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Sin

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Sin

    Violating the laws and standards of a religion is commonly referred to as sin. People may sin through action or inaction, but as a rule, they are accountable only for the sins that they commit intentionally. The Qur'an identifies two types of sin, major and minor. As the most serious offenses, major sins lead to the harshest punishments. The worst of these transgressions is claiming that God has equals. According to the Qur'an, this is the only unforgivable sin. Other major sins include murder and sex outside of marriage. The sunnah and hadith provide further details about major sins.

    The Qur'an and sunnah offer many general warnings against sinful behavior but few details about minor sins. For Muslims, a certain action may be a sin in one context but acceptable in another situation, depending on a person's intention.

    Root Cause.

    In the story of Adam and Eve, Satan takes the form of a serpent and persuades them to eat the forbidden fruit of a certain tree in the Garden of Eden. Unlike the Christian interpretation of the story, Muslims do not regard this act as the original sin, which resulted in the sinfulness of all human beings. Muslims believe that Adam and Eve repented of their sins and God forgave them. Instead, the Qur'an suggests that sinful behavior results when human beings willfully abuse the freedom that Allah has given to them. Sin, therefore, is an action, not a condition. Although people are not sinful by nature, they are vulnerable to temptation by Satan (Iblis). In weakness, men and women sometimes make choices that result in sin-ful behavior.

    Islamic theologians have addressed the subject of sin and its effect on the role and performance of prophets. Sunni scholars have concluded that as a human being, a prophet may make mistakes, but as a divine messenger, he is without error. Shi'i Muslims teach that prophets as well as certain imams are sinless.

    Muhammad reportedly taught that when a person commits a sin, his or her heart is marked with a black spot. Committing sins repeatedly will eventually cover the heart with black marks. After the heart is completely covered, that person is no longer capable of good deeds.

    End Result.

    Islam teaches that Muslims have a religious and moral duty to avoid sin. Believers should obey God's commands simply because they are based on his perfect knowledge and wisdom. Moreover, people are equipped with the ability to reason, which enables them to recognize that God's commands are just.

    Muslims believe that Allah sees and knows everything. At the end of time, all human beings will appear before God to account for their actions on earth. God will weigh both their sins and good deeds and determine whether each person will be rewarded in paradise or punished in hell. The Qur'an warns that those who reject the faith will face severe consequences: “If they had everything on earth, and twice repeated, to give as ransom for the penalty of the Day of Judgment, it would never be accepted of them…. Their penalty will be one that endures.”

    The Qur'an refers to sin as it relates to the individual and to groups of people and nations. Islam teaches that a person is responsible for his or her own sin. But the Qur'an also describes the way that God punished certain groups for their immorality. In the days of Noah, Allah sent a flood to eliminate the wicked from the earth. God destroyed the people of Lot in an earthquake. The Qur'an implies that while individual sinners face their worst punishment in the afterlife, nations receive their sentences in this world.

    Finding Mercy.

    Islam teaches that God is “quick in retribution,” but he is also merciful. Muslims can eliminate their sin through repentance. If a person commits a sin, feels remorse, and makes atonement for the evil deed, God forgives the transgression. This was the pattern first set by Adam and Eve. The forgiveness of sins does not require an intermediary, such as a cleric. If an individual has violated another person's rights, however, he or she must obtain forgiveness from the wronged party before God will pardon the sin.

    The hadith include other teachings about removing sin. One hadith maintains that performing the hajj restores a person to a sinless state. Another hadith states that an angel waits several hours before recording a person's sin. If the person repents during this interval, the angel does not record the sin and God will not count it on the Day of Judgment. Other hadith include Muhammad's statements that good actions and certain prayers remove sins.

    Sufis believe that Muslims can win the battle over sin by overcoming their inclination to commit evil deeds. Through repentance, they purify themselves, eventually reaching a state where the mere thought of sin disappears.

    Modern Applications.

    Since the early days of Islam, different Muslim sects have debated the status of political and religious leaders who are guilty of sin. One group, the Khariji, believed that a caliph could remain in power only if he was sinless. If he erred, he lost the protection of the law and had to be overthrown or killed. Sunni Muslims rejected this belief, arguing that the importance of preserving social order outweighed the significance of the character of the ruler and that only God could judge who was worthy of punishment. Some extremist groups still follow Khariji doctrine, calling for the overthrow of un-Islamic Muslim governments. These include Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of Egypt's president Anwar el-Sadat. In recent decades, concerns about political freedom and social justice have led some Islamic thinkers to identify oppression as a great sin that Muslims must resist and defeat. See also Khariji; Prophets; Repentance; Satan.

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