Peace, one and all…
As someone who became a Muslim in later life, I’ve always believed Islam’s emphasis on personal moral responsibility to be one of its most profound (and liberating) concepts. The Quran is unequivocal in its vision of moral responsibility and accountability.
As such, the Quran says the following:
‘And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And if a heavily laden soul calls [another] to [carry some of] its load, nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be a close relative. You can only warn those who fear their Lord unseen and have established prayer. And whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for [the benefit of] his soul. And to God is the [final] destination’ (Surah Fatir 35:18)
And elsewhere, we read:
‘God does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned’ (Surah al-Baqarah 2:286)
I find this teaching profound for several reasons. Firstly, I started this life with a clean slate. That is, the concept of original sin is argued against most firmly within the Islamic tradition. Although I am human and have indeed made mistakes (and God’s forgiveness is to be sought), I began my life on earth in innocence.
Secondly, although custom, culture and tradition are valued in Islam (insofar as they do not contradict essential truths), I am not a mere prisoner of such things. I have the ability to go beyond the limitations of my surroundings. I am more than the clothes I wear. I am more than a mere gendered thing. I am more than the colour of my skin, and the historical entanglements of the culture and race into which I was born.
Thirdly, this beautiful concept reminds me of God’s deep justice. I will be judged purely for my own sins, and not for the sins of others. Of course, this is hard enough (and may God have mercy on each and every one of us). But, and this is important, personal accountability is set as the cornerstone of growth.
Hidden within all this is a secret truth. As a human being, I must let go of all that I have not done. So many of us travel through this world in sorrow because they have not made the distinction between themselves and the actions of their parents. The limitations of our parents have a deep impact on our lives, but the matter does not rest there. The task of life is to come to God with a ‘sound heart’ (qalbun salim) and the process of making our hearts sound involves moving beyond the circumstances we initially find ourselves in.
We cannot bear the burdens of others, but we can help them to shoulder their own burdens. This is the way of the Prophets, the righteous and the Friends of God. Blessed indeed are all who tread this path.