsibility to choose the good, together imply that Allah has given man a free will. Even some passages that on the surface seem to teach predestination in actual fact do not. Allah, for example, is said to lead the rebellious astray only indirectly by the preaching of His word (2:26; 9:124-127), much as God hardened Pharaoh's heart in the Bible. Also Satan (22:4) and our own evil desires (18:28) lead us astray.
Muslim attempts to resolve the conflict between predestination and responsibility are varied. Some emphasize one concept and deny the other. In the early centuries of Islam the Mu`tazili's focussed on the free will verses while the orthodox focussed on the predestinarian ones. The problem with this approach is that it fails to deal justly with the Qur'anic teachings, which seem to treat both concepts as equally true without making much attempt to reconcile them. Some Muslims, therefore, take the approach of Muhammad Hamidullah in his book Introduction to Islam:
God on the celestial level wills all, but man does not know what he has willed for him. His duty is not to despair but to continue to seek to do good. If he fails the concept of predestination consoles [57:22-23] ... But success or failure (even to do good works) has no connection to salvation, because God judges by intention and effort (p 121).
The problem with this is that God chooses whether you will want to seek good or not, He even wills your despair. Still Muslims can live comfortably with this as a mystery, much as Christians who believe in predestination do.
Another possible way to reconcile these diverging positions is to say God predestines the path of salvation but not the individuals who will walk on it. It is God's choice is to save the righteous and send the wicked to hell, but each person decides by their actions which destination they will arrive at. God then uses the preaching of His message and trials to cause the wicked to go astray and the righteous to go in the right path. I know of no Muslim who takes this tack, but I think there is at least some basis for it in the Qur'an (see two paragraphs above). It does, however, seem to contradict the many passages that suggest that God does predetermine what each individual will choose. Moreover, it is philosophically unacceptable to many Muslims, for it seems to limit God's sovereignty and suggests that man has the power to create (meaning he is like God after all – 28:68).
Most western Muslims today simply affirm the free will of men, and avoid any thought of predestination almost entirely. This approach is unacceptable, however, because the three main sources of Islamic faith affirm qadar. Many passages of the Qur'an, as we have seen, clearly do. The Hadith repeatedly and consistently do, most dramatically in this passage from the Mishkat:
Verily Allah 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 left 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." (Mishkat-ul-Masabih, Vol. 3, p. 107)
Finally, the consensus of the Islamic world for centuries, the ijma, consistently affirmed qadar as one of the foundational and essential beliefs of Islam. Mawdudi was correct when he affirmed that “faith in predestination is a part of faith in Allah and has been described accordingly in the Holy Qur'an” (Mawdudi 94).
From my reading of the Qur’an it seems clear that it puts the Balance and/or Predestination as the two foundational concepts in Qur'anic soteriology, asserting that man is saved by his good deeds outweighing his evil deeds, and/or by the will of Allah as He sovereignly and freely chooses whom He will guide and whom He will lead astray. The tension between these two concepts is obvious. The first places the responsibility for obtaining salvation on each individual person, while the second implies that the responsibility for who shall be saved is entirely in God's hands. As both, however, are clearly affirmed in the three main sources of Islamic doctrine, both must be accepted by all Muslims as true, a mystery which cannot rationally be explained, which Allah alone understands. Many orthodox Muslims assent to this and instruct us further that: “it is one of Allah's secrets, do not talk about it” (Jeffery 154). Both truths are affirmed and speculation as to how they can be reconciled is condemned.
As noted earlier some Muslims propose another foundational concept, that of right belief alone. In other words being a Muslim will guarantee Paradise for the believer. I agree with Dr Ahmad, however, that this is a pernicious and unscriptural doctrine. It could only be made palatable if the concept of purgatory is included, so that the sins of the slack believer would be punished. The whole doctrine of purgatory in Islam, however, is on shaky ground. So it is probably more accurate to see faith, whether it be chosen, gifted or both, as the necessary ground of good works or as being the first and essential work of those who would enter Paradise.
Some western Muslims suggest another approach as the foundational concept, that Allah forgives anyone who confesses the Shahadah and sincerely repents. It seems to me, however, that as important as confession, repentance and Allah's mercy are in the Qur'anic view of how to obtain salvation, they are not foundational concepts. For Allah will only forgive either those whom He chooses to, or those whose balance is heavy. In other words the repentant sinner can only hope to receive God's mercy if his confession and repentance gives him enough weight to tip the balance in his favor (or, alternatively, if God wills that it should save him). Once the balance is heavy on the side of good deeds then God can forgive the sins he committed. The Qur'an perceives confession of sin and repentance as primarily being good deeds, which with a lot of other good deeds can be used to make one's balance heavy. They are never simply the prerequisite human conditions that allow God to freely bestow his mercy on a sinful human heart. A Muslim could never sing, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy mercy I cling.” Or, if he did he would be thinking of salvation in terms of God's sovereign choice and not on the basis of works. In sum, belief is pictured as the foundational and most important work, while repentance impacts the Balance of Deeds as effectively being a work which graciously removes some of the weight of our evil deeds.
Perhaps the main difference in the Christian and Muslim doctrines of salvation is that the latter is a religion of guidance and the former one of redemption. The great Pakistani scholar, Mawdudi, commented: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent special men to mankind. He sent these men to show man the right way of living” (p 21). The Christian formulation of this would run something like: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent His Son to mankind. He sent this God/Man to save men so they could live right. To be the sacrifice which would permit God to blot out all our sins, and enable us to be clean so that we could dwell eternally with our Holy God.” This is the gospel that we must preach to our Muslim neighbours. God is not in the business simply of instructing the cripple to walk but of healing and enabling him or her to walk.
Ahmed, Dr Israr. The Way to Salvation in the Light of Surah Al-Asr. Bombay: Islamic Research Foundation, n.d.
Geisler, Norman and Saleeb, Abdul. Answering Islam. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
Hamidullah, Muhammad. Introduction to Islam.
Jeffery, Arthur. Ed. Islam: Muhammad and His Religion. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1958.
Mawdudi, Abul A`la. Towards Understanding Islam. New York: ICNA, 1986.
Faruq Sherif. Guidelines to the Contents of the Qur'an. London: Ithaca Press, 1985.