At this point, it should be noted that the Qur’an has used the words “in ignorance” which apparently gives an impression that the repentance may be accepted when a sin is committed unintentionally and unknowingly. But if it is committed deliberately, it will not be acceptable. However, according to the explanation of this ayah given by the Companions, may Allah be pleased with them all, the word “jahalah” (ignorance) here does not mean that a sinning person is not aware of a sin as sin, or has no intention or volition to commit a sin. Instead, it means that it was the insensitivity and heedlessness of a person towards the evil end of sin and its ultimate punishment which became the cause of his audacity to venture into sin, even though he knew a sin as sin, and had approached it with intention and volition as well.
In other words, the word jahalah or ignorance used here is in the sense of carelessness or stupidity.
Abu al-Aliyah and Qatadah report that the Companions agreed that any sin committed by a servant of Allah is anyway an act of ignorance, be it deliberate or otherwise.
Mujahid said “Everyone who is doing anything in disobedience to Allah is for that matter ignorant while doing it”, even though on the outside, he may appear to be a person of great learning. [Ibn Kathir]
In his tafseer, al-Bahr al-Muhit, Abu Hayyah said, “This is just like what has reported in a hadith i.e. a person who commits zina will not be doing so while in a state of being a true Muslim.” It means that the time when he succumbed to the temptation of this evil act, that was the time when he was flung far off from the demand of his faith. For this reason, Ikrimah said everything one does in this mortal world – outside the framework of obedience to Allah – is ignorance. The logic is very obvious since the person disobeying Allah is preferring short-lived pleasures over those ever-lasting; and anyone who takes the punishment which will last forever and ever in exchange for this short-lived series of pleasures cannot be called rational, sensible or smart. Such a person would be universally termed as ignorant, even if he knows the evil of his act and has all the intention and resolve to go ahead with it.
The gist of the discussion so fat is that the sin that a man commits, deliberately or mistakenly, gets committed due to nothing but jihalat or ignorance. Therefore, there is a consensus of the entire Muslim Ummah on the principle that the repentance of a person who commits some sin deliberately can also be accepted. (al-Bahr al-Muhit)
Incidentally, there is another point worth attention in the present ayah which prescribes a condition for the acceptance of repentance – that one should repent soon without delaying it. The Quranic words are, ‘shortly thereafter’. What does shortly signify and how much time will come within the limit of shortly? The Prophet has himself explained in a hadith that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala accepts the repentance of His servant until the time he passes into the throes of death and his soul struggles to get out of his rattling throat.
Muhaddith ibn Marduwayh has narrated from Abdullah ibn Umar that he heard the Prophet saying, “A believing servant of Allah who repents from his sin a month before his death, or repents a day or a moment earlier, Allah shall accept his repentance, the condition being that the repentance should be genuine and sincere.” [Ibn Katheer]
In short, the explanation of min qareeb (shortly thereafter) given by the Prophet himself tells us that virtually man’s whole lifetime comes under qareeb and as such, any repentance which is offered well before death shall be acceptable. However, the repentance made by man while in throes of death is not acceptable. Man faces two conditions when close to death.
Firstly, there is the condition of utter hopelessness when all medicines and efforts fail and man comes to realize that death is round the corner. This is known as the state of conscious suffering. The second condition relates to what comes after, that is, when the pangs of the departure of human soul begin and the fated time of ghargharah (the onomatopoetic rattling sound emerging from the throat, a herald of approaching death) comes close. This is known as the state of total despair. The first condition, that is, the condition of conscious suffering comes within the sense of min qareeb and the repentance made at that time is accepted, but, the repentance in the second condition, that is, the condition of total despair is not acceptable, for this is a condition when the angels and things belonging to the Hereafter may start appearing before the dying person, and they are not included in the sense of min qareeb.
This explanation given by the Prophet has been pointed out by the Qur’an itself in the ayah 18 (Surah an-Nisa) where it is expressly mentioned that repenting, after the sure signs of death are visible, is not accepted.
So, in the light of this explanation the addition of min qareeb in this ayah serves to indicate that the very lifespan of man is limited in time and death which he may think is far away, may actually be quite near.
Relenting taken by Allah upon Himself is a form of promise the fulfillment of which is certain. Otherwise the truth is that Allah does not necessarily owe anything to anyone.
The second ayah describes those whose repentance is not acceptable with Allah, those who fearlessly go on committing sins throughout their entire lives yet, when death stands on their head and the withdrawal of their soul is set in motion and the angels of death start becoming visible, they start offering repentance. How could their repentance become acceptable when they kept running wild with their lives and wasted all opportunities of repenting while there was still time to repent. This is very much like Pharaoh and his people who called while drowning that they were ready to believe in the Lord of Musa and Haroon. Naturally, they were told that their declaration of faith at that time was of no consequence, because the time set for it was all over.
The same thing has been pointed out in the last sentence of the ayah which says that Allah also does not accept the repentance of those who die while they are still disbelievers. What is the worth of a declaration of faith right in the middle of one’s match with death facing the pangs of the withdrawal of the soul from the body? This confession or this declaration of faith is out of tune with the time and quite worthless now as their punishment stands prepared for them.
(Taken from Maaruf-ul-Qur’an by Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani)