Freedom from sin

by Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

In talking about sin another urgent question needs to be looked at. Why and how do people fall into it? Knowledge of the causes and then of managing them wisely with the intention of ultimately removing them is one of the fundamental ways of overcoming the disease. There are both general and specific causes of sin whether they are sins of the body or sins of the heart. In this and the next essay we will look at the general causes. The specific causes of sin will be dealt with in future essays and as the need arises. Generally speaking people fall into a particular sin as a result of mainly four causes:

  1. Lack of knowledge
  2. The influences of Shaytan
  3. The nafs or lower self
  4. Friends and peer groups

Let us look briefly at each of these points starting with the first and second:

Lack of Knowledge



Lack of knowledge is the great shortcoming of humankind. Educational systems of all types exist precisely to overcome this universal human weakness. Quite obviously sins cannot be avoided if they are not known to be sins. The beginning of right living or the pursuance of the good life depends entirely on the degree of knowledge of the devotee. It has to be remembered though that knowledge can be both acquired (kasbi) or innate (fitri). Often people with a minuteae of acquired knowledge feel dissatisfied with their lives. This dissatisfaction sometimes has its source in the innate knowledge of goodness and evil that every soul is inspired with. As Allah, the Most High, says: “And by the Soul and its creation in perfect proportion and balance, And the knowledge of evil and good He inspired into it.” [Surah al-Shams,v 7-8].

Much of Islamic spirituality is geared to the awakening of that innate sense of good and evil. But this innate understanding of good and evil is not enough. Human nature is complex. Circumstance and upbringing can blind the fitrah. Some scholars hold that it can even be changed and distorted. As a result all of the well-known schools of spiritual development or tariqah (pl. turuq) as they are known stipulates the acquisition of a basic knowledge of Islam before higher instruction is given. And this, with good reason, if only to ensure that the student has a firm foundation on which to develop. It is hoped of-course that a basic knowledge of sin has been clearly described in the previous essays in this series.

Learning and acquiring knowledge is obligatory in Islam. One cannot go to the masjid everyday for the daily salah and neglect the important duty of gaining more knowledge. The two must go together. Doing the one and neglecting the other and still imagining that we are improving as Muslims is one of the great delusions of our time. The Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said, “Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim male and female”[ Narrated by Bukhari]. In this hadith we have one of the rare occasions where the Prophet (s), may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, specifically uses the Arabic term “faridah” or “obligation” mainly to underline the importance of knowledge.

Shaytan and the heart


In order to explain in meaningful terms the relationship between our heart and the workings of Shaytan, Ibn Qudama compares the heart to a fortress. He says:

Know that the heart is like a fortress. The Shaytan is the enemy who wants to invade the fortress, own, and control it. And there is no way to protect the fortress except by guarding the entrances. The doors cannot be guarded if we are ignorant of them and the Shaytan cannot be repelled except through knowledge of his routes of penetration. The doors and pathways of the Shaytan are the qualities of the slave and they are many. [Mukhtasar minhaj al-qasidin, Abridgement of the path of the seekers, Ibn Qudama, pg. 193-194].

Traditionally the word heart (qalb) has a number of different applications. In this passage the author uses it to refer to the entire non-physical part of us. And we know the heart in this sense is both susceptible to higher influences in the form of guidance from Allah, the Most High, and tends to rebel against that guidance through its desires and passions. Now the point of the author is that Shaytan is able to influence us and work his tricks of illusion and deception precisely because we are not vigilant enough and not knowledgeable enough of our shortcomings and of our negative qualities.

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