Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan
Question: I know about many major sins (sins mentioned in the Quran and Hadith and have a legal ruling), major sins are therefore haraam to do; as for minor sins, do they encompass all that is makruh tahrim. For instance, it it makruh tahrim to pray 'Asr saalah while the sun is setting, is this a minor sin?
Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,
I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.
Major vs. Minor Sins
Historically, there was a good deal of discussion among scholars as to what constitutes a major versus minor sin.
According to most scholars, the definition of a major sin (kabira) is any sin that the Lawgiver (whether in the Qur'an or Sunna) has in particular conjoined to a punishment, threat or curse. Some examples are murder, theft, adultery, consuming usury, and drinking wine.
This would include, of course, sins that are not specifically mentioned in the Qur'an or hadith, yet are of equal or more trangression, as deduced by the jurists. Examples are treason, usurping wealth, and consuming intoxicants other than wine.
[Ansari/Bihari, Fawatih Rahamut sharh Musallam Thubut; Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil wa Asrar al-Ta'wil]
A minor sin (saghira), then, would be any other act mentioned in the Sacred Law or books of jurisprudence as being sinful.
However if one were to persist in committing a minor sin until it became a part of one's lifestyle, then it would be deemed a major sin, since that would indicate little care and concern about one's religious practice. [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar; Ibn Nujaym, Fath al-Ghaffar Sharh al-Manar]
Repentance and Effacement
Our books of theology mention that a major sin requires repentance (tawba) for it to be erased; otherwise, Allah may choose to pardon it or may choose to punish the servant for it.
Minor sins, however, can be effaced by certain acts of obedience as mentioned in various hadiths, such as performing wudu (in an excellent manner), the ritual prayer, the Friday prayer; fasting in Ramadan; having an accepted hajj, and as stated in the Qur'an, avoiding major sins.
Allah Most High states, "If you shun the major sins which you are forbidden, We will efface your [minor] sins for you, and cause you to enter an honorable place of entering." [4:31]
[Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid Sharh Jawharat al-Tawhid; Sawi, Sharh Jawharat al-Tawhid]
Haram vs. Makruh Tahriman
While the criteria of major/minor sins was dealt with by all four schools of jurisprudence, the distinction between unlawful (haram) and prohibitively disliked (makruh tahriman) is one specific to the Hanafis.
According to the Hanafi school, a sin is unlawful (haram) if it is established as sinful by definitive texts (nusus qat`iyya), i.e., texts that have reached us by multiple-chain transmission (tawatur) and regarding which there was no scholarly disagreement. All such sins are major sins. Examples including neglecting the prayer (salat), refusing to pay almsgiving (zakat), or marrying one's mother or sister.
Deeming such sins as permissible is considered a type of denial or rejection of what is necessarily part of the religion, and hence could entail disbelief.
A sin is prohibitively disliked (makruh tahriman) if it is established as sinful by non-definitive texts (nusus dhanniyya), i.e., texts that do not meet the above criteria of being definitive.
[Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar]
Some of these are major sins (as per the definition of most scholars, mentioned above), and some are minor sins.
Examples include witnessing or recording usurious transactions, taking bribes, getting tatooed, imitating the opposite gender, praying with the urge to urinate or defecate, or for a man to wear gold or silver.
Delaying Asr Until Sunset
The example you specifically ask about – delaying the Asr prayer without a valid excuse until shortly before sunset – is prohibitively disliked. [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar]
There is a hadith in Sahih Muslim that states, "That is the prayer of the hypocrite: he sits around watching the sun until, when it is between the two horns of Satan [i.e., about to set], he rises and pecks at it in four [i.e., prays four rakas quickly, like a bird pecking its beak], not remembering Allah therein save very little."
Imam Kasani describes this hadith as indicating "a specific threat regarding praying Asr in this time." [Bada`i al-Sana`i]
So as per the definition of a major sin cited above, this act would constitute a major sin according to the Hanafis. And Allah knows best.
May Allah forgive us for all sins, major and minor; and may He grant us the tawfiq to avoid all that displeases Him. Amin.
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani