Repentance can Annul the Punishment
In ayah 34 Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala provides an exception. He says,
إِلاَّ الَّذِينَ تَابُواْ مِن قَبْلِ أَن تَقْدِرُواْ عَلَيْهِمْ فَاعْلَمُواْ أَنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“Except for those who repent before you catch them; in then know that Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
This means that if the robbers and rebels repent before being caught by the government or someone in authority then the punishment prescribed in ayah 33 will be dropped. This shows the mercy of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.
If a person does tawbah after being caught, then he will not be exempted from the punishment.
– No matter what crime a person commits if he repents, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala forgives.
For example, there is a gang of highway robbers and police is after them. One day one of the gang members realizes what he is doing is wrong. He repents and stops committing the sins he has been in. He is caught by the police officer. He informs the officer that he is no more involved in those crimes he has realized his mistake and repented. The police officer too notices that this man is a changed person now. He goes to the masjid, offers all his prayers, fasts and has a beard. He is also learning the deen. In this case, the punishment will not be executed. However, if he is caught and then he says I’ll repent then his repentance is not accepted and punishment will be carried upon.
If there’s a person who murders another and he repents before being caught, but the victims heirs demand qasas then the murderer will not be forgiven. He has to be killed as well because it’s the haq of victim’s family. He committed a transgression against another family. On the other hand, if a person is caught committing these crimes and he doesn’t repent, but the family harmed says, “Forgive him”. He will not be forgiven because he didn’t do tawbah. It was the haq of Allah that he didn’t give.
Before repentance the heirs don’t have a choice whether to forgive or not because it’s the haq of Allah. If he repents, then it depends on the deceased’s family whether to demand execution of punishment or forgive him.
There’s an incident of Ali Al-Asadi who was a person who blocked roads, shed blood and plundered other people’s wealth. The authorities were after him, but they couldn’t catch him after he had repented. He repented after listening to a man reciting an ayah of Surah az-Zumar which said, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.”
So Al-Asadi asked that man to recite it again and that man recited again. Ali Al-Asadi put down his sword and went back to Madina. He entered at night; washed up and went to the Masjid of Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam and offered the fajr salah. He sat next to Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu.
In the morning people recognized him and tried to catch him. He said, “You have no way against me. I came in repentance before you had any authority over me.” Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu said, “He has said the truth.” And he held the man’s hand and took him to Marwan ibn Hakam who was the governor of Madina during the reign of Ma’wia. Abu Huraira said, “This is Ali and he came in repentance. You do not have a way against him nor can he be killed.” So Ali was absolved of punishment. Later, he died in jihad.
– This is the mercy of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala that if someone was immersed in crimes previously but they later realize their mistake and repent, they are forgiven. A lesson for us is that if we know of someone who was in some sort of evil deeds previously, don’t remind them of what they used to do, don’t insult or rebuke them when they have already repented.
– On the one side it is the responsibility of the authorities to catch the criminal, however, there’s always hope. The door of repentance is always open.
– There’s a difference between nidamah and tawbah. Nidamah is feeling bad for what we have done [example of Qabeel] whereas tawbah is completely changing ourselves. For example, in the above example when al-Asadi repented, he didn’t go back and murdered some more people rather he died in jihad.
– If someone has done injustice on us, but they have changed their ways and apologized. Then we should forgive them as well. When Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala can forgive us then who are we to hold grudge.
– This ayah teaches us to recognize our mistake as well as “rectify” our actions.