Ibn Abbas, may Allāh be pleased with him, reported that the Prophet, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said,
“There is no believing slave [of Allāh] except that he has a sin that he continually commits, from time to time, or a sin that he constantly does – it never leaves him until he leaves this world. Verily, the believer is created muftannan, tawwaban, nassaa`an – when he is reminded, he remembers.”
The Takhreej of the Hadeeth
The hadeeth is reported in the al-Mu`jam al-Kabeer of Abul Qasim Sulayman b. Ahmad b. Ayyub al-Tabarani (d. 360 A.H.).
Al-Tabarani was one of the last of the great huffadh (memorizers of hadeeth). He lived an extremely long life, dying a centenarian. Hence, in his later years, he could narrate ahadeeth from scholars who died a generation earlier than most of the other scholars of his time could narrate from. He wrote three famous works, all of them entitled al-Mu`jam (meaning: a book of hadeeth where the hadeeth are arranged according to the names of the Companions who narrated the hadeeth, or the teachers whom the author narrated the ahadeeth from). The largest of these three was called al-Mu`jam al-Kabeer, the middle one al-Mu`jam al-Awsat, and the smallest (not surprisingly) al-Mu`jam al-Sagheer. The most famous of these is the largest one – in its sole printed edition (edited by the great scholar Hamdi Abd al-Majeed al-Salafi), the number of ahadeeth is 21547. This edition utilized a manuscript that had three entire volumes missing (volumes 13 to 16), hence the printed work is incomplete, and no known complete manuscripts exist.
This makes al-Mu`jam al-Kabeer one of the largest collections of hadeeth in print. Al-Tabarani tried to narrate as many ahadeeth from each Companion that he could find, and in many cases he also narrated biographical information about them. Hence this work is an important treasure trove for information about the Companions of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam.
An Explanation of the Hadeeth
This hadeeth is a ray of light and a source of optimism for the believer. For there is no single believer amongst us who is perfect – how can he be, when perfection is for Allāh alone? And there is no believer amongst us who is sinless, for it is only the angels who are sinless. In this hadeeth, the beloved Rasul salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam is reminding us that there will be sins that a believer does – notice that he called such a person a mu`min, a true believer, despite these sins. Furthermore, he pointed out that it is possible that a servant is tested with a particular sin that he has become addicted to, a sin that he continuously does until he dies.
The Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam then described such a believer with three characteristics, and stated that the believer has been created with them. Hence, to have these three characteristics is a sign of a true believer.
The first of them is that he is muftan, meaning he will be tried and tested. The implication from this description is that the believer has been created in order to be tried and tested, and of the ways he is tried and tested is through sins.
Trials and tribulations are of many types, some of them are worldly, others spiritual; some of them deal with physical pain, others cause mental anguish; some of them are losses of this material world, to see how patient we are, others are gains and blessings given to us, to see how we use them. In all cases, such fitan – such trials and tribulations – should draw us closer to Allāh. Even if a sin has occurred, the true believer uses this sin to come closer to Allāh.
But how can a sin be used to draw nearer to the very One whom he has disobeyed?
Through the act of repentance, tawbah. Hence, the next description given is that the believer is tawwab, meaning that he repents continuously, repeatedly, relentlessly. The believer does not become discouraged due to the quantity of sins that he commits, because he realizes that Allāh's mercy is infinite and limitless. The true mu`min is not demoralized by his past habits, but rather inspirited and uplifted by hopes of a grander future. The believer always remembers the encouraging words from his beloved Rasul salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam who said, “The one who repents from a sin is like one who has not committed it in the first place” (Reported by Ibn Majah in his Sunan). Thus, this second description given to the believer shows that the believer will always repent from his sins, regardless of how many times he has done other sins, or even this very sin, before the repentance.
The Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam then gave the third and final description of the believer, that he is nassaa`a, meaning that he continually forgets and relapses. Thus, the believer becomes heedless of the commandments of Allāh, oblivious to the realities of the afterlife, and, when tempted by what he perceives to be a pleasing and sweet deed, falls prey to the seductions of Shaytan, and swallows that poisonous sweet. But as soon as the deed has been committed, and the outer layer of sweetness dissolves, it is followed up by the bitter aftertaste of the poison and pollutant that he has just ingested.
But not all hope is lost, for all such deeds can be undone, once again through repentance – that greatest gift of Allāh to the sinners! The believer feels this guilt, and all that is needed is a prodding, perhaps he hears a verse being recited, or attends a lecture that stirs him, or listens to a khutbah that reminds him of his spiritual bankruptcy. So, '…when he is reminded, he remembers', because he has an inner core of good, a repository of taqwa that need only be exposed and brought out in order to cause this change in him.
And so the believer is ever in a cycle – an perpetual, never-ending cycle – of committing sins, and then repenting, and then falling headless and committing sins again, only to be reminded of his purpose in life, after which he will repent, and fall into thoughtlessness once again, only to be prodded into action and good behavior…
So the cycle of life continues, and it is this life that characterizes the life of the believer, for the believer repents and strives to attain perfection, whereas the fasiq or hypocrite commits the same sins or worse, and cares little to better his situation.
What separates the mu`min from the fasiq is not the sin – both Adam and Iblees disobeyed Allāh – but the reaction to the sin. Adam repented, and became beloved once again to Allāh; Iblees obstinately persisted, and become the most accursed creation of Allāh.
The battle of the believer is a never-ending one. He will perpetually fall into sins, but as long as he perpetually repents, and is reminded by the Speech of Allāh and His Messenger, he is still a believer, and will continue to remain a believer, until he dies.
Always remember those uplifting words of the Basheer whom Allāh sent to us, “Whoever is pleased with his good deeds, and saddened by his evil deeds, is indeed a mu`min” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi in his al-Jami).
May Allāh grant us all īmān and taqwa, and bless us to be amongst those who, when tested, are patient, and when blessed, are thankful, and when sinful, are repentant. Āmīn!