There are some principles common to both Christianity and Islam, but vicarious atonement is not one of them. In Christianity, Prophet Jesus, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, was supposedly crucified as punishment for the sins of all mankind. He took all our punishment, so now all we have to do is believe in him and we’re automatically saved because he went through living hell for us. That’s called vicarious atonement.
In Islam there is no vicarious atonement. No one died or was tortured on a cross to apologize for your sins, so you have to apologize yourself. Apologizing is easy though, because Allah is Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, Kinder and More Generous than you could even imagine, and way more Forgiving than any of us would ever deserve. Allah forgives everything, right? Right, but wait, there’s a catch.
You can’t just lay down at night without praying Isha and just think, ‘Oh it’s ok if I miss Isha, Allah forgives everything’. It doesn’t work that way. Allah CAN forgive all sins, but that doesn’t mean he WILL, especially if you don’t even ask, especially if you’re not even sorry for what you’re doing when you know it’s wrong. Sinning and then brushing it off by saying that Allah forgives everything is not actually being repentant, it’s being opportunistic, it’s called trying to find loopholes. Real forgiveness is called Taubah, and there are four basic steps to it according unanimously to Muslim scholars and simple logic:
STEP 1: STOP THE SIN. Obviously you can’t repent of something when you’re still doing it, that’s the equivalent of punching someone in the eye repeatedly and apologizing at the same time. You have to try to stop doing whatever wrong it is you’re doing first.
STEP 2: FEEL BAD. Feeling bad implies you understand what you were doing was probably wrong, ungrateful, and un-Islamic. If you do step one and stop sinning without ever feeling Islamically bad about what you were doing, then chances are you quit for some other reason. It’s like not wearing tight clothes anymore only because you gained weight, or not dating because no one has asked you out. If you didn’t quit for the sake of your religion or to please Allah, how can that be counted as repentance?
STEP 3: RESOLVE NOT TO REPEAT IT. You can’t just quit sinning…in between sins… the same way you can’t just quit smoking in between cigarettes. If you realize that you’ve made a mistake, and you sincerely want forgiveness for it, then you have no problem with stopping the sin, at least in theory. Though in practice you may relapse back into sin out of weakness, but this is not the same as saying sorry when you don’t mean it.
The difference between the two is of a person who is having a hard time to quit smoking, and a person who says they’re quitting but makes not attempt to even try. The first person is weak but sincere, and because his intentions are good he will be rewarded according to his good intentions. The second person is not suffering from weakness, but from insincerity. His intentions were never to repent, and for that he can never get the blessings for trying, nor the forgiveness.
STEP 4: MAKE UP FOR IT. The last step is the hardest one of all. If you sinned against someone, you have to apologize or do something to make up for it. If you stole, you have to pay what you owe or return what you stole. If you missed prayers, you have to make them up as well. If you don’t try to make up for the wrongs you’ve done, then you’re just repenting so long as it doesn’t cause you any trouble, and that doesn’t sound too sincere, does it?
Some people might think of this last step as a form of punishment for the sin you’ve committed, but in actuality, this last step is a major blessing. It’s the opportunity to make up for what you did so wholly and so completely that no one can hold anything against you. It’s like getting a do-over on a test that you’ve already failed once. It’s the opportunity to turn in homework after the deadline. It’s true that the test may still be hard and the homework may still take some work, but at least you get the opportunity to do it over.
Imagine what things would be like if you didn’t have the opportunity to do things over. For example, say you missed a quiz because you slept in, the same way we sometimes we miss Fajr. The zero on that quiz would count heavily against your grade at the end of the year, and there would be absolutely nothing you could do about it, no matter how hard you worked on the other things, no matter how many 100’s you got on the other quizzes, the zero would damage your average in a way that could never be fixed. That would stink. That would be unfair.
But Alhamdulillah, Allah is absolutely the Most Just, He’s the fairest grader of tests/reckoner of deeds you could ever wish for, and He knows that you’re sorry you missed the test/Fajr, so He’s giving you the opportunity to make up for it! Even if you knew you shouldn’t have been snoozing the last time you missed Fajr, Allah gives you your entire life to realize your error and make up for it completely. There is no statute of limitations on forgiveness. That’s good news for sinners, and since we’re all sinners, then we should all be thrilled to hear it.
BUT WHAT IF I HAVE TOO MANY SINS?
There’s no such thing as having too many sins, anyone who thinks that is underestimating Allah’s Infinite Mercy. Allah says in Hadith Qudsi number 34 of 40 Hadith Qudsi:
“…O Son of Adam! If your sins were to reach the limits of the sky, and then you seek My forgiveness, I shall forgive you, and I shall not mind. O Son of Adam! If you will bring sins equal in volume to the earth and then you meet Me (on the day of Judgment) in the state that you would not have suggested partners unto Me, I shall give you in return forgiveness equal to the volume of the earth.”
Remember, forgiveness is conditional, in order to be forgiven you have to repent and do Taubah, and not have committed Shirk. Shirk is the sin of worshipping anything other than Allah or associating anything with Him. You can’t apologize to a different god and hope it works on all of them can you?
BUT WHAT IF THEY’RE JUST LITTLE-BITTY SINS…
Said Anas, may Allah be pleased with him (to one of the followers): “You imagine certain sins to be more insignificant than a straw. But, at the time of the Prophet we used to count them among those that can destroy a man.” -Sahih Bukhari
Ibn Mas’ud, a companion of the Prophet said: “A believer treats a sin as if it is a mountain over his head that may fall on him any moment. Whereas a regular violator looks at them as a fly that perched on his nose and he waved it away with his hand.” -Sahih Bukhari
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him said: “Beware of the minor sins. For the example of the minor sins is like that of a group of travelers who broke their journey in a valley. Then one of them brought in a straw (to burn for a camp-fire). Another came up with another (and a third with one more) until with their collection they were able to gather enough to cook their food. Remember! If a man is held for questioning (on the day of Judgment) for his minor sins, surely they will destroy him.” In another version he is reported to have said: “Beware of minor sins. For they add on until they destroy the man.”
(drop by drop fills the bucket, straw by straw builds a fire, sin by sin…)