WHO AMONG US doesn’t desperately wish to end up in the Garden and to save his soul from the Fire? The reality is that a human being, if he knows the path of salvation, is prepared, once he gives it serious consideration, to sacrifice everything—yes everything!—for the sake of obtaining it. Allah, the Most High, has linked this success to tawba, repentance, which, translated into plain language, reads like this: There is no success without ‘repentance’—without tawba. Allah states: And turn all together to Allah in repentance, O you believers, so that you may be successful [Sûrat Al-Nûr, 24:31].
Yet how shall a people ever achieve success whom Allah has called ‘unjust transgressors,’ ‘wrongdoers’ (<âlimûn)? For Allah has said: And whoever does not repent, then it is [such as] these who are the wrongdoers [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:11]. <âlimûn is the label that Allah has affixed to the unrepentant, and the <âlimûn will never ever succeed.
But where is the wrong in being unrepentant? Rather, the question ought to be: Where isn’t it? The wrong is in a man’s lack of awareness of his Lord—specifically of his Lord’s punishment and the dire consequence of meeting Allah with a toxic load of unrepented-for misdeeds. This load of unawareness of wrongdoing is lodged in a man’s own soul, out of willful ignorance of the defects that have defaced his pristine soul, and caused it to desert success and indulge in <ulm. It is part and parcel of a man’s oblivion to the mercy of his Lord and of man’s lack of recognition for his Lord’s delight in the repentance of His slaves. This toxic load accompanies a man’s benighted ignorance of the mercy and forgiveness that His Creator reserves for the repentant.
Divine Elation in Mortal Repentance
The Case of Moses, the Children of Israel, and the Prayer for Rain (Istisqâ’)
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It is said that Prophet Moses once came forth to lead the Children of Israel in a communal prayer for rain. Seventy thousand worshippers joined him in that prayer. Looking up to the sky, the congregation and their prophet-imam could discern scattered clouds in the sky. Moses stood up and began supplicating, the great congregation chanting the word ‘amîn!’ loudly after each entreaty made by Moses.
Suddenly, and to the surprise of everyone, the clouds began vanishing from the sky! Thereupon Moses addressed Allah, saying: “O Lord! This is not the way You have been wont to treat me! Always, have You granted my prayers!”
The answer came down from Allah: “O Moses! There is in your congregation a slave of Mine who has disobeyed me for the past forty years. I shall send no rain upon you until you banish him from your congregation!”
Moses said: O Allah! Yet how may I know of whom you speak? Pray, show him to me, that I may remove him from our ranks.”
To this Allah said: “You need only shout out at the top of your voice: ‘O you who have sinned for forty years! Separate yourself from us so that we may have rain!’”
“O Lord!” said Moses. “My voice is too weak to make all in this gathering hear what I proclaim.”
Allah said: “O Moses! Do as I have bidden you. I shall see to the rest.”
So Moses stood up and proclaimed the divine command to his people.
Now, the congregation began looking to one another, each one hoping not to be the object of the divine command. Yet none stepped out. Moses repeated the command. Still no one stepped out. A third time Moses pronounced, adding: “Woe to you who have sinned against the Lord for forty years! The people will be destroyed because of you! I adjure you, separate yourself from us. All the while, the wrongdoer waited in silence, hoping for another to step forward. But when Moses made the pronouncement the third time, he was sure he was the one whom Moses meant. Fear for the impending disgrace gripped him. His mind wavered violently between the two bitter choices before him. Should he stand up to spare his people inevitable ruin? Or should he hunker down to avoid disgrace? Hobbled by hesitation as to whether to stay put or step forth, a third choice struck him. What was that third way? The man thought to repent to Allah, and resolved his heart to do it. He covered his head with his tunic and said: “O Lord! I have disobeyed you for forty years and You have covered my failings all through. I pray Thee, disgrace me not this day, for truly I am repentant. And, I pray Thee, send down upon us rain, and spare me humiliation.”
No sooner did the man finish his intimate converse with Allah than the clouds gathered from the four corners of the sky, and the wonder-filled congregation, including Moses, began to look at one another, and say to themselves: “What became of Allah’s promise? Has Moses not declared that Allah would not send down rain upon us until the sinful man left our gathering? Yet none has left our congregation. What goes?” Yet the rain kept pouring down and the misery was over! Wondering, Moses addressed Allah, saying: “O Lord! You promised not to give us rain until the sinful man had separated himself from our congregation! And now You are sending abundant rain upon us!” Allah said to Moses: “O Moses! I have given you rain by virtue of the same reason that has caused Me to deny you rain!” “But how can that be? The man intended has not departed our ranks.” said Moses. Allah said: “The man has repented, O Moses.”
My dear reader, see how the man who is about to be the cause of his people’s ruin—through sincere tawba—becomes a conduit through which Allah’s mercy showers his people. The man turns, in minutes, from a wretched miscreant into a saint whose petitions Allah grants—all on account of a word he said in all sincerity. Still curious to know who that man was, Moses said: “O Lord! Point the man out to me so I can make him of my close confidants.” Yet Allah said: “O Moses! The man disobeyed Us, and We covered his failings. Do you desire Us to disgrace him when he has turned to Us in sincere repentance?”
The Conditions of Tawba
Now, back to our main topic: Allah, Most High, delights immensely in his slave’s repentance. The Prophet presented this meaning to us couched in a beautiful example. He said:
Allah is more elated by the repentance of His slave than a person who has lost his mount in a barren desert, his food and water provisions being on it. Dispirited and dejected, the man sits down, awaiting his inevitable death. Moments later, and out of nowhere, the man beholds his mount with the provisions on its back standing before him. Jumping up and grabbing his mount’s rein, the man exclaims [to his Lord]: “O Allah! You are my slave and I am Your Lord!” He errs in his speech, [but it is] out of the intense happiness that has overtaken him. (Bukhari)
Thus has the Prophet ﷺ put it. No matter how deep a person sinks into sinful practices, if he makes tawba, Allah will accept it and relent toward him.
In fact, everything we fear in this life we flee from, except in regards to Allah: Whom the more we fear, the more we flee to Him. This is why the learned ones are those who flee most to Allah, because they fear Him most. Allah said: Yet none truly fears Allah among His servants but those filled with knowledge [Sûrat Fâ ṭir, 35:28]. Allah also instructed His Prophet ﷺ to proclaim to us: Flee to Allah. I am, indeed, from Him a clear forewarner [sent] to you [Sûrat Al-Dhâriyât, 51:50].
Know that making tawba is an obligation to be carried out instantaneously; in fact, it admits of no delay. We must repent and return to Allah the moment we slip and fall into sins; otherwise, at that moment we default on a religious duty. Hastening to tawba is, thus, a religious obligation. And if we sin or default on our religious obligations and we do not hasten to make tawba, we will be obliged to make two tawbas. This is a subtle matter to which many are inattentive. You see them repent from sins they perpetrated long ago, but they forget to repent for delaying to make tawba!
We should know, as well, that Allah’s mercy is vast and that the slave’s repentance falls between two tawbas which Allah confers upon him. Allah first eases our way to tawba—and this is a divine grace—for the way to tawba is not made easy for everyone. Then, secondly, when we act upon Allah’s succor and do make our tawba, Allah accepts this tawba from us, even as He has said: Then He relented toward them, so that they might repent. Indeed, it is Allah who is the All-Relenting, the Mercy-Giving [Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:118].
Now, some think that tawba is required only in the case of committing major sins: the ‘enormities’ (kabâ’ir). They fail to remember that the Prophet ﷺ used to make tawba to Allah a hundred times a day! In fact, the Companions □ would hear the Prophet ﷺ pronounce his tawba and istighfar (seeking Allah’s forgiveness) seventy times in a single sitting. This is in spite of the fact that the Prophet ﷺ was divinely protected from error (maʿsûm), and despite the fact that Allah had promised him absolution, stating: Therefore shall Allah forgive you your sins—whatever has preceded and whatever is to come. And, therefore, shall he perfect His blessing upon you and guide you along a straight way [Sûrat Al-Fath, 48:2]. Now, how many times a day do we declare tawba and ask for forgiveness? The truth is more likely that, days may pass—rather, weeks; no, rather months!—without us uttering either of these two words, a condition from which we seek Allah’s help: Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves! And if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we shall most surely be among the losers! [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7:23].
True and acceptable tawba has five conditions:
- Immediate abstention from the wrong from which one intends to make tawba. There is no tawba for one who persists obstinately in his crooked ways while claiming: “I have repented! I have repented!” And from this we seek Allah’s forgiveness.
