The Idea of Redemption in Christianity and Islam

Muhmoud Mustafa Ayoub

Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, “The Idea of Redemption in Christianity and Islam,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 157–69.

At the time of the symposium, Mahoud M. Ayoub was associate professor at the Centre for Religious Studies, University of Toronto, Canada. He graduated from the University of Beirut with a B.A. in philosophy, received his M.A. in religious thought from the University of Pennsylvania, and his Ph.D. from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. Professor Ayoub specializes in comparisons between Islam and Christianity.

Bism illah irrahman irrahim. Assalamu ‘alaykum. Peace be with you all. It is the Islamic greeting with which I greet you. May I also add my voice to the many voices which have spoken and not spoken of the appreciation which we all have as Muslims of your effort at a time when Islam is looked upon as a distortion of the truth, as a backward religion, and Muslims and their faith have been, and still are, maligned in many circles in the West. To have people who are genuinely concerned and interested is a heartening event indeed. Let me then, as a Muslim, thank you for your efforts and wish for all of us the blessing of God and His guidance to the truth, whatever its source may be.

Among historians of religion, the approach has largely been to categorize a religion according to its concept of God. This approach, fruitful as it may be, has problems, and it may well be a more enlightening exercise if we begin not with the concept of God alone but with the way a religious tradition views human society or, in other words, man’s relationship to the Divine.

From that starting point, it can be said that from the earliest beginnings of human civilization, it has been a matter of human awareness of the mysteries of suffering and death. From the earliest times, in China, in Egypt, and notably in Mesopotamia with the cults of Tammuz, we find that the main concern is to understand the purposes of life and of death. (I will resist a great temptation to retell the tale of Gilgamesh as a commentary on the human predicament on life and on death.)

We Muslims and, as I have been learning today, Mormons as well, believe that revelation is an ongoing process. For Islam, revelation began with Adam when he received words from his Lord, and God turned towards him. And while we believe that reached its technical culmination in the prophet Muhammad through a long period of what we call progressive revelation, nonetheless it may be said that revelation continues, not in the form of wahi (revelation technically considered) but in the form of ilham, or inspiration which is open to the friends and worshipful servants of God. This mode of revelation will not end. It did not begin only after prophetic revelation had ended, but rather, in my view, it always coexisted with it. In other words, the beginnings of what I may call collective revelation are our rich heritage of mythology.

Unfortunately, we call anything which is not true, which cannot be taken seriously, mythical. But if we consider seriously that mythology has been the language of faith, that religious tradition has done far better in poetry than in prose, and that poetry is usually the language of myth, then we can see the crucial importance of myth in the development of human religious consciousness. It is in mythology also that the idea of redemption was born. As the prophet Ezekiel put it, “And there sat women weeping for Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14). On the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates sat women and men expressing their emotions of fear and hope, as they sang dirges for the God who died, in order to bring Him back to life. This really meant to bring the sap back into the date palm tree, the milk to the cow and hence to the milkskin, and the grain to the surface of the earth. [1]

If we look carefully, the ideas expressed in the myths are universal. They are Greek, they are Indian; everywhere we go there is this idea of life coming out of death, so to say, healing the world, healing nature after a period of sickness or cessation. What is redemption or the word salvation? It comes, as you all know, from the Latin root meaning “to be whole.” Yet again, it is in the myth which from Tammuz moved a vast step forward to the suffering servant of the Lord of Deutero-Isaiah. It is important to observe that whether it was in Tammuz, or in the suffering servant of the Lord, or later in Christ, or in the prophet Muhammad and his intercessory role, or later on in the martyrdom of his grandson Husayn, redemption is not achieved by or through ideas or doctrines but through the lives and the sacrifices of human individuals. If I may be allowed a small digression here, our problem has been, to a large extent, that we have taken far too seriously doctrines and theological wranglings, and not seriously enough the lives and the models, the examples of the friends of God. The suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah remained unidentified. Some said it was a prototypical character; others, that it referred to the entire Jewish people. Finally in the Church, beginning in the book of Acts and developing more clearly through the thought of Justin Martyr, the suffering servant was identified with Christ. The Gospels also refer to this somewhat briefly. The suffering servant must be all of these and none of them. In a way he is every one of us, both needing redemption and participating in a redemptive role for its achievement. I will come to this at some greater length later.

As we come to post-biblical Judaism and especially early Christianity, there are essentially two types or ideas of redemption. It may be observed here that the Swedish writer, Gustaf Aulen, is very right when he says there is no doctrine of redemption in Christianity but only theories about it. [2] There was a redemptive act, but what was it? How can we express it in doctrinal form? It is good perhaps that there has not been agreement.

As I see them, there are two basic types of redemption in Christianity. The first is a death on the cross, where the cross becomes a prototype of the biblical or more specifically the Jewish temple altar. That sacrifice was the final sacrifice, all others before it being only a prelude to it. Hence, the Gospel of St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple that separated the true place of sacrifice—the holy of holies—and the people was rent and the barrier, therefore, was removed. The idea of this type, i.e., redemption through death and the shedding of blood, is worked out in the New Testament most interestingly and clearly in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The other type is one that characterizes the Eastern Church most notably. It is redemption not by death and suffering so much as by victory. Hence, the Easter hymn for the Greek Orthodox Church goes something like this: “Christ rose from the dead, trampling death and by death giving life to those who are in the graves.” Here we have it in a nutshell, and to go into it in all its details and complexities is both beyond the time that I am allotted and also beyond my expertise.

The two basic ideas developed by medieval thinkers of Christ dying in order to appease either God or Satan or to set a trap for Satan have not been, in my view, as fruitful and creative or as poetic as the other idea which is also expressed in the thought of St. Paul, that Christ really conquered death by death. More interestingly, this idea was developed in the mystical theology of the Eastern Church, which had its beginnings in the Johannine corpus—both the Gospel and the Epistles. Christ, the second Adam, came not to abolish an original sin by dying for Adam, but rather he came in order to make us divine. He came in order to achieve victory over the demonia, the powers of evil. It was God visiting humanity in human disguise. Hence that Christianity which lived on strongly and converted numerous people in the Syro-Aramaic area or what we now mainly call the Arab world, was that Christianity which has been characterized by Christian writers as the faith of the merciful, i.e., addin arrahamani. It is that faith which Islam breeds, and I think we cannot understand Islam fully unless we see it in that Christian ritualistic context. It may be argued that even though the prophet of Islam lived in closer proximity to the Jewish community in Medina and interacted with it far more extensively on a daily basis, the overall influence of the spirituality of Eastern Christianity and its idea of redemption played a greater role in the formative period of Muslim piety.

To the two types of redemption discussed in Christianity, Islam added a third and a fourth. But before I talk about the Islamic idea of redemption it must be observed that the basic mystery which preoccupied humanity from its earliest beginning was that of suffering and death. Hence the idea or hope of redemption was born in suffering. In the West the suffering of Christ developed into an idea of a Christ contorted with pain. (The gory images that we see in much of Western medieval literature characterizing the suffering Christ were the products of the first type of redemption; that is, redemption as death.) In Eastern Christian piety, on the other hand, the cross is not really an altar of suffering and death, but a throne of glory. In many poems, notably that of Fortunatus, [3] and echoed even in Ireland in the “Dream of the Rood,” we find the same notion of the universal cross as the throne of glory. Yet suffering was not forgotten, and the Christian Church, inasmuch as it itself participated in that redemptive role, did it through its witness. The greatest witness was that of martyrdom. The word martyr actually means “witness.” The point was vividly argued even early in the Church when Stephen, the first martyr, at the point of death declared that he saw the heavens opened and the Son of God seated on the right hand of God (see Acts 7:55–56). However, that suffering had to be transferred from earth to heaven in order for it to be universal and eternal. Thus St. John Chrysostom (in a sermon sometimes wrongly attributed to St. Augustine) declares that Christ sits in heaven still bearing the marks of the nails and the wound of the lance in his side. [4] Therefore the emblems of suffering were not only to be embodied by the Church here on earth in its participatory role in the achievement of redemption, but they were also transferred to heaven, where they will be displayed before the angels until the final victory—the return of the Messiah, the Second Coming.

To understand the Islamic idea of redemption, in contrast, and the two types which I said Islam added to the Christian notion, is to look briefly at the Muslim view of man. For a long time Christian and Jewish orientalists in the West read the Qur’anic account of Adam as a gross distortion of the biblical account that, had he known better, Muhammad would have copied. It is only now, I think, that scholars are beginning to see the Qur’an on its own terms. However different it may be from that of Genesis, the Qur’anic account of Adam must be seen on its own terms. What does it tell us? In some ways, the Adam of the Qur’an closely resembles that of Genesis. Like the Adam of Genesis, Adam in the Qur’an is declared to be made of clay and obtains the breath of life through the divine spirit that was breathed into him. Like the biblical Adam, the Adam of the Qur’an sinned by disobeying the divine command. But here the comparison ends. The Qur’an does not tell us that Adam ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, because knowledge was given to him even before his sin (Qur’an 2:31–33). Knowledge was not the cause of his condemnation and damnation but of his salvation. Adam was saved because he received words from his Lord. He was declared higher than the angels because he knew language which they did not know. So it is not knowledge that made Adam sin but disobedience. While the biblical Adam becomes the first sinner for Christians, for Muslims Adam is not the first sinner but the first prophet, because with him the history of revelation begins.

In nine verses in the Qur’an (2:30–39) we have a commentary on the story of Adam which was told several times in other Qur’anic verses. It is a commentary that goes beyond the creation of Adam. There God says to the angels, “Behold, I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth.” The angels, knowing what we would do, said, “Would you place therein one who will spread corruption and shed blood, while we proclaim your praise and sanctify you?” He said, “I know what you do not know.” Then Adam was taught the names of all creatures and the challenge was placed between knowing and choosing man and knowing and choosing the angels, who could only do that which is good. Satan, or Iblis, in the Adam story plays a role not in spite of, but by the permission of, God. His sin was like that of Adam in essence. Both rebelled. But while Adam repented and turned to God, Iblis persisted in his pride and would not accept that a creature of clay may be better than a creature of fire.

Redemption, then, in Islam begins with Adam, who was made for the earth. He descends to earth, and the battle between good and evil begins on its true stage, the earth. Redemption is when this battle is finally concluded with the divine victory, with the victory of the Good.

The Qur’an speaks not of ransom by sacrifice even though we do a commemorative sacrifice at the time of the hajj to commemorate the sacrifice of Abraham, but the Qur’an insists that then neither the fat nor the blood of the animals reaches God. What reaches him is our piety or righteousness. So expiation or takfir of sin must be done by the individual himself, and here, then, redemption is what men and women do with their own sin through repentance and through expiation through prayers, fasts, sharing their wealth with the poor, and so on. This is one type of redemption.

The other, and in a sense more important in that it has permeated Islamic life more deeply and is a type which may be considered as really the only legitimate type of Islamic redemption, is that of intercession—shafa’ah. Contrary to what many Muslims say, intercession is not denied in the Qur’an; rather, what is denied is that intercession will benefit those who are deep in sin. Any intercession must be a divine gift. The Qur’an tells us, “Who shall intercede with him, save by his leave” (2:255). Furthermore, if we take the large number of hadith known as ahadith ash shafa’a, or the traditions of intercession, we find so clearly the idea that it will be Muhammad who will intercede on behalf not only of the Muslims but the entire world. In a long and dramatic tradition related on the authority of Abu Hurayrah we are told that on the day of resurrection, people will be made to stand for seventy years. They will weep tears, and when their tears run out they will weep blood until the blood shall stop their mouths, and still they will not be judged. Then Muhammad will go and prostrate himself before God and intercede for people, not that they may be given paradise but at least that they must be heard—they must be judged—and hence the judgment begins.

While Muhammad, in popular Islam and in much of not-so-popular Islam, plays a very important intercessory role, intercession is not limited to him. Rather, in explanation of a very interesting verse in Surat al-Baqara, which comes after telling the story of David and Goliath and Saul, the text adds that had not God restrained or stopped some people by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted (2:251). Most people take that to mean that there must always exist in the earth people who pray, otherwise the earth will disappear. In a comment on that verse by the sixth Shi’i imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, we are told that God protects those who do not pray among the Muslims through those who do pray; those who do not fast through those who do fast; and those who do not go on pilgrimage through those who do go. Were they all to concur in neglecting the prayers, fasting, and pilgrimage, then they would all perish.

