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Allah Does Not Repent: Examining the use of word ‘taaba’ for Allah

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Waqar Akbar Cheema

Abstract

Some critics of Islam have made it a point to spread false information about Allah by giving an incorrect translation and explanation of the word ‘tawbah (repentance).’ They use their limited understanding of Arabic to suggest that Allah repents to people, when Allah is far above needing to turn to any person for repentance in that sense. Rather, Allah is the one who turns to an individual who is seeking repentance. This article will explain how this understanding of the word ‘tawbah’ is clearly a misunderstanding of the use of prepositions associated with the word. This article will make it clear that from the Arabic language, it is impossible to give another meaning to the use of the word ‘tawbah’ when associated with Allah, and it will be clear in which cases it applies to humans and which cases it applies exclusively to Allah.

1. Introduction

In the Holy Qur’an, the word ‘tawbah’ is used for both Allah and His servants. While it is clear that it means repentance when used for humans, people often get confused about its meaning for Allah. The misinformed critics of Islam argue that it means Allah actually repents to someone according to Qur’an.

Let us have a look at the original meanings of the word and its varying usage in the Book of Allah.

2. Meaning of the word ‘taaba

The original meaning of the word ‘taaba’/‘tawbah’ is “to return” or “to repent,” implying desisting and turning back.[1]

In the following we consider the use of various grammatical forms of the word in the Qur’an for Almighty Allah and humans.

3. Grammatical forms in usage for the humans

The verb derivatives of ‘taaba’/‘yatoobu’ have mainly three grammatical forms.

1) They are used as intransitive (i.e. it is not used with a preposition), like in Qur’an 6:54:

وإذا جاءك الذين يؤمنون بآياتنا فقل سلام عليكم كتب ربكم على نفسه الرحمة أنه من عمل منكم سوءا بجهالة ثم تاب من بعده وأصلح فأنه غفور رحيم

And when those come to you who believe in Our verses, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has decreed upon Himself mercy: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then repents (taaba) after that and corrects himself – indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful.”[2]

This way it is used exclusively for humans.

2) They are used as transitive with the preposition ‘ilaa’ (i.e. towards):

أفلا يتوبون إلى الله ويستغفرونه والله غفور رحيم

“So will they not repent to (yatoobuna ilaa) Allah and seek His forgiveness? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”[3]

Such construction is also reserved for the humans.

4. Grammatical form in usage for Allah

The transitive verb form with the preposition ‘alaa (lit. on/upon) is reserved for Allah, e.g.:

رَبَّنَا وَاجْعَلْنَا مُسْلِمَيْنِ لَكَ وَمِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِنَا أُمَّةً مُسْلِمَةً لَكَ وَأَرِنَا مَنَاسِكَنَا وَتُبْ عَلَيْنَا إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ

“Our Lord, and make us Muslims [in submission] to You and from our descendants a Muslim nation [in submission] to You. And show us our rites and accept our repentance (wa tub ‘alayna). Indeed, You are the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.”[4]

This construction is used exclusively for Allah and it signifies Allah – as the originator of everything – bestowing the ability of repentance on His servants and thus accepting their return to their Lord. As the end result is acceptance of repentance it is simply stated to so mean and is likewise translated.

5. Scholarly comments

The following comments will help understand the statements above.

Al-Bayhaqi (d. 458 AH) quoted Abu Sulayman al-Khattabi (d. 388 AH) as saying:

التواب هو الذي يتوب على عباده فيقبل توبتهم كلما تكررت التوبة تكرر القبول , وهو يكون لازما ويكون متعديا بحرف يقال: تاب الله على العبد بمعنى وفقه للتوبة فتاب العبد كقوله: {ثم تاب عليهم ليتوبوا} [التوبة: 118] ومعنى التوبة عود العبد إلى الطاعة بعد المعصية

“Al-Tawwab is one who bestows repentance upon His slaves and accepts their repentance. Whenever they repeat the repentance He accepts it. And it (the word ‘taaba’ and its derivatives) may be intransitive or transitive in usage. It is said: “Allah bestowed repentance upon his slave,” meaning He agreed to his repentance, “So the slaved repented,” like the saying of Allah: “He turned towards them, so that they may repent.” (Qur’an 9:118) And the meaning of repentance is to turn towards obedience after transgression.”[5]

The explanation and the verse Qur’an 9:118 is about the intransitive and transitive usage of the word, as mentioned above.

Commenting on the meanings of the words “and He turned towards him” (fa-taaba ‘alayhi), at-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) writes:

“فتاب عليه”، يعني رزقه التوبة من خطيئته. والتوبة معناها الإنابة إلى الله، والأوبة إلى طاعته مما يكره من معصيته.

“He accepted his repentance” means that He bestowed repentance on him for his error. Repentance means ‘turning to God,’ returning to obedience to Him from disobedience to Him which He abhors.”[6]

This is the true understanding of the word ‘tawbah’ for Allah – that He as the ultimate originator of all actions bestows repentance on the slaves who are willing to change their ways and thus accepts their resolve to give up sin(s). Qur’an 4:17 is a clear proof for this usage and idea.