- Feeling remorse. It is mentioned in a ḥadîth that remorse is tawba. For one must regret the fact that he has disobeyed the One in Whose Hands rests the dominion of heavens and earth.
- The resolve not to relapse once again into the sin from which he has repented. It is not right to backbite your brother on one occasion, show remorse for it, while reserving for one’s self the prerogative to perpetrate it in another gathering. Rather, one must consciously examine himself and resolve not to fall into the same fault again.And let us differentiate here between the resolve not to relapse into the sin and the act of relapsing itself. If a person made a sincere tawba, and he or she has satisfied the three requirements of true tawba—(a) desisting from the sin, (b) regretting its commission, and (c) resolving not to go back to it—but at some point thereafter he or she momentarily forgets, or, his or her will weakens and there is a relapse into the same sin again, this does not vitiate the initial tawba. The Prophet ﷺ has affirmed and explained this in a sound ḥadîth reported in Ṣaḥîḥ Muslim. He said:
A slave of Allah committed a sin and said: “O Allah! Forgive me my sin!” Thereupon Allah said: “My slave sinned and knew that he had a Lord who forgives sins and punishes sins.” Again, the slave sinned, and again said: “O Allah! Forgive me my sin!” Thereupon Allah said: “My slave sinned and knew that he had a Lord who forgives sins and punishes them.” Then for the third time, the slave sinned and said: “O Allah! Forgive my sin!” To which Allah replied, saying: “My slave committed a sin and knew he had a Lord that forgives sins and punishes their perpetrators. O Slave of Mine! Do whatever you will, for I have forgiven you!” (Muslim).
Thus, relapsing into the sin from which the person has sincerely repented does not render the initial tawba unacceptable in the sight of Allah.
- The repenting person should render unto their rightful owners the rights he has unjustly usurped from them. If these violations are financial, he should return what is rightly due to their owners; but if the violations are spiritual (backbiting, slandering, etc.), he should ask Allah’s forgiveness for the people he has maligned, and he should see to it that he says good things about these persons in the same places wherein he had previously badmouthed them.
- Tawba should be made within the time-frame in which tawba becomes eligible for Allah’s acceptance. The two major time limits are as follows:
i. Before death descends upon an individual in this life. Allah has said: But there is no repentance for those who [continue to] do [great] sins—until, when death approaches one of them, he says: Indeed, I do now repent! Nor [is there repentance] for those who die while they are disbelievers. For such as these, We have made ready a most painful torment [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:18].
It is for this very reason that Allah spurned the last minute, “death-bed” tawba made by Pharaoh who, when death came upon him, exclaimed: I believe that there is no God but the One in whom the Children of Israel have believed. And I am now of those who are muslims, in willing submission to God alone [Sûrat Yunus, 10:90]. Allah rejected Pharaoh and said to him: Now?! While previously you truly disobeyed, and you were ever of those who sowed corruption [Sûrat Yunus, 10:91].
ii. Before the sun reverses its routine course and rises from the west in the end events in the story of mankind. Allah has said: Do they [who disbelieve] await anything other than for the angels to come to them [with death]; or for your Lord [Himself] to come [to them]; or for some of [the great] signs of your Lord [heralding the end of time] to come? Once a Day when some [of the awesome] signs of your Lord has arrived [at the end of time], then [sudden, precautious] belief will not benefit a soul that has not believed before, nor [a soul that has not already] earned good from its belief [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:158]. Commenting on the words of Allah (in this ayah)—some of the signs of your Lord—the Prophet ﷺ, referring to the end times, said: The sun’s rising from the west is one of the signs of your Lord.
An important question is in order. If tawba is this consequential and yet this uncomplicated, why do so many sinners pay it little or no heed? The scholars suggest two causes for this heedlessness.
1. People—and I’m talking about Muslims—underrate minor sins, miscalculate them as being of marginal consequence, and
2. Procrastination. For people always assume that they have longer to live. Both are delusions of this life, both being diseases to be addressed in more detail, perhaps, in a future writing—if there is life for us to do this.
Let us ever remind ourselves, and each other, this ever-relevant reminder to each and every one of us, whether to us as individuals or to us in our community as a whole:
Yet, turn all together to Allah in repentance, O you believers, so that you may be successful. [Sûrat Al-Nûr, 24:31]
Originally posted 2015-07-07 12:00:25.