إِنَّمَا التَّوْبَةُ عَلَى اللَّهِ لِلَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ السُّوءَ بِجَهَالَةٍ ثُمَّ يَتُوبُونَ مِن قَرِيبٍ فَأُولَٰئِكَ يَتُوبُ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِمْ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا
[4:17] [Acceptance of] repentance upon Allah is only for those who commit evil out of ignorance, then repent promptly. It is such whose repentance Allah will accept, and Allah is all-knowing, all-wise.
Repentance (al-tawbah) is expected from us when we sin and transgress. However, the scenario in which repentance for sin is expected is when we sin while knowing that a certain act is against Allah’s (swt) legislation and commands, yet we engage in it. On the other hand, if a person commits an act without knowledge, it is not technically classified as a sin and therefore one is not expected to repent. This is all the while verse [4:17] cited above says that Allah (swt) only accepts the repentance of those who commit a sin out of ignorance (jahālah), instead of knowledge (‘ilm).1
The word jahl in Arabic is homonymous between two meanings: one meaning “absence of knowledge” which is the opposite of ‘ilm, and the other meaning can be loosely translated as foolishness or mindlessness, which is the opposite of ‘aql. For example, Shaykh Kulaynī in his Uṣūl al-Kāfī has a book titled Kitāb al-‘Aql wa al-Jahl, where jahl is used in the opposite of ‘aql – not ‘ilm – hence translated by some as the Book of the Intellect and Foolishness, rather than the book of knowledge and ignorance. The verse in question also uses the word jahalah as the opposite of ‘aql and not as the opposite of ‘ilm. In other words, the verse is saying repentance is for a situation where a person commits an act which the sound intellect does not permit one to do or is against one’s rational intuitions, yet due to the overpowering of one’s desires and lust they engaged in it. Allah (swt) accepts the repentance of those who commit evil when their sinning is a result of their foolishness, carelessness and mindlessness – while they know it is a sin. This would be in opposition to those who transgress the boundaries laid down by Allah (swt) while knowing it is a sin, but yet they engage in it due to hypocrisy or disbelief.
Mullā Ṣadrā in his commentary on Uṣul al-Kāfī2 says that the word jahālah in the verse is either grammatically indicating a state of being – meaning they commit evil deeds while they are mindless, or it is an accusative of specification (tamyīz) – meaning they commit evil deeds which originate from foolishness and mindlessness, because committing a sin itself is foolishness and a feigning of ignorance. Hence some scholars have said, anyone who disobeys Allah (swt) is jāhil (foolish).
As for the subsequent verse [4:18] But [acceptance of] repentance is not for those who go on committing misdeeds … these are people who have exceeded in their sins and are accustomed to it. Therefore Allah (swt) rejects the repentance of both those amongst the immoral ones who postpone their repentance till the time of their death and those who die upon disbelief. As such, what is meant by [4:17] those who commit evil (al-sū’) are the sinners from amongst the Muslims whose repentance is accepted and [4:18] those who go on committing misdeeds (al-sayyiāt) are the hypocrites whose repentance is not accepted.
Furthermore, [4:17] says that the acceptance of repentance is “upon Allah” – the phrase generally indicating a type of obligation. Is the acceptance of repentance rooted in Allah’s (swt) Justice, or His (swt) Kindness? If He (swt) decides not to accept someone’s repentance, does that mean He (swt) has been unjust? The scholarly opinion on the matter is that His (swt) acceptance of our repentance is rooted in His (swt) Kindness, not His (swt) Justice. After Allah (swt) granted us capacity, knowledge, innumerable blessings, sent forth Prophets (p) and made all the necessary preliminaries available to us, He (swt) established His (swt) argument and evidence upon us – leaving us with no excuse. If despite this a person commits a sin and Allah (swt) does not accept their repentance, then this is not inherently and initially unjust – it is against his Kindness.
Though it can be argued it is also against His (swt) Justice from one perspective, and that is because Allah (swt) out of His (swt) Kindness promised to accept our repentance, then not fulfilling this promise would be an act of injustice. In other words, not accepting one’s repentance is not directly against Allah’s (swt) Justice, rather His acceptance is a fulfillment of His (swt) promise, which if unfulfilled is an act of injustice. The Qurānic verse acceptance of repentance “upon Allah” is also indicative of the fact that it is something He made necessary for Himself – not that His (swt) initial Justice necessitated it.
Featured Image (Summer 2019): An aged man sitting in Masjid al-Uwaysiyyah just before the noon prayers – in Tripoli, Lebanon. The mosque was built in 1461 by the Mamluks.