How can repentance (tawbah) and intercession (shafāʿah) be understood in the context of the theory of embodiment of deeds (tajassum al aʿmāl) and psychological punishment?
What does Hell look like? Why does God punish? These are questions that puzzle the mind of every person who has thought about hell and punishment. Amongst the different answers given, there are two that offer superior explanatory power:
- The theory of Embodiment of Deeds (ED) or tajassum al aʿmāl:
Punishment is nothing but the embodiment of our deeds, the real manifestation of our actions in this world. This is referred to as the theory of tajassum al aʿmāl or the Embodiment of Deeds (ED). In this way, it is not God that punishes us, but us who create the punishment, literally.
- The second explanation claims that punishment is nothing but the result of imprints of negative actions on the soul and psyche. That is, our evil actions create deformation in our souls that become our punishment in the hereafter. We will refer to this as the theory of Psychological Causality of Punishment (PCP).
The question of interest to us is how can we contextualize repentance (tawbah) and intercession (shafāʿah) according to the first theory. If punishment is the embodiment of deeds, for example, what is repentance? How does the act of repentance remove these real effects of punishment? The same set of questions can be asked about intercession. How does the interceding of the Prophet, for example, allow the negative effects of sin to be removed? Our answers in the context of ED can also shed light on how a proponent of PCP may answer the same questions.
To begin, its worthwhile surveying how scholars have defined repentance:
Repentance linguistically means to return. Technically, Mullā Mahdī Narāqī defines it as:
ضد الإصرار (التوبة)، وهي الرجوع من الذنب القولي والفعلي والفكري، وبعبارة أخرى: هي تنزيه القلب عن الذنب والرجوع من البعد إلى القرب، وبعبارة أخرى: ترك المعاصي في الحال والعزم على تركها في الاستقبال وتدارك ما سبق من التقصير
It is the opposite of persistence (on sin) and it means to revert from sins of speech, body and mind. It is the purification of the heart from sin and returning from distance to closeness (to God). It is refraining from sins in the present time, the decision on refraining from them in the future and compensation for all past shortcomings.1
An important consequence of repentance is the conversion of past sins into future good deeds, and hence, the conversion of earlier punishments to future rewards:
إِلَّا مَن تَابَ وَءَامَنَ وَعَمِلَ عَمَلًا صَٰلِحًا فَأُو۟لَٰٓئِكَ يُبَدِّلُ ٱللَّهُ سَيِّـَٔاتِهِمْ حَسَنَٰتٍ ۗ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
“Except those who repent, believe and perform righteous deeds, then it is they who Allah converts their evil deeds into good ones. And Allah has been forgiving and most merciful”. 25:70
2.1 Embodiment of deeds (ED) & repentance
If punishment is the real effect of our evil deeds, can they be eradicated by repentance? Consider the following verses:
وَمَن يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ شَرًّا يَرَهُۥ
“And whoever performs an atom’s weight of evil shall see it”. Q99:8
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ تُوبُوٓا۟ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ تَوْبَةً نَّصُوحًا عَسَىٰ رَبُّكُمْ أَن يُكَفِّرَ عَنكُمْ سَيِّـَٔاتِكُمْ
“Oh those who believe, repent to Allah a sincere repentance. Perhaps your Lord will remove your evil deeds” Q66:8
The first verse is commonly used to argue for ED. “Seeing” our actions, it is argued, is a strong suggestion that it is our deeds which manifest into tangible realities forming our punishments. The second verse on the other hand suggests that a true and sincere repentance is able to remove the negative effects of our sins. Shaykh Miṣbāḥ Yazdī, commenting on these two verses, writes:
“Verses of forgiveness of sins and removal of wrong deeds are in reality clarifying the meaning behind verses like ‘And whoever performs an atom’s weight of evil shall see it.’ That is, verses of repentance are interpreting (hākim) the verses of embodiment of deeds. The deeds whose effects are not erased by the person himself and remain according to their original negative state, will then be seen by the person on the day of Judgement as punishment. This does not include sins whose eradication has been performed through repentance.”2
In other words, he intends to say only sins we have not repented from embody as punishment on the day of Judgement. This implies, as he clarifies later as well, that sins are only manifested into punishment after we pass into the next world. There is a delay between the cause (sin) and the effect (punishment). In fact, this delayed causal relationship implies sins are partial causes to the formation of punishment, they require the person’s death and lack of repentance to fully manifest.
A helpful analogy may be comparing sin to fruit seeds. Every apple seed, for example, has the potential to transform into a full-blown apple tree if it is exposed to the appropriate environmental conditions. The potential exists within the seed, however, its activation is contingent on the environment. Correspondingly, every sin is a seed that has the potential to transform into punishment after we die. The hereafter is the environment which frees the negative potential inherent in the sin seed. Repentance eradicates the sin and consequently, the potential punishment existing within.
This transformative power of repentance does not here though. Repentance goes further. It is powerful enough to convert the negative potential within the seed to a positive one. This is affirmed by Q25:70, where God promises to exchange evil deeds into good ones after true repentance.
Once again we can better explain this using the apple seed analogy. Hypothetically speaking, we imagine there are two types of apples: sweet apples and bitter apples. Sweet apples are produced by sweet seeds and bitter apples by bitter seeds. We suppose scientists could modify the bitter seeds using a certain purification treatment to extract the bitter elements. This in turn would leave the apple seed producing sweet apples. Analogously, repentance is a purification treatment that converts the negative potentials of our sins, the punishments, into positive potentials of pleasure and reward.
While the previous discussion focused on understanding the reality of repentance in the context of embodiment of deeds, here we explore the reality of intercession. The task here is more interesting because intercession typically happens after a person has passed into the hereafter. Therefore, Shaykh Miṣbāḥ’s earlier explanation may not be entirely fruitful (pun intended). To better understand the question, we begin with defining intercession as we did with repentance.
Intercession (shafāʿah) linguistically means:
والشَّفَاعَةُ: الانضمام إلى آخر ناصرا له وسائلا عنه، وأكثر ما يستعمل في انضمام من هو أعلى حرمة ومرتبة إلى من هو أدنى
To adjoin oneself to another seeking his help and requesting him. It is often used for adjoining the more revered and elevated individual to the less revered and elevated.3
Technically, Sayyid al Murtaḍā defines it as:
وحقیقة الشفاعة وفائدتها: طلب اسقاط العقاب عن مستحقه
The reality of intercession and its benefit is to request the removal of punishment for the one who is deserving of it.4
Intercession is one of the means through which believers can find salvation from Hellfire for sins they could not completely purify themselves from. Sacred figures like the Prophet (s) will intercede on behalf of the individual, freeing them from the potential damnation that awaits them. In essence, once again, it is the removal of a certain level of punishment.
In a Prophetic hadith, intercession is described to be applicable to major sins that the believer was not able to free their souls from:
أَمَّا شَفَاعَتِي فَفِي أَصْحَابِ اَلْكَبَائِرِ مَا خَلاَ أَهْلَ اَلشِّرْكِ وَ اَلظُّلْمِ
“As for my intercession, then it is for the people of major sins, except the people of shirk (polytheists)and ẓulm (oppressors).”5
3.1 Embodiment of deeds (ED) & Intercession
As mentioned earlier, the discussion becomes more interesting for ED with the case of intercession. This is because intercession, for those fortunate to receive this unique blessing, is granted in the hereafter, post departure from the realm of the dunyā. Technically, in light of our discussion under repentance, the sins would have already embodied as punishments if we were not successful in eradicating their negative potentials in our lifetime by performing true repentance. In that case, how does intercession cancel out these troublesome realities awaiting to torment its creator: the sinner who sees salvation slipping from his hands?
Firstly, it must be emphasised that intercession is not applicable to everyone. It should not be assumed that any sinner will be deserving of this blessing. There must be some minimum requirements satisfied by the individual themselves before the reception of this opportunity. ʿAllāmah Ṭabāṭabāʾī clarifies this in Al Mizān:
ثم إن تأثير الشفيع عند الحاكم المشفوع عنده لا يكون تأثيرا جزافيا من غير سبب يوجب ذلك
“Indeed, the influence of the intercessor with the Judge is not arbitrary and haphazardly, without entailing a (justifiable) reason to enable intercession.”6
This is inspired from our narrations and also some verses of the Qurʿān:
وَ لا یَشْفَعُونَ إِلاّ لِمَنِ ارْتَضى
“And they do not intercede except for those who He approves.” 21:28
Understanding this important point allows us to enter into an explanation of intercession in the context of ED. If we have a role to play in receiving this blessing, it once again confirms the causal relationship between our deeds and their outputs, as claimed by ED. But if the deeds have already manifested into their effects and the sins have already actualized into their realities of punishment, then what embodiment remains from the person to allow intercession to occur? In this light, Sh Miṣbāḥ writes elsewhere:
“Intercession is the embodiment of the person’s deeds. It is the attainment of faith (īmān) and love of the holy saints (awyliyā; the likes of the Prophet and the Imams) in the dunyā that enables the overlooking of his evil actions or to elevate to higher stations of paradise.”7
In other words, it is the embodiment of the internal states of the soul that act as preliminaries for receiving further blessings in the hereafter. Just like our actions manifest into corresponding realities, so do our states of the heart and mind. If we cultivate the love of God, faith and the Prophet/Imams, these spiritual states will become the fertile ground for which opportunities like intercession can grow from.
In fact, it seems Sh Miṣbāḥ is resorting to a different explanation of punishment to account for intercession. This explanation aligns with the second theory used to describe the reality of punishment in the beginning of the article: The Psychological Causality of Punishment (PCP). One of its main proponents is Mullā Ṣadrā. He considers punishment as the result of the negative imprints of sin on our soul and psyche. What we experience as punishment and reward, is the result of a one-to-one relationship between the spiritual or animalistic states we have carved on our soul by performing negative or positive deeds. Sins, as alluded to by Mulla Narāqī earlier, are of the body, speech and heart. The realities of our bodily sins will torment us on the day of judgement through the embodiments they undergo. Similarly, the dormant impressions left on the heart, will manifest into realities and continue to disturb us in the hereafter.
Whether we consider all forms of punishment in the Hellfire to be the result of evil states of the soul (PCP) or we incorporate them into ED, such that bodily deeds have their own manifestation and mental actions have their own, the result for intercession is the same. According to Sh Miṣbāḥ, it is the embodiment of our internal states of the soul, our love for God, religion and the saints that creates the existential receptivity for intercession.8
Ali Safdari is a BA in Philosophy and Physics from University of Sydney and has been studying in the Islamic Seminary of Qom since 2018.
- Mullā Mahdī Narāqī, Jāmiʿ al Saʿādāt, 3:38 (Link)
- Shaykh Miṣbāḥ Yazdī, Al Akhlāq fi al Qurān (Arabic version), 1:38
- Rāghib, Mufradāt, Link
- Al Sayyid al Murtaḍā, Rasāʾil, 1:150 (Link)
- Khiṣāl, 2:355, long hadith (Link)
- Al Mizān, 1:59, (Link)
- Miṣbāḥ Yazdī, Qurʿān Shinakht, Vol. 5, No.1, Spring & Summer 2012, page 10. Page (Link)