Reconciling the Illusion of Sin in Sūrat al-Fatḥ Through Classic Qurāʾnic Exegesis
By Mln. Justin Poe (Takmil Graduate, 2019)
My Christian friend asked me: “Why does Allāh allude to the word “dhanbaka” when addressing the Prophet in Sūrat al-Fatḥ?”
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
This question relates both to Qurʾānic exegesis (tafsīr) and the infallibility of the Prophets. The first point addressed in this series of questions was prophetic infallibility. So, I refer the reader to the discussion there for its proofs and evidences. However, I will borrow the conclusion of that discussion. That is: The Prophets are sinless and infallible. Since the Messenger ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam is a prophet, he is sinless and infallible. As this question is regarding the tafsīr of an āyah (verse), I will mention our methodology of exegesis and suffice with the exegesis of this āyah and its like.
The Qurʾān and the Messenger are the first sources of exegesis. The scholars of exegesis expressed this in a maxim: al-Qurʾān yufassiru baʿḍuhu baʿḍan (The Qurʾān, parts of it explain other parts). The scholars extracted this from how the Messenger taught his Companions to understand the Qurʾān and interpret it.
For example, when Q 6:82 was revealed: “Those who believe and do not mix their belief with wrongdoing, for them is safety and they are guided,” the Companions shook with fear and understood the word ẓulm (trans. wrong, oppression, sin) linguistically. They knew that no one was free of sin and wrongdoing, so no one of them was entitled to this safety from God’s punishment.
The Messenger then asked them if they recalled the verse in Sūrah Luqmān Q 31:13: “And when Luqmān said to his son, advising him, ‘O my son! Do not ascribe a partner to Allāh. Indeed, ascribing a partner (shirk) to Allāh is a grave wrong (ẓulm).’” Thereby, the Messenger taught the Companions to understand this verse considering another. The meaning of Q 6:82, then, is: “Those who believe and do not mix their belief with ascribing partners.” In the above narration, the Messenger explained the intended meaning of the verse. Therefore, he is a source of exegesis. And as the Messenger was sent by God with the Qurʾān, he is the most knowledgeable of its meanings.
The second source of exegesis is the Companions because they learned the methodology of exegesis from the Messenger, observed and practiced his Sunnah, experienced the revelation of the Qurʾān, and were the most knowledgeable of the Arabic language. After the Companions, the exegete’s sources are the Successors (ṭābiʿūn), the classical Arabic language, logical reasoning, consensus (ijmāʿ), etc.
The wording “dhanbak” (literally, “your sin”) occurs three times in the Qurʾān. The first is in Sūrah Ghāfir Q 40:55, the second in Sūrah Muḥammad Q 47:19, and the third in Sūrat al-Fatḥ Q 48:2. As a general principle, the reader of the Qurʾān must always be aware of the verses’ contexts. The verses before and after must be considered, and then the entire sūrah.
Before delving into the eminent scholars’ tafsīr, the etymological meaning of the word dhanb (plural: dhunūb) requires elucidation. The word dhanb originates from the word dhanab (with the short vowel fatḥah on the nūn). According to al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī in his al-Mufradāt, the original meaning of dhanab is the tail of an animal or the “end of something.” From this meaning, the word dhanb is a task that’s end is unpleasant. Thus, a dhanb is an action that the doer considers unfavorable or that is contrary to the command of the Lawgiver. Hereinafter, dhanb will be translated as “error,” “fault,” or the like.
“So be patient! Indeed, Allāh’s promise is true. And seek forgiveness for your dhanb and glorify in the evening and the early morning with the praise of your Lord.”
Considering the principles above, the first source of tafsīr is the Messenger, the Companions, and the Successors. Then, if tafsīr is not found, the exegete reviews the exegetical works of the past masters of the field. For Q 40:55, no explicit tafsīr is found from the first source. However, the Andalusian jurist and exegete, Ibn ʿAṭīyah (d. 546/1160), explained that the verse, “And ask forgiveness for your dhanb,” refers to the time before Allāh informed the Messenger that He had forgiven his past and future errors. As this Sūrah was revealed before Sūrat al-Fatḥ, the Messenger is commanded to supplicate before being informed of his infallibility.
There is a subtle wisdom here: although the Messenger was and continued to be infallible, neither he nor his Companions are made aware of this until later. They continued to trust and follow the Messenger – a test of their faith – before knowing of his infallibility. Furthermore, the Messenger’s trust in Allāh is strengthened. He relegates his being guided solely to Allāh and humbles himself. He understood the great burden of carrying the Final Message and delivering it, a formidable and grave task.
As well, it is possible that the verse may have an omitted word within it: ummatik (your nation). Such that Allāh is addressing the Messenger while intending his followers. This style of address is used throughout the Qurʾān: Allāh addresses the Messenger while intending those listening and receiving the Revelation from him. The second exegesis renders the verse: “And seek forgiveness for [your nation’s] error.”
Qurṭubī (d. 671/1293), also an Andalusian exegete and jurist, agreed and offered an additional explanation. This command is: “an act of devotion from the Messenger through supplication.” This act of devotion is to “increase [his followers] in degrees” in the Hereafter and shows his followers that supplication is a “sunnah (act of the Messenger to be followed) for those after him.” The Messenger’s supplication for forgiveness teaches us that although he is infallible and his sins have been forgiven, we must still emulate in how he supplicated. That, despite his infallibility, the Messenger supplicated for forgiveness encourages the Muslims to do so as well. Since the prophets are infallible, the supplication for forgiveness is also a prayer for continued protection against falling into sin and transgression.
The theologian and exegete, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, proposed a few exegeses. According to him, the verse may be referring to not doing the preferred and best option in a matter. Or it may refer to seeking forgiveness for any mishaps prior to prophethood.
Lastly, Ibn ʿĀshūr drew a connection between this verse and Sūrat al-Naṣr and a well-known ḥadīth in the Ṣaḥiḥayn. The verse of Sūrat al-Naṣr reads: “So, glorify with the praise of your Lord and supplicate for forgiveness. Indeed, He is ever accepting of repentance.” (Q 1010:3) The Messenger understood this and showed his community how to act on it through the invocation: subḥānak Allāhumma Rabbanā wa bi ḥamdik ighfir lī (Glory is Yours, O Allāh, our Lord, and with Your praise, forgive me). As for the narration, ʿĀʾishah would see the Messenger praying late at night, such that his feet would swell. She inquired: “Why do you pray so much if your Lord has forgiven your previous and following errors?” To which the Prophet replied: “Should I not be a grateful slave?” Thus, the Messenger is acting on the verse and teaching the Companions how to do so likewise.
“Know that there is no deity except Allāh and seek forgiveness for your dhanb and for the believing men and women. Allāh knows your movement and place of rest.”
As for Q 47:19, a few prophetic narrations reference the verse. The Companion, Abū Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger said regarding this verse: “Indeed, I seek forgiveness from Allāh seventy times a day.” The Messenger also informed the Muslims that the best supplication is istighfār (seeking forgiveness) and referenced this āyah. In addition to the explanations above, two additional subtleties may be added.
The Messenger is taught when supplicating to supplicate first for himself and thereafter for others. There is an implied word in the verse, “dhunūb” before the words “for the believing men and women.” The mention of dhunūb was unnecessary because of the context. Thus: “and [seek forgiveness] for the [dhunūb of] the believing men and women.” Furthermore, since infallibility is known, the seeking forgiveness and mention of dhanb refers to “times of heedlessness” or “unawareness” (ghafalāt). This would include times when mentioning Allāh, supplicating to Him, and remembering Him audibly is prohibited (e.g. in the restroom, while eating, while unclothed, etc.). The Messenger was always in a state of remembrance, except for these times. Thus, he considered these lapses of remembrance as dhunūb.
Finally, the supplication for forgiveness may carry the meaning of “hiding the sinful and abysmal things” from the eyes, hearts, and one’s attention. The linguistic meaning, as Rāzī explained, of ghufrān is to cover. For the infallible, like the Messenger, the supplication is a prayer that the sinful and disgusting whims and desires of man continue to be hidden from him. Anything sinful or disgusting or unpleasant is a dhanb. For the believers, they ask that these desires be hidden – as they are susceptible to them – and that Allāh refrain from exposing what they have done in the past.
“So that Allāh will forgive you what has preceded of your dhanb and what will come and so that He completes His favor upon you and guides you along a straight path.”
In each verse where Allāh mentions dhanb, the word is singular. This is particularly significant because of the precise wording that Allāh uses in the Qurʾān. The use of a singular noun implies either a single dhanb or a category, such as “heedlessness.”
Under this verse, the Successors and the scholars after them explained that “what has preceded” refers to either a mistake(s) in the era of Ignorance (jāhilīyah) —which is before prophethood— while “what will follow” refers to after prophethood or to mistakes that he will never commit. On this point, Rāzī clarified that “before prophethood” would mean that Allāh erased whatever preceded and “after prophethood” would be through infallibility. For this reason, the Messenger would continue to supplicate for forgiveness, stating, “should I not be a thankful slave?” Additionally, the Messenger’s supplication is actually a prayer for the believers, as Allāh revealed in Sūrat al-Tawbah: “[…] And pray for them. Indeed, your supplication (ṣalātak) is a comfort for them. And Allāh is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (Q 9:103)
And Allāh knows best.
 Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl, al-Bukhārī, al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ al-Mukhtaṣar, ed. Muṣṭafā al-Bughā (Beirut: Dār Ibn Kathīr, 1987), 6:2675, #6918.
 al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad, Abū al-Qāsim, al-Aṣfahānī, al-Mufradāt fī Gharīb al-Qurʾān, ed. Wāʾil ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (Cairo: al-Maktabat al-Tawqīfīyah, 2015), 186; Aḥmad b. Fāris, al-Qazwīnī, Muʿjam Maqāyīs al-Lughah, ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1979), 2:361.
 Ibn ʿAṭīyah, ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq b. Ghālib, Abū Muḥammad, al-Muḥarrar al-Wajīz fī Tafsīr al-Kitāb al-ʿAzīz, ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Muḥmmad (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah, 2001), 4:546.
 Muḥmmad b. Aḥmad, al-Qurṭubī, Jāmiʿ Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, ed. ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Mahdī (Quetta: Maktabah Rashīdīyah, n.d.), 15:283-284.
 Muḥammad b. Ṭāhir, Ibn ʿĀshūr, al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr (Tunis: al-Dār al-Tūnisīyah li al-Nashr, 1984), 24:171.
 Muḥammad b. ʿUmar, al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb (Beirut: Dār al-Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 2008), 9:525.
 Muslim b. Ḥajjāj, al-Musnad al-Ṣaḥīḥ al-Mukhtaṣar, ed. Muḥammad Fuʿād ʿAbd al-Bāqī (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, n.d.), 4:2178, #2819. There are several narrations in which the incident and phrasing is mentioned. For example, when some of the Companions found out that all of the Messenger’s mistakes had been forgiven, they started fasting every day, praying all night, and refusing to associate with anyone, even their wives. The Messenger heard about this and censured them. Additionally, the Messenger informed the Companions that on Judgment Day, the people will go to various prophets, asking each of them for intercession. Finally, they will come to the Messenger and they will cite the fact that Allāh had forgiven all of his mistakes. Bukhārī, 1:16, #20; and 4:1745, #4435. The other canonical ḥadīth collections record additional incidences and chains.
 Bukhārī, 4:1830, #4556 and #4557. Note, this was after Q 48:2 was revealed.
 Musāʿid b. Sulaymān al-Ṭayyār, ed., Mawsūʿat al-Tafsīr al-Maʾthūrah (Jeddah: Markaz al-Dirāsāt wa al-Maʿlūmāt al-Qurʾānīyah, 2016), 20:221-222.
 Ibn ʿĀshūr, 26:105-106.
 Rāzī, 10:52.
 Rāzī, 10:66.
 Ṭayyār, 20:267-270.