THE RICH MEANINGS OF TAWBAH AND ISTIGHFAAR
By Imam Ibn ul Qayyim al Jawziyyah
Translated by Uwaymir Anjum
Source: Al Jumuah Vol. 16, Issue 04/05
Scholars interpret tawbah (repentance) to mean all of the following: (i) immediate renunciation of the sin, (ii) firm intention and determination to not return to the sin ever again, (iii) regret over having committed a sin, and, if the sin was against the rights of another human being, then one mast also, (iv) compensate for it.
These are known to be the conditions of tawbah, or repentance. However, in the words of Allah and His Messenger, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, tawbah has a wider meaning, and includes not only the aforementioned conditions, but also generally carrying out all the commandments of Allah with persistence. Tawbah also requires disliking and renouncing those people who refuse to repent, encouraging them to repent and advising them against ignoring the practice of repentance. So repentance is the opposite of committing sins in every way, and, in its general sense, does not consist merely of renouncing the sin and regret over it.
The word tawbah is like the word taqwa, in the sense that the latter is used sometimes in a specific sense where it means, “immediately stopping from disobeying Allah or carrying out an obligation.” However, the actual meaning of taqwa is more general: “taking all that Allah has given us of wealth, children, security and pleasure and all else as a means to protect ourselves from what we dislike or fear in our journey to Allah.” For this journey is full of pitfalls and replete with the enemies of our soul beginning with our own baser selves that incite us towards evil and unrestrained desires and ensnare us in the traps of Satan whose mission it to prevent us from this journey to Allah and make us return to baseness and ruin. The essence of tawbah is to return to Allah and to adhere to what He loves and renounce that which He dislikes. Tawbah is a journey from the disliked to the liked.
Istighfaar and Tawbah
Istighfar, meaning seeking forgiveness, is mentioned in the Qur’an in two ways: either by itself or coupled with tawbah (repentance). The single mention of istighfar (without the mention of tawbah) finds an example in the saying of Nuh alayhes salam in the Noble Qur’an: “Seek forgiveness of your Lord, you all, (for) He is Oft-Forgiving: He sends the heavens over you raining;” [10:11] and in the saying of Saleh to his people: “If only you (were to) ask Allah for forgiveness, you may hope to receive mercy.” [27:46] Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, also says: “And seek forgiveness of Allah, for Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” [2:199] and “But Allah was not going to send them a penalty whilst you [O Prophet] were amongst them; nor was he going to send it whilst they were asking for forgiveness.” [8:33]
The mention of istighfar coupled with tawbah appears in the following verses: “Ask forgiveness of your Lord, then turn to Him; He will provide you with a goodly provision to an appointed term and bestow His grace on every one endowed with grace, and if you turn back, then surely I fear for you the chastisement of a great day.” [11: 3] And: “And, O my people! Ask forgiveness of your Lord (istighfar), then turn to Him (tawbah); He will send on you clouds pouring down abundance of rain and add strength to your strength, and do not turn back guilty.” [11:52] Saleh said to his people: “And to Thamood (We sent) their brother Salih. He said: O my people! serve Allah, you have no god other than He; He brought you into being from the earth, and made you dwell in it, therefore ask forgiveness of Him, then turn to Him; surely my Lord is Near, Answering.” [11: 61]
Istaghfar: not just cover up, but total removal of sins. Therefore, istighfar (seeking forgiveness) singly is similar to tawbah (repentance); rather, it is indeed repentance. Seeking forgiveness, moreover, fully removes the sin, undoes its effects and prevents its evil, and not merely hides the sins as some people have conjectured. For Allah may cover and hide the sins of those who seek forgiveness and even of those who do not; but istighfar is more than just a cover.
The essence of istighfar (seeking forgiveness) is that it earns one the prevention from the evil of the sin. Its literal meaning is related to that of al-mighfar, “what saves and covers the head from discomfort or harm (from sun, sand, rain, etc.)” and covering is necessary to this meaning, but not sufficient: for other coverings of the head like ’emamah or qubba’ are not called mighfar. We conclude that something cannot be called a mighfar unless it provides more than covering: it must also save and protect . It is in this meaning that istighfaar saves one from the punishment: “And Allah was not going to send his punishment whilst they were asking for forgiveness.” [8:33] Of course, if one insists on sinning and demands from Allah forgiveness (without fulfilling its conditions), then this is not a true istighfar, and it does not prevent the punishment. Istighfar (seeking forgiveness) includes tawbah (repenting), and tawbah includes istighfar: each one is implied by the other in its entirety.
This comprehensiveness of the meanings of istighfar includes its meaning of asking for forgiveness as a shield or cover: cover from our human shortcomings and faults that are harmful and destructive. And the greatest and most harmful of all human shortcomings are his ignorance (of one’s faults) and transgression. By virtue of this ignorance and transgression, the enemy drags a human being into what utterly destroys him. The shield against these two errors is to be aware of one’s faults and be keen to bring out in one’s character the God-given virtues of knowledge, justice and righteousness. The more a person ignores his human nobility bestowed upon him by Allah when Allah breathed into him His spirit (rooh), the more he lowers himself to the animalistic ground, and the most his ignorance and transgression are fuelled.
When the two words tawbah and istighfar are used together, (always istighfar followed by tawbah), then the first one (istighfaar) means asking for safety from the evil and harm of what has occurred, and the second one (tawbah) means returning to Allah and begging for safety from the evil of what one fears in future.
So here we are concerned with two things: one is the sin that has already occurred, and istighfar (in its specific sense) is to seek protection from its evil effects; and the other is the repetition of the same sin in future, which we fear, and tawbah is the determination to not do it again. A complete return to Allah (rujoo`) includes and necessitates both of these: istighfar as well as tawbah. When used in a couple, both aspects of this return to Allah are emphasized individually, whereas, when used alone, either one of these two words implies the other.
Shaykh Saud Ash-Shuraym
All praise is due to Allaah, Lord of all the worlds. Peace and blessings be upon the Messenger, his household and his companions.
Fellow Muslims! The most truthful speech is the Book of Allaah and the best guidance is that of Muhammad. The worst of all matters are innovations and every innovation is misguidance.
Dear brethren! Know that the life of this world is just an enjoyment and that the Hereafter is the abode of permanence. “Fear Allaah, O men of understanding, in order that you may be successful.” (Al-Maaidah 5:100)
Dear Muslims! Freedom of the heart and the mind from hatred and egoism is a sign of a righteous and amicable Muslim, who has no ill-feeling against anyone and is not jealous of anyone. He is selfless and knows that this world is just a transitory abode and not a permanent one. In his view, this world is nothing but a step stone to the Hereafter. What is the value of man in this world if his heart is filled with selfishness and harshness?
Many are those who are looking for ways to attain glory by all means. But there is a great source of glory that most people are oblivious of, though it is easily attainable: The key to that is a strong will and holding back one’s self from pursuing personal ego.
The desired glory can be attained through having sense of forgiveness. Being gentle-minded, having good opinion of others, excusing others, exonerating people, suppressing anger and forgiving others are some of the most important qualities encouraged by Islaam in human dealings. He who has these qualities deserves to be among the glorious and elevated people. The Messenger of Allaah said, “No wealth is ever diminished by charity. Allaah increases a man who forgives others in nothing but glory and no one humbles himself except that Allaah elevates him.” (Muslim)
According to the narration of Imaam Ahmad, the Messenger of Allaah said, “If an injustice is done to a man and he overlooks it, Allaah will give him glory and victory with it.” This is the essence of glory; O you who are looking for one!
It is a glory and exaltation in this world and in the Hereafter. This is so because Allaah has made a promise to those who possess these qualities when He says, “And march forth in the way (which leads to) forgiveness from your Lord, and for Paradise as wide as the heavens and the earth, prepared for the pious: Those who spend (in Allaah’s Cause) in prosperity and in adversity, who repress anger, and who pardon men; verily, Allaah loves the good-doers).” (Aal Imraan 3:133-134)
Dear brethren! Those who suppress their anger are those who do not vent their rage on people. They rather desist from bothering others and hope to get their reward from Allaah. Those who forgive are those who overlook the wrong done to them by others. They bear no grudge in their hearts against anyone. Whoever possesses these qualities should rejoice with the love of Allaah for him, for he has attained a level of righteousness and Allaah says, “Allaah loves the righteous.” Allaah loves whoever is righteous; and if He loves someone He forgives him and shows mercy to him.
