Translations from Ibn Al-Qayyim’s Madarij Al-Salikin (Steps of the Seekers) | Rulings Regarding Repentance (2)

Rulings regarding Repentance (2)

Repenting and Sinning Again

As it has been established that repentance is incumbent upon all believers and lovers of Allah, it is not becoming of a servant to be ignorant of its rulings in Islam.

Delaying Repentance is Itself a Sin

From among the rulings, one is that repentance from a sin is an immediate obligation. This means that delaying repentance is itself an act of sin and disobedience, which in turn means that if one delays repentance from a particular sin, he or she owes an apology and repentance for the delay.

This fact hardly comes to the mind of people, who mistakenly think that if one repents from a sin, there is nothing against him whatsoever any longer. Nothing releases one from this obligation except a general repentance: which is repentance from what one knows and from what one does not. In fact, what a servant does not know of his sins is often much more than what one does. But his ignorance of his sins will not release him if he has had the capability of knowing. Such a person becomes doubly responsible for failing in both knowledge and deeds.

In Sahih Ibn Hibban, it says that the Prophet said,

Association of another with Allah (shirk) in this Ummah is more elusive (hidden) than the steps of an ant. Abu Bakr then asked, “How to get rid of it, O Messenger of Allah?” “That you say,” said the Prophet, “O Allah, I seek refuge in you from associating with you what I know, and seek forgiveness for that which I do not know.” (Ranked as Hassan, Al-Adab Al-Mufrad)

Thus, this hadith shows us the way to seek repentance from that which Allah knows but we do not.

It has also been reported that the Prophet used to say in his prayers,

O Allah, forgive my errors and my ignorance, and my transgression in my affairs, and what you know of me better than I do. O Allah, forgive what I have committed in seriousness or in recklessness, by mistake or by intention—and I have all of that. O Allah forgive what I did in the past and what I may commit in the future, and what I did in public and what I did in secrecy, and what you know of better than I do. You are my God; there is no god but You. (Bukhari, Muslim)

In another hadith:

O Allah, forgive all my sins, small and big, those by error and those by intention, those in public and those in secret, the first and the last. (Muslim)

What If One Returns to the Sin after Repentance?

From among the juridical issues concerning repentance, one is whether its soundness is conditioned by his avoiding the sin in future, or is that not a condition?

Some people consider the future avoidance of the sin a condition for the completion of repentance, saying that if one commits the sin again, then his repentance must have been defective. The majority, however, does not consider that a condition, stipulating that the soundness and acceptance of repentance depends upon regret and grief for the sin and a determination not to return to it. So if he returns to it, while having promised himself not ever to return to it, then one becomes like someone doing the sin for the first time, and his first sincere repentance is not erased.

A further issue derived from the aforementioned is that if one returns to the original sin after repentance, does he incur the guilt of the original sin again as well as that of its repetition on the second time, if he died unrepentant? Or, is he in this case responsible only for the second time for which he has not repented? In this issue too, there are two opinions:

OPINION 1: True Repentance Requires Never Returning to the Sin

One stance is that one does indeed incur the sin of the first time, because those proponents argue that repentance from a sin is like embracing Islam from a state of disbelief: If one returns to disbelief and abandons Islam, his original sins before Islam all come back to him, as is known in a sound hadith from the Prophet,

Whoever does well in Islam is not taken to account for what he did in the Jahiliyah (pre-Islamic ignorance), while whosoever sins in Islam, he is taken into account for the earlier as well as the later sins. (Bukhari, Muslim)

If it is the case for one who became a Muslim and then did misdeeds that he will still be responsible for his pre-Islamic sins, and that his embracing of Islam does not categorically obliterate his earlier sins, then such is also the case regarding repentance. Therefore the proponents of Option 1 conclude that acceptance and soundness of repentance is conditioned on fulfilling its due observance in the future, just like soundness of faith in Islam is conditioned on fulfilling its due observance.

They also say that repentance is incumbent throughout life, to the very end, and it is like avoiding eating during fasting: If you break the fast before its time, even by a few minutes, all your day’s abstinence is null and void.

Another evidence they use to support their argument is the following hadith,

A servant does the deeds of the people of Paradise until there remains between him and it an arm’s length, then his destiny interferes and he does the deeds of the people of Hell and enters it. (Bukhari and Muslim)

This does not say that the person abandons his faith, but that generally he commits a grave sin that leads him to enter into the Fire. Another narration (weak) says,

A servant acts obediently for sixty years, but near his death he is iniquitous in his will (inheritance) and consequently enters the Fire. (Abu Dawud).

