III. THE TRANSITION:
MY SIN AND GOD'S SALVATION
On the basis of the Qur'an I knew that I could not be faulted for consulting with the People of the Scripture. That possibility the Qur'an laid open even for Muhammad (10:95). Why not, then, consult the Scriptures themselves of the People of the Scripture, since they were translated into languages I knew? I had already sensed their attraction. As I delved deeper into them, their attraction turned into the pull of a powerful magnet. Or, one might say, it was a re-enactment of the story of the moth and the candle.
A. The Sinfulness of Sin
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
Both the Qur'an and the Bible clearly refer to a Garden and suggest that there man and woman, Adam and Eve, lived harmoniously with God and with each other. Relationships were close and personal, unblemished by sin. Just as clearly both Scriptures reveal that Adam and Eve were under God and responsible to God, but that they disobeyed the command of God and, therefore, were compelled to leave the Garden. Neither they nor their descendants were restored to the Garden. Ever since, people have found themselves in conflict with God, with one another and with their own soul. The early chapters of Genesis in the Holy Bible and healthy portions of the Qur'an relate the sorry tale of human history.
But does disobeying the command of God with its consequent conflicts really matter to God ? Or does God remain serenely aloof and unaffected by human sin? If so, why does He provide guidance, reward obedience and punish disobedience? Or why does obedience evoke His pleasure, disobedience His wrath?
If, on the other hand, God cares - unlike His command which, being impersonal, cannot care, be angered or be pleased - should not one ponder one's relation not only with a fractured command but with the Commander?
I understood also how easily human nature operates with a double standard. I would hope that God did not really care and punish when I disobeyed. But, secretly, I would hope that He did care and punish another who similarly disobeyed! That, in any event, both cases required God's forgiveness confirmed my feeling that disobeying God's command is first and foremost disobedience against God Himself. In short, I knew I too was a sinner, spiritually diseased, and that my sins did matter to God. I needed to repent, to know His forgiveness, His spiritual care. Probing more deeply, I sensed I needed even to be saved from myself, to be changed from within. If boils are merely a symptom of an internal physical disease, then sinful acts are merely a symptom of a spiritually diseased heart!
B. Sin and Salvation: Some Islamic Perspectives
Anyone who seriously reads the Qur'an soon discovers its numerous passages that describe the terrors of hell, the pleasures of the Garden, and the ways that lead to both (69:13-52). Life in this world and the world beyond, far from being merely of an academic concern for me, was a matter that disturbed my whole being profoundly. Selfishly or unselfishly, I was concerned how I was to escape hell and enter the Garden. Does the reader, feeling his or her life in eternal danger, read God's Word from this vantage point? Is it paradoxical that many readers would vigorously defend the Qur'an to be God's Word and the source of all wisdom but few of them would make the study of the Qur'an a high priority concern, allowing it to speak to them personally?
The following points provide the substance of what I understood and still understand to be the Qur’anic teaching on the vital topics of man's sin and salvation:
1. Many Qur’anic passages refer to human infidelity, forgetfulness, disobedience, hypocrisy and rebellion. If the human condition is noble, it is also wretched. The need for repentance and forgiveness is evident. Especially heinous are the sins of shirk (idolatry) and kufr (infidelity ingratitude), the former even unforgivable (4:116). Though we may forgive others and be forgiven by others, finally God's forgiveness alone is decisive. (15:49,50; 3:129; 4:17,18)
2. Entry into the Garden is linked especially with faith in God and good works (2:62). Faith in God involves also faith in the Last Day, in the angels, in all revealed Scriptures and in the prophets, especially in Muhammad and obedience to him (2:177). Coupled with faith are the well-known practices: confession, prayer, tithing, fasting and pilgrimage. According to some passages Islam is the sole religion acceptable to Allah (3:85). Thus, for some Muslims affiliation with the ummah (Muslim community) is vital for a happy destiny.
3. God is just. People are responsible to God. They must make decisions and are responsible for their decisions to follow or to reject God's guidance. Thus, they also bear the consequences of their decisions and actions.
And no burdened soul can bear another's burden, and if one heavy laden crieth for (help with) his load, naught of it will be lifted even though he (unto whom he crieth) be of kin. Thou warnest only those who fear their Lord in secret, and have established worship. He who groweth (in goodness), groweth only for himself, (he cannot by his merit redeem others). Unto Allah is the journeying. (35:18)
“No burdened soul can bear another's burden." God sees, hears and knows one's every act, even one's hidden thoughts and intentions. Nothing escapes His knowledge and His justice. How correct is the Qur'an's description of itself as a warning!
4. The Qur'an suggests the possibility of intercession, with God's permission. But it is difficult to determine under what circumstances intercession becomes operative. (39:44; 34:23)
5. God is merciful and compassionate, as all surahs indicate. See also 39:53,54; 6:12.
6. Still, as God guides, so also He misleads (39:23,36,37; 16:93; 17:97). Numerous Qur’anic references indicate God's sublime will to be ultimately the determining factor in human destiny and in the destiny of all creation. If this were so - and with the help of the Traditions I felt it to be even more so - then finally any individual's destiny is subject to God's overriding will, regardless of those tender qualities which are clearly attributed to God. (6:150; 17:54)
If no one could know now about one's ultimate destiny, then how could I know? Whether now or later, how could I know my faith and deeds were acceptable to God? Would He accept my repentance? Would He forgive me? Would He have mercy on me? If I could not know, then what was the meaning of my repentance and my quest for forgiveness? Discovering that everyone must enter the Fire, however temporarily for the pious, compounded my confusion (19:66-72; compare other translations of v.71). Muslims consider the Qur'an to be God's supreme miracle and blessing for mankind. They claim to find guidance in that book. And well they may. But do they follow this guidance? And does this guidance provide them with God's assurance of their personal salvation? It hurt me that I failed to find in the Qur'an the answer that satisfied my need. Frustrated, I abandoned my protracted search, yet remained mindful of a clue within its pages which opened my eyes and assuaged my thirst.
C. God's Salvation through Jesus the Messiah
But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath. (Deuteronomy 4:29-31)
Any person content with his life and forgetful of his sin might read these words a hundred times and feel them meaningless. But I was troubled, and these words spurred me to new hope that led me into a deeper study of the Holy Bible. I studied it, not as a cold critic and detached observer but as a person thirsting for God's forgiveness. These and other verses spoke to me loudly and clearly:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10)
Jesus answered her, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water l give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13,14)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16,17)
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened. and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
As a Muslim I had felt that Christians who believed Jesus to be the Son of God and to have been actually crucified had deviated far from the straight path. He was no more or no less than a prophet and messenger of God. The idea that God would abandon His faithful prophet to His enemies and to a cross was irrational and absurd.
On the other hand the Biblical evidence about these claims compelled me to reexamine them. Moreover, if these claims were so irrational, why should Christians invent them and cling to them? Were Christians simply intellectually too incompetent to understand or spiritually too proud to abandon their folly? Should not one at least hear their argument, read their Scripture, and let their Scripture speak for itself, rather than tell it what it should or should not say?
According to the Bible, God is love (1 John 4:9,16). If God is love, as the Bible claimed, why should His love fall short of His personal appearance in a world so desperately in need of His love? That God's love ascends to such heights by descending to such depths summarises the message of the Injil. For the word "Injil" simply means "Good News", the good news of God's love for mankind. A vital portion of this Scripture reads:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the father, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 1 - 5, 14)
According to the above passage the eternal Word of God became a man, called Jesus. As the Word of God, He is also called the Son of God. Jesus did not become the Son of God; rather, the Son of God became Jesus, through the virgin Mary and by the power of God's Holy Spirit. Biblically speaking, then, Jesus' existence as the Word of God and as the Son of God is independent of Mary. To repeat, the Word of God (or Son of God) took the form of a human being through the virgin Mary. Jesus is spiritually and uniquely the Son of God who becomes the Son of Mary. Any suggestion of a sexual relationship whereby Jesus is called the Son of God is as blasphemous to Christians as it is to Muslims. Even today, as a Christian, I have no problem in accepting Surah 112 (Surat-u'l IKhlas) because, like any other Christian, I believe that God is one and that God has no wife. Jesus as the Son of God does not undermine the fundamental truth that God is one. In fact, Biblically understood, His Sonship supports God's unity and integrity.
