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The Nature of Repentance


He is truly felicitous who purifies [his soul] and he fails who corrupts it. (Qur’an 91:9-10)

Islam teaches that no one stands between a person and God. The Prophet said any sinner can sincerely repent, and through their remorse, receive forgiveness. The slate is clean, and the journey to God begins again. This will happen many times in a person’s life, because humans are not expected to be perfect. Rather, God expects us to turn to Him in repentance and exert effort to correct our hearts and our actions. A skeptic (as well as many Muslims) may ask, “Why would God create the world in this way? Why create a world where people sin and need to repent?”

To answer this cogently, we must understand “What is the Purpose of Life?” Islam answers this question on three different levels. First is the “Operational” Purpose of Life — Why am I here? The Qur’an clearly answers to this question: “To worship God.” The Arabic word ‘ibadah does not mean only worship. Rather it has nuances of seeking, finding, and devotion. Second is the “Existential” Purpose of Life — Why does this world exist? The Qur’an also clearly answers to this question: “To test Man who is best in deeds.” Third is the “Transcendental” Purpose of Life — Why did God create? In answering this question, we will also discover the wisdom behind and the necessity of the existence of sin in this world.

The keys to seeing the wisdom behind Allah’s allowing sin are to understand the nature of repentance, to reconcile Islamic teachings with the problem of evil, and to appreciate how repentance elevates akhlaq. I will begin by giving background information and historical perspective on the nature of repentance from two classical Islamic scholars: Abu Hamid al Ghazzali and Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya. I will then outline the philosophical Problem of Evil and how Islam reconciles it. Finally, I will discuss the theology of sin and how repentance positively affects one’s character.

Al-Ghazzali’s View

In order to understand al-Ghazzali’s teachings on repentance, we must understand the background against which his teachings were set. This includes an account of the idea of repentance in early Jewish and Christian traditions, a discussion of the Qur’an’s notion of repentance, and some of the basic theological stances that al-Ghazzali held that are bound to his concept of repentance. In the Hebrew bible, there are two concurrent themes of repentance. One is the ritual system of sacrifice and displacement of guilt to seek God’s forbearance and forgiveness. The other is the moral and ethical “conversion” that represents the sinner turning away from sin, and God turning back to the ex-sinner as a result. This interplay of man’s actions and God’s response is a common theme in Judaism before the advent of Muhammad (pbuh).[1] In early Christianity, the concept of repentance evolves from merely a turning away from sin to complete change of the sinner’s spiritual personality. The New Testament is filled with parables of lost sheep and lost coin to highlight the “joy of God” in accepting the penitent sinners. This positive emphasis on normative and regular piety led many Christian theologians to view the penitent sinners as achieving a status of virtue that surpasses even the sinless.[2]

In the Qur’an, repentance (tawba) represents an abandonment of sin and a reorientation to a life of obedience. There must exist an awareness of having sinned followed by a feeling of remorse which moves the sinner away from the sin. However, disavowing the sin is not enough; it is necessary that the pursuit of righteousness and reform must be present in order for repentance to be complete and acceptable to Allah. The sinner’s hope of divine forgiveness requires such a turn-about of personality, hence the reason the root word of tawba means “to turn.” This focus on reforming the soul implies that while the process of repentance involves the abandonment of sin, the purpose of repentance is the reconciliation of man with Allah.

It is this history that informs the context of al-Ghazzali’s time. Islam had developed two distinct strands of observance, the legalistic and the mystic. For many, orthodoxy was nothing more than legal conformity, where matters of the inner spirit were ignored or compartmentalized. Likewise, many who followed the mystical Sufi path tended to downplay the formal adherence to Islamic law and practice. However, for al-Ghazzali, the external legalistic observances of Islam constitute the foundation of the mystic’s internal search for the divine. Islamic practices were seen as the means of drawing near to Allah and successfully preparing for the Hereafter.[3] One of al-Ghazzali’s most significant contributions to Islamic civilization and cultural heritage was his synthesis of these two strands into one coherent worldview. For the ritualistically pious, he wanted to infuse more meaning and spiritual self-reflection; for the mystics, he wanted to correct the attitude of nonchalance vis-a-vis religious commandments.

