Answered by Sidi Salman Younas
Question: What role do actions play in salvation? There are, of course, Muslims out there who have adopted ideas similar to the Christians that belief is all that you need to be saved. What would you advise that I tell them.
Answer: assalamu `alaykum
All that one needs to be saved is Allah. Neither actions nor beliefs alone guarantee one’s salvation.
`A’isha (Allah be well pleased with her) narrates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Perform your deeds properly and in moderation, and know that one’s deeds will not cause anyone of you to enter Heaven, and that the most beloved of actions to Allah are the most consistent ones even if little in amount.” [Bukhari]
Abu Hurayra (Allah be well-pleased with him) narrates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “There is no one whose deeds will cause him to enter Heaven. It was said, ‘Not even you, Messenger of Allah?’ He (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘Not even me unless my Lord envelops me with His mercy.'” [Muslim]
In another narration the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “There is no one whose deeds will cause his salvation. It was said, ‘Not even you Messenger of Allah? He (Allah bless him and grant him peace), ‘Not even me unless my Lord takes hold of me with mercy.'” [Muslim]
Understanding Allah’s Greatness:
In order to understand the narrations properly, as well as the relation of one’s deeds to salvation, some key points of belief need to be outlined. The most essential is knowledge that Allah is not obligated to do anything.
Imam Nawawi, while explaining the above narrations, states, “Know that the position of Ahl al-Sunna is that reward, punishment, obligatoriness, impermissibility, and other than them two from the categories of moral responsibility, are not established by the rational intellect (`aql). All of this and other than it is not established except by recourse to divine revelation. The position of the Ahl al-Sunna is also that there is absolutely nothing obligatory on Allah Most High. Rather, the cosmos is His possession, and this world and the next are subject to His mastery; He does in them whatever He wills. So, if He punished every obedient and righteous slave and caused them to enter the Fire this would be considered equitable justice from Him, and if He honored them, blessed them, and entered them into Heaven then it is a gracious favor from Him. If He graciously favored the disbelievers and entered them into Heaven it would also be akin to this. However, He Most High has informed us – and His message is true – that He will not do so…” [Sharh Sahih Muslim]
Similarly, Imam Bajuri states, “So, the position of Ahl al-Sunna is that His rewarding us is due to pure gracious favor that is not admixed with compulsion or obligation [to do so].” [Tuhfat al-Murid]
Imam Haramayn al-Juwayni, the teacher of Imam Ghazali, states, “Similarly, with a person who is highly respected within his family, if he is generous with his son and provides all his needs, and the son honors him, respects him and seeks his approval and strives to earn it, therefore, that person is not owed in regard for his assistance anymore then he has already obtained from the beneficence that has accrued to his credit. If then this is the situation with a person who provides services to another like himself, a servant who tried to compare his own acts of service with God’s bounteous generosity to him in any single instance would find the beneficence of God completely acquitted and fulfilled in regard to any of his own good deeds.” [Kitab al-Irshad]
What Are Your Deeds? Allah’s Creation
The above becomes clearer when one realizes what one’s deeds really are: a creation of Allah. Unlike certain groups that believed that humans create their own choiceful acts, the Ahl al-Sunna unanimously agree that all of one’s actions are created by Allah. This is clear from the verse, “Allah created you and that which you do.” [37: 96] The commentators of the Qur’an agree that the vast majority constituted this as a proof of Allah’s being the creator of all actions. [Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir; Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil; Qurtubi, Jami` al-Ahkam al-Qur’an]
Similarly, the scholars defined “divinely given success” (tawfiq) as “Allah’s creating the ability to perform acts of obedience within the slave.” [Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid; Sawi, Sharh `ala al-Jawhara]
As such, since our actions are a creaton of Allah and only came into being due to His will and omnipotent power, the servant has no right to claim that his deeds will cause his salvation, or that he deserves salvation due to them, since his deeds properly belong to Allah who created them, not the servant himself. Deeds not only include outward rituals, but also inward belief and convictions, all of which are blessings bestowed upon us by Allah. As the Qur’an states, “Whatever blessing you have, it is from Allah.” [16:53]
Imam Nawawi, while explaining the verse “enter heaven enveloped in what you did [of good acts]” [16: 32], states that “entering heaven is due to actions, yet divinely give success (tawfiq) to perform those acts, being guided in having sincerity in them, and their acceptance is due to Allah’s mercy and gracious favor.” [Sharh Sahih Muslim] Ibn Hajar `Asqalani stated that some scholars, such as Ibn Battal and Qadi `Iyyad, stated that one’s entry into heaven is purely out of Allah’s mercy whereas the degree where one will be in heaven is commensurate with one’s deeds. This was also mentioned by Ibn al-Jawzi, who added that since actions are only for a limited earthly time-span, the eternal reward of heaven is not, strictly speaking, due to them but due to Allah’s blessing upon the servant. [Fath al-Bari]
The Goal is Allah: Putting Deeds Into Perspective
At the same time, this does not mean that one can leave performing the deeds that one has been commanded to perform. It remains an obligation on every morally responsible individual to fulfill the command of Allah Most High and strive to do so with excellence. This is not only decisively conveyed in the Qur’an but the narratives in question also state this unequivocally, such as the statement “perform your deeds properly and in moderation”. When closely looked at, it becomes clear that the purpose of these narratives is not to completely deemphasize the place of works, but to put them into correct perspective. The lessons that the narratives convey include: Being moderate and not excessive in one’s worship: The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “This religion is ease and none makes it difficult except that it will overwhelm him. So, perform your deeds properly and in moderation…” [Bukhari] The wording of this narration is akin to the wording of the narratives related to our discussion here.
