Sin, Repentance, and Akhlaq

The Wisdom in Allah’s Allowing Sin

Ibn al-Qayyim connects the wisdom behind the existence of Satan to the wisdom behind Allah decreeing sin and evil in the world. First of all, he emphasizes that Allah’s creation of both good and evil showcases His power and ability to create opposed and complementary things. He also addresses a common philosophical debate in his time about how should we understand the Decree of Allah on one hand and the evil that he had Decreed on the other hand. He responds that Allah’s decree is separate from what is decreed. He explains this by distinguishing the different nuanced meanings of “what Allah desires.”

What is desired for its own sake is sought for the good that is in it as an end and objective. What is desired for something else, in contrast, may be something that is not desired by in itself, nor is there in it any benefit; it is only a means to one’s end and objective. It may be undesirable in itself but desirable in the results in produces.[1]

Satan is one of those creations who is not desired for his own sake, but rather as a means to the end that Allah desires. When we consider why Satan exists, we can gain insight be reflecting on what the Qur’an states in (20:115-124):

20:115. And We covenanted with Adam before, but he forgot, and We found in him no resolve.

20:116. And when We said to the angels, “Bow down to Adam.” They bowed down, except for Satan; he refused.

20:117. We said, “O Adam, this is an enemy to you and to your wife. So do not let him make you leave the Garden, for then you will suffer.

20:118. In it you will never go hungry, nor be naked.

20:119. Nor will you be thirsty in it, nor will you swelter.”

20:120. But Satan whispered to him. He said, “O Adam, shall I show you the Tree of Immortality, and a kingdom that never decays?”

20:121. And so they ate from it; whereupon their bodies became visible to them, and they started covering themselves with the leaves of the Garden. Thus Adam disobeyed his Lord, and fell.

20:122. But then his Lord recalled him, and pardoned him, and guided him.

20:123. He said, “Go down from it, altogether; some of you enemies of some others. But whenever guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows My guidance, will not go astray, nor suffer.

20:124. But whoever turns away from My Reminder, for him is a confined life. And We will raise him on the Day of Resurrection blind.”

Notice that the Qur’an states that Adam certainly disobeyed and fell but that God recalled him, forgave him, and guided him. All these passages point out that Adam’s mistake –and by extension humanity’s sins and transgressions—are based on a nature that needs guidance and reform. In a sense, the sins and evil in the world, Satan included, are a means to highlight the shortcomings of the human soul and thus motivate that soul to seek its Creator in repentance.

The reality was that Adam did not have any experience with the whisperings and ploys of Satan. Adam had seen the arrogance of Satan when he refused to follow the commands of God; he knew that Satan was his enemy but had no familiarity with how to resist Satan’s tricks and schemes. That is why God allowed Satan to exist and tempt mankind. God tested Adam so that he could learn and gain experience. In this way God prepared Adam for his role on Earth as a caretaker and a Prophet of God. In addition, learning about Satan and his tricks allowed Adam to also learn how to deal with his own evil inclinations and whisperings. From this experience, Adam learned the great lesson that Satan is cunning, ungrateful, and the avowed enemy of mankind. Adam, Eve and their descendants learned that Satan caused their expulsion from Heaven. Obedience to God and enmity toward Satan is the only path back to Heaven.[2]

The Qur’an tells us that Adam subsequently received from his Lord some words: a supplication to pray, which invoked God’s forgiveness. This experience was an essential lesson and demonstrated free will. If Adam and Eve were to live on Earth, they needed to be aware of the tricks and schemes of Satan, they also needed to understand the dire consequences of sin, and the infinite mercy and forgiveness of God. God knew that Adam and Eve would eat from the tree. He knew that Satan would strip away their innocence. This is the context and backstory for the entire drama of human existence on Earth. Islam teaches that human nature is intrinsically good (not broken) but in need of guidance and continual maintenance (i.e., reconnecting to God regularly). Regarding the existence of Satan, Ibn al-Qayyim points out:

… Satan was created by actualizing the potential of evil that is in the nature of the wicked, and the prophets were derived by actualizing the potential of the righteous that inheres in the righteous. The Most Wise thus actualizes the righteous potential of the one group to bring about the results and the evil potential of the other group to bring about its results, His wisdom being manifest in both…[3]

It follows naturally that if there is wisdom in the existence of Satan, there must also be great wisdom in the existence of sin and evil in this world until the Day of Judgment.

How Repentance from Sin Elevates Akhlaq

Ibn al-Qayyim explained regarding seeking forgiveness and repentance:

… seeking forgiveness means asking for protection from the evil and harm of what is in the past, and repentance is returning to God and begging for safety from the evil of what one fears in the future of more evil deeds.[4]

This concept highlights how the believer should be conscious both of their past and their future obedience, and it ties the existence of moral evil with the theodicy of this worldly life as a place of testing and self-improvement. The subtleties of personal development and spiritual renewal are found by understanding the meaning and wisdom behind the double-supplication of “seeking forgiveness and repenting.”

Moreover, it is by contemplating this concept that we arrive at idea that the one who repents from sin can achieve a higher rank than one who never sinned. Often, we hear our scholars and speakers talk about the dangers of this sin or that, of this path or that, and it can be disheartening and discouraging for the listener who has fallen into that sin to feel that he or she still belongs to the congregation. A believer might even question their own faith: why would our Creator allow us to sin and what is the point? Understanding the wisdom behind the existence of sin and suffering and how this reconciles with the concept of a just, all-loving God is paramount. Not only does this allow the penitent to recover from the sin itself, but it also allows them to learn from that fall, to pursue sincere repentance, and to achieve the fruits of that repentance. Ibn al-Qayyim points out that the process of falling into sin and regretting it actually purifies the heart of the believer more than if that believer only avoided the sin.

… repentance contains the humility, meekness, and flattering praise for God that is dearer to God than many external acts of righteousness, even if in measure and weight such are greater. For humility and broken-heartedness are the heart and soul of worship.[5]

The experience of repenting allows the believer to experience the Name of Allah at-Tawwab and al-Ghafoor and al-Halim. Of course, this does not absolve the unrepentant or careless sinner, for that person will certainly face the consequences of their sins. However, it points out how sometimes those who don’t sin often fall into conceit, pride, and haughtiness – which themselves are sins of the heart that pull a servant away from Allah. Therefore, the sincere regret of the repentant sinner can be more virtuous than the self-satisfaction and arrogance of the vainglorious. The intersection between the existence of sin and the secret wisdom of Allah is explained by ibn al-Qayyim:

… for repentance, God has a special rank that no other act of obedience can match. This is why the Exalted is delighted with his servant’s repentance to Him with a delight greater than can be measured, as the Prophet, God grant him blessing and peace, likened it to the delight of one who finds his ride with his food and drink in a barren, ghastly land, after having lost it and with it the means and hope for his life. He [God] did not find this delight in any other act of obedience except repentance, and it is known that this delight has a great effect in the state and the heart of the one who repents, a delight greater than can be expressed. It is among the secrets of decreeing sins for the servants, for a servant reaches through repentance the rank of beloved, becoming dear to God, for God loves those who repent frequently and loves a servant who is frequently tested and then repents.

What is the significance of this divine love? Besides the reward of having one’s sins replaced with good deeds, and besides the special place that the penitent sinner now has with his Lord, what benefit does the penitent gain? Both ibn al-Qayyim and al-Ghazzali warn against hubris and how this drives a believer, no matter how mechanically religious, away from God and the sound heart that they are supposed to cultivate in this worldly life. Hubris, arrogance, and the assumption of superiority are exactly the deadly sins that Satan had in himself that caused him to fall from God’s Grace. These are also the negative character traits that open the door to disbelief, foul character, and tyranny. Therefore, it is only logical and wise that Allah created the ability to sin and decreed that even His beloved servants would fall into certain sins for the express purpose of motivating and inspiring them to seek forgiveness, repent, and by that repentance cleanse their souls from these deadly diseases of the heart.

By falling into sin, a servant realizes they are not above the trials and temptations of others, and it is this humility that dissolves arrogance and teaches the servant to temper their ego of any grandeur. This is a virtuous character trait; for humbleness is one of the cardinal beacons of good character and akhlaq. By falling into sin, a servant discovers compassion for others who fall into sins, whether the same sin or otherwise, and this compassion inculcates the soft-hearted love of humanity that inspires hope in redemption and reform. This is another virtuous character trait; for compassion is one of the hallmarks of our Creator. It is one of the attributes that Allah values and rewards in His servants. So much so that the Prophet (pbuh) said that “He who does not show mercy to others will not be shown mercy.” This character and akhlaq can only be achieved when the sympathy that the sinless may have for the sinner (and which may include haughtiness and self-conceit) morphs into sincere empathy due to his ability to relate to and understand the struggles that his brother in faith is going through. By repenting from sin, thus earning God’s special rank and tasting the blessings that God showers on them as a result, a servant realizes the love and beneficence of their Creator, and from that realization, their faith and devotion grow to levels that would have been unachievable had that servant not fallen into sin in the first place. This is arguably the most virtuous character trait; for realizing the blessings of Allah is the prerequisite for the stations of submission, patience, and contentment. These stations represent the pinnacle of good character and akhlaq as outlined by the masters of self-purification and spiritual development.

One need only contemplate the state of Adam and Eve when they descended to earth from paradise; how much more sincere was their supplications after their encounter with Satan and sin? The sad reality of the human experience is that only by actually experiencing both aspects, the obedience and the disobedience, can a soul appreciate the wisdom of their Lord and Sustainer. It is this appreciation due to repentance that fulfills the transcendental reason for Allah creating in the first place, so it stands to reason that the servant who actively fulfills their purpose in life will be honored by the One who gave him or her that life, and such an honor will be God-conscious character in this life as well as proximity to God in the Afterlife.

Conclusion 

Our lives have ups and downs according to Allah’s wisdom and plan for our spiritual testing and development. Yes, sometimes we will have trouble understanding what is meant by the tests that He sends our way. That is why believing in Divine Decree (both the good and the bad) are requirements of Islamic faith. There will be calamities and heartbreak and disasters that seem to have no cause or rhyme or reason. This is par for the course. The ancient pagan Arabs had a fatalism due to the seemingly random and senseless events that their precarious lives hinged upon. However, Islam came to offer a light of hope: it is NOT random, nor is it senseless, rather it is part of Allah’s test for each individual.

The Qur’an says the following:

67:1-2 Blessed is He in whose hand is the sovereignty, and Who has power over everything. He who created death and life—to test you—as to which of you is better in conduct. He is the Almighty, the Forgiving.

29:2-7 Have the people supposed that they will be left alone to say, “We believe,” without being put to the test? We have tested those before them. God will surely know the truthful, and He will surely know the liars. Or do those who commit sins think they can fool Us? Terrible is their opinion! Whoever looks forward to the meeting with God—the appointed time of God is coming. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing. Whoever strives, strives only for himself. God is Independent of the creation. Those who believe and do righteous deeds—We will remit their sins, and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do.

The whole point of this worldly life is to put a person through test after test until they return to their maker. Sometimes, a person understands that a particular test is a result of their bad choices. Sometimes, a person does not see the connection. That is where prayer, personal reflection, and humility come into play.

A believer must always check and recheck their intentions, their actions, and their connection to the Creator. If all this seems in order, then we have the example of Prophet Job, who was afflicted with 20 years of calamity and sickness as test of faith, even though he had not “done anything” to deserve such an affliction. Allah does not just give a calamity as a result of a person’s transgression. Allah can give a calamity to test the sincerity and perseverance of that person. According to our scholars, repentance and the fruits thereof are the main reasons for our creation and existence on earth. When we understand the nature of repentance and appreciate how repentance elevates akhlaq, we will be able to reconcile Islamic teachings with the problem of evil and see the wisdom behind Allah’s allowing sin.


[1] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 2 2020, 564)

[2] (Rashed 2018, 123-124)

[3] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 2 2020, 570)

[4] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 1 2020, 652)

[5] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 1 2020, 634)

Sin, Repentance, and Akhlaq
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