The Muslim View of Salvation

From an Islamic perspective, humanity’s goal is not to seek to know God and become closer to Him through fellowship. Instead, the goal is to understand God’s (Allah’s) will and to follow His commandments more faithfully. Achieving salvation is synonymous with total submission to Allah, reflecting the core principle of Islam. (The word Islam means “submission”; the word Muslim means “one who submits.”) Salvation therefore fundamentally involves works-based adherence to the divine commandments.

To fully understand the Islamic concept of salvation, it’s essential first to explore Islam’s teachings on sin. Christian theologians have long noted that a diminished view of sin invariably leads to a diminished view of salvation. When the seriousness of human sin is underestimated, the need for redemption tends to be minimized. This notion is exemplified in Islam, where the approach to sin influences the perception of salvation.

The Muslim View of Sin

Islam has a distinct view of human sin that differs significantly from the Christian concept of original sin, which is rooted in the fall of Adam. While Islam recognizes that Adam disobeyed God and was expelled from the Garden of Eden, this act did not change his inherent nature. According to Islamic belief, Adam did not inherit a tendency to sin because of disobedience. He remained as capable of obeying God after the fall as he was before.

Furthermore, Islam asserts that Adam’s transgression did not affect his descendants. Each of Adam’s descendants, like Adam himself, can obey God’s commands, provided they understand what is expected of them. This underlies the Islamic view of why Allah has continuously sent prophets to guide humanity throughout history.

Muslim author Badru Kateregga asserts that every individual is born in a state of innocence, purity, and freedom: “There is no single act which has warped the human will.”[1] Islamic tradition documents the statements Muhammad is said to have made on this subject: “No child is born except in the state of natural purity (fitra) and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian, or Magian.”[2] Another Muslim writer notes that “people are born innocent and remain so until each makes him or herself guilty by a guilty deed. Islam does not believe in ‘original sin’; and its Scripture interprets Adam’s disobedience as his own personal misdeed—a misdeed for which he repented and which God forgave.”[3]

A central belief among Muslims regarding Adam’s actions is that he did not commit a significant sin because he was a prophet of Allah. Muslims believe that Allah’s prophets are exempt from committing grave misdeeds since individuals who commit such acts would not be chosen to transmit divine revelations. Instead of labeling Adam’s act as a grave sin, it is considered a minor error; he simply forgot Allah’s instruction not to eat from the tree. This lapse led to a mistake, after which he sought repentance, and all was rectified. 

This view does not mean that Muslims reject the concept of sin altogether. Sin is acknowledged in Islam, but the belief is that sins are committed because of human weakness and forgetfulness rather than an inherently sinful nature (as referred to in Sura 4:28). Humans are described as inherently weak and easily distracted from the right path. This human condition underscores the need for divine laws that constantly remind human beings what is expected of them. Thus, when sin occurs because of human susceptibility and forgetfulness, divine law acts as a guiding light to restore and maintain moral and spiritual alignment.

Atonement Unnecessary

The idea that the almighty Allah would be disturbed by the minor mistakes of a human being is considered nonsensical by Muslims. They believe that Allah has the power to forgive at His discretion.

Muslims also believe that individuals have the ability, through their own efforts, to escape the clutches of sin and choose to adhere to the guidance of Allah. Consequently, the notion of needing atonement for sins is rejected. Muslims do not subscribe to the idea that human beings need redemption, thus negating the need for the sacrifice of a Savior (such as Jesus Christ). Humanity is seen as inherently virtuous, and Muslims place their hope in the belief that Allah will grant forgiveness to those who earnestly seek to fulfill His commandments.

Atonement in Islamic theology is unnecessary in view of Allah’s ultimate and sovereign authority in matters of salvation. As presented in the Qur’an, Allah has the prerogative to guide whomever He chooses on the right path or to lead them astray. He has the autonomy to show mercy or severity as He pleases. He is beholden to no one. Since Allah is free to pardon or condemn whomever He pleases, the concept of atonement is considered superfluous.

