Chapter 9 SALVATION Islam: A challenge to Religion by G A Parwez

  1. Religion and Salvation

Every human activity is directed to some end. The end may be clearly formulated or may only be dimly perceived, but some kind of end desired by man is necessary to rouse him to action. Man’s activity becomes intelligible only when we know the goal he is seeking. Religious activity too is goal-directed. It aims at the attainment of some objective, which, rightly or wrongly, is believed to satisfy the spiritual longing of man. Most of the higher religions of mankind agree in regarding salvation as the ultimate goal of religious endeavour. It is believed that the purpose of religion is to help man to attain salvation. They differ as to the means by which salvation may be attained, but they are one in regarding it as the only end which a wise man can desire. Because of its essential role in many religions, it will be worthwhile to take a closer look at the concept of salvation and to examine its underlying supposition. Salvation means the saving of the soul, or in other words, its deliverance from sin and its consequences. The supposition on which the idea is based is that even at birth the human soul is stained by sin.  This stain can be wiped out only by leading a devoutly religious life. It is obvious that the doctrine of salvation is based on a belief in original sin. The soul of the newborn infant is, it is said, already infected with evil and the infection will grow and spread unless it is checked by religious belief and action. Man is born under the shadow of sin.  He can dispel it only by submitting to a rigorous religious discipline. The followers of most religions are obsessed with the idea of sin and their chief aim in life is to loosen its hold on their souls. Each religion has its own distinctive view as to the source of sin and the means by which it may be eradicated.

In Hinduism, Mukti or salvation is conceived as liberation from Avagawan, or the cycle of death and rebirth. The doctrine of Karma offers an apparently reasonable answer to the question why one man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth while another is doomed to a life of misery. It is because in the previous life the former had lived virtuously while the latter had committed sins which he has to expiate in the present life. If the purpose is to instill the love of virtue and hatred of evil in the mind of man, it is hard to see how it can be accomplished through the cycle of death and rebirth. No memory of a former life lingers in the mind of man, and so he cannot consciously relate his present distress to the evil deeds he had committed in the previous life. No doubt, a few instances have been recorded of man recalling the experience of a previous life. It is, however, safer to regard these as cases of paramnesia  than of genuine recall. The concept (of the cycle of death and rebirth) which was borrowed by Hindus from the early Greeks, has not stood the test of time and is being discarded by the present day Hindus.

Vedantic philosophy presents the same idea in a slightly different form. It is essentially a pantheistic creed. The individual soul or Jivatman has its source in the cosmic soul or Parmatman*. It was separated from its source because of some unspecified cause. The soul is lonely and unhappy and longs intensely for reunion with its source. This it can achieve only by running away from the world of matter and submitting to the rigorous discipline which is prescribed in the Vedas. Salvation for the Jivatman lies in its merging again in the infinite Parmatman.

Buddhism takes a still more pessimistic view of human life.   Man’s life is wrapped in gloom, relieved only by occasional fitful gleams of happiness. Pain is inseparable from life. Buddha taught that the source of human misery is desire. Some desires are insatiable. Others may be satisfied, but fresh desires spring up in their place. Desire keeps us restless in this life and chains us to the cycle of death and rebirth. To attain salvation, we must eradicate desire from our heart. Peace and happiness are unattainable in life. When desire has been rooted out, the way to salvation or Nirvana lies open before us. He who has not extinguished desire in himself is doomed to be reborn, to suffer pain and misery during a whole lifetime. Existence is an evil and we can throw off its yoke only by ceasing to exist. The wise man, therefore, aims at annihilation, non-existence. Nirvana is not a state of positive happiness but a negative state characterised by absence of feeling and, therefore, absence of pain.

Christianity inculcates in its followers the dogma of “original sin.” Adam and Eve were guilty of disobedience to God, and were punished by being expelled from heaven. Every man is born with a soul stained by the original sin. He can wipe out this stain only by believing in Christ and living a life of asceticism and hard discipline. Salvation means the regaining of the state of bliss which was forfeited by man through sin. Man gains his salvation not by daring adventure and glorious achievement but by self-abnegation and refusal to participate in the affairs of the world. The ideal is not self-fulfilment but self-renunciation. Such was the teaching of the Church in the medieval age.

The Jews, too, were obsessed with the idea of sin and its consequences. They lived in terror of hell, where, they believed, they would suffer for their sins, as well as for the sins of their forefathers. They thought that they could escape this doom only by the punctilious performance of an elaborate ritual. All that salvation meant was to be saved from hell-fire.

