One of the major troublesome areas of human existence is the problem of sin or evil in the world. It is commonly believed that sin started with Adam and Eve during their life in the Garden of Eden. That event led to the Fall and has ever since branded the human race with guilt, stigma, and bewilderment.
Islam has taken a unique position on the whole issue, a position which is not shared by any other religion we know. The Qur’an states that Adam and Eve were directed by God to reside in the Garden of Eden and enjoy its produce as they pleased, assured of bountiful supplies and comfort. But they were warned not to approach a particular tree so that they would not run into harm and injustice. Then Satan intrigued them to temptation and caused them to lose their joyful state. They were expelled from the Garden and brought down to earth to live, die, and taken out again at last for the Final Judgment. Having realized what they had done, they felt shame, guilt, and remorse. They prayed for God’s mercy and were forgiven (Qur’an, 2:35-38; 7:19-25; 20:117-123).
This symbolic event is significantly revealing. It tells that the human being is imperfect and ever wanting even if he were to live in paradise. But committing a sin or making a mistake, as Adam and Eve did, does not necessarily deaden the human heart, prevent spiritual reform or stop moral growth. On the contrary, the human being has enough sensibility to recognize his sins and shortcomings. More importantly, he is capable of knowing where to turn and to whom he should turn for guidance. Much more important is the fact that God is ever prepared to respond to the sincere calls of those who seek His aid. He is so Gracious and Compassionate that His Forgiveness is Encompassing and His Mercy all – Inclusive (Qur’an, 7:156). One last revealing reading of the event is that discrimination on the basis of sex and hereditary guilt or sin are alien to the spirit of Islam.
The idea of Original Sin or hereditary criminality has no room in the teachings of Islam. Man, according to the Qur’an (30:30) and to the Prophet, is born in natural state of purity or fitrah, that is, Islam or submission to the will and law of God. Whatever becomes of man after birth is the result of external influence and intruding factors. To put the matter in terms of modern thought, human nature is malleable; it is the socialization process, particularly the home environment, that is crucial. It plays a decisive role in the formation of human personality and the development of moral character. This does not deny to the individual the freedom of choice or exempt him from responsibility. Rather, it is a relief from that heavy burden of hereditary criminality or instinctual sin.
God, by definition, is Just, Wise, Merciful, Compassionate, and Perfect. He has created man by breathing into him of His own Spirit (Qur’an, 15:29; 32:9; 66:12). Since God is the absolute infinite good and His Spirit the absolute perfect one; since man, through creation, received of the Spirit of God, then man was bound to retain at least some portion of this good Spirit of the Creator. This may account for the good dispositions of man and his spiritual longings. But, on the other hand, God created man to worship Him, not to be His equal, rival, the perfect incarnation or absolute embodiment of His goodness. This means that no matter how much good and perfect man may be, by the grace of creation, he is still far short of the goodness and perfection of the Creator. Man is not without such qualities, to be sure. But they are limited and proportionate to man’s finite nature, capacity, and responsibility. This may explain the imperfection and fallibility of man.
However, imperfection and fallibility are not the equivalent of sin or synonymous with criminality – at least not in Islam. If man is imperfect he is not left helpless or deserted by God to fall victim to his shortcomings. He is empowered by revelations, supported by reason, fortified by the freedom of choice, and guided by various social and psychological dispositions to seek and achieve relative perfection. The constant gravitation between the forces of good and evil is the struggle of life. It gives man something to look forward to, ideals to seek, work to do, and roles to play. It makes his life interesting and meaningful, not monotonous and stagnant. On the other hand, it pleases God to see His servants in a state of spiritual and moral victory.
According to the moral scale of Islam, it is not a sin that man is imperfect or fallible. This is part of his nature as a finite limited creature. But it is a sin if he has the ways and means of relative perfection and chooses not to seek it. A sin is any act, thought, or will that (1) is deliberate, (2) defies the unequivocal law of God, (3) violates the right of God or the right of man, (4) is harmful to the soul or body, (5) is committed repeatedly, and (6) is normally avoidable. These are the components of sin which is not innate or hereditary. It is true, however, that man has the potential capacity of sin latent in him; but this is not greater than his capacity of piety and goodness. If he chooses to actualize the potential of sin instead of the potential of goodness, he will be adding a new external element to his pure nature. For this added external element man alone is responsible.
In Islam, there are major and minor sins as there are sins against God and sins against both God and man. All sins against God, except one, are forgivable if the sinner sincerely seeks forgiveness. The Qur’an has stated that truly God does not forgive the sin of shirk (polytheism, pantheism, trinity, etc.). But He forgives sins other than this and pardons whom He wills. Yet if the polytheist or atheist comes back to God, his sin will be forgiven. Sins against men are forgivable only if the offended pardon the offender or if the proper compensations and / or punishments are applied.
In conclusion, sin is acquired not inborn, emergent not built-in, avoidable not inevitable. It is a deliberate conscious violation of the unequivocal law of God. If man does something that is truly caused by natural instincts or absolutely irresistible drives and uncontrollable urges, then such an act is not a sin in Islam. Otherwise, God’s purpose will be pointless and man’s responsibility will be in vain. God demands of man what lies within the human possibilities and reaches.