Vicarious Punishment and the Imputation of Sin
The claim is often made that Islam does not teach that an individual can carry the sins of another. To this effect passages such as Surah 6:164 are often cited yet one must ask themselves whether such a claim is entirely believable. In this post, it is my task to continue with a general theme that has crept up in my last few articles concerning the fact that the reality of life and even the Qur’an itself teach that individuals regularly carry the sins of others and that Muslim objections to this idea are completely unfounded. For our purpose, we will focus on the story of Noah as it is narrated in the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an.
It must first be said that there does seem to be an inherent incoherence within Islam on the subject given that the Muslim deity seems to declare one thing, yet acts in a manner that is in complete contrast to his promise(s). In our case, this is best exemplified in the story of the Islamic prophet Nuh (the Qur’an’s version of the biblical Noah). As in the biblical account, Noah is chosen by God to build the Ark which would save him from the flood and as he does so, he preaches of the impending doom to whomever will listen:
And indeed We sent Nuh (Noah) to his people (and he said): I have come to you as a plain warner. That you worship none but Allah, surely, I fear for you the torment of a painful Day. […] And it was inspired to Nuh (Noah): None of your people will believe except those who have believed already. So be not sad because of what they used to do. And construct the ship under Our Eyes and with Our Inspiration, and address Me not on behalf of those who did wrong; they are surely to be drowned. And as he was constructing the ship, whenever the chiefs of his people passed by him, they made a mockery of him. He said: If you mock at us, so do we mock at you likewise for your mocking. And you will know who it is on whom will come a torment that will cover him with disgrace and on whom will fall a lasting torment. (So it was) till then there came Our Command and the oven gushed forth (water like fountains from the earth). We said: Embark therein, of each kind two (male and female), and your family, except him against whom the Word has already gone forth, and those who believe. And none believed with him, except a few. — Surah 11:25-26; 36-40 Muhsin Khan (emphasis mine)
Where the Islamic account mainly differs from the one in the Bible, is in the fact that according to Muhammad, the flood was due to the polytheism of Noah’s people while the Bible says that it was due to all the evil that was in man’s heart. The Islamic Noah makes this quite clear:
And they have said: ‘You shall not leave your gods, nor shall you leave Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth, nor Ya’uq, nor Nasr (names of the idols); And indeed they have led many astray. And (O Allah): ‘Grant no increase to the Zalimun (polytheists, wrong-doers, and disbelievers, etc.) save error. Because of their sins they were drowned, then were made to enter the Fire, and they found none to help them instead of Allah. — Surah 71:23-25 Muhsin Khan (emphasis mine)
What is particularly of note are the sentences that I have bolded in that they both claim that the flood is the punishment for those who have done wrong. This then naturally leads one to ask, who else died in the flood? Seeing as the Islamic text claims that it was only Noah and a few other believers who were saved, it is uncontroversial to claim that the majority of mankind succumbed to this divine judgement. Now if indeed the flood was to punish the polytheists, was it only the guilty party who drowned (as the Qur’an seems to claim)? Clearly the answer is no seeing as it goes without saying that children who would not yet know right from wrong and whom much less could even commit the sin of idolatry were present at the time of the deluge. This fact then creates a problem for the Muslim. According to the Qur’an, the punishment was reserved for the polytheists yet reason leads us to the conclusion that it was not only these individuals who died but persons whom were entirely innocent as well (seeing as the same narrative tells us that only a few were saved with no mention of Noah rounding up all of the children on earth).
If then one is punished for the sins of another, does it not follow that this sin has been imputed onto them? It only makes logical sense to suppose so, for how else could someone be even wrongly punished if in the eyes of the one who imposes the punishment, this individual did not have some part in the sin in the first place?
At this point I’m compelled to apportion a small section within this article to contrast the brutality of the Muslim deity with the righteousness of Yahweh given that both Christians and Muslim believe in the flood of Noah and acknowledge that a numerous amount of people—both adult and mere children—drowned. I will not write too much on the matter save to say that while in Islam, the deity punishes countless number of people for sins that they have not committed and in fact are entirely sinless; the biblical account is one in which everyone has sins and as such no righteous person died in the flood. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and as such it is not the case that punishment had been dealt unjustly. While it may not be particularly pleasing (and God himself dislikes to engage in it. He calls it his “strange work” in Isaiah 28:21-22 to emphasize just how alien it is to what he really desires for every man and woman), the punishment of sinners is wholly in keeping with a holy God. One does not have to believe this, or even like it but if we are to judge Christianity on the basis of its claims then it could not be said that God acted immorally. The same cannot be said of the Muslim deity for he quite clearly punishes the righteous for the sins of the unrighteous and this simply does not make any sense given what Allah claims of himself and the system of Islam entirely (that is, the lack of original sin etc.). His actions are not unlike the atrocities which the ancients used to commit regularly:
If a man struck the pregnant daughter of another so that she miscarried and died, his own daughter must be put to death. A seducer must deliver his wife to the seduced girl’s father for prostitution. In another class are penalties which involve the substitution of a dependent for the offerer — the Hittite laws compelling a slayer to deliver so many persons to the kinsmen of the slain, or prescribing that a man who has pushed another into a fire must give over his son… — (A Song of Power and the Power of Song, 295)
One sees the same principle as in the above quote, exemplified in the Muslim deity’s actions. According to Islam, Allah’s actions are not unlike the above and in the same way that we are incensed, repulsed, and in disbelief of the above—rather, far greater—for we can understand the above and in some ways expect it of primitive societies, but we could certainly not accept it from the embodiment of justice itself. Islam presents us with a deity who acts not at all dissimilar to sinful humanity. Once again we must comprehend the fact that according to Christianity, never once are the innocent punished along with the guilty, but according to Islam the innocent are regularly punished for the sins of the guilty. That is, if Allah is just, moreover, if Allah is justice personified and if this same Justice claims that children are sinless, it should therefore follow that he could not even in principle end their earthly lives through death for that would be thoroughly unjust.
It should be noted however that our question does not concern the salvation of the children but whether it was appropriate for them to have been punished in the first place? Both Muslims and Christians will readily admit that these children were admitted into heaven and this is not our point of contention. Therefore, an objection on the premise of the salvation of the children not only fails to grasp the argument but is in fact wholly immoral. We cannot do evil so that good may come (Romans 3:5-8)—no matter what the result of evil may be, evil will remain evil and will be judged as such, irrespective of its results. This is perhaps most poignantly exemplified in Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It is as destructive towards Islam as it is for proponents of utilitarianism as the (only) appropriate moral philosophy that individuals should subscribe to.
Now to return to our point, if the claims within the Qur’an are at all to be believed then we are forced to acknowledge that Allah punished these individuals for the sins of others and in so doing imputed them with a sin that was never their own. This then becomes quite ironic given that Muslims are quick to decry Christ’s vicarious atonement as unjust seeing as an individual should not be punished for the sins of another yet here we have the Muslim deity doing the same thing on a global scale! So given this understanding on the part of Muslims, it is therefore only logical to conclude that Muslims believe their deity to commit actions which are wholly immoral (and in fact are indeed immoral given the lack of original sin within the system of Islam as a ‘work-around’ the claim that the punishment is unjust). These are not my words (though I certainly do agree with them), but rather the words of Muslims themselves.