Even if one tries his best to follow all of the steps and means that help one purify his soul, the nature of man is such that, in general, he is bound to falter every now and then. In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “All humans continually commit sins. The best of those who continually commit sins are those who repent often.”
When a person falters and sins, though, that is not the end of the matter. As long as he has not reached the moment of death, the door to repentance will remain open to him. He need not despair—as long as he brings himself to account and repents to Allah for the sins and transgressions he has committed. Allah clearly states,
“Say: O My servants who have transgressed against their souls, despair not of the mercy of Allah for Allah forgives all sins, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”
The true repentance includes (1) stopping oneself from the sin that one is committing, (2) feeling remorse and (3) having the sincere intention to never again return to performing that sin. In essence, it is a true return to serving Allah, as is the human’s purpose in this life. Without these components, the individual has not truly or completely repented to Allah.
Ibn Taimiyyah perceptively pointed out that it is more important to repent from wrong beliefs than it is to repent from evil desires. He explains his reasoning behind this argument by stating,
If someone does not perform an obligatory deed or does perform an evil deed, while he believes in its obligation [for the former] or its evil [for the latter], then that belief will urge him on to do the obligatory deed and will keep him from the evil deed. There will not be something constantly urging him or keeping him from doing such deeds. In fact, the urging and preventing forces will be fighting each other. This means that sometimes one will overtake the other and vice versa and his soul will be watching over him. Sometimes he will perform the obligatory deed and sometimes he will not perform it. And sometimes he will perform the evil deed and sometimes he will not perform it. This is the case with many evildoing Muslims who sometimes fulfill rights and other times do not and who sometimes do evil deeds and other times do not because the desires are contradicting in his heart [that is, the desire to do good and the desire to do evil are both in his heart and are competing against each other] since he has in his heart the foundation of faith that orders him to do good and keeps him from evil. But at the same time he has desires and lusts that call him to the opposite of that.
But if the person performs deeds that he [wrongfully] believes are obligatory or he leaves deeds believing they are forbidden, then the driving forces to leave or perform the deed will be constant in his heart and that is much more serious than the first case [mentioned in the paragraph above]. This person must make taubah to correct his beliefs first and to find the truth. And this can be much more difficult than the first case if there is nothing driving him to leave his false beliefs‑ as the person in the first case has something urging him to leave his evil deeds...
In reality, every time someone commits a sin, he is actually distancing himself from Allah—as is clearly implied in the hadith quoted earlier stating that one draws closer to Allah by fulfilling the obligatory deeds and then the voluntary deeds. If that is the case, the believer should immediately seek to remove the negative effect of any sin. This is accomplished by not persisting in sin but by returning to Allah, repenting to Him and seeking His forgiveness. Indeed, it is truly heart moving how in the same set of verses, Allah speaks about the believers committing faahishah (shameful acts) and harming their own souls and yet describing them as the inhabitants of paradise. Their key is that they stop their sin and earnestly seek Allah’s forgiveness.
“And those who having done something to be ashamed of or wronged their own souls earnestly bring Allah to mind and ask for forgiveness for their sins—and who can forgive sins except Allah? And are never obstinate in persisting knowingly in (the wrong) they have done. For such the reward is forgiveness from their Lord, and gardens with rivers flowing underneath, an eternal dwelling. How excellent a recompense for those who work (and strive)”
Indeed, Allah is very pleased with the servant whenever he repents. By repenting, the servant demonstrates his belief that Allah is compassionate, forgiving and merciful. He is also showing his awareness that, deep in his soul, he does not wish to displease Allah or to move away from what pleases Allah. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) stated, “Allah is more delighted by the repentance of His believing servant than [the delight of the following person]: A person in a waterless desert having his food and drink upon his camel who sleeps and wakes to find his provisions having been lost. He searches for them until he is about to be overtaken by thirst. He says to himself, ‘I shall return to the place where I was and I shall sleep until I die.’ He put his head upon his pillow ready to die. Then he awakes to find his camel and his provisions, food and drink with him. Allah is more delighted with the repentance of the believing servant than that [person] is with [finding] his provision.” Allah’s great pleasure is a very special reward for the repentant. Indeed, when the believer realizes this fact and keeps this in mind, the drive to repent from all of his sins and shortcomings becomes very strong in his heart.
