An-Nisa 4:17

إِنَّمَا التَّوْبَةُ عَلَى اللَّهِ لِلَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ السُّوءَ بِجَهَالَةٍ ثُمَّ يَتُوبُونَ مِن قَرِيبٍ فَأُولَٰئِكَ يَتُوبُ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِمْ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا

Pikthall translates:

Forgiveness is only incumbent on Allah toward those who do evil in ignorance (and) then turn quickly (in repentance) to Allah. These are they toward whom Allah relenteth. Allah is ever Knower, Wise.

where the term "only incumbent" lacks a direct link to the original.

Sahih International leaves the word "only" but leaves out the word "incumbrent":

The repentance accepted by Allah is only for those who do wrong in ignorance [or carelessness] and then repent soon after. It is those to whom Allah will turn in forgiveness, and Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

The particle إِنَّمَا (inna-maa) is translated as "only". However, this would imply that repetence is not possible for any wrong that is not done in ignorance, whereas other passages imply that repetence from sin, even kufr, is possible through due repetence.

Itani leaves إِنَّمَا untranslated:

Repentance is available from God for those who commit evil out of ignorance, and then repent soon after. These—God will relent towards them. God is Knowing and Wise.

An overview on the usage of the particle إِنَّمَا in Sunna drawa a picture where the meaning "only" does not fit. Rather, the affirmative إِنَّ, (inna: "indeed", "truely", "verily") fits well in all cases. Keyzer translates thus into Dutch:

Waarlijk, bij God is verzoening voor hen, die in onwetendheid gezondigd en er spoedig berouw over hebben. God vergeeft hun; want God is alwetend en wijs. (Verily, with God is atonement for those who have sinned in ignorance and are quick to repent. God forgives them; for God is omniscient and wise.)

The Quran continues (4:18):

But there is no atonement for those who do evil until death strikes them, and then (after death) say, "I repent"; nor for those who die as disbelievers. We have determined a severe punishment for these.

Is it correct to assume Keyzer's translation that the Quran mentions the two extreme cases; in verse 17 where God promises that He will for sure be forgive, and the case of a notorious evil-doer who did not repent or refrain from doing evil during his entire life?

Suggestion taking into account the answer of UmH:

Repentance is indeed available from God for those who commit evil in carelessness and repent in time. God will relent towards them. God is Knowing and Wise.

But there is no atonement for those who do evil until death strikes them, and then (after death) say, "I repent"; nor for those who die as disbelievers. We have determined a severe punishment for these.

This would fill the gap between the two examples, and the question, whether it is appropriate to add "only" in (17) becomes less relevant.

2 Answers 2



Meaning of إِنَّمَا

The word إِنَّمَا is used for exclusivity and usually means "only".

The word, however, still allows usage in the form of emphasis or when you want to deny a previous assertion, assumed or explicit.

An example of the latter usage is the verse where Allah says: ⟪But they say, "Why are not signs sent down to him from his Lord?" Say, "The signs are only with Allah, and I am only a clear warner."⟫ (29:50)

Here, the disbelievers say: Bring a miracle.

The Prophet responds: I am only a warner i.e. I don't have the power to bring miracles on demand.

The Prophet does not mean he is nothing other than a warner, as it is clear he is also a bringer of good news, etc.

Meaning of عَلَى اللَّهِ

The particle عَلَى can be used to mean "incumbent on" or "obligatory on."

Pickthall translates the phrase as "repentance incumbent upon Allah."

The meaning of the phrase "incumbent upon Allah" is: repentance that Allah promises to accept or repentance accepted by Allah.

So, other translators choose to say it in the second way.

Repentance that is accepted

It is well-known and clear in the Quran that all sins are forgiven if someone repents. Allah says: ⟪Indeed, Allah forgives all sins.⟫ (39:53)

However, this verse in the question gives two conditions for repentance: that the sin is in ignorance and the repentance is soon after.