Imam Sakhawi quotes `A’isha (Allah be well-pleased with her) as stating that the ploy of the devil in relation to the servants duty to perform certain acts revolves around making him go to excess or making him lax in fulfilling these duties. [Maqasid al-Husna] The best way is to take the middle path and do a moderate amount of work with presence and purity of heart. Bakr al-Muzani said, “Abu Bakr did not surpass the Companions of the Prophet with [abundant] fasts and prayers but due to something in his heart.” [Saffarini, Ghida al-Albab; Ghazali, Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din]  Being consistent in one’s deeds (mudawama): Some of the narrations, after mentioning that deeds are not a guarantee of one’s entry into heaven, clearly state that the most beloved of works to Allah is the good deed that is done consistently. Reflecting on the mercy and generosity of Allah (tafkir): Qadi `Iyyad says that the purpose of stating that none will enter heaven except he whom Allah shows mercy and generosity towards is not to demean the status of righteous acts. Rather, it is to allow the servant to contemplate on the fact that actions are only carried out and completed by the favor and generosity of Allah. Good deeds are in fact a sign to the slave of Allah’s mercy pouring down upon him. [Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir; Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari]  Thanking Allah for all of the blessings He has given one (shukr): The Qur’an states, “If you are thankful, I shall certainly increase you.” [14: 8] The scholars have defined “thankfulness” as “the slaves directing all that which he has been blessed with towards that which it was created for.” [Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid] This should be expressed with one’s heart, tongue, and all of one’s limbs. This should not only be for the continual bestowal of these blessings, which include acts of worship, but also out of realization that Allah is truly deserving of all thanks. Even the mere existence of a person is enough of a reason to thank Allah.  Realizing one’s complete neediness towards Allah (faqr): This is the very definition of “God”, namely He whom all others are in utter need of and who Himself is in need of nothing. [Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid; Sawi, Sharh `ala al-Jawhara] Abu Bakr al-Shibli said, “Neediness is that a slave not be in need of anything other than Allah.” [Qushayri, Risala]  Relying on Allah alone, not one’s works (tawakkul): The Qur’an repeatedly mentions reliance on Allah stating, “Place your reliance in the Living God, the Undying” [25: 58] and “Whoever places his reliance on Allah then He is his sufficiency.” [65: 3]
Reliance on Allah entails recognizing His oneness, which is a oneness in essence, attributes, as well as acts. When one realizes that the acts one performs are in reality not from oneself but from Allah then one ceases to rely solely on works. Rather, the servant then turns to the Creator of those works. Imam Ghazali states, “When this was unveiled to you, you did not cast a glance towards anything other than Him. Rather, your fear was now from Him, and your hope towards Him… If the doors of unveiling were opened to you this reality would be made patently clear to you with a clarity more complete than witnessing with actual sight.” [Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din]
Abu `Abdullah al-Qurshi was asked about reliance and he stated, “It is being attached to Allah in every moment.” Ibn Masruq stated, “It is submitting to the blows of fate and sacred rulings.” Abu Usman al-Hiri said, “It is sufficing with Allah while being dependent upon Him.” [Qushayri, Risala]
It was in this context that Ibn Ata’illah said, “One of the signs of relying on deeds is loss of hope when a misstep occurs.” [Hikam] Those who rely on Allah never lose hope, whereas those who rely on themselves eventually slip and plummet. The prophetic narratives regarding the insufficiency of deeds is a reminder of this point. Being sincere in servitude (ikhlas): All of the above indicates a higher reality, a reality seldom understood or consciously realized, which is that the reason why Allah is worshipped and should be worshiped is because He is Allah, the Master of everything. There is a difference, as scholars have stated, between an individual who carries out the command of a king because he wants to spend the night at his castle, or have some gift bestowed upon him, and between someone who does so because the king truly deserves such service, regardless of any benefits that may accrue from it.
Among the definitions of sincerity given are: “It is singularizing the Real in one’s obedience through resolve, and this is that one desires to seek closeness to Allah through his obedience and nothing else”; “It is forgetting that deeds exact reward in the next life”; “Lowering one’s gaze from catching sight of [one’s] actions”; “It is a secret between Allah and the slave”; “It is that its possessor not desire repayment for it in the two abodes [this world and the next]”; “That you not see in your acts other than Allah”. [Qushayri, Risala]
Conclusion: Opening the Doors to Allah’s Bounty
The conclusion to all of this is that neither faith alone nor deeds suffice in guaranteeing salvation for one. Rather, it is only though Allah’s mercy and favor that any individual will enter heaven. This is indicated by numerous prophetic narratives.
Yet, at the same time, this does not absolve anyone of the duty to believe and perform righteous deeds, as commanded by Allah. Doing so is a sign of Allah enveloping the slave in His mercy and blessing him with divine success. The narrations of the Prophet (Allah bless him) seek to make people understand the role and place of deeds in our Islamic tradition, and to turn hearts towards the one favoring one with those acts, towards the one who is sought through those acts.. When this is done and the heart attaches itself to Allah through purity, complete reliance, thankfulness, need, sincerity, and faithful following of the sunna, one will be blessed with righteous works and divine favors, both in this world and the next.
In essence, the prophetic words and teachings are a means for us to find increase in our worship, to optimize it, and to allow us to be submerged in the immense bounties of Allah Most High. It is a key to the door that leads to divine bestowals, if followed and understood correctly.
May Allah grant us success in this life and the next.
And Allah Knows Best
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani