Repentance (Arabic: التوبة) is a concept which means "returning of the servant to God." This issue has been discussed in some different fields of religious sciences. In jurisprudence, the ruling about repentance and its religious manners have been discussed and in theology, issues related with intellectual goodness and badness and their relation with repentance and the necessity of its acceptance by God. Upon discussing repentance, Islamic mysticism and ethics discuss issues such as types regarding mysticism and ethics and its role in mystical and ethical growth of travelers toward God.
The word "tawba" means "to return". This word, in the Qur'an, either is used for man or God in each one is used with specific preposition. When it is used for man e.g. تاب الی الله (with the preposition "ila"), it means man's return form sin toward Allah. When it is used for God e.g. تاب الله عليه (with the preposition "'ala"), it means Divine mercy and acceptance of repenting of His people.
Tawba and its cognates are mentioned 78 times in Qur'an. The 9th sura of the Qur'an is named "Tawba".
It should be noted that it is not necessary that repentance follows sins; but, also the Glorious Qur'an says that God accepted the repentance of the Prophet (s), the Immigrants and the Helpers who followed him, without mentioning any sins.[Note 1] Therefore, sometimes repentance follows sins and sometimes this return of God means a mercy of God upon someone.
Truth of Repentance
The conclusion made out of reviewing the functions of repentance in the Qur'an is that the Qur'anic repentance refers to a connection between human being and God in which God grants a virtue and superiority to human being and puts him on the approved path to happiness and observation of which is an attribute of the servants who seek purity and God loves them.
Acceptance of repentance is a privilege for those who do a bad deed out of ignorance, and have repented as soon as gaining awareness.[Note 2] But those who do mischief until the moment of their death and want to repent the moment their death comes, cannot have their repentance accepted.[Note 3] Yet despair of the mercy of Allah is not allowed, and a faithful person should always have hope for being forgiven.[Note 4]
- Main article: Nasuh Repentance
In a verse from the Qur'an, people are called to turn to God a "naṣūḥ" (Arabic: نصوح) repentance.[Note 5] According to the Semitic root of the word naṣūḥ and the context of the verse, this word can either be derived from the root of "nasah-a" meaning "pure" or meaning "stable and permanent". A naṣūḥ repentance is kind of repentance that has a pure intention or is stable and is not broken and the second meaning is more common. Therefore, A naṣūḥ repentance is thought to be a repentance when the repenter intends to be stable in his repentance.
In Islamic Jurisprudence
In Islamic sects' sources in jurisprudence, the necessity of repenting from sins has always been stressed and its performance has been considered immediate.
Some scholars in jurisprudence have mentioned certain manners for repentance; e.g. some of them have mentioned ghusl or prayer of repentance recommended ghusl and prayer. Ghusl for repentance has also been mentioned in Twelver Shi'a sources and the prayer of repentance has been mentioned in all Islamic sects' sources in jurisprudence.
Scholars in jurisprudence have mentioned that whenever repentance from mischief is made with all its conditions, divine punishment will be removed from the repenter and he will also be admired and rewarded.
Repentance has two aspects, its truth and its appearance. In the truth of repentance, it will be questioned how a sinner's repentance is accepted by God, but in its appearance, the way the repenter should be dealt with by others is discussed.
The opinions of the scholars in jurisprudence regarding the reality of repentance differ in both above aspects. When discussing the truth of repentance which is about the change in the conditions of the person in the hereafter, scholars in jurisprudence have left it to the judgment in the hereafter and have remained silent about how God accepts a repentance. Even in some cases of apostasy when repentance of the person is useless and the person is judged as apostate, some have mentioned that this does not mean that if the person repents, his repentance will not be accepted by God.
Repenting from Sins with Associated Rights
In cases when repentance has a result regarding the rights of people, including the rights of family, financial rights or rulings about acts of worship, most scholars in jurisprudence believe that as soon as the person expresses repentance, it is considered as repentance and accepting it by others does not require anything else; unless when accomplishing the right associated with the repentance requires a kind of trust on the person and thus, it should be gained through other ways.
Repenting from Sins Having Legal Punishments
In cases when a person's sin entails punishments, as soon as the person expresses repentance, his repentance is accepted. In such cases, after expression of repentance, there is no need to investigate if the person's repentance has been real or false and pretentious. Therefore, even if it is found that a person insists on doing a great sin, his expression of repentance is sufficient for canceling punishment about him.
In sexual crimes which entail fixed punishments, if the criminal repents before the judge before the witnesses attest in front of the judge, punishment will not be applied to him, but if he repents after testimony, the judge will be free to give punishment or forgive the person considering the interest of Muslims, but if the criminal does not repent, he should be punished.
Repentance about the Cases Associated with the Rights of People
Some scholars of jurisprudence have said that repentance about the cases associated with the rights of people can only be accepted when the rights of those whose rights have been violated are restored or their forgiveness is secured. Some scholars have categorized oppressions which cause owing the rights of people to two groups:
- The first group which involve financial affairs and repentance for the crimes associated with them includes returning the same property or something similar to it to the owner or his heirs or securing their forgiveness.
- The second group includes non-financial oppressions. In this group, if the crime is such as cursing or defaming the honor of people, the oppressor needs to make recompense about what he has attributed people with. If the crime is such as murder, or physical damages to people, retribution needs to be made about the criminal or the forgiveness of the owner of the rights is obtained.
Repentance in theology means to be regretful about the mistake and sin one has made and is considered among cases which cancels divine punishment. Scholars in theology have discussed this issue together with other ways of forgiveness from sins such as intercession.
Most important issues discussed by scholars in theology have been the required conditions, necessity and acceptance of repentance by God.
- Regret from sin: accomplishment of repentance requires certain conditions, the most important one of which is being regretful about committing sin. Based on a hadith from the Prophet (s), some scholars of theology have considered repentance as regret. But most scholars of theology have considered repentance, a kind of regret which is made in the person who has committed a sin due to the evil and ugliness of the sin.
- To have a serious intention about abandoning the sin: Another condition for accomplishment of repentance is determination on abandoning the sin or the bad action.
Another issue mentioned about repentance in theology references is the necessity of repentance. There is no disagreement among different theology schools on the necessity of repentance, and the only disagreement is on this issue that this necessity is either due to reasons based on narrations or rational reasons.
Acceptance by God
Another issue discussed by scholars of theology is that if acceptance of repentance by God is necessary after a servant makes a repentance correctly.
- Mu'tazilis of Basra have considered it necessary for God to accept a correct repentance. They regarded it ugly and bad for God if He does not forgive a person who correctly repents and punishes him; and thus God's justice requires that God accepts the correct repentance of the sinner.
- Imamiyya, Mu'tazilis of Baghdad and other schools of theology such as Murji'a and Asharites regarded acceptance of repentance and also not punishing the repenter due to God's mercy and grace.
One Repentance or Repenting for Every Sin
Another issue discussed by some scholars of theology is if a person who has committed some sins needs to repent for each of his sins separately or one repentance for all his sins would be sufficient. Most of scholars of theology believe that one repentance is sufficient for all sins of a person.
Several verses in the Qur'an which have called believers to make repentance have always been the source of different discussions about explaining repentance and its levels before Sufism. From mystics' extensive definitions of repentance, it can be learned that it has been very important to them.
Defining based on elements: Most Sufis regarded repentance as the first station in the stations of the spiritual journey and by following Imam Ali (a), considered it as having regret about sins, determination for returning to God, abandoning oppression and paying people's rights which have been trampled. Definition based on the topic: Some mystics have defined repentance based on its nature and structure; such as this definition that introduces repentance as return from sins and return to God.
Some definitions are based on the goals of repentance; such as the definition which considers repentance as removing all the effects of sin in human's actions.
Knowledge of the Sins
The issue of repentance in Sufi texts follows the topic of sins, thus it somehow includes the topic of sins as well.
Accordingly, every person has his own sins and repentance and it would be possible that an action which is considered a sin for a person, is a good action for another. Therefore, based on the opinion of Dhu al-Nun Misri, lay people should repent from their own sins and scholars and special people should repent from their negligence. He also added the repentance of the friends of God to these two levels, which is repenting from seeing and paying attention to their own good deeds; because, he believed that good deeds are blessings and grace of God and they should not consider them an outcome of their own personal efforts.
Repentance of the Limbs of the Body
In the mystical view, every limb of the body needs repentance. For example, repentance of the tongue is to say and repeat requests of forgiveness before God which is very important to Sufis, required for regretting from sins. However, it is evident that the highest level of repentance is for the worst sins and to Sufis, no sin is higher than the existence of the traveler toward God and seeing it beside the existence of God. Therefore, highest and greatest repentance is that the existence of the repenter would annihilate in the Essence of God, so that no sin remains. This is the final level of repentance.