Since God is love, holy love, then even the Cross of Jesus the Messiah can make sense. Consider the following verses from the Bible.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9, 10)
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
Our natural inclination, of course, is to despise and even hate sinners. But all of us make exceptions, at least of ourselves. I may despise myself when I sin, but I still manage to love myself and forgive myself. Likewise many a mother continues to love even her mature child who falls into sin, despite her contempt for the sin itself.
But God is greater. Therefore, He is also greater in love. Praise God! For,
Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. (Psalm 27:10)
"No burdened soul can bear another's burdens." In one sense both the Qur'an and the Bible agree with this affirmation. In another sense, however, the Bible affirms that no burdened person can bear even his own-burdens. But God can! And through the Cross of Jesus, according to the Bible, God did and does! In Biblical understanding, the Cross of Jesus is God's own way of offering us forgiveness of our sins, a change of heart and a new life. At the same time, the Cross of Jesus demonstrates the distinctive nature of our sin, its incalculable weight, its deadly consequence, and, in brief, its costliness to ourselves and even to God. In the Cross of Jesus God's holiness and love meet and embrace. God is no mere spectator of the tragic drama of human sin and death. He himself has participated in it! He has paid the price. That is why Jesus is called our ransom.
For even the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.... (2 Corinthians 5:1 8)
But Jesus' crucifixion and burial were succeeded by another act of God. "On the third day He rose from the dead." The resurrection of Jesus is God's own demonstration that Jesus' Cross is God's plan for man. It is the heart of the Injil, God's good news for mankind, as any reader interested in understanding the lnjil's essential message will discover. It is the sole reason for the existence of the Injil. Whether the reader accepts or rejects this message is, of course, another matter.
Remarkably the Bible itself anticipates much human negative reaction to the Cross of Jesus. It relates how the Messiah's Cross is a stumbling block for the Jew; for how could any Jew accept that God's promised Messiah for the Jews could die the shameful death of the cross! For the Gentiles (non-Jews), unconscious of their sinfulness and the holiness of God, the Cross of Jesus as God's way for human salvation is folly. But for those who know that their salvation lies beyond their burdened selves, the weakness and folly of Jesus' Cross becomes the power and wisdom of God.
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)
As a Muslim I could identify with the common Muslirn responses to both Jesus' Sonship and His Cross. Both sounded even silly and unnatural. Yet, after carefully reading the Bible, even today 1 continue to wonder: 1. Do Muslims understand that Christians also reject the Qur’anic concept of Jesus as Son of God, that in fact the Biblical concept of Jesus as Son of God differs radically from the Qur’anic concept of Jesus' Sonship? 2. It is true that the Qur'an rejects the crucifixion of Jesus. But do Muslims seriously try to understand not only the Cross as a fact of history but its meaning for Christians in the light of God's righteousness and love for mankind? In short, when Muslims reject these fundamentals of Biblical faith, do they understand what they reject and why they reject what they reject?
My new awareness of God's holiness and love and my gnawing consciousness of my own sin cast new light on my relation with God and His relation with me. My decision to follow Jesus and to be baptized was no light decision. Indeed, it was the result of much intellectual and spiritual travail. I did not make the decision blindly unaware of and callously unconcerned with its consequences within my family and community. Despite the heavy cost, I knew the "joy in heaven over one sinner who repents." It was as if I had returned, where I belonged, to my Heavenly Father and had thrown myself into His open arms of mercy (Luke 15). This story of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son in this chapter of the Bible, spoken by Jesus almost two thousand years ago, was my own story, my own biography, a transcript of my relation with God. How could I dismiss this portrait of my life as irrelevant, superseded, abrogated!
D. A Debt Acknowledged
I do not speak flippantly in acknowledging once more my indebtedness to the Qur'an. I studied it seriously and learnt much from it. No doubt, some readers will add, I still have much more to learn from it. With this I would agree. But have they also studied it seriously? In my case, I felt the Qur'an leading me naturally into the previous Scriptures. In the Bible I discovered what has become, at least for me, the ultimate meaning of the Qur’anic verse :
He it is Who sendeth down clear revelations unto His slave, that He may bring you forth from darkness into light; and lo! for you, Allah is Full of Pity, Merciful. (57.9)