God and Love
by Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
(with some modifications and minor clarifications done by Anjum Jaleel)
- Introduction by Anjum Jaleel
- God's Love in Islam
- God's Universal Love (rafah, rahmah, rabubiyyah)
- God's Special Love in Islam (hub, mahabbah, wudda)
- The Coming of the Prophet as the Supreme Act of Divine Love
- Assurance of Salvation in Islam
- The Relationship Between Man and God
- Dignity in Slavery
Introduction by Anjum Jaleel
This article is an excerpt from a book that Dr. Ahmad Shafaat wrote in 1984. I have condensed it and have added some clarification which are enclosed within square brackets '[ ]'.
Much has been done to distort the true essence of the Qur'anic version of Islam [note that according to the Qur'an, every prophet and messenger of God brought the same message to humanity: Islam (a commitment to live in a harmonious alignment with the Divine Law that is created by God Alone for the benefit of humanity -- and this brings about peace within one's own 'self' and through interactions with others, within the entire human community)]. One of the teachings of Islam that has been widely distorted is the nature of God's love towards humanity in general, but towards an individual. This article will attempt to explain this commonly misunderstood and hidden aspect of the Qur'anic message, and is aimed towards those who have sincerity in their hearts.
However, this is just one article. God's attributes of love and mercy begin to unfold as one reflects on the Qur'an (which contains God's perfectly chosen words that have tremendous amount of richness and depth) and when one goes through an actual transformation through it and has 'experiences' with the presence of the Divine Reality. It's then, and only then, one wants to prostrate to Him with a profound sense of gratefulness.
This is an exposition of the Islamic teachings on the subject of divine love, forgiveness, salvation, etc. From this exposition it will become clear that:
- for the most part the assumptions made by some people about Islamic teachings, the most basic of which is that Islam knows only the greatness of God but not fully His love, are incorrect, being based either on ignorance or deliberate distortion of facts; and
- Islam contains the best of teachings of previous revelations on this subject and states them in rational language.
God's Love in Islam
The Qur'an uses several words for the term "love" with different shades of meaning. If all these words -- rafah, rahmah, wudda, hub, etc. -- are translated as "love", then this word is of very frequent occurrence in the Qur'an, appearing on average about once in every 15 aya'h (communications; verses). Even the word hub, which is most commonly translated as love, occurs in application to God so frequently in the Qur'an that it is hardly justified to say that Islam knows only greatness of God, not His love.
God's Universal Love (rafah, rahmah, rabubiyyah)
The various words used in the Qur'an for God's love can be divided into two categories: those that relate to universal manifestation of divine love and those that refer to a special love reserved for the righteous.
God's love in its universal manifestation is generally referred to in the Qur'an under the terms rafah and rahmah. Rafah can be translated as compassion, kindness or pity, while rahmah is usually rendered as grace, love, blessing or mercy. About God's rahmah the Qur'an says that it encompasses all things:My punishment I inflict upon whom I will but My rahmah embraces all things... (7:156)
O our Sustainer! You embrace all things within (Your) rahmah and knowledge. (40:7)
These verses reveal that while divine punishment is an act of God's will directed towards some purpose, love or rahmah s, as it were, His nature, His normal attitude towards men and other creatures. So it is said in 6:12, 15 that God "has enjoined upon Himself (the rule) of rahmah". It is possible to include in "all things" that are under the embrace of God's rahmah even those people who are punished, so that even divine punishment can be said to proceed in some way from rahmah. [It's through punishments and afflictions do we realize that we have crossed the natural boundaries of our existence. This, in turn, brings about a sense of awareness and self-knowledge, which in turn enables one to return to the middle and the balanced path where there is contentment and peace.]
For humans, God's rahmah and rafah are manifested, for example, in His abundant forgiveness and in the creation of the environment in which humans live, an environment that they can use to their great benefit (22:65; 30:50 etc.). They are also manifested in the revelations sent by God through His messengers (2:154; 11:17; 11:53), [as through this Divine guidance, we come to know God and the natural boundaries He has created within which there is a maximum chance for our spiritual growth].
The coming of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is especially a manifestation of God's rahmah and rafah (57:9; 6:155). He came as rahmat-al-lil-alamin (grace to all nations) and the revelation he brought is rahmah for all those who believe (10:57; 17:82 etc.).
Concrete manifestations of rahmah and rafah gives rise to two oft-repeated "names" or attributes of God: Rahman and Rahim. Both names are intensive forms derived from rahmah, signifying "Most Gracious or Compassionate", but there seems to be a difference in the shade of meaning. Rahim emphasizes divine love as it responds to man's deeds when they have occurred or his needs when they have arisen; for example, God's patience, long suffering and forgiveness given to man after he has been sinning or His responding to the prayer of a man who has been suffering. The name Rahman, on the other hand, stresses love and grace that flows from God independently of what man does, such as God's love and grace which is manifested in His creating man or sending the Prophet for humankind or in His putting some of humankind on the right path, in any of which acts human beings played absolutely no part.
[AJ's addition here]
Since we're discussing the Divine attribute Rahman, I would like to add excerpts fromFrom Shaykh Fadhlalla's Tafseer on Surah al-Rahman.
- The Beneficent God, (Ar Rahmân)
- Taught the Qur'an. (Alla Mal Qur'an)
- He created man, (Khalaq al Insân)
- Taught him the clear evidence. (Alla Ma Hul Bayân)
Ar-Rahmân (the Merciful) is one of the key attributes of God. Every attribute is an âya, a sign indicating the oneness of God. Everything in creation is permeated with and connected to Him.
In order for the rahmah (mercy) of the Rahmân to be understood, appreciated and experienced, knowledge has been given to man. One cannot understand something unless it is experienced. The most valuable knowledge in life's journey is the knowledge of the Qur'an. Man's link to God is through the Qur'an, through the Book, through the knowledge that will enable him to see the all-encompassing mercy. The meaning of the hadith (tradition) that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was created before the creation of Adam, is that the light of the path existed before Adam. After the Qur'an, man, bani Adam, was created. So knowledge -- the light of Islam, the light of the Qur'an -- existed before khalaqa-l-insân (He created man).
The Creator contains the knowledge of what He will create. The highest creation is the Muhammadi being, the perfect being. The knowledge of this final product, the ultimate being, the *khalîfa* (deputy) of God, was with the one and only Knower, with the Alîm. The light of Muhammad was there when Adam was still between water and clay. The purpose of creation was to create the perfect man, the last of the prophets, the one after whom nothing new could be added.
Every aspect of the Creation has the label of the Creator on it. Creation is in His name. By His decree His rahmah (mercy) manifested as the knowledge of the Qur'an. His rahmah then becomes the creational act -- (He created man) -- making wider ripples through the 'evidence'. Bayân (in âya 4) is clear evidence which emanates from what is most subtle, penetrating the gross physical manifestation towards which man orients his perception. This is the knowledge of witnessing. Everything that is seen bears witness to the cause of its creation and to its being subject to the decree of the Beneficent.
The knowledge of the Qur'an is the knowledge of tawhîd (divine unity). In this instance, rahmah may also mean the tawhîd of the Wâhid, the One. Access to Him is through the knowledge of His decree, which is the Book. Creation took place according to the decree. The bayân is an outcome of the nature of that creation.
Man seeks evidence for everything. He is always seeking knowledge. He seeks to know the cause, effect and proof of things. Nothing is haphazard, everything leaves its trace. Man is the trace of the Creator; he is His evidence. Everything in His existence is an âyatu-llâh (sign of God). If man knows himself, then he has known the meaning of guardianship or lordship, rabûbiyya. "He who knows himself has known his Lord" (hadîdth).
[AJ's additions end here]
Another attribute of God which relates to God's love is Rabb. This is a difficult word to translate. The cognate verb is used in 17:24 for the care that a child receives from his parents and this provides the best starting point for understanding the idea. God as Rabb is He who is ultimately responsible even for the care our parents give us and Who, of course, provides us with a great many other things which parents do not or cannot. In other words, God's whole role in bringing us into existence, in sustaining our existence and in our growth and development in various aspects, comes under the term Rabb. In English we can do justice to the term by using several such words as Sustainer, Cherisher, Developer. Rabb also includes the idea of having a just claim to the possession of a thing and of having authority over it. In this sense it can be translated as Lord.
Since all the roles that an ideal father plays in relation to his children -- providing for their material and psychological needs, giving necessary guidance to them so that they can grow up into mature adults, and assuming for these purposes authority as the master of the household -- are included in the word Rabb, the Qur'anic term includes the best of the senses in which the New Testament sometimes refers to God as Abba, Father.
