Does Islam Teach “Substitutionary Atonement”? A Response to a Christian Apologist
“Say: ‘O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Turn ye to our Lord (in repentance) and bow to His (Will), before the Penalty comes on you: after that ye shall not be helped.’”
– The Holy Quran, Surah Az-Zumar, 39:53-54 (Yusuf Ali)
With the proliferation of the Internet, it has become common to see a myriad number of websites and blogs dedicated to the propagation of many different ideologies. Among these millions of websites, there are many dedicated to the propagation of religious ideas (such as this blog), ranging from the well-known religions such as Christianity and Islam, as well as the lesser known ones, such as Shintoism and Voodoo. Of course, with the discussion of religion comes religious argumentation and debate. One of the current hot topics in this discussion in various circles, both friendly and hostile, is Islam. One of the favorite targets especially of Christian apologists, Islam is clearly one of the most discussed subjects in the world today. As a result, many false claims about Islam have surfaced in recent years, and Muslims are increasingly active in responding to these claims. One such false claim has been made by some Christian apologists and involves the concept of “substitutionary atonement”. An article in the Christian apologetic blog “Apologetics and Agape”, claims that “substitutionary atonement” is a Biblical concept and also that:
“…the Qur’an agrees with the concept of substitutionary atonement…”
But is this claim true? In this article, we will test this claim and see if it has any merit. InshaAllah, the reader will see that upon a critical examination of the apologist’s assertions, we find no truth to his claims.
Substitutionary Atonement – A Brief Summary
Before we respond to the theory that the Quran teaches the concept of “substitutionary atonement”, let us briefly summarize its main precepts. The main precept, from a Christian point of view, is that:
“Jesus Christ died in our place when He was crucified on the cross. We deserved to be the ones placed on that cross to die because we are the ones who live sinful lives. But Christ took the punishment on Himself in our place—He substituted Himself for us and took what we rightly deserved.”
Thus, since humans are sinful, they must pay the price of that sin, which is an eternity in Hell. However, since Jesus (peace be upon him) allegedly “took the punishment on [h]imself”, his “sacrifice” saves us all, so long as we accept that “sacrifice” and:
“…place our faith in what Christ did on the cross.”
Based on this, we can summarize “substitutionary atonement” as the belief that the forgiveness of sins and salvation can be attained not by one’s personal deeds, but by the redemptive atonement of another individual, who must necessarily be sinless (hence the Christian emphasis that Jesus was “sinless”). Someone has to pay the price, and it will either be us (by spending eternity in Hell), or it was Jesus (peace be upon him), who paid the price by allowing himself to be crucified.
Islam and “Substitutionary Atonement”
Now that we have discussed what “substitutionary atonement” is, we can proceed in analyzing the Christian claim that Islam actually “agrees” with this concept. First, the author of the article, Ken Temple, quotes Surah As-Saaffat (37:107), which is part of the story of the prophet Ibrahim’s (peace be upon him) near-sacrifice of his son (whom Muslims hold to be Ishmael, and not Isaac), and then claims that:
“[t]he substitution of the ram in the place of Abraham’s son proves that it (the ransom) means ‘substitutionary atonement’.”
But an examination of the context of the verse shows that this claim is untenable and completely false. We need to remember that “substitutionary atonement” is the belief that forgiveness of sins is made by a willing sacrifice (whom Christians believe was Jesus) and the evidence from the Quran itself shows that the story of Ibrahim and Ishmael (peace be upon them) does not reflect this belief.
First, when read in context, the story shows no indication that Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) ordered Ibrahim (peace be upon him) to sacrifice his son (and later, the ram) as some sort of expiation for his sins. Let us read the complete story as told in Surah As-Saaffat:
“He said: “I will go to my Lord! He will surely guide me!
“O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!”
So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear.
Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!” (The son) said: “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if Allah so wills one practicing Patience and Constancy!”
So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice),
We called out to him “O Abraham!
“Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right.
For this was obviously a trial-
And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice:
And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times:
“Peace and salutation to Abraham!”
Thus indeed do We reward those who do right.
For he was one of our believing Servants.”
