Repentance and Self‑cleansing
Prevention and refraining from sins is the best way for attaining self‑refinement. A person who has never been contaminated by sins and possesses his original purity and righteousness certainly is far superior than a sinner who has repented after committing a sin. A person who has not yet tasted the pleasure of sin and is not used to it may refrain himself from aiming much more easier as compared to the one who has been contaminated by sins and now wants to refrain from them. Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
تَرْكُ الذَّنْبِ أهْوَنُ مِنْ طَلَبِ التَّوْبَةِ.
“Refraining for sins is far easier than repenting after sinning.” (Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 73, pp. 364)
A person who is contaminated after sinning must not be disappointed from God’s blessings because the path of spiritual migration, self refinement and ascent towards Almighty God remains forever open and is never closed. The Most Merciful and Most Benevolent Almighty God has kept the path of repentance always open for the sinners and have especially asked them to return towards Him after cleaning and purifying the self’s tablet from the impurities and contamination of sins through the water of repentance. Almighty God says in the Holy Qur’an:
قُلْ يَا عِبَادِي الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِنْ رَحْمَةِ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ.
“Say: O My slaves who have been prodigal to their own hurt! Despair not of the mercy of Allah, Who forgiveth all sins. Lo! He is the Forgiving, the Merciful. 39:58”
وَإِذَا جَاءَكَ الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِآيَاتِنَا فَقُلْ سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ كَتَبَ رَبُّكُمْ عَلَى نَفْسِهِ الرَّحْمَةَ أَنَّهُ مَنْ عَمِلَ مِنْكُمْ سُوءًا بِجَهَالَةٍ ثُمَّ تَابَ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَنَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ.
“And when those who believe in Our revelations come unto thee, say: Peace be unto you! Your Lord hath prescribed for Himself mercy, that whoso of you doeth evil through ignorance and repenteth afterward thereof and doeth right, (for him) lo! He is Forgiving, Merciful. 6:54”
The Need for Repentance
I cannot imagine that there exists a thing which is more essential for a sinner than repentance. One who believes in God, the Prophet, Resurrection, Rewards and Punishment, Accounting of Deeds, Paradise and Hell does not contradict the urgency and necessity of repentance. How come are we negligent about repentance in spite of being knowledgeable about the self and the sins committed by it? Do we not believe in the existence of Resurrection, Accounting of Deeds and Hell’s punishments? Do we contradict God’s promise that He will fill Hell with sinners? Through sinning, the human self becomes dark, black and contaminated even there is possibility of loosing the human face and turning into a brute animal. How can we then still expect finding the path leading towards Almighty God and sitting in the company of His favorite saints in Paradise with such contaminated, darkened and polluted self? Because of indulgence into sins, the straight path of human exaltedness and ascension towards Almighty God has been lost and we are now wandering into the darkest valleys of ignorance and deviations. We have parted from Almighty God and become close to Satan. In spite of all that we are still expecting to receive eternal salvation in the Next World and be blessed with Divine bounties in the Paradise! What a wishful and immature thinking indeed?
For a sinner who is concerned about his prosperity and salvation, there is no choice left except to repent and return towards Almighty God. This is one of the great blessings of Almighty God that the path of repentance has been left opened for His servants. One who has been poisoned does not allow the least delay in his being taken to the hospital for treatment because he knows that any negligence will result in quick demise. Similarly, sins for human self are far more fatal than the most deadly poisons. If a poison threatens the worldly life of a person quickly, sinning will inflict an eternal doom upon the self and result in the destruction of the eternal life. If poisoning results in cutting off a person’s connection with the transient world instantaneously, sinning makes a person far removed from Almighty God depriving him of God’s Countenance and Nearness. Hence, repentance and return to Almighty God for us is more urgent and essential than anything else because our eternal prosperity and salvation depends upon it. Almighty God says in the Holy Qur’an:
وَتُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَا الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ.