In another hadith we are told that God blesses, that is, gives baraka (blessings), through the prayerful servant of God. He gives baraka not only to the person’s own family but to his neighbors and neighbors’ neighbors to the seventh neighbor. This notion of the earth being preserved, made whole, redeemed from evil through piety and prayers is most eloquently expressed in Islamic mysticism in Sufism, and systematically in the notion of the qutb, or the perfect man. The qutb is he around whom the universe revolves, and every age must have a qutb, otherwise the earth could not stay in its place. Through his grace, the universe goes on running. This is put rather poetically by one Sufi writer, who says, “inna lillahi ‘ibadan idha aradu arad” (“There are those servants of God who, when they will something, God wills it as well”). So, then, wholeness, redemption, salvation, restoration can be achieved through personal expiation and through intercession widely considered.

Here again in Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism and even in Buddhism, there is the notion that the world is continuously evolving towards a state of perfection. In Buddhism this is expressed in the role of the future Buddha, Maitreya. It is an interesting notion which presents a reverse of Darwinian evolution. Darwin thinks that evolution is upward from the unicellular animal to the monkey to man and whatever. It appears that the religious concept is that the world evolves downward from a golden age to a silver age to an iron age to a clay age and then the whole thing will be dark until someone comes to restore things to their natural and earlier purity. This, in Islam, is the Mahdi.

In the Mahdi idea, Islam and Christianity again meet. I would like to argue here (and it is an argument that I am developing in an article to be published on the role of Jesus in Muslim eschatology in my Islamic Christology series—for the first articles in the series see Muslim World 66, no. 3 (1976) and 70, no. 2 (1980)—that the first notion of the Mahdi was not that a person of the family of the prophet will be born, according to the Sunni Muslim view, or that he will appear at the end of time, according to the Shi’i Muslim view. Rather it will be Jesus who will return. If we are to find any Qur’anic basis for this eschatological event, it will not be for a future, so to say, Islamic Mahdi, but for Jesus, who is declared to be a sign for the Hour (Qur’an 43:61). Muslim piety, in order to preserve itself and its own integrity, did not deny that Jesus will

come to restore the world to its purity but affirmed that Jesus and the Mahdi will work together. Most of the hard work will be done by Jesus, who will kill ad-Dajjal, the anti-Christ.

Here again, ad-Dajjal is pictured as a human individual whose appearance is deformed, who is not human as he should be. To my knowledge, the best comment describing him is one that was made by the thirteenth-century Farid Ud-Din ‘Attar, a Persian mystic who said that at the end of time there will come two Dajjal, not one. (The Arabic word dajjal means one who lies.) There will be one who has only his right eye and sees the world as all spirit. He will be a liar. There will be one who has only his left eye and will see the world as simply matter and material things. He will be a liar. The true vision of reality, then, is one that sees reality as a whole—both material and spiritual. The role of Jesus is that he will kill that liar, the anti-Christ, and restore the reality of the universe to its pristine purity. Symbolically it is said that Christ, when He comes, will break the cross and kill the swine (these two being the symbols that divide Muslims from Christians), and Islam in its essential aspects will prevail. This is redemption.

I could not end my talk without considering that ethos of redemptive suffering which the Shi’i community developed. In that ethos we see a continuity of history. It was on the spot where the women sat weeping for Tammuz that Husayn, the son of ‘Ali and grandson of the prophet, was killed on the tenth day of Muharram in the year 61 A.H. (A.D. 680). Very soon those who betrayed him formed an association, a group called at-Tawwabun, the repenters. It was in that group that the seeds of a rich cult of Muharram were first sown and sprouted.

To be sure, the event was used and abused by many upstarts and pseudo-movements, but these failed as they were doomed to failure. What remains is the following: the world, according to the Shi’i view and its history, must be read forward from creation to the imams and backward from the day of resurrection to the imams. In time the notion developed that the world was created for the sake of the pious, the prophet and his progeny. They were the lights of the world which, through a process of concretization, took on human form. All were doomed to be martyred. The idea again gradually arose, even though there is not full documentary evidence that every one of the eleven Shi’i imams were martyred. The Shi’i community nonetheless insisted that that was the case. Those who were supposedly the noblest, supposedly the richest, had to undergo suffering in order to redeem humanity.

But how does humanity become redeemed? It is through the suffering of Husayn’s mother, who is still weeping in paradise for his death, and that of his children after him. How is the world to be redeemed? It is by participation of the community every year in that suffering that the community redeems itself. So we are told in many traditions attributed to one or another of the imams that whoever weeps even one drop of tears for the sufferings of the imams will have the reward of paradise. But in the final analysis, redemption will be through intercession because the headless Husayn will stand before God to intercede for his people.

