(4:17-18) What Do I Need to Know about Repentance? The Tawbah 101
The Low Down on Repentance
How do I erase a bad deed? Will Allah accept my repentance? How do I repent? Is my sin too great to be forgiven?
The repentance accepted by Allah is only for those who do wrong in ignorance [or carelessness] and then repent soon after. It is those to whom Allah will turn in forgiveness, and Allah is ever Knowing and Wise. (4:17)
Sinning has been part of our existence since our history began. Islam is realistic about the human condition and does not shy away from our propensity to sin. While having a system of punishments in place reduces sins, all sins cannot be erased from society and we will never be a sin-less society. We have sinners and we will always have sinners till the history of the human race comes to an end. Despite the common perception that the companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) were angelic, the fact is that even they were sinners, with some committing minor sins, and others major ones,[i] just as in any society. How did the Prophet (peace be on him) and Islam deal with sins? By understanding this, we can embed in our psyche how to respond appropriately to the sins committed around us.
Separating the sinner and the sin
Mistakenly, harshness is viewed as the solution to sin, however it could be that a good word may elicit a better response than a hundred lashes. Our tendency to be judgemental also leads us to conflate the sin with the sinner. There is a subtle but crucial distinction between the sin and the sinner. Certainly we should hate the sin, but we should not extend that hatred to the sinner. He is human after all. And if you look down on him, it could well be that you will be afflicted by falling into a sin which is as bad as his. In the hadith, narrated by Tirmidhi, the Prophet (peace be on him) said whoever blames his brother for a sin he committed won’t die till he has committed that sin. Thus we need to be very careful not to be supercilious towards others who have sinned. Their sin might not be our choice of sin, but our sin could be worse in God’s eyes.
In the case of infidelity, society is quick to view the sinner with contempt, perhaps even extend this towards his whole family and those associated with him. Yet, if that person were to repent, one would feel sorry for him rather than hatred. Indeed, even while he is sinning, you need to work on your feelings towards him, put yourself in his shoes and realise that in his position you would not wish to be humiliated.
The prophetic example of compassion towards the sinner is illustrated by Bukhari who narrated in his Sahih:
It was narrated from Umar ibn al-Khatab that there was a man at the time of the Prophet (peace on him) whose name was Abdullah, but his nickname was Himaar (donkey), and he used to make the Messenger of Allah (peace on him) laugh. The Prophet (peace on him) had had him flogged for drinking, then he was brought one day and he commanded that he be flogged, and a man who was there said, ‘O Allah, curse him, how often he is brought [for this reason]!’ But the Prophet (peace on him) said: ‘Do not curse him, for by Allah what I know about him is that he loves Allah and His Messenger.’
Through this the Prophet (peace be on him) showed us how to extend our compassion towards all people. And in fact, he was very fond of this man, who would present him with gifts such as butter and honey, which he had not paid for himself, and then bring the seller to collect payment from the Prophet (peace be on him) to settle the outstanding bill. When the Prophet (peace be on him) would ask, ‘Didn’t you give it to me as a gift?’ Abdullah would reply: ‘Yes, O Messenger of Allah; however I cannot afford to pay.’ The two of them would laugh together and then the Prophet (peace be upon him) would have the merchant paid. The Prophet (peace be on him) declared about him: ‘Indeed, he loves Allah and His Messenger.’ (Bukhari)
Al-Fudayl bin Iyaad who died in 803 (AH187) was once a highway robber, who had committed a catalogue of sins and was the leader of a gang, later repented and became such a pious person that people wished to be like him.
In our own social circle, our attitude towards those who are sinning should be of kindness, and of giving good advice to them. If, however, their sin or attitude towards sinning is affecting you and your family then politely keep your distance.
