Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Comparison of Motives across Islam and Christianity: The Want to do Good

Emma Edenbaum

Religion 390: Forgiveness in the Islamic and Christian Traditions

October 11, 2019

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

So long as human nature remains consistent, man’s religiosity is believed to be innate and so predicted to continue indefinitely.[i] The terminology and methodology differ, but transcultural forms of worship appear fundamentally the same.[ii] When operating under this assumption, there is something to be said about the subtle sense of universalities existent across faiths. Adherents of Christianity and Islam have similar drives for reward, but, with regards to forgiveness, force the perspective of similarity.

In examining Christianity and Islam, an emphasis has been placed upon the cyclic processes of sinning, repenting, and forgiving. Quite a bit of focus has centered on the inevitability of individuals’ tendency to sin. What remains shakily unaddressed is not what leads individuals to commit sins, but what the driving force is for them to repent and forgive. Reception of God’s favor is obtained with the subservience of many rules and caveats, therefore making it a considerably difficult task. Obedience does not serve to discount or erase disobedience, so mistakes are not regarded lightly.[iii] When one takes into account the matter of bad being able to accomplish just the same, the argument postulating that behind doing good is the desire to establish a relationship with or find oneself closer to God is flawed. Because insults and persecution offer content to provide for the Lord during prayer, saints take pleasure in them.[iv] The idea here is that if one lacks the ability to maintain an obedience of the utmost quality, then one should resort to committing sin of a quality just as high.[v] Therefore, it is not a substantial argument to claim that good is for the sake of knowing God what with good not being the only means of doing so. Ergo, another motive must be proposed. It can then be posited that committing acts of obedience and good are for individuals to receive reward rather than God Himself.

Adherents of Islam and Christianity both believe that God is just and respond to Him with obedience, they will go unpunished.[vi] God is apparently unconcerned with the process, as “[t]he Order does not command [adherents] to be humble: it commands [adherents] to do everything in due form.”[vii] The importance of this is that there is room for the adherents of the two religions to invent their own reasons that may serve as justification for why they may or may not choose to obey God’s will.

When left to their own devices, it seems that the adherents of these two religions’ justifications stem from the promise of reward. Should one do good, they become more than just eligible to receive the recognition of and praise from God. A great example of their reward is the belief by Muslims in reference to the divide between Abrahamic religions in which Christians are viewed as idolaters and Jews are viewed as ones who broke the covenant between them and God.[viii] Instructions for Muslims in the Quran are “not [to] take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.”[ix] The implication is introduced here that the adherents of the other two Abrahamic religions outside of Islam are not chosen by Allah for guidance and are not necessarily to be trusted. They are to be tolerated, preferring that the other religions and their consequential adherents not exist but begrudgingly accepting that they do despite such a preference.[x] Speaking generally, Muslims in this sense are offering mercy to Christians and Jews by not going with their preferences and instead offering their tolerance. It is not offered emptily. Through adopting this perspective where non-Muslims are seen as brothers, God gives Muslims mercy when needed.[xi] They are given a reward for doing good: in this case, mercy.

Reward for good deeds is not limited to Islam. In order to adhere to the belief that only Christians can be saved but not condemn all non-Christians, there is a rectification to say that faithful individuals are just Christians under another name. Individuals of other faiths are categorized as either Karl Rahner’s Anonymous Christian, waiting for their revelation within the confines of their current faith that other God is the Christian God, or pre-Christians, unaware that they will one day become Christians.[xii] With Christianity centering on love and acceptance in the image of Jesus Christ, seeing non-Christians this way opens up their eligibility for forgiveness. And, should Christians forgive, they are rewarded. Forgiveness of one who has sinned is a very good deed in the eyes of God. When a Christian forgives another, “[they] get to the point of thinking that [they] have done something wonderful because they have forgiven a person for some trifling thing, which was neither a slight nor and insult nor anything else. Then [the adherents] ask the Lord to forgive [them] as people who have done something important, just because [they] have forgiven someone.” This extends into the broader concept not unlike the earlier-mentioned appreciation for insults and persecutions by saints, where Christians welcome trials like forgiving one who is difficult to forgive because they “know quite well it will make them rich.”[xiii] God, seeing their act of good, will offer rewards for doing such good.

The want to do good in Christianity and Islam possibly stems from a drive towards self-enhancement. In Christianity, bettering the community through want of bettering oneself is not so much frowned upon, but in Islam, there is some reference to motive and its sincerity. The most superior believer in Islam is referred to as awba, where the individual has no will other than to obey God’s command. Rabi’a, a Sufi woman, remarked, “O God, if I worship thee for fear of hell, burn me in hell, and if I worship thee in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise; but if I worship thee for my own sake, grudge me not my everlasting beauty.”[xiv] The matter at hand is whether the seeking of reward through acts of obedience and general good qualifies as through hope of paradise. Self-enhancement could be included in an interpretation of awba, where for one’s own sake, they are seeking better lives for themselves in the afterlife.

People, especially religious individuals, are not so simple as to ascertain one, single motive in their drive towards obedience. Humans are generally multifaceted, but it is interesting to conceptualize religiosity as innate and then try and identify the why of individuals behaving so similarly despite worshipping different versions of a god. There may be a lack of trust between the adherents of the Abrahamic religions, and there may be a disingenuous want for good, but subjective good is happening nonetheless, and a difficult question to answer is whether or not that matters when good is occurring regardless.


[i] John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite, eds., Christianity and other Religions: Selected Readings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2001), 118.

[ii] Hick and Hebblethwaite, Christianity and other Religions, 174.

[iii] Chawkat Moucarry, The Search for Forgiveness: Pardon and Punishment in Islam and Christianity (Indiana: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 53.

[iv] Saint Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Classics, 1991), 104.

[v] Mohammad Mahallati (lecture, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, September 24, 2019).

[vi] Moucarry, The Search for Forgiveness, 53.

[vii] Avila, The Way of Perfection, 105.

[viii] Moucarry, The Search for Forgiveness, 125-126.

[ix] “Islam: References to Jews in the Koran,” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed October 9, 2019, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/references-to-jews-in-the-koran.

[x] Mahallati, lecture, 2019.

[xi] “Chapter (49) surat l-hujurat (The Dwellings).” Quranic Arabic Corpus, accessed October 9, 2019, http://corpus.quran.com/translation.jsp?chapter=49&verse=10.

[xii] Hick and Hebblethwaite, Christianity and other Religions, 179-180.

[xiii] Avila, The Way of Perfection, 105-106.

[xiv] Moucarry, The Search for Forgiveness, 219.

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