Note: These lessons were acquired while participating in the ipersonalenrichment.com program.
Scholars have often noted that a Muslim should have an almost balanced level of fear and hope in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (Exalted is He), while their hope in Him should actually be more due to the hadith (narrations) of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him): “When Allah completed the creation, He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, ‘My Mercy overpowers My Anger.’” (Bukhari)
Yet despite this encouragement from scholars, many Muslims seem to ache from an unhealthy level of guilt and disapproval in themselves, and thus suffer from too little hope in Allah (swt). Subhan Allah, Glory be to God, the shaytan (devil) approaches us through extremes. He comes to some Muslims through the doors of complete negligence in order to prevent them from tawbah (repentance). Yet, he actually comes to others through their humility and tricks them into thinking that feeling excessively guilty all the time for their mistakes and shortcomings is an act of worship. When they accept this approach, it becomes a habit of their nafs (ego). Guilt becomes excessive and a tool against their iman (faith) when it actually prevents a person from real tawbah, because they feel their sins are too heavy, or too oft-repeated, and there is little hope for them to get better. They dread going back to Allah (swt) because they are overwhelmed by shame. They may even ask Allah (swt) for forgiveness but deep down, they feel they are not worthy of it and they begin to doubt themselves in everything they do, and doubt Allah’s Love for them, and sometimes give up and indulge even more in sins because of their feeling of hopelessness.
There are a number of mistakes in this approach. First, the word ‘tawbah’ does not mean excessive guilt nor does it mean despising oneself. Tawbah is translated to mean ‘repentance’ but comes from the Arabic root which means “to return to.” This is the same root as the Beautiful Name of Allah al-Tawwaab. So the one making tawbah is simply returning to Allah (swt) while He is Oft-Returning to them in His infinite Mercy.
The second mistake is when the Muslim creates a lot of fiction around their mistakes making them bigger than they actually are, accusing themselves of much worse than what was actually done. They lack having mercy on their own selves in an effort to be sincere, but in doing so actually make it harder for themselves to turn back to Allah (swt) as they lose hope. Another form of fiction created around guilt is when the person feels guilty about something which Allah (swt) will not ask them about. It isn’t a sin or shortcoming of theirs in the first place, but they feel responsible and guilty. Allah (swt) is Greater than His needing His servants to torture themselves in this way.
The third mistake is even if the sin was something bigger in nature, the guilty person who wants to return to Allah (swt) should focus on Allah’s Greatness and not the size of their sin. Now this is an interesting point to reflect on. Those whom the shaytan tries to reach through negligence are advised by our predecessors, “Don’t think about the sin being minor, think about the Greatness of the One you are sinning against.” Similarly, those whom the shaytan tries to hinder through excessive guilt, must also be advised “Do not look at the size of the sin, but the Greatness of the One Who has promised His forgiveness.” To think that mistakes are simply too big or too repeated for the forgiveness of Allah (swt) is a form of doubting Allah (swt)’s infinite Mercy. It is a materialistic approach, subconsciously limiting His Forgiveness to the human constructs of forgiveness we find in the world. The question is not “Will Allah forgive us?” The question is “Will we turn to Him?” The Forgiveness of al-Ghafur, al-Afuww, (the Forgiving, the Pardoner) is greater than anything we can imagine.
The fourth mistake is that Allah (swt) doesn’t want us to despise ourselves. He wants us to feel regret in disobeying Him, to turn back to Him seeking His forgiveness, to have the determination not to do it again, and if other people were harmed then to return their rights. These are the conditions of tawbah as outlined by Imam Nawawi in Riyadh al-Saliheen. The initial feeling of regret and guilt is simply the key to the whole process. One should not get stuck staring at the key, but use it to unlock the door of seeking forgiveness, and open the door with the determination of not going back, in order to walk into the room of redemption, the room of getting closer to Allah (swt) by returning to Him. It is hope in His Mercy that drives this process and moves a person from simply focusing on the key of regret to actually using it to propel oneself closer to Allah (swt).
One of the signs that a person carries disapproval of themselves is when they need or seek attention or approval from others in order to feel good. Even acting arrogantly can actually be a sign of personal insecurity rooted in unhealthy guilt. It’s amazing to think how a disease that enters through an extreme approach to humility (excessive guilt and despair) actually can lead to its opposite extreme in arrogance. Whatever the guilt is rooted in must be confronted, allowing the person to take their lessons, mend their ways and move forward. When it comes to repenting from harmful addictions, part of one’s determination to not return to the sin should include seeking the help of a counselor or therapist. Real tawbah is not about getting stuck in an endless cycle of excessive guilt and returning to sin. Ibn Al-Qayyim mentioned in Jawab al-Kafi a line in which the excessively guilty person describes his diseased state, “I drank a cup to taste its pleasure then drank another to heal its pain.”
