Prepared by Abu Ibrahim J. Starling
According to the Qurʾān, Sunnah, and scholarly consensus, sins are of 2 basic categories in the Islamic Law; minor sins and major sins. While each sinful action is classified as either intrinsically minor or major the final ruling and consequential effect actually depends more on the offender than the offense itself.
While all types of sins are pardoned when repentance is sought and accepted, minor sins may be forgiven when proceeded by righteousness and avoidance of major sins. This is clearly stated in the Qurʾān when Allāh says, “If you avoid the major sins which you are forbidden, We will remove from you your lesser sins and admit you to a noble entrance [into Paradise].” This principle is also mirrored in the prophetic Sunnah as reported by Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) who said the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "The five daily (prescribed) Salat, and Friday (prayer) to the next Friday (prayer), and the fasting of Ramadan to the next Ramadan, is expiation of the sins committed in between them, so long as major sins are avoided."
The grace of Allāh can clearly be identified in how He pardons minor sins and makes them seem a great deal lesser in scope than what is deemed major. While this is a great mercy for the sincerely pious, such a portrayal of minor sins often serves as a test for those with a lesser degree of religiosity which can in essence backfire by changing their status from minor to major.
This “flopping effect” of minor sins largely occurs in 2 distinct ways; downplaying their evil nature and consistently committing them. The 1st way of downplaying the evil nature of minor sins was addressed by Anas, may Allāh be pleased with him, when he spoke to a group of the later generation saying, “You indulge in (bad) actions which are more insignificant to you than a hair while we considered them at the time of Allāh’s messenger (peace be upon him) to be major destructive sins".
The understanding that minor sins, when downplayed, can lead to destruction was reported by Sahl ibn Suhayl who said that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Beware of the belittled sins for the likeness of the belittled sins is that of a people who descend to the floor of a valley each bringing a single stick until they are able (to light a fire strong enough) to cook their bread. The belittled sins, when their offender is seized by them is destroyed.”
Ibn Qayyim further explains “this as something to be understood, that a major sin coupled with shyness and fear and greatly magnified in degree will be grouped with the minor sins. Similarly, minor sins coupled with a lack of shyness, no concern, little fear, and underestimation is what causes them it to be grouped with major sins or even greater in degree. This has to do with what happens in the heart which is beyond the mere act itself.”
Minimizing minor sins often leads the offender to committing them in abundance until it becomes habitual which is the 2nd manner by which they are considered major. A man once asked Ibn Abbās if the major sins were 7 in number. He replied saying “they were more close to 700 than 7 and that sins are not considered major when forgiveness is sought just as sins are not considered minor when done continuously.”
If a minor sin is adopted as habit and done continuously its results can be worse than major sins. Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah says, “that fornication is from the major sins while gazing at and physical contact (with non-mahrams of the opposite gender) will be pardoned so long as major sins are avoided (i.e. they are minor sins). However, if the gaze or contact becomes continuous they will become major sins which could be more severe than a small amount of fawāḥis (lude illicit behavior). Continuous lustful gazing and what is associated with it such as passionate love, intimacy, and physical contact could be more devastating than the evil of an isolated act of fornication.”
While this principle is agreed upon by the majority of scholars and known by many of the lay community, what should also be of great concern due to the lackadaisical attitude of many and the obscure nature of the topic is this same “flopping effect” as it pertains to the makrūh acts.
Just as minor sins can become major sins based on the above mentioned principle, makrūh acts done on a perpetual basis can too increase the act’s degree reaching the level of blameworthy and sinful. Imam Al-Shāṭibī further expounds upon this reality saying that if “an action is partially makrūh (i.e. committed on the rare occasion) it is prohibited in totality (i.e. when committed regularly) … If these things occur infrequently they will not defame and discredit one’s integrity but if they are committed consistently they will…” Imam Al-Shāṭibī’s conclusions are clear in that persistency in any given action has a direct impact on it’s respective ruling. He finds not only that makrūh acts can become sinful if done continuously but also some mubāḥ (religiously neutral acts) can be elevated to makrūh or even ḥarām if done continuously.
This is easily understood in light of the fact that the intent of our beloved Prophet’s message is to draw mankind from darkness into light by refining and beautifying their character. To achieve such lofty objectives his Sunnah includes requested beneficial actions which are either obligatory or preferred as well as harmful actions which are to be avoided be they impermissible or abhorred, all working harmoniously together to produce the desired result. Regardless the category of the action, they are all a part of his legislation which if abandoned is certainly blameworthy as it directly impedes the obtainment of its objectives and whoever turns away from his Sunnah has no relation to him.
Allah knows best...
Footnotes (Active links where available):
 Madārij al-Sālikīn, Ibn Qayyim, Vol. 1, Pg. 321
 Musnad Imam Ahmed, Vol 37, Pg. 467
 Madarij al-Sālikīn, Ibn Qayyim, Vol 1, Pg. 337
 Jamiʾu al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl ʾāyi al-Qurʾān, Ibn Jarir, Vol. 6, Pg. 651, Sharḥ Uṣūl al-ʿItqād Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamāʿah, Al-Lālikāʾī, Vol 6, Pg. 1110
 Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, Ibn Taymiyyah, Vol. 15, Pg. 293
 Al-Muwāfaqāt, Al-Shāṭibī, Vol. 1, Pg. 213