The Sacred Law encourages us to admit our mistakes. Recognizing and admitting a mistake is an essential step in seeking repentance. It is to this end that the instructors and sages of spiritual perfection advised us to keep perpetual watch over our actions and states (Ar. muraqabah), to always assume ourselves to be the guilty party (Ar. ittiham al-nafs), and to examine and hold ourselves accountable for our actions (Ar. muhasabah).
Admitting the mistake to oneself suffices when the mistake remains private. But when the mistake becomes public or extends to other people one is required to acknowledge and rectify the mistake, and to declare the accused innocent. Acknowledging the mistake is required to in order to have remorse, rectifying the mistake is required to bring the mistake to an end, and declaring the accused innocent returns what was wrongfully taken – all of which are needed to fulfill several essential elements of repentance: al-nadm, al-qalʿ an al-maʿsiyah, and radd al-mazalim. When the false accusation is made known to the accused, one is still left with the matter of seeking pardon from the person they wronged.
The problem is compounded when erroneous or misleading information is spread in a public forum or audience.
To avoid false accusations, we are all commanded to assume the best about others when we receive odd information. Likewise, when making scholarly presentations we are required to provide positive evidence with proper attribution when making claims, and to transmit fairly and accurately when quoting others.
An excellent example of how to deal with scholarly mistakes is found in Shaykh ʿAbd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah’s later editions of Muhammad ʿAbd al-Hayy al-Laknawi’s al-Raf wa al-Takmil – may Allah grant both of them His mercy. In the first two editions of the book, he denied the existence of a hadith. Other scholars followed him in denying the hadith in question. Later, one of the shaykh’s students pointed out that the hadith is found in Muslim’s Sahih. The Shaykh’s reaction was to acknowledge the mistake, to clarify where and how he slipped, and to acknowledge that he was the source for others following him in this mistake. He concluded this with thanking his students who exposed the error and then asking Allah to forgive him for the mistake.
1. For complete coverage of the essential elements of repentance and their various conditions, please see the sections on repentance in Ihya ʿUlum al-Din, Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin, Kitab al-Adhkar, or one of the numerous books which are written on or include the subject. Much of this material is translated in Shaykh Nuh Keller’s Reliance of the Traveller.
2. al-Lakwnawi, ʿAbd al-Hayy. ʿAbd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah, ed. (1421 AH) al-Rafʿ wa al-Takmil fi al-Jarh wa al-Taʿdil. Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah. pp206–7.