It is obvious that in all these creeds, the emphasis is on the negative aspect of salvation. Salvation is conceived not as a positive achievement, the acquisition of some new value, but as deliverance from the evil which clings to man from birth. In Islam, the emphasis is on the positive side of “salvation”. Islam demands that man should be oriented to the future, that he should bend his efforts to the realisation of new values and the attainment of new levels of experience. Islam discourages man’s preoccupation with the past: instead it fosters hope in the future. Man’s objective in this life should not be to regain a lost paradise. He is encouraged to create a new paradise for himself in which all his capacities may have full scope for development. This he can do, not by withdrawing from the world and fixing his gaze on the past, but by being fully alive to the present and by making full use of the opportunities that this life offers. The purpose of Islam is the reorientation of man to life, so that he may wake up to the immense potentialities inherent in him. His “salvation” lies in discovering the possibilities open to him, and in choosing the one which is likely to prove most fruitful. Islam gives its approval to the forward-looking attitude and to the belief that man can work out his “salvation” not by annihilating or contracting his self but by creating conditions in which it can develop to its fullest extent.

  2.The Qur’anic Concept of Salvation

The Buddhist, Christian and Hindu doctrines of salvation have a great deal in common. In each, the emphasis is upon liberation from sin, upon rescue from evil. In each, the objective is a return to the previous state of innocence and bliss. As sin is supposed to be inseparable from life and the phenomenal world is believed to be the abode of evil, it follows that liberation can be achieved only by renouncing the world. This doctrine appears in its purest form in Buddhism. It has been to some extent toned down in Christianity and Hinduism. It must be admitted that during certain periods of human history, the doctrine attracted large numbers of men and cast its spell even on men of learning and intelligence. It is a fact that during these periods, men had suffered acute frustration and were disillusioned with life. Having nothing to hope for in this world, they centred their hopes on the other world where they might get all that they had missed in this world. This doctrine is the product of disillusionment and defeatism. It is clearly repugnant to men who are sane and normal. It is in direct opposition to reason, to experience and to the progress of mankind. Hope cannot be killed – it springs anew in the human heart. When man has recovered his natural buoyancy, he recoils with horror from such a dismal doctrine. He tends to look on the world of matter as a field for varied fruitful activities. He refuses to believe that his soul will be blighted by the slightest contact with the world. The doctrine also implies that the world has no purpose or design. If accepted wholeheartedly, it will prove to be a stumbling block to human progress. It deprives man of all zest for life and of the desire for progress. If ever it becomes the dominant creed, humanity will be doomed to stagnation and decay. All the healthy instincts in man rebel against such a barren concept. To believe in a God Who has created a world which should be shunned is derogatory both to God and man.

The Qur’anic concept of salvation is of a different kind, and, as it will become clear in the course of this exposition, attuned to the constructive and progressive forces in man. In the first place, the world of matter is regarded as embodying a purpose – a purpose which is consonant with the purpose inherent in the human self. The following verse should be noted:

And We created not the heavens and the earth, and what is between them, in sport (21:16).

It is a world which is responsive to man’s needs, both physical and human. It is a world which man, if he likes, can mould “nearer to his heart’s desire.” It is a world which offers full scope for the development and fulfilment of his being. Knowing that he can engage in fruitful activities in the world, he has no excuse for infirmity of purpose.

Moreover, in the Qur’an, the emphasis is on the positive content of salvation. It is not conceived as a negation of pain and liberation from evil. It consists in the sense of fulfilment, the feeling of realisation and the thrill of expansion. Man is endowed with a number of potentialities. By developing these he reaches his full stature and qualifies for still higher stages awaiting him. Man must discover in what direction his self can develop and then he must create the conditions, physical as well as social, which favour the development. His main task in this life is to develop his self by conquering the forces of nature and employing them for the development of mankind:

He is indeed successful who causeth his self to grow, and he is indeed a failure who stunteth it (91:9-10).

