The Actions of Man and their Recompense
By: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Tabataba'i
There are various rules about the actions of man and their recompense, which are enumerated here:
1) There are some sins which cause the forfeiture of good deeds in this world and the hereafter. One is apostasy. Allah says in the verse under discussion: and whoever of you turns back from his religion then dies while an unbeliever, these it is whose deeds are forfeited in this world and the hereafter.
Other such sin is disbelief in the signs of Allah and enmity towards them. Allah says: Surely (as for) those who disbelieve in the signs of Allah and slay the prophets unjustly and slay those among men who enjoin justice, announce to them a painful chastisement. Those are they whose works shall become null in this world as well as the hereafter... (3:20-2 1)
Likewise, there are some acts of obedience, like (submission to) Islam and repentance, that expiate the evil deeds of this world as well as the hereafter; Allah says: Say: O My servants! Who have acted extravagantly against their own souls, do not despair of the mercy of Allah: Surely Allah forgives the faults (sins) altogether,’ surely He is the Forgiving, the Merciful. And return to your Lord (repent before Him) and submit to Him before there comes to you the punishment, then you shall not be helped. And follow the best that has been revealed to you from your Lord... (39:53-55). Also, he says: ... then whoever follows My guidance, he shall not go astray nor be unhappy. And whoever turns away from My remembrance, his shall surely be a straitened life, and We will raise him, on the day of resurrection, blind. (20:123-124)
2) There are some sins which cause the forfeiture of some of good deeds. Such, for example, is opposition to the Prophet. Allah says: Surely those who disbelieve and turn away from Allah’s way and oppose the Apostle after that guidance has become clear to them, cannot harm Allah in any way, and He shall make null their deeds. O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle, and do not make your deeds of no effect (null and void). (47:32-33)
A comparison between the two sentences implies that the order of “obedience” of the Apostle is the same as the prohibition of his opposition, and ibtal (nullification of the deed) is its forfeiture.
Another such sin is raising one’s voice above the voice of the Prophet. Allah says: O you who believe! Do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet, and do not speak loud to him as you speak loud to one another, lest your deeds become null while you do not perceive. (49:2)
Likewise, there are some acts of obedience which expiate and atone some sins. Such are the obligatory prayers, hajj and the avoidance of great sins. Allah says:
About prayer: And establish prayer in the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the nigh t, surely good deeds take away the evil deeds; this is reminder to the mindful. (11:114)
About hajj: then whoever hastens off in two days, there is no sin on him, and whoever tarries (there), there is no sin on him. (2:203)
About avoidance of great sins: If you avoid the great sins which you are forbidden, we will expiate from you your (small) sins. . . (4:31)
Those who avoid the great sins and the indecencies except small sins (or just passing thoughts); surely your Lord is liberal in forgiving. (53:32)
3) There are some sins which transfer the good deeds from their doer to someone else. Murder is one of those sins.
Allah says: Verily I intend that you bear my sin and (also) your sin… (5:29)
Other such sins, according to the traditions of the Prophet and the Imams of Ahlul-Bayt are backbiting and calumny, and others.
There are, likewise, some acts of obedience which transfer the evil deeds from the doer to someone else, as will be explained later.
4) There are some sins which transfer to the doer evil deeds similar to those committed by another person. Allah says: That they may bear their own burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge. (16:25)
And most certainly they shall carry their own burdens, and other burdens with their own burdens. (29:13)
In the same way, some acts of obedience transfer to the doer good deeds similar to those done by another person. Allah says: and We write down what they have sent before and their footprints... (36:12)
5) Some sins cause double punishment. Allah says: In that case We would certainly have made you to taste a double (punishment) in this life and a double (punishment) after death (17:75); . . . the punishment shall be increased to her doubly (33:30)
On the other hand, there are some good deeds which bring double reward or even more. Allah says about spending in the way of Allah: The parable of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah is as parable of a grain growing seven ears, in every ear there are a hundred grain,’ and Allah multiplies for whom He pleases. (2:261). Also He says: These shall be granted their reward twice (28:54); He will give you two portions of His mercy, and make for you a light with which you will walk, and forgive you. (57:28)
Moreover all good deeds get their rewards multiplied many-fold, as Allah says: Whoever brings a good deed, he shall have ten like it...(6:161)
6) Some good actions change the evil deeds into good ones. Allah says: Except him who repents and believes and does a good deed; so these are they of whom Allah changes the evil deeds to good ones... (25:70)
7) There are some good deeds whose like is given to other than the doer (without the doer losing it or its reward). Allah says: And (as for) those who believe and their offspring follow them in faith, We will unite with them their offspring and We will not diminish to them aught of their work . . . (52:21)
The same may happen about some evil deeds. For example, if one oppresses orphans it brings the same type of oppression on his own children after his death. Allah says: And let those fear who, should they leave behind them weakly offspring, would fear on their account... (4:9)
8) Some good deeds transfer the evil deeds of the doer (let us call him Zayd) to another person (Bakr), and the good deeds of Bakr to Zayd. Likewise, some evil deeds transfer the good deeds of the doer, Zayd, to Bakr, and the evil deeds of Bakr to Zayd.
This is a surprising factor in reward and recompense, and we shall explain it in detail under verse 8:37: So that Allah may separate the impure from the pure, and put the impure, some of it upon the other, and pile it up together, then cast it into hell...
There are many traditions explaining the situations where the above-mentioned changes and exchanges may occur, and we shall quote them in the commentaries of these verses, God willing.
If we ponder on the various verses quoted above, we shall see that the system of the recompense of actions (their effectiveness in bringing about happiness and unhappiness) is entirely different from the system of their physical effect. For example, eating is a work which by various actions and reactions affects the eater and satisfies his hunger, but that satiation is not carried on to someone else, nor is it transferred from the eater to another person. Also, the object of the said eating is the food eaten; the eating changes the food stage by stage into various forms. But that eating cannot affect other food, nor can that food be changed or exchanged with other eaters, nor can the nature of the food be changed to something else. In the same way, if Zayd beats ‘Umar, the action is beating, not something else; the beater is Zayd, not someone else; and the beaten one is ‘Umar, not another person.
However, when it comes to the effectiveness of the same actions in happiness or unhappiness, the system completely changes. Allah says: ..., and they did not do us any harm but they did harm their own souls . . . (2:57);. . . and the evil plan does not beset any save the authors of it. (35:43); See how they lied against their own souls . . . (6:24); Then shall it be said to them: Where is that which you used to set up besides Allah? They shall say: They are gone away from us, nay, we used not to call upon anything before. Thus does Allah confound the unbelievers. (40:73-74)
In short, in the world of “recompense”, one action is sometimes changed to another, sometimes transferred to someone other than the doer, sometimes given an opposite effect. In other words, the system of recompense is quite different from physical causes and effects.
Question: In that case, there will be no place for reason in the world of actions and their effects, ‘and the rule of wisdom will come to an end; nothing will remain in its real form.
Answer: It is not correct to say that reason and wisdom have no place in this scheme. Allah and His angels, as He has described in His Book, do offer intellectual arguments against the sinners at the time of death and in Barzakh; and they will offer the same type of proofs against them on the day of resurrection and in Paradise and Hell. Allah says: And the trumpet shall be blown, so all those that are in the heavens and all those that are in the earth shall swoon, except such as Allah please; then it shall be blown again, then Lo! they shall stand up awaiting. And the earth shall beam with the light of its Lord, and the Book shall be laid down, and the prophets and the witnesses shall be brought up, and judgement shall be given between them with justice, and they shall not be dealt with unjustly. And every soul shall be paid back fully what it has done, and He knows best what they do. (39:68-70).
