What does salvation imply? What are the exact differences between the savior according to the Islamic point of view and that of other religions or doctrines?
What does salvation imply? What are the exact differences between the savior according to the Islamic point of view and that of other religions or doctrines? Why should we not refer to this savior as the Islamic Messiah, Islamic Maitreya or other similar terms?
The belief in Al-Mahdi (as) and his salvation come through the narrations of our Holy Prophet (saws), which are numerous and accepted by Shi'ah and Sunni alike. But this belief also has to be understood in its rational context as previously understood from the Qur'anic verse.
Within Islamic belief salvation and suffering are inextricably combined. As Muslims we cannot hope for salvation unless we are prepared to suffer for it. It is not merely enough to profess our faith and assume that we will be saved. The differences between the Christian and Islamic concept of salvation lie in their interpretation of suffering. Islam possesses no notion of suffering for original sin. Rather the acceptance of suffering in this life forms the basis for spiritual growth and nearness to Allah (swt).
The concept of suffering as a general notion seems to be as old as humanity itself. Aeschylus has said: Wisdom comes alone through suffering', and as Aristotle has said: Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.
Indeed we believe that suffering is associated with wisdom, and not with being rich, as the Romanian proverb says:
Adversity makes a man wise, not rich.
Also a Welsh proverb says:
"Adfyd a ddwg wybodaeth, a gwybodaeth doethineb."
Meaning: Adversity brings knowledge and knowledge, wisdom.
American preacher and writer Henry Ward Breecher (1813-1887) has said that suffering is part of the Divine idea because man cannot remark himself without suffering. He is both the marble and the sculptor. One must live this life and accept its challenges, because for suffering and enduring there is no remedy, save in striving and doing. 277 Thus almost everyone recognizes the positive effects of suffering in creating a positive personality.
From a secular point of view, human beings are threatened with suffering from three directions. They endure suffering from the body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution. There is suffering from the external world, which may rage against mankind with overwhelming and merciless force. And finally there is suffering borne from relations with other men. This last form is probably more painful than any other. 278 Psychoanalysis sought to deal with the defense mechanism that arise within people in order to defend them from the suffering of their environment.
We are aware that the suffering relevant to our topic results from our actions within the system of nature and freewill, and is not something that exists independently. Therefore we believe in a savior, an individual who will come and transform the hearts of men and the conditions of this world at the same time.
The foremost example of suffering for the sake of salvation is to be found in the example of our Imam Husayn (as), who sacrificed the life of his family and himself in order to achieve salvation for the cause of islam. As Muslims and in particular as Shi'ah Muslims we have to look to this example and understand that it is our responsibility to defend ourselves and suffer for the truth, if we hope to be saved in the next life.
Shi'ah scholars have used the term 'savior' metaphysically, an example of which can be found in a quote from a Shi'ah scholar who wrote that, 'Husayn ibn Ali was the savior of Islam'. By this they mean how only such a rebirth can be brought about by a person's will and action and compliance with religion.
Muslims believe in salvation, and believe in a savior, but in a rational way. This belief is combined with a sense of responsibility for all human beings on the earth.
In Ayatullah M. Baqir Al Sadr's book, "Trends of history in the Qur'an", it can be quoted that:
The question of the norms of history has given rise to a wrong impression that there is a sort of contradiction between a man's freedom and the norms of history. It appears that if we accept the existence of the norms of history we must reject the idea of man's freedom and his having a choice of action. But if we admit that man is a free being having freewill and choice, then we cannot accept the existence of the norms of history and have to deny the existence of the norms of history. It naturally has to fight against this wrong impression and is also the reason why the Qur'an lays great stress on the fact that men will play the main role in events, which take place in this world. We propose to explain the technique adopted by the Qur'an for establishing harmony between the norms of history and the freedom of man's will. All the verses, which throw light on the norms of history, imply man's freedom also. Thus, the Qur'an has combined both the aspects of this question.279
The following Qur'anic verse says:
"?? ???? ?? ???? ?? ???? ??? ?????? ?? ???????" ?????? ??????, ???? ?????, ????? 11
Allah does not change the condition of the people until they change that which is in their hearts. (The Holy Qur'an 13:11)
Allah (swt) has combined human freedom with the norms of history. The norms of history are that changes will have to occur but at a human level. To change the course of history we first have to change what is in our hearts, otherwise we cannot blame God (swt), and we are responsible for the situation around us. If we expect the appearance of the Imam to carry out the task, then we will not be able to maintain it. I believe it is a rational conclusion that is based on logical premises. In a Danish proverb we read:
En arvet skilling er hurtig spandert.280
Which means an inherited chicken is quickly used up.
This means that things which come easily, go easily, therefore justice should not be given, rather achieved through constant struggle. In order that mankind may understand -in this context- how precious it is, and why it is important to be sustained. This context is that we are human beings and we are responsible for what we do.
From the same book as quoted above, Ayatullah Sayed Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr has explained the meaning of these verses enabling us to understand them in a rational context and has said:
'For example, take the Qur'anic verse which says:
"?? ???? ?? ???? ?? ???? ??? ?????? ?? ???????" ?????? ??????, ???? ?????, ????? 11
Allah does not change the condition of the people until they change that which is in their hearts. (Qur'an 13:11)
In this verse it has been specifically stated that the change and condition of people depends on their own deeds. They themselves can bring a change if they so want. When a law of history is mentioned in the language of a conditional statement and the stipulated condition that directly relates to man's will and choice, then the law of history itself is a necessity of the existence of man's free will and choice. It gives man freedom of action so that he may change his condition. It is knowledge of a natural law such as the law of the boiling of water and hence it becomes his power for he knows under what conditions water boils and he can boil it according to his will.281
Ayatullah al-Sadr is here making a comparison between the law of history and the law of nature. They are so similar that sometimes history can be affected by a person's own deeds, actions, ideas or ideologies.
