Thursday, March 21, 2019

'Istighfar': On Divine Forgiveness

I do not absolve myself of weakness, for the inner self is surely prone to enjoin evil, except on whom my Lord has mercy. My Lord is of course Protector (against sins), Ever Merciful’.---(Surah Yusuf, 12:54).

This sublime expression of humility in the declaration of Prophet Yusuf (as) points to a larger truth about moral failings in the human condition: only Divine Grace can help us traverse the flood of base passions. As humans, each one of us has an innate proclivity or inborn weakness to be swayed at times by the attractions and colours of this world. Our bodily urges can and will, at times, eclipse our moral responsibility and injure our spiritual self. Satan can induce us to stumble in moments of frenzy and we might forget or even willfully ignore that God watches over us in all that we do, openly and secretly. Whether we remain within the laws of the permissible- respecting the boundaries of the Shari'ah- or commit transgressions and become liable for sins; the reality is that God knows about it all. Indeed the Lord of the Universe knows about the deep desires and other inner passions that fuel all our actions- good and bad- and especially, our many failings. The Qur’an emphatically declares: Were it not for God’s Grace upon you and His Mercy, not one of you would ever be pure.” (Surah Al-Nur, 24: 22)

It is interesting to note that even the great servants of the Lord- the Prophets and Messengers and other recipients of revelations never declared their sinlessness. On the contrary, both the Torah and the Qur’an bear witness to the cries of Divine servants recounting their errors and lapses in the solitude of their sublime invocations. When someone addressed Jesus (as) as “Good Master!”, the latter is reported to have replied: ‘Why do you call me good? There is no one good, except the Lord’. Even the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) used to offer Istighfar more than anyone, and that too on a daily basis:

Turn to Allah, ye people, and seek forgiveness of Him. For myself, I turn to Allah a hundred times a day’ (Muslim).

According to the Holy Qur’an, to proclaim and confess, We wronged ourselves’ is the way of the righteous. Consider the following verses:

"Our Lord, we believe, so forgive us our sins and protect us from suffering in the Fire." (3: 17).

Our Lord! forgive us our sins and our excesses. Make our feet firm, give us help against the disbelievers’. (3:148).

"Lord, do not take us to task if we forget or make mistakes. Lord, do not burden us as You burdened those before us. Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear. Pardon us, forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Protector, so help us against the disbelievers." (2:287).

The Divine Attributes of Forgiveness

Despite the apparently flawed and weak human condition- of failing and falling to hold on to his or her moral responsibilities and Divine commandments in everyday life- the Holy Qur'an offers much hope for the humans by offering the instrumentality of repentance ('Taubah') and seeking forgiveness ('Istighfar') to an Ever-Forgiving, Merciful, Pardoning Lord. Indeed, the Qur'an offers much solace to the oft-blaming conscience of man by introducing the Lord Almighty through His many attributes of forgiveness. The Holy Book says: "Know they not that God accepts repentance from His servants, and receives charitable offerings, and that God is the Relenting, the Merciful?” (Surah al-Taubah, 9:104“He it is Who accepts repentance from His servants and pardons evil deeds. And He knows whatsoever you do” --(Surah al-Shu’ra, 42:25)

Consider also some of the Divine Names in the Qur’an: Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar, Ghaafir-udh-Dhanb, Al- ‘Afuww, At-Tawwaab, etc.

The Forgiver of sin, the Acceptor of repentance…” (40:3)

Allah is the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.” (42:5)

Is He not indeed the Almighty, the Endlessly Forgiving?” (39:5)

Allah is Ever-Pardoning, Ever-Forgiving.” (4:43)

Allah is Ever-Returning, Most Merciful. (49:12)

Each of these Divine Names point to the different shades of Divine Forgiveness. He is the One who forgives sins and accepts the repentance of all those who turn to Him. He conceals the sins of His servants, shows never-ending compassion to them and lavishes kindness on them. The name Al-Ghaffaar’ points to His immense and constant forgiveness of sins. Likewise, Al- ‘Afuww (The Ever-Pardoning Lord) can erase all sins committed by His servants, especially if they do something that is bound to bring about His forgiveness, such as sincerely declaring His Oneness, seeking His forgiveness, turning to Him in repentance and doing righteous deeds. At-Tawwab is the One who helps His servants repent and submit completely to Him after turning to Him, and then He accepts their repentance and pardons their sins.

Qur’an encourages believers to turn to God in repentance. The Holy Book says: Seek forgiveness of your Lord and turn to Him in repentance’. (11.4). 'Believers, all of you, turn to Allah so that you may prosper'(24.32). O ye who believe! turn to Allah in sincere repentance. Your Lord may well cancel your bad deeds for you and admit you into Gardens graced with flowing streams, on a Day when Allah will not disgrace the Prophet or those who have believed with him. With their lights streaming ahead of them and to their right, they will sayLord, perfect our lights for us and forgive us: You have power over everything. (66:9)

On Repentance and seeking Forgiveness

The Promised Messiah Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) of Qadian has explained the philosophy of repentance and the role of Istighfar in succinct words, in a number of places in the corpus of his writings, and I quote:

It is obvious that man is very weak by nature and has been charged with hundreds of Divine commandments. On account of his weakness, he falls short in carrying out some Divine commandments and sometimes he is overcome by the desires of the self that incite to evil. On account of his weak nature, he deserves that at the time of any slipping, if he should repent and seek forgiveness, God's mercy should save him from being ruined.