  3. Life – A Struggle

Life is a constant struggle against forces hostile to it – forces which would destroy it if they were not successfully opposed. In the external environment, there are wide variations in temperature. Sometimes it is too cold for man, sometimes it is too hot. Homoeostatic mechanisms in the body usually keep the body temperature at the normal level. Without them, the human body would burn up or freeze to death. Again, the body is assailed by a variety of pernicious germs which tend to destroy it. As long as man lives, he keeps up the fight against these destructive forces. The struggle ceases only with death. It is, however, not only on the physical plane that the struggle is carried on. On the moral plane too, he has to struggle against forces of destruction which would disintegrate and disrupt his self. Here the problem is more difficult and complicated, as the self has to contend with the destructive forces of the external world as well as the impulses of debasing animality which rise in man if not checked. Man naturally looks around for help as he very often finds it difficult to keep the enemy at bay. The Divine Guidance in the Qur’an offers man effective help in the moral struggle. This help is given according to a definite programme. The first part of the programme may be characterised as prophylactic. It helps man to guard himself against both the open and insidious attacks of destructive forces. This form of help is termed maghfirah in the Qur’an. Ghafrun means “to cover” and mighfar, which is derived from it, means the helmet which protects the head of the warrior from the blows of the enemy. The Qur’an protects the human self just as effectively from the blows of   destructive forces. Man quails when he finds himself facing the formidable array of the forces of destruction. He begins to weaken and to give way to despair. The Divine programme prevents him from yielding to baatil  by replenishing his store of moral energy and by inspiring faith in his heart that the haqq, though weak at the moment, will finally prevail over baatil. Man may feel defenceless against the forces of baatil but when the Divine Revelation has instilled in his heart Eiman and courage, he enters the arena with renewed confidence and hope. This is how the first part of the programme helps him. The second part, tauba, in the terminology of the Qur’an, is curative. Many may have yielded to baatil and may have followed the wrong path. Even then, the Qur’an says, their case is not hopeless. Tauba offers them  a sure remedy. Tauba is derived from the root taaba which means to return. Tauba, therefore, does not mean vain regret or futile remorse. It means that when man realises that he has been following the wrong path, he should have the courage to stop and retrace his steps. In this sense tauba means heart-searching, reappraisal of the situation and reassessment of the policy he has been following.  Suppose a man suddenly realises that the path he has been following is taking him farther away from his real goal. If he is wise, he will not merely sit down and give himself up to unrestrained grief. He will resolutely hasten back to his starting point and when he has reached it, he will, after due deliberation, choose a new path. Tauba, on the moral plane, represents the same sensible way of acting. But tauba has in it an ingredient of Divine help. The man who has realised his mistake and is eager to rectify it, is not left to his own resources. Unstinted Divine help is given to him in the shape of Divine guidance which never errs. Otherwise, the sense of having wasted his time and the feelings of uncertainty about the results of his further efforts will weigh heavily on him and will hamper his efforts to regain the right path. The Divine help, the concomitant of Tauba, refreshes and re-invigorates him so that he acts with re-doubled energy. In short, maghfirah assists a man in warding off the blows of sharr, but when he is hit, tauba helps to repair the damage done. It should be noted that tauba is not a passive act of regret; it is positive effort at restoration of the lost position, with regeneration of energy born out of hope and confidence. Tauba is not merely withdrawal from what was destructive; it is the annulment of its consequences. Says the Qur’an:

Lo! Good deeds annul ill deeds (11:114).

Tauba thus fortifies the constructive forces in man and enables them to repair the damage to the self, which was caused by his destructive deeds. The Qur’an assures man that if he does not surrender himself to sharr on the big issues, his paltry lapses will not be permitted to impede his progress to his goal:

And if ye avoid the great things which ye are forbidden, We will remit from you your lapses and make you enter a noble gate (4:32),

Since the constructive results of your noble deeds outweigh the destructive consequences of your lapses.

  4. Conclusion

We have since considered two different views of salvation. It will be seen that the concept of salvation set forth in the Qur’an is a positive achievement as against the negative and barren concept of escapism favoured in certain quarters. The latter springs from a misplaced notion of man’s nature and from a misconception of his relationship to the world. It throws man into the turmoil with the handicap of a tainted soul in a perverse world, giving him the only recourse of renouncing the combat and fleeing from it. Why set such a futile stage at all? Divine purpose runs through the world, a purpose which is akin to the purpose for which man is endowed with a self. No doubt, the odds are set against him. But the obstacles are there not to frustrate him, but to call forth the best in him. They are designed to put him on his mettle and permit the indomitable spirit he possesses to reveal itself in all its glory. Man develops his powers in the course of overcoming obstacles. Frustration forces him to reconstruct his personality. Rebuffs and setbacks toughen and harden him and by facing them he develops a mature personality. So we see that even when the world at times appears to be stern and unkind, in the long run it turns out to be man’s ally and not his foe.

Certainly man often goes astray. As a free being, it is his privilege. When he commits a mistake, he has to pay the price for it and in the process he realises that he is fully responsible for his action and that the freedom he enjoys is real and not illusory. To err is human, and it is natural for man to commit a mistake now and again. If he acts wrongly, his self is stained, but the stain can be removed. If he realises his mistake and sincerely tries to make amends for his wrongdoing, he can recover his poise. This is the truth that is clearly set forth in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a gospel of hope. It forbids man to give way to despair. A man may have led a wrong life for years but if he resolutely turns his face in the right direction and persists in acting rightly, he will not find the path to self-realisation blocked for all time. Right actions nullify wrong actions. The man who is saved is not one who has never committed a mistake, which is impossible, but one whose right actions outweigh his wrong actions. Says the Qur’an;

Then those whose scales are heavy, they are the successful.

