Just recently, I was asked about a topic known to all Muslims. However, in our daily lives, we tend to many times forget about this issue. In terms of practicality, we seem to forget how preposterously simple this act is and how we should really be doing it more often. Therefore, I decided to discuss it here in my article.
I was asked, “How does one exactly perform Tawbah (the Arabic word for “repentance”)?” Is it a very difficult and long process where one has to go to an Imam or Qaadi (judge) and ‘confess’ his sins, as is the case in some other religions? The answer is no. This is a matter between you and your Lord. This is obviously as long as the sin or evil deed you did does not involve another human being . In that case, a person would have to generally (though this is not always the case) go to that person & give him his right back. For example, if you stole or if you fought someone – you need to go back to that person and say that you’re sorry.
Normally however, Tawbah is something that is between you and Allah; your Creator, Sustainer, and Cherisher. And it’s something that we should really do often [not just in Ramadaan], because Allah says: إن الله يحب التوابين “Surely, Allah loves those people who constantly repent to Him (do Tawbah to Him).” [2:222] Notice Allah did not say: “Allah loves the Taa’ibeen (those who repent)”, but he said: تَوَّابِيْن, which means “those who constantly, over and over, repent to Allah.”
The Prophet actually ordered us to do Tawbah, when he said: يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاس! تُوبُوا إِلَى اللهِ وَاسْتَغْفِرُوهُ, فَإِنِّي أَتُوبُ فِي الْيَومِ مَائَةَ مَرَّة “O mankind! Do Tawbah (repent) to Allah and seek His forgiveness, for surely, I do so 100 times every single day.” (Saheeh Muslim). That is because this Tawbah is actually one of the purposes of our very creation as human beings. You see, it is part of our human nature that we sin and that we commit mistakes and errors. But this is so that we can return to Allah (do Tawbah) & seek His forgiveness. And really, this is what distinguishes some sinners from others because let’s face it – we’re all sinners. The only difference between us is our admission of committing the sin, the feeling that it was wrong, and the want to ask Allah for forgiveness. This point was clearly indicated by the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) in a hadeeth in Saheeh Muslim. Abu Hurayrah narrated that he (ص) said: وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِه “I swear by the One in whose hand is my soul! لَوْ لَمْ تُذْنِبُوا لَذَهَبَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى بِكُمْ, وَلَجَاءَ بِقَومٍ يُذْنِبُونَ, فَيَسْتَغْفِرُونَ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى فَيَغْفِرُ لَهُمْ If you did not commit sins, Allah would have surely gotten rid of all of you, and He would have surely brought another people who would commit sins – so that they would then seek Allah’s forgiveness (for their sins) & so He would forgive them.” So one of the purposes of our very existence, is so that we can constantly do Tawbah to Allah.
So, how do we repent to Allah? (Insha’ Allah, I plan on discussing the response to this question in 2 articles. So I’ll do half now, half later.) [UPDATE: 2nd half is up]
A person can ask Allah to forgive him for his sins (or a sin), in general, by simply doing Istighfaar. Istighfaar – is linguistically, “seeking forgiveness”. i.e. from Allah. So it is asking Allah to forgive you. And practically, it is: “by sincerely saying the phrase Astaghfirullaah (I seek Allah’s forgiveness)”. أَسْتَغْفِرُ اللَّه This Istighfaar can (and should) be done at any time, whether it be in your Salaah, outside your Salaah, while resting, while lying down, while walking, while talking, while on the phone, while driving, while working, while eating, while playing/exercising, while waiting in line, while shopping, while sitting in the Masjid, etc. Just recall your sin and say this simple phrase, sincerely from your heart.
One of our teachers who studied with Shaykh Ibn Baaz (رحمه الله تعالى), said that he noticed something amazing about Ibn Baaz. It was that whenever he gave a lecture or had a class he noticed that Shaykh Ibn Baaz’s lips never stopped moving while in the Q&A session; he was doing Istighfaar even in the breaks between his talk! And look at how simple it is, and yet so many people are neglectful of it, and waste their time in gossiping and chatting and so on. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (though Allah had already forgiven all of his sins, as stated in Surah al-Fath verse 2 and elsewhere) — he used to do this Istighfaar at least 100 times every day. Subhaanallaah! Look at the example he was setting for his followers. And then, look at how serious his followers took this matter. It has been narrated that one of the Companions of the Prophet, a famous narrator of hadeeth known to us all – Abu Hurayrah – used to do this Istighfaar 12,000 times every day. Can you imagine that?! He would find the time, throughout the day, to say أستغفر الله (I seek Allah’s forgiveness) 12,000 times daily!!
Now, apart from Istighfaar…. which is “general”, there is a more specific way of seeking Allah’s forgiveness, called: Tawbah [translated as, Repentance, but from a literal perspective it means, "returning back" i.e. to Allah (جل وعلى).]
Now Tawbah can be done from any sin one may have done. Whether it is a major sin or a minor sin. But usually, Tawbah is done for the major sins because the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) told us that when we pray the 5 Prayers, fast Ramadan, attend the Friday (Jumu’ah) Prayer, all of our minor sins are forgiven through them. Just by doing these simple acts, our sins are being forgiven… SubhanAllah. Another example is that at the end of every Salaah, when you sit for those few moments & remember Allah and say the phrase Subhaanallaah (High is Allah above every imperfection & need; He is pure and perfect) 33 times, and al-Hamdulillaah (All praise be to Allah), and Allaahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest) 33 times ~ and complete the hundred by saying, لا إله إلا الله وحده لا شريك له, له الملك, وله الحمد وهو على كل شيء قدير (the Prophet said; and this hadeeth is in Saheeh Muslim from Abu Hurayrah) “All of the persons sins will be forgiven, even if they are as abundant as the foam of the sea!”
But now, for Al-Kabaa`ir (the Major Sins)…. a person is obligated to do “Tawbah” for them to be forgiven.
As an FYI, major sins are any sin that Allah/the Messenger has said that whoever does it, will be “punished”, or enter Hell, or receive the Anger or Curse of Allah, or other terms the Prophet may have used like “he is not one of us”, or “he is cursed”, or “I have nothing to do with someone who”, or a sin for which there’s a prescribed worldly punishment. Examples include lying, cheating, stealing, cursing parents, intentionally missing one of the 5 prayers, Zina, riba (usury/interest), intetionally listening music, drinking khamr, murder, practicing magic, practicing “religious innovations”, gambling, oppression, pride/arrogance, using foul speech, cursing, backbiting, spying, intentionally disobeying a command of the Prophet, and so on. But again, the rule of thumb for you to know is ~ if you find that Allah mentions that sin (or the Prophet mentions that sin) along with a punishment, or a curse, or the Wrath of Allah, or Hell, and so on.] So for the major sins, in particular, one is obligated to do Tawbah from them.
However, it should be noted that Shaykh al-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah (رحمه الله تعالى) had a unique view on this, but most scholars do not hold this view – he said that Istighfaar may be done with or without Repentance (Tawbah). And he argued that in either case the “asking of forgiveness” may be accepted by Allah and the person may be forgiven for his deed & not punished in the Hereafter (even though he did not perform the complete Repentance). But Allah knows best. For the major sins, the correct view seems to be that the person cannot just say: ”O Allah, forgive me”, and leave. But he must also do the sincere repentance. And this was stated by Ibn `Uthaymeen (رحمه الله). Wallaahu A`lam.
How To Perform Repentance Part 2.