Fakhr ad-Deen ar-Razi (d. 606 A.H.) explained it in the following words:

والتوبة لفظة يشترك فيها الرب والعبد، فإذا وصف بها العبد فالمعنى رجع إلى ربه لأن كل عاص فهو في معنى الهارب من ربه فإذا تاب فقد رجع عن هربه إلى ربه فيقال: تاب إلى ربه والرب في هذه الحالة كالمعرض عن عبده وإذا وصف بها الرب تعالى فالمعنى أنه رجع على عبده برحمته وفضله ولهذا السبب وقع الاختلاف في الصلة، فقيل في العبد: تاب إلى ربه. وفي الرب على عبده

“The word ‘tawbah’ is used for both the Lord (Allah) and the slave. Once it is used for the slave it means his return towards his Lord for every sin is like running away from Allah and one repents he returns from his run off towards his Lord. Therefore it is said, ‘He returned to his Lord;’ the Lord in this case is like the one who turned away from His slave. And once it is used for the Lord (Allah) the Almighty, the meaning is He turned towards His slave with His Mercy and Blessings, and for this reason there is difference of preposition. For the slave it is said, ‘He repented towards His Lord’ (ilaa rabbuhu), and for the Lord, ‘bestowed (repentance) on His slave’ (‘alaa ‘abdihi).”[7]

John Penrice also explains:

“To repent towards God (with إلى); to turn one’s self in a repentant manner; to relent towards men, as God (with على).”[8]

The change in the meanings of a verb due to change in the associated preposition is an idea well established in many – if not all – languages. For instance, in English “call on” means “to visit/to be a guest of,” whereas “call up” means “to summon someone (especially for military service).”  Relate this to the meaning of the word “call” itself. It is, therefore, clear that presence and choice of preposition governing the meanings of the word is nothing novel.

The above details govern all the usages except the form “tawwab” that literally means “one who turns.” About this the following is critically important.

Al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH) writes:

وصف نفسه سبحانه وتعالى بأنه التواب وتكرر في القرآن معرفا ومنكرا واسما وفعلا. وقد يطلق على العبد أيضا تواب قال الله تعالى:” إن الله يحب التوابين ويحب المتطهرين” [البقرة: 222] . قال ابن العربي: … توبة الله على العبد قبول توبته وذلك يحتمل أن يرجع إلى قوله سبحانه وتعالى: قبلت توبتك

Almighty Allah has referred to himself as “al-Tawwab” and has done so repeatedly in the Qur’an as verb and as noun, both proper and common. And likewise it can be used for humans as well. Allah Almighty says, “Indeed, Allah loves those who are constantly repentant (al-tawwabeen) and loves those who purify themselves.” (2:222) Ibn al-‘Arabi [quoting some scholars] said, ‘…when Allah turns to a person; it means that He accepts his repentance. And it might be related to the words of the Almighty,[9]“[O son of Adam!] I have accepted your repentance.”[10]

In fact, it may also be related to some other passages of the Qur’an, i.e. 9:104, 40:3 and 42:25.

 Even in case of the form ‘tawwab,’ the usage for Allah and the humans basically follows the same pattern with regards to related prepositions. Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 AH) highlights this with the following examples:

“العبد تواب إلى الله من الذنب”، و “الله تواب عليه”

“The slave turns towards (tawwabun ilaa) Allah from sin and Allah bestows repentance upon (tawwabun ‘alaa) him.”[11]

In the Holy Qur’an, however, it is always used without any preposition. This is because of hazf (ellipsis), and therefore, it does not confuse the original difference in the usage for different subjects.

6. Qur’an Translations and the Frustration of Missionaries

Both Muslim and non-Muslim translators rightly refrain from using the word “repenting” for Allah. This seems to have frustrated anti-Islamic missionaries and thus we find them making up their own translations to mislead the readers. For instance, one of them translates Qur’an 2:37 as:

“Then Adam received commandments from his Lord, and his Lord repented (fataba) towards him; for He is Oft-Repenting (huwa al-tawwabu), Most Merciful.”[12]

What makes this attempt most shameful is that normally the same writer uses translations by Muslims or at least those by well-known Orientalists, but here – as he found no support for his unwise reading of the Qur’anic text – he did not shy away from actually fabricating his own translation, the weakness of which has been elaborated in this article.

7. Conclusion

1- The word ‘tawbah’ originally means to return and to repent.

2- While it is used for both the Almighty Allah and humans, the difference in use is underscored by different prepositions for each subject.

3- For humans the use of the verb is either intransitive or with the preposition ilaa, whereas for Allah it is always transitive with the preposition ‘alaa. The change of meanings of the verb with the change of the attached preposition is true for many – if not all – languages.

4- The original meaning of the word does not change when used for Allah, but the preposition attached changes the whole sense. For Allah, it means the, “the one who bestows repentance upon” and “one who accepts repentance,” as both of them are knitted together.

5- There is absolutely nothing strange, anomalous, sacrilegious or scandalous in the use of word ‘tawbah’ for Allah. It is does not mean He repents, it only means He accepts repentance.

.

References & Notes:


[1] Lane, E. W., Arabic-English Lexicon, (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968) Vol.1, 321

[2] Qur’an 6:54

[3] Qur’an 5:74

[4] Qur’an 2:128

[5]al-Bayhaqi, Kitab al-Asma was-Sifat, (Riyadh: Maktabah as-Sawadi, 1993) Vol.1, 194

[6] at-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fee Ta’wil al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Ar-Risalah Publications, 2000) Vol.1, 547

[7]ar-Razi, Tafseer al-Kabeer – Mafatih al-Ghayb, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1420 AH) Vol.3, 468

[8] Penrice, John, A Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran, (Karachi: Darul Ishat, 1998) 24

[9] The reference here is to a hadith al-qudsi, narrated by at-Tabarani, Mu’jam al-Awst, Hadith 5974.

[10] al-Qurtubi, al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, (Cairo: Dar al-Kutab al-Misriyyah, 1964) Vol.1, 325

[11] Ibn Qutaybah, Ghareeb al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 1978) Vol.1, 18

Published : August 31, 2013                 Last modified : May 10th, 2016

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