The Quran and Forgiveness
The Quran forthrightly rejects the crucial role occupied by the death and resurrection of Jesus (Surah 4:157-158; 3:55). Consequently, the Quran of necessity must leave the impression that God can simply forgive people if they will repent and submit (i.e., become Muslims). To “believe” means to accept Allah as the one and only God, and to accept Muhammad as Allah’s ultimate and final messenger. Resignation and submission of one’s will to this foundational principle (the shahadas), accompanied by good deeds in life, is the means of forgiveness in the Quran. Consider the following passages (from the celebrated translation by Muslim scholar Mohammed Pickthall):
And as for those who believe and do good works, He will pay them their wages in full (Surah 3:57, emp. added).
Then, as for those who believed and did good works, unto them will He pay their wages in full, adding unto them of His bounty; and as for those who were scornful and proud, them will He punish with a painful doom (Surah 4:173, emp. added).
O ye who believe! If ye keep your duty to Allah, He will give you discrimination (between right and wrong) and will rid you of your evil thoughts and deeds, and will forgive you. Allah is of infinite bounty (Surah 8:29, emp. added).
And those who believed and did good works are made to enter the Gardens underneath which rivers flow, therein abiding by permission of their Lord, their greeting therein: Peace! (Surah 14:23, emp. added).
Say: O My slaves who have been prodigal to their own hurt! Despair not of the mercy of Allah, Who forgiveth all sins. Lo! He is the Forgiving, the Merciful. Turn unto Him repentant, and surrender unto Him, before there come unto you the doom, when ye cannot be helped (Surah 39:53-54, emp. added).
These verses spotlight the Quran’s formula for salvation. Turning from unbelief to Allah is the specific grounds upon which Allah can forgive past sin and extend continuing forgiveness to the believer (cf. Surah 11:3; 26:51; 45:30; 46:31). Not only does the Quran nowhere offer a deeper explanation by which forgiveness may be divinely bestowed (i.e., blood atonement), it states explicitly that it is genuine (i.e., non-hypocritical) belief and good deeds that rectify sin:
And those who believe and do good works and believe in that which is revealed unto Muhammad—and it is the truth from their Lord—He riddeth them of their ill-deeds and improveth their state (Surah 47:2, emp. added).
And whosoever striveth, striveth only for himself, for lo! Allah is altogether Independent of (His) creatures. And as for those who believe and do good works, We shall remit from them their evil deeds and shall repay them the best that they did.... And as for those who believe and do good works, We verily shall make them enter in among the righteous (Surah 29:6-7,9, emp. added).
Compare Ali’s translation of these same verses:
And if any strive (with might and main), they do so for their own souls: for Allah is free of all needs from all creation. Those who believe and work righteous deeds, from them We shall blot out all evil (that may be) in them, and We shall reward them according to the best of their deeds.... And those who believe and work righteous deeds, them We shall admit to the company of the Righteous (emp. added).
Another example is seen in the following Quranic utterance:
Thou seest the wrong-doers fearful of that which they have earned, and it will surely befall them; while those who believe and do good works (will be) in flowering meadows of the Gardens, having what they wish from their Lord. This is the great preferment. This it is which Allah announceth unto His bondmen who believe and do good works. Say (O Muhammad, unto mankind): I ask of you no fee therefore, save lovingkindness among kinsfolk. And whoso scoreth a good deed We add unto its good for him. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Responsive. Or say they: He hath invented a lie concerning Allah? If Allah willed, He could have sealed thy heart (against them). And Allah will wipe out the lie and will vindicate the truth by His words. Lo! He is aware of what is hidden in the breasts (of men). And He it is Who accepteth repentance from his bondmen, and pardoneth the evil deeds, and knoweth what ye do. And accepteth those who do good works, and giveth increase unto them of His bounty. And as for disbelievers, theirs will be an awful doom (Surah 42:22-26, emp. added).
Where Pickthall has “whoso scoreth a good deed,” Ali renders it: “if any one earns any good We shall give him an increase of good in respect thereof” (vs. 23). The Quran explains that when Allah’s warnings and signs eventually come to pass, “no good will it do to a soul to believe in them then, if it believed not before nor earned righteousness through its faith....He that does good shall have ten times as much to his credit” (Ali’s translation of Surah 6:159,161, emp. added). Such verses underscore the fact that the means by which Allah can forgive sins is the Muslim’s commission of good deeds (cf. Surah 25:70; 39:35; 64:9).
In fact, the good deeds must outweigh the bad deeds on the Day of Judgment: “Then, he whose balance (of good deeds) will be (found) heavy, will be in a Life of good pleasure and satisfaction. But he whose balance (of good deeds) will be (found) light, will have his home in a (bottomless) Pit. And what will explain to you what this is? (It is) a Fire blazing fiercely!” (Surah 101:6-11, Ali’s translation). The Quran even states explicitly that good deeds drive away evil deeds:
And lo! unto each thy Lord will verily repay his works in full. Lo! He is informed of what they do. So tread thou the straight path as thou art commanded, and those who turn (unto Allah) with thee, and transgress not. Lo! He is Seer of what ye do.... Establish worship at the two ends of the day and in some watches of the night. Lo! good deeds annul ill deeds. This is a reminder for the mindful. And have patience, (O Muhammad), for lo! Allah loseth not the wages of the good (Surah 11:111-112,114-115, emp. added).
Allah will, in fact, simply overlook the evil deeds of those who become Muslims: “Those are they from whom We accept the best of what they do, and overlook their evil deeds. (They are) among the owners of the Garden. This is the true promise which they were promised (in the world)” (Surah 46:16, emp. added). Ali renders “overlook” as “pass by.” So according to the Quran, forgiveness from Allah is grounded in and dependent upon the act of becoming a Muslim and maintaining that status with good deeds. No wonder the September 11, 2001 Islamic terrorists could visit a strip bar just prior to their suicidal mission (Farrington, 2001). They understood the Quran’s teaching that good deeds enable God to overlook the bad.
In contrast, the Bible certainly teaches that good deeds are necessary to salvation (Acts 10:35; Romans 2:6). In fact, faith itself is a “work”—a deed that the individual must do (John 6:29). Repentance, confession of the deity of Jesus with the mouth, and water baptism are likewise all necessary prerequisites to the reception of forgiveness from God (Acts 2:38; 17:30; Romans 10:9-10). However, the New Testament teaches that obedience to divinely specified deeds does not make those deeds meritorious, i.e., they do not earn salvation for the individual. They are conditions of salvation—but not the grounds of salvation. They do not erase or rectify past sin. Atonement must still be made for all sins previously committed (Isaiah 59:1-2).
Much of Christendom has gone awry on this point. Especially since the Protestant Reformation, the pendulum shifted to the extreme, unbiblical contention that all one need do is “believe,” what Martin Luther labeled “sola fide” (faith alone) (cf. Lewis, 1991, pp. 353-358; Butt, 2004). The Quran advocates the equally incorrect opposite extreme of earning forgiveness by human works of merit. The New Testament actually steers a middle course between these two extremes by insisting that no sin can be forgiven without the shed blood of Jesus. Here is the grace of Christianity—God doing for humanity what humanity is powerless to do for itself, i.e., atone for its own sin. This gracious act of God is unmerited, undeserved, and unearned (Ephesians 2:8-9). Nothing humans do can repay God for this indescribable gift (2 Corinthians 9:15). Nevertheless, in order for the alien sinner to access the rich blessing of forgiveness based on the blood of Christ, he or she must render obedience to the Gospel of Christ (Romans 6:16-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 5:9) through faith, repentance, confession, and baptism (Hebrews 11:6; Luke 13:3; Romans 10:9-10; 1 Peter 3:21). This obedient response to Christ does not earn forgiveness for the sinner, or counteract past misdeeds. Rather, it represents compliance with the divinely (not humanly) mandated prerequisites by which one receives and accepts the gift of salvation that God offers to those who will respond appropriately. [NOTE: The New Testament term that is translated “Gospel,” meaning “good news” (Bruce, 1977, pp. 1ff.), refers specifically to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the sole means by which sin may be forgiven. Incredibly, the Quran is silent on the need for atonement and Christ’s death on the cross, and yet it speaks approvingly of “Injil” (or “Injeel”), i.e., the Gospel, apparently referring to the revelation that Muhammad thought was revealed to Jesus.]
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (1934), The Qur’an (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Quran), ninth edition.
Bruce, F.F. (1977), The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.
Butt, Kyle (2004), “Martin Luther Speaks on ‘Faith Only’ and Baptism,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/article/1858.
Farrington, Brendan (2001), “FBI Investigates Possible Fla. Links,” [On-line]: URL: http://newsmine.org/archive/9-11/questions/stripbar.htm.
Lewis, Jack (1991), Questions You’ve Asked About Bible Translations (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications).
Pickthall, Mohammed M. (n.d.), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor).