Translations from Ibn Al-Qayyim’s Madarij Al-Salikin (Steps of the Seekers) | The Station of Repentance (Tawbah) – 2

A Rohingya Muslim illegal immigrant cries as he prays at the Immigration Detention Centre during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kanchanaburi province July 10, 2013. More than a hundred Rohingya Muslims gathered to pray and break fast as they welcome the first day of Ramadan in Thailand. The stateless people arrived in Thailand earlier in January this year after fleeing a bloody conflict between the Buddhist and Muslims in Myanmar's western Rakhine State. (Athit Perewongmetha/Reuters)

Shaykh Al-Harawi says,

The essence of repentance consists of three things:

(i) realizing the enormity of the sin,

(ii) being skeptical of one’s repentance, and

(iii) protectiveness (ghaîra) for the sake of Allah, which means displeasure when Allah’s ordainments are violated and not finding excuses for the violators (including one’s own self) by blaming its inevitability (“destiny”).

Realizing the Enormity of one’s Mistake

Unless one realizes the enormity of one’s mistakes, he or she cannot be ashamed of them or repent from them. The extent of one’s shame and regret is proportional to the extent of the perceived enormity of the sin. If one thinks he has lost a fils (read: penny), he is less worried than if he realizes that he has lost a dinar (read: a hundred or a thousand dollars).

Realization of the enormity of the sin depends upon three things:

  • realization of the greatness of the command that one had violated,
  • realization of the greatness of the One who issued the command, and
  • certainty of the consequences.

Fear of False Repentance

A truly repentant person is never satisfied with his repentance and always fears that his repentance might not have been sufficient, complete and effective, and therefore may not be accepted. One should also be skeptical of the motives and intentions behind his act of repentance:

Perhaps he repented merely because he could not commit sins anymore, because of some external factors other than the fear of Allah, subânahu wa ta¢âla.

  • Or, perhaps he repented only to avoid the inner dissatisfaction or dissonance, or to avoid Allah’s punishment in this world by taking his wealth or position.
  • Or perhaps simply because his motivation to commit the sin was no longer strong enough.
  • Or perhaps because he thought his sin would prevent him from obtaining the knowledge or wealth that he seeks after.

These and many other factors prevent the repentance from being for the right reason:

  • Fear of Allah, His greatness and His commandments
  • Fear of losing status with Him
  • Fear of being deprived from His company and from sight of Him in the Day of Judgment.

Obviously, such repentance for the right reason is one thing, and the earlier one for worldly or personal reasons is another.

What also spoils the repentance is

  • Lack of determination and orientation of the heart towards the sin, albeit small and insignificant.
  • Lack of self-confidence and certainty that one has truly repented, as if he were given a pledge of safety
  • Continued dryness of the eyes and heedlessness of the heart.

Signs of True Repentance

True, effective repentance has its own Signs:

  • One becomes, after the repentance, better than before it.
  • The fear of sin accompanies him and he does not feel safe from the grasp of Allah even by the wink of an eye. His caution does not cease until he hears at the time of the journey of his soul,Do not fear nor grieve and be pleased with the news of the Paradise that you were promised. [Sûrat Fuṣṣilat, 41:30]
  • The breaking of one’s heart (literally, cutting of the heart into pieces), meaning out of grief, regret, and fear, depending on the enormity of the mistake.

Here is Ibn ¢Uyaynah’s interpretation of the verse:

The building that they built (masjid al-irâr, built by the hypocrites of Madinah) will never cease to be a cause of doubt in their hearts, until their hearts are cut into pieces.

Ibn ¢Uyaynah said that cutting into pieces here means repentance. There is no doubt that the strong fear of the punishment and loss should tear the heart into pieces. The heart must grieve –either in this world or in the hereafter– at the sins it has committed and the opportunities of good it missed.

From among the signs of true repentance is a particular feeling of a broken heart, a heartache that comes from nothing else but by the regret of sinning. It does not come by hunger, or training and effort, or out of love. It is beyond all of that.

The heart breaks in front of the Lord completely, in pieces. It is a breaking that surrounds the one who sinned –from all sides– and throws him in front of his Lord humbled and broken. He finds nothing to save him from the Might of the Lord: not an escape, not a way out.

The servant feels at this occasion that his life, his happiness, his success, his everything is in his Master’s pleasure with him. His Masters knows everything about his sins, while he loves and needs his Master. This moment of true repentance combines regret, humility and the humbleness of a broken heart. What could be better and more beneficial for the servant? His state cries out without words:

O Lord, I ask in the name of Your Might and My lack of it, have mercy upon me! I ask in the name of Your Power and my lack of it, Your Sufficiency and my lack of it… My forehead, mistaken and wrong, is in front of You. You have many servants besides me; I have no Master but You. I have no one to turn to, nor any escape, but You. I beg You like a beggar, humbled and humiliated. I supplicated to You ridden with fear and harm. My eyes are filled with tears, my neck bowed on the ground, my heart humbled…

These are the signs of true repentance. Whoever fails to detect these things in his heart should blame [the quality of] his repentance and consider it deficient. How easy it is to claim by the tongue that I have repented, and what an ordeal it is to truly repent!

Protectiveness for Allah’s part in [bringing about one’s] repentance is that one does find excuses for the sin and does blame “destiny” for one’s own or another’s sins by considering the sin a predestined act. Realizing that Allah is far too Merciful, Sufficient and Just to punish an excusable person, for no one loves (to forgive based on valid) excuses more than Allah, and for this very reason did he send Messengers and revealed the Books so that people will have no valid excuse, nor will they be able to argue with Allah (on the Day of Judgment).

It is an established truth that there is no excuse or justification for sinning against Allah, for opposing His commands, after knowing about them, and after having the capability to [choose whether to] do or reject sins. Were there an excuse for sinning, no sinner would ever deserve punishment and blame. Whoever claims that his sinful actions were simply predestined and that he could not have avoided them, such is an ignorant transgressor –otherwise, he would know that his calamity is of his own doings.

It is his own nafs (self) that deserves all the blame for transgression, for it is the source of all evil. Truly, the human being is unappreciative (kanûd) of his Lord [Sûrat Al-¢Âdiyât, 100:6]. Ibn ¢Abbâs, Mujâhid and Qatâdah explain this (word kanûd) as ungrateful and argumentative in regard to the gifts of Allah. Al-Ḥassan explains this as one who keeps count of the calamities but quickly forgets the blessings. Abû ¢Ubaydah explains this as the one with no riches or land.

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 3…


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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