Monday 7 October 2019

Understanding Islam: Responsibility of Man towards His Actions vs Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement

The Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement is an important pillar of Christianity like the doctrine of Trinity. Substitutionary atonement, also called vicarious atonement, is the idea that Jesus died "for us." There is also a less technical use of the term "substitution" in discussion about atonement when it is used in "the sense that [Jesus, through his death,] did for us that which we can never do for ourselves". According to Collins English Dictionary, it is used to describe the redemption through Jesus' death and resurrection, to reconcile the world to himself, and also of the state of a person having been reconciled to God. [2]

As explained in Wikipedia, a distinction has to be made between substitutionary atonement (Christ suffers for us), and penal substitution (Christ punished instead of us), which is a subset or particular type of substitutionary atonement. Care should be taken when one reads the language of substitution in, for example, patristic literature, not to assume any particular substitution model is being used but should, rather, check the context to see how the author was using the language.

In simple words, the doctrine hinges on the fact that all Christians are absolved of their sins since Prophet Eesa (Jesus, peace be upon him) took over the responsibility of all the sins of Christians, thus absolving them of their sins and errors. It also means that a god died to absolve its people of the sins, for as per Trinity, Prophet Jesus is part of the Three Gods.

The details of this doctrine can be read in the Wikipedia [2]. However, Islam has a different view altogether about the responsibility of towards his actions, specially the sins. Not only that, the concept of a god dying is completely alien to teachings of Islam. In fact Muslims believes here is only One True God without any associates who is always presents before the begging and will be here forever even when this worldly empires come to an end. And it will be Only He and none else Who would decide who to reward, who to forgive and who to punish.  We have already written a detailed post on the Doctrine of Tawhid / Oneness of Allah in a separate post, which may be consulted for details.

Talking specifically about the sins and the authority which can forgive the sins of man, please read the following verse from Surah 17. Al-Isra [verse 15], wherein the Divine commandant reads: 
"Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul. And whoever errs only errs against it. And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And never would We punish until We sent a messenger."
This is to impress that if a person adopts the right way, he does not do any favor to God or His Messenger or a reformer but he himself gets its benefits. On the other hand, if a person deviates from the right way, he can do no harm to God or His Messenger or a reformer, for they desire only to protect men from wrong ways and guide him on to the right way, and not for any selfish ends. Therefore, the right course for a wise man is to adopt the righteous way when it becomes distinct to him what is truth and what is falsehood. On the other hand, if he rejects truth because of his prejudices and self interest, he will be his own enemy and not a well wisher.

The Quran has laid great stress on the doctrine of personal responsibility at several places, for one cannot follow the right way scrupulously without understanding fully its implication. It means that, everyone is solely responsible for his moral conduct and is accountable to God as an individual in his own person and no other person can share the burden of responsibility with him. As an instance, we take the case of a particular action or a particular way of conduct in which a generation or a community of a large number of people had collaborated. When the people will assemble before Allah on the Day of Judgment, their collective action will be analyzed so as to lay the burden of its responsibility on each and every person who had been conducive to it, and rewarded or punished in accordance with it. Neither will a person be punished for the part another had played in its performance nor shall the burden of the sin of one individual be laid on the shoulders of another. This doctrine has been emphasized over and over again so that a wise man should not act in imitation of another or justify his own conduct by similar deeds of others. If a particular person feels the sense of his own responsibility, he will act in such a way as to come out successful on the Day of Judgment, regardless of what the others do.

This is another doctrine which has been impressed on the minds by the Quran in different ways. This is to emphasize the basic importance that a Messenger has in the dispensation of divine justice because this is determined in the light of the message brought by him. This will be employed as an argument in favor of or against the concerned people. Otherwise the infliction of punishment on the people would be unjust for in that case they could argue that they should not be punished as the knowledge of the righteous way had not been conveyed to them. But after the message had been conveyed to a particular people, and they had rejected it, there would be left no excuse for them.

It is an irony that instead of accepting the message some people are misled by reading verses like this and they ask such absurd questions: What will be the position of those, who might not have received the message of any Prophet? The wise course for such persons would have been to ask themselves what their own position will be on the Day of Judgment, because they themselves had received the message. As regards to other people, Allah knows best who has received the message, and when, how and to what extent and what attitude a certain person adopted towards it. In short, Allah alone is aware of whether a particular person received the message in such a way as to fulfill the required condition for punishment. 

The doctrine of personal responsibility is insisted on, and the basis of ethics is shown to be our own good or evil as furthering or obstructing our highest development. The doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement or the Vicarious Atonement is condemned. Salvation for the wicked cannot be attained by the punishment of the innocent. One man cannot bear the burden of another: that would be unjust. Every man must bear his own personal responsibility. But Allah never visits His wrath on anyone until due warning is conveyed to him through an accredited messenger.

A similar theme is projected in Surah 6. Al-An'am, verse 164:

قُلۡ اَغَيۡرَ اللّٰهِ اَبۡغِىۡ رَبًّا وَّهُوَ رَبُّ كُلِّ شَىۡءٍ​ ؕ وَلَا تَكۡسِبُ كُلُّ نَـفۡسٍ اِلَّا عَلَيۡهَا​ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِّزۡرَ اُخۡرٰى​ۚ ثُمَّ اِلٰى رَبِّكُمۡ مَّرۡجِعُكُمۡ فَيُنَبِّئُكُمۡ بِمَا كُنۡـتُمۡ فِيۡهِ تَخۡتَلِفُوۡنَ‏  

"Say: 'Shall I seek someone other than Allah as Lord when He is the Lord of everything?' Everyone will bear the consequence of what he does, and no one shall bear the burden of another. Thereafter, your return will be to your Lord, whereupon He will let you know what you disagreed about."

Since God is the Lord of the entire universe, how could anyone be His lord?  Or how can someone else, no matter how holy or revered he may be, could be equated with One True God (as the concept of Trinity in Christianity equates the son and the holy ghost with Father). Since the entire universe is yoked to obedience to God, man is an integral part of the universe, how can he reasonably, look for another lord in that area of his life in which he uses his own volition,ind judgement? Is it appropriate for him to move in diametrical opposition to the entire universe?

There we Muslims believe that every person is responsible for whatever he does; and no one is responsible for the deeds of others. And that is what he will be accounted for his sins, errors, and the grave sin of shirk, the act of associating others at par with One True Allah.

For more Selected Verses, please refer to our reference page: Selected Verses from the Qur'anYou may also refer to our Reference Page on Understanding Islam: Frequently asked Q&A.

Photo | References| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

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