We can immediately see no indication that the command to sacrifice Ishmael (peace be upon him) was given as a way for Ibrahim (peace be upon him) to atone for his sins. In fact, verse 103 states that both Ibrahim and Ishmael (peace be upon them) had “submitted their wills” to Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He), and verse 105 states that simply by his willing submission to Allah’s command, Ibrahim (peace be upon him) had “already fulfilled the vision”. Commenting on verse 105, the 13th-century exegete Ibn Kathir stated that it means that:
“…the purpose of your dream has been fulfilled by your laying down your son to sacrifice him.”
In addition, the commentary in “The Study Quran” explains that it also means that (emphasis ours):
“[Ibrahim] carried out what he was commanded and that he achieved its goal by demonstrating complete obedience to God.”
Moreover, verse 106 states clearly that the whole incident was “obviously a trial”. According to Ibn Kathir, this means that (emphasis ours):
“…it was clearly a test when he was commanded to sacrifice his son, so, he hastened to do it, in submission to the command of Allah and in obedience to Him.”
According to “The Study Quran”, it also means:
“…that it was a blessing…as it is through severe trials that God brings His pious servants the best reward in this life and the next, if they are able to faithfully endure them, as did Abraham…”
Again, we see no indication that there was any relationship between the “trial” and the atonement of sins. Rather, a trial is meant to test whether a person will obey Allah’s commands, regardless of how difficult they are.
But what about the phrase “…We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice”? Doesn’t the word “ransomed” indicate that the ram was meant to serve as a sin offering or that, as Temple claims:
“[t]he substitution of the ram in the place of Abraham’s son proves that it (the ransom) means ‘substitutionary atonement’.”
As we have seen, the context indicates that this claim is false. There is no proof that the ram was presented for “substitutionary atonement”. The claim made by Temple is simply a non-sequitur. The “ransom” was simply for Ishmael (peace be upon him), since it saved him from being sacrificed.
Additionally, we can note that (emphasis in the original):
“[t]his substitution of the ram for Abraham’s son serves as the basis for the ritual of slaughtering an animal that is required as the final rite of the hajj.”
This is an important point which Temple has ignored or is unaware of, since if we can understand the point of the Hajj ritual, it will explain the true meaning behind the prophet Ibrahim’s trial.
Islam and Animal Sacrifice
It is certainly true that animal sacrifices are sometimes required of a Muslim after committing a specific sin. Moreover, an animal sacrifice is an integral part of the Hajj. However, it is important to note from the get-go that it is not the meat or blood that serves to expiate for a sin. Rather, it is the act itself, as stated in the Quran:
“It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him: He has thus made them subject to you, that ye may glorify Allah for His Guidance to you and proclaim the good news to all who do right.”
In his commentary on the verse, Ibn Kathir stated that it is the act of piety that “He will accept and reward for…” Thus, Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) does not forgive sins through blood atonement. Rather, He forgives sins when they are countered with a pious deed (which in this case is an animal sacrifice), as is stated in a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
“…Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are, and follow an evil deed with a good one to wipe it out, and treat the people with good behavior.”
In this regard, the act of making an animal sacrifice is a good deed since the purpose of it is to first, please Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He), and then to eat the meat and distribute a portion of it to the poor, and among one’s family and friends.
Furthermore, in regards to the Hajj, it is stated in “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam” that (emphasis ours):
“[p]roperly performed, the hajj absolves the pilgrim from all previous sins. […] A valid pilgrimage requires the sincere intention (niyah) of coming closer to God. If the intent is spiritually sound, most breaches of ritual formality can be corrected via additional animal sacrifices in Mecca or special acts of charity and fasting after returning home.”
There are some important points to note here:
- The Hajj itself absolves a Muslim of all sins. Also, all of the rituals of the Hajj must be performed in order for it to be accepted.
- The Hajj is only acceptable as long as the pilgrim makes a “sincere intention”. Without it, the Hajj is not accepted even if all of the rituals are performed.
- As long as an intention is made, any mistakes or omissions in the Hajj (so long as they are not deliberately made), can be cancelled out by “additional animal sacrifices in Mecca” or “special acts of charity and fasting”.
If Islam placed such importance on “substitutionary atonement”, then surely animal sacrifices would play a much more prominent role in atoning for sins. Indeed, in some cases, a Muslim has the choice on how to atone for violating the rules of the Hajj. An example is atoning for hunting land animals during the Hajj. There is complete consensus among the scholars of Islam that hunting animals in a state of Ihram is prohibited. But what is a Muslim to do when he/she violates this rule? While there are minor differences between the various schools of thought, they generally agree that the person can choose between giving meat from his own livestock in charity, giving other food that is worth the same amount of money or, in the case of the Hanafi school, fasting a day for every gram (mudd) of food that must be given away.
