Will you explain the hadith that mentions the repentance of a man who killed ninety-nine people?

Details of the Question

- How can angels decide about the state of a murderer?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Angels do whatever Allah informs and orders them. It is also the order of Allah that an angel came disguised as a man and decided by making the other angels measure the distance between the good and the bad.

Abu Said narrates: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said,

“There was a person before you who had killed ninety-nine people and then made an inquiry about the most learned person of the world. He was directed to a monk. He came to him and told him that he had killed ninety-nine people and asked him whether there was any scope for his repentance to be accepted. The monk said, ‘No.’ He killed him also and thus completed one hundred.

He continued asking about the most learned person of the earth and he was directed to a scholar. He told him that he had killed one hundred people and asked him whether there was any scope for his repentance to be accepted. The scholars said, ‘Yes; what stands between you and the repentance?’ He added, ‘You had better go to such and such land; there are people devoted to prayer and worship and you also worship along with them and do not come to the land of yours since it was an evil land for you.

So, he went away and he had hardly covered half the distance when death came to him. There was a dispute between the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment. The angels of mercy said, ‘This man has come as a penitent and remorseful to Allah.’ The angels of punishment said, ‘He has done no good at all.

Then there came another angel in the form of a human being. The angels made him a judge to decide between them. The judge said to them, ‘Measure the distance between the land he left and the land he would go. Accept him for the nearer part.’ They measured it and found him one span nearer to the land where he intended to go (the land of piety). So, the angels of mercy took possession of him."

The following addition exists in a narration: "After walking for a while, death came to him. The man turned his body toward the village of the righteous people. Thus, he was regarded among the people of that village." [Bukhari, Anbiya 50; Muslim, Tawba 46, (2766); Ibn Majah, Diyat 2, (2621).]

The following is stated in another narration (about the same story):

"Allah sent a revelation to the village he left to move away from him and the other village to approach him. Then, He said, ‘Measure the distance between the land he left and the land he would go'" (Bukhari, the same chapter)

Hz. Prophet (pbuh) sometimes told stories and used similes with didactic purposes and other purposes so that some lofty truths would be understood well and would be remembered. We see this style a lot in hadiths. We see one of the best examples of it in the story above. The Messenger of Allah mentions many lofty truths in that story, which can be called Israili. We should say that to say that a story is from Israiliyyat does not mean to despise and underestimate the truths, wisdoms and subtleties it includes, especially if the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) liked it, narrated it and wanted us to take lessons.

As a matter of fact, he said, "Narrate the stories of Sons of Israel; there is no harm in doing it."  It is mentioned in narrations that he sometimes told the Companions stories from Israiliyyat. However, it is necessary to be cautious about Israiliyyat that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) did not mention and it is necessary not to adopt them easily thinking that they teach wisdom. Otherwise, it is possible to open the door to some superstitions and to act contrarily to the tolerance of Islam.

As for the story above, it can be a real story or a literary story to teach the truths in it as a lesson. It is normal for the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) to make use of some lingual and traditional things and proverbs while conveying his message to people. In such cases, it does not matter whether the incident in the story really took place or not; what matters is the message it intends to give. However, some hadith scholars accept this incident as real and acting upon the fact that the one hundredth person the man killed was a "monk", they say this incident took place after Hz. Isa (Christ). They say, "It is definite by the nass of the Quran that monkhood is an institution that was established after Hz. Isa." The nass mentioned by them is verse 27 of the chapter of al- Hadid.

As for the truths in the hadith, we will attract attention to some of them that we regard as important:

1. Acceptance of repentance: It is clearly stated in the verses of the Quran that all sins can be forgiven after repentance. If a person repents of "shirk (polytheism)", which is regarded as the biggest sin by our religion, and returns to oneness, it will be forgiven too. As it is stated in the hadith numbered 949, it is necessary to believe that repentance of unbelief and shirk is accepted.

The biggest crime after shirk is to kill a person unjustly. The Quran declares such a murder to be a crime "equal to killing all people". (al-Maida, 5/32) In the narration above, the Messenger of Allah gives the hope of being forgiven to a person who committed such a crime even one hundred times if he repents truly. In the story, information is given about the reason for the murder of the monk and the other murders and the cold-heartedness of the murderer. That a person is forgiven despite such unjust and reasonless murders just because he decides to repent shows Islam’s understanding of repentance and expresses the level of the mercy of Allah Almighty for His slaves. Islamic scholars regard it as a major sin for a person to believe that he has definitely been forgiven and that he has no sins as well as despair, that is, to believe that he will not be forgiven. A believer has to believe that no matter how big his sins are, they can be forgiven and that divine pardoning is bigger than anything. This faith is a necessity of being a believer. There is no place for despair. 

No person with common sense will have a fallacy that will encourage sins with the considerations that "human life is cheap" or "there is forgiveness anyway" acting upon this hadith. The reason for the coming of the hadith is to encourage repentance, not to encourage sins; the attitude of a believer in the face of a sin is stated in the narration numbered 949: "To be afraid of committing sins as if a mountain will fall on him". In the same narration, the attitude of Allah about forgiving those who repent is stated: to rejoice like a person who finds his mount on which everything is loaded in a desert; and the door of repentance that is open as wide as the distance that can be covered by a horsemen riding for seventy years and that will not be closed up to Doomsday.

Yes, what is meant to be stated by the hadiths up to now is the attitude of Allah Almighty about forgiving those who repent; it is expressed by a different eloquence by the last hadith from a different aspect.

O Lord! We repent of our sins and take refuge in your pardoning and mercy. Accept our repentance and give us power not to commit them again!

2. Intention and determination is superior to deeds for a believer: Two things seem to be the reason for the forgiveness of a sinner:

a) Repentance,

b) Determination, that is, trying to do the deed that is a requirement of repentance.

In the narration, the sinner finds out that he can be forgiven but that he has to live with good people and worship. In our opinion, this is the most eloquent part of the story in terms of explaining the issue of repentance: The person who killed one hundred people did not worship or do any charitable deeds; he only showed his determination, entered the way of repentance and good deeds but died in the middle of the way, before reaching his target. However, this determination was enough for being pardoned. What if he had reached his target?

The Messenger of Allah says, "The intention of a believer is superior to his deeds."  

3. To hurry to repent and to do good deeds:

It is significant that the angels of mercy and punishment measure the distance. It is stated in the narration that the man was saved because the distance to the land of the good was one span nearer.

What if he had been late a bit?

Since death comes unexpectedly, we must not wait for tomorrow, even "soon", for repentance and doing good deeds.

4. The effect of the environment on man:

In the narration, the Messenger of Allah attracts attention to that issue too. The following statement of the scholar is important in that it expresses the role of the social environment on man’s good or bad deeds: "You had better go to such and such land; there are people devoted to prayer and worship… and do not come to the land of yours since it was an evil land for you." The following is stated in another version of the hadith: "You must leave the bad village in which you live."

Acting upon this hadith, the scholars attract attention to the fact that it is necessary for a person who commits some bad deeds to leave the place he lives in when he wants to get rid of it and to change his state of committing sins when he repents. Thus, he will break off his ties with the reminiscences and habits that lead him to bad deeds and the people who help him commit sins.  

5. In this narration, we see that a scholar is superior to a worshipper. For, the first person that the murderer applied to was a monk and he gave him a negative answer, which cost his life. It is stated that the second person was a "scholar"; he gave a wise answer and saved the murderer.  

6. Acting in accordance with the sari’ah of the people before us:

An explanation presented by Qadi Iyad due to this narration clarifies the issue of acting in accordance with the shari’ah of the people before us; we regard it useful to quote it: 

"According to this hadith, repentance is useful even for the sin of murder along with other sins. In fact, this narration reflects the shari’ah of the people before us and it is a disputable issue to act in accordance with the shari’ah of the people before us. However, this issue is not related to disputable issues. For, the dispute is related to the issues which existed in the previous shari’ahs but about which confirmation was not sent down in our shari’ah: (Is it necessary for us to act in accordance with such a decree or not?) If there is a decree confirming it in our shari’ah, it is also regarded as part of our shari’ah; there is no dispute about it. Many verses and hadiths came regarding the issue of repentance:

Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth...' (an-Nisa, 4/48).

There are also many hadiths regarding the issue. The following hadith, which is reported from Ubada Ibnus-Samit, which ends as follows and which is unanimously agreed upon, is one of them:

'...The state of a person who commits one of those sins is up to Allah; He forgives him if he wishes or punishes him.'' 

Ibn Hajar adds the following:

"This decree is deduced from the principle that “the burdens” of the ummah of Muhammad “have been lightened” compared to the previous ummahs. If the acceptance of the repentance of the murderer is a principle existing in their shari’ah, it should definitely exist in our shari’ah, and in a better way."

(see Prof. Dr. İbrahim Canan, Kütüb-ü Sitte Tercüme ve Şerhi, Tövbe, Vol. 4, Hadith no: 6/954)

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