Good Deeds Must Outweigh Bad Deeds

The Quran suggests that the prospect of salvation largely depends on one’s ability to earn Allah’s favor through positive deeds. We read in Sura 23:102-3: “In the day of judgment, they whose balances shall be heavy with good works, shall be happy; but they, whose balances shall be light, are those who shall lose their souls, and shall remain in hell forever.” One’s good deeds must outweigh one’s bad deeds.[4]

To attain salvation, many Muslims believe that the key is to emulate Muhammad, who is considered the most exemplary human being. Since Muhammad was favored by Allah, imitating his actions and sayings can lead one to paradise. This underscores the importance of tradition within Islam, providing insight into Muhammad’s responses to various situations. 

Aware of their shortcomings and the daunting expectations of the Day of Judgment, some Muslims strive to perform additional good deeds in hopes of tipping the scales in their favor. These include more prayers, observing additional fasting periods, increasing charitable donations, reciting the 99 most beautiful names of Allah, making pilgrimages to Mecca and other important Islamic sites, and other virtuous acts. Through these efforts, they strive to accumulate enough merit to secure a place in Paradise.

No Assurance

Even for those who diligently perform additional righteous deeds, the certainty of salvation remains elusive. After death, a Muslim remains uncertain whether paradise or hell awaits him. The uncertainty stems from the “scales of justice” that weigh one’s good deeds against one’s bad deeds. Ultimately, the decision rests with the unpredictable will of Allah, rendering human attempts to predict divine judgment futile. This belief in predestination suggests that Allah predetermines the eternal fate of every soul, sending some to heaven and others to hell, regardless of their earthly conduct. Thus, a pious believer might still be damned, while a sinner might unexpectedly gain entry to paradise. Even Muhammad himself expressed uncertainty about his own salvation (see Hadith 5:266), casting doubt on the assurance of salvation for every follower.

The only exception is the guarantee of paradise for those who die in the service of Allah, regardless of their moral standing. This belief motivates some extremists to sacrifice their lives in acts against those they consider enemies of their faith (infidels), seeing martyrdom as a direct path to paradise. 

A Christian Assessment

Original Sin

In contrast to the Islamic perspective, the Bible asserts that Adam’s transgression had more than a trivial effect on his life. According to Scripture, the moment Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit marked their spiritual demise. The term “death” in the Bible means separation; therefore, spiritual death refers to the severing of one’s connection with God. This immediate spiritual separation occurred the moment Adam and Eve sinned, leaving them “dead…in trespasses and sins,” as described in Ephesians 2:1-3, which eventually led to their physical deaths.

What’s more, unlike Islam, Adam’s sin was not confined to him alone but had repercussions for the entire human race. From that pivotal moment, human beings were born into a state of sinfulness. The apostle Paul explained that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), conveying that the disobedience of one man resulted in the rest of humanity being deemed sinners, as further stated in Romans 5:19.

Much earlier in biblical history, David confessed in Psalm 51:5 that he was sinful from the moment of conception. This inherent sinfulness shows us why Ephesians 2:3 describes human beings as “by nature children of wrath.”

The universality of sin testifies to the reality of original sin. In Ecclesiastes 7:20, we read, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” In Isaiah 64:6, we read, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” In Job 15:14 we read, “What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?” In 1 John 1:8, we read, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Considering these facts, we could say that a prime manifestation of this universal sin in the human heart is the Muslim denial that there is a sin problem at all.

The Christian view of the inherent sinfulness of human beings is supported by empirical evidence, including the historical records of endless conflicts and wars that cast doubt on the notion of innate human goodness. John Ankerberg and John Weldon have noted that “since 3,600 B.C. the world has known only 292 years of peace. In that period, stretching more than 55 centuries, there have been an incredible 14,531 wars in which over 3.6 billion people have been killed.”[5]

Although Muslims deny the doctrine of original sin, there is ample evidence from the pages of the Quran itself that humanity has a sin problem: 

“The (human) soul is certainly prone to evil” (Sura 12:53).

“Verily man was created anxious, fretful when evil touches him but mean-spirited when good reaches him” (Sura 70:19-21). 

“Man is given up to injustice and ingratitude” (Sura 14:34).

“Man was created weak” (Sura 4:28).

“(Man) becomes an open disputer” (Sura 16:4). 

“Man doth transgress all bounds” (Sura 96:6). 

“If God were to punish men for their wrongdoing, He would not leave, on the (earth), a single living creature” (Sura 16:61). 

Sin—Not Mere “Feebleness” and “Forgetfulness”

In contrast to the Islamic perspective, which sees sin primarily as human weakness and forgetfulness, the Bible teaches that sin is an act of defiance against a holy God and a violation of His divine laws, making us all guilty. A basic biblical definition of sin is “missing the mark” (see Matthew 5:21-22). Sin represents our failure to meet the standards set by God. Everyone misses the mark; no one is able to obey all of God’s laws.

The apostle Paul emphasized that everyone falls short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The phrase “falls short” is translated from a single Greek word and is in the present tense, suggesting an ongoing situation. Human beings are in a constant state of falling short of the glory of God. The term “glory” here includes more than just God’s visible splendor; it consists of the visible expression of His attributes—such as His righteousness, justice, and holiness. In these facets, human beings do not measure up to God.

The unmistakable presence of human sin becomes glaringly apparent in the face of God’s profound holiness. It’s like how dirt becomes unmistakably visible when illuminated by a bright light. Consider the experience of the prophet Isaiah. By human standards, Isaiah could be considered quite virtuous. But when he encountered the boundless holiness of God, he became acutely aware of his sinfulness. He exclaimed in despair, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). This illustrates how divine holiness magnifies our imperfections and causes even the righteous to perceive their moral flaws with utmost clarity.

Comparing ourselves to others may give us the impression that we’re relatively virtuous. However, using other people as our standard of morality is quite misleading. It is God who should serve as our moral standard. Our shortcomings and transgressions become glaringly obvious when we measure our moral standing against God’s limitless holiness and righteousness.

The teachings of Jesus Christ most clearly illuminate the gravity of humankind’s sin problem. He emphasized that since the fall, human beings have perpetually had evil tendencies (Matthew 12:34) and are capable of great wickedness (Mark 7:20-23). He also said that human beings are lost (Luke 19:10), inherently sinful (Luke 15:10), and in dire need of repentance before a holy God (Mark 1:15).

Jesus often used metaphors to illustrate the destructive effects of sin in an individual’s life. He compared sin to blindness (Matthew 23:16-26), sickness (Matthew 9:12), bondage (John 8:34), and dwelling in darkness (John 8:12; 12:35-46). He also declared that every person is affected by this condition and is guilty before God (Luke 7:37-48), emphasizing the universality of sin’s reach.

Sin quite obviously goes beyond simple lapses of memory and weakness. Consider Adam’s situation. Muslims argue that Adam erred because he “forgot” God’s command not to eat fruit from the tree. This interpretation is impossible to fathom, especially considering that the Quran itself mentions that Satan jogged Adam’s memory about God’s command during the temptation to eat the fruit (Sura 7:20). Adam’s act wasn’t a matter of forgetting; it was a conscious decision to disobey God! 

Sin Is an Inner Reality

Jesus emphasized that it is not only our outer actions that lead to guilt but also our inner thoughts. For example, He said in Matthew 5:28 that even looking at a woman with lust is the same as committing adultery in one’s heart. He also taught that it is from within, from the human heart, that evil thoughts—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, jealousy, slander, pride, and foolishness—emerge (Mark 7:21-23). He also clarified that God is omniscient, fully aware of all human sins, whether actions or thoughts, and that nothing can be hidden from Him (Matthew 22:18; Luke 6:8; John 4:17-19). The future judgment will deal with both outward behavior and the heart’s inner workings. The Lord “will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5). 

Good Works Not Enough

Contrary to the works-salvation of Islam, God has revealed in the Bible that works do not—indeed, cannot—save. The apostle Paul affirmed, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). He said, “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” for “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Paul, who wrote the above verses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was once a devout Jew who sought to secure his relationship with God by keeping the law, as was customary. However, he realized a truth that everyone must understand—that our efforts and good deeds are insufficient to earn God’s approval because they pale in comparison to God’s immeasurable holiness. “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Our best efforts fail! 