The Qur`an repeatedly says that Allah shall decide on the day of resurrection between the people with justice in that which they differed in. For example, it narrates the argument which Satan will put forth on that day: And Satan shall say after the affair is decided: Surely Allah promised you the promise of truth, and I gave you promises then failed to keep them to you; and I had no authority over you, except that I called you and you obeyed me; therefore do not blame me but blame yourselves: I cannot be your aide (now) nor can you be my aides; surely I disbelieved in your associating me with Allah before; surely it is the unjust that shall have the painful punishment. (14:22)
All such verses clearly show that rational arguments and proofs are not, and shall not be, abolished in the world of recompense, although that place is entirely different from this physical world.
Question: But how, then, to reconcile the two claims: that the world of recompense has its own system of reward and punishment, totally different from this world, and that reason also rules in that world?
Answer: The fact is that Allah has talked with people, in guiding them, in their own language, and has used the expressions of social wisdom while addressing them, and has based His speech on the principles and rules of mastership and servitude. He calls Himself Master, the men are His slaves, the prophets are His messengers to them, He continuously maintains contact with them through commands and prohibitions, prophetic missions and admonishments, good tidings and warnings, promises and threats, and all related matters like punishment and forgiveness, and so forth.
This is the style of the Qur`an when it talks with mankind. But it has made it clear that the real affair is far above human thinking and imagination. People cannot understand it, nor can their limited intellects comprehend it. That is why it has been brought down to the level of their mental power and clothed in a language which they can understand. In this way, it has been made possible for them to know as much of the sublime truth as was necessary for their happiness and bliss. Allah says: (I swear) by the book that makes manifest (the truth): surely We made it an Arabic Qur`an so that you may understand. And surely it is in the original of the Book with us, truly elevated, full of wisdom. (43:2-4)
It is for this reason that the Qur`an has based its description of the rules of recompense, and all related matters, on the fundamentals of social laws which are known to reasonable men and which are based on social good and evil. It is really wonderful how those sublime realities, which are so much higher than the level of the common human intellect, can still be explained in terms of that very intellect. For example, practical social wisdom does not reject the idea of giving a harder punishment to a wrong-doer by holding him responsible for all the social evil resulting from his misdeed. Thus, a murderer may be held responsible for the loss of all social benefits and rights resulting from the death of the slain person. And a person starting an evil custom may be punished for the like misdeeds of his followers. In the first example, it may be decreed that the wrongs done apparently by the slain person, were done by the murderer; and in the second example, it may be decided that the like of the misdeeds done by the followers were also done by the initiator of that misdeed, while the followers are not free from the blame in any way - thus the deeds of the followers are the deeds of the initiator as well, and both shall be punished for them.
Similarly, there are situations in which it may be decreed that the doer of an action was not its doer, or that a particular action is in reality some other action, or that the good deeds of someone else belong to this man, or that this man shall have the like of the good deeds done by the other.
The Qur`an offers reasons for all such changes and exchanges in the world of recompense and explains them in terms of the social laws found in human society, bringing these sublime realities down to the level of the human mind, although the system of that world is totally different from this physical one, and although our social laws have a limited scope and are not valid beyond this life. It is only on the day of resurrection that those hidden realities will manifest themselves before the eyes of man. Allah says: And certainly We have brought them a book Which We have explained with knowledge, a guidance and a mercy for the people who believe. Do they wait for aught but its final interpretation? On the day when its final interpretation comes about, those who neglected it before will say. In deed the apostle of our Lord had brought the truth... (7:52-53) Also, He says: And this Qur`an is not such as could be forged by those besides Allah, but is a verification of that which is before it and a clear explanation of the book... Nay, they rejected that of which they have no comprehensive knowledge, and its final interpretation has not yet come to them... (10:37-39)
Question: These verses, describing such a strange system of recompense, are in conflict with other verses which say that everyone will be responsible for his own action. See for example the following verses: - So, he who has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it. And he who has done an atoms weight of evil shall see it. (99:78) … and no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another... (6:164) … every man is responsible for what he has wrought. (52:21) And that man shall have nothing but what he strives for. (53:39) Surely Allah does not do any injustice to men, but men do injustice to themselves. (10:44)
There are numerous such verses, and they are diametrically opposed to the earlier-mentioned verses about this system of recompense.
