Explanation by Shaykh al Uthaymeen (rahimahullah)
What is a major sin?
A kabeerah (major sin) in the reality of (its) meaning is the opposite of a sagheerah (lesser sin) – but what is the scale [on which to judge this distinction]? Some of the scholars said:
“Whatever the Legislator has laid down in text to be a major sin, then it is a major sin, and whatever has not been laid down in text [to be a major sin] then it is a lesser sin.”
So for example,
“Stay away from the seven destructive sins.” [This is an example of a major sin]
[Authentic Hadeeth, Sahih Bukhari (2615) and Sahih Muslim (89)]
“Should I not inform you of the most serious of the major sins?…” [This is an example of a major sin]
[Authentic Hadeeth, Sahih Bukhari (2511) and Sahih Muslim (87)]
So what is important is that whatever the Legislator has laid down in text to be a major sin [then] it is a major sin. And what has not been is not. And some of the scholars stated:
“Whatever has a threat upon it of curse or anger [from Allaah] then it is a major sin.”
And others have said:
“Whatever has in it a prescribed punishment in this worldly life or a threat in the Hereafter, then it is a major sin.”
And they [the scholars] have differed a great deal; and Shaykh ul Islaam rahimahullaah mentioned that a major sin is that, the consequence of which is a specific punishment. Meaning, for whatever there has been appointed a specific punishment, then [that action] is a major sin. And whatever has only been prohibited but for which there has not been particularised a specific punishment, then it is a lesser sin.
And together with that, he says: that the major sins vary in level, some of them being more severe than others. And his statement is closer to what is correct: whoever performs a major sin and does not repent from it, he is a faasiq (evil doer). And whoever persists upon a lesser sin and his persisting does not contain any refraining [from it], then he is a faasiq (evil doer).
[Source: Taken from Sharh Al Aqeedah As Safaarineeyyah by Shaykh al Uthaymeen, pg. 296, Translator: Nasser ibn Najam, checked by Dawood Burbank. With slights edits]
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