by Dr. Shabir Ally | Watch the video interview
Grace is a very important part of Christianity, and we don't talk about it much in reference to Islam. Does Islam have a concept of grace?
There is a hadith which speaks most clearly to this matter, saying that it is only by the grace of God that people enter paradise. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that even in his case, he wouldn't enter paradise except by the grace of God. Muslims are concerned about doing the right thing and avoiding error, knowing that their deeds are going to be weighed on the Day of Judgment and if their good deeds are more, they're going to enter paradise. However, if their bad deeds are more, they will enter the “unfortunate place''. Nonetheless, the determining factor is that God's grace is what gets us into Paradise.
So how does that happen? First of all, for us to be able to do any good deed, it has to be by the guidance of God. God gives us life, health, strength, guidance, and makes it possible for us to do good deeds in the first place. But, let's say we did not have sufficient good deeds. God gives more out of His bounty. The Quran 62:4 describes God, saying, “He is the possessor of ultimate grace”. So it's He that gives grace, and several passages of the Quran shows that God is going to be gracious and merciful to people. He is going to give of His grace. In 25:70, the Quran speaks about people who believe and do good deeds. What will God do? God is going to change their evil deeds into good deeds.
So, we have a record saying that we did something evil, but God is going to flip that and make it positive towards us, erasing the evil that we have done and giving us goodness out of His own grace.
In the end, because we believe in a merciful and gracious God, we have every confidence that so long as we are sincere towards God, we try our best, despite our circumstances, to please God, to avoid error, and by the grace of God, we will enter Paradise. There is no doubt about that.
At this point, some of you might be wondering what exactly we mean by “grace”. Grace has been discussed before us, especially in Christianity. It is understood that the prophets before Jesus, on whom be peace, preached to Allah and afterwards Jesus came to usher in this period and he brought grace. They understand that to mean that by Jesus dying on the cross, God now gives His grace to human beings. He is forgiving and merciful and much more, because some Christians have the idea that corresponds to a Muslim idea of predestination, but some have taken it to make it a very cornerstone of their preaching.
Some developed a five-point Calvinism, as it is called. They link the five points to the acronym, TULIP, and the I, for TULIP, they say stands for “irresistible grace”. This refers to the point that God, according to them, bestows His grace on a person by making this person go to heaven, and that grace cannot be resisted by the person. Once God has chosen the person for this, that person is kind of locked in, of course, for a good end. Nobody wants to get out of that. However, they're emphasizing the predestination aspect of this, as far as I can understand. There's still much more for me to understand about Christianity, but there it is in a nutshell.
With that idea of grace in mind, already before Islam, we can understand that in the Quran, God is telling us that He basically gives of His bounty. It's not just simply that he gives us just our fair share, but he gives us more beyond that. It's almost like we give a tip or we give extra, over and beyond what we were supposed to pay.
So God has given us this system of a balance sheet of good and evil and says that if we do this good thing, He’ll reward us. If we do this evil, He’ll give you this punishment. Out of His grace, as a tip from Him, He can remove the punishment that we deserved and He can add more to the promises that He already gave us. He says he’ll give us this much, but He gives much more.
Because He's bountiful, gracious, kind, merciful, and He doesn't lose anything by giving to us, so He gives more and more out of His bounty.
So far the concept of grace sounds very similar in Islam and Christianity. Let’s explore some of the differences. Perhaps the difference is that we don't emphasize grace that much, because a Muslim prefers to live one's life in a state of not being too confident in thinking that “I'm going to heaven, I have the key in my pocket and I'm okay”.
The Muslim wants to live in a balance between hope and fear, hoping for the mercy and grace of God, but at the same time, fearing lest God should take us to account for our sins. For Muslims, that's a better way to go through life than to feel so overly confident that we're going to heaven. If you're so overly confident, that sets us up for the devil to ensnare us and to make sins look attractive to us. Sometimes we hear about people in high positions in faith and faith communities committing some heinous sins. We wonder, if even the ordinary believer is not going to do such things, how could somebody in leadership do that?
Perhaps it's connected to this overconfidence and the mindset that thinks, “that's okay, we've got it made, we're going to heaven. So what's one little sin? It's not going to do much harm.” Then it turns into two little sins and three and eventually big sins. That's how the devil ensnares people by giving this kind of overconfidence.
Yet, the Muslims balance this between hope and fear. In the New Testament, fear is not negated. In the Acts of the Apostles, in chapter 11, verse 49, Peter says that this has been shown to him and that he’s come to understand that God accepts from every nation - those who fear him and do what is right. So, that's what Muslims try to live by.
The Old Testament says that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. Some Muslims trust the fear too much. We need to de-emphasize that in the case of those Muslims, it has to be a balance. We should have this awe of God, because of his majesty and glory, since we're not talking to an ordinary individual, the same way as a friend. When we talk to God, yes, we can talk to him almost like a friend, but also, we should have this kind of awe of God, because he is the King of kings. How would we approach the King of kings? It has to be this combination of the love of God and also the awe of God's majesty. That awe of God's majesty should prevent us from falling into sin. If it so happens that we fall into sin, we know that God is forgiving and merciful. As the Quran says, he is full of grace. He is the possessor of mighty grace.
The Christian concept of grace is closely connected to Jesus dying for our sins, yet, Islam doesn’t have such a connection. Many might be wondering, what does Islam have then? Well, from a Muslim point of view, he or she finds it difficult to see the connection between Jesus dying for the sins and the grace of God, because it seems that these are two opposite things. Let's say God wants to be gracious to us. Then why would He need somebody else to die for our sins? If somebody else died for our sins, it means our sins are paid for by somebody else and God wasn't actually gracious. Maybe that somebody else was gracious. Then comes the doctrine of the Trinity to say that was actually God in some other form or one of the persons in God. But you see, it's a complicated solution to the problem.
In the Islamic concept, the solution is simple. God is gracious, He's merciful, He's kind. At the same time, He's just. Justice means that if one harms another, God will make sure that there is some compensation for the one who is harmed. Even if God has to give the compensation out of good deeds in terms of benefits in the life hereafter by cancelling that person's evil deeds, saying that you've been a victim.” The person wants to be gracious and merciful to you. So I'm going to cancel your sins because somebody has harmed you”. Of course, the one who has harmed the other person may be penalized in this way. The person who harmed the other may have to give his or her good deeds to the person who he or she harmed. Thus, there's some kind of equalization of justice, but beyond this, God can be merciful on His own, forgive the person who has sinned, especially against God. People have sinned against God and we have sinned against our fellow human beings and God is going to exact retribution from us for our fellow human beings, but he doesn't have to because he can compensate the victim out of /his own bounty. But more so to the point now, the one who sins against God can be forgiven by God and God does not lose anything by forgiving the sinner. This to me is a better pronouncement of the principle that God is loving and kind and just and forgiving.