Answer: Not at all. The earlier mentioned verses have decreed that the misdeeds done by a man who was slain unjustly were actually done by the unjust murderer. Now if the murderer is punished for those misdeeds, he is punished not for the deeds of the other person, but for those done by himself. Similarly, they have decided that if a man follows another in a sinful act, that action was not done by the follower alone; it is the work of the follower as well as the leader. Thus, there are two sins here, one of the follower and another of the leader. And the leader will be punished, not for the sin of the follower, but for his own. In the same way, those verses have judged that if someone aids an oppressor in his oppression or follows a leader on the wrong path, then the said helper or follower is a partner in those misdeeds; and whatever wrong is done by that oppressor or leader, the said helper or follower is its doer to the same degree.
Thus, these people and others like them are literally and completely governed by the verses quoted in the question, such as “no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another”. Such cases are not outside the sphere of such verses; they are not in conflict with them, nor are they as an exception from the rule.
The same fact is hinted at in the verse,… and judgement shall be given between them with justice, and they shall not be dealt with unjustly. And every soul shall be paid back fully what it has done, and He knows best what they do. (39:69-70) The sentence, He knows best what they do shows, or hints at, the fact that this paying back fully what every soul has done will be done according to the knowledge of Allah, and according to His, not their, reckoning.
The sinners have no knowledge and no wisdom. Allah has deprived them of reason in this world, as He narrates the confession of the people of the Fire: And they shall say: Had we but listened or pondered (or, understood), we would not have been among the inmates of the burning fire. (67:10). The same will be the case in the hereafter, as Allah says: And whoever is blind in this (world), he shall also be blind in the hereafter, and more erring from the way. (17:72); also He says, It is the fire kindled by Allah, which rises above the hearts. (104:6-7). This deprivation is confirmed in the verse: . . . until when they have all come up with one another into it, the last of them shall say with regard to the foremost of them. Our Lord! these led us astray, therefore, give them a double chastisement of the fire. He will say: Every one shall have double but you do not know. (7:38) This verse proves that both the leaders and the followers shall be given double punishment - the leaders, because they went astray and misled others into error; and the followers, because they went astray and kept the path of error open by walking in it. Then the verse says that they do not know.
Question: These verses, which say that the sinners are deprived of knowledge in this world as well as in the hereafter, contradict other verses which say that they do possess knowledge. For example, Allah says: A book of which the verses are made plain, an Arabic Qur`an for people who know. (41:3) Add to it the verses which offer arguments against them: how can one argue with Someone who has no knowledge and cannot understand reasoning. Moreover, these verses themselves contain a sort of argument against them in the hereafter. All these things compel us to believe that sinners will possess knowledge and reason in the hereafter.
Apart from this, there are some verses which specifically say that they will possess knowledge and certainty in the hereafter. For example: Certainly you were heedless of it, but now We have removed from you your veil, so your sight today is sharp (50:22); And could you but see when the guilty shall hang down their heads before their Lord! Our Lord! We saw and we heard, therefore send us back, so that we may do good; surely (now) we are certain. (32:12)
Answer: When it is said that sinners have no knowledge in this world, it means that they do not act according to their knowledge. And when it is said that they shall have no knowledge in the hereafter, it means that they cannot escape from the effects of the foolish acts which they have done in this world, and that foolishness will continue to torment them in the hereafter. For example: And We have made every man’s actions to cling to his neck, and We will bring forth to him on the resurrection day a book which he will find wide open (17:13); Until when he comes to Us, he says (to Satan): O would that between me and thee there were the distance of the east and the west... (43:38). There are many verses which support this interpretation, and we shall explain this matter fully in the commentary of the verse 2:242: Then Allah makes clear to you His signs so that you may understand.
Imam al-Ghazali has explained the matter of the transfer of deeds in a different way in one of his books. The gist of his discourse is as follows:- “The exchange and transfer of good and evil deeds because of injustice and sin is affected in this world as soon as that injustice and sin occurs; but it will be known (only) on the day of resurrection. Then the oppressor will find his good deeds in the accounts of the oppressed. But that transfer had already been effected in this life. Then Allah will say on that day, To whom belongs the kingdom this day? To Allah, the One, the Subduer (of all). (40:16) Thus Allah will declare in the hereafter that the kingdom belongs to Him. But that kingdom will not come to Him on that day; it is His always and will remain His forever, although this reality will not manifest itself to His creatures before the day of resurrection. And what a man does not know is for him nonexistent, even if in reality it exists; when he comes to know of it, it is as though it came into existence just then.
“Some people say that “action” is an immaterial, incorporeal thing. It is not a substance which could be transferred from one person to another in this life. And it is equally impossible to transfer it in the hereafter; because after death the action ceases to exist, and a non-existent thing cannot be brought back to existence. Therefore, it is difficult to see how a good or evil deed can be transferred from one person to another, either in this life or in the hereafter.
“But this objection is not correct. When we say that a good deed is transferred, we mean that its reward is transferred. Just as the acts of obedience are done to obtain their reward, so the transfer of the reward, i.e. the effect, was metaphorically mentioned as the transfer of the cause, i.e. the good deed itself. That reward or effect is not something separate from the human soul; it is a quality ingrained in it. When the soul is brought back in the body, it will return with all its qualities, including the effects of good or evil deeds.
“When a man does a good deed, i.e. an act of obedience, a light appears in his heart. In the same way a sin or misdeed causes darkness to appear therein. The light of obedience connects the heart with the sublime world of divine light, knowledge and perception. On the contrary, misdeed and oppression remove the heart away from that world. The effects of good and evil actions are opposed to each other; each tries to weaken or eradicate the other. Allah has said: Surely good deeds take away the evil deeds. (11:114) The Prophet has said: ‘If you commit any evil deed, follow it up with a good deed, so that it may eradicate it.’ Every ill or hurt removes the effects of some sins. That is why the Prophet has said: ‘Verily, man is rewarded even for a thorn which pricks his foot.’ Also he said: ‘The punishments are atonements.’
“When an oppressor oppresses someone, his action creates in his own heart a darkness and hardness which cause the eradication of the effects of the light (that had appeared in his heart because of the previously-done good deeds). And his victim feels pain and hurt, and thereby his lust and base feelings are weakened and it causes the obliteration from his heart of the effects of the evil deeds done previously. Darkness gives way to light.
“In this way the light which was in the heart of the oppressor is transferred to the heart of the oppressed; and the
darkness in the heart of the oppressed goes to the heart of the oppressor. This is the meaning of the transfer or exchange of the good and evil deeds.
“It can be said that it is not the real transfer. What it actually means is that the light of the oppressor’s heart is extinguished, and a new light is created in the heart of his victim. And the darkness of his victim’s heart is removed and a new darkness is created in the heart of the oppressor. And it is not the real interchange.
“The above observation is correct, but the use of this word is still justified. We say: ‘The shadow moved from here to there’, or ‘The light of the sun or of the lamp moved from the floor to the wall’. Such sentences are quite in order, as they are based on metaphor. And there is a double metaphor in our saying that good deeds are transferred from one man to another. First, the reward of the good deed is called a good deed, using the name of the cause for its effect; then the eradication of a feature at one place and the creation of its like at other place is called the exchange or transfer of the feature. Such figures of speech are common in every language and it could be proved by logical proofs. The evidence from the Qur`an and traditions is in addition to that.”
This was the gist of the views expressed by Imam al-Ghazali. As he himself has said, his explanation reduces this belief to a double metaphor, or a metaphor in metaphor. If we were to extend this interpretation, then all the rules mentioned in this essay would become metaphors. We have written earlier that Allah has based the system of recompense on social practical wisdom. And there is no doubt that reason treats these~ laws as a reality, not as a metaphor. Therefore, the system of recompense should also be treated as a reality, not as a metaphor. This is true so far as this world of practical wisdom is concerned. Of course, if one were to look at the spiritual world, then this whole material world would be seen to be just a metaphor. But here the discussion is not in that context.