The importance of repentance for the purification of the soul cannot be overstated. It is the final pouring out of the human towards his Lord to remove all remaining blemishes and impurities from the soul, such that the soul is ready to be entered into Allah’s paradise. No matter how pious a soul is, there will undoubtedly be shortcomings with respect to the rights of his Lord. These shortcomings, many of which were already touched upon while discussing contemplation since there is a strong relationship between such contemplation and the move to repent, include the following:
(a) A person’s acts of worship and obedience to Allah will many times (if not almost always) fall short of his maximum potential. Indeed, being overly pleased and satisfied with one’s act of worship is very dangerous for the soul. In fact, those who are truly aware of their relationship with Allah are even more earnest in their seeking of Allah’s forgiveness after they complete an act of worship. They understand that they have some shortcoming in their act of worship, such as not being completely attuned to their prayers. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught all believers to ask for Allah’s forgiveness three times as soon as one had finished the obligatory prayers. This practice is reflective of this fact that one can find shortcomings even in his acts of worship.
(b) The believer will never be able to thank Allah completely for all of the bounties that Allah has bestowed on him, no matter how obedient he is to Allah. For example, how can an individual completely thank Allah for Allah’s bounty giving him life in the first place? Hence, the individual must repent to Allah for this inability to thank Him completely or sufficiently.
(c) There may even be some portion of “acting for the sake of show” (riyaa’) in some of an individual’s deeds. If this is the case, then he definitely must repent to Allah for that aspect.
Hence, even the pious must always seek to repent to Allah and ask for His forgiveness. Ibn Taimiyyah wrote,
The servant is always between a blessing from Allah that requires his thanks and a sin that requires the seeking of forgiveness. Both of these circumstances, by necessity, are always with the servant. He is constantly moving among the blessings and bounties of Allah and he is always sinful and in need of repentance and asking for forgiveness. For that reason, the chief of all humans and the leader of the pious, Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), would seek forgiveness in all situations.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) himself used to repent to Allah and seek His forgiveness more than one hundred times a day (as recorded by Muslim).
Besides removing the sins from a person, sincere repentance plays other important roles in purifying the soul. For example, it aids the person in truly humbling himself before his Lord. As the believer recognizes his weaknesses and sins, he realizes that he has no rescue except to turn to Allah humbly, seeking Allah’s forgiveness for his errors. This brings him closer to Allah, even though what led him to this particular stage was a sin that he had committed (such is the mercy and grace of Allah). As he considers more of his sins (through taking himself to account for his deeds) and sincerely repents from them, he realizes how far he has strayed and his heart sincerely and humbly tries to submit completely to Allah in the proper way given his abilities.
Repentance is a door that is always open for the person to rectify his ways. No matter how evil a person has become and no matter how many sins he has committed, there is no excuse for him not to mend his ways and to try to purify his soul. A powerful reminder of this fact is Allah’s words while mentioning those who burned the believers alive in the incident discussed in soorah al-Burooj. Allah says about them,
“Those who persecuted the believers, men and women, and do not turn in repentance will have the penalty of Hell: they will have the penalty of the Burning Fire”
Obviously, then, the door to repentance will be open to any sinner and he need not despair.
Thus, once the person sets himself on the right path, Allah willing, he need not allow what he did in the past to prevent him from getting closer to Allah by performing pious deeds. Some scholars even argue that his state after repenting should be even better than his state beforehand, as he has experienced the sin, realized how wrong it was, turned wholeheartedly to Allah and has vowed to change his ways. As long as one does change and mend his ways, he need not look back at his sins as necessarily evil in the long-run for his spiritual purification. He may have learned a great lesson from that act and it may have helped him reform himself in a way that would not have been possible without his experiencing a need to repent, while that repentance further uplifted his soul via the joy of returning back to one’s Lord.
By the grace and mercy of Allah, the path of purification and increasing one’s faith is uncomplicated and clear for whoever wills to follow it: It is about correction of one’s beliefs and understandings while following that up with the proper implementation in one’s actions and deeds.
This is a path consistent with one’s natural inclinations but one has to be serious about following it. Even when coming upon the path, one cannot be complacent and assume that nothing will shake him or remove him from that path. No, indeed, he must always be conscious of his faith and what state of health it is in. He should constantly seek those means and measures that he finds support and help his faith. Additionally, he must be aware of and avoid those factors that damage the health of his faith and prevent him from following the Straight Path.
All along, he should be seeking Allah’s guidance. Whenever he slips from the path and errs, he should try to immediately return to Allah, seek his forgiveness and ask Allah to set him aright once again on the beautiful path of purification and faith.
- Recorded by Ahmad, al-Tirmidhi, ibn Maajah and al-Haakim. According to al-Albaani, it is hasan.See al-Albaani, Saheeh al-Jaami, vol. 2, p. 831.
- If the sin also involved the rights of other humans, one must, if possible, also rectify the wrong that he has done.
- Ibn Taimiyyah, “Risaalah fi al Taubah,” vol. 1, pp. 237 238.
- Recorded by Muslim.
- Ibn Taimiyyah, Majmoo, vol. 10, p. 88.
- It should be noted that this chapter is entirely based on portions of the author’s Purification of the Soul. For more details concerning the topics discussed herein, the reader is referred to that work.