Forgiving Major Sins and the Hadith of the Prostitute Who Gives Water to the Thirsty Dog

Answered by Sidi Salman Younas

Question: My question is about the following hadith: A prostitute was forgiven by Allah because passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for it. So, Allah forgave her because of that.

Does this mean that Allah will forgive major sins (all major sins excluding major kufr/major shirk) if one does good deeds even if one hasn’t actually repented for the major sin they committed? Or does the hadith mean that when she gave water to the thirsty dog Allah forgave a part of her sin (zina) but not all of the sin, only a part of it, is it possible that this is what was meant by the hadith?

Answer: assalamu `alaykum

Thank you for your question.

The position of Ahl al-Sunna is that Allah may forgive a major sin whether one repented from it or not. Even though the basis is that a major sin requires an actual act of repentance, it is within Allah’s power to forgive a slave who performs such an act even without him actually repenting. This is considered to be from Allah’s divine grace and favor.

The Meaning of the Narration in Question

The narration cited in the question is often used as proof by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna that major sins may be forgiven even without repentance.

In his commentary on the narration in question, Imam Badr al-Din states that, “In it is a proof… that Allah may  overlook major sins due to small acts of virtue as an act of divine favor from Him.” [`Umdat al-Qari] Similarly, Mulla `Ali al-Qari states, “In this narration is a proof for the forgiveness of a major sin without repentance and this is the position of the Ahl al-Sunna.” [Mirqat al-Mafatih]

The proof for the above position is also clear from the verse, “Allah does not forgive association of partners with Him and He forgives whatever is other than this for whomsoever He wills.” (4:48) Here, the particle “maa” (whatever) is considered general, including thereby both major and minor sins. Since there is no stipulated condition of such a forgiveness being after repentance in relation to a major sin, it is understood to mean that Allah may forgive any sin – including a major one before repentance – out of His pure grace and favor. [Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil; Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir]

This further serves as a refutation of certain groups who stated that Allah is necessitated to punish an individual who commits a major sin and does not repent from it.

As such, this narration is understood to be from the forgiveness of sins, including major sins, due to Allah’s grace and favor.

The Forgiveness of Major Sins

Based on the above, it can be stated that there are three ways in which a major sin can be forgiven:

a. By sincere repentance, which entails leaving the sin, remorse at performing it, and making the reolve to never perform it again. The scholars mention that in such a case one can be confident that his repentance has been accepted by Allah.

b. By Allah’s pure grace, generosity, and favor. Allah may therefore forgive whomsoever He wills without that individual having actually repented.

c. By the performance of certain acts, like Hajj, according to some scholars.

[Bajuri, Sharh al-Jawhara; Laqani, Hidayyat al-Murid]

And Allah Knows Best