The life of a human being can be defined as a constant war between virtue and sin. Oftentimes, we find ourselves straying from righteousness, succumbing to the burrows and traps of our lower self. Yet, so long as our hearts are not entirely corrupted, there is a voice, a feeling, an urge to return to nobility. A call to return to primordial purity. It is no wonder then that the word for repentance in Arabic is ‘tawbah’ which means ‘to return’ because repentance is nothing but a return towards Allah’s mercy.
Allah does not demand nor expect perfection from us. He is the All-Merciful and the All-Wise. He knows our flawed and weak natures better than our own selves. What He has asked from us is that we do our best to worship Him, to please Him, and that when we falter – as we certainly will – that we turn to Him in repentance and regret so that He may demonstrate His Mercy. Allah says: (O you who believe! Repent to Allah with sincere repentance so that your Lord may remove from you your misdeeds and enter you into Gardens under which rivers flow.) [Al-Tahrim, 66:8]
Repentance which is not sincere is not real repentance. Paying lip service without remorse is not what is intended here. Instead, it is acknowledging the wrong, feeling grief over the sin, recognising human weakness, our propensity to sin, and sitting humbled before Allah. This is what Allah wants from us. He is All-Forgiving, and He does not only forgive, but loves to do so. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “By the One who owns my soul, if you did not sin, Allah would replace you with people who would sin, and they would seek forgiveness from Allah and He would forgive them.” [Muslim 2749].
Every misdeed of ours, every misjudgment and every sin serves as an invaluable opportunity for reflection. An opportunity to be better, even better than before. Life is a journey and a constant movement towards Allah – yes, there may be ebbs and flows – but our trajectory must always be upwards. Take the case of a marksman. He aims at his target but each time he misses, he does not become frustrated and overcome with despair. This would do nothing for him. Rather, he adjusts his posture, he focuses and refines his aim and then releases the arrow once again, and again, and again. The only failure would be if he stopped trying. Likewise, we too must always try to please Allah, and when we slip up, we must not lose hope in His Mercy and succumb to despair. Every sin can serve as a way to get closer to Allah if we allow it to. There is wisdom in this.
The Sufi Master Abu Ali al-Daqqaq said: ‘Repentance consists of three parts: it starts with remorse, its middle part is turning to God (inabah) and its end is returning to Him (awbah).’ Remorse then ought not to cripple a believer and leave him destroyed and utterly broken in shame and embarrassment. Rather, it is one which pushes the believer and galvanises his further action, propelling him towards Allah. What excellence is there in the blameless man who does not ‘flee unto Allah’ in comparison to the sinner who does! Repentance is not just a simple static act of apologising and seeking pardon—it is a vivacious and freeing journey towards Allah which is a blessing itself.
Yet, beyond just our own individual lives, Tawbah also teaches us about human nature in general. Created weak and prone to sin, then this applies to all. If entire communities and societies were to realise that value of repentance, we could move away from being a people who find it easy to cast harsh and unforgiving judgements on others to one where we foster environments of compassion, mercy and betterment in the hope that Allah will be merciful in return to us also. Sin need not be a permanent or terminal state, but rather a transient one for those who believe. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Those who have mercy, the Most-Merciful will have mercy on them. Have mercy to those on earth and those in the Heavens will have mercy upon you.” [Tirmidhi 1924]
A reflection upon the life of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ provides various instances of individuals who, after erring, embraced the path of Tawbah and were transformed into paragons of virtue. Consider the story of the companion, Ka’b ibn Malik who missed the Battle of Tabuk. His initial attempt to justify his absence withered under the weight of his own conscience, and he confessed his lapse to the Prophet ﷺ. [Muslim 2679] The sincerity of his repentance was such that it not only led to his redemption but resulted in Allah Himself revealing verses of Pardon in the Holy Qur’an. [Al-Tawbah, 9:117]
Allah’s mercy is such that not only will He forgive us when we do so sincerely but He declares: (Those who repent, believe and do righteous actions—they are the ones whose evil deeds Allah will change into good deeds. Indeed, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, All-Merciful.) [Al-Furqan 25:70]. We cannot ever truly fathom the extent of Allah’s forgiveness but one thing we can be certain about is that our misdeeds pale in comparison to His Mercy. And it is this that we must remember, and it is this that we must beseech.
The path to Allah will inevitably be paved with errors, slip-ups and mistakes. But each sincere repentance will lead one to turn to Allah, constantly and repeatedly returning to him in repentance, thereby bringing us closer to Him and His Mercy.
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