The importance of veiling sins
The Prophet (peace be on him) did not like his companions mentioning the sins of other companions to him, unless there was a reason to do so. Hearing ill of other people colours our perception of them and when we hear negative stories about others, we cannot help but treat them with a prejudiced heart, rather than an open heart. It is preferable to form our own judgement of people than to form an opinion based on second hand knowledge. Be careful not to adopt other people’s opinions. It could be that somebody acted in a certain way for a particular reason but we do not have full knowledge. We should also be careful of discussing other people’s shortcomings with other friends and family members, particularly being critical of our spouses to our parents, as they will not forget what we said when they meet our spouse.
Sins should not be exposed and have their flames fanned through gossip. Those who love evil and fahisha (lewdness) to be spread are worse than those who sin in private.
Those who love to see immorality spread among the believers—for them is a painful punishment, in this life and in the Hereafter. God knows, and you do not know. (24:19)
The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said, on the authority of Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him), ‘Every one of my Ummah, every person, every Muslim will be safe on the day of Judgement except one category, those who publicly proclaim their sins.’ (Bukhari and Muslim)
Imam ul Hakim narrates in his Mustadrak, on the authority of Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
‘Stay away from these filthy sins that Almighty Allah has prohibited and whoever falls prey and commits any sin, let him veil himself with the veil of Allah.’
Imam Malik in Al Muwatta narrated:
‘Whoever shows us his sins, We will apply punishment on him.’
Veiling the sin is not the same as condoning it. Wisdom and kindness should lead the way in tackling sin – kindness does not mean being weak and wisdom does not mean being harsh. If it is a family member who is sinning, then use tact and wisdom to identify the key to help them change their behaviour. How can you deliver a good message to them? Even if their sin is approved by the family, be the one to pull them out of the sin. Try your best with the right intention.
Having a laissez-faire attitude towards sin, does not do the sinner any favours. Turning a blind eye legitimises the sin; the damage spreads like a virus. That is irresponsible. If you want to stop the sin spreading and contaminating the whole community, putting the sinner in quarantine sacrifices one freedom to protect the rest of society. Similarly, boundaries pertaining to crime are meant to isolate the evil in the community.
It is key for the protection of the community that we keep chastity in the community and at the very least a veil of decency. If one does not respect the limits set out by Allah Almighty, then we destroy the community. This is why the punishment of breaching chastity is severe.
The mercy of punishment
Interestingly, the punishment may be severe but there is mercy embedded in punishment. As the consequences of sin are detrimental for the sinner and those around the sinner, the merciful act is to stop the sin and minimise damage than let it continue.
Marriages today are more likely to break down as we have lost some of the wisdom, tolerance and forgiveness that couples showed each other in the past, who held their marriages together despite the challenges they faced. Perhaps it was a lack of economic freedom that kept women in difficult marriages, but it meant that they weathered the storms which modern women are not prepared to face. Where women are less tolerant now, those who maintained their dignity through their marital storms may have more wisdom, forgiving heart and experience. Men also had more patience and tolerance towards their wives.
What is the balance between muddling through a tempestuous relationship and drawling a line? Clearly, if a spouse is abusive, or causing harm to the other spouse and family it is damaging to stay in such a relationship. If physical abuse is taking place, the matter should be reported to the police. Or if a spouse is alcoholic or addicted to substances they are risking their family and their reputation. Simply accepting abusive behaviour is wrong. This conduct needs to be addressed to protect family.
How do you define a sin?
Sayyia is plural of sayyiaat. Sayi is something bad, the opposite of jayyid. There is a discussion among scholars over who decides whether something is good (al hasan) or a sin (al kabih). Is it our intelligence (aql) or is it the shariah? There is one opinion that it is aql, however the majority postulate that it is shariah and aql together, while the third opinion says it is the shariah alone.
Scholars differentiate between major and minor sins. Major sins (those which are specifically punishable by hellfire) require repentance to gain forgiveness. Minor sins, on the other hand, are washed away by wudu and salah. And for practising Muslims are deleted between one the salah and the next, one jummah and the next and between one Ramadan to the next.
Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) said:
Abu Bakr told me, and Abu Bakr spoke the truth, that he heard God’s Messenger say, “No man will commit a sin, then get up and purify himself, then pray, then ask God’s forgiveness without God forgiving him.” Then he recited, “And those who, when they do something to be ashamed of, or who wrong themselves, remember God and ask forgiveness for their sins” (Al-Qur’an; 3:135). [Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah]
Are sins committed out of ignorance?
The verses of the Qur’an are inspirational, as Allah Almighty paints us in a positive light, suggesting that our sins are not deliberate but out of forgetfulness or ignorance. This does not mean that forgiveness is not extended to the one who sinned deliberately, but that Allah is not rebuking us for being malicious.
In fact what we consider a deliberate sin is actually committed in a state of ignorance – had the sinner been aware of the punishment they would have never come close to the sin. Our ignorance is far greater than our knowledge. Allah says in surah Al Isra:
‘but you have been given only a little knowledge.’ (17:85)
And so it is that we fail to appreciate Him He deserves.
Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet, (peace be on him) said:
‘Reflect upon Allah’s Creation; do not reflect upon His Essence, because this will ruin you (your faith, your mind, etc.)’ (Ibn Shaybah Mawqouf)
Allah Almighty is beyond our comprehension because the limited simply cannot comprehend the unlimited, just as the cup cannot contain the ocean. Therefore our actions are not carried out with the full comprehension of Allah’s majesty or might, or even certainty, for if we had those we would be conscious and fearful of committing even the slightest mistake.
Repentance as a means of return
Though someone’s sin might take him off the track, Allah is throwing him a life line by giving him the opportunity to repent and come back. This chance is available until the angel of death appears, after which the door to repentance is sealed shut. The opportunity for forgiveness means that one should not be consumed by their sin, or their sense of guilt. However, once you commit a sin, you have parked in the area located for shaytan. Take the next exit, as you would on the motorway, and go back to the straight path. There is always a signpost to direct you, follow the sign and then you will get back on the main road.
What is the difference between tawbah and istighfar?
Istighfar is apologising, whereas tawbah is the sense of remorse and the status of the heart. It is possible to say ‘astaghfirullah’ but feel no regret at all, and not even stop the sin. Whereas tawbah is actually stopping the sin and feeling bad about it, which is what brings about the cleansing of the sin:
The Messenger of Allah (peace on him) said: ‘The one who repents from sin is like one who did not sin.’ (Tabarani)
What repentance entails
Whenever Allah Almighty mentions a problem in the Qur’an, He always follows it by mentioning the solution. When He mentions sins, He mentions forgiveness. Once a sin is committed, what is the way out? Repentance has the following components. Stopping the sin, feeling regret for committing the sin, intending not to repeat that sin, and seeking forgiveness for the sin both from Allah and the person who was wronged. Allah Almighty accepts the repentance of those who repent soon after their mistake.
A simple way from the sunnah of erasing a bad deed is to follow it up with a good deed.
On the authority of Abu Dharr Jundub ibn Junada and Abu Abdul Rahmaan Muaadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with both of them) from the Messenger of Allah (peace on him) who said, ‘Fear Allah wherever you are. And follow up a bad deed with a good deed and it will wipe it out. And behave towards the people with a good behaviour.’ (Tirmidhi)
How repentance draws us closer to Allah
‘Verily, Allah loves those who repent and those who purify themselves.’ (2:222)
Allah Almighty gives us encouragement to repent: His forgiveness is immediate for those whose repentance is near (qareeb) – in other words those whose hearts are attuned to Him, whose sin dawns on them as soon as they commit it, like waking up from the stupor of their sin, and quickly returning to their sanity and repenting. As we keep committing sins, the tawabeen are those who are continuously seeking forgiveness. Without repentance, we become distanced from Allah.
Allah not only accepts repentance, but He loves it. Qareeb is used for space and also time. In terms of time, it refers to repenting soon and in terms of space, this is metaphorical as repentance pulls you closer to Allah. Allah therefore tells us that loves those who keep repenting and keep purifying themselves.
When you go back to Him with a broken heart, not an attitude of arrogance, when you beg Him and you cry with sincerity, your heart is soft and His love is overflowing. The un-repenting heart is hard and far from Allah. When we recognise that we are weak and we show this weakness when we turn to Him, we earn His love. When we show that we are not insisting on sinning, but trying to stay away from sin we draw closer to Him than the one who is continuously sinning.
What prevents us from sinning if we can easily wipe away sins by repenting?
Though we commit sins, our natural innate state inclines towards goodness. It is against our fitrah to be evil. Doing good is common sense and the recognition of goodness is embedded in our system, so we generally act with this tendency towards goodness. Over time however we accumulate cultures and habits of oppression, which go against justice and goodness, so the revelation came to rectify the ways in which we have gone wrong and to bring societies back to justice. As we are emotional beings we become attached to certain habits, for example nepotism that go against justice. Allah Almighty has created laws that bring equality for all humanity, not a favoured group. Anyone who follows the rules will gain entry to Jannah safe and sound. Thus we should not experiment or reinvent His laws to fit our practices, but modify our practices where they are wrong, to fit His laws.
Why shouldn’t we take minor sins lightly?
A scholar once commented that we should not look at the magnitude of the sin, but at whom we are disobeying. It does not matter what the sin is, whether it is major or minor, we should be mindful of not displeasing Allah the Almighty. If we take minor sins lightly, then we become more open to major sins. We increase our appetite, our predisposition and adopt a recklessly daring attitude, rather than an obedient one, towards sin, which could easily lead to an escalation of sin.
Those who teach others that certain sins can be dismissed as minor, as they can be erased by wudu for example are creating the wrong mindset and encouraging sins – both minor and major. Instead we should work towards having a heart that is in awe of Him, as He truly deserves.
The extent of forgiveness
Having a sound heart takes effort. Allah Almighty helps heal our hears when we repent Allah Almighty, as He continues to forgive our sins when we turn to Him. In fact, Allah Almighty’s mercy is vast and extends to any sin at all that the sinner repents from. We have the Hadith Qudsi, on the authority of Anas (may Allah be pleased with him), who said:
I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) say: Allah the Almighty said: ‘O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.’ (Tirmidhi, Ahmad ibn Hanbal).
In Surah Zumar, Allah Almighty clarifies again:
Say: O Ibaadi (My slaves) who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful. (39:53)
Not postponing repentance
There will of course be obstacles between us and repentance. But we have to face them and overcome them, so that we do not delay our repentance. If the heart if full of taqwa (obedience) then the stain of the sin is washed off immediately. The longer we leave stain, just like any garment, the stain becomes stubborn and harder to remove. Left unwashed it can ruin the garment altogether.
How long does the angel who records your sins give you to repent before the sin is written in your book of deeds? The left and right angle negotiate and eventually the sin is written down, which means we have a window to make amends.
Abu Umamah narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: ‘The angel on the left will lift the pen for six hours from writing down the sin of the Muslim servant. If he regretted it and sought forgiveness for it he will throw it away, otherwise it will be written as one sin.’ (Narrated by Tabarani in a good chain.)
Another mistake is to postpone repentance. Just as Firaun repented once death was upon him it is too late. Allah says in the Qur’an:
‘And We took the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh and his soldiers pursued them in tyranny and enmity until, when drowning overtook him, he said, “I believe that there is no deity except that in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of the Muslims.”
Now? And you had disobeyed [Him] before and were of the corrupters?’ (10: 90-91)
Similarly, it is dangerous to delay going for hajj thinking that by leaving it till later one will have accumulated more sins, and therefore have more sins forgiven. We should perform hajj when we are fit and able, particularly we have no guarantee how long we have and might never have that chance.
