Part I - Introduction
When you hear the word "atonement", you normally think of the sin offerings for atonement, the great Day of Atonement and the mercy seat in the Old Testament, or of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross on Golgotha in the New Testament. But what does atonement have to do with the Qur'an or with Islam? Does the expression "atonement" even occur in the Qur'an? If so, what does it mean there and how does the meaning differ from the one in the Bible?
To answer such questions and to make such a comparison, we must first determine the meaning of atonement in the Old Testament, then ask if this is sufficient to truly understand the salutary meaning of Jesus' death in the New Testament, which is the content of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because the gospel in its shortest form is, "Christ dies for our sins." In a third step, we must try to enter the world of the Qur'anic expression for atonement. For the Qur’an does use the concept of atonement on certain occasions. Only with this background can we finally turn to the difficult task of comparing and contrasting these three worlds of meaning, to find out what consequences this understanding might have when witnessing to a Muslim.
Part II - The Concept of Atonement in the Old Testament
Let us start with the concept of atonement in the Old Testament. This concept of atonement in the Old Testament is connected with the Hebrew root KPR. The Old Testament contains about 150 words that come from this root: 101 verbal forms and 49 nominal forms (see Janowski (1982) 106). The nominal forms come from the following three words: KOFÄR (a means of atonement 14x), KIPPURIM (an atoning 8x) and KAPPORÄTH (mercy seat, lit. the place where atonement is effected. This is the lid of the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies in the tabernacle. 27x).
Most of the references connected to atonement are found in the books Exodus (31x), Leviticus (59x) and Numbers (21x). Apart from these books, the Hebrew root for atonement is only found 38x. Of the various contexts in which the root KPR is used in the Old Testament I will discuss only the two most important ones: the punishment of criminal offences (especially the cases of murder and homicide) as well as the practices of ritual sin offerings. In the following I will try to summarise the most important discoveries that result from a detailed exegetical analysis of the passages of the Old Testament related to this topic. My summary is based on the results of the most important German study on this topic in the last years: Bernd Janowski, Sühne als Heilsgeschehen. Studien zur Sühnetheologie der Priesterschaft und zur Wurzel KPR im Alten Orient und im Alten Testament. [Atonement as the Event of Salvation. Studies on the theology of atonement in the priestly codex and on the root KPR in the ancient Orient and in the Old Testament] (Neukirchener Verlag) Neukirchen-Vluyn 1982; quoted as Janowski (1982). A published lecture by his teacher Hartmut Gese, Die Sühne [The Atonement], is a brilliant contribution on the same topic. In: Zur biblischen Theologie. Alttestamentliche Vorträge. [On biblical theology. Old Testament contributions] (Kaiser) München 1977, 85-106.
1. Atonement in connection with the punishment for criminal offences
The term atonement in the Old Testament is found firstly in connection with the punishment for criminal offences, specifically various forms of killing. Three circumstances are distinguished:
a) If the one who committed the crime is known, as in 2 Samuel 21:1-14, the crime is atoned for by killing the one responsible for the murder or his descendants:
1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, "On Saul and on his house there lies a guilt of blood, It is because of Saul and his bloodthirsty house, because he killed the Gibeonites."
2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them...
3 ... "What shall I do for you? And with what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the Lord?"...
5 Then they answered the king, "From the man who consumed us and plotted against us, that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the territories of Israel,
6 "let seven men of his descendants be delivered to us, and we will hang them before the Lord in Gibeah, on the mountain of the Lord." And the king said, "I will deliver them." ...
9 ...and they hanged them on the hill before the Lord. So they fell, all seven together, and were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
It is important to notice here that the situations that required atonement were irreparable, that is, the harm done could not be repaired. Moreover, such situations, requiring atonement, have not only symbolic consequences for the individual or for the people, but they endanger the very existence of the whole nation: for our text connects the famine with Saul's crime, which had to be atoned. Carrying out the atonement for a sin was considered to mean the same as forgiving of the sin in question, which had led to such a dangerous situation endangering the existence of the people.
b) The second case of killing that involves atonement is found in Exodus 21:28-32. Here the one responsible for the offence is known, but the killing was not actually performed by the one responsible for it:
28 If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted.
29 But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.
30 If there is imposed on him a means of atonement (lit.: KOPHÄR = atonement), then he shall pay to redeem his life (PADAH), whatever is imposed on him.
31 Whether it has gored a son or gored a daughter, according to this judgement it shall be done to him.
32 If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Here also the atonement for the offence that occured is the execution of the person consciously responsible person. In the case of a ransom two words are used. The KOPHÄR or means of atonement (from the root KPR) designates the reparation in view of the harm for which the owner is responsible. The ransom (Heb. PADAH), designates the reparation in view of the owner as being responsible for the offence that occured.
c) Finally, there is a third case in which atonement is mentioned in connection with a killing, as reported in Deuteronomy 21:1-8. Here the one responsible for the crime is not known.
1 "If anyone is found slain, lying in the field in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed him,
2 "then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance from the slain man to the surrounding cities.
3 "And it shall be that the elders of the city nearest to the slain man will take a young cow which has not been worked and which has not pulled with a yoke.
4 "The elders of that city shall bring the young cow down to a valley with flowing water, which is neither ploughed nor sown, and they shall break the neck of the young cow there in the valley....
6 "And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man...
7 "... shall answer and say, `Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it.
8 `Provide atonement, O Lord, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.' And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood.
In this context it is again important to notice that irreparable damage, which requires atonement, is not considered to be a private matter, but a matter that affects the whole nation. The crime of an individual brings calamity on the entire nation, so the entire nation must atone for the crime. Not the elders but Yahweh the LORD of Israel pardons his people.
2. Atonement in the practices of ritual sin offerings
This has been taken up in the book of Hebrews to explain the atoning, vicarious death of Jesus Christ. So it is important to know the Old Testament background so that we can understand the central meaning of the gospel. The second and by far larger group of Old Testament references that mention atonement are the passages describing ritual sin offerings. I will focus on one passage in Leviticus only, which will stand for all the other texts of similar content.
In the prescriptions concerning sacrifices in the first chapters of Leviticus different types of sacrifices are described. Among them one finds the sin offerings, in the context of which atonement is mentioned more often than in the context of the other types of offerings. In fact, the only other references to atonement are found in connection with the guilt offerings. From the various provisions for sin offerings found in chapter 4 of Leviticus we will now take a closer look at verses 27-31. The remaining passages in that chapter more or less follow the same pattern as this special regulation for making a sin offering.
27 If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally by doing something against any of the commandments of the Lord in anything which ought not to be done, and thus becomes guilty, and is aware of his sin which he has committed,
28 then he shall bring as his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed.
29 And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering, and kill the sin offering at the place of the burnt offering.
30 Then the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and pour all the remaining blood at the base of the altar.
31 He shall remove all its fat, as fat is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offering; and the priest shall burn it on the altar for a sweet aroma to the Lord. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him.
The fundamental prerequisite, which must be fulfilled, so that an atoning sin offering can be performed is that the guilty person did not sin deliberately but "unintentionally" (v. 27). The difference between intentional and unintentional sin is explained in Numbers 15:22-31. If someone has sinned unintentionally (Heb.: bishgaga, lit.: by mistake) "the priest [should] make atonement for [him] before the LORD, and it shall be forgiven him" (v. 28). But if someone sins intentionally (Heb. beyad rama, lit.: with raised hand, that is, on purpose), “that one brings reproach on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people.... his guilt shall be upon him.” (v. 30f.). The entire procedure of atonement can only be applied according to the Old Testament law if the sin is "unintentional". Every intentional sin must be punished with death.
This statement should not mislead us to think that the guilt of unintentional sin is seen as trivial. Sin was not trivialised by distinguishing between intentional and unintentional sins. Every sin, intentional or not, leads to destruction and condemnation. Every sinner is in the bonds of death, whether he sinned intentionally or unintentionally. If he sins "by mistake", he only escapes death through atonement.
When this basic condition is met, then "[the sinner] shall bring as his offering a goat... And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering, and kill the sin offering at the place of the burnt offering" (Leviticus 4:28-29). The sinner only lays one hand on the head of the sin offering, not two hands like Aaron did when he laid the sins of the people on the head of the scapegoat for Azazel (Leviticus 16:21), or like Aaron and his sons did at their consecration as priests, according to Exodus 29:10-25. By laying his one hand on the sin offering, it becomes the substitute for the sinner. This substitution is no "exclusive" (GESE) or external substitution, where the animal in the offering only externally carries the sin of the sinner, like the scapegoat for Azazel, which destroys the people's sin by carrying it into the wilderness. Rather it is an "inclusive" (GESE) or internal substitution, where the life and death of the animal in the sin offering stands for the life and death of the sinner who put his hand on its head to identify himself inclusively with what will happen with the animal. More precisely, the soul of the animal substitutes for the soul of the sinner in the whole process of the offering. When the animal is killed, this killing stands for the execution that the sinner actually deserves. In other words the killing of the animal does not externally destroy the sin loaded on its head by the imposition of the hand of the sinner on its head, but the killing of the animal internally substitutes for the death required of the sinner.
"Then the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and pour all the remaining blood at the base of the altar" (v. 30). The altar, like the mercy seat in the holy of holies of the tabernacle, represents the boundary to the presence of God, which no one can cross. The blood represents, according to Leviticus 17:11, the soul of the animal and thus is the substitute for the sinner's soul. Thus putting the blood on the horns of the altar or on the mercy seat on the ark in the holy of holies (on the great day of atonement, see Leviticus 16) means bringing that which substitutes for the soul of the sinner in contact with the holy presence of God, that is, in contact with the life-giving reality of God in the midst of His people. Applying the blood here has nothing to do with purifying or washing. Rather it is the means that the Lord Himself used to bring about atonement, when the blood is put on the altar (or on the mercy seat), in that it is a concrete visualisation of God´s promise to restore life to the sinner albeit through the death of the animal. As such the bringing in contact of the blood of the animal, substituting the soul of the sinner in his deserved death, in contact with the place of God´s sanctifying and life-giving presence in the midst of his people can be seen as a hidden typology of the resurrection. Just as the blood of the animal is a typology for the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross, so the application of the same blood by the priest either on the altar or once a year at the place of the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies is a typology of the NT message that things don´t end at the cross but that the resurrection comes after it. Anyway this is what the summary of the theology of ritual atonement in the Old Testament seems to indicate. This is found in Leviticus 17:11, where we read: "For the life (lit. nephesh, i.e. soul) of the body is in the blood, and I have given it to you for the altar that you may be atoned with it; for it is the blood that is the atoning, because the life (lit. nephesh, i.e. soul) is in it." So the blood has an important role to play in the ritual of atonement. It has been instituted by the Lord himself exclusively for the altar, to make atonement with it. This atonement only occurs through contact with the altar, marking God´s presence. And it procures atonement for the sinner because it contains his life in a substitutory manner i.e. because it is the substitute for the life of the sinner. That is why the children of Israel were not allowed to eat blood, because it was reserved exclusively for this purpose. And that is why we find the following sentence in the New Testament: "...there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood" (Hebrews 9:22).
That brings us to the result of these practices. "So the priest shall make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him" (v. 31). The act of applying the bood to the altar is the act of atonement. The priest atones, not God. And the passive form "and it shall be forgiven him" is about God´s part in the whole affair. God alone can forgive. So, at least in its original intention, the sin offering is not a good deed, which the sinner can do in order to appease God's anger, rather it is tied to God's assurance that He will forgive sin in the context of the atoning sin-offerings. For the last phrase of our passage “and it shall be forgiven him” is a promise of the Lord. The sinner does not give in order to receive, rather he gives the offering because of the assurance that was given him by the Lord himself in this phrase; which means he gives as he has received.
As a summary of this theology of ritual atonement, it might be advisable to mention a few mistaken ideas about this type of atonement which have become widespread:
* Sin is not a thing/stuff/matter that is symbolically laid on the sin offering before it is slaughtered in order to be destroyed with it at its death. The scapegoat for Azazel, which played its role on the great day of atonement, is laden with sin but it is not slaughtered. Even if the laying on of the hand could be understood as a transferring of the sin to the offering, this meaning would not explain the need to put the blood on the altar.