“And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed. 24:31”
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا تُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ تَوْبَةً نَصُوحًا عَسَى رَبُّكُمْ أَنْ يُكَفِّرَ عَنْكُمْ سَيِّئَاتِكُمْ وَيُدْخِلَكُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ.
“O ye who believe! Turn unto Allah in sincere repentance! It may be that your Lord will remit from you your evil deeds and bring you into Gardens underneath which rivers flow. 66:8”
The Holy Prophet (a.s) said:
لِكُلِّ داءٍ دَواءٌ، وَدَواءُ الذُّنوبِ الاسْتِغْفارُ.
“There is a medicine for each pain; and the medicine for sins is repentance.” (Wasa’il al-Shi`ah, vol. 11, pp. 354)
Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:
تأخير التوبة اغترارٌ، وطول التسويف حيرةٌ، والاعتلال علىَ الله هلكةٌ، والإصرار علىَ الذَنب أمنٌ لِمَكر الله، ولا يأمنُ مكرَ الله إلا القوم الخاسرون.
“Delaying repentance is a sort of arrogance; continuation of delay results in confusion and astonishment; excuses in front of Almighty God is total destruction; instance for sinning is due to feeling secure against the Divine punishment; except the people who are loosers, no one feels secured against it.” (Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 73, pp. 365)
In the light of the abovementioned, we should take as indepth look within our lives, remember all our past sins and transgressions, ponder upon the ultimate consequences, think about the accounting of our deeds and being ashamed before Almighty God and being insulted in front of angels and humankind. We must momentary manifest before our sight the horrible torture of Hell and deprivation from God’s Countenance. This should create a transformation and internal revolution in our lives encouraging us to repent immediately and return towards Almighty God. All the past sins and transgressions should be washed with the pure life‑giving refreshing water of repentance. All the self’s impurities and contamination must be set aside and forgotten; a firm decision should be made to refrain from sins to strive for collection of provisions for the Hereafter and start marching upon the path of spiritual ascent towards Almighty God.
However, will Satan leave us alone so easily? Will he ever permit us to repent and return towards Almighty God? Satan who reduced us to indulge into sinning will also prevent us from repentance, manifest sinning as minor offense and insignificant, wipe them out thoroughly from our mental memory in a manner as though they never happened at all and completely set aside thoughts related to death and account of deeds and punishments from our mind, keeping us amused in worldly allurements so that we never think about the repentance until death approaches suddenly being forced to leave this world with a self contaminated with sins. Woe upon us, our negligence and misfortune!
Acceptance of Repentance
If repentance is indeed offered correctly, it will receive Divine acceptance which is one of the most unique favors of the Most Compassionate and Most Merciful Lord because He has not created his servants for Hell and its tortures; rather for Paradise and its eternal prosperity. Divine Messengers were assigned to guide humankind towards the path of salvation and to invite the sinners to repentance and return to Almighty God. The door of repentance and return always remains opened for every one inviting them to enter into it. The Messengers and saints throughout the human history continuously motivated humankind towards repentance. The Most Compasionate and Most Merciful Lord in plenty of Qur’anic verses invites the sinners to return to Him promising them to accept their repentance; and His promises are not lies. The Holy Prophet (a.s) and Infallible Imams (a.s) through hundreds of traditions have invited humankind to repent and return to Almighty God making them hopeful of the Divine blessings. Almighty God says in the Holy Qur’an:
وَهُوَ الَّذِي يَقْبَلُ التَّوْبَةَ عَنْ عِبَادِهِ وَيَعْفُو عَنْ السَّيِّئَاتِ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا تَفْعَلُونَ.
“And He it is Who accepteth repentance from His bondmen, and pardoneth the evil deeds, and knoweth what ye do. 42:25”
وَإِنِّي لَغَفَّارٌ لِمَنْ تَابَ وَآمَنَ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا ثُمَّ اهْتَدَى.
