The Christian dictum “We have no deeds” is held up nowadays by many preachers as a main difference between Christianity and Islam. According to their portrayal, Islam does not strongly consider the mercy of God and the human need for forgiveness. Evidently, we Muslims—according to them—think we will “earn our way to Heaven” without God? Perhaps this is part of their general attempt to paint Islam as an unfeeling, merciless, godless religion in the minds of their congregations. That scheme does not lend any virtue to the Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue. Socially, it sabotages mutual understanding. And in reality, this is not a truthful or accurate conveyance of Islamic doctrine concerning the issue of human deeds.
While it is true that Christians hypothetically rely in full on another person’s deeds, or what they think Jesus died for centuries past, saying “we have no deeds” is certainly not consistent with other Church rhetoric concerning “doing God’s work”. Furthermore, they say “we have no deeds”, but evidently believe that others do have deeds (for which they go to Hell). Or do they believe that God arbitrarily casts those souls into the Fire? I do not know. But I do not wish to qualm here about why God would prefer blood over good deeds—for I as a Muslim certainly do not believe that God needs blood in order to forgive.
Presently, I wish simply to address one shared belief about good deeds. Christians and Muslims are not as different as some Christians imagine in regard to our view of human deeds.
Over and over again, the Qur’an adjures mankind to work righteousness, avoid vice, and stand up to the challenge of living an upright existence on earth. Muslims believe that angels escort them on the right and left, scribing their every deed. Good deeds are contained in the book on the right. Bad deeds are listed on the left—if we do not repent of them or meet forgiveness by some means. Between the scales of these deeds on the Day of Judgment, our eternity hangs in the balance: Heaven or Hell.
Good deeds, however, do not in and of themselves enter a person into Paradise. Rather, it is the mercy of God that tilts any person’s scale toward Paradise! Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) stated, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely, and moderately. And know that your deeds will not make you enter Paradise.” He was then asked, “Even you, O Messenger of God?” He replied, “Even me, unless God’s mercy is cast on me,” (Sahih Muslim, 1927).
Only through God’s mercy, according to Islamic texts, can any person enter Paradise. Prophet or saint, devil or renegade, every person’s soul is at the mercy of its Lord. We all err, and we all fall short of perfect worship, to varying degrees. Most of us, if we were taken to task for our evil deeds, would find no refuge in the meager good deeds we send forth.
Furthermore, the good deeds and pure worship that we commit for God’s sake are only performed by His will and through His mercy. For example, I could not donate to a charitable cause if God had not bestowed wealth upon my hand. You could not be kind and loving toward your children if God had not placed tenderness in your heart. A soldier could not gallantly defend the lives of his countrymen if God had not granted him health and strength. As a Muslim poet once wrote,
The good in my life and religion
Is through Your mercy, by Your permission.
You do not take. You only bestow.
Only through what You make does what You make grow.
In addition, our good deeds are rewarded beyond their actual merit. I might say a good word, and that word would turn into my ticket to Paradise, not because it was equal in effort to the blessings of Paradise but because God rewarded it with His infinite generosity. Heaven exists because God is Most Merciful. And no one’s good deeds can equal it.
However, what you do or how you live now is not completely irrelevant to your fate hereafter. In that case, what is the point of existing at all? More in point, what is the point of morality? Why would God order His commandments upon mankind, and then free them of all accountability?
No, in Islam, your actions count, and there is accountability in this world and in the hereafter. However, your actions will never reach the merit of Paradise. That is only God’s mercy and bounty upon His slaves. The reward is so far greater than the deed, you see. We do not enter Hell or Heaven arbitrarily. We act according to a certain inner character, down one path or the other. We will each individually face the consequences of our deeds, our personal cumulative life journey, and the inner dimensions of our heart and character, on a Day when no one will escape the judgment of God.