* Neither is sin a condition or substance that can be covered or washed away from the altar or mercy seat. In that case the sinner himself, or the sin offering as his substitute, should have been washed or sprinkled with the blood, and not the altar or mercy seat. Because it is the sinner who carries his own sin and not the altar or the mercy seat. This second image, that the blood of atonement is the blood that cleanses us from our sins, includes two concepts that are never connected in the Old Testament.
* Atonement is not a good deed that the sinner can do in order to remove the consequences of his sin. For it is not the sinner but the priest who atones, and God himself forgives, according to the promise that he gave in connection with the atonement ritual.
* Finally, atonement is not only a vicarious punishment for sin, just as it does not only mean the forgiveness of sin. Rather both of these elements are joined together in atonement. For atonement is the connection of a vicarious death with God´s presence. It is the restoration of a living relationship with God through the actual event of a vicarious death. In this way atonement is a way of overcoming sin that does not treat sin lightly, but takes sin seriously as something that leads to death. In the Old Testament form of atonement, therefore, sin is not only overcome, but also taken seriously, and thus revealed in its often hidden characteristic, namely that it leads to death. Ritual atonement thus overcomes sin and reveals sin at the same time. This is the most important aspect, I think, that atonement is not only a solution for the problem of evil but also, at the same time, a revelation of the problem of sin, because it exacts the death of the animal. By showing that any sin leads to death, even to the death of the animal, it shows that the reality of sin is a reality that leads to death and exacts death. Any other description of sin is a simplification, a false interpretation of what sin actually is.
Part III - Atonement in the New Testament
The term atonement in the New Testament is used exclusively in connection with the explanation of Christ's vicarious death on the cross for our sins. The most important observation one can make there is that the expression occurs rarely, when compared with the Old Testament.
So we find the verb "hilaskomai" (Eng. to atone) only once in the New Testament: Hebrews 2:17 -
"Therefore, in all things He [that is, Jesus Christ] had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
The noun "hilasmos" [Eng. atonement or atoning sacrifice] only appears twice: 1 John 2:2 - "And He Himself (that is, Jesus Christ) is the atonement for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." and 1 John 4:10 - "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atonement for our sins."
Finally, we find the word "hilasterion" [Eng. mercy seat, lit. place of atonement] only twice in the New Testament: Romans 3:25 - "whom [that is, Jesus Christ] God set forth as a mercy seat [i.e. place of atonement] by His blood, for faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed," and Hebrews 9:5 - and above it [that is, the ark of the covenant] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat [lit. place of atonement]. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail."
The most important reasons for the sparing use of the term atonement in the New Testament can be found after a detailed analysis of Hebrews, chapter 9. Here we find explanations of the inner and outer difficulties that develop when the Old Testament and ritualistic term for atonement is used to explain the death of Christ. I will give a short summary of this analysis.
1. Internal difficulties in explaining the meaning of the death of Christ by means of the ritualistic theology of atonement of the Old Testament.
The inner difficulties concern problems that arise at the use of the internal structure of the Old Testament theology of atonement to explain the vicarious death of Christ on the cross:
a) Through his death on the cross, Christ became the High Priest, who in the Old Testament atoned for sin through the blood of the sin offering; and at the same time he is the blood of the sin offering, with which the High Priest in the Old Testament made atonement. For in Hebrews 9:11 and 12 we read: "But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle, ... (and) 12 ...with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption."
b) In connection with his death on the cross Christ is in the presence of God, a place that was marked by the mercy seat or the place of atonement in the Old Testament; and at the same time he is the sin offering, with whose blood sin is overcome in the Old Testament. For in Hebrews 9:24 and 26 we read (see also Romans 3:25): 24 "For Christ [entered] ... heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God [= the mercy seat] for us;... [and] 26 ... once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself."
