We often hear about the importance of staying away from major sins and how fasting on particular days like `Ashura or `Arafah expiates the minor sins of a particular time period. However, many of us may be left wondering, “What exactly are major and minor sins? How do I know what is major and what is minor?”
This short explanation is an attempt to clarify the ambiguity regarding the nature of major and minor sins.
Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) says,
إِن تَجْتَنِبُوا كَبَائِرَ مَا تُنْهَوْنَ عَنْهُ نُكَفِّرْ عَنكُمْ سَيِّئَاتِكُمْ وَنُدْخِلْكُم مُّدْخَلًا كَرِيمًا
“If you avoid the major sins which you are forbidden from committing, We will forgive and wipe away from you your [lesser] sins and make you enter a noble entrance [Paradise].” (Qur’an 4:31)
The scholars have differed regarding the division of sins into major and minor in two camps.
- Opinion of Abdullah ibn Abbas: Anything by which Allah (swt) is disobeyed is considered major.
- Opinion of the Majority: Sins are classified as major and minor as the verse clearly implies.
How to Understand the Difference Between the Opinions (as explained by Imam Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani)
This apparent difference of opinion is not of real significance, rather the difference is in the terminology. This is because those who follow the first opinion shy away from naming a sin “minor” out of awe and reverence for Allah (swt). However, the second group recognize that the ayah (verse) itself differentiated between the two; hence they define major and minor sins as separate entities.
With this understanding in mind, the scholars then discuss what constitutes a major or minor sin, and they are divided in two opinions.
- A major sin varies from a minor sin based on the intrinsic nature of the sin.
- A major sin varies from a minor sin based on the condition and state of the one sinning. A sin could be considered major for one person, while the same sin could be considered minor in someone else’s case.
Based on the above, we still need to define a major sin. Also, how do we differentiate between the major and the minor? Here are some of the scholarly opinions.
- The major sins have been given a specific number and clearly defined. Here are some of the numbers mentioned by the scholars:
- 7 major sins (from a well-known hadith (record) in Bukhari and Muslim)
- 9 major sins
- All the sins mentioned in Surat al-Nisa, verses 1-31
- 70 major sins
- 700 major sins
- Any sin that carries a specific legal punishment (stealing, adultery, etc).
- Any sin that has been accompanied by a stern warning.
- Any sin that the Qur’an has explicitly stated to be haram (forbidden).
The third opinion of Imam al Wahidi seems to be strongest and most logical in my opinion. It clarifies that some major sins are known, while others are not specified, to encourage us to always be on guard and protect ourselves from falling into them.
In the spirit of Islam and the principle of “making things easy” and “removing hardship,” Allah has given us multiple doors to wipe out our sins. From the means He granted us are:
- Repentance (tawba)—available 24/7 (a must for major sins)
- Jumu’ah (Friday) to Jumu’ah (Friday) (minor sins)
- Prayer to Prayer (minor sins)
- Ramadan to Ramadan (minor sins)
It is worth recalling some of the gems of wisdom from the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) regarding sins, when he said, “Righteousness is in good character and morality, and wrongdoing is that which wavers in your soul, and which you dislike people finding out about.” In another narration, Waabisah bin Ma’bad stated, “I came to the Messenger of Allah and he said to me, “You have come to ask about righteousness.” I replied in the affirmative. He said, “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that which the soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil with. And wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and causes uneasiness in the chest, even though people have repeatedly given their legal opinion [in its favor].”
One might be wondering, “Ok, I know what a major sin is now, but what exactly is a minor sin?” The answer to that depends on what position one took on the major sins.
If you take the opinion that any sin for which Allah (swt) has specified a clear punishment is considered major (like cutting the wrist of the thief, lashing the unmarried adulterer, etc), then any sin outside of this circle is considered minor. Or if you take the position that the major sins are the seven defined in the hadith, then all other sins are minor.
There is no way to compile a list of minor sins for many reasons. For example, a sin may be considered minor to one person but major to another. An example of this is if someone has a serious disease where smoking could kill him. If he smokes, this could be considered a major sin, since he knows its severity and consequences. On the contrary, a healthy, young, teenage Muslim may fall into peer pressure and take a puff of a cigarette, and this could be considered minor.
Here are some definitions for the minor sin:
- A minor sin is an act of disobedience for which Allah (swt) has not stated a specific penalty.
- A minor sin is an act of disobedience for which Allah (swt) has not explicitly used the word haraam when prohibiting it. He has used other words like ithm, ma’siya, dhanb, kurh (all these words revolve around the meaning of sin and disobedience).
- A minor sin is an act of disobedience for which Allah (swt) has not stated a stern warning against doing it.
- A minor sin is an act performed that is not sanctioned by Islam, that we commit knowingly or unknowingly, where we do not mean to usurp the rights of Allah (swt), others, or our own selves. They are acts about which Allah (swt) has not stated extreme anger, punishments, or warnings. There is no exact number.
The minor sins then include actions like poor manners, being in a state of forgetfulness (by not being continuously thankful or praising Allah (swt)), or not properly performing our acts of worship (while not invalidating them) They are actions that Allah (swt) will forgive by His mercy if we continue to strive hard by praying regularly, fasting yearly, purifying ourselves (ritually as well as spiritually), as well as by performing other specific acts that Allah (swt) states will wipe out our sins.
Lastly, it is worth noting that ignorance regarding an act being sinful is an excuse in certain situations only. One cannot stay ignorant in order to have a free pass. However, on our path of learning, if we fall into sins that we were unaware of, then insha’Allah (God willing) these are forgiven.
May Allah (swt) make us aware of all that is wrong, and may He make us capable of abstaining from it.