Quranic Reflection No. 451. Āyat 6:120 – Outward and Inner Sins
وَذَرُوا ظَاهِرَ الْإِثْمِ وَبَاطِنَهُ
Wadharū zāhiral-isthmi wabātinah
Renounce outward sins and the inward ones.
(Sūrat al-An‘ām, No 6, Āyat 120)
This verse commands believers to stay away from sins completely, both the outer and the inner form of sins. The word used for sins in this verse is ‘ithm’, a word that originally means something that stops you from doing something. Because sins stop a person from achieving virtue and spiritual progress, the word ithm has been used to refer to it. Sins have a certain attraction and temptation to them, and the verse explicitly commands believers to renounce them – to abstain from, avoid, and shun sins.
At several places in the Quran Allah ‘azza wajall talks about the outer and inner forms of indecencies and sins. He says in Q 6:151: you shall not approach indecencies, the outward among them and the inward ones. And in verse Q 7:33: Say, ‘My Lord has only forbidden indecencies, the outward among them and the inward ones. Indecency and sin often go together in the Quran. The word ‘sin’ incorporates indecency, and a mention of it is a reference to a specific form of sins, as in the verse those who avoid major sins and indecencies (Q 42:37). The term ‘major sins’ is general while the word ‘indecencies’ is a specific type of the general term.
The apparent meaning of outward sins are those deeds which can be seen or witnessed, as opposed to inward sins which are hidden and concealed from others. According to Allāmah Tabātabā’ī in Tafsīr al-Mīzān, although the terms in this verse could be applied generally, when viewed in context of the verses before and after it, the verse is a warning to stay away from eating haram foods. Thus, outward sins are those whose effects are very clear and obvious to all, such as associating a partner with God, oppressing others, hurting people etc. Inward sins would be those whose effects are not obviously apparent, such as eating haram foods. These types of sins are only understood through the guidance sent by God. Intellect alone is not enough to reveal its ill-effects.
Other interpretations of outward and inner sins include:
• outer sins are those committed in public and inner sins are those done in private. Both should be avoided. The people during Jāhiliyya believed, for example, that adultery was wrong if it was done in public. But if it was private and no-one knew about it, there was no problem with it. This form of distorted thinking was corrected by Islam.
• sins that are committed by the body parts such as the tongue, the hand, etc. are outward sins. Those which are done through the heart such as jealousy, hatred etc. are inner sins.
For a pure and virtuous society, its members need to stay away from all forms of sins and indecency, both outward as well as inner forms. Imam al-Sādiq ‘alayhis salām has said: Allah Blessed and High is Most Honorable (ghayūr), He Loves every honorable one, and due to His Sense of Honor (ghiyarah) He has prohibited the immoralities, its apparent as well as its hidden (forms) (al-Kāfī, Ch. 174, H 5). Remember this verse to help you stay away from all forms of sins. The goal is to not even incline to any form of sin. It will obstruct you from attaining that spiritual closeness your heart yearns for.
Sources: ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Aghā Muhsin Qarā’ati, Tafsīr Nūr; https://hadith.academyofislam.