If a person wants to change the course of history, he has to make a plan and has to work hard to achieve it. Careful thought and consideration is required to decide on how to bring about and implement such a change. The starting factor has to be to bring about change in themselves. In a narration from Imam Ali (as) we are told:
Get the evil from its root by removing it from your heart
In Arabic, the word "???" means to remove something from the root. Therefore if we want to remove evil from it's root and from the hearts of others, we first have to start with ourselves. The task of the prophets was to first start by purifying themselves, they then went on to be an example to people, and then they were able to change the course of history.
If we continue looking to the past without reflecting then nothing will ever be achieved, so in order to change the future we have to start now.
However it can be clearly seen that there are important distinctions between the Islamic view of Al-Mahdi (as) and that of the Messiah of the Christians or Jews. Muslims believe in a figure who will reappear in the future and help humanity to fight and work for justice in this world. Muslims strongly believe in salvation based on human will supported by Divine guidance. It is not believed that God would come to earth and automatically grant victory without any human involvement. The Qur'an states how all those who have gone before us have suffered until their goal was achieved. So we have to suffer again as they have if we want to achieve victory or at least salvation for the next life.
Every human being is responsible for what happens here on Earth. It is true essential that as Muslims we strike up dialogue with non-Muslims and discuss ideas that can at least help towards creating an attitude of understanding and tolerance.
It is also of extreme importance to emphasize that every intelligent Muslim thinker will prefer using the traditional item, i. e. Al-Mahdi. There are many different and rational reasons behind this and for not using other such terms. The main reason lies behind the implications of the actual term itself and it's Judaeo-Christian or Buddhist coloring.
If we discuss the idea in comparison with the Christian and Jewish traditions, we find that despite similarity of the Islamic belief in Al-Mahdi with the Judaeo-Christian ideas of the Messiah, the concept of the Mahdi has many distinctive features. The Islamic doctrine of salvation -if it exists under this term with all its implications- does not conceive of Man as a sinner who must be saved through spiritual regeneration. It cannot be automatically assumed that all humans are in a state of sin, irrelevant to the fact whether they have sinned or not. If a person has not acted against his conscience or against his religion then why should it be believed that the person has committed a sin. Rather Islam holds that man is not dead in sin, so he needs no spiritual rebirth. Nor does the doctrine conceive of its people's salvation in nationalistic terms, with the assurance of the realization of the kingdom of God in a Promised Land by a unique, autonomous community. The basic emphasis of Islamic salvation lies instead in the historical responsibility of it's followers, namely, the establishment of the idea of a religious and political community (ummah) with worldwide membership of all those who believe in Allah (swt) and His revelation through Muhammed (saws).283
The three great monotheistic religions differ in their specification of such a savior. The Christians prepare for the Second coming of Christ, the Jew are awaiting the Messiah yet to come, and Muslims conceive of a person who will appear and rise against the existing, intolerable, secular authority. Regarding other doctrines the term Maitreya is only a symbol of Buddha, and could be applied to any individual who may appear as a just leader in the future, therefore Buddhists should be in agreement with the traditional Islamic term for savior. The "Oxford Dictionary of World Religions" states that the Buddha for the 'three times' means the Buddha for the 'three periods': Past (Kasyapa -often referred to in iconography as Dipamkara), Present (Sakyamuni, i. e. Gotama), and Future (Maitreya).284
Even if the last period -'Maitreya'- represents the future dimension of the specific personality -'Buddha'- it is doubtful that it is identical to any Islamic description of an individual savior. The same can be said for similar terms used by non-Muslim factions.
Thus in conclusion the term 'Mahdism' is frequently used to translate the important concept of an eschatological figure, Al-Mahdi (as) who -as the foreordained leader- will rise to lead and launch a great social transformation in order to restore and adjust all things under Divine guidance. Al-Mahdi (as) embodies the aspirations of his followers in the restoration of the purity of the faith, which will bring true and uncorrupted guidance to all mankind, creating a just social order and a world free from oppression in which the Islamic revelation will be the norm of all nations.
277. Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881, Scottish philosopher, Author
278. Sigmund Freud, (1856-1939), Austrian physician - Founder of Psychoanalysis.
279. Al-Sadr, S.M. Baqir, Trends of History in Qur'an, pp.100-101, publ. By Al-Khoei Foundation - London, 1991
280. www.ordtak.no/Danske ordtak
281. Al-Sadr, S.M. Baqir, Trends of History in Qur'an, pp.118-119, publ. By Al-Khoei Foundation - London, 1991
282. Bihar ul-Anwar, Vol.72, chapter 64, p.212, Al-Wafa' Foundation, Bairut, Libanon 1983
283. Sachedina, Abdul Aziz, Islamic Messianism, p.2, SUNY press, USA
284. Ed.: John Bowker, The Oxford Dictionary of World's Religions, p.171, Oxford University Press 1997
Adapted from the book: "The Awaited Saviour; Questions and Answers"
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