But Rabb is preferable to Abba because of two reasons:
- it properly indicates that God's role as creator, supporter, provider, cherisher, guide and lord is far superior to that of a father, and
- many individuals may not have had a very good experience with their fathers -- if, for example, they were criminals, or alcoholics, or cruel, or suffer from other serious weaknesses -- and in such individuals the term "Father" may not evoke the best of images and feelings, so that instead of endearing God to them the term may contribute to blocking the development of a close relationship with Him.
God's Special Love in Islam (hub, mahabbah, wudda)
In addition to rafah, rahmah and rabb the Qur'an also uses hub, mahabbah, and wuddu to refer to God's love. In general, these words signify a more personal and warmer manifestation of divine love than do the other words we have considered above. Mahabbah of God was operative, for example in the safe upbringing of Moses among his enemies, and in His raising him to great spiritual and moral heights:I cast over you (O Moses) the garment of love (mahabbah) from Me and (this) in order that you may be reared under My care (literally "eye") (20:39)
Hub and Wudda are available to the faithful:On those who have faith and do good will the Most Gracious One (Rahman) bestow love (wudda)." (19:96)
Say, (O My Prophet to the people), "if you love God, follow me, (and) God will love you (hub) and forgive you your sins; for God is oft-forgiving, most merciful." (3:31)
Wudda gives rise to God's name Al-Wadud (Loving One) (11:90; 85:14).
Hub is available to those:
- who repent (2:222)
- who do good (2:195; 5:13)
- who are just (5:42; 49:9)
- who persevere in patience (3:145)
- who fight for His cause (61:4)
- who love cleanliness (61:4)
- who put their trust in Him (3:158)
and so on. But it is not available to:
- the conceited, boastful man (2:190)
- the mischievous disturbers of peace (28:77)
- the unjust (42:40)
- the extravagant (6:142)
- the supercilious (16:23)
- the transgressors (2:190)
and so on.
Thus while there is a divine love (rafah, rahmah) which embraces everything there is another, warmer, type of love (hub) that God gives to some but not to others. That God is selective in giving this warmest love is necessary idea found in every religion. It really amounts to a distinction between good and evil. If God treated everybody in a completely identical manner, regardless of his character and conduct, then the distinction between good and evil, which is essential to all religions, would become meaningless. Consequently there is no basis for the criticism by some people that the Qur'anic conception of God's love is defective because the Qur'an says that God does not love people with certain bad qualities such as unjustness, boastfulness, lawlessness.
The Qur'an does not say that God hates these people, only that He does not love them with a warm love (hub); the question of the availability of the universal type of divine love (rahmah) is left in the Qur'an open for all people in the world.
Let us note some further points about the Qur'anic concept of God's hub.
- It is clear from the Qur'anic verses referred to above that the distinguishing marks of those who received God's hub are certain qualities or traits -- trust in God, justness, patience etc. Adherence to a code of law given by Islam is not stressed in this connection.
- The Qur'an says that those who follow the Prophet receive God's hub (3:31) but it stops at this positive statement and does not say anywhere that those who do not follow the Prophet will not receive God's hub, thus leaving the possibility in principle that followers of other religions may acquire the qualities and conduct that earn man the love of God. But the Qur'an does say that those righteous believers in other faiths who accept Islam will have their portion of divine love doubled (57:28). This is because God has a special love for the Prophet Muhammad and his mission represents the primary means in our age for the realization of divine purpose in history, so that to follow him is more than to acquire faith and good qualities.
- Although a man with good qualities of heart and conduct receives divine love, he does not do so because of his qualities. For like every other good thing that happens to a man (4:79), good qualities of heart and conduct are themselves ultimately a gift from God and are not acquired by man on his own. When in numerous places the Qur'an says that God guides or admits into His own rahmah whom He Wills, the meaning is that the act that puts man on the path of God and His love is initiated by God. This idea comes out especially clearly in the following passage:This (Qur'an) is a reminder. So let everyone who wills, take a way to the Lord. But you will not will, unless wills God. Surely, God is full of knowledge and wisdom. He admits to His rahmah who He wills; but for the wrongdoers He has prepared a grievous penalty." (76:29-31; see also 81:27-29, 42:8)
- To the extent that the Qur'an relates the reception of divine love with acquisition of certain qualities of heart and conduct (even if that relation is not of simple cause and effect), we can say that according to the Qur'an divine love is purposive, for qualities can become relevant only for serving a purpose. Thus God's love should not be thought of as simply a sentimental person-to-person relationship, but a creative force which operates to realize an End.