So, what does that mean?

Meaning of جَهالَة

The word جَهالَة is translated into English as "ignorance," but it is not the same as جَهْل which literally means the lack of knowledge.

There are a couple of opinions as to what it means:

  1. "Ignorance" refers to the actions of ignorance i.e. all bad actions, and does not refer to anything about the state of the doer or whether he knows the action is sinful. So, all sins are done in ignorance as sins are themselves ignorance.

    To support this usage of ignorance, they can quote the verse in the Quran when Yusuf (AS) says: ⟪And if You do not avert from me their plan, I might incline toward them and [thus] be of the ignorant.⟫ (12:33). It is obvious Yusuf (AS) does not lack knowledge that adultery is haram, and he is not going to lose his knowledge any time soon.

    Qatadah is quoted as saying: "The companions of Muhammad (SAW) agreed that every action someone disobeys Allah with is ignorance, whether it was done knowingly or not."

    Mujahid said: "Every disobedient person is ignorant while he is disobeying."

    Zajjaj says: "They preferred [their sin] over their knowledge and understanding that its punishment should be avoided and preferred the immediate over the later, so they are called ignorant for their preference of what is small over reward that is great and long-lasting."

    The next verse supports this interpretation because the two verses are meant to define when repentance is accepted and isn't accepted. So, since the second verse is clear that repentance is not accepted when death approaches, the first verse makes sense to encompass all situations other than that.

  2. Ignorance refers to their ignorance of the reality of how great the punishment and evil is of what they did, even if they understood the theory of it being bad. No one realizes the full extent of his actions until he sees the angel of death with his eyes.

    The next verse supports this understanding as Allah contrasts whom he will forgive with whom he will not forgive, and the one he will not forgive is the one who has seen the angel of death and the time is over for him to repent.

  3. Ignorance could be taken as lack of knowledge of the thing being a sin.

    However, doing bad things while not knowing they are bad is not a sin in the first place if you did not have the ability to know. So, this cannot be the purpose of the verse.

    As for doing bad things when you did have the ability to know they are bad but are still ignorant, that is a worse sin than doing bad things while knowing they are bad.

    It is a worse sin because it is coupled with disbelief in addition to the sin itself.

    Hence, in this meaning, Allah tells us in this verse that He will forgive even this worse case of sin, but He will not forgive when they reach death. So, the fact that the lesser sin when you are not ignorant is forgiven is already assumed and understood.

Meaning of مِنْ قَرِيبٍ

The meaning of مِنْ قَرِيبٍ is "soon" or "close [to the sin]."

There are three opinions reported on what it means:

  1. Repent in health, before they become sick and die.

  2. Repent before seeing the angel of death.

  3. Repent before death.

All three opinions amount to the same thing. Saying it means before death is clearly best in contrasting it with the next verse since Allah negates repentance being accepted when death comes.

And Allah knows best.


One explanation is that here ignorance (جهالة) does not mean lack of knowledge, rather it means being indifferent or careless. The scholars say that every sin that is done (intentionally or unintentionally) is done in ignorance \ indifference. The expression "who do wrong in ignorance" is not a condition but rather a poetic description. As an example of the usage of جهالة as meaning indifference, see the following verses:

قال رب السجن أحب إلي مما يدعونني إليه وإلا تصرف عني كيدهن أصب إليهن وأكن من الجاهلين

He said, "My Lord, prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me. And if You do not avert from me their plan, I might incline toward them and [thus] be of the ignorant."

Quran 12:33

قال هل علمتم ما فعلتم بيوسف وأخيه إذ أنتم جاهلون

He said, "Do you know what you did with Joseph and his brother when you were ignorant?"

Quran 12:89

Hence what this verse means, according to this interpretation, is that Allah only accepts repentance of one who repents before death approaches him.

  • Good point to fill the gap. Would you agree to the suggestion I have added under the line?
    – Jeschu
    Aug 7, 2022 at 14:00

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