Every Muslim lives with the knowledge that according to Islamic teaching all of their deeds and intentions are being recorded. At the judgment, the report of the two recording angels will influence where eternity will be spent. The perennial question always remains, “Was it good enough?”
In this article, I hope to sketch out the idea of a balance in Islam which compares the weight of good and bad deeds. This balance, along with the reports of two recording angels, is something that gives a Muslim person hope that they have done enough to merit entrance into Paradise.
The idea of a balance is not unique to Islam and so I will examine its existence in Egyptian preparations for the afterlife. Then we will ask the question that plays in the subconscious of every person, and in this case, every Muslim, “What is good enough to encounter a holy God?”
The balance in Islam
A number of qur’anic verses make mention of a balance which records the weightiness of good deeds as compared to bad ones. For example,
And the measuring out on that day will be just; then as for him whose measure (of good deeds) is heavy, those are they who shall be successful. And as for him whose measure (of good deeds) is light, those are they who have made their souls suffer loss because they disbelieved in Our communications. (Q 7:8-9)
And We will set up a just balance on the day of resurrection, so no soul shall be dealt with unjustly in the least; and though there be the weight of a grain of mustard seed, (yet) will We bring it, and sufficient are We to take account. (Q 21:47)
Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they are successful. But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls, in Hell will they abide. (Q 23:102-103).
The word ‘balance’ or scale is a translation from the Arabic word mizan [used 16x in the Qur’an] which is related to the verb for weight or weigh scale. Thus we can picture the common picture of the scales of justice and the indicator showing which side is heavier.
What we see in the verses above is that Islamic 'salvation', or entry into Paradise or a state of success, as opposed to entry into Hell is dependent on the weightiness of good deeds—measured in Islamic terms. These verses also compare and contrast those who are “successful” and those who “suffer loss” as another way of saying that those who will enter Paradise are said to be the successful ones. In verse 1 of Surah 23, Muslim believers are said to be the “successful ones” and elsewhere, those who are not Muslims are said to be losers. In Surah 23:102-3, however, the comparison is between Muslims whose good deeds are weighty enough and those whose are not.
The Islamic commentator, Ibn Abbas renders Surah 23:102-103 as “Then those whose scales are heavy with good works, (they are the successful) the ones who will escape Allah's wrath and chastisement” and Ibn Kathir comments, referring to 23:47 that even if the good deeds outweigh the bad by one unit only, that will be sufficient.
Recording the good and evil deeds
Every Muslim is aware that there are two recording angels also known as “illustrious writers” [Arabic: kiramun katibun] with the names Raqib and Atid (see Q 50:16-18 and 82:10-12).
The angel on the right-hand side of a person records good intentions and good deeds and the one on the left records wrongdoings. Of course, a question arises as to what constitutes right or wrong, but we will leave that for later. Islamic sources suggest that the angel on the left does not write the bad deed down right away, just in case the person recants from having done it.
When Muslims die, they will face two further angels named Munkar and Nakir, known as The Denied and The Denier. These angels will interrogate them and ask the questions “Who is your Lord? What is your religion? What is your faith about this person (Muhammad)?" Correct answers will ensure passage to paradise and incorrect ones will ensure torment in the grave.
Thus, we see from Islamic awareness of these two sets of angels that one must not only do good deeds and receive a good recommendation from the recording angels, but they must also receive a good recommendation for having their Islamic beliefs in line.
Practical application of this balance
When I asked a Muslim man when he would know if his good deeds outweighed the bad, he said that it was impossible to know, but he could only be hopeful that those items that were especially meritorious might be enough. It is of note that there is a Facebook post by an Islamic author, that lists 10 “easy deeds” that are “heavy on the balance on the day of judgement.”
One also sees this dynamic of attempting to increase the weight of good deeds by one of our neighbors who had gone on pilgrimage twice to Mecca, as he said that as much as he would reap a huge amount of merit from the first time, the second time was like an extra insurance policy. He too, however, was unsure if it was good enough.
Islam promises that the following deeds will be useful to gain entry into Paradise, as the Shia Muslim Imam Ja’far Sadiq suggests,
“One who meets the Almighty Allah with the following ten things would be admitted to Paradise: Testimony of ‘there is no god but Allah,’; testimony that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; confession of all that has come from the Almighty Allah; establishing of prayer; paying of Zakat; fasting in the month of Ramadhan; Hajj of the Holy Kaaba; acceptance of the guardianship (Wilayat) of the holy personalities (Awliya) of Allah; immunity from enemies of Allah and refraining from alcohol.”
Although Sadiq does not use the language of weights, he implies that concept, as each of these actions or dispositions are said to guarantee entry to paradise. Two fundamental questions remain: who is the guarantor that these are sufficient? and did Sadiq make them up? Likely, he assembled these promises, but again, who is the guarantor?
A further complication is the fact that the idea of a scale or balance is not original to Islam, and this raises the question as to whether this idea was borrowed from Egyptian writings.
The scale in the Egyptian afterlife
In the age of the Pharaohs, every Egyptian was keenly aware that when they would die, their heart would be placed on a scale. The Book of the Dead describes how the deceased would enter a judgment hall and see their heart being balanced against the feather of truth. If the heart was heavy due to lies or corruption this would send the person to an equivalent of hell, and the heart was lighter than the feather, then the person would on their first steps to Paradise.
John Currid, an Egyptologist, notes that when the book of Exodus describes Pharaoh as having a “hard heart” it implied that it had the weight of a stone and he would not enter Paradise.
Just as we would see later in Islam, Egyptians lived with a fear of the afterlife and made every provision to make sure that the balance would be in their favor.
The conundrum of the balance: What is enough?
As we have observed, Egyptian and Islamic writings describe the idea of a balance. What is common to both of them is the fact that passing the scales of judgment is dependent on the actions or beliefs of the person. In each case, the person lives with a degree of uncertainty as to whether they have done enough, believed enough, or avoided enough. It appears that in both cases, there is an underlying question as to whether a person will measure up to the demands of the gods, or of Allah. There is an element of truth in this thought as in the Bible we know that every human has the voice of conscience, and has a sense of the divine, and also that they fall short.
In the book of Daniel, there is an account of handwriting on a wall at the occasion of King Belshazzar's feast (Daniel 5). When Daniel was asked to interpret the words “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” (v. 25) he used the word picture of a balance to incriminate the King and the Chaldeans. The word ‘tekel’ was translated as, “you have been weighed and found wanting.” Isn’t that the message that every human who depends on their own efforts will also have to face at the final judgment? Is there any hope?
Jesus: The answer to the balance
When Jesus, the perfect God-man was about to die, he made a guarantee to one of the thieves on the cross, namely “Truly I say to you, [=I give you this guarantee] today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Because Jesus lived a perfect life of obedience, he met all of God’s requirements and, when he breathed his last he stated, “It is finished/ completed” (John 19:30).
Whereas Pharaonic Egyptians and Muslims live with the great ‘maybe’ those who place their trust in the finished work of Jesus, have great assurance that all of the unchanging requirements of a completely holy God will be met. They do not live with the fear of not being good enough but place their trust in the fact that Jesus was good enough.
What or who is good enough? This is the basis of this article, and it is a question with eternal consequences. These eternal consequences are highlighted by ancient Egyptian and Islamic writings, yet their promises fall far short, as neither can provide a perfect guarantor. All of the religiosity in both systems is ultimately an exercise in futility, and this should give us great concern for our Muslim neighbors.