Ihbat, in theological terms, means the cancellation of the reward of obedience and good deeds due to the commission of sins. Theologians of the Mu’tazilah school of thought believe that if a Muslim performs an act of obedience to Allah, and thereafter commits a sin such that the sin’s punishment exceeds the good deed’s reward, then the sin destroys the reward of obedience in such a way that it is as if the person had never performed any good deed at all, and does not deserve any reward whatsoever. However, according to them, if the reward of a sinner weighs more than his sin, the issue of takfir arises, which means that the reward overpowers and conceals the sin. Prominent shi’a theologians do not agree with this view.
Ihbat originates from the Arabic bab of if’aal and is derived from the root word ‘Habata’ which means the destruction or obliteration of the reward of an act. As ihbat is a transitive verb, it means to cancel or to destroy the reward of an act.
If’aal that is derived from the two origins ‘Habata’ and ‘Ihbat’ appears in the Quran 16 times in varied forms and all of them are regarding an act. Their applied meaning is obtained by looking at the indicators mentioned in the Quranic verses and reading them as transitive or intransitive to mean an act to be annulled or to annul an act. In the Quran, it is mentioned for the following people:
- Those who are attached to the worldly life and drowned in its enjoyment;
- Spiritually sick believers who secretly take non-believers as their guardians
- Non-believers who scare the believers from war and when the fear of war is averted, want its bounty;
- Those who kill the Prophets;
- Those who disbelieve in the verses of the Quran and call it a lie;
- People who turn away from religion and faith;
- Those who have become disbelievers and close the path of God towards them;
- People who want to invoke the wrath of God;
- Those who dislike what is sent down by God;
- Polytheists as well as believers who associate partners with God;
- Believers who raise their voices higher than that of the Prophet (s) in his presence.
Viewpoint of the Mu’tazila
The theologians of the Mu’tazila school of thought believe in the concept of Ihbat due to their belief in the core of God’s promise of reward and punishment (wa’d and wa’id) and have used various reasoning to prove it. However, they differ among themselves in the details.
Viewpoint of Qadi ‘Abdul Jabbar
Qadi ‘Abdul Jabbar Hamedani (d. 415/ 1024) was a noted Mu’tazilite theorist in proving the authenticity of the matter of ihbat and takfir. He first stated that the measure of one’s sins and good deeds are never equal. In other words, it cannot be that the reward and punishment of a person be of the same and equal amount because in the hereafter there isn’t a third place besides heaven and hell. Now, if such a person is sent to hell, he is treated unjustly, and if he is sent to heaven, then two possibilities arise; one, he will either be rewarded- which isn’t acceptable because rewarding somebody who does not deserve it is obnoxious- or two, God would grace them like He does the children and the insane- which is also not acceptable because his case is different from theirs. Thus, there are following kinds of people mentioned in this premise; a person who was always obedient to God and so in the hereafter too, deserves to be rewarded; or a person who was always disobedient and a sinner and therefore will receive divine punishment. But the problem arises for a person who obeyed as well as disobeyed God. Regarding such a person, it is supposed that-
- One, he is neither worthy of reward, nor punishment and therefore doesn’t experience reward or punishment.
- Two, he is worthy of both reward and punishment and thus experiences both reward and punishment at the same time.
- Third, the concept of ihbat and takfir is applied where the greater measure conquers the lesser one and annuls it.
The first supposition is not correct as it is against the consensus of the population. The second one too, is unlikely because it is not possible for a person to face reward and punishment both at the same time. Hence, the only remaining possibility is that if the reward is greater, it will cancel the sin or if the sin is greater, it will overcome the reward.
Difference between the Mu’tazilites and the Khawarij
According to the Mu’tazila, only a greater sin can destroy and obliterate an act of obedience because unlike the Khawarij, they believe in the existence of smaller sins. However, they add a clause which says that God does not show us the exact smaller sin committed by us because such an act, in its own capacity, would encourage people to commit smaller sins and doing so is considered offensive.
The viewpoint of Ash’arites
Abul Hasan Ash’ari, the great theologian and the founder of the Ash’ari school of thought believes that a servant doesn’t hold any claim in the presence of God. Reward is something that God graces the servant with; that is to say, He grants something to him which he didn’t deserve. Obedience to God simply lays the foundation for God’s grace. In the case of punishment too, the same idea is applied. In other words, a factor like disobedience or sin doesn’t ever merit punishment. It is because God caused him to go astray and deprived him, that he became a disbeliever. Ash’ari went so further on to say that if God forgave all the disbelievers and made them enter heaven, such an act is apt because of his mercy and cannot be criticized and is not incompatible with His wisdom. Ash’ari discredited ihbat because God knew from the very beginning that a certain person is worth rewarding so He does not cancel out his reward due to his commission of sin. Similarly, for a person whom God knows to be worth punishing, He does not forego his punishment due to any act of obedience by him. A sinner and a good-doer will receive just exactly that much punishment and reward that God had prescribed for them from the beginning.
Viewpoint of Imamiyah
Amongst the Imamiyah school of thought, only the Nowbakhtis accept the I’itizalite view on ihbat whereas the other theologians reject that view.
Shaykh Tusi, in refuting the concept of ihbat, states that there is no conflict between obedience and sin, and reward and punishment that both of these should have an effect on the other. Conflict exists only between two contradicting things, and there isn’t a contradiction between obedience and sin because both of these are from the same genre. In other words, the same act that appears in the form of obedience can also emerge in the form of a sin, For example, sitting in somebody’s house in a way of usurpation is a sin whereas a regular sitting without such an intention is not, and both of these are of the same category and genre. Similarly, there isn’t a conflict in retribution, because reward and punishment also are from the same genre. Even if we assume that there is a contradiction between these two, a conflict would never arise between them because both of these are non-existent, and a true contradiction in the state of non-existence cannot be in conflict with its contradicting party. For example, non-existent darkness and light do not have any interaction between them therefore they cannot contradict each other. On the other hand, according to Shaykh Tusi, the belief that “If somebody has done good and evil deeds and this makes him deserve praise as well as admonition, he is treated as somebody who has neither done any good nor evil” does not intellectually make sense. Similarly, believing in something like, “If somebody’s evil deeds exceed his good ones, he should be considered as one who has not performed any good deeds at all, or vice versa, if somebody’s good deeds exceed his bad ones, he should be treated as one who has not committed any bad deeds” doesn’t stand the test of reason.
Ibn Maytham Bahrani
Ibn Maytham Bahrani (d. 699/1300) is another theologian from the Imamiyah school of thought who refuted ihbat using philosophical methods. He stated that the survival of a complete or perfect cause necessitates the survival of its effect. Faith preceding a sin is the complete cause that deserves reward. Keeping in mind that this faith is present even after committing a sin, hence, it necessitates the existence of its effect i.e. his deserving reward.