Good deeds: Could they come to naught?

Q238 :I heard a religious scholar in my country speak on the radio and comment on the Qur'anic verse which states: "Those who earn bad deeds and become besieged by their error are the people of the fire who will abide there forever." He said that if a person does something bad persistently, then all his other good deeds may come to nothing and he will be thrown in fire to dwell there forever like unbelievers. The scholar suggested that acts of worship such as prayers, fasting, pilgrimage and zakah may become useless and may not be acceptable by Allah if a person continues to do a bad deed regularly and persistently. The only way out for him is to desist and repent. Please comment.

A238 : You have quoted the Qur'anic verse correctly, although I would have suggested a slightly different way of rendering its meaning in English: "Indeed, he who earns a bad deed and becomes engulfed by his error ... it is such people that belong to the fire where they will dwell forever," (2;280). In its context, this verse is stated as a reply to the claims of the Jews who asserted that they would be made to endure the punishment of hell only for a few days, despite their persistent disbelief in Allah and His revelations. There is no doubt that what this Qur'anic verse tells us applies not only to those Jews who made that assertion but to everyone. The Qur'anic verse is general in its import. However, in order to arrive at a proper understanding of its meaning, we have to take it within its context. The Jews made all sorts of false claims against Allah and the Prophet, taking themselves, by so doing, out of the realm of belief altogether. They tried to kill the Prophet and went to war against him, knowing that he was Allah's messenger and recognizing that it was their duty according to their own religion to believe in him and support him against all non-believers. We have only to remember the example of Huyaie ibn Akhtab who was one of the best known Jewish scholars at the time of the Prophet. When the Prophet arrived in Madinah, he went out with his brother to meet him in order to establish for themselves whether he was truly the messenger mentioned in their sacred book, the Torah. After spending a whole day on their mission, they went back home. Huyaie confirmed to his brother that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was truly Allah's final messenger. When his brother asked him about his intentions Huyaie answered blatantly: "I will fight him for the rest of my life." It is for such Jews who claimed to be Allah's beloved sons and that He would not punish them for their errors that Allah answers them that those who are engulfed by their errors will certainly suffer in hell forever. The Qur'anic verse then speaks of errors of a certain type. They are gross, grave and can engulf the perpetrator. What type of errors do Muslim scholars mention in their interpretation of this verse? This, as you realize, is the worst type of disbelief that can be perpetrated by anyone. Many famous scholars and commentators on the Qur'an agree that the term "bad deed" refers in the context of this verse to the most serious of sins. It is true that for a sin to engulf a sinner, it has to be done persistently, without any feeling of repentance, until the person dies. It is only in such a case that a sin can have such a serious effect. Your scholar should have explained this in order not to leave his listeners with the mistaken notion that any bad deed can lead them to hell-fire. If the case was such, what room do we leave to Allah's forgiveness which He mentions as available to everyone who seeks it? Moreover, He can wipe all sins. He says: "Allah will certainly not forgive that partners be associated with Him. He may forgive any lesser sin to whomever He pleases." (4;116). This verse means that even grave sins can be forgiven once a person repents and turns to Allah, seeking his forgiveness and pledging not to return to these sins. I am not happy with people who over-stress punishment in connection with sins. There is no doubt that we should fear committing sins. Anything that we may commit is recorded against us. Unless Allah forgives us, we would have to account for it. On the day of judgment, our bad deeds are weighed against our good ones. If our good ones are preponderant, then we are forgiven for the bad ones. If it is the other way round, Allah forbid, then we may have to endure punishment, unless Allah bestows His grace on us and forgives us what we have committed. When we read the Qur'an and when we study the Sunnah, we cannot fail to notice that there is a perfect balance between warning us against Allah's punishment and raising the much happier prospect of gaining Allah's reward. This is due to the fact that keenness to achieve happiness and reward and the fear of punishment are two of the basic constituent elements of human nature. Therefore, overemphasizing one of the two will result in an imbalanced appeal that will be counter-productive. When people hear too much about what punishment may await for this or that sin, they may wrongly form the notion that they will have to suffer for their past deeds, no matter what their future ones are like. They may be helped in formulating such a notion by the Evil One and this may lead them to despair of ever being forgiven. Therefore, they continue in their sinful ways. Let us remember in this context that Allah states in the Qur'an: "Good deeds wipe away bad ones." At no point in the Qur'an is the reverse mentioned as true, meaning that bad deeds may render good ones useless. This cannot be the case. Once there is basic faith in the person's heart, all his good deeds will be credited to him. Moreover, Allah rewards us for every good deed at least ten times its value. He may even multiply this reward to 700 times or even higher. Bad deeds are punished at their bare value only. To sum up, only a person who does not believe in the Oneness of Allah will not benefit by his good deeds. Nothing can render good deeds futile except total disbelief.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )