The Problem of Sin

by Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks


Once I heard Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki comparing sin to bacteria in a short talk he delivered at the masjid of Imam Farid Manie. He said, " Sin is like bacteria in the way it silently and stealthily invades the body. At first you are entirely unaware of its presence. It feeds on and grows stronger because of our ignorance and negligence. The victim of the infection becomes aware of the disease much later when the first symptoms appear. He will then have to subject himself to the sometimes unpleasant treatment of a Doctor." Comparisons like this are instructive in more ways than one. A lesson that can learnt from this particular one is that the intelligent person, who cares about his physical well-being, does his level best to prevent this situation. He will guard his spiritual health as he does his physical health. Prevention is better than cure as the adage goes. But in order for this to succeed intelligence is not enough. Knowledge of sin, and of what constitutes sin, and of the factors that give birth to sin, and the effects of sin is indispensable. Shaykh Amin al-Kurdi talking about the effects of sin makes the following point, "Know that the harm of sin to the heart is like the harm done by poison to the body according to the various degrees of damage done by each. And nothing in this world nor the hereafter is evil or bad except that its cause is sin and transgression"[Tanwir al-Qulub,pg. 435]. The seriousness of the problem of sin can be further driven home if we consider the following list of "effects of sin" given by some scholars. Sin they say is extremely harmful to both body and soul to an extent which only Allah, the Most High, alone knows. In summarising a considerable number of Ahadith, relevant verses from the Quran, and some wise sayings of the early Muslim scholars and saints, the following are some of the results of sin:

  1. It prevents the effective absorption of beneficial knowledge. Knowledge is a light (nur) placed in the heart by Allah, the Most High, and sin extinguishes that light.
  2. Sin induces a feeling of alienation and estrangement from Allah in the sinners’ heart. He feels cut-off from Allah, the Most High, and His Nabi, may the blessings of Allah be upon him. Indeed the excessive and enslaved sinner feels cut-off from his friends and family.
  3. It plunges the perpetrator into all sorts of difficulties in his daily life. According to a saying of a great Shaykh, the sinner will find every door closed whenever he attempts to go in a certain direction or, at least, if not closed very difficult to open
  4. The sinner senses darkness in his soul similar to that of a dark and dank cellar. His deep unhappiness and confusion increase as the darkness increases until it starts to appear on his face for all to see.
  5. Continuous sin weakens the body and the heart. The illustrations of both Sayyid Muhammad and Sayyid Amin directly imply this.
  6. Good deeds become difficult if not altogether impossible to practice and sin removes the blessings (barakah) from one’s life.
  7. Sin humiliates and corrupts the mind.
  8. And finally, sin attracts poverty and destroys the bounties given to us by Allah, the Most High. This last point some scholars of Tafsir believes is indicated in the verse "No adversity comes to you except what is acquired by your own hands, and Allah forgives abundantly - our sins". [Surah al-Shura, v.30]

The consequences of sin are therefore huge. It is quite clear that in addition to being punishable, sin acts as a great veil between the devotee and Allah, the Most High. It prevents us from attaining nearness to Him. Its persistent presence in the behaviour of a Muslim betrays a blind spot and a degree of ignorance and lack of adab towards Him. Genuine knowledge (ma’rifah) of Allah transforms and changes the seeker. "Minor" sins appear to the truly realized Muslim as "major" sins. For that reason some Companions, may Allah be pleased with them, used to say to the Tabi’in (Followers): "You are doing things, though they appear to you less than the hair on your heads. But we used to regard them as "major sins" during the time of the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him".

On the basis of this and other hadiths and some verses from the Quran, scholars divide sin into two broad categories - major sins (kaba’ir) and minor sins (sagha’ir). The Quran says, "If you refrain from the kaba’ir (major sins) you have been prohibited from, We will expiate your sayyi’aat (minor sins) and place you in the Jannah." [Surah al-Nisaa, v.31]. The sins designated as minor sins will be forgiven if we manage to expunge the major sins from our lives. Abu Talib al-Makki says in his famous book Qut al-Qulub (Sustenance of the Hearts) that refraining from these major sins is a condition for the acceptance of the five pillars of Islam. Our practice of the five pillars is entirely rejected by Allah when we fail to cleanse ourselves of these major sins. So this verse means that our basic practice of the five pillars will result in forgiveness of all our wrong-doings only after we have repented and refrained from the major sins. When all of this has been achieved is it possible for the seeker to reach the darajah (level) of the people of the Path. [see Qut al-Qulub, pg. 367, vol. 3]. Scholars have debated and written a huge body of writings on the crucial subject of "major and minor sins". Some scholars have attempted to define a major and minor sin and others confined themselves to providing lists of major and minor sins. In our next article we will look at a typical list of major sins and discuss the very important subject of why people fall into a sinful life.

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