It is a certainty that if God had not been the Acceptor of repentance, man would not have been charged with these hundreds of commandments. This proves that God turns towards man with mercy and is Most Forgiving. Repentance means that a person should discard a vice with the resolve that thereafter, even if he is thrown into the fire, he would not commit that vice. When man turns towards God Almighty with sincerity and firm resolve, God, who is Benevolent and Merciful, forgives him the particular sin. It is one of the high Divine attributes that God accepts repentance and saves a sinner from ruin. If man had not the hope of his repentance being accepted, he would not be able to refrain from sinning....It is the Benevolence of God that He accepts the repentance of some and bestows by His grace such powers on others that they are safeguarded against sinning {Chashmai Ma’arafat, Ruhani Khazain (London, 1984) vol. 23. p. 181}.

Man’s Remorse and the Mercy of God

In Arabic idiom Taubah (repentance) means 'returning', and that is why in the Holy Quran God's name is also Tawwab, that is to say, He Who is Oft-Returning. This means that when a person discarding sin turns to God with a sincere heart, God Almighty turns even more to him. This is altogether in accord with the law of nature. God Almighty has made in part of human nature that when a person turns to another with a sincere heart, the latter's heart is also softened for him. Then how can reason accept that when a servant turns towards God Almighty with a true heart God should not turn to him? Indeed God, Who is Benevolent and Merciful, turns even more towards His servant. That is why in the Holy Quran, God's name, as we have just mentioned, is also Tawwab, meaning Oft-Returning’.

Man's turning to God is through remorse and humility and meekness, and God's turning to man is with mercy and forgiveness. If mercy were not one of the attributes of God Almighty, no one would be delivered. It is a pity that these people do not ponder over the attributes of God Almighty and depend entirely upon their own actions. But can it be the attitude of God, Who without any action proceeding from man, has created thousands of bounties for him upon the earth that when weak man being warned of his heedlessness should turn to Him, a turning which is like death, and should put off his old garment and should be consumed in the fire of His love, God should not turn to him with mercy? Is this the law of nature?’ {Chashmai Maarifat, Ruhani Khazain (London, 1984) vol. 23. pp. 125-126}.

Repentance: Role of ‘Istighfar’

Istighfar and repentance are two separate matters. From one point of view, Istighfar has priority over repentance, inasmuch as Istighfar is the help and strength which are obtained from God and repentance means standing on one's own feet. It is the way of God that when a person seeks help from Him, He bestows strength and with that strength the supplicant stands on his own feet and thus possesses the faculty to do good. This means turning to God and this is the natural sequence of it. It is appointed for seekers that they should seek help from God in every condition. Till a seeker obtains strength from God, he can do nothing.

The strength for repentance is acquired after Istighfar. If there is no Istighfar, the faculty of repentance dies. If you will thus follow up Istighfar with repentance, the result will be as set out in the verse: ‘He will make for you a goodly provision till an appointed term (11: 4). This is the way of God, that those who follow up Istighfar with repentance will achieve high grades. Every sense has a circle within which it achieves its high grades. Not everyone can be a Prophet or a Messenger or a Siddiq or a Martyr (Malfuzat, Vol. II, pp. 68-69).

In short, the Islamic spiritual tradition recognizes the free-will and agency of the humans. Spiritual fulfillment is possible not just for the virtuous, but also for those who stumble into errors and sinning when they turn to God in repentance, seeking Divine forgiveness. Spiritual virtue lies not in the absence of wrongful desires, but in summoning our inner will to tide over the mundane temptations by seeking Divine forgiveness and turning in repentance. In a well-known saying of the Holy Prophet (sa), recorded by Bukhari and Muslim, we can read: "God, the Exalted be He, says: 'If a servant of Mine (merely) desires to do a good deed, i shall count this (desire) as a good deed; and if he does it, I shall count it ten fold. And if he desires to commit a bad deed, but does not commit it, I shall count this as a good deed, seeing that he refrained from it only for My sake..." Likewise, the Holy Prophet (sa) also points out: Allah is more pleased with the repentance of a servant of His than would be one of you who were to lose his camel in a barren desert and then find it suddenly’. (Bukhari and Muslim).

May Allah (swt) have mercy on us and overlook our failings and shortcomings in the specific performance of Divine Commandments so that the enemies of the faith may never rejoice. May Allah (swt) protect us all from performing evil deeds, from the ill effects of the sins we commit and from the punishment attached to those sins, Insha-Allah, Aameen, Soumma Aameen Ya Ghafur-ur-Rahim.