Repentance and forgiveness

Q568 :After 12 years of marriage, a woman told her husband that over the last couple of years, she has had relations with a man which stopped short of adultery. She pleaded for forgiveness and promised to be faithful to him. The husband felt that her repentance was sincere and that he should forgive her. They reckoned that they could continue their marriage without much difficulty. However, he has been wondering whether it was right of him to forgive his wife. Should he not punish her under Islamic law? If so, does her action deserve the punishment for adultery. If so, is he required to enforce that punishment, even though they live in a country where Islamic law is not implemented?

A568 : What I can understand from this letter and the other details is that the woman made her confession on her own accord. There was no pressure on her to do so, and there was no sudden discovery of the affair by the husband or anyone else. In other words, she could have continued with that sort of behavior feeling that she was unlikely to be exposed. Her conscience might have troubled her a great deal or her faith might have prompted her to make that confession and to repent. If that is the case, then we should remember that Islam lays much emphasis on repentance of sin. Whenever a person realizes that he has erred, he should always turn to God in sincere repentance, plead for forgiveness and resolve to maintain a path of total obedience to God in all situations. Islam does not make any great demands of a person who has slipped into error, committed one or more of the cardinal sins, if that person sincerely wants to mend his ways and seek a life of obedience. All that is required is an honest resolve not to go back to sinful ways, a declaration of repentance and a prayer for forgiveness. It was in this spirit that the woman's husband was ready to accept her repentance. When she confessed to him that she has had an affair with a man, he recognized that she was sincere in her repentance. That is the reason for his acceptance of her pledges. If he is sure that she can live up to her promises and lead a proper Islamic life, then he will be rewarded by God for helping her move back to the path of obeying God in all situations. It is a general requirement that Islam makes of the Muslim community to help one another stay within the framework of what is acceptable to Islam. This applies more particularly to a husband and wife. Their special and intimate relationship gives them a great opportunity to strengthen each other's resolve to be always obedient to God and avoid what incurs His anger. If this husband knows that his wife has really made a firm resolve to mend her ways, then he is strongly recommended to help her maintain that path. What worries me is that, having chosen the right approach and having extended a helping hand to his wife to return to the path of goodness, he is now having doubts. He first asks whether it is acceptable from the Islamic point of view that he should forgive his wife. What is more acceptable than forgiving a repenting sinner? One wonders whether he doubts her sincerity in what she has declared to him. What I would like to point out to him is that he must act only on the basis of evidence. If there is no tangible evidence that she is still committing the type of error she confessed to have committed, then he has to try to dispel his doubts. One must never allow his attitude to be dictated by doubts. He should always try to be certain of his position, certain that the measures he adopts fit the situation he is dealing with and certain that he is not doing injustice to anyone. He must never act on mere suspicion. On the other hand, if there are fair indications that she has not really mended her ways, and these indications clearly point out that her confession was merely a trick, or a device to avoid being found out, then it is time for him to take proper action. The first thing he must do is to try to be certain of his wife's position. If the evidence is clear that she is still misbehaving, then he should divorce her. But that is as far as he, as an individual, can go to remedy the situation. The husband seems to wonder whether it is his responsibility to punish his wife for what she had done in the past. Let me tell him very clearly that Islam is not keen at all on enforcing punishment, even in a case where guilt is evident, though not properly confirmed. For example, if a person goes to a judge in a country which implements Islamic law and admits to having committed adultery, the judge will question him about his confession. It is the responsibility of the judge to establish that the man knows what he is admitting to have committed, and that he is of sound mind. When he has established that, he then orders the enforcement of the punishment. However, the person himself may withdraw his confession at any time. If he does, then no punishment is enforced. At the time of the Prophet, a man admitted to having committed adultery. When the Prophet ascertained that the man did really commit that offense and that his confession was clear and given sincerely, he ordered that the man be stoned to death, which is the punishment for adultery. When the people were stoning him, the man tried to escape. When the Prophet was told that people chased him and continued the punishment, he said to them: "Would it not have been better for you to leave him." The point is that punishment is seen by Islam as a deterrent. Its enforcement is not an objective. Therefore, the Prophet advises his followers: "Anyone who commits something of this filth should seek the cover of secrecy extended by God. If he comes to us with a confession, we must enforce punishment." It is clear that when the offense is established in accordance with Islamic requirements, which normally has two methods - either a free confession or an appropriate testimony by a specified number of witnesses - enforcement of the punishment is not a matter of choice. A Muslim ruler must enforce it. If he does not, then he is guilty of disobeying God. In respect of adultery, the punishment of stoning to death is applicable only to a married adulterer or an adulteress, who has committed the offense of adultery, which means sexual intercourse. Anything less than that does not incur that punishment. Moreover, any doubt about the person having committed the offense is sufficient as a reason for not enforcing the punishment. Indeed, the Prophet tells us not to enforce a specified punishment once there is a doubt concerning the evidence which seeks to prove the offense. [Turning to God in sincere repentance, pleading for forgiveness and making a pledge not to repeat the error is required in any such situation. A good believer may opt for punishment in this world rather than suffer in the hereafter. With that objective, one may confess the offense before any Islamic law enforcing authority; such as a ruler or a judge, etc. Voluntary admission of guilt to person or persons who have no authority to enforce the punishment, is not obligatory.]

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )