Repentance: Commentary on Surah Al Nisa – Part 1

Repentance: Commentary on Surah Al Nisa

Contributed by Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i commonly known as Allameh Tabataba’i, was one of the most prominent thinkers of philosophy and contemporary Shia Islam. He is famous for Tafsir al-Mizan, a twenty-seven-volume work of Quranic exegesis, which he worked on from 1954 until 1972.

Repentance In Its Full Significance


epentance, in its full significance as laid down in the Qur’an, is among those positive teachings which are exclusive property of the Qur’an. Repentance, in the meaning of belief after disbelief and polytheism, was common in all divine religions, vis. the religions of Musa and ‘Isa (peace be on both); but it was seen as ‘belief’ and that was that; there was nothing like analysing the reality of repentance and extending it to the belief.

Not only that. It appears from the foundations on which the Christianity was built as an independent religion, that repentance is useless and man cannot gain any benefit from it. This may easily be seen in the arguments offered for explaining the crucifixion and atonement; as narrated in the third volume1 of
this book where we have discussed the creation of Christ.

Nevertheless, the Church went so far in the matter of repentance that it was selling indulgence certificates turning it into a merchandise; and the priests were [and are] pardoning sins of those who confessed before them. But as for the Qur’an, it has analysed man’s condition seeing that he has been invited to Allah and provided with guidance; and looking at the perfection, honour and felicity he is entitled to in the hereafter near Allah; which is indispensable in his intended journey to his Lord – and that analysis has found the man utterly poor in his person, empty-handed in his entity. Allah says:

“O men! you are the ones who stand in need of Allah, and Allah is He Who is the Self-sufficient,
the Praised One” (35:15).

Also, He says:
“… and they control not for themselves any harm or profit, and they control not death, nor life,
nor raising (the dead) to life” (25:3).

Therefore, man has fallen in the pit of unhappiness, away from divine proximity, isolated in his neediness, as the words of Allah point to it: “Certainly, We created man in the best make” (95:4).

“Then We rendered him the lowest of the low” (95:5).

“And there is not one of you but shall come down to it; this is a decided decree of your Lord”

“And We will deliver those who were pious, and We will leave the unjust therein on their knees”

“… therefore, let him not drive you both from the garden so that you should be put to toil”

Consequently, if he wants to achieve the position of honour and enjoy ever-lasting happiness, he must come out from that pit of unhappiness, return from the far away station, and transfer himself to the
proximity of his Lord. It is what is called his returning to his Lord in the basic happiness, i.e., true faith, and in secondary happiness, i.e., all good deeds. This is what is called repentance and returning from root of happiness, i.e., polytheism, and branches of unhappiness, i.e., evil deeds other than polytheism.

It is on repentance (i.e., returning to Allah and removing all the pollutions of infelicity and disobedience)
that settlement in the abode of honour through true belief depends, as does enjoyment of various bounties of obedience and proximity.

In other words, man can reach nearer to Allah in the appointed abode of honour only if lie repents from
polytheism and all disobedience. Allah says:? “… and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful” (24:31).

Thus repentance, in the meaning of returning to Allah, covers both types of repentance; rather it covers
these two and other kinds also, as we shall describe later, Allah willing.

Man is needy in himself and does not control for himself any good or happiness except by favour of his
Lord. Consequently, for this return too, he needs a favour from his Lord and a divine help in his affairs.
The servant’s return to his Lord with feelings of servitude and dependence needs first a return of his
Lord to him with help and support; and it is a return of Allah to the servant that proceeds repentance of
the servant to his Lord, as Allah has said: “… then He turned to them (mercifully) that they might turn (to Him) …” (9:118).

But repentance and return to Allah is of no use unless Allah accepts it by forgiving his sins and cleansing
him of the pollution of separateness; and this is the second returning of Allah that follows the servant’s
repentance, as Allah has said in the verse under discussion: so, these it is to whom Allah turns (mercifully)…

On meditating deeply, it will be realized that this plurality of divine returning occurs only when one looks
at it vis-a-vis servant’s repentance. Otherwise, it is actually a single return; that is, Allah turns to His
servant with mercy and compassion; and it takes place when a servant repents and returns to Allah –
and that mercy covers the servant from before his repentance till after it.

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