The Prophet (s) says, "the signs of a person who has truly repented are four: sincere action for God, leaving the wrong, following the truth and being greedy for doing the good."
Imam al-Baqir (a) replied to the person who asked about covering for the sins of the repenter by God, the Almighty, "He will remove any sin the two angels appointed to him from their mind and gives inspiration to limbs of his body to cover his sins, and inspires the part of the earth, where he has made sins, 'forget those sins made upon you!' Then, he meets God in such a state that he does not have any sins and no one can attest against him."
Imam al-Sadiq (a) said, "repentance is the rope of God, the Almighty and asking His help, attracting His blessings and grace; and the servant always and at any state is repentant. Every group has a special repentance; repentance of divine prophets (a) is because of disturbing the soul and the state of confidence. Repentance of the friends of God is for the colorful attributes of their imaginations and memories and the repentance of special people and servants is for their occupation with other than God; and the repentance of lay people is for their sins and wrongdoings."
- لَقَد تابَ اللَّهُ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ وَالمُهاجِرينَ وَالأَنصارِ الَّذينَ اتَّبَعوهُ في ساعَةِ العُسرَةِ مِن بَعدِ ما كادَ يَزيغُ قُلوبُ فَريقٍ مِنهُم ثُمَّ تابَ عَلَيهِم إِنَّهُ بِهِم رَءوفٌ رَحيمٌ: Certainly Allah turned clemently to the Prophet and the Emigrants and the Helpers, who followed him in the hour of difficulty, after the hearts of a part of them were about to swerve. Then He turned clemently to them —indeed He is most kind and merciful to them. (Qur'an 9:117)
- إِنَّمَا التَّوبَةُ عَلَى اللَّهِ لِلَّذينَ يَعمَلونَ السّوءَ بِجَهالَةٍ ثُمَّ يَتوبونَ مِن قَريبٍ فَأُولٰئِكَ يَتوبُ اللَّهُ عَلَيهِم وَكانَ اللَّهُ عَليمًا حَكيمًا: [Acceptance of] repentance by Allah is only for those who commit evil out of ignorance, then repent promptly. It is such whose repentance Allah will accept, and Allah is all-knowing, all-wise. (Qur'an 4:17)
- وَلَيسَتِ التَّوبَةُ لِلَّذينَ يَعمَلونَ السَّيِّئَاتِ حَتّىٰ إِذا حَضَرَ أَحَدَهُمُ المَوتُ قالَ إِنّي تُبتُ الآنَ وَلَا الَّذينَ يَموتونَ وَهُم كُفّارٌ أُولٰئِكَ أَعتَدنا لَهُم عَذابًا أَليمًا: But [acceptance of] repentance is not for those who go on committing misdeeds: when death approaches any of them, he says, 'I repent now.' Nor is it for those who die while they are faithless. For such We have prepared a painful punishment. (Qur'an 4:18)
- قُل يا عِبادِيَ الَّذينَ أَسرَفوا عَلىٰ أَنفُسِهِم لا تَقنَطوا مِن رَحمَةِ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغفِرُ الذُّنوبَ جَميعًا إِنَّهُ هُوَ الغَفورُ الرَّحيمُ: Say [that Allah declares,] 'O My servants who have committed excesses against their own souls, do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed Allah will forgive all sins. Indeed He is the All-forgiving, the All-merciful. (Qur'an 39:53)
- يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا توبوا إِلَى اللَّهِ تَوبَةً نَصوحًا عَسىٰ رَبُّكُم أَن يُكَفِّرَ عَنكُم سَيِّئَاتِكُم وَيُدخِلَكُم جَنّاتٍ تَجري مِن تَحتِهَا الأَنهارُ يَومَ لا يُخزِي اللَّهُ النَّبِيَّ وَالَّذينَ آمَنوا مَعَهُ نورُهُم يَسعىٰ بَينَ أَيديهِم وَبِأَيمانِهِم يَقولونَ رَبَّنا أَتمِم لَنا نورَنا وَاغفِر لَنا إِنَّكَ عَلىٰ كُلِّ شَيءٍ قَديرٌ: O you who have faith! Repent to Allah with sincere repentance! Maybe your Lord will absolve you of your misdeeds and admit you into gardens with streams running in them, on the day when Allah will not let the Prophet down and the faithful who are with him. Their light will move swiftly before them and on their right. They will say, 'Our Lord! Perfect our light for us, and forgive us! Indeed You have power over all things.' (Qur'an 66:8)
- The material for this article is mainly taken from توبه in Farsi WikiShia.