Thus the Old Testament distinction between sin offering and priest on the one hand, and between sin offering and mercy seat on the other hand cannot be maintained with regard to the death of Christ. For Christ, in his substitutionary death of atonement is, on the one hand sin offering as well as priest (that is, the passively atoning sacrifice as well as the actively atoning priest), and on the other hand Christ is at the same time the sin offering as well as the mercy seat (that is, the sacrifice as means of atonement as well as the mercy seat as the place of atonement).
2. External difficulties in explaining the meaning of the death of Christ by means of the ritualistic theology of atonement of the Old Testament.
The outer difficulties concern problems in comparing Old Testament forgiveness, which was bound to the sin offering, with the New Testament forgiveness, which is based on Christ's death on the cross.
a) The forgiving atonement of the Old Testament sin offerings is limited in time, for it applies only to one sin. Every new sin required a new atoning sin offering. Even the great day of atonement must be repeated every year. But Christ's atoning death does not have to be repeated, for "with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:12).
b) The forgiving atonement of the Old Testament sin offering is limited in content also, for not every sin could be atoned for. Deliberate sin could be atoned, its wages were the execution of the sinner. But Christ's substitutionary death has pardoned all sin, for "once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Hebrews 9:26).
c) The forgiving atonement of the Old Testament sin offering is moreover limited personally, for it applied only to the people of Israel. There was no atoning sacrifice for the people outside of Israel. But Christ's death made salvation available to everyone, for "He Himself is the atonement for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2, see also Hebrews 9:28).
d) The forgiving atonement of the Old Testament sin offering is lastly limited in effectiveness, for it did not conquer death. It only conquered some characteristics of death by promising forgiveness. But in the presence of death itself, it failed. Death is stronger than the atonement of the sin offering. But Christ, through his death on the cross, conquered death itself, for "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22, see also Romans 6:8 and John 11:25). Christ's forgiving atonement is stronger than death.
3. Consequences of these difficulties
These inner and outer difficulties in applying the ritual theology of atonement to explain the death of Christ are apparently the reason we find the term atonement so seldom in the New Testament. The same applies to other Old Testament concepts of salvation, like mediation, reconciliation, justification, redemption, the covenant and so on. All these expressions can be found in the New Testament in connection with Christ's substitutionary death, but none is sufficient to describe or summarise this momentous death by itself. Christ's death is more than atonement, more than mediation, more than redemption, more than a covenant. It is an act of salvation which has never occurred before. Some Old Testament terms like atonement or reconciliation could be applied to it in order to understand some aspects of its nature, but none of these terms could describe it exhaustively.
So it is not these Old Testament expressions for salvation which are most frequently used in the New Testament to describe Christ's death and its meaning. Instead, two very simple expressions, which do not appear in the Old Testament, are used. The one can be called the deliverance-formula and the other the death-formula.
An example of the deliverance-formula can be found in Romans 4:25, where we read: "who [that is, Jesus] was delivered up because of our offences and raised up because of our justification." A similar formulation "[He] delivered him up for us all" can be found in Romans 8:32; Ephesians 5:2; Titus 2:14 and 1 Timothy 2:6.
The most important example of the death-formula can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:3, where we read: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture...." We who have become used to this simple expression "Christ died" can barely imagine how impossible this sounded and still sounds to practising Jewish people, for the Christ, the Messiah, was the embodiment of all their hopes for the religious, national and political restoration of a Jewish kingdom on earth. The death of this Messiah before any political victory was simply unimaginable. It was a blasphemy. How could God, in the very moment of the reversal of the previous promises, expectations and hopes, save the world? "Christ died, he died for us" is simultaneously a battle cry against all mistaken expectations from the Messiah, and the most basic assurance of salvation that exists. Similar expressions can be found in Romans 14:9; 5:6 and 8; 2 Corinthians 5:14 and 15; 1 Peter 3:18.
The only two formulations which go as deep or maybe even deeper than this simple death-formula are the curse- and the sin-formulas respectively. The curse-formula can be found in Galatians 3:13 "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, (Deuteronomy 21:23) "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"). The sin-formula, the deepest statement on the salutary meaning of Christ's death on the cross, can be found in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." With this statement we return to a basic truth of the Old Testament theology of ritual atonement: Just like the atoning sin offering provisionally not only conquered sin, but also took it seriously and first showed it to be what it was, so also Christ's death on the cross not only conquered sin conclusively but also definitively showed sin to be what it is: that reality that separates us from God and thus leads us into unescapable death.