The Coming of the Prophet as the Supreme Act of Divine Love
One objection against the Islamic conception of God's love is that it does not present us with some great expression in history of divine love which can in turn evoke the response of love in man towards God. For example, one writer (John Gilchrist) states: "Indeed the Qur'an often appeals to that which is visible in nature as a proof of God's existence and character... But apart from this the Qur'an tells really nothing of the depth of God's love towards men outside of that which can be discovered in nature. It does not disclose any great act of love in the history of God's dealings with men which should cause the response of heartfelt love towards him in return. To put it in a nutshell, there is no definite expression of love in the the heart of God towards men in the Qur'an. No proof of deep affection towards mankind is given at all".
The writer has in mind here the Christian belief that God manifested His love by coming as a man and being sacrificed for the sins of man, and is noticing a lack in Islam of the idea of a similarly dramatic manifestation of divine love. Now while it is true that there is no place in Islam for anything like the idea of the necessity of God becoming man and being slaughtered to show His love, the idea of a great act of divine love in history, for the whole of humankind is present in Islam. In one significant verse the Qur'an presents the coming of the Prophet of Islam as just such an act:"And We have not sent you (O Muhammad) except as an act of love (rahmah) to all the worlds." (21:107)
The love of God alluded to here -rahmah- is, as we saw above, God's universal love, one that is said in the Qur'an to embrace everything (40:7). Out of this love for His creation (or all the worlds) and in particular all humankind, God sent the Prophet Muhammad. This act is the greatest initiative of God's universal love: the Qur'an does not describe any other single divine act as "rahmah to all the worlds". The act is a perpetual one: it continues through the words of the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet. People can respond to this divine initiative by opening their hearts to the words of the Qur'an and by following the revelatory example of the Prophet.
If they do so, greater blessings will follow; in particular God will receive them in His more special, warmer love - hub or wudda (see Qur'an 3:31; 11:90 which have already been quoted above.)
This act of divine love works to reconcile all humanity with God and bind them together in a close relationship of love through the educative and inculcative effect of miraculously chosen words that are still accessible to everybody; and often a relationship built on the basis of proper education is far more secure than one based on a totally incomprehensible mystical belief founded on a myth.
According to Islam, God's love and mercy have always been available to him, from the creation of Adam through his rise to consciousness until the Last Day for humanity in this temporary, yet purposive, existence. But man can fall out in sin and when he does so he is like a person in a ditch who needs a rope to hold on to and get out. Often people are not aware that they are in a ditch of sin. But God shows His mercy and sends down His revelation, which not only makes people aware of their situation, but also provides a rope to hold on to and get out of that situation. God has been so merciful that He has been sending such revelations in all ages and among ALL nations. Our age is the final age in which He has sent the Prophet Muhammad as grace to all the worlds. In its nature the coming of the Prophet Muhammad is not different from the expressions of divine love through earlier revelations but in its scope it is the greatest such expression.
Suffering does come into the Islamic picture of prophetic work but in the following way: the primary function of the prophets is to point to "the signs of God" which enable man to turn to God; educate him and incline him towards good actions and turn him away from bad ones; and enable him to receive God's forgiveness and grace. This is a work that meets resistance from the very people whom the prophets want to lead to their Lord and to their salvation, and as a result the prophets have to struggle and suffer; some of them even had to die for their mission. Their suffering or death is for the sake of others, but it does not by itself lift the burden of people's sins. It is their whole work - teaching and example, of which patient suffering for others is a part - that has the effect of leading people to God and to salvation.
In Islam, God does not and need not become what He is not - a man - to show His love. Just as a man who loves dogs, cats or horses need not become one of these animals to show his love for them but can in other ways effectively demonstrate to them any amount of his love, so also God Almighty can and does show His great love to man without becoming man. Indeed in true love, it is essential, as it is often observed, that both partners maintain their identities. For one partner in love to try to assume the identity of the other is the sign of extreme insecurity such as is not consistent with love and for him to want the other partner to become like himself is not love of the other person but of himself. In the Islamic conception of love between man and God the two maintain their identities. Man remains fully man a created being, and God remains what He is and the love between them is not worse for that.
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.
The Relationship Between Man and God
Some people assert that the Islamic God is a very impersonal God with whom a believer never gets to develop a close relationship. There is no truth whatever in this assertion.
In Islam a believer's relationship with God begins with a consciousness of God who is always present. It starts with remembrance of Him (zikr); it is inculcated and maintained by acts of devotion such as the regular daily prayers (salah), pilgrimage to Makka, fasting and reciting on rosary the praises of God (tasbih). When a person becomes conscious of His ever-presence, he turns for His support and help whenever he needs some, which is often. He is fully assured that God hears him when he calls upon Him. [It is like a constant and direct connection between the self and the Reality].
In the Qur'an God says:When My servants ask you concerning Me, I am indeed close to them: I listen to the call of every supplicant when he calls on Me. (2:186)
Just as God listens to his calls, man is expected to, and true believers do, listen to what God has to say to him:Let them (My servants) also with a will listen to My call, and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way. (2:186)
The believer acknowledges with thankfulness (shukr) the innumerable gifts he receives from his Lord and Supporter whether in answer to his Supplications or otherwise. Likewise God acknowledges with appreciation (shukr) any good that the believer does (2:158, 42:23). This reciprocality of ijabah (heeding the call) and shukr (thanks) in the relationship between man and God is characteristic of the Qur'anic conception of that relationship. Like ijabah and shukr, zikr (remembrance) is also reciprocal. God says to humankind in the Qur'an: "Do remember Me (as) I remember you" (2:152). And, of course, love is also reciprocal. In 5:54 God is said to be looking for a community of men who love Him and whom He loves. These and other passages clearly show that in the Qur'an the relationship between man and God is meant to be a very close and personal one.
In Hadith, where we often find Qur'anic ideas elaborated, the personal character of the relationship between man and God is depicted forcefully in many traditions. For example:
- The Prophet is reported to have said: "The love of God for His creatures is seventy times greater than that of a mother for her child".
- "If one goes one step towards God, God comes two steps towards such a one; if one goes walking towards God, God comes running to him." [so here we see that it's the 'self' that needs to use its free will to take the initiative. This is part of its development and ascend in this existence.]
- When a sinner repents God is overjoyed. One tradition likens God's joy to that of a man who was traveling alone in a desert on a camel. He sleeps for the night and when he gets up he finds his camel missing. He searches for his beast for hours, during which time the sun warms up the desert and thirst and hunger bring the man close to extinction. Finally, he becomes exhausted and gives up the search; but just then he sees the camel walking towards him with all the water, food and other provisions. The happiness of God when a sinner returns to Him is like the happiness of this traveler at the moment when he sees his lost camel (Muslim sahih reproduced in Mishkat al-Masabih, Book IV, chap. 3).
- In another tradition God is represented as saying:"Nothing brings men near to Me like the performance of that which I made obligatory upon them, and through supererogatory acts. My servant (i.e. man) comes even nearer to Me until I love him. When I have bestowed My love on him, I became (as if) his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his tongue with which he speaks, his hand with which he grasps, and his feet with which he walks" (al-Bukhari, Sahih, Riqaq, 38, reproduced in Mishkat al-Masabih, Book 9, chap.2).
The Qur'anic verses and prophetic traditions cited above show -- and there are many, many more such verses and traditions -- that there is no justification in the criticism that the Muslim God [and there's only one Reality, Muslims worship the same God that is the God of Adam and Abraham.] is a very remote Being, incapable of showing a warm personal love to His creatures.
Dignity in Slavery
At this point we may also mention the Muslim attitude of a slave ('abd) before God as the Master, to which the some people often refer in a derogatory way. But the relation of a slave can be only derogatory between man and man and not between man and the merciful, kind and loving Lord and Supporter of the Universe. In his attitude of a slave before God a Muslim finds dignity, not degradation, for this one slavery frees him from all others -- the slavery to desires (45:23; 25:43) and to religious leaders (9:31) and the worship of idols and deified human beings (3:78-80). Nor does a Muslim's slavery to God have anything of the implications read into it by these critics, namely that as a slave the Muslim, or man generally, has no worth before God. Quite the contrary, man is described in the Qur'an as God's khalifa, representative or vicegerent, in the material universe (2:30) who bears a unique amana (trust) from God, one that nothing else could bear (33:72). In the one concept of khalifa (vicegerency of man) the Qur'an gives an idea of man's worth upon which it does not seem possible to improve without collapsing the distinction between God and man. [Making man khalifa gives him the highest possible honor that can be bestowed upon a creature of God.]