Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
That was a nation which has passed. Theirs is what they earned, and yours is what you earn. You will not be called to account for what they used to do. (Chapter 2:Verse 134)
In the previous verse, we talked about how Abraham (peace be upon him) passed the worship and devotion of the One God to his children and grandchildren. In this verse, God is informing us that the time of that nation has passed, and it is different from the time that you and I live in.
Take note that the phrase ‘That was a nation’ suggests that they were united by certain qualities. When Allah refers to a group as a nation, He is referring to the unity of their faith. Even people who are separated by vast time and geography become one nation through the unity of faith. Listen to the following verse where God addresses all the Muslims as one unit:
Indeed this nation of yours is one nation, and I am your Lord. So worship Me. (21:92)
Similarly, in the verse under study, ‘That was a nation’ points to the nation of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob. They belonged to diverse groups but all shared one faith in Allah. Here, we should pause and study the verse that says:
Indeed Abraham was a nation, obedient to Allah, inclined, and he was not one of the polytheists. (16:120)
Abraham was an individual, but God referred to him as a nation....How could this be? We answer: Yes Abraham is one person, but he embodied the righteous traits and perfected the wisdom and faith that can only be found in an entire nation.
God describes the nation as one 'which has passed. Theirs is what they earned, and yours is what you earn.’ Because God wants you to avoid falling into the trap of tracing your ancestry to Abraham or other prophets; always remember that the linage of Prophets is obtained -not through birth and bloodline- rather it is obtained through adhering to faith and scripture. Likewise, God is informing the children of Israel that being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will not benefit them in anyway unless they adhere to their teachings. Lineage will not avail you on the Day of Judgment because every person is judged by his or her deeds. God says: ‘Theirs is what they earned, and yours is what you earn.'
Some people try to plant doubt about the Quran by pointing to a verse suggesting that God will judge us based on lineage. God says:
The faithful and their descendants who followed them in faith —We will make their descendants join them, and We will not stint anything from their deeds. Every man is a held by what he has earned. (52:21)
The phrase 'We will make their descendants join them,' suggests that parents and their children will be joined in paradise. In other words, children may be raised in paradise to a level -not warranted by their deeds- in order to be with their parents. How can this be? We answer that the key is mentioned at the beginning of the verse when God said that ’their descendants who followed them in faith' indicating that both children and parents had to be believers. If the parents were believers, and their children were believers too -though have lesser deeds than the parents- then God the all Merciful would grant the children a higher degree in heaven out of honour to their believing parents. In other words, if the parents and their children were believers, but the parents implemented God’s commandments whole heartedly, while the children lacked in devotion, God would elevate the status of the children so the parents would enjoy their company in paradise. Note that the disbelieving children were not mentioned at all because those with no faith lose all relations to their family.
Some people argue that elevating the believing children to the status of their more righteous parents contradicts statements in the Quran such as: Every man is a held by what he has earned. and man has only that for which he laboured for. In essence, they are saying that these children are getting a free-ride and earning more than their deeds allow. We answer that verses such as ' Every man is a held by what he has earned' define God's justice, but they do not account for God’s blessings and favours. Allah will treat each person justly, and then He will bless whoever He wills and grants favours without limit. Joining the believing children with their parents and granting them a lofty status is an honour to the parents, and not an increase in the deeds of the children. God says:
Say ‘In God’s favour and mercy let them rejoice: these are better than all they accumulate.’ (10:58)
Hence, your true happiness in the hereafter comes from God’s blessing and mercy upon you rather than your own righteous deeds. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Follow the Right Path, be good to those around you, and be steadfast; but keep in mind that none of you can achieve salvation through his or her own good actions alone.'' Someone asked, "Not even you, Messenger of Allah?'' He said, "Not even me, unless God showers me with Mercy and Grace."
Let's look at another related issue. Some people question the value of funeral prayer for the dead. They claim that: if the deeds of a person end at the moment of death, then what’s the point behind the funeral prayer for them? We answer that as long as God had commanded us of such a prayer, then there must be a reason and a great benefit behind it. Isn't prayer for the dead person part of his or her own deeds? It is this person's faith that causes you to stand in prayer during their funeral. You take the time, and put in the effort of prayer because this person was a good influence in your life. You would not pray over someone who harmed you or spread corruption in your community.