TLTR Summary: Q 5:95 and Q 5:89 say that sometimes atonement is required for forgiveness.
One of the starkest differences between Christian and Muslim theology is on the doctrine of salvation, or ‘soteriology’. I’m not even sure if a Muslim would use this language (please do let me know in the comments Muslim readers); rather than ‘salvation’ they might prefer to simply talk about ‘How can one get into jannah, ‘paradise’ or ‘garden’ and avoid hell, or ‘the fire’ (al-nār).
Christians believe that the forgiveness of our sins requires the penalty of those sins to be paid for. As Hebrews 9:22 says, ‘In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.’ (NIV). The law being referred to is the Old Testament law, the Torah. Numerous passages could be highlighted, but for a prime example the reader can turn to Leviticus 16, about the ‘Day of Atonement’ (Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in Judaism). Leviticus 16:34 says ‘This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.’ (NIV).
By contrast, Islam says far less about atonement and/or sacrifice. My interest in this topic was sparked recently by hearing a Muslim saying that the forgiveness of sins by definition is that nothing is required or asked for, no sacrifice or atonement. Additionally, a video I watched said:
Allah forgives them. How? Tawbah [repentance]. No blood has to be spilled, nobody has to be killed, nobody, no children have to be sacrificed. That’s horrible. How is it mercy if blood has to be spilled?
Disclaimer: I did not watch the whole 3 and a half hour long video. I chose a random moment out of interest, and stumbled upon this section.
Admittedly this is in the context of rebutting human sacrifice, of someone sacrificing their son for the forgiveness of others (Christians of course would stress that this leaves out the Son’s voluntary and sinless sacrificial death for others, and that those who did the killing were morally culpable). But even so, there still seems to be the fundamental rhetoric that forgiveness does not require payment or the shedding of blood, but only repentance. But what does the Qur’an say?
The Qur’an on sacrifice and atonement
The Qur’an retells the Biblical story about the sacrifice of Abraham’s son in Q 37:102-111. In v. 107 we are told ‘We ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice’ (Abdel Haleem translation here and for all Qur’an quotations) (wa‑fadaynāhu bi‑dhibḥin ʿaẓīmin). The sacrifice took the place of the sacrificed son, which Abraham was willing (but ultimately did not have to) sacrifice to God. Muslims commemorate this every year on ʿīd al-ʾaḍḥā (cf. Q 2:196).
The Biblical telling of the story is of significance in Judaism and Christianity for its establishment of sacrifice. Some readers noted that these events took place on a mountain in ‘the region of Moriah’ (Genesis 22:2, NIV), and that Solomon built the first temple, where sacrifices for atonement would take place, ‘in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah’ (2 Chronicles 3:1). Q 17:7 seems to allude to the Jerusalem temple due to the way it is described, even though the Arabic refers simply to ‘al-masjid‘. It is often translated as ‘Temple’. But even if the Qur’an retells the story of the sacrifice and ransoming of Abraham’s son, and acknowledges the existence of the Jewish temple, the concept of atonement is not a significant one in the Qur’an. When Q 37:107 speaks of the ‘ransoming’ the son, the forgiveness of sins is not in view; this is just an expression that God will accept a different offering/sacrifice in his place.
The Qur’an does mention animal sacrifice, often in relation to the Sacred place in Mecca (Q 2:196; 5:2, 95; 22:32-33; 22:36-37; 48:25; 108:2. List of verses from Sinai, 2017, ‘The Qur’an: a historical-critical introduction’, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 61, cf. the endnote with further comment on p. 73). Generally one could understand ‘sacrifice’ to God as an expression of thankfulness, a gift offering, a recognition that all that one has comes from God and we express that by giving up something back to God. The concept of ‘sacrifice’ in most of these verses could have nothing to do with atonement, the idea that forgiveness comes through an offering.
However there is an exception. Note Q 5:95:
95 You who believe, do not kill game while you are in the state of consecration [for pilgrimage]. If someone does so intentionally the penalty [jazāʾuhu] is an offering of a domestic animal brought to the Ka’ba, equivalent— as judged by two just men among you— to the one he has killed; alternatively, he may atone [kaffāratun] by feeding the needy or by fasting an equivalent number of days, so that he may taste the full gravity of his deed. God forgives what is past, but if anyone re-offends, God will exact the penalty from him: God is mighty, and capable of exacting the penalty. (Abdel Haleem translation here and for all Qur’an passages. Emphasis added)
Evidently this type of sin, violating the state of consecration by hunting, requires a ‘penalty’, ‘atonement’ to use Abdel Haleem’s language. The word kaffāratun (perhaps linked to the kpr Hebrew word group, which also concerns atonement) occurs four times in three verses in the Qur’an (discovered thanks to a search on Qur’an Gateway). Q 5:89 reads:
89 God does not take you [to task] for what is thoughtless in your oaths, only for your binding oaths: the atonement [fa-kaffāratuhu] for breaking an oath is to feed ten poor people with food equivalent to what you would normally give your own families, or to clothe them, or to set free a slave— if a person cannot find the means, he should fast for three days. This is the atonement [kaffāratu] for breaking your oaths— keep your oaths. In this way God makes clear His revelations to you, so that you may be thankful.
Q 5:45 speaks of the foregoing of retaliation as ‘atonement [kaffāratun] for his bad deeds’, but is here voluntary rather than something demanded.
A Muslim may rightly point out that Q 5:95 and Q 5:89 are special cases, and that sins generally do not require a ransom or atonement. However, if a Muslim claims that by definition forgiveness does not require a ransom/atonement, this goes too far; at least on these occasions, it does.
Dear Muslim reader, do you agree that the Qur’an teaches that God sometimes requires a ransom/atonement for sin?