Repentance and Forgiveness

Repentance by a sinner is accepted by God during the person's lifetime until he is about to breathe his last. Whoever resolves sincerely, and in a full belief in God, to refrain from doing wrongs, God will accept his repentance. God says : "Surely Allah forgives not that a partner should bc set up with Him, and forgiven all besides that to who He pleases." [Surat Al-Nisa' 48] There are other Quranic verses all of which urge the sinner, or the wrongdoer, to turn back to his Creator for mercy and forgiveness.

Repentance and forgiveness, either in this world or in the Hereafter, encourage a wrongdoer to desist from committing crime.

The two books "Al-Sahihain" report that in days of yore a man had killed ninety-nine persons. The killer came to a saint and asked him as to whether he would be absolved of the crime if he expressed regret and repented. The saint told him : "Your repentance will not be accepted. " The man killed the divine, thus, bringing the total of those he had slain to one hundred.

In this story, the killer killed the saint when he knew that he had no hope in mercy. As a matter of fact to cause one to have aversion to forgiveness is harmful, and to make things easy for man is beneficial. Ibn Abbas was reported to have replied in negative to any one who had never slain another person but still asked whether the killer's repentance would be accepted. This he would say as a warning. But if an assassin would ask him the same question, he would answer in the affirmative. By telling him this, he would like to put him at ease. ['Al-Qurtuh", Vol. 7 p. 402]

For repentance to be valid, four conditions are set forth: repentance must be expressed in complete sincerity; sin to be given up without persistence; immediate determination by a sinner not to commit any other sin again; repentance must be expressed in diffidence and bashness of God and of no other one. [To some jurists, repentance does not abate punishment unless the offender compensates the damage he inflicted on the victim. In this they sought support from God's saying :"But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms, Allah will turn to him mercifully." (Surat Al-Ma'idah 39). This verse, in fact, was revealed in reference to theft. Other Quranic verses were revealed about sodomy or adultery. The Quran says :"And as for the two of you who are guilty of it, give them both a slight punishment ; then if they repent and amend, turn aside from them." (Surat Al-Nisa') :16). It was said that later, this verse was repealed.]

But would repentance absolve punishment for offences ? In one of his sayings, the Prophet Muhammad said, "Whoever continues to drink wine in this world, without giving it up would be denied it in the Hereafter." This saying had been differently interpreted by jurists as to the effect or repentance on punishment. Some of them said that if the drinker of wine gives up drinking and repents, he still is to be punished. But according to the Imam Al-Shafe'i, if a drinker of wine gives up drinking and repents, no punishment is to be imposed on him.

Repentance passes through various stages. There is no doubt that before committal of an offence, repentance absolves the sin. But after commiting a crime, repentance is expressed, of course, either before informing the authorities concerned of the crime or after. In the first case, the jurists have distinguished between the crimes committed against God as in case of violation of His restrictive ordinances, and the crimes committed against human beings.

As regards the crimes committed against human beings, a man can surrender his right before informing the authorities, and by so doing, punishment is dropped. If someone is slapped on his face but surrendered his retaliatory right before the authorities were informed, the culprit was not to be punished.

As for God's rights, including the restrictive ordinances, the jurists' views are different. Some of them decreed that a repentant should not be punished before informing the authorities, because, according to the Quran, "And as for the two of you who are guilty of it, give them both a slight punishment; then if they repent and amend, turn aside from them" [Surat Al-Nisa': 16] After prescribing punishment for a thief, God says in another verse "But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms, Allah will turn to him mercifully." [Surat Al-Ma'idah : 39] When Hozal Ibn Zabab Ibn Zaid wanted to inform the authorities about a thief but later changed his mind, the Prophet Muhammad said to him "If you have sheltered him, Hozal, it was better for you." On another similar occasion the Prophet Muhammad said "Could not you have forgiven him (an offender) before bringing him to me ?

It was also reported that an agent of Ali Ibn Abou Talib in Basrah sent him a message telling him that Haritha Ibn Zaid had waged war against God and His Messenger. Ali, in reply, told him that Haritha had repented before he was exposed to punishment, and, therefore, he should be left free and not to be attacked unless he was engaged in a war. [It is noticed that the warrior's repentance, before having received his due penalty, absolves punishment. This was prescribed in the Holy Quran. The citation here is not supportive.]

Once, when the Prophet Muhammad was about to lead a congregational prayer, a certain man approached him and told him that he had committed an offence. The Prophet did not take the man's story seriously and led the prayers. When the prayers ended, the man came near the Prophet again and informed him of the same story. The Prophet asked him : "Have not you joined us in prayers ? " The man said "Yes". The Prophet replied "Then go away; God has forgiven you."

It was reported through Malik and Zaid Ibn Aslam that during the Prophet's lifetime, a man admitted adultery. The Prophet asked for a whip. A brittle whip was brought, but the Prophet asked for another one, and when a strong whip was brought, he rejected it and asked for another one, of lesser frightening shape. When the new stick was brought, the Prophet ordered that the man should be flogged and said to the people : "It is time for you now to stop violating God's laws. If someone commits an offence, he must take shelter under God, but if he declares it to us, he would be punished by God's penal laws."

In some case of larceny, the prescribed punishment might not be inflicted, because when a theft was claimed to have taken place, the incident was to be brought before a judge and unless the theft was proved and a Judgement passeed, the thief's hand would not be cut off. In such a case, the offence has violated a human being's right. Except in theft, penal laws had to be applied.

In the "Al-Montaqa", Al-Baji quoted Malik as having informed, through reports transmitted by Yahya and Saeed Ibn Al-Musayyib, that a man came to Abou Bakr the Faithful and told him that he had committed adultery. Abou Bakr asked the man :"Have you informed anyone else of this act ?" The man said, "No." Abou Bakr said : "Then go back and repent, because God accepts repentance from His servants." But the man was not convinced of this decision and went to Umar and told him the same story and sought his decision. Umar told him exactly the same decision, which was previously made by Abou Bakr. But the man was again unsatisfied of this verdict and went to the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet turned his face away from him, and when the man repeated his confession, the Prophet sent a messenger to the man's family to enquire whether the man was sick or insane. When the family's answer came that he was sane and healthy, the Prophet asked the man as to with whom he had made intercourse with a virgin, a widow, or a divorcee. On being informed by the sinner that the act had been made with a divorcee, the Prophet ordered that the man be stoned to death.

Differences also arose about repentance after information. To some jurists, punishment was to be dropped after repentance even after passing the information to the authorities. In this, these jurists took sanction from the following story. When the people began to stone Maiz, he ran away, but they followed him. Maiz asked them to take him to the Prophet Muhammad, but instead they caught him and stoned him until he died. When the incident was told to the Prophet, he said "Could not you have given him a chance to repent after which God would have forgiven him ?"

A report transmitted through Alqamah Ibn Wa'il Ibn Hajar and his father stated that once, when a woman was on her way to the mosque before dawn, she was attacked and raped by someone. She shouted for help and a passer by came to her rescue. The culprit flee away. A group of people also passed her and she asked them for help. They mistakenly arrested the other man who first came to her help and draged him to the Prophet. The woman told the Prophet that the man had raped her and the group informed that they had caught him while he was running. The man pleaded unguilty, saying that he came to save the woman from the culprit. The woman accused him of telling lies and said that it was he who had raped her. The Prophet ordered that the man be stoned to death. But another man came to the scene and said Do not stone him and stone me, because it was I who committed the crime. The Prophet then took the three people, the culprit, the saviour, and the woman, aside and told the culprit that he was forgiven by God, and dismissed the man who hurried to save the woman with some nice words. Umar asked the Prophet to allow them to stone to death the man who admitted adultery, but the Prophet said "No; he has repented to God". Commenting later on this story, Umar said that the culprit, in fact, had repented so sincerely that his repentance would have covered the whole people of Yathrib had they wanted to depent such an act.

Wa'ilah Ibn Al-Asqa' reported that one day a man came to the Prophet Muhammad telling him that he had already made a punishable offence. The Prophet did not take notice of the man but the man made his confession three times, but still to no avail. Time was due for prayers, and when they were performed, the man told the Prophet his story `for the fourth time, emphasising that he had violated one of God's laws and asked that he would be given his due punishment. The Prophet asked the man "Have you not been completely clean and performed ablution and joined us in our prayers ? Go away. That was an atonement."

Abou Talha quoted Anas as having said that once a man come to the Prophet and admitted adultery, thus, deserving punishment.

The prayers were due and the culprit joined the Prophet in his prayers. After the prayers, the Prophet said to the man : "Your prayers have absolved your crime."

Some other jurists were of the view that after in formation of an offence, repentance would not absolve punishment because the law had to be applied in its geucrality. They took support to their theory from what happened to a certain woman from the "Ghamid" tribe. She came to the Prophet and declared her repentance, but still the Prophet ordered that she should be stoned to death because she committed adultery. He gave this order though he stated later that the woman had expressed such a repentance that if it had been made by seventy people of Medina, their sins would certainly had been absolved.

Abou Dawoud and Al-Nisaei quoted Abdullah, son of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, as having said that a woman from the "Bani Makhzum" tribe was of the habit of borrowing some articles and objects from her neighbours and then denying taking them. The Prophet ordered that her hand be cut off and refused to accept her repentance. [This story was reported in various versions. It is, however, self-contradictory, because anyone who borrows anything and refuses to give it back is not a thief, but a "distrustful."]

Minor offences are generally squashed after punishment. In his "Musnad", Abou Dawoud AI-Tayalsi quoted Ali Ibn Abou Talib as having said that Abou Bakr had told him that the Prophet Muhammad decreed that anyone who had made an offence and then performed ablution and said a prayer of two bows and asked for God's for giveness, his offence was pardoned. In this context, the Prophet recited two verses from the Quran : "And those who, when they commit an indecency or wrong their souls, remember Allah and ask forgiveness for their sins. And who forgives sins but Allah ? And they persist not knowingly in what they do" [Surat Al-Imrarn 134] and "And whoever does evil or wrongs his soul, then asks forgiveness of Allah, will find Allah Forgiving, Merciful" [Surat Al-Nisa: 110]

In the "Sahih Al-Bukhari", Al-Bukhari said that if a person committed a minor offence, but violating no God's law, and informed the ruler of it, the offender should not be punished if he expressed repentance and sorrow. The Prophet had never punished a man who confessed to an offence. Such an offender was given by the Prophet a chance for reforming himself, and, moreover, the culprit was allowed to join the Prophet in prayers. Such prayers, the offender would be told by the Prophet, would certainly absolve his offence.

Repentance after apostasy rescinds punishment. Before passing a judgement the apostate must be asked to think with contrition of his apostasy. If a person apostated , he was to be imprisoned for three days and nights during which time he should be asked to repent his crime. This was decreed by Umar, Ali, Malik and Al-Shafei. There was another statement made by Al-Shafei on the same question. He stated that an apostate was to be asked to repent immediately otherwise he would be killed. In this judgement, Al-Shafei relied on a general statment previously made by the Prophet that "He who changes his religion must be killed." The Prophet did not permit delay in executing the sentence if the apostate did not repent. To some jurists, an apostate woman had to be treated likewise. To some others, she was to put in jail, and not to be killed. And in this, they relied on a Prophetic order that "women must not be killed".