“And lo! verily I am Forgiving toward him who repenteth and believeth and doeth good, and afterward walketh aright. 20:82”
وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً أَوْ ظَلَمُوا أَنْفُسَهُمْ ذَكَرُوا اللَّهَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا لِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَمَنْ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَلَمْ يُصِرُّوا عَلَى مَا فَعَلُوا وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ. أُوْلَئِكَ جَزَاؤُهُمْ مَغْفِرَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ وَجَنَّاتٌ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا وَنِعْمَ أَجْرُ الْعَامِلِينَ.
“And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins - Who forgiveth sins save Allah only? - and will not knowingly repeat (the wrong) they did. The reward of such will be forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide for ever - a bountiful reward for workers. 3:135-136”
Imam al Baqir (a.s) said:
التّائِبُ مِن الذّنبِ كَمَنْ لا ذَنبَ لهُ، وَالمُقِيمُ عَلى الذّنبِ وَهوَ مُسْتَغفِرٌ مِنهُ كَالمُسْتَهْزِئِ.
“After repenting, a person becomes like one who has never sinned; and one who is continuing sinning while seeking God’s forgiveness upon his tongue is like one who ridicules himself.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 435)
Many verses and traditions deal with this matter and one should not have any reservation regarding the acceptance of repentance. Not only Almighty God accepts repentance from a sinner but also he loves him for undertaking this bold initiative. He says in the Holy Qur’an:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ التَّوَّابِينَ وَيُحِبُّ الْمُتَطَهِّرِينَ.
“Truly Allah loveth those who turn unto Him, and loveth those who have a care for cleanness. 2:222”
Imam al‑Baqir (a.s) said:
إنّ اللهَ أشَدُّ فَرَحاً بِتَوبَةِ عَبدِهِ مِن رَجُلٍ أضَلَّ راحِلَتَهُ وَزادَهُ في لَيلِهِ ظُلماً فَوَجَدها، فاللهُ أشَدُّ فَرَحاً بِتَوبَةِ عَبدِهِ مِن ذلِكَ الرَّجُلِ بِراحِلَتِهِ حِينَ وَجَدَها.
“The happiness of Almighty God for seeing a sinner repenting is much more than the joy of a lone traveler who finds his missing animal together with the provisions of journey in a dark night.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 436)
Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:
إذَا تَابَ العَبْدُ تَوْبَةً نَصُوحاً أَحَبَّهُ اللهُ فَسَتَرَ عَلَيْهِ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالآخِرَةِ… يُنْسِي مَلَكَيْهِ مَا كَتَبَا عَلَيْهِ مِنَ الذُّنُوبِ وَيُوحِي إلى جَوَارِحِهِ: إكْتُمِي عَلَيْهِ ذُنُوبَهُ وَيُوحِي إلى بِقَاعِ الأَرْضِ اكْتُمِي مَا كَانَ يَعْمَلُ عَلَيْكِ مِنَ الذُّنُوبِ. فَيَلْقَى اللهَ حِينَ يَلْقَاهُ وَلَيْسَ شَيْءٌ يَشْهَدُ عَلَيْهِ بِشَيْءٍ مِنَ الذُّنُوبِ.
“When a servant of God offers pure and firm repentance, Almighty God loves him and deletes all of his past sins… The two angels responsible for writing of deeds forget about his sins simultaneously, Almighty God orders his bodily parts, limbs and different places upon earth to cancel his sins from their register of deeds. Thus, he meets Almighty God in a manner whereby nobody and nothing is a witness to his sins.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 436)
What is Repentance?
