Ibn Al-Qayyim’s Madarij Al-Salikin (Steps of the Seekers) | The Station of Repentance (Tawbah) (part 1)

THE STATION OF Repentance is the first, the last and the middle of all the stations, never leaving the seeking servant, even in the moments of his death. Indeed, even after his death, his Repentance goes along with him, never to part. So, Repentance is the beginning of a servant as it is the end, as Allah says:

And repent to Allah, all of you, O believers, perhaps you may succeed. [Sûrat Al-Nuûr, 24:31]

This verse was revealed in Madinah, being addressed to the believers and the best of Allah’s servants after their commitment in faith and patience, and after their emigration and jihad, connecting their success to Repentance in a cause-and-effect relationship. The Arabic word la¢alla (perhaps) gives a sense of hope, meaning that if you repent you may hope for success, for no one but the people of Repentance are entitled to hope.

Allah divides humanity into two categories, those who repent, and those who transgress:

And those who do not repent are indeed the transgressors. [Sûrat Al-Hujurât, 49:11]

Indeed, who is greater in transgression than the one who does not repent to Allah? In an authentic report, the Messenger of Allah œ said:

O people, repent to Allah, for by Allah, I repent to him more than seventy times in a day. [This statement is a combination of two reports from the Prophet œ, the first one by Muslim, the second by Bukhari]

The Companions could hear the Prophet œ say, up to a hundred times in one sitting:

O Lord, forgive me and accept my repentance, for you are the one who accepts repentance and forgives. (Ahmed)

After the surah of Al-Nasr (110) was revealed (and the Prophet œ was commanded to “glorify the Praise of his Lord and seek forgiveness”), he never completed a salah without saying: Glory and Praise be to you O Allah, O our Lord, O Allah, forgive me. (Bukhari)

It has been related authentically from the Prophet œ that he said:

The actions of none of you will save you. The Companions said: Not even you, O Messenger of Allah? He said: No, not even me. Except if Allah shades me with His Mercy and Grace. (Muslim)

Repentance and Al-Fatihah

Since Repentance is but return to Allah and abandonment of the path of those who incurred Allah’s wrath and those who went astray and that cannot be obtained except by Allah’s guidance to the Straight Path, Al-Fatihah is indeed the best and most complete way to it. Whosoever gives Al-Fatihah its full due, by way of knowledge, attendance, presence and gnosis, comes to know that it must not be read without sincere repentance, for guidance to the Straight Path cannot obtain in the presence of ignorance, of negligence towards one’s sins or of persistence in them.

Holding Fast to Allah

The first of the meanings of Repentance is that one looks at where you slipped in holding fast to Allah (I¢tisam) and consequently fell into sinning, and alternatively, where Allah deprived you of his protection. You look at your short-lived pleasure at sinning, despite your knowledge that Allah is watching over you. Allah says:

And whoever holds fast to Allah, he indeed is guided to the right path. [Sûrat Al ¢Imrân, 3:101]

If one holds on to Allah wholeheartedly, Allah will never abandon him:

…and hold fast to Allah! He is your Protector—the Best to protect and the Best to help! [Sûrat Al-Hajj, 22:78]

So if you were to hold on to Allah, he would help you against your baser self as well as against the Satan, the two enemies that never lead the servant along and whose enmity is more ruinous than the enmity of outside enemies. The knowers of Allah (¢ârifun) have agreed that humility and defeat is obtained when Allah leaves you to your own self. While success (tawfiq) is that Allah does not abandon you at the mercy of your lower self. Thus, Repentance is ultimately a matter of your holding on to Allah, and in turn, Allah guarding you as a consequence.

Enjoying One’s Sin is an Enormity

At the occasion of a sin, heedlessness and neglect of the sinner is aggravated until he or she comes to enjoy the fruit of her forbidden desires. This very pleasure in sinning is witness to the sinner’s ignorance of the One, Allah, whom he or she is defying and of its grievous consequences. Indeed, one’s pleasure at sinning is more harmful than the sin itself. A believer never enjoys the fruits of his or her sinning. Rather, even while committing the sin the believer’s heart is aching from inside, but the intoxication of desire has covered up his heart’s ache. If the heart ever becomes void of this remorseful ache of sinning, and the joy of sinning overpowers any feeling of remorse, then one should doubt one’s faith, and cry over the death of his heart.

Such an aggravated state of remorseless sinning is a very scary situation indeed, and only a few ever became aware of it, while it leads them head on towards utter ruin unless they make up by the following three things: Fear of death in such a state without repentance; shame and regret over what one committed against Allah by disobeying Him; and finally rolling up one’s sleeves to atone for the sin and to avoid it in the future.

An aggravated state of heedlessness to the point that one feels no remorse at sinning leads to the habit of determined opposition to Allah, and that is an even greater calamity than the original sin. This indeed is part of the punishment for sinning that it leads to a greater sin, which leads to even greater sins, until the utter destruction of the sinner is established.

Worse than the sinning itself, is making it public and showing it off, as if one is proud of flouting the guidance of Allah knowing that He is watching over him. Or else, perhaps the sinner comes to believe that Allah is in fact not watching over him, which amounts to disbelief. So, the sinner is caught between the possibility of shamelessness on the one hand and disbelief on the other. The essence of Repentance is return to Allah, and the return necessitates assertion of the Lord’s Glorified Names and Attributes, and acknowledgement of His signs in one’s own person and in the universe around, and admitting that one was in a state of escape from His Lord and thus had become a captive of Allah’s enemy (Satan).This must have been a result of ignorance and negligence in regards to one’s Lord, and therefore it is necessary to reflect on how and when one became so neglectful of –and negligent towards– Allah.

Conditions of Repentance

True Repentance has conditions:

(1) regret,

(2) abandonment, and

(3) apology.

All the three must be present at the time of Repentance. When one returns from the state of sinning and heedlessness to the state of servitude to Allah, for which he or she was created –only then has the true Repentance occurred.

In an authentic report the Prophet said:

Regret is (the essence of) Repentance. (Ahmed)

Apology is to say with one’s heart and tongue:

O Allah, I am not immune to sinning, I sinned, so I seek apology; I have no power, so help me; I am a repentant sinner; I have no excuse; the right is yours and the crime is mine; to forgive or not is Your right –but You are most Forgiving!

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 2…

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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