Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Verses 160, 161 & 162
Verses 160, 161 and 162
Except for those who repent and correct themselves and make things clear; those - I will accept their repentance, and I am the Most forgiving, the Most Merciful.
(Chapter 2: Verse 160)
In the previous verse, we discussed the curse and punishment awaiting those who distort God’s book and spread corruption on earth. Does that mean that all hope is lost for those people? Never. Allah does not close the door of mercy before anyone, even those who distorted the scripture or withheld the truth. These sins, as grave as they maybe, do not block the path between a person and His or Her creator. God says: “Except for those who repent and correct themselves and make things clear; those - I will accept their repentance.” Take note that there are two conditions for forgiveness mentioned in the verse: The first condition is ‘those who repent.’ Repentance is a personal matter that one declares within him or herself. It is a deep feeling of regret and a desire to return to the Lord. In fact, the Arabic origin for repent ‘Taba’ means to return to God. When you repent to your Lord, you seek Him in forgiveness for your sin and transgression. And when Allah forgives you, it means that He has accepted your repentance, pardoned you and spared you the punishment that was awaiting you for that sin.
Allah had legislated repentance even before the very first sin was committed. God says in the 118th verse of chapter 9: “He turned to them in mercy in order for them to return to Him” So God offered forgiveness first and that in turn opened the doors of mercy for you and I.
The second condition for forgiveness mentioned in this verse is: “and correct themselves and make things clear.” While repentance is a personal matter of the heart between you and your Lord, there is another external matter that is between you and those you have wronged. You have to take the steps necessary to undo the corruption caused by your sin. Those who altered the scriptures and withheld the truth caused grave damage to their followers. They have to make the truth clear again, and come forth regarding their actions.
Similarly, any person who commits a sin must correct his or her actions in order to receive God’s mercy. If you had committed a sin in private, then it is sufficient for you to repent and seek forgiveness in private. But if you violated the limits of God openly, and displayed a bad example before all to see -in essence encouraging others to make light of God’s limits- then we advise that you also repent openly. Those who repent, mend what they have done, and disclose to the people what they concealed of the truth will be forgiven and rewarded by God.
Allah made it easy for you and I to return to Him and seek Him in forgiveness over and over. He does not want you to think that His door is ever closed. He Almighty says: “I will accept their repentance, and I am the Most forgiving, the Most Merciful.” Take note that both forgiveness and mercy were mentioned in the form of hyperbole. God used “the Most forgiving, the Most Merciful” to assure you that if you come to Him in sincerity, He will forgive your sins regardless of how numerous they are, or how grave they might have been. The All Merciful says:
Say, ‘O My servants who have sinned excessively against yourselves, do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is truly the Most Forgiving, the Most Merciful.’ (39:53)
Now, let move to the next verse in ‘The Cow’. God says:
Indeed, those who disbelieve and die while they are disbelievers - upon them will be the curse of Allah and of the angels and the people, all together, (Chapter 2: Verse 161)
Those who disbelieve and choose not to repent for their sins are the ones who will be cursed by God, the angels and entire mankind, and face the torment of hellfire. God says:
But of no avail is the repentance of those who continually commit evil until when one of them is approached by death, he says, "Indeed now I repent." Nor of those who die as unbelievers. For such We have prepared a painful punishment. (4:18)
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: “God will accept the repentance of His servant and will forgive as long as the soul is not departing the body.” Thus, you and I should not delay repentance even for one minute because we do not know when death will come.
God says in the next verse of ‘The Cow’:
They will remain in this state of rejection eternally: their punishment will not be lightened, nor will they be reprieved. (Chapter 2: Verse 162)
When God talks about the rewards and punishment of the hereafter, He almighty mentions three elements: the first element is the place of residence of either paradise or hellfire, the second element is immortality, and the third is eternity. In other words, the punishment of hellfire is eternal and one cannot escape it by death because he or she will be immortal and there will be no death. Similarly, the reward of paradise is eternal, and one will not miss out because there will be no death.
There has been some confusion regarding the matter of eternally residing in paradise and hellfire. Some of the confusion is brought on by the superficial understanding of verses such as the following: God says:
and when that Day comes, no soul will speak except by His permission. Among them, some will be wretched and some happy. As for those who are wretched, they will be in the Fire, where they will sigh and gasp, remaining in it eternally, as long as the heavens and earth endure, unless your Lord wills otherwise: your Lord carries out whatever He wills. As for those who have been blessed, they will be in Paradise, remanning in it eternally as long as the heavens and earth endure, unless your Lord wills otherwise- an unceasing gift. (11:105-108)
How can something be called eternal if it will only last as long as the heavens and earth endure, or until the Lord wills otherwise? Let’s answer these points one by one.
First, you should know that the heavens and earth mentioned here are different from the heavens and earth you and I know today. The heavens and earth we know exist to support life and are our means of livelihood. But in the hereafter, we will not need support from crops, rain, air, or any other creation. We will live by the direct support of the creator God almighty. He will change the heavens and the earth on the last day as the following verse illustrates:
On the Day when the earth is changed into another earth; so are the heavens. They will all appear before God, the One, the Overpowering. (14:48)
Second, we should look into the meaning of “remaining in it eternally““unless your Lord wills otherwise.” At first glance there is a contradiction. If eternity is undone by a decision then it is no longer eternal. How can this be? We answer that you have to look at who this verse applies to. The wretched peoples of hellfire are not only the disbelievers. Amongst them will be some believers who disobeyed and sinned. They will enter hellfire to get their share of the punishment, but once they have repaid for their sins in punishment, they will be taken out of hellfire. Thus, this group’s time in hellfire will end when God wills, and there is no eternal stay for them.
Similarly, the people of paradise include the believers, and some who have disobeyed God. The believers who disobeyed and sinned will not enter paradise until they have repaid for their sin in punishment. They, as we mentioned, will spend some time in hellfire and then enter paradise. Thus, their eternal stay in paradise is decreased from its beginning; and their eternal stay in hellfire is decreased from its end. Both according to God’s will.
The verse ends with: “their punishment will not be lightened, nor will they be reprieved.“ When a person is punished for a long period of time, he or she may get accustomed to the conditions, and suffer less as time passes. Allah wants you to know that the punishment of the hereafter will stay severe over time, and at no point will become tolerable. The word “reprieved” is translated from the Arabic origin ‘Yunzaroon’. This word holds two meanings, both are correct for this verse. The first is to be given a chance, given some time, or to be considered. The second is to be looked at as mentioned in the following verse:
Those who sell Allah’s covenant and their oaths for a paltry gain— there shall be no share for them in the Hereafter and Allah will not speak to them nor will He look at them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them, and there is a painful punishment for them. (03:77)
This is because looking at someone can awaken compassion, or raise the hope for mercy and consideration. Even a glance can be interpreted as care or empathy. Allah wants you to know that those who do not repent and are entrenched in their disbelief will suffer dire consequences in the hereafter and will not even get a glance of mercy.