Thus, we can see that animal sacrifices are not a requirement in Islam, and even when they are required, it is the act itself and not the spilling of blood that atones for one’s sins. Even the Christian apologist Thabiti Anyabwile acknowledges this fact. He states:
“…the Quran denies that animal sacrifice can atone for the sins of men. […] In Islam, piety counts before Allah, not sacrifice.”
“Substitutionary Atonement” in the Ahadith?
Having dealt with Temple’s erroneous claims about “substitutionary atonement” in the Quran, we can now turn our attention to his appeal to some ahadith. Before quoting some ahadith from Sahih Muslim, Temple credulously asks:
“…why do these Islamic Hadiths clearly say that Allah will forgive the sins of Muslims and save them from hell by punishing Jews and Christians in their place?”
As we will see, this question is based on a biased and incomplete reading of the ahadith and illustrates Temple’s ignorance.
To make his case, Temple quotes the following ahadith from Sahih Muslim:
“Abu Musa’ reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: When it will be the Day of Resurrection Allah would deliver to every Muslim a Jew or a Christian and say: That is your rescue from Hell-Fire.”
“Abu Burda reported on the authority of his father that Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: No Muslim would die but Allah would admit in his stead a Jew or a Christian in Hell-Fire. ‘Umar b. Abd al-‘Aziz took an oath: By One besides Whom there is no god but He, thrice that his father had narrated that to him from Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him).”
“Abu Burda reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: There would come people amongst the Muslims on the Day of Resurrection with as heavy sins as a mountain, and Allah would forgive them and He would place in their stead the Jews and the Christians. (As far as I think), Abu Raub said: I do not know as to who is in doubt. Abu Burda said: I narrated it to ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, whereupon he said: Was it your father who narrated it to you from Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him)? I said: Yes.”
After quoting these ahadith, Temple then claims that:
“[t]hese Hadith [sic] are worse, because the sins of Muslims are put on other sinners. That is injustice indeed. But it was not unjust for Jesus to die for our sins, because He did it voluntarily, and He is perfect and sinless.”
But are Temple’s assertions accurate? Do these ahadith teach that Muslims will be able to atone by placing their sins on other unwilling sinners? As we will now see, the answer is no.
First and foremost, it needs to be stated that since they are unbelievers, Jews and Christians will be doomed to hell anyway. This is stated emphatically in the Quran and Ahadith. For example, the Quran states:
“O ye People of the Book! believe in what We have (now) revealed, confirming what was (already) with you, before We change the face and fame of some (of you) beyond all recognition, and turn them hindwards, or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers, for the decision of Allah Must be carried out.”
“They do blaspheme who say: “Allah is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help.”
As we can see, the Jews and Christians will already be doomed to hellfire because of their unbelief, something they have been warned of in the Quran. Thus, it is not an “injustice”, since they will be punished for their own sins, and not the sins of Muslims.
Additionally, Temple is ignorant of the hadith which states that Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) has created Paradise and Hell as well as the denizens of both (emphasis ours):
“’A’isha, the mother of the believers, reported that a child died and I said: There is happiness for this child who is a bird from amongst the birds of Paradise. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: Don’t you know that Allah created the Paradise and He created the Hell and He created the dwellers for this (Paradise) and the denizens for this (Hell)?”
This hadith is further proof for our assertion above that the Jews and Christians who would serve as the “ransom” for some Muslims will simply be receiving the punishment that they had earned and which would doom them to Hell in the first place. The additional sins of the Muslims will not change that.
Moreover, the ahadith Temple refers to mention just one of the ways some Muslims will be saved on the Day of Judgement. While some Muslims will be saved by being “ransomed”, others will simply be forgiven their sins by the mercy of Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He), whereas others still will only be forgiven after receiving some sort of punishment for their sins, which will “purify” them. In addition, some Muslims will be forgiven their sins due to the trials they endured while in this world. Finally, as stated in an aforementioned hadith from Jami At-Tirmidhi, Muslims can atone for their sins simply by following up with a good deed.
Therefore, having considered the whole corpus of evidence from the Quran and Sunnah, we find that Temple’s appeal to the aforementioned ahadith and the alleged teaching of “substitutionary atonement” is erroneous. Taking some ahadith out of context and ignoring others only illustrates the cherry-picking and biased research that the missionary is guilty of.
In this article, we have analyzed the claims of Christian apologist Ken Temple regarding alleged episodes of “substitutionary atonement” in the Islamic sources. Through more detailed study of these sources, we have found Temple’s claims to be lacking and simply the result of sloppy research. Thus, the final conclusion is that Islam does not teach the concept of “substitutionary atonement”, as the evidence has shown. In other words:
“Islam [did indeed] get rid of the concept of…substitutionary atonement.”
And Allah knows best!
 Of course, religious argumentation is not a new phenomenon. Even before the advent of the Internet, discussions and debates were a common occurrence and have been for thousands of years.
 According to one Christian website, “substitutionary atonement”:
“…refers to Jesus Christ dying as a substitute for sinners” (http://www.gotquestions.org/substitutionary-atonement.html)
In other words, the concept refers to a voluntary sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
 The word “agape” is:
“…one of the Greek NT words for ‘love’” (https://apologeticsandagape.wordpress.com/about/)
The blog “Apologetics and Agape” is maintained by Christian apologist Ken Temple.
In a separate article, the Christian apologist also quoted some ahadith which he asserts teach the concept of “substitutionary atonement”:
In our response, we will discuss the claims made in both articles.
 This article is specifically concerned with responding to the claims made about the Quran and Ahadith, and not with the assertion that “substitutionary atonement” is a Biblical concept. InshaAllah, that will be the topic of a future article.
 InshaAllah, in a future article, we will discuss the Christian claim that the Biblical Jesus was “sinless”.
 The verse states:
“And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice.”
 For a discussion of the story, see our article “The Biblical Story of Ishmael and Isaac: An Analysis and Comparison with the Islamic Narrative”.
 Surah As-Saaffat, 37:99-111.
 The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York: HarperOne, 2015), p. 1094.
 The Study Quran, op. cit., p. 1094.
 As we will see below, however, worldly trials can serve to atone for one’s sins, as emphasized in the Ahadith literature. The Quran also states that:
“…those who show patience and constancy, and work righteousness; for them is forgiveness (of sins) and a great reward” (Surah Hud, 11:11).
 Additionally, we may note that although the Quran does not state what actually happened with the meat of the ram once it was sacrificed, it is reasonable to assume that it would have been eaten as a provision from Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He), just as the sacrificial meat of the Hajj is eaten. This is in stark contrast to the sacrificial system as described in the Tanakh, where the meat was usually burned:
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it” (Genesis 8:20, New International Version).
See also Leviticus 1-2. In specific cases, however, only the High Priest or his sons could eat the meat (Leviticus 6:24-30).
 It should be stated that an animal sacrifice is sometimes required as an act of atonement, but this depends on several factors and only applies in certain situations, as we will discuss later.
 Surah Al-Hajj, 22:37.
This is in stark contrast to the Tanakh, which states (emphasis ours):
“Then burn the entire ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord” (Exodus 29:18).
To be fair, however, it seems Jews interpret this and other verses differently, as shown in the following translation:
“…and you shall make the entire ram go up in smoke upon the altar; it is a burnt offering made to the Lord; it is a spirit of satisfaction, a fire offering for the Lord” (http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9890#showrashi=true)
The Jewish commentator Rashi stated that the phrase “it is a spirit of satisfaction” means that:
“It is satisfaction to Me that I commanded and My will was performed” (Ibid.).
Thus, it would appear that zealous Christian translators have twisted the meaning of the verse.
 Jami At-Tirmidhi, 27:93.
“When the believers offer the sacrifice, with their act they too imply that just as they are ready to sacrifice and slaughter an animal at the command of their Lord, if commanded by their Lord Creator, they too are willing, just like the Noble Prophets Ibraheem and Ismail, to sacrifice everything they own and love for the Pleasure of Allah Subhanah.”
It should also be pointed out, as the above source makes clear, that although the sacrifice is obligatory for all Muslims who are performing the Hajj, it is not an obligation for those who celebrate Eid Al-Adha but are not performing the Hajj. Rather, it is a “preferred Sunnah and thus voluntary”.
“A person offering a sacrifice may consume, without any restrictions, any amount of meat he may desire. He may likewise give away, or offer in charity any amount he may wish. Some scholars say that one may eat half, and give away the other half in charity, while others say that the meat be divided into three parts. Of these one may keep a part, distribute a part, and give in charity the third part.”
 “Hajj”, in The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 104.
 Muhammad Jawad Maghniyyah, The Hajj: According to Five Schools of Islamic Law, Vol. 4 (Tehran: Department of Culture and Publication, 1997), p. 53.
 Ibid., p. 55.
 Thabiti Anyabwile, The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), p. 69.
 Sahih Muslim, 37:6665.
 Sahih Muslim, 36:6666.
 Sahih Muslim, 37:6668.
 Surah An-Nisa, 4:47.
 Surah Al-Maeda, 5:72.
 The website “IslamQA” states:
“So they will enter Hell because of their own actions, not because of the sins of the Muslims” (https://islamqa.info/en/9488).
 Sahih Muslim, 46:46.
However, the hadith does not mean that there is no free will and that each person is not responsible for his/her own actions. As another hadith in the Sunan Abu Dawud states:
“Those who are among the number of those who go to Paradise will be helped to do the deeds of the people who will go to Paradise, and those who are among the number of those who go to Hell will be helped to do the deeds of those who will go to Hell” (Sunan Abu Dawud, 42:101).
Additionally, a hadith in Sahih Bukhari states (emphasis ours):
“Narrated `Ali: We were with the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a funeral procession, and he started scraping the ground with a small stick and said, “There is none amongst you but has been assigned a place (either) in Paradise and (or) in the Hell-Fire.” The people said (to him), “Should we not depend upon it?” He said: carry on doing (good) deeds, for everybody will find easy such deeds as will lead him to his destined place. He then recited: “As for him who gives (in charity) and keeps his duty to Allah…”” (Sahih Bukhari, 78:241).
 The hadith from Sahih Muslim 37:6668 states (emphasis ours):
“There would come people amongst the Muslims on the Day of Resurrection with as heavy sins as a mountain…”
 Again, as mentioned earlier, the “ransom” in the form of unbelieving Jews and Christians does not change the fact that those Jews and Christians will be receiving the punishment they deserved due to their unbelief and not simply to save Muslims.
Moreover, there are other ways for Muslims to “ransom” themselves, as stated in a hadith from Sunan Ibn Majah (emphasis ours):
“It was narrated from Ibn Musayyab that ‘Aishah said that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: ‘There is no day on which Allah ransoms more slaves from the Fire than the Day of ‘Arafah. He draws closer and closer, then He boasts about them before the angels and says: ‘What do these people want?’’” (Sunan Ibn Majah, 4:25:3014).
 For example, a hadith in Sahih Bukhari states (emphasis ours):
“Narrated Safwan bin Muhriz: A man asked Ibn `Umar, “What did you hear Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) saying regarding An-Najwa (secret talk between Allah and His believing worshipper on the Day of Judgment)?” He said, “(The Prophet (peace be upon him) said), ‘One of you will come close to his Lord till He will shelter him in His screen and say: Did you commit such-and-such sin? He will say, ‘Yes.’ Then Allah will say: Did you commit such and such sin? He will say, ‘Yes.’ So Allah will make him confess (all his sins) and He will say, ‘I screened them (your sins) for you in the world, and today I forgive them for you’’” (Sahih Bukhari, 78:100).
 For example, a hadith in Sahih Bukhari states (emphasis ours):
“Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri: Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said, “When the believers pass safely over (the bridge across) Hell, they will be stopped at a bridge in between Hell and Paradise where they will retaliate upon each other for the injustices done among them in the world, and when they get purified of all their sins, they will be admitted into Paradise. By Him in Whose Hands the life of Muhammad is everybody will recognize his dwelling in Paradise better than he recognizes his dwelling in this world”” (Sahih Bukhari, 46:1).
 For example, a hadith in Sahih Bukhari states:
“Narrated Anas: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “A Muslim whose three children die before the age of puberty will be granted Paradise by Allah due to his mercy for them”” (Sahih Bukhari, 23:12).
Another hadith in Jami At- Tirmidhi states:
“Abu Hurairah narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: “Trials will not cease afflicting the believing man and the believing woman in their self, children, and wealth, until they meet Allah without having any sin”” (Jami At-Tirmidhi, 36:97).
 See note #20.
Sacrifice and “ransom” are clearly taught in the Islamic sources, but not in the way Temple asserts (linking it with “substitutionary atonement”), as we have seen.