It’s not that Christians ignore entirely the importance of good deeds in their daily lives. However, such deeds do not contribute to one’s salvation. Salvation comes by faith alone, as scriptures such as Romans 4:1-25 and Galatians 3:6-14 make clear. Nevertheless, good works are considered a direct result of salvation (see Matthew 7:15-23; 1 Timothy 5:10, 25). These deeds should reflect the transformative change in life purpose that comes with salvation, a concept emphasized in 1 Corinthians 3.

Muslims need to understand that while Islam seeks to take forgetful and weak people and make them better by reminding them of Allah’s law, Christianity seeks to take dead people and make them spiritually alive (John 3:1-5, 16-17). We are all born into this world spiritually dead, separated from God by sin. By trusting in Christ, we are made spiritually alive. Islamic ethics won’t do! 

God’s Declaration of Righteousness

The joyful message of salvation includes a key theological concept known as justification. Justification is a unique, immediate event in which God declares the believer, a sinner, to be righteous. Viewed through a theological lens, justification is a term that carries a judicial meaning in which God makes a legal declaration. This declaration does not depend on one’s merits or good deeds. It involves God forgiving sinners and declaring them perfectly righteous when they place their faith in Christ for salvation (Romans 3:25,28,30; 8:33-34; Galatians 4:21-5:12; 1 John 1:7-2:2).

Here is the theological background: Man’s dilemma of “falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) pointed to the need for a solution. Man’s sin—his utter unrighteousness—was such that there was no way for him to come into a relationship with God on his own. Humankind was guilty before a holy God, and this guilt of sin placed a barrier between man and God.

The solution is found in justification. Negatively, this word means one is once-for-all declared to be not guilty before God. Positively, the word means one is once-for-all declared righteous before God. The very righteousness of Christ is imputed (“credited” or “transferred”) to the believer’s life. 

This declaration is entirely independent of human actions or personal righteousness. It is based solely on God’s decree. This definitive judicial declaration occurs immediately when an individual places his faith in Christ. Even though the individual remains a sinner and has not achieved personal righteousness in his behavior, he is considered righteous in the eyes of God because of justification. 

Romans 3:24 tells us that God’s declaration of righteousness is given to believers “by his grace as a gift.” The word grace means “unmerited favor.” Because of God’s unmerited favor, believers can freely be “declared righteous” before God. It cannot be earned. 

A significant blessing of being justified is that we are now at peace with God (Romans 5:1). It’s as if the Father looks at believers through the “filter” of Jesus Christ. Because there is harmony between the Father and Jesus Christ, this peace extends to believers who are “in Christ.” This means that the relationship between the Father and believers is one of peace.

Necessity of Atonement

God did not just subjectively or arbitrarily choose to overlook humanity’s sin or wink at his iniquity. Contrary to the Muslim denial of the need for an atonement, Scripture says that this atonement was necessary to make justification possible. Jesus died on the cross for us. He died in our place. He paid for our sins. Jesus redeemed us from death by His death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus Himself defines for us the nature of the atonement. He affirmed that He came into the world for the very purpose of dying (John 12:27). Moreover, He understood His death to be a sacrifice for the sins of humankind (He said that His blood “is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” Matthew 26:28). He took His sacrificial mission very seriously, knowing that without Him, humankind would surely perish (Matthew 16:25; John 3:16) and spend eternity apart from God in a place of great suffering (Matthew 10:28; 11:23; 23:33; 25:41; Luke 16:22-28).

Jesus therefore described His mission this way: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

In John 10, Jesus compares Himself to a good shepherd who not only gives His life to save the sheep (John 10:11) but also lays down His life of His own accord (John 10:18). This is precisely what Jesus did on the cross (Matthew 26:53): He laid down His life to atone for the sins of humankind.

This is undoubtedly how others perceived His mission. When Jesus began His three-year ministry and went to John the Baptist at the Jordan River, John said: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John’s portrayal of Christ as the Lamb of God is a vivid affirmation that Jesus Himself would be the sacrifice that would atone for the sins of humankind (see Isaiah 53:7). 

Romans 3:24-25 speaks of “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (emphasis added). This passage conveys the idea that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross fully satisfied God’s holy demands against a sinful people, thereby averting His righteous wrath against them (Romans 1:18; 2:5,8; 3:5). Because of this atonement, we can be freely and justly “declared righteous” (and justified).

In a conversation with a Muslim, it might be helpful to bring up the story of Abraham’s sacrifice in the Old Testament (Genesis 22). According to the Quran, Abraham’s son was spared death by a substitute animal sacrifice (Sura 37:102-107). Interestingly, this narrative uses similar terminology to Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross in the New Testament (Matthew 20:28; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Timothy 2:5,6; Hebrews 7:27; 9:15,28). This suggests that the concept of an atoning sacrifice, one taking the place of another, is not foreign to Quranic teaching. The story of Abraham can serve as a poignant parallel to emphasize the need for a sacrificial figure. In Christianity, Jesus is seen as the Lamb of God who sacrificed Himself on our behalf to offer us salvation (John 1:29, 36). In this light, the atoning sacrificial death of Christ is not unQuranic. Use the story of Abraham to illustrate the need for a sacrifice to take the place of another. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, took our place as a sacrifice so that we might be saved (John 1:29, 36). 

Warning: Muslims believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was to be sacrificed by Abraham. For now, I would avoid this issue and focus on the sacrifice and the ransom. You can correct the minor error about Ishmael later. 

The Certainty of Salvation

Contrary to the Muslim’s lack of assurance of salvation, the Bible indicates that once a person becomes a part of the family of God by trusting in Christ, they are secure in salvation. Scripture affirms: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). Here, there is an unbroken chain of events from predestination to glorification in heaven, and the past tense is used to emphasize the certainty of our final glorification. We are promised that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Scripture asserts: “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13).

Ephesians 4:30 indicates that the Holy Spirit seals believers unto the day of redemption (see also Ephesians 1:13). This seal—which indicates ownership, authority, and security—cannot be broken (even by the believer himself). The seal guarantees our entrance into heaven. An ancient Roman emperor would seal his letters with wax before stamping them with his own royal seal. This seal would ensure that the letter reached its intended recipient. The punishment would be death for anyone who opened and read the letter before it reached its intended recipient. A follower of Jesus is like a letter destined for heaven, and God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, is our “seal” to ensure that we reach our heavenly destiny. 

Furthermore, we are told that the Father holds us in His sovereign hands, and no one can take us out of His hands (John 10:28-30; 13:1). God has us in His firm grip. And that grip will never let us go. 

Still further, according to Hebrews 7:25, the Lord Jesus Himself prays and intercedes for us. Because of our weakness, helplessness, and immaturity as God’s children, His ministry of intercession as our heavenly High Priest is essential. He knows our weaknesses as well as the strength and tactics of the enemy (Satan) against whom we must fight. As a result, He faithfully intercedes on our behalf, and His prayers are always heard. 

Conclusion

Scripture warns us of a different spirit (2 Corinthians 11:4), false prophets (Matthew 24:24), false Christs (Matthew 24:5,23-24; 2 Corinthians 11:4), and a counterfeit gospel (Galatians 1:8). All of these are exemplified in Islam. The supposed angel “Gabriel,” who brought revelations to Muhammad, was a “different spirit.” Muhammad himself was a false prophet who taught his followers about a false Christ and a false means of salvation. Muslims desperately need to hear about the true God, the true Jesus, and the true gospel that saves! 

I invite you to consult my book, Reasoning from the Scriptures with Muslims (Harvest House Publishers). It will teach everything you need to know to effectively dialog with Muslims.

  1. Badru Kateregga and David Shenk, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1997), p. 18.
  2. Dudley Woodberry, Dimensions of Witness Among Muslims (Seoul, Korea: Chongshin University, 1997), in The World of Islam CD-ROM, copyright © 2000 Global Mapping International.
  3. Isma’il Al Faruqi, Islam (Nils: Argus Communications, 1984), p. 9.
  4. Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, Unveiling Islam (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), p. 18.
  5. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (Eugene: Harvest House, 1999), p. 517.

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