Islam conveys to its followers a well-defined sense of accountability. It also, however, couples a sense of God’s mercy with His justice. Surah Amma, chapter 78 of the Qur’an, juxtaposes God’s justice toward inhabitants of Hell with His mercy toward inhabitants of Paradise. After describing punishments allotted to denizens of hellfire, God says, “Recompense proportioned,” (Qur’an, 78:26) meaning their punishment was equivalent to their evil deeds. This demonstrates God’s Justness. Similarly, verse 7 of Surah Tahreem, chapter 56, rehearses the statement addressing people of Hell on the Day of Judgment, saying, “O you who disbelieved! Make no excuse for yourselves this day. You are only being paid for what you used to do.” The Qur’an, in chapter 78, goes on to detail the attitude that led them into Hell, saying, “Indeed, they looked not for a reckoning,” meaning they had no sense of accountability or did not believe in a Judgment Day.
Following the description of people of Hell, God describes people of Heaven in chapter 78. Instead of characterizing their rewards and pleasures as “proportioned”, however, the people of heaven enjoy what the Qur’an calls, “Requital from thy Lord—a gift in payment,” (Qur’an, 78:36). Their recompense is not equal to their deeds; rather their rewards far outweigh their good deeds in goodness, while disregarding or overlooking their bad deeds. As the Qur’an states in another chapter, “That God may reward them with the best of what they did, and increase reward for them of His bounty,” (Qur’an, 24:38), their reward is hinged upon God’s generosity. His bounty, not ours. A similar sentiment is expressed in Surah Ankibut, chapter 29, which states, “And whosoever striveth, striveth only for himself, for lo! God is altogether independent of creatures. And as for those who believe and do good works, We shall remit from them their evil deeds and shall repay for the best of what they used to do,” (Qur’an, 29:6-7).
Believing in a Higher Authority Who sees and knows all is not enough if we do not couple it with a belief that our deeds have consequences. If we do not believe in personal accountability, then we cannot behave morally. Likewise, however, believing in actions alone with no sense of performing them for God’s pleasure will nullify all the good deeds a person committed. The Qur’an says, “His are the keys of the heavens and the earth, and they who disbelieve the revelations of God—such are they who are the losers…And verily it hath been revealed unto you as unto those before you: If you ascribe partners to God, your work will fail and you indeed will be among the losers. Nay! But God must you serve, and be among the thankful!” (Qur’an, 39:63-66) Belief itself is an action, and it is the weightiest of all deeds.
In many ways, a logical person can plainly argue that this makes very good sense, both in terms of internal consistency and in terms of the way it plays out in a person’s actions and sense of accountability. Your fate in the hereafter does depend directly on what you do in this life; however, it depends a great deal more upon God’s attributes, His justice and His mercy in particular. He created those scales with which He will weigh your deeds. And they, the scales, exist in a balance that demonstrates His mercy.
Faith in God and hope in His mercy should inspire us to live a righteous life. Dreaming of Paradise should invigorate our efforts to reach that place, where God’s face is finally met, and God’s love is everlasting and all-encompassing. However, if we become distracted by the temptations of temporal, fleeting pleasures, some that are ultimately harmful to ourselves or others, we should not feel that God’s mercy is assured and unconditional. It is not a done deal. We have to feel accountable and remorseful in the wake of ill decision-making. We were originally created, and we live and exist now, not simply to be ushered into Paradise at some later point in time, but to work, to worship, to take that journey—and to realize God’s incredible mercy upon us in this world and especially in the hereafter.
Subhaka Allahuma wa behamdik. Ash’hadu an-laa ilaha illa Annt. Astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk.
Glory to You, O Allah, and praise to You. I testify that there is no God but You. I seek Your forgiveness and I repent unto You.
 This part of the verse, “God is altogether independent of (His) creatures,” should not be misconstrued to mean He does not care for them. Many agnostics these days believe that God does not interact with us, but that is far from the Islamic view of God. God is attentive, responsive, watchful, and He sustains His creatures and the creation in general. This verse is talking about how God does not need anyone else, though they need Him. He is independent, and our good deeds do not in any way sustain Him. We are working for our own benefit, out of love for Him and hope in His great reward.