As I try to better understand Islam and the differences between your faith and my own faith of Christianity I’ve found that the concept of sin and God’s justice are quite possibly the biggest points of divergence. It seems that the way Islam presents sin is as a transaction. Meaning, one can sin and then have that sin counteracted and erased by repentance and good deeds. The concept that man has a “right on Allah”, or a “claim” to put it another way, is reflective of this notion that sin is transactional only. I’ve paid my debt and it cannot be counted against me any longer. It does seem bold that man could possibly have any claim against God though.
The Christian view of sin is also transactional in the sense that one can commit sins. They are enumerated and defined in the Bible. Yet Christians also understand that sin is a state of being, a “nature” if you will.
But, at a practical level, we see some real world observations that affirm the notion that sin is a nature, not simply a transaction. Without having to be taught to lie, a child will lie naturally to cover up some mistake, accident, or intentional bad behavior. A child will naturally be selfish and not inclined to share. A child will take things that they want, with violence if needed. While we all recognize that these are behaviors that we correct in our children, and that they likely do not know the moral significance of these behaviors, they are nonetheless symptomatic of a sinful nature.
So, the Christian message of how sin is overcome is different from that of Islam. Like Islam, we also affirm repentance. But where we diverge is with the matter of good works. Now, you’ve mentioned that your sins are forgiven on a repetitive basis, which should tell you that your sin problem is not taken care of; you’re only managing the symptoms.
What do you think about what I’ve shared with you? Does the Christian view of sin and its forgiveness seem reasonable to you?
In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
I agree that the concept of sin and God’s justice (and/or forgiveness) are the biggest differences between the Islamic worldview and the Christian worldview. It is true that the Islamic concept is that sin is like a transaction; that is actually a very good analogy. Whereas Christianity sees sin as a taint or a nature or a state of being, Islam sees sins as nothing more than acts that transgress God’s laws.
The Right on Allah: An important point regarding the “right on Allah” is that the Arabic language uses the same word haq to mean both “truth” and “right.” Many translators use the word “right” in this hadith because that is the expression that most closely conveys the meaning. However, our scholars are quick to point out that ultimately this hadith is not necessarily a “right” that Man can claim against his Creator, but rather it is seen as a “true promise” that the Creator has made to His creatures. There is a well-known hadith where the Prophet said that one of the first Decrees God made before creating the universe is that “My Mercy supersedes my Wrath.”
This is how Muslims understand the “right on Allah.” The covenant is that so long as a human being acknowledges God as his or her Creator and Master, attributing divinity and lordship to no other, then God has made a “true promise” to be merciful and forgive the shortcomings of that man or woman. Also, as I mentioned before, remember that only those who meet their Maker with a sound, repentant heart will be completely forgiven or absolved their sins. Those had faith, but led sinful, UNrepentant lives will in fact be punished on the Last Day and possibly even Hell until their souls are purified.
There will be two different ways that God will hold people accountable for their deeds. In the first way, God will quickly and easily skim through the people’s deeds, and will allow them to enter paradise safely. Those who believe strongly with sincerity, will enter paradise in this manner. The following hadith of the Prophet illustrates this. Buhkari and Muslim reported that the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Allah will bring the believer very close and privately and ask him ‘Do you know this sin? Do you know that sin?’ The believers reply will be, ‘Yes my Lord,’ until he is reminded about all of his sins, and he thinks he will perish. Then Allah will say ‘I covered up your sins during your life, and I will forgive your sins today.’ Then he will be given his book of good deeds. But the unbelievers and hypocrites will be asked about their deeds loudly in front of the creatures.”
This is what is meant by the “right on Allah.” It is the promise those who are sincere and repentant, even if they have many transgressions on their record, shall be dealt with in this merciful way.
However, in the second way, God will discuss the people’s deeds in depth and in detail, and will hold them accountable for each evil act they committed. Then God will send them away to the Hell Fire. These are the disbelievers, hypocrites, those who are weak in their faith, or those who are not sincere will enter the Hell Fire in this manner. This understanding comes from the last line of the previous hadith and the meaning of the following hadith. Ai’sha reported that the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Destroyed is the one who has his account settled on the Day of Resurrection.” Ai’sha said: “O messenger of Allah, didn’t Allah say “Then he who is given his records in his right hand soon will his account be taken by easy reckoning” (Surat Al-Inshiqaq:7-8) The prophet (pbuh) replied: “This is the skimming through the deeds; but the one who has his account settled on the Day of Judgment shall be destroyed.”