Repentance can be defined as a feeling of being ashamed, sorry and regretful for past sins. One who is indeed ashamed by heart for his past sins may truly be called repentant. The Holy Prophet (a.s) said: “Feeling ashamed and being sorry for past deeds is repentance.” (al-Haqa’iq, pp. 286) Although Almighty God accepts repentance and forgives the past sins, simply recital of the sentence, ‘I ask God to forgive me,’ (Astaghfir Allah), being ashamed and regretful or even crying for past sins may not be considered as sufficient for a pure and sincere repentance, but with the existence of the following three symptoms, repentance can be considered as true and realistic: first, he must be disgusted by heart for his past sins and his self should have a feeling of shame, regret and sorrow; second, he must take a firm decision not to indulge into sinning in the future and third, if because of indulgence into a particular sin he has done something, which can be compensated, he must take a firm decision for its compensation. For example, if he owes dues of people, has usurpeded a property or stolen money, he must decide to return it to its owner in the first available opportunity. In case he is not in a position to pay at present, he should try to get the owners’ consent or satisfaction through whatever means at his disposal.
If he has committed backbiting against someone, he should seek his pardon; if he has oppressed someone, he should try to redress the aggrieved; if religious dues have not been paid, he must arrange for their payment; if the daily prayers and the fasting have been missed, he must settle them; if one has undertaken all the above steps, he may truly be called sincere repentant who is indeed ashamed for his past deeds and such atonement certainly receives God’s acceptance.
If one seeks God’s forgiveness by tongue while his heart is not ashamed for his past sins and he does not decide to avoid any future sins and is not ready to compensate for the compensatable sins, he has not atoned and should not expect acceptance of his repentance even though he may appear in Congregational prayers being affected sentimentally and shedding tears or crying loudly. One day, a person said, ‘I seek God’s forgiveness’ in the presence of Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) who said to him:
ثَكَلَتْكَ أُمُّكَ أَتَدْرِي مَا الإسْتِغْفَارُ؟ الإسْتِغْفَارُ دَرَجَةُ العِلِّيِّينَ. وَهُوَ اسْمٌ وَاقِعٌ عَلَى سِتَّةِ مَعَانٍ: أَوَّلُهَا النَّدَمُ عَلَى مَا مَضَى. وَالثَّانِي العَزْمُ عَلَى تَرْكِ العَوْدِ إلَيْهِ أَبَداً. والثَّالِثُ أَنْ تُؤَدِّيَ إلَى المَخْلُوقِينَ حُقُوقَهُمْ حَتَّى تَلْقَى اللهَ أَمْلَسَ لَيْسَ عَلَيْكَ تَبِعَةٌ. وَالرَّابِعُ أنْ تَعْمَدَ إلَى كُلِّ فَرِيضَةٍ عَلَيْكَ ضَيَّعْتَهَا فَتُؤَدِّيَ حَقَّهَا. والخَامِسُ أَنْ تَعْمَدَ إلَى اللَّحْمِ الَّذِي نَبُتَ عَلَى السُّحْتِ فَتُذِيبُهُ بِالأحْزَانِ حَتَّى تُلْصِقَ الجِلْدَ بِالعَظْمِ وَيَنْشَأَ بَيْنَهُمَا لَحْمٌ جَدِيدٌ. وَالسَّادِسُ أَنْ تُذِيقَ الجِسْمَ أَلَمَ الطَّاعَةِ كَمَا أَذَقْتَهُ حَلاوَةَ المَعْصِيَةِ فَعِنْدَ ذَلِكَ تَقُولُ أَسْتَغْفِرُ اللهَ.