If we do not repent immediately, we are likely to forget the mistakes we have committed. The dua for forgiveness specifies all our mistakes, including the ones we forgot, as well as those we remembered:
O Allah, I seek forgiveness for every sin, I committed, about which, of course, You know inside and out, from the beginning to the end of my life, whether committed deliberately or unintentionally, few or many, abstruse or manifest, old or new, secretly carried out or openly done; and for whatever wrong I have done I turn repentant unto You and beseech You to bless Muhammad and the children of Muhammad and forgive all my unjust acts I did to wrong the people (because they have rights which I have to recognize and fulfill) but You have full authority to forgive those wrongdoings whenever and howsoever You wish, O the most merciful.
It is essential not to postpone repentance. Once the unseen has become apparent, repentance is too late. In Surah Qaf, Allah says:
‘Man does not utter any word except that with him is an observer prepared [to record].
And the intoxication of death will bring the truth; that is what you were trying to avoid.
And the Horn will be blown. That is the Day of [carrying out] the threat.
[It will be said], ‘You were certainly in unmindfulness of this, and We have removed from you your cover, so your sight, this Day, is sharp.
And his companion, [the angel], will say, ‘This [record] is what is with me, prepared.’ (50:18-23)
Making amends to those you wronged
Seek forgiveness from those you have wronged with sincerity. Find ways of approaching them that appease them. And if you are unable to make contact with them, make dua for them and you can give sadaqa on their behalf. This is the last resort if you were unable to gain their forgiveness.
The psychological stain of the sin
Experience comes from mistakes. Without mistakes we do not gain experience, so we become a better person by learning from our mistakes. They humble us. However, it is psychologically unhealthy to keep rewinding a sin and dwelling on it or becoming debilitated by it. Focusing obsessively on a particular sin does not make us a better person. Don’t keep rewinding. Move on. Leave your sin in the past, do not drag it into your future. Even if your sins reach the sky I will give you forgives gives us hope.
We have the concept of original sin that is present in Christianity, which makes it easy for us to return to a clean slate with Allah if we keep repenting. The sin should be a heavy burden, but repentance should be light.
Extra forgiveness in Ramadan
Allah Almighty makes it even easier for us to gain forgiveness by giving us extra opportunities to erase sins. The most obvious is the month of Ramadan:
Allah has made Ramadan fasting obligatory. I have made the night prayer (tarawih) sunnah. He who fasts and observes night prayers believing the virtues and seeking his reward from Allah, He will be saved from his sins as a newborn baby. (Nasai)
Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet (peace be on him) said, ‘Whoever established prayers on the night of Qadr out of sincere faith and hoping for a reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven; and whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, and hoping for a reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven.’ (Bukhari)
Whose repentance does Allah not accept?
Not all repentance is accepted. We may fool others by acting remorseful, however, if one’s repentance does not fulfil the conditions of repentance then Allah does not forgive that sin. He is Al Aleem (The All Knowing), so He knows the reality of our position; how deep our repentance truly is and if our repentance is genuine or not. During the blessed month of Ramadan when Allah forgives more than other times, it is a great misfortune not to be forgiven.
The Prophet (peace be on him) ascended the Minbar (pulpit) and said: ‘Ameen, ameen, ameen.’ It was said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, you ascended the pulpit and said, ‘Ameen, ameen, ameen.’
He said: ‘Jibreel came to me and said, ‘If Ramadan comes and a person is not forgiven, he will enter Hell and Allah will cast him far away. Say Ameen.’ So I said Ameen. (Narrated by Ibn Khuzaymah and ibn Hibbaan.)
For these people, fasting is merely a physical abstention, as they are refraining from food but continuing in other sins, and therefore they do not secure their freedom from the fire.
The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said: ‘Whoever does not give up false statements (i.e. telling lies), acting upon them and intolerance, Allah will not be in need of his (fasting) leaving his food and drink.’ (Bukhari)
Having certainty in Allah’s forgiveness
Supplicate to Allah with the intention of certainty that he will accept from you. If deep down you think He won’t forgive you, you are holding a bad opinion of Him and will not elicit forgiveness. Keep repeating the same dua if Allah is not answering. Allah loves those who keep begging Him. Allah will not get bored of you until you get bored of him, as we know from the hadith narrated by Bukhari and Muslim. This means that Allah will never stop responding to you until you stop asking Him.
But repentance is not [accepted] of those who [continue to] do evil deeds up until, when death comes to one of them, he says, ‘Indeed, I have repented now,’ or of those who die while they are disbelievers. For them We have prepared a painful punishment. (4:18)
When repentance is too late
Disbelievers will have severe punishment. People who did not repent from shirk will also have severe punishment, because if they postponed repenting there is a risk we die in a state of disbelief. Shirk, unless you repent is an unforgiveable sin. If somebody commits shirk and repents they are forgiven. If they postponed repentance they die in an unforgivable state, equal to disbelievers.
All major sins are punishable, unless you have intercession (shafa’a), which writes off your sins, and allows you enter Jannah without hisaab:
Ibn Abbas said: The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘I was shown the nations. One Prophet passed by with a group, another passed by with a small band, another with ten followers, another with five, and another on his own (with no followers). I looked and saw a huge multitude, and I said, ‘O Jibreel, are these my ummah?’ He said ‘No, but look at the horizon.’ So I looked and saw a huge multitude. He said, ‘These are your ummah, and these are seventy thousand at their head who will not be brought to account or punished.’ I said, ‘How come?’ He said, ‘They do not use branding, or seek ruqya, or believe in bad omens; they put their trust in their Lord.’ (Bukhari).
Is the number 70,000 symbolic of a large number or real? We have some discussion here among the scholars. Nevertheless we pray that we might be of these on the Day of Judgement.
How do we know our repentance is accepted?
Scholars commented that the sign of acceptance of a good deed is to be inspired to do another good deed.
The reward of forgiveness and the best du’a for forgiveness
The importance of continuous repentance is key to avoid falling in the category of the unforgiven. Forgiveness grants us entry into the jannah. The best dua for istighfar is known as the ‘sayidul istighfar’ is a comprehensive dua for forgiveness. On the authority of Shaddad ibn Aws, (may Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
‘The chief of prayers for forgiveness is:
O Allah, You are my Lord, none has the right to be worshipped except You, You created me and I am Your servant and I abide by Your covenant and promise as best I can, I take refuge in You from the evil of which I committed. I acknowledge Your favour upon me and I acknowledge my sin, so forgive me, for verily none can forgive sin except You.’
The Prophet ﷺ added, ‘If somebody recites it during the day with firm faith in it and dies on the same day before the evening, he will be from the people of Paradise and if somebody recites it at night with firm faith in it and dies before the morning he will be from the people of Paradise.’ (Bukhari)
[i] The difference between minor sins and major sins:
The best of the views concerning this issue is that which was narrated from Ibn ‘Abbas and was mentioned by Abu ‘Ubaydah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal and others. It is the view that the minor sin is that for which no punishment is specified in this world or the hereafter. This is similar to what was said by those who say that it is a sin that is not subject to a hadd (punishment) in this world. And it is similar to what was said by those who say that any sin concerning which mention is made of a curse, divine wrath or warning of Hell is a major sin. And it is similar to what was said by those who say that the minor sin is that concerning which there is no hadd (punishment) in this world, and no warning of punishment in the hereafter – that is, a specific warning such as a warning of Hell, divine wrath or curse.
Similarly, every sin concerning which the doer is warned that he will not enter Paradise or even smell the fragrance of Paradise, or it was said concerning it that the one who does it is not one of us, or the one who does it is a wrongdoer – all of these are major sins.
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