- Major sins in the Quran
All heavenly messages in general, and also Muhammad’s message in particular, distinguish between two categories of divine commands:
orders (Gebote/commandment) and prohibitions (Verbote/ Prohibitions). Orders are meant to guide human behavior to concrete actions by issuing a (positive) command ‘Do it!’, while prohibitions restrict human behavior by asking people to avoid certain actions with a (negative) order ‘Do not!’. prohibited acts are classified as major or minor sins, the prohibition of idolatry being on top of the list of major sins.
Commands also come in the categories major and minor: to have faith in the existence of God is a major command (kaba”ir), and the order to be polite to a passer-by on the street is, so to speak, a minor command (sagha”ir). Between these major and minor orders lies the command to believe in the Last Day combined with the command to do righteous acts that are beneficial to society.
It is one of God’s blessings to the believers who receive His orders, that ‘He made them love belief and hate unbelief, wickedness, and rebellion’ (49:7).
Unbelief, is an openly hostile view of a specific command or a person, hence, unbelief (kufr), in this context, is a publicly declared enmity against Muhammad’s message and, according to 4:37, a ‘miserly that expresses a disbelief in God’s bounty and grace’. Transgression of God’s orders is called fisq (pl. fusuq); when Iblis disobeyed God and did not bow down in front of Adam, ‘…he broke the command (fa-fasaqa) of his Lord…’ (Kahf:50).
Transgression of God’s prohibition is given the term ‘isyan, which the text uses when it talks about Adam’s rebellion against God’s prohibition not to come near the tree, ‘…thus did Adam disobey (‘asi) his Lord, and allow himself to be seduced’ (ta-ha:121).
Another of God’s great blessings is to tell those who have disobeyed His prohibitions that if they avoid the major sins (kaba”ir) Allah will ‘expel out of you all the evil in you, and admit you to a gate of great honor’ (Nisa”:31). However, such forgiveness is the sole prerogative of God, no human ijtihad is allowed here.
Prohibitions in the Book are thus divided into two categories:
- major sins (kaba”ir) that are fixed and absolutely valid for all time (these are the haram taboos),
- b) minor sins (sagha”ir).
But while it is possible to enumerate the prohibitions in the Book and qualify which of them is an absolute taboo, it is impossible to do so for the major sins (kaba”ir). The simple reason for this is that not all major sins were transgressions of absolute taboos as it depended on the prevailing social conditions whether a major sin was perceived as such. For example, the sins of idolatry, usury, and wine consumption were the gravest major sins during the first thirteen years of Muhammad’s mission and his confrontation with the standards of Meccan society and the prevailing norms of the tribe of the Quraish. After the migration to Medina this changed to desertion from military duties (after
the ban to kill was lifted), which had not been previously mentioned as a major sin. In another context, during the time of Lot homosexuality was so widely practiced that it had become the most serious major sin. Thus, Allah had finally to send a new prophet-messenger with the mission to restore (heterosexual) morality, redirecting Lot’s people back to the right path (and when they did not listen, they were destroyed). It is true that the Book reiterates and reevaluates a number of previous prohibitions, and yet nowhere does it categorize them as ‘major sins’ (kaba”ir).
If the term kaba”ir is mentioned it is without the definite article, that is, its numbers are kept indefinite because the noun with a definite article would suggest a limit of some kind that the Book did not want to specify. Instead, the Book says, yes, absolute taboos (muharramat) are major sins (kaba”ir) but not every major sin is an absolute taboo. The indefinite nature of kaba”ir allows us to consider as ‘major sins’ those things that a society regards as the gravest, most heinous crimes (which may change from epoch to epoch and from society to society), but we are not permitted to add such prohibitions to the list of absolute taboos since these are defined only by God.
- The Prophet and major sins
The evidence that the prophetical understanding of ‘major sins’, as in most other areas, does not differ significantly from the Qur’anic concept is overwhelming. In a hadith quoted by al-Razi we hear, for example, that Muhammad considered public defamation of innocent women and false accusation of adultery as one of the most heinous crimes Within the context of his efforts to establish a new society upon the sound basis of good relations within and between families and clans, we see Muhammad’s definition of kaba”ir as a logical and necessary consequence of life in seventh-century Arabia.
It also corresponds to the Book’s appeal to root out injustice (dhulm) as one of the most serious dangers for the sound functioning of a society.
Since there was no political injustice and no oppressive usurpation of power in Medina at Muhammad’s time, it was perfectly legitimate to target public defamations as a form of injustice that needed to be wiped out. One should also note that the Prophet did not use the definite article al- when he talked about the kaba”ir but left it as undefined, indeterminate and unspecified as he found it in the Qur’an. This indicates that when he proposed his understanding of what ‘major sins’ are, he knew that it was (only) relevant for his own period of time and for his own society and did not rule out the possibility that the perception of such sins might be subject to considerable change.
- The companions and major sins
After Muhammad’s death the efforts to accurately define what constitutes a ‘major sin’ and an ‘absolute taboo’ were seriously undermined by the sudden circulation of obscure hadith traditions that, for example, issued a bizarre number of kaba”ir, ranging from nine to seven hundred, and which were all treated as absolute taboos. We observe the tendency to blend together major and minor sins, and proscriptions and absolute taboos so that clear demarcation lines eventually disappeared and all the different types and classes of orders and prohibitions were perceived equally and indiscriminately as ‘what God has prohibited’. Even then it was obvious how weak the chains of transmission back to the Prophet were.
- The generations after the time of the companions This situation became aggravated within two generations after the Prophet’s death. We see an explosion of hadiths circulated in the different centers of the Empire and which could not possibly all go back to the Prophet.
Bear in mind the fact that Muhammad received his first revelation at the age of forty and that he died twenty-three years later at the age of sixty-three. He had therefore twenty-three years as a prophet, that is—based on a lunar calendar— 195,408 hours, to discuss and debate the matters of the new faith (supposing, for the sake of the argument, that he did not sleep a single minute throughout a twenty-four hour day), in addition to his role as a prophet and messenger who transmitted God’s revelation to the people.
If we assume that Muhammad had roughly 85,000 hours left to fulfil his prophetical role (in his ten years in Medina), and since we have now in front of us a total of 750,000 hadiths that were circulated after his death from his Medinan period (of which Imam Ahmad reported 40,000 in his Musnad alone), which means that the Prophet must have issued on average nine hadiths per hour which is, of course, absurd. Because of this very shaky basis for the authenticity of most hadiths and the likelihood that a considerable number were fabricated during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, we believe it is,
- a) dishonest to assert the authenticity of the hadiths, and
- b) illegitimate to construct a body of texts, called Sunna, on the basis of such dubious evidence (fabricated hadiths) and then oblige Muslim-Believers to use it as a binding source of law. We know that legal rulings can only be found in Muhammad’s message, not his Sunna, and that if the Sunna was to be binding it would mean a good deal of hardship (socially, psychologically, and financially) for most people today, which contradicts the Book’s imperative
that ‘God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties…’ (Baqara:185).
And yet, we also know that after Muhammad’s death, the community of believers increased more and more, with the Empire becoming diverse and heterogeneous in its composition.
Major sins in the Quran – b is next