Citation for Sin

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MLA

Mir, Mustansir . "Sin." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e0742>.

Chicago

Mir, Mustansir . "Sin." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e0742 (accessed May 20, 2022).

Sin

In the Qurʿān several words are used for sin, a breach of the laws and norms laid down by a religion, including dhanb, ithm, khaṭīʿah, and sayyiʿah. A sin may be one of omission or commission; technically, any violation of a religious law or ethical norm would be a sin, but the sin for which one will be held accountable is, as a rule, the one intentionally committed.

If sin is violation, the question arises whether all sins are alike or whether it is possible to grade them. The question is more complex than it appears. The Qurʿān clearly speaks of two types of sins, major and minor. Sūrah4:31 says, “If, of the things that have been forbidden to you, you stay away from the major ones [i.e., major sins], We shall forgive you your [minor] sins.” In sūrah53:31–32, likewise, hope of salvation is held out to those who avoid major sins, though they may have committed minor sins (see also 42:37). In a ḥadīthMuḥammad says that the five prayers, two Friday prayers, and two months of Ramaḍān wipe off the sins committed during the intervening periods—that is, sins committed after one prayer are wiped off by the next prayer, and so on. A principal issue arising from this distinction is that of the objectivity of sin: what makes a sin major or minor? The Qurʿān does provide some help in answering this question by labeling certain acts as major sins. Thus setting up peers to God (shirk) is the most heinous sin in Islam, the Qurʿān categorically stating that one who commits this sin shall not be forgiven (5:72). Murder and illicit sex are also regarded as major sins (25:69, 5:32). The sunnah of the Prophet, embodied in ḥadīth, elaborates the subject.

In spite of the help they furnish in identifying a number of major sins, and in spite of the many general warnings they contain against sinful behavior, the Qurʿān and the sunnah appear reluctant to identify minor sins. A little reflection suggests why this is so. A religion that attaches great importance to intention as an imbuer and determinant of moral value cannot look with favor on an overly formal or mechanical view of sin. For example, kufr (unbelief) is one of the most severely castigated qualities in the Qurʿān, and yet expression of unbelief is allowed to a believer under duress (16:106). Formal similarity of two acts thus may not represent substantive similarity. A related point is that labeling sins as minor might create a tolerance for or even crass indifference toward them. It is probably for this reason that comprehensive lists of major and minor sins are not provided. The absence of such listings might, however, lead one to categorize as major sins what common sense might designate as minor and vice versa. Such a tendency is found, for example, in Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Dhahabī'sKitāb al-kabāʿir, where no fewer than seventy sins are identified as major.

The Qurʿān does not take a static view of sin; like other moral categories, sin can grow and diminish. According to a well-known ḥadīth of the Prophet, when a man commits a sin, his heart is marked with a black spot. If he keeps committing sins, the heart is fully covered with such spots, so that he loses the capacity to do good: God seals off his heart, rendering him incapable of good acts. By contrast, good actions wash away sins (Qurʿān 11:111).

The notion of inherited sin is foreign to Islam. The Qurʿānic story of Adam, which differs from the Biblical account in several important respects, is crucial to understanding the Islamic view. According to the story, Adam, forbidden to eat of the fruit of a certain tree in Eden, succumbed to the suggestions of Iblīs (an evil spirit) and ate of the fruit; Eve too ate of it. Realizing their mistake, the two sought forgiveness, were forgiven by God, and then were sent to earth with a clean slate. Since Adam and Eve, as the first parents, represent humanity, the Qurʿānic story has several implications: first, human beings are vulnerable to sin and suggestions of sin; second, they have enough moral sense to distinguish between good and sinful acts, and, having committed a sin, to feel remorse and seek to make atonement; third, forgiveness of sins by God is direct and not vicarious; and finally, there is no such thing as original sin.

Although Islam does not accept the notion of original sin, it does not deny that humans are vulnerable to sin. This is understandable because, in Islamic teaching, the purpose of the creation of humans is to put them to the test, to see whether they take the right or the wrong path—both of which have been shown to them. One of the qualities enabling humans to tell the right from the wrong path is the inner light that may be called conscience, which God has implanted in every human being, and which, like a sensor, gives appropriate signals when man sets out on the right or wrong path; sūrah75:2 calls it al-nafs al-lawwāmah, the “blaming self.” When one repents after committing a sin, God responds by forgiving the sin; it is God alone who forgives (9:104, 42:25). A distinction, however, is made here between sins that constitute a violation of other human beings’ rights (ḥuqūq al-ʿibād) and sins that violate the rights of God (ḥuqūq Allāh); the former are forgiven on condition that the forgiveness of the wronged party is obtained first. Finally, since there is no original sin, it follows that neither Adam (or man) nor Eve (or woman) is the source of evil on earth.

But this raises another question about sin: what is the origin of sinful human behavior? Within the context of Qurʿānic thought, the only defensible answer would seem to be that sin, at least sin that calls for reprimand or punishment, arises from a willful misuse by humans of the freedom that has been accorded them.

A notable aspect of the Islamic notion of sin, and one that is based on some of the texts in the fundamental sources of Islam—Qurʿān and ḥadīth—but whose details were worked out later, has to do with the possibility of prophetic sin. Since a prophet brings the divine word, one has to assume, the argument goes, that the prophet must be under divine protection in his capacity as prophet, for otherwise how could the integrity of the divine word be guaranteed? At the same time, the prophets are human and therefore vulnerable to sin. Some Sunnī theologians solved this problem by drawing a distinction between a prophet's prophetic and personal capacities. As a mortal human, a prophet may make mistakes and commit lapses, but as a prophet, a carrier of the revelatory message, he is immune to all error—a view that came to be known as the doctrine of ʿiṣmah (protection from error, hence “infallibility” or “sinlessness”). A modern writer, Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979), in his commentary on the last two sūrahs of the Qurʿān, defends the notion of ʿiṣmah, arguing that neither physical injury (sustained by Muḥammad during the Battle of Uḥud, 625 CE) nor influence of magic (a magician is supposed to have cast a spell on Muḥammad) in any way affected Muḥammad's role and performance as prophet. In Shiism sinlessness is ascribed not only to prophets but also to the designated imams.

The essential Islamic statement of sin is found in the Qurʿān, which speaks of sin and its relationship to other moral categories. It is to be kept in mind that, from a philosophical point of view, the Islamic imperative to avoid sin is both religious and moral. On the one hand, it is grounded in the idea that God's commands are to be obeyed simply because they are the commands of a being who is omniscient and all-wise (2:216, 232; see also 4:11 where the legislation concerning distribution of inherited property is followed by the terse statement, “You do not know which one of them [inheritors] shall be of greater benefit to you,” implying that the divine legislation on this subject is wiser than any that can be devised by humans, who, swayed by emotion or prejudice in favor of one of the inheritors, might arrive at an unfair system of distribution). This is the religious aspect of the subject. On the other hand, the Qurʿān frequently emphasizes that God's commands are just and can be recognized as such by human reason, making an appeal to reason. This is the ethical aspect. Ideally, Islam would achieve a synthesis between the religious and the ethical, but in practice it is difficult to disentangle one strand from the other, and this difficulty led some early Muslim thinkers to take extreme positions.

The Qurʿān speaks of sin not only in the context of individual piety but also in the context of collective behavior and national conduct. Noah's people, we are told, were destroyed on account of their sins, and so were the peoples of Pharaoh, ʿĀd, Thamūd, and others. The Qurʿān alludes to Abraham's “debate” with God concerning the people of Lot (11:74). The conversation, which is reported in detail in the Bible, clearly implies that the people of Lot were destroyed because they had become thoroughly corrupt. The Qurʿānic view seems to be that, although individuals will be recompensed for their actions in the next world, nations are recompensed in this world, a sunnah (law) of God that shall not change (17:77, 33:62, 35:43, 48:23). The poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal says in a pungent verse that Fiṭrat (Nature; here, laws governing existence and survival; from Arabic fiṭrah) may forgive the sins of individuals but never forgives the sins committed by nations.

Like the Qurʿān, the ḥadīths take a religious-moral approach to sin in explicating the Qurʿānic doctrine. According to one ḥadīth, a person who repents of his sins becomes like one who has never committed any sins; another ḥadīth attributes the same efficacy to the pilgrimage (ḥajj). In one ḥadīth a man asks Muḥammad whether the door of repentance is open to one who has committed all kinds of sins—major and minor—and the Prophet responds that if he is a believer and performs good actions, avoiding evil actions, God will turn all his sins into good deeds (cf. Qurʿān 25:70). Still another ḥadīth, emphasizing the readiness of God to forgive a sinning person, says that when a person commits a sin, the recording angel waits for several hours before recording it; if the person repents in the meantime, the angel does not record it and the person will not be punished for it on the Last Day. Sometimes a ḥadīth glosses the Qurʿān. For example, the Qurʿān says that shirk is the most heinous sin. A ḥadīth says that hypocritical conduct that is meant to create an impression of piety (riyāʿ) is also shirk, though of a lesser grade (al-shirk al-aṣghar). To take another example, the Qurʿān says that he who kills a believer will never enter paradise (4:93); a ḥadīth lays down the same punishment for killing a member of a non-Muslim people with whom Muslims have entered into a pact (muʿāhad).

In theology, sin is discussed from the standpoint of whether a person who commits certain sins stands inside or outside the fold of the faith. Of relevance in this connection is the question of the relationship of faith and works, and an early discussion among Muslim theologians revolved around this topic. A certain group known as the Khawārij (those who “seceded” from the camp of the caliph ʿAlī during a war with Muʿāwiyah), maintained that one guilty of a major sin no longer remained a Muslim. The Murjiʿah, in opposition to this view, attached greater importance to faith.

In law, sin is dealt with from the point of view of religious qualification—to determine, for example, what sins disqualify their perpetrator as a witness in a court of law. A person who makes false accusations of unchastity against innocent women is declared an unreliable witness on the basis of a Qurʿānic injunction, and his testimony is never to be accepted (24:4).

In Sufism sin is discussed with reference to the quality of the interior life. The existence in humans of al-nafs al-ammārah (Qurʿān 12:54), the “bidding self” that incites one to commit evil, is not merely recognized; a systematic attempt is made to tame this self so that one can walk safely the path leading to spiritual perfection. The novice is asked to begin his spiritual journey by repenting, and he is advised to achieve through repentance a level of inner purification where even the thought of sin disappears.

In modern times, concern with political freedom and social justice has led a number of Muslim thinkers to declare z.ulm (injustice, oppression) to be a great wrong or sin that the masses must resist and defeat. The oneness of God, it is argued, entails the oneness of humanity. As Fazlur Rahman says, Islamic monotheism cannot be dissociated from Islamic social humanism. The inescapable conclusion is that monotheism would remain an empty concept if its implications were not realized through a program seeking to ensure social justice and welfare. Another conclusion that could be drawn is that people in general have a right, indeed an obligation, to resist tyranny and oppression in any form. Pharaoh of Egypt made light of his people, the Qurʿān says, and the people obeyed him (43:54); the implication is that through their passivity the people of Pharaoh themselves were responsible, at least in part, for allowing him to oppress them. The same is true in the field of international relations. Muhammad Iqbal says in many places that for a nation to be weak or powerless is to commit a sin or crime, adding that the wages of weakness is death and extinction. To fight political oppression or to confront any form of alien intervention in Muslim affairs, therefore, is regarded as jihād no less than fighting a war, and to neglect to do so is to commit a major sin.

See also KUFR; REPENTANCE; and SHIRK.

Bibliography

  • Dhahabī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-. Kitāb al-kabāʿir. Cairo, 1978.
  • Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid al-. Iḥyāʿ ʿulūm al-dīn. 5 vols. Beirut, 1991.
  • Jawzīyah, Ibn Qayyim al-. Al-jawāb al-kāfī li-man saʿala ʿan al-dawāʿ al-shāfī: Al-dāʿ wa-al-dawāʿ. Edited by Maḥmūd ʿAbd al-Wahhāb Fāyid. Cairo, 1388/1968.
  • Muḥāsibī, al-Ḥārith ibn Asad al-. Al-Tawbah. Edited by ʿAbd al-Qādir Aḥmad ʿAṭā. Cairo, 1982.

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