Human Nature and Sin: Moving on to your next topic, what is the nature of Man? Muslim scholars of theology and mysticism use two different Arabic words to describe Man’s “nature.” The first word, fitra, refers to the natural state of mankind. The second word, tab’a, refers to the natural inclinations of man. Muslims would attribute your example of selfish children as tab’a which means that all humans are born with a restless disposition:
Man was created restless. (70:19)
Man was created weak. (4:28)
Souls are prone to avarice; (4:128)
He [the human being] was indeed unjust and foolish. (33:72)
In contrast, the fitra or natural state of Man is capable of great moral feeling and great spiritual heights. Islam teaches that each human being has an innate longing for the Divine and seeks to reunite with that Source. This is the restless nature that makes a person seek out the truth, but it is that same nature (coupled with the inclinations) that make a person selfish to the point of dishonesty or even violence.
So while it is true that the tab’a of a human being is brutish and selfish and sinning, the fitra of a human being is to be something more than that. This is the drive to excel, to improve, to be on the Right Path. Islam teaches that the whole point of this worldly life is to test which souls will nourish and cultivate their innate fitra against their more animalistic tab’a. In fact, many of the Sufi scholars and orthodox theologians base their philosophies and spiritual exercises on this struggle, this greater jihad. In order to streamline their teachings, they use a term that is found often in the Qur’an: Nafs.
Linguistically, Nafs means the soul, the psyche, the ego, or the self. Muslim scholars have categorized the stages or types of souls into three categories. A summary of these states of the Nafs are given by Imam Tabari in his Tafsir of Surah Yusuf verse 53:
(1) Nafs al-Ammara Bissu’ (The Soul which Commands Evil):
This is the Nafs that brings punishment upon itself. By its very nature it directs its owner towards every wrong action. No one can get rid of its evil without the help from Allah. As Allah refers to this Nafs in the story of the wife of the Egyptian (Zulaikha) and Prophet Yusuf:
“The (human) soul is certainly prone to evil” (12:53).
Allah also says: “And had it not been for the grace of Allah and His Mercy on you, not one of you would ever have been pure; but Allah purifies whomever He wishes, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.” (24:21)
This Nafs resides in the world of the senses and is dominated by earthly desires and passions. Evil lies hidden in the Nafs and it is this that leads it on to do wrong. If Allah were to leave the servant alone with his self, the servant would be destroyed between its evil and the evil that it craves; but if Allah grants him success and help, then he will survive. We seek refuge in Allah the Almighty, both from the evil in ourselves and from the evil of our actions.
(2) Nafs al-Lawwama (the Soul that Blames):
Allah refers to this Nafs, “And I do call to witness the Soul that blames” (75:2).
This Nafs is conscious of its own imperfections. Hasan al-Basri said, “You always see the believer blaming himself and saying things like ‘Did I want this? Why did I do that? Was this better than that?”
(3) Nafs al-Mutma`inna (the Soul at Peace):
Allah refers to this Nafs, “O Soul, in complete rest and satisfaction!” (89:27).
This Nafs is tranquil as it rests on the certitude of Allah. Ibn Abbas said, “It is the tranquil and believing soul.”
So we see that humans start out selfish (as children) and are dominated by the Soul that Commands Evil. Sometimes a person grows up this way and stays in this spiritual state. This would be the adults that live lives full of evil and selfish Commands. However, if there is proper guidance from the parents and environment (or if that person has a refined or sensitive intuition), then eventually that person will develop into the Soul that Blames. This person is aware of their shortcomings and strives to correct them (their fitra is trying to overcome their tab’a). Finally, with vigilance and prayer and right living, a person can eventually develop into a Soul at Peace.
Muslims see this as the daily life-long struggle we call Life.
Can Sin Ever be Overcome: So now we have come full circle to your first question: Are human beings expected to be imperfect? The Qur’an clearly states in (2:30-39) that God intended to create a new creature ON EARTH. This is different from the Biblical narrative that states that God intended man to live in heaven, but cast them down to earth as a punishment for eating from the Tree. In that same passage, the Qur’an says that the descent of Adam and Eve was not a punishment but rather the next logical step in their spiritual development. This life is a test, and God promised Adam that whenever guidance comes to you from Me, then whoever follows My guidance—they have nothing to fear, nor shall they grieve.
So we see that it is the following of God’s guidance on a consistent basis that leads to ultimate salvation. It is not just if good outweighs the bad; only seeking the Face of God and His Mercy will get a person into Paradise. That “seeking” is a life-long journey. Only by going on this journey can a human soul go through the process of purification that will result in the Reunification with the Divine in Paradise after Judgment Day. When a person leaves this world, then and only then does the struggling stop. There is no need for a blood sacrifice in the Islamic worldview because the problem of sin and forgiveness are not impossible.
As for your last few questions, I think you have represented the Christian view of sin and salvation very comprehensively. As for whether this Christian view seems reasonable to me, I must admit that it does not. I am a father and I forgive my children their transgressions against me without needing blood. It is not reasonable to me that my Creator cannot do the same thing for His creatures.
May peace be with you,