[Here Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim goes on to present and refute this argument in further detail, arguing that the aforementioned hadith may be explained by saying that a grave sin that one might commit may be so serious as to nullify all the good deeds, causing the person to enter the Hellfire. -tr.]

Those who support this argument deny that a bad deed can nullify a good deed, but they do so on weak grounds. There is plenty of evidence that good and bad deeds will be compared and some grave sins may indeed wipe out the good ones.

And the weighing [of deeds on] that Day will be true. Thus those whose balances are heavy [with good works]—then it is these who are the [truly] successful. But those whose balances are light [—whose sins thus prevail—] then it is these who shall have [utterly] lost their souls, for they were ever transgressing Our [revealed] signs. [Surat Al-A’raf, 7:8-9]

This wiping out of good deeds is called ihbat.

[For the sake of brevity, the details of the argument are being omitted here—tr.]

OPINION 2: Sincere Repentance Wipes Out the Sin Forever

This group contends that the sin for which one has sincerely repented does not come back to one’s account even if he returns to the sin after repentance, because a sincere repentance completely and irrevocably wipes out the sin, as if one had never committed it.

Hence in order for repentance to be sound and acceptable, it is not required that in the future one never returns to it up until the time of one’s death. (If one does commit the sin again, he or she must repent for that sin again.) This second group maintains that the essence of sincere repentance is regret and grief at having sinned, and true determination to never come back to it.

As to the argument about embracing Islam from kufr (rejection and disbelief) and then returning to it, this group responds by arguing that returning to a sin is not like returning to kufr, for kufr is a matter of totally different magnitude which by its nature nullifies all the good deeds and brings back all the bad ones. Thus, such a comparison is not valid.

The proponents of Option 2 further maintain that repentance is from among the greatest of good deeds, and if one said that a sin could nullify this great deed of repentance, then one could project that one sin can nullify all other good deeds as well, and this is not acceptable at all. In fact such an argument resembles that of the Khawarij (the extremists who consider sinning to be equivalent to disbelief) and the Rationalists (Mutazilites—which means separatists) who say that committing major sins leads to an eternal abode in Hellfire. So the Khawarij consider those who commit major sins kafir, while the rationalists call them fasiq, both asserting that they will stay forever in Hellfire (regardless of their good deeds), which is a claim against Islam, against both reason and clear texts,

Allah does not commit injustice equal to an atom’s weight, and if there be a good deed He multiplies it and gives from Himself a great reward. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:40]

They also present a hadith reported by Imam Ahmed,

Allah loves a servant who commits sins and seeks forgiveness repeatedly. (a very weak hadith)

They say that Allah qualified acceptance of repentance with seeking forgiveness and the absence of al-israr (insistence):

And those who if they commit a shameful deed or wrong themselves, they remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins: And who forgives sins but Allah? And they do not insist upon what they have done, having done it deliberately. [Surat Al Imran, 3:135]

Al-israr (insistence) means the heart’s inclination to commit the sin again whenever it gets the opportunity to do it.

True, sustained repentance is indeed a requirement for its perfection and full benefit, but not a requirement for the soundness of the repentance that had been sincerely completed in the past. As for the other group’s argument about continuation of an action, like avoidance of eating while fasting till the end, this is incorrect because fasting and other such deeds are one indivisible unit and they are not completed if interrupted. Repentance, on the other hand, is a continual act that one does for every sin and shortcoming, and failing to repent for one sin does not mean abolition of all other acts of repentance.

The second group also says that their stance is in keeping with the principles of Ahl Al-Sunnah, who agree that one person may be a friend of Allah in one aspect and His enemy in another, and beloved by Allah in one aspect and disliked by Him in another. One person can have aspects of faith and hypocrisy, and even of faith and disbelief—and he may be closer to one of these than the other; all these are possibilities,

They were that day closer to kufr than to iman. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:167]

Also,

And they do not believe in Allah except that they are also (at the same time) associationists. [Surat Yusuf, 12:106]

(Ibn Al-Qayyim now concludes that the second position is correct):

It has been established that one returning to a sin after sincere repentance deserves Allah’s reproach in this aspect while Allah still loves him for other aspects and deeds he has done. For every action, there is a just and apt reward by Allah, who does not wrong even as much as an atom’s weight.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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1 Comment

  • I believe Ibn Qayyim’s position is the most sound regarding repentance.

    Great article and I have benefited alot throughout the the journey of steps of the seekers

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