As Ramadan is the opportune month to purify ourselves from our diseases, I wanted to compile a list of Quranic verses, ahadith, and sayings that remind us how Allah (swt) welcomes our returning to Him, our true tawbah. He (swt) is repeatedly assuring us of His Mercy and Forgiveness, not asking us to despise ourselves. Tawbah is about removing the sin from one’s path in order to draw even closer to Allah (swt) than before. Every sinful mistake is an opportunity and a signal that it is time to grow in our relationship with Allah (swt); and as we turn to Him walking, He turns to us rushing. Tawbah as such is an act of redemption and elevation, not despair:
1. “Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.’” (Qur’an 39:53)
2. “Except those who repent and correct themselves and make evident [what they concealed]. Those – I will accept their repentance, and I am the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.” (Qur’an 2:160)
3. “But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms, indeed, Allah will turn to him in forgiveness. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 5:39)
4. “[…] Then He turned to them so they could repent. Indeed, Allah is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:118)
5. “[O Muhammad], inform My servants that it is I who am the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (Qur’an 15:49)
6. “And [there are] others who have acknowledged their sins. They had mixed a righteous deed with another that was bad. Perhaps Allah will turn to them in forgiveness. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:102)
7. “Those who avoid the major sins and immoralities, only [committing] slight ones. Indeed, your Lord is vast in forgiveness. […]” (Qur’an 53:32)
8. “[…] indeed He is ever, to the often returning [to Him], Forgiving.” (Qur’an 17:25)
9. “And whoever does a wrong or wrongs himself but then seeks forgiveness of Allah will find Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 4:110)
10. “[…] And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 73:20)
11. “[…] Indeed, no one despairs of relief from Allah except the disbelieving people.” (Qur’an 12:87)
12. “And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. […]” (Qur’an 2:186)
13. “O you who have believed, repent to Allah with sincere repentance. Perhaps your Lord will remove from you your misdeeds and admit you into gardens beneath which rivers flow [on] the Day when Allah will not disgrace the Prophet and those who believed with him. Their light will proceed before them and on their right; they will say, “Our Lord, perfect for us our light and forgive us. Indeed, You are over all things competent.” (Qur’an 66:8)
14. “And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah? […]” (Quran 3:135)
15. “[…] Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember.” (Qur’an 11:114)
16. “Except for those who repent, believe and do righteous work. For them Allah will replace their evil deeds with good. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 25:70)
17. “And it is He who accepts repentance from his servants and pardons misdeeds, and He knows what you do.” (Qur’an 42:25)
18. On the authority of Anas radi allahu `anhu (may Allah be please with him), who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say: “Allah the Almighty has said: ‘O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me, and hope in Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds in the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I shall forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with an earthful of sins and were you then to face Me, without having associated anything with Me, I shall grant you an earthful of pardon.’” (Tirmidhi)
19. On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ra) the Prophet ﷺ said, from among the things he reports from his Lord (swt), is that He said: “A servant [of Allah's] committed a sin and said: ‘O Allah, forgive me my sin.’ And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: ‘My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for them.’ Then he sinned again and said: ‘O Lord, forgive me my sin.’ And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: ‘My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for them.’ Then he sinned again and said: ‘O Lord, forgive me my sin.’ And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: ‘My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for sins. Do what you wish, for I have forgiven you.’” (Bukhari and Muslim)
20. On the authority of Ibn Abbas (ra) the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said among the sayings he relates from his Lord is: “Allah has written down the good deeds and the bad ones.” Then he explained it [by saying that]: “He who has intended a good deed and has not done it, Allah writes it down with Himself as a full good deed, but if he has intended it and has done it, Allah writes it down with Himself as from ten good deeds to seven hundred times, or many times over. But if he has intended a bad deed and has not done it, Allah writes it down with Himself as a full good deed, but if he has intended it and has done it, Allah writes it down as one bad deed.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
21. Abdullah ibn Omar (ra) says that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Allah accepts the repentance of His servant as long as he does not croak (on his deathbed).” (Tirmidhi)
22. Anas ibn Malik (ra) says that the Prophet ﷺ said: “When a servant of Allah returns to Him and repents, Allah is happier than a traveler who loses his mount which has all his belongings and provisions on it and then resorts to the shade of tree after losing all hope only to wake up and find his mount staring in his face, and then out of joy and happiness erroneously says: ‘Allah You are my servant and I your Lord.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
23. Narrated Abu Huraira (ra): I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ saying, “The good deeds of any person will not make him enter Paradise.” They (the Prophet’s companions) said, ‘Not even you, O Allah’s Apostle?’ He said, “Not even myself, unless Allah bestows His favor and Mercy on me.” So be moderate in your religious deeds and do the deeds that are within your ability: and none of you should wish for death, for if he is a good doer, he may increase his good deeds, and if he is an evil doer, he may repent to Allah.” (Bukhari)
24. The Prophet ﷺ said,”Every son of Adam makes mistakes, and the best of those who make mistakes are those who repent.” (At-Tirmidhi)
25. He ﷺ also said: “I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, if you were a people who did not commit sin, Allah would take you away and replace you with a people who would sin and then seek Allah’s forgiveness so He could forgive them.” (Muslim)
26. On the authority of Ibn Abbas (ra) that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Allah has pardoned for me my people for [their] mistakes and [their] forgetfulness and for what they have done under duress.” (ibn Majah, Baihaqi and others)
27. The Prophet ﷺ said to Mu’adh bin Jabal (ra), “Shall I not show you the gates of goodness? Fasting is a shield, charity extinguishes sin as water extinguishes fire; and the praying of a man in the depth of night.” Then he recited: “Who forsake their beds to cry unto their Lord in fear and hope, and spend of that We have bestowed on them. No soul knoweth what is kept hid for them of joy, as a reward for what they used to do.” (Qur’an 32:16-17) (Tirmidhi)
28. Ali (ra) said, “The sin which makes you sad and repentant is more liked by Allah than the good deed which turns you arrogant.”
29. A man asked Abdullah ibn Masood (ra) about repenting from a sin which he wanted to commit but did not commit it. Abdullah (ra) turned away from the man and then turned towards him with his eyes weeping and said: “Paradise has eight entrances, all of which open and shut except the entrance of tawbah. This entrance has an angel guarding it so that it does not shut. So repent and do not despair.”
30. Saeed ibn Musayib (ra) said, “Allah will change the bad deeds of those who repent and convert them into good deeds (on the Scales) on the Day of Judgment. Repentance is itself a good deed. So the sinner changes his sins into good deeds.” (Madarij al-Salikeen)
Subhan Allah, if Allah (swt) will forgive you, who are you not to forgive yourself? If He loves you and has mercy on you, who are you not to love yourself and be merciful with yourself? Finally, as is my sunnah in such articles, I also wanted to leave some narrations on a different thought. These are connected in that they show us the general theme that Allah (swt) is much Greater than His needing us to harm and torture ourselves. Actually, He doesn’t want those things from us at all. He wants us to elevate ourselves in our relationship with Him. Just as we don’t need to beat ourselves up for real tawbah, we also don’t need to harm ourselves in order to worship Him best this Ramadan. Let us push ourselves insha Allah, God willing, in a way that keeps us consistent in turning to Him and worshipping Him (swt).
5 Reasons not to Torture Ourselves!
1. Anas ibn Malik (ra) reports: “The Prophet ﷺ came one day into the mosque and found a rope stretched between two pillars. He asked what the rope was for. He was told that it was put up for Zainab, so that she would hold on to it during her prayer when she felt too tired. The Prophet said: ‘No. Take it off. Let everyone pray when they feel fresh and comfortable. When they feel tired, they should sit down.’” (Bukhari)
2. Narrated `A’isha (ra): The Prophet ﷺ used to say, “Do those deeds which you can do easily, as Allah will not get tired (of giving rewards) till you get bored and tired (of performing religious deeds).” The most beloved prayer to the Prophet was the one that was done regularly even if it were little. And whenever the Prophet offered a prayer he used to offer it regularly. (Bukhari)
3. Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr: Allah’s Messenger ﷺ was informed that I had taken an oath to fast daily and to pray all through the night throughout my life. I replied, “Let my parents be sacrificed for you! I said so.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “You cannot do that. So, fast for few days and give it up for few days, pray and sleep. Fast three days a month as the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times and that will be equal to one year of fasting.” I replied, “I can do better than that.” The Prophet ﷺ said to me, “Fast one day and give up fasting for a day and that is the fasting of Prophet David and that is the best fasting.” I said, “I have the power to fast better (more) than that.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “There is no better fasting than that.” (Bukhari)
4. Narrated Mujahid from ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr: The Prophet ﷺ said, “Fast three days a month.” ‘Abdullah said, “I am able to fast more than that.” They kept on arguing on this matter till the Prophet said, “Fast on alternate days, and recite the whole Qur’an once a month.” ‘Abdullah said, “I can recite more,” and the argument went on till the Prophet ﷺ said, “Recite the Qur’an once each three days.” (Bukhari)
5. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Make matters easy and do not make them difficult, give glad tidings and do not make people averse.” (Bukhari and Muslim)