Love, mercy and forgiveness

Love, mercy and forgiveness

Oh, but what about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness? Can’t he just say, “Let’s call punishment off – everyone is accepted”? Biblically, the answer is ‘No’, because that would make him a liar, deceiver and a Judge who breaks his own principals.

 When we look at the Qur’an and traditions the situation becomes uncertain on further analysis. For example, with regard to mercy, Muhammad said, “When Allah had finished His creation, He wrote over his Throne: 'My mercy preceded My wrath.'”[9] The Qur’an tells Muslims, ‘Do not despair of Allah’s Mercy! Surely, Allah forgives all sins’ (Sura 39:53). Elsewhere it describes God as turning to his people in mercy so that they might repent (Sura 9:118). What is this turning in mercy on God’s part? Muslims in their discussion share with us that it is the guidance that Allah sent; the sending of the prophets, giving of the laws and the dispensing of signs to remind us as ‘forgetful human beings’ that we are off the straight path (sirat al-mustaqim).

One wonders if the ‘forgetfulness’ of human beings has been dealt with by guidance after God sent so many prophets, one after another, with messages - the final one according to Islam being Muhammad with the revelation of the Qur’an? No, not really. Revelation and being reminded do not solve the problem. By following the revelation of the Qur’an, a Muslim still does not grasp assurance that Allah, however compassionate, will accept him in his paradise rather than condemn him to hell. Consequently, there is constant effort to gain assurance of forgiveness.

A Biblical answer is ‘redemption’ not just revelation. Human beings need to be bought back and God’s love, grace, and forgiveness provides this as well as guidance. Indeed, Islam does use such a vocabulary but has its own dictionary.   

For example, in Islam, God’s love is conditional. It is dependent on people first loving him by following Muhammad. The Qur’an asks Muhammad to tell his listeners, “If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace” (Sura 3:31). So here we see that in order to gain Allah’s approval, it is the Muslim who has to take the initiative to earn the love of God for him. Will he know one day that he ‘loved’ God by following Muhammad’s commandments enough so that now God loves him?  No, a Muslim will never know that in this life.

When I was a Muslim, this was my dilemma. When I put this question to a respected Muslim scholar, second in command of the leaders of Jama’at Islami, he sarcastically said, “Nawjwan, farz to pura kar lo, mas’ala khud kul jaiy ga” – “Young man, fulfill what is due, the puzzle will become clear itself.” He quoted to me from the Qur’an, “Lo! Allah loves the beneficent” and “Allah does not love the disbelievers” (Sura 2:195; 3:32). I understood that Allah’s love is merely an expression of approval, solely to those who do what is good.

Coming home, I passed by the grounds of the grave of a famous Muslim saint. I was reminded of the consequence that since the Qur’an and the traditions of Islam are so contradictory, it is no wonder other brands of Islam are prevalent in many parts of the Muslim world. In one folk Islam, Muhammad is raised to a semi-divine status, in total contradiction of the Qur’anic authority. He is then approached through pir, or holy man as an intermediary. Prayers are said; offerings are given even on behalf of the deceased to ease the passage and perhaps gain access to paradise. Sure this is the way? Again the answer is: no.

The Qur’an depicts human beings as merely forgetful, foolish, weak, boastful, quarrelsome and even rebellious (Sura 4:28; 11:9-10; 14:4; 33:72; 96:6etc.). In its own way, the Qur’an does see the seriousness of sin in the world and states that if God would punish people for their sins; he would not spare anyone’s life (Sura 16:61. The Bible, however, states, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and continues with God’s amazing grace, “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

When it comes to ‘forgiveness’ in Islam, it is similar to an amnesty granted by a sovereign ruler, who may never see the person he has pardoned. Fifty-two times, the Qur’an mentions God as forgiving (Ghafoor).[10] However, he may choose to pardon – to be merciful and forgive – but he may just as well choose not to do so (Sura 2:284; 3:74, 129; 5:18; 14:4; 29:21; 48:14).  There is no assurance that God will choose to forgive any particular sinner of any particular sin on the Day of Judgment. Even Muhammad expressed doubt about whether he would be accepted by God (Sura 46:9). 

If guidance and revelation of the scripture was enough, there would be no need of 124 thousand prophets. Only one would be enough. We need God’s grace and mercy, not simply guidance alone. This realization even dawned on Muhammad when he said that none will enter heaven through his works. People asked him about his situation and his answer was, “not even me unless God covers me with His grace and mercy.”[11] Although Muhammad is mentioned as being sent as ‘mercy’ (rahma) for the worlds (Sura 21:107), he expressed his need for God’s mercy. How may one receive God’s grace and mercy? Although the Qur’an and traditions talk about God having these attributes, it does not go further into clear explanation of this matter.

As a Muslim, I was not the only one facing this dilemma. This lack of assurance and the fear of Judgment, I found, were very obvious and reflected in the last moments of key dignitaries of Islam. For example, the second successor of Muhammad, Umar Ibn al-Khattab (d. 644), is quoted to have said, “All praise is to Allah. If all the treasures of this world were to be at my disposal, I would offer them as a ransom to be saved from the trial at the Day of Judgment.”[12]

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Notes:

[9] Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 518; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya wa al-Nihayya, vol. 1, p. 58.

[10] Some examples include the following: Sura 2:173, 182, 192, 199, 218, 225, 235; 3:31, 89, 129, 155.

[11] Sahih Muslim, vol. 4, Hadith number 6764 (p. 1473), 

[12] http://www.alim.org/library/biography/khalifa/content/KUM/19/3. On the other hand there is a ‘questionable’ tradition according to which Muhammad named 10 people who will be accepted in paradise. Umar’s name include that list (Sunnan  Abu Dawud, Book 40, Number 4632; Tirmidhi, Hadith 3747). The Shia sect of Islam, however, reject that tradition being spurious and forged for political reasons to elevate the adversaries of the Shia Imam, Ali during the Umayyad reign (661–750 AD).