What does Islam say about sin and atonement?

(part 3 of a multi-faith response)

Thank you to Victor Begg

I happen to attend the Friday Sermon (qutba) last Friday in a Chicago area Mosque, a part of which I’ll use to illustrate some of the theology here. The young qateeb (One who gives a sermon) addressed the congregation by emphasizing that a believer ‘lives’ his/her faith, as opposed to fighting and dyubg for it. The qateeb then elaborated the purpose God Almighty created us for, so that we can vie to live in submission to His Will to achieve salvation, quoting the following words of God from the Holy Quran:

“I created humans and jinn for no other purpose than to worship Me only.”
[Surah Dhariyat; 51: 56]

The word jinn applies to unseen creation of God that includes angels.

The qateeb then went on to explain the meaning of ‘worship’. What is worship? Is it the verbal witness to His Oneness and belief in His messengers, daily ritual prayers, fasting, charity, performing pilgrimage? These are considered as the pillars of the Islamic faith. Are these pillars sufficient to support the idea of salvation, hence achieving the heavenly bliss in the eternal Hereafter? Would the daily ritualistic performance of worship wash our sins away? Or, worshiping Him has a greater calling?

As much as the five pillars framework is designed to keep one on ‘a guided path’, they are not enough to ‘live’ the full life of a Muslim (one who submits to God’s Will).

The story of Adam in the Qur’an is essential for understanding the path to Hell or Heaven. When God created Adam, He asked the angels to bow down to him. God created Adam better than angels (95:4), as His steward on earth. But, human beings can lower themselves to be lower than the lowest of the creatures (95:5). This polarity is where the dilemma of sin and salvation lies.

One of the Angles (Satan) refused to bow to Adam in his racial pride, being created out of fire vs Adam from dust. Satan understood the price to pay for his disobedience to God and asked for respite until the Last day so he may mislead the children of Adam, inviting them to commit sins as he tempted Adam and Eve. Satan, as our enemy, constantly whispers his call to disobey God. The goal of the human race, according to Islam in order to achieve salvation, is to avoid Satan’s trapping at all costs.

If we live according to the commandments of the Creator, communicated through His scriptures and messengers, living a life of ‘excellence’, we receive salvation.  He is just and has not left us astray. If we stray on the wrong path, mislead by Satan, we commit sins. We are the best of His creation. He has given us the ability to choose between right and wrong.

In Islam, every act we perform in quest for goodness is an act of worship. Being an excellent human being — as a husband, father, son/daughter, neighbor, business person, educator, scientist, judge, ruler, soldier, farmer, preacher or whatever capacity we ‘live’ as. On the contrary, we may neglect our duties and indulge in a fruitless life of a loser.

Thus, the concept of committing sins and seeking salvation is an ongoing struggle until the end. There are categories of major and minor sins. Unjust taking of human life, engaging in adultery, disbelief in God are major sins for example that God may never forgive. However, minor sins that we commit, we may make amends through prayers and refraining from doing so again.

Muslims, as they try to live their lives in accordance to His will, depend on His Mercy in the end. He is God. He can forgive whom he wants and punish who wants. It is said; a pious woman was cruel to a cat and ended up in hell fire. But, a prostitute who spent a lifetime in sin and disobedience found a thirsty dog and fetched water to it, as an act of kindness, and God granted her salvation.

God tells us, He created us weak and knows whether we are doing our best in seeking His pleasure. We stray at times but we depend on His Forgiveness and Love for us, while we regularly pray for salvation, doing our best to stay on the straight path.