Al-Ghazzali’s concept of repentance stems from his axiom that the goal and purpose of life is the attainment of salvation. It is clearly stated in the Qur’an that the reason we were created is “To worship God.” However, the Arabic word ‘ibadah does not mean only worship. Rather it has nuances of seeking, finding, and devotion. Al-Ghazzali summarizes: the purpose of Man in this life is to Seek God, and from Seeking God to Know God, and from Knowing God to Love God, and from Loving God to Honor and Worship God.[4] This is the nature of the relationship that Man is expected to have regarding God. In order to achieve this goal, the worldly life, with its trials and tribulations, with its triumphs and temptations, is set up to test Man who is best in deeds. Al-Ghazzali sees sin as an inner disease and pollution. For this reason, he uses the example of the mirror to explain the importance and justification of continuous repentance. According to al-Ghazzali, a man’s heart is like a bright mirror representing the pure fitra he was born with. Each sin crusts the mirror with dullness and eventually rust. If the mirror is not immediately cleansed and polished with repentance after falling into sin, then eventually it will be impossible to reburnish. In other words, regular repentance is the continual spiritual improvement required so that a person can meet their Creator with a “sound heart.” The external acts of piety act like the strokes of the wire-brush that burnish the mirror, while the internal focus and feelings of penitence act like the polishing compound that is applied to the brush before burnishing. Just as polishing compound or a wire-brush individually will not remove rust from a mirror, likewise spiritual awareness and religious practice by themselves are not enough to affect real spiritual change. Both are required to clear the dross of the heart and purify it to reunite the Seeker with his Creator.

Ibn al-Qayyim’s View

Ibn al-Qayyim is one of the famous students of Sheikh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah. He lived in an age of multiple strands of Islamic thought, schools, and theologies. Sufism was a major component of Muslim spiritual life, even among the scholars. Ibn al-Qayyim wanted to reclaim his Sufi heritage of self-development and sanitize it to the orthodoxy made famous by his teacher ibn Taymiyyah. This combines the spiritual self-improvement methodology of main-stream Sufi scholarship with revivalist orthodox Islam of ibn Taymiyyah.

The focus in his famous book, Ranks of the Divine Seekers, tied the spiritual ranks known to the Sufi’s to the text of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh). His purpose was to highlight how correct belief and with strong adherence to the Shariah are part of spiritual and character development, and therefore part of continuous repentance. Like al-Ghazzali, he wanted to check the many strands of Islam that downplayed the significance of adhering to the Shariah, which in turn meant downplaying the enormity of sins. For this reason, he wrote many pages to categorize and outline the different types of sins. There were many Sufi strands who had become deluded that they had achieved such nearness to Allah that they no longer needed to pray or avoid the forbidden things. Therefore, he wrote extensively to exhort a return to the correct understanding of sins and repentance and to the proper Islamic lifestyle.

Ibn al-Qayyim discusses the ‘station’ of repentance very thoroughly. On the topic of sins and Qadr, he lambasts the wrong-headed understanding of Qadr because it was one of the famous (or infamous) excuses for sinners to absolve themselves of the responsibility or guilt for the sins they committed. He summarizes some narrations to point out the fallacy of this logic:

If a servant sins then says, ‘O Lord, this is your decree, you destined it for me and decided it for me and wrote it upon me,’ God the Exalted and Magnificent says, ‘And you performed it, committed it, willed it, and sweated to carry it out, and I will take you to account for it.’ And when he says instead, ‘O Lord, I committed wrong, I erred, I transgressed, and I did it,’ God the Exalted and Magnificent says, ‘And I destined it for you and decreed it and wrote it upon you, and I forgive it for you.’[5]

He argues that such teachings not only mislead the ignorant and the masses into complacency, but they also harden the heart against reconciling with their Creator, which undermines the entire point of seeking forgiveness and repentance:

If the heart ever becomes void of this remorseful ache and the joy of sinning overpowers any feeling of remorse, then one should doubt one’s faith, and cry over the death of his heart. Were the heart alive, the committing of sin would make it sad, upbraid and constrict it, and it would sense it. A wound, after all, does not cause pain to a corpse.[6]

He defines the conditions of repentance as regret, relinquishment, and apology. This forms the foundation of the sinner’s heartfelt contrition and acknowledgement of his or her failure to live up to the commands of the Creator and accepting responsibility for the transgression and begging forgiveness. He concludes that the sinner who fails to blame him or herself has ignored the entire purpose of the test of this worldly life. With this foundation, ibn al-Qayyim continues the discussion of repentance with a moving explanation of God’s Joy upon the Repentance of His Servant.[7] After citing the famous hadith of Anas bin Malik “God is more joyous in the repentance of His servant when he repents to Him than one of you,” he basically concludes that “Knowing God” is the reason why God created. In other words, God wished to create beings that could Know Him and created a world where that knowing could be tested and developed. The angels, being without free will, could not “know” all of God’s names, since they could not experience wrath, or forgiveness, or grace, etc. Therefore, a dangerous world filled with natural disasters and death and populated by free willing human beings and devils of all sorts who could do good or evil was created for the purpose of making God manifest and known in all His names. Therefore, the wisdom behind the creation of Satan and all other sources of evil and suffering is that they are a means by which Allah brings His servants from darkness into the light: “This is the truth for the sake of which the heavens and the earth have been created.”[8]

[1] (Stern 1990, 2)

[2] (Stern 1990, 3)

[3] (Watt 1971, 37)

[4] (Stern 1990, 12-13)

[5] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 1 2020, 416)

[6] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 1 2020, 408)

[7] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 1 2020, 466-480)

[8] (Anjum, Ranks of the Divine Seekers: Vol 1 2020, 476)

The Nature of Repentance
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