Does Allah Only Accept Repentance From Those Who Commit Evil “In Ignorance”? – An Explanation of Qur’an 4:17

Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan

Question: Could you please clarify this issue for me? I have no doubt that Allah accepts the repentance from his slaves. This is evident from numerous passages of the Quran. In Surah Nisaa verse 17 it states that Allah only accepts repentance from those who do evil in ignorance and foolishness. Could this interpretation of the verse suggest that those who do evil in other than evil and foolishness Allah won’t accept their repentance? I know this is not the case but could you clarify what the verse is saying?

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.

The Verse in Question

“Repentance from Allah is only for those who commit evil in ignorance and then soon thereafter return back [to Allah] in repentance: such people, Allah relents unto them, and Allah is ever All-knowing, All-wise.” [4:17]

The Phrase “In Ignorance”

Commentators mention that the phrase “in ignorance” does not serve to exclude others who commit evil not out of ignorance; rather, it serves to clarify the state of all evildoers, as “sin itself entails ignorance and utter foolishness.” [Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil wa Asrar al-Ta’wil]

Imam Zamakhshari explains, “This is because committing an evil act is of that which is brought about by stupidity and base desire, not that which is brought about by wisdom and intellect.” [Tafsir Kashshaf]

Imam Abu Su’ud echoes this and adds, “What is meant is not that the person doesn’t know it is evil; rather, he fails to reflect on its long-term consequences, just like an ignoramus.”

Imam Abu Su’ud also cites many of the salaf to confirm this understanding:

Qatada said, “The Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) agreed that every act by which one disobeys Allah entails ignorance, whether it was done deliberately or not.”

It is related that Mujahid said, “Whoever disobeys Allah Most High is an ignoramus, until he desists from his act of ignorance [i.e., sin].”

Zajjaj said, “What is meant by His statement, ‘in ignorance’ is their choosing vanishing pleasure over everlasting pleasure.” [Irshad al-Aql al-Salim]

The Phrase “Soon Thereafter”

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that the masters of tafsir cited above explain that what is meant in the verse by repentance from the sin occurring “soon thereafter” is “before death.”

This is confirmed by many prophetic hadiths, such as, “Verily Allah Mighty and Majestic accepts the repentance of the servant so long as he doesn’t sound his death-rattle.” [Sunan Tirmidhi]

May Allah grant us all the tawfiq to be in a state of repentance every day and night, amin.

And Allah knows best.

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani