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Thoughts and Actions

Adil Salahi

Arab News, 6/12/04

People often find themselves thinking of doing or saying something which they know to be forbidden in Islam. If such thoughts are often repeated, they are troubled by them. They know that what they are thinking of is sinful, but the thought often occurs. Do such thoughts constitute a sin? Are people liable to be punished for them? How are they to overcome them?

Abu Hurayrah quotes the Prophet (peace be upon him) as saying: “People said to the Prophet: ‘We entertain thoughts which we would not like to put in words even though we could have everything under the sun.’ The Prophet said: ‘Do you really feel that?’ They answered in the affirmative. He said: ‘This is a clear sign of firm faith.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).

This Hadith tells of the Prophet’s companions’ reluctance to express in words the thoughts that occur to them. They would not do that for anything this world can offer. This indicates that their thoughts are bad or evil or forbidden, and they abhor the fact that they occur to them. They know that they could not stop these thoughts, but they are troubled by them and would steer away from acting on them, or even putting them in words. Hence, the Prophet reassures them that their abhorrence, which sums up their reaction to such thoughts, indicates true and clear faith. This is indeed the case, because it is their strong faith that generates their reaction to their thoughts. Had they not been strong in faith, they would not have hated them so much.

Another authentic Hadith that clarifies this case quotes Shahr ibn Hawshab as saying: “I visited Aishah with my maternal uncle, and he said to her: ‘A person may entertain thoughts which, if he would put in words, would ruin him in the hereafter. If he were to act on them, he would be sentenced to death.’ She said Allahu Akbar (i.e. God is supreme) three times, then she said: ‘The Prophet was asked about this and he answered: if this happens to anyone of you, let him say Allahu Akbar three times. None but a true believer feels this way.’” (Related by Muslim, Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Abu Dawood).

Again this is perfectly true, because only a believer can judge his thoughts in the way expressed by the man putting the question. He knows that such thoughts could lead him to disbelieve or to committing a sin that earns the capital punishment. Hence he tries to suppress these thoughts.

It should be clarified that such thoughts are not punishable in this life or on the Day of Judgment, as long as they remain within the realm of thought and whims. If they are not acted upon or stated verbally (in case they relate to creeds and beliefs), then they are overlooked by God.

Thoughts may vary in grade. Some are merely fleeting that leave no impression on a person’s way of thinking, beliefs or actions. Others are stronger, or longer lasting, but they do not provoke any action. Others still get a person to make a decision to act, but when the chance offers itself to act on his thought, he refrains from acting. Even though these grades differ, they all remain unpunishable.

Even if the action is prevented by circumstance, no sin is recorded against the person concerned, because the sinful action has not materialized. This is part of God’s grace, because if we were to be held accountable for our thoughts, along with our actions, we would be in a very difficult position on the Day of Judgment.

Consider the case of a young man who is troubled by his sexual urge. In today’s world, with satellite television available everywhere, and channels are devoted to show sexual obscenities and horrid perversion, thoughts of committing a sin to satisfy one’s desire may occur to such a young man every day. If he takes action to suppress such thoughts, as the Prophet has taught, then he is rewarded for not acting on his thoughts. His self-control is an act that testifies to his faith.

By contrast when action is taken then punishment for the sin intended or committed is incurred, even though the action did not achieve the end in mind. Suppose a man thought of killing another and lied in ambush. When the intended victim draws near, he aims his gun and shoots. Suppose that the target was not hit and the man is not killed, the one who fired the gun incurs the punishment for his action, which is starting a murder. Fadlullah Al-Jaylani gives the following example: Five people aim their guns at an intended victim: one hits him in his leg, injuring him, while another hits him in his head and the man dies. The third misses him altogether, while the fourth’s gun is stuck and does not fire.

The fifth had no bullet in his gun but he thought that it did. All five incur punishment, although the first two may have a greater punishment than the other three. But all of them are party to a murder.

Sometimes the thoughts are centered on questions of belief. The Prophet gives an example of the most common ones. Anas ibn Malik quotes the Prophet as saying: “People will continue to ask questions about what has no reality until they say: ‘God has created everything, but who created God?’ If a person gets to this point, he should seek refuge with God and put an end to such questions.” (Related by Al-Bukahri). A similar version is related by Muslim, in which the ending is different: “If a person gets to this point, he should say: ‘I believe in God and His messengers.’”

Another version gives yet a different ending with the Prophet recommending reading surah 112, Al-Ikhlas, making a gesture of spitting to the left and seeking refuge with God. This version is related by Abu Dawood and Al-Nassaie.

All such versions are correct, which suggest that the Prophet was asked about this more than once and every time he gave an answer that suited the person putting the question. This question will continue to occur to people at all times. Some put it to believers to try to turn them away from their faith. The Prophet’s answer makes it clear that we must not pursue this line of questioning because it leads us nowhere. It is not possible for the human mind to pursue it to a logical end. Hence, the best thing to settle the problem is to declare one’s belief in God. This may be in words, or in reading the surah that sums up in four very short verses the Islamic concept of God. “Say: He is God, the One and only God, the Eternal, the Absolute. He begets none, nor is He begotten, and there is nothing that could be compared to Him.” (112: 1-4)



Earth, a planet hungry for peace


The Israeli apartheid (security) wall around Palestinian population centers (Ran Cohen, pmc, 5/24/03).


The Israeli apartheid (security) wall around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, like a Python. (Alquds,10/25/03).

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