Dr Shadee Elmasry writes on the concepts of sin, forgiveness, and repentance in Islam, and how they form a part of our daily lives.
A lot of times people entertain doubts and even disbelief because of some wrong they did and because they can’t live with themselves having done it. Maybe they’re now mired in an addiction. Their conscience won’t let them sleep at night.
To escape this misery, they search for a way to change the rules of the game. “Well, who said this or that is haram anyway?” And that’s where whim and doubt start taking over.
The reality however, is that none of that is really necessary. Islam’s doctrine on sin is so different from anything the Western world has known that it’s actually refreshing.
When in Doubt, Check the Manual
Before I explain, let me take you back to the 1990’s. Roller blades came out then. And I remember that when you bought a pair there was a little instruction manual with illustrations of how to fall. Not how to skate. How to fall. Think about that.
On blades you’re only three or four inches off the ground, but if you fall at those speeds and try to land on your wrists, you’re done. Wrist injuries suddenly became common occurrences back then. And they were gruesome. You have to fall on your shoulder ideally or at least your fore-arm.
So likewise in today’s world, every Muslim has to learn how to fall. “What should I be thinking after falling into a gruesome act of disobedience?” It’s even more important than learning how to advance. That’s because a sin can dig so deep into your psyche it’ll make you go crazy and one can even lose their iman. That’s Shaytan’s real goal.
Islam’s Doctrine of Sin
As for Islam’s “Doctrine of Sin” it begins firstly with something I don’t think exists in any other religion. That is, to commit sins is built into our system as human beings, and to get forgiven is one of the purposes of our creation:
By the One who controls my soul, if you did not sin, Allah I would have done away with you and brought a creation that sinned, so they could repent and He could forgive them.
This is in Sahih Muslim, the second most reliable canonical source in Islam after Sahih Bukhari. Not even second, it’s more like 1a and 1b. The scholars say, from the Divine attributes is The Forgiver, The Patient, The Merciful, and thus in the creation there will manifest those to whom these attributes can apply.
Secondly, moral failings are considered in Islam to be the beginning of advancement in a way: “Verily the believers, if they are touched by a demon, they remember, and lo, they quickly become more insightful” (Sura al A‘raf 7:201). Like all advancements, spiritual advancement is born out of a failing of some sort, which makes us dig deep and search for ways to avoid it or wash it away.
Allah’s View of Repentance
In light of this, the forgiveness of a moral failing is actually an easy thing. “Don’t they know that Allah accepts repentance from His slaves.” (Sura al Tawba 9:104) It is a general and absolute statement. Tawba has four parts:
- 1. Admission of wrong.
- 2. Uttering any expression of repentance (astaghfirullah)
- 3. Committing never to do it again.
- 4. Regretting having done it.
If it’s truly in the heart, then it’s that simple.
Can One Forgive Again and Again?
Ok, I can understand easy forgiveness once, but what if it happens again? And again. And again. If it was your child you would say, Ok there’s either something wrong with you or you have no respect for me. Either way, I have to start treating you differently now. But Allah does not do this with us. “The one who repents is never considered persistently sinful, even if he repeats it seventy times a day.” (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Tabarani)
Given this, we as parents should be very patient with our kids, as Allah is patient with us, when our kids repeat the same mistake over and over even though, “I told you a thousand times!” In another hadith Allah says: “Son of Adam, if your sins were to reach the height of the skies, but you sought My forgiveness, I would forgive you with ease.” (Tirmidhi)
The best indicator of sincerity in repentance is charity. And by the way, giving someone your time, or being in a good mood with people are also forms of charity in case you don’t have much money.
What About the Victims of One’s Sins?
Here’s the real bad part: If your sins have victims. Oh that’s deadly. A scholar of Bani Isra‘il used to give rulings for the elite all the time and reap the benefits of being their scholar. In old age he wanted to repent. Allah told the prophet of that time: “I will readily forgive him, but what about all the people he led astray?”
If your sins are victimless, you’re very fortunate. If not, you have your work cut out for you. If you cannot ever make it up in this life, then pray Allah covers your back in the Afterlife with large payouts to your victims in exchange for their pardoning you.
And the Blackening of the Heart?
3. The last point is between the two, neither very easy nor very hard. It’s the effect of the sin. Sins black out the heart like smoke. Akin to how nicotine totally brutalizes the pure pink tissue of the lungs. Those ashes have to be washed away. The effect of sins make a person miserable and shuts out their inner eye from seeing the truth clearly. It’s cleaned away easily though, but takes time and effort. It is a lot of dhikr and ibada. We should be listening to Qur’an all the time.
This is why I think public dhikr is important. Most people are lazy to sit and do dhikr, or they don’t know how. But public dhikr is easy. You sit and read what the people are reading, and make dua as the people make dua. Dhikr is nur and it will enter your heart and clean out all that gunk. But you need alot of it to take effect.
Gatherings of washing away our sins should be a norm that occurs on a routine basis in our homes and masajid. Our hearts thus become like rivers, the faster the water keeps moving, the harder it is to stain. But if there’s no movement at all, it becomes stagnant and collects rot.
Sin, Forgiveness, and Repentance
The doctrines of sins, forgiveness and the understanding of the effect of sins and how to wipe it away is so important to us. This is life for all of us on a daily basis. It’s Lesson #1 in spirituality, and I hope you as readers pass this on and give the downtrodden hope and motivation.
May Allah accept from us, forgive us and make our wrongs a way for us to be stronger. Ameen.
Dr Shadee Elmasry was born and raised in New Jersey. He began studying at the age of eighteen, traveling to a number of countries including Egypt, KSA, Yemen and Morocco.
In addition to traditional learning, Dr Elmasry has received has an MA from The George Washington University and a PhD from the University of London SOAS.
Dr Elmasry went on to teach at several universities including Yale University, University of London SOAS, Trinity College, Hartford Seminary, and Manhattanville College.
Currently, he serves as Scholar in Residence at the New Brunswick Islamic Center in New Jersey. He is also the founder and head of Safina Society — an institution dedicated to the cause of traditional Islamic education in the West.
His courses can be found at Safina-Online.Teachable.com.