There is, finally, one important aspect of redemption, whether it be Christian or Islamic. Redemption is only one side of the divine judgment. Redemption must also imply judgment and condemnation. Christ will return on the clouds of heaven, as the book of Revelation declares (Revelation 1:7); and those who have stabbed him will mourn him. He will come not as the meek lamb of God but as the man who has a sword of fire coming out of his mouth with every word he utters. Before the new earth and the new heaven will appear, replacing the old earth and heaven, judgment must be executed on the wicked. Similarly, with Islam, the Mahdi when he comes will avenge the blood of Husayn before he fulfills his main mission; on this both Shi’i and Sunni traditionists agree. He must purify the earth of iniquity. Before he does that, he must avenge the blood of the martyrs.

The Mahdi will do his work and eventually die, but it will be Husayn who will return to rule the earth or the Muslim community for so long that his eyebrows shall fall upon his eyes from old age. [5] But the hope for a future restoration, for an eschatology of renewal, is best expressed in a Qur’anic verse and a comment by the sixth imam on that verse. The Qur’an declares that on the last day when the trumpets shall sound and when judgment has been executed, the earth shall shine forth with the light of its Lord (Qur’an 39:69). The sixth imam said, “When our qa’im (i.e. the one raised by God to renew human society and restore truth) shall come, the earth shall shine forth with the light of its Lord.” [6]

Much of what I have been discussing may be regarded as poetic myth by people sitting here so many centuries removed from the events of Christ and Husayn and Tammuz. What does it say to us today? I have said that redemption in its widest sense is a corporate, not an individual, process. Whether it be the Church widely viewed or the Church of the Latter-day Saints or the Muslim community, for redemption to be meaningful and real for us today, we all have to take part in it as an ongoing process.

On the principles of the ideas that we can learn from the mythology of the past, we see that redemption means harmony between material and spiritual things. Redemption means sharing. The people who will be put on the right hand of Christ will be those who visit the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and feed the hungry (Matthew 25:31–46). But, most of all, it remains for us to redeem the world from our own human folly—the folly that says that we will vie not with God but with the devil to make ourselves, as one Greek philosopher described us, the measure of all things. Hence, we make atom bombs and nuclear bombs, we make big skyscrapers, but with all of this we forget the purpose of life, which is to be a life of righteousness—a bridge to eternity.

We who are in an academic position, who are average in society but who are committed, can yet also play a role. What we see today is the beginning of a new dialogue—to me, at least. I do not think, and I must tell you here and now, I do not think that you people will be any more successful in converting Muslims to Mormonism than any missionaries who were before you. But you could be successful in one important area; that is, to create an important dialogue that will lead to a fellowship of faith between you and us. I think that the truth is bigger than any concept of the truth held by any nation or religious community or individual. And to the truth there are many ways. We can all meet along the way and learn, but it is perhaps creative and quite suitable for each one of us to work his or her own way to God in the way he or she knows best. I myself was born in a Muslim community to a very devout family. But for fifteen years I was a fundamentalist Protestant; I was baptized and all of it, and I shouted more amens and hallelujahs than any of you. Why, then, did I return to Islam? Not because I feel that Christianity is not a redeeming process but because I felt that my roots are in that civilization, in that world, in that ethos, in that whole worldview, and I think it is better for both Islam and Christianity that I did that.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Christ redeemed and continues to redeem us, not simply and only by his divine act, but by his humanity, a humanity that cared. Muhammad redeemed and continues to redeem us as we follow his life, his sunna, as a model for our lives. But in the end we must heed the words, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). I pray that we will all be successful in that process and that we will strengthen each other as we traverse the weary way of this life into the life to come.


[1] See T. Jacobsen, Towards an Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian Religion and Culture, ed. W. L. Moren (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), 73ff.

[2] Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor, trans. by A. G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1965).

[3] See the Hymn of Fortunatus quoted in Rev. Joseph Connelly, M.A., Hymns of the Roman Liturgy (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1954).

[4] St. John Chrysostom, “The Lord’s Passion” or “The Cross and the Good Thief,” Patrologia Latina 34: 2047ff.

[5] Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam (New York: Mouton Publishers, 1978), 228.

[6] Ayoub, op. cit., 227.