“May thy mother mourn for thee! Do you know what is istighfar? Verily istighfar is a degree of the ‘illiyyun and it is a word that means six things. First is remorse over the past. Second, the resolution not to return to it ever. Third, to return to the creatures their rights (usurped in the past) so that you meet God Almighty in such a state of purity that no one has a claim against you. Fourth, that you fulfill every duty that was neglected by you, in order to satisfy your obligation in respect of it. Fifth, that you attend to the flesh of your body that had grown on unlawful nourishment so that it melts away as a result of grief and mourning and the skin adheres to the bones, after which new flesh grows there between. Sixth, that you make your body taste the pain of obedience in the same way as it tasted earlier the pleasure of sinfulness. When you have done these things then say Astaghfirullah!” (Nahj al-Balaghah, pp.549)
Satan is so deceitful that sometimes he even deceives a person regarding repentance. It is possible that a sinner attends a congregational prayer and after being effected sentimentally sheds some tears or cries. Satan will say to him, “Great! wonderful! What a great thing you have done! You have already atoned and all your sins have been cleaned.” In reality, such a person is neither ashamed from sinning by heart nor does he decide not to commit sins any more or remit dues of the creditors. Such act does not constitute a real repentance and will not result in one’s attaining self-purification and eternal salvation. Such a person has not refrained from sins and has not returned to Almighty God.
Things that Require Repentance
What is sin and which sins should be repented? The answer is that everything which stops a man from journeying towards Almighty God making him attached to the worldly allurements and preventing from repentance should be considered as sin and thus avoided. Self should be thoroughly cleaned from its contamination. Sins can be classified into two categories:
Moral abjectness and obscene characteristics result in self’s contamination preventing it from following the straight path of human exaltedness that leads towards God’s Nearness and Countenance. Moral abjectness, if is deep rooted within self, gradually becomes his characteristic resulting in metamorphism of his inner essence. It even influences the ideal of what to do for a human being. Moral sins, because of their being only moral, should not be treated as smaller and insignificant and, thus, being negligent for their repentance; instead self‑purification for them is necessary and of vital importance. Moral abjectness consists of hypocrisy, wrath, arrogance, egotism, harshness, oppression, deceit and treachery, back‑biting, accusation, criticizing, fault‑finding, slander, breach of promise, lying, love of world, greed stinginess, parents rights, cutting family ties, ungratefulness, extravagance, jealously, vilification, cursing and other obscene characteristics. Hundreds of Qur’anic Verses and traditions condemn these characteristics and describe their prevention, treatment, symptoms and worldly and eternal punishments. Since this matter has been discussed in details in several books of ethics, it is not appropriate to discuss here; rather the readers are advised to refer to the literature dealing with ethics.
Practical sins consist of stealing, murder, adultery, homosexuality, paying and receiving interest, usurpation of public property, cheating, rowing away from the battlefield in jihad, breach of trust, drinking alcoholic beverages, eating pork and other forbidden meats, gambling, false testimony or oath, accusing innocent persons of adultery, refraining from offering mandatory prayers and fasting, refraining from Hajj, refraining from the duty to encourage good and forbid evil, eating unclean food and other forbidden things. These sins have been described in details in the books of traditions and jurisprudence and therefore it is not appropriate to discuss them here; rather the readers are advised to refer to the relevant literature.
These are some famous sins which should be avoided and in case of indulgence, man should offer repentance and return to Almighty God. Apart from these, there are other types of sins which are not famous and have not been introduced as sins, but for God’s most favorite saints and exalted pious personalities they are counted as sins, such as refraining from recommended acts (Mustahabbat), performing acts which are supposed to be avoided although not absolutely unlawful (Makruhat), sinful thoughts, attention towards other than God and selfish whims and Satanic whispers which prevents them from God’s Remembrance. All of these are considered as sins for God’s favorite saints and they offer repentance for them. Even higher than the above is their negligence and omission in true recognition of Almighty God, His essence, Attributes and Actions which are the prerequisite for the existence of every created being is regarded as a sin for them and realizing this omission they tremble in fear, shed tears and repent to return towards God. The repentance offered by the Prophets and the Infallible Imams (a.s) may belong to this category. Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:
إنَّ رَسولَ اللهِ صَلّى اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ كانَ يَتوبُ إلى اللهِ في كُلِّ يَومٍ سَبْعينَ مَرّة مِن غَيرِ ذَنْبٍ.
“The Holy Prophet (a.s) used to repent seventy times a day without commiting any single sin.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2. pp. 450)