Does Allah Seek Repentance?




Bassam Zawadi



Some Muslims are facing difficulties with passages such as Surah 2:37, 54, 160, and others, which state that Allah repented. Most, if not all, translations would translate the Arabic word for repent as meaning "relenting towards" or "pardoned." The reason for this is because that is the correct meaning. In English, it does not make sense to say that someone "repented towards" somebody else in a way that implies that he has pardoned that person. However, in the Arabic language, the word "repent" could be used in this way.


Thus, those verses in Arabic that speak about Allah "repenting" are actually speaking about Allah pardoning or forgiving. 


Imam Al-Qurtubi has it in his commentary: 


وَقَالَ آخَرُونَ تَوْبَة اللَّه عَلَى الْعَبْد قَبُول تَوْبَته وَذَلِكَ يَحْتَمِل أَنْ يَرْجِع إِلَى قَوْله سُبْحَانه وَتَعَالَى قُبِلَتْ تَوْبَتك



Others have said that Allah's repenting to His slave means that He has accepted His slave's repentance and this is possible due to the fact that Allah Almighty said: "I have accepted your repentance" (to Adam) (Abu 'Abdullah Al-QurtubiTasfir al Jami' li-ahkam al-Qur'an, Commentary on Surah 2:160, Source)  


Imam Al-Tabari says:


وَهَلْ يَكُون تَائِب إلَّا وَهُوَ مَتُوب عَلَيْهِ أَوْ مَتُوب عَلَيْهِ إلَّا وَهُوَ تَائِب



Can there be one who is seeking repentance unless there is one repenting towards him? Or can there be one whom one is repenting towards without that one seeking repentance? (Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Jami' al-bayan fi ta'wil al-Qur'an, Commentary on Surah 2:160Source) 


Tafsir Al-Jalalayn states:


Except those who repent, turning back from such [deeds], making amends in their actions, and showing clearly what they were concealing? I shall turn [relenting], accepting their repentance; I am the Relenting, the Merciful, to believers. (Jalal ud-Din Siyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Commentary on Surah 2:160, Source)


Ibn Abbass said:


Then Adam received from his Lord) Adam learned from his Lord, and it is said that he was taught and inspired with (words) so that they became a way for him and his progeny to repentance (and He relented towards him); he forgave him. (Indeed! He is the Relenting), the One Who overlooks misdeeds (the Merciful) towards any that dies repentant. (Ibn Abbaas, Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn 'Abbâs, Commentary on Surah 2:37, Source)



Imam Zamakhshari says:


{ فَتَابَ عَلَيْهِ } فرجع عليه بالرحمة والقبول



"He repented towards him," meaning He returned to Him with mercy and acceptance. (Abu al-Qasim Mahmud ibn Umar al-Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaaf, Commentary on 2:37, Source) 


Imam Razi describes it well in his commentary by appealing to other methods of speech in the Arabic language, which are similar and have the same grammatical rulings. For instance, he gives the example of a slave disobedient to his master. The master, in return, didn't treat the slave well. However, the slave began to treat his slave master well. In return, the slave's master began to treat the slave well again. Thus, in this case, one would say in the Arabic language: 


فلان عاد إلى الأمير والأمير عاد عليه بإحسانه ومعروفه


The boy went back to his master, and the master went back to him by treating him well and acknowledging him.


So Razi argues that the same thing applies in these verses: The slave repented to Allah (in that he stopped committing evil and started doing righteous deeds again), and Allah repented towards him (in that Allah accepted his repentance). See Fakhar ad-Din ar-Razi's Tafsir Al Kabir, Commentary on Surah 2:37, Source. 


The whole confusion lies in the fact that one is imposing English grammar (where it doesn't make sense to say that he repents towards someone in the sense of forgiving him) upon the Arabic (where it does make sense).


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