Fellow Muslims! Forgiveness is a symbol of the pure, righteous, deliberate and pleasant Muslim. Forgoing one’s rights is a kind of preferring the benefits of the Hereafter above that of this world. Being generous to others with pure a mind and out of piety commands their love and respect.
Forgiving others is not an easy matter. For, one has to fight and overcome one’s self-centredness and sense of revenge. This can only be achieved by the strong men who are able to overpower the desires of their heart even though they are able to express their anger. Allaah says, “And indeed whosoever takes revenge after he has suffered wrong, for such there is no way (of blame) against them.” (Ash-Shooraa 42:41)
Forgoing one’s right and having self-control are signs of overcoming the norms. This is where one stands distinguished from others. This is the real strong person that the Prophet praised, according to the hadeeth reported by al-Bukhaaree and Muslim. The Messenger of Allaah also said, “Whoever suppresses his anger while he is able to express it, Allaah will call him in the presence of all creatures [on the Day of Resurrection] and ask him to choose of the houris [of Paradise] the ones he likes.” (Ahmad)
Fellow Muslims! Since the day our distinguished religion encouraged adoption of sense of pardon and forgiveness, it did not do in a narrow sense. It rather makes it wide-ranging so that it can include many aspects of private and public interactions. Islaam encourages people of higher authority to adopt sense of forgiveness as part of their policy, for doing so is a sign of successful leadership. Allaah commands His Messenger to adopt this policy when He says, “Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the foolish (i.e. don’t punish them).” (Al-A‘raaf 7:199)
He also says, “And by the Mercy of Allaah, you dealt with them gently. And had you been severe and harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you; so pass over (their faults), and ask (Allaah’s) Forgiveness for them; and consult them in the affairs.” (Aal ‘Imraan 3:195)
This encouragement to adopt the sense of forgiveness is also extended where blood and requital are involved. Allaah says, “But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him expiation.” (Al-Maaidah 5:45)
The spouses are also encouraged to demonstrate sense of forgiveness concerning bridal money if divorce occurs before the marriage is consummated. Allaah says, “And if you divorce them before you have touched (had a sexual relation with) them, and you have appointed unto them the Mahr (bridal-money given by the husbands to his wife at the time of marriage), then pay half of that (Mahr), unless they (the women) agree to forego it, or he (the husband), in whose hands is the marriage tie, agrees to forego and give her full appointed Mahr. And to forego and give (her the full Mahr) is nearer to At-Taqwa (piety, righteousness).” (Al-Baqarah 2:237)
People are encouraged to exercise sense of forgiveness when they transact with one another. The Messenger of Allaah said, “Whoever frees a Muslim from a commercial obligation, Allaah will forgive his sins.” (Aboo Daawood and Ibn Maajah)
The Prophet also informed us about a merchant who used to give loan to people. Whenever he realizes that one of his debtors was in a financially strained situation, he would command his workers, “Write off some of his debt [or all of it], that Allaah may wipe off our sins. So, Allaah wiped off his sins.” (Al-Bukhaaree and Muslim)
The spirit of forgiveness while dealing with others is generally emphasized in the case of a man who came to the Messenger of Allaah and asked him, “How many times shall we forgive [our] servants?” The Prophet did not respond. The man repeated the question and the Prophet yet did not respond. When the question was repeated again, the Prophet said, “Forgive him seventy times every day.” (Aboo Daawood and at-Tirmidhee)
Dear brethren! Forgiving others and overlooking their mistakes do not in any way mean weakness or submissiveness. It is rather an excellent example of bravery, doing favour to others and suppressing one’s desires, especially when this spirit of forgiveness is exercised in the time of strength.
Imaam al-Bukhaaree titled a chapter in his Saheeh concerning avenging the injustice with the saying of Allaah, “And those who, when an oppressive wrong is done to them, take revenge.” (Ash-Shooraa 42:39) He then narrated that an-Nakha‘ee said, “The righteous predecessors did not like to be humiliated; but if they were capable of avenging a wrong done to them, they would forgive.”
Al-Hasan ibn ‘Alee said, “If someone insults me in this ear of mine and apologizes in the other, I would accept his apology.”
Ja ‘far as-Saadiq said, “To regret twenty times for forgiving people is dearer to me than to regret for punishing them once.”
Al-Fudayl ibn ‘Iyaad said, “If someone comes to you complaining about another person, tell him: ‘My brother, forgive him, for forgiveness is close to piety.’ If he says: ‘But my heart cannot bear that. I would rather take revenge as Allaah has commanded me.’ Tell him: ‘If you are able to take revenge in the best manner, you can proceed to do so; but if you are not, resort to forgiveness, for its gate is wide. He who forgives and amends, his reward is with Allaah. The one who forgives passes his night in his bed happily and contentedly but the one who takes revenge always ponders on these things. This is because; magnanimity lies in forgiving one’s brethren.”
However, there are some people whose hearts are so hardened that they cannot forgive anyone. Nothing in this life is more important to them than taking revenge. They are like permanent clouds. They are neither pleased with secret or public apology. They notice the slightest wrong done to them but they fail to consider the apology however clear it is. They would listen with one of their ears to some sayings and they would convulsively rage for what they hear, yet they would block the other ear from listening to any apology even it is backed with proofs.
He whose situation is this is an enemy of himself who have been subdued by the desire, thereby forcing him from the righteous quality of forgiveness to the abhorrent trait of seeking revenge. ‘Aaishah narrated, “The Messenger of Allaah never beat any woman or servant with his hand. He never struck anyone with his hand except when he was fighting in the way of Allaah. Also, he never avenged any harm done to him, except if one of the sanctities of Allaah was being violated. Then he would take revenge for Allaah.” (Muslim)
Though avenging an injustice is everyone’s right, yet forgiveness is perfection and piety. Allaah says, “The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof; but whoever forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is with Allaah. Verily, He likes not the Z?lim?n (oppressors, polytheists, and wrong-doers).” (Ash-Shooraa 42:40)
Fellow Muslims! Fear Allaah as He should be feared and know that Islaam’s encouragement of sense of forgiveness is not restricted to what is outward and apparent. It should rather be adopted apparently and inwardly. A Muslim should not only give up his right to revenge, he should also forgive the offender from his heart. Allaah commands His Prophet, “Overlook (O Muhammad (peace be upon him)) their faults with gracious forgiveness.” (Al-Hijr 15:85)
There are many places in the Qur’aan where Allaah encourages both relinquishing the right to avenge and forgiveness. He says, “But forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds). Verily, Allaah loves good-doers.” (Al-Maaidah 5:13)
He also says, “But forgive and overlook, till Allaah brings His Command.” (Al-Baqarah 2:109)
And He says, “And let not those among you who are blessed with graces and wealth swear not to give (any sort of help) to their kinsmen, Al-Mas?k?n (the poor), and those who left their homes for Allaah’s Cause. Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not love that Allaah should forgive you? And Allaah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (An-Noor 24:22)
Allaah also says, “O you who believe! Verily, among your wives and your children there are enemies for you (i.e. may stop you from the obedience of Allaah), therefore beware of them! But if you pardon (them) and overlook, and forgive (their faults), then verily, Allaah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (At-Taghaabun 64:14)
To overlook and forgive are some of the qualities of our Prophet. Where then are those who are ready to emulate him?! Where are those who have been overwhelmed by sense of revenge? Where do they stand regarding beautiful qualities of the leader of the Messengers?
The mother of the faithful, ‘Aaishah was asked about the character of the Messenger of Allaah. She answered, “The Messenger of Allaah was never given to immoral sayings and deeds. Neither did he ever raise his voice in market places. He did never reciprocate a wrong done to him with the like. He would rather overlook and forgive.” (At-Tirmidhee)
Allaah says, “That which is with Allaah (Paradise) is better and more lasting for those who and put their trust in their Lord (concerning all of their affairs). And those who avoid the greater sins, and Al-Faw?hish (illegal sexual intercourse), and when they are angry, they forgive.” (Ash-Shooraa 42:6-37)