Part IV - Atonement in the Qur'an
We now come to the Qur'an, in order to examine the terminology of atonement found there. The Qur'an contains words that come from the same Old Testament root as the Old Testament "kippeer". The corresponding Arabic root is KFR.
There are two completely different meanings in the Qur'an for words which come from this root KFR. The first meaning is in noun form "kufrun" and means ingratitude or thanklessness, or unbelief. This is, without doubt, the most widely used meaning in the Qur'an. It occurs in about 520 Qur'anic verses. When a Muslim falls away from Islam, as when he becomes a Christian, he is called a word which comes from this semantic field. He is a "kaafir", someone who has committed "kufr", and according to the Qur'anic law must be put to death. This meaning is not directly connected to atonement and will not be discussed here.
Instead we will deal with the second meaning of the root KFR. It has the noun form "kaffaaratun" and means to cover or wipe away. This meaning occurs relatively seldom in the Qur'an (13 verb forms and 4 noun forms). But these occurrences are important, for they contain some of the few assurances of salvation that Allah makes to a Muslim, and thus are not only related to the Old Testament in their word forms but also in their theology. What follows summarises their contents. We will deal with the verb form first, and will then go to the noun forms, which are used much differently.
1. The Verb forms: Allah hides or wipes away (lit. atones) men's evil deeds= Arab.: Allahu yukaffiru (anil)insaani sayyi)aatihi
The examples that contain the verb form "kaffara" (= hide or wipe away), mostly follow the same pattern. The following is a compilation of these examples:
Whoever believes in Allah (al-Ma`ida 5:56; al-`Ankabut 29:7; Muhammad 47:2; al-Mursalat 77:8)
and in his Messenger (al-Ma`ida 5:12);
whoever believes what he sent down to Muhammad, that is, what he revealed to him (Muhammad 47:2);
whoever turns to Allah (Arab.: taaba; al-`Ankabut 29:7; Muhammad 47:2; al-Tahrim 66:8);
and fears him (Arab.: ittaqaa; al-Ma`ida 5:65; al-Anfal 8:29; al-Talaq 65:5);
whoever does good (al-Taghabun 64:9);
whoever says the prayers and gives alms (al-Ma`ida 5:12);
whoever avoids that which is not allowed in the great commandments (al-Nisa 4:31);
whoever emigrates for Allah's sake and is driven from his home, whoever suffers hardship and fights and (with that) is killed (Al Imran 3:195);
he is the one, whose bad deeds Allah will wipe away (lit. atone before him: Al Imran 3:195; al-Nisa 4:31; al-Ma`ida 5:12+65; al-Anfal 8:29; al-`Ankabut 29:7; al-Zumar 39:35; Muhammad 47:2; al-Fath 48:5; al-Taghabun 64:9; al-Talaq 65:5; al-Tahrim 66:8);
and whom he will allow to enter gardens where streams flow in the valleys (Al Imran 3:195; al-Ma`ida 5:12+65; al-Fath 48:5; al-Taghabun 64:9; al-Tahrim 66:8);
and whom he will give a great reward (al-Talaq 65:5);
and whose best deeds he will repay (al-Zumar 39:35; al-`Ankabut 29:7);
and for whom he will restore everything (Muhammad 47:2);
and whom he will help (al-Anfal 8:29);
and whom he forgives (Al Imran 3:193; al-Anfal 8:29).
The basic meaning of atonement in all these examples, which have a similar form, is the covering and the hiding of the bad deeds. The underlying meaning is the wiping away or the erasing of these deeds, like the wind wipes away footprints in the sand. So when Allah "atones" for someone's bad deeds, he covers them and wipes them away. We must take special notice of the fact that Allah is the one who "atones", and not the sinner or a priest. Moreover, this "atonement" is not free of charge, rather it is tied to conditions like faith, fear of God and good deeds. Finally we need to note that we do not find any categories in the "atonable" bad deeds, like intentional and unintentional.
2. The noun form: Atonement in the canonical law
In Sura al-Maida 5 there are the three examples using the noun form "kafaaratun" (that is, atonement), all with formulations used in legal proceedings:
5:45 "But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself. And if any fail to judge by (the light of) what God hath revealed, they are (no better than) wrong-doers."
5:89 "Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for atonement, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the atonement for the oaths ye have sworn. But keep to your oaths."
5:95 "O ye who believe! Kill not game while in the sacred precincts or in pilgrim garb. If any of you doth so intentionally, the compensation is an offering, brought to the Ka'ba, of a domestic animal equivalent to the one he killed, as adjudged by two just men among you; or by way of atonement, the feeding of the indigent; or its equivalent in fasts: that he may taste of the penalty of his deed. God forgives what is past: for repetition God will exact from him the penalty. For God is Exalted, and Lord of Retribution."
What was the condition for Allah's atoning effacement of the bad deeds in the examples with verb forms, i.e. the good deeds, has become atonement itself in the examples with noun forms. This means that the sinner himself is the one who atones and not Allah. The Qur'an contains no direct statement, which with the help of a verb commands or allows the sinner to atone for himself. But verse al-Baqara 2:271 almost makes this statement by advising: "If ye disclose (acts of) charity, even so it is well, but if ye conceal them, and make them reach those (really) in need, that is best for you: It will atone from you some of your (stains of) evil. And God is well acquainted with what ye do."
However one ought to interpret this passage, it is important here that the passages with noun forms, in contrast to the passages with verb forms, distinguish between different types of bad deeds that can be atoned for. So atonement can be atonement for an oath or atonement for hunting during Ramadan. What has not changed is that the condition for atonement is simply doing a good deed.
Part V - Comparison between Bible and Qur'an
The main difference in the meaning of atonement in the Bible and the Qur'an is easiest to see in the difference between the means of atonement in each instance: the sacrifice in the Bible and the good deed in the Qur'an.
The priestly atonement in the Old Testament and Christ's atonement in the New Testament are based on an understanding of the sacrifice and its spilled blood. Without a blood sacrifice there is no substitutionary death and no taking sin seriously as a reality which kills. Without spilling blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). Qur'anic theology does not acknowledge this type of sacrifice. Instead we read in Sura al-Hajj 22:37 in direct confrontation to what the Old Testament practices imply: "It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him." For this reason Qur'anic theology has neither the possibility of making contact with Allah by means of a sin offering, nor the possibility of a substitutionary death for a sinner. With that every possible means for a free forgiveness based on the grace of God is blocked in Islam.
Instead we find a completely new understanding of atonement in the Qur'an, over and against the Bible: Not the priest through the blood of the sin offering nor Christ through his own blood, but Allah himself covers up the sins of mankind. He does this with only one condition: that they do certain deeds. The basis for this Qur'anic understanding of salvation is summarised in Sura Al Imran 3:195: "I waste not the labour of any that labours among you, be you male or female..." The deeds, in that they are kept by Allah, are basic, the good as well as the bad ones: the good deeds as the means for carrying out the atonement and the bad deeds as a basis for the necessity of the atoning good deeds.
From the biblical point of view, neither the good nor the bad deeds have the power to expose the deadly truth of sin. On the contrary, setting up the good and bad deeds as the basis for the Islamic salvation theology masks not only the reality of sin but also the victory of Christ over sin through his atoning death and his justifying resurrection (Romans 4:25). Only through the substitutionary death of the blood sacrifice can the full meaning of sin and its destructive power be revealed, and in atonement it is revealed as a defeated power.
After we have understood this basic difference between the Qur'anic
and the Biblical understanding of atonement, we need not wonder that the
Qur'an denies the most important atoning event of the Bible, namely
Christ's death on the cross for our sins. This death was and remains a
stumbling block not only for the Jews and Greeks, but also for the
Muslims - except when the Holy Spirit creates faith in the crucified
Saviour in them and allows this faith to grow.