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Expiation of Sins

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Expiation (takfir) of sins (Arabic: تکفیر الذنوب) is the elimination of sins or their consequences on the Day of Judgment as a reward of good deeds. In the Qur'an and hadiths, faith, righteous deeds, repentance, and alms-giving in secret, among others things, are counted among the actions that expiate sins.

Twelver Shiites and Ash'arites accept expiation only in the cases mentioned in the Qur'an and hadiths, but the Mu'tazila believes in expiation for all sins.

Imami theologians maintain that the Mu'tazili view is against some Qura'nic verses according to which good deeds and evil deeds will be separately rewarded and punished separately.

Definition

Etymologically, takfir (expiation), means to cover and hide. This is why the word "kafir", from the same root, is used for the one who is ungrateful for God's blessings, as if he hides them. Takfir (expiation) in theology is the elimination of sins or their punishment with the reward of righteous deeds.

Takfir stands in contrast to ihbat, which is the elimination of the reward of righteous deeds as a consequence of sins. The word "takfir" is also used in the sense of excommunication, or attributing kufr (disbelief) to a Muslim.

The Causes of Expiation

In the Qur'an and hadiths, some deeds are introduced as expiating sins, including faith, righteous deeds, repentance, refraining from grave sins, alms-giving in secret, jihad, intercession, visiting the shrine of Imam al-Husayn (a), reciting the Qur'an, and performing night prayers.

Expiation in Theology

Expiation for sins is also a theological issue, usually discussed together with the issue of ihbat. It is discussed under the topic of resurrection by some Shiite and Sunni scholars, and under the topic of promise and threat (al-wa'd wa-l-wa'id) by Mu'tazili theologians.

Muslim theologians agree that if a disbeliever converts to Islam, his prior disbelief and sins will be expiated. However, there is disagreement as to the sins committed by a Muslim while being a Muslim:

  • The Mu'tazila maintains that all sins can be expiated and that a righteous deed can eliminate all kinds of sin. The reason behind this belief, it is said, is that the Mu'tazila believes that a person who does righteous deeds deserves reward and the one who commits sins deserves punishment. Now, if a person's deeds were a mixture of righteous deeds and sins, he would deserve punishment and reward at the same time, which is not possible. Thus, the Mu'tazila developed the theory of ihbat and takfir to avoid this problem.
  • Shiites and Ash'arites do not accept the theory of general ihbat and maintain that righteous deeds only expiate for those sins that are mentioned in the Qur'an or hadiths. In this regard, they adduce verses such as "So whoever does an atom's weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom's weight of evil will see it" [1], according to which righteous deeds and sins will be rewarded and punished separately.

Elimination of the Sin or Its Punishment?

There is also disagreement as to whether the sin itself will be eliminated or only its punishment. It is reported that Abu Ali al-Jubba'i, a prominent Mu'tazili figure, maintained that the sin itself will be eliminated, but his son Abu Hashim, another outstanding Mu'tazili theologian, held that only the punishment will be removed.

Muslim philosophers who believe that expiation eliminates the sin itself and at the same time maintain that no being goes out of existence give either of the following explanations:

  1. Sin is essentially non-existent;
  2. Just as the being of a sinner transforms into another being, his sins also transform into righteous deeds.

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