And, those whose scales are light are those who lose their self   (23:102-103).

What exactly is meant by saving one’s self or losing it? These phrases become intelligible only when viewed in relation to the goal-seeking activity of the human self. The deepest urge in man is for self-development and self-realisation. When he is making progress towards this goal, he feels happy and knows that he is on the way to qualify himself for promotion to a higher plane of existence. For the self lives in and through activity, and the activity natural to it is always in an upward direction. Inaction is the death of the self, and so is movement in a downward direction. When the self of man is making steady progress towards the goal, it may be with occasional deviations and backslidings, but it slowly moves forward, until it finds itself in a state which is symbolised by Jannah or paradise. The picturesque imagery with which it is represented, has misled many into thinking that it is a place which provides gratification for the senses. It is not a place but a state of mind, a state charged with the sense of fulfilment and the feeling of high aspiration. It is akin to the feeling that the mountaineer experiences when, after wearily climbing the hillside and avoiding boulders, he finally reaches the lofty peak. Loftier peaks swim into his vision and invite him to fresh conquests. For him it is at once the end of a journey and the beginning of another. His joy at successful achievement is blended with the thrill of excitement at the discovery of fresh fields for adventure. Such is the state of mind of those who have fully realised themselves on the human plane and are ready to ascend to a higher one.

The state of mind directly opposite to this has been designated as Jahannam. It is the Arabic form of the Hebrew word Gehenna. Originally Gehenna meant the valley of Hinnom, where human sacrifices to Baal and Moloch were offered.(1) Jahannam symbolizes that condition of existence in which the self’s purposeful activity is brought to a standstill. Enfeebled and debilitated by continuous and persistent wrong-doing, the self loses its capacity for progress and for moving towards a higher state of being. Its urge for progress is crushed and the enervated self surrenders itself to regret and remorse. It has voluntarily relinquished its right to participate in the pursuit of the good. If it ever feels the desire to rejoin the march of free selves, the desire is too weak to pull it out of the slough of despair and inaction. In the words of the poet, Robert Frost, it has:

Nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.

The Qur’an asserts:

Whenever in their anguish they desire to come forth therefrom, they shall be turned back into it (22:22).

The inmates of Jannah will be spared the sight of this slough of despondence:

They shall not hear the slightest sound thereof (21:102).

They will continue their forward march, steadily rising in the scale of existence and testing the joys of self-fulfilment. The process of their self-development will be continuous and unlimited. When they have attained a high stage, the vision of a still higher one will spur them on to put forth fresh efforts. For them, the reward of victory will not be well earned rest but a greater zeal for action and a new vista to their ambition.

Such is the picture of heaven and hell that the Qur’an presents for the edification of man. According to the view upheld by the Qur’an, salvation is not liberation from “evil”; evil in ourselves or in the world. To achieve salvation is to prove one’s fitness for entering on a higher plane of existence. Reward and punishment are wrongly conceived as coming from an external source. They are the natural consequences of what we do and think and manifest themselves in the enrichment or impoverishment of our self. Heaven and Hell do not exist outside us, somewhere in the outer space. They are states of the self. Hell is the state in which the self finds its progress blocked. Heaven is the state in which the way to development lies open to the self. To cease to aspire is to be doomed to Hell, to be able to aspire is to be in Heaven. There is, therefore, no room for intercession and redemption in Islam. What we become, we become through our own actions. We cannot carry the burden of any other person and no one can relieve us of the burden we bear. The concept of sin also must be reformulated so as to bring it into harmony with the above view. Sin should not be conceived as the taint of evil that clings to the soul from birth, being either the legacy of our forefathers or the result of our own previous life. Sin is the ill effect on our self of our own wrongdoing. It can be obliterated by our own right action and not by the action of anyone else. If we have committed wrong unwillingly, heedlessly or even with our eyes open, we can draw solace from the reflection that we hold the remedy in our own hands.

Finally we can define “wrong” – A’mal-us-Sayyiah as an act which impoverishes the self, curtails its freedom, jeopardises its independence and weakens its urge for development. To react to it by impotent rage, helpless grief or self-mortification serves no purpose. The proper reaction is to make a determined effort to regain our balance and follow the right path with redoubled energy. We would also do well to bear in mind that our final success depends not on our sinlessness but on the preponderance of our right actions over wrong ones. “Sense of sin” is one of the main sources of unhappiness. The healthy attitude to a weakened self inculcated by the Qur’an is a sure safeguard against unhappiness and infirmity of purpose. It may be added that Jannah and Jahannam are not held over till after death; they manifest themselves in this life and continue thereafter. The point will be discussed fully in the next chapter.


1. Arabic Lexicon, Muheet-ul-Muheet.

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