When people turn to their Lord, seek His countenance, and try to rid themselves of their sinful habits, they do so knowing that Allah is most generous and forgiving. Allah loves the obedience of His servants, and He also loves the repentance of his disobedient servants.
In order to inspire people to repent to Allah, we need to give them hope in Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, not just make them realize and regret the wrong they have done.
Repentance means to turn to Allah with regret for your sins, and abandon them with a full resolve never to perpetrate them again. It also entails making amends whenever possible.
Allah encourages us many times in the Qur’an to repent. He says: “Seek the forgiveness of your Lord, and turn to Him in repentance; that He may grant you enjoyment, good (and true), for a term appointed, and bestow His abounding grace on all who abound in merit! But if you turn away, then I fear for you the punishment of a great day."” [Sūrah Hūd: 3]
He also says: “O My servants who have transgressed against their souls! Do not despair of Allah’s mercy, for Allah forgives all sins. He is Forgiving, Most Merciful. And turn unto your Lord repentant, and surrender unto Him, before there come unto you the punishment, when you cannot be helped. And follow the best of ways, revealed to you from your Lord, before the punishment comes on you all of a sudden and takes you unawares!” [Sūrah al-Zumar: 53-55]
Likewise, He says: “O you who believe! Turn to Allah in sincere repentance in the hope that your Lord will remove from you your sins and admit you to gardens beneath which rivers flow on the Day that Allah will not disgrace the Prophet and those who believed with him.” [Sūrah al-Tahrīm: 8]
Prophet Muhammad said: “Sometimes I perceive a veil over my heart, and ask Allah for forgiveness one hundred times a day.” [Sahīh Muslim (2702)]
The Prophet also said: “Allah extends His hand at night to give forgiveness to those who sinned during that day, and He extends His hand during the day to give forgiveness to those who sinned during the night. This will continue to be the case until the Sun rises from the west.” [Sahīh Muslim (2759)]
He also said: “Allah is happier with His servant who repents than the happiness one of you would feel if he was wandering in a barren wasteland to find his steed had wandered off with all his food and provisions. Then, after the heat and his thirst become severe, he falls asleep in the same place and wakes to find his steed standing before him, so that he grabs its reigns and says: “O Allah! I am your Lord and You are my servant”, mixing up his words on account of his extreme joy.” [Sahīh Muslim (2747)]
Repentance frees us from our failings and shortcomings. It is a means to achieve inner peace and contentment. Sometimes it is an obligation and sometimes it is recommended.
Obligatory repentance is to repent for committing sins or neglecting religious duties. The greatest sins are unbelief, polytheism and hypocrisy, but repentance is an obligation for all sins, including usury, disobedience to parents, backbiting, slander and theft. The worst kind of theft is to misappropriate public funds which are the possession of the populace as a whole. Then there are the sins of the heart, like rancour, envy and suspicion. Repentance is required from neglecting religious duties, like prayer, fasting, Zakāh, and Hajj.
Repentance is recommended after committing an act which is disliked in Islam or neglecting an act that is recommended. We can repent for missing the Witr prayer or for neglecting the Sunnah prayers associated with the five obligatory prayers. We can repent for neglecting the Qur’an and for failing to wake up late at night to engage in worship. Likewise, we can repent for perpetrating acts that Allah and His Messenger dislike for us, even though they are not forbidden.
We always need to turn to Allah in repentance. The Prophets and Messengers turned to Allah in repentance more than anyone else. One of them said: “Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we will surely be among the losers.” [Sūrah al-A`rāf: 23].
Another said: “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, so forgive me.” [Sūrah al-Qasas: 16]
Indeed, Allah gave Prophet Muhammad the following command: “Know that there is no god but Allah, and seek forgiveness for your sins.” [Sūrah Muhammad: 19]
Prophet Muhammad used to ask Allah for forgiveness all the time. He would sometimes do so a hundred times in one sitting, saying: “My Lord! Forgive me and pardon my sins. Indeed, You are the Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī (3434) and Sunan Abī Dāwūd (1516)]
The Prophet said: “I seek Allah’s forgiveness and turn to Him in repentance more than seventy times a day.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (6307)]
This was the practice of Allah’s Messengers. How much more do the rest of us need to repent, we whose lives are full of shortcomings, neglect, and sin? Certainly we have a greater need to repent.
Repentance has a long history. It started with Adam whom Satan beguiled into disobeying his Lord by telling him and his wife that he was their sincere adviser. They both fell into sin by eating the forbidden fruit. Afterwards, they repented and Allah forgave them.
One of the most well-known and interesting stories about repentance is about a man who had murdered ninety-nine people. Abū Sa`īd al-Khudri relates the following from the Prophet:
Among the people of old , there was a man who had murdered ninety-nine people. He then asked the people to guide him to the most knowledgeable person in the world. They told him to go see a certain monk. So the man went to the monk and told him that he had killed ninety-nine people. He then asked if it were possible for him to repent. The monk said “No,” so the man killed him as well, bringing the total to one hundred.
He again sought after the most knowledgeable person on Earth. He was directed to a scholar. told him that he had killed one hundred people and then asked if it were possible for him to repent.
The scholar replied: “Yes. What stands between you and repentance? You better go to such-and-such a land. There are people devoted to prayer and worship, and you should worship along with them. You should never return to your country, since it is an evil land for you.”
So he went off to find that land, and he had hardly covered half the distance when death overtook him. This brought on a dispute between the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment. The angels of mercy said: “This man has come penitent and remorseful to Allah.”
The angels of punishment said: “He has never done anything good at all.”.
Then another angel came in the form of a human being in order to decide between them. He said: “Measure the distance between where he fell and the land from which he departed, as well as the remaining distance to his destination. Find out which land he is nearest to. That is where he belongs. They measured both distances and found him to be nearer to his destination, so the angels of mercy took possession of him. [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (3470) and Sahīh Muslim (2766)]
Another wonderful story of repentance is the story of Kifl. The Prophet said:
Kifl was a man from the Children of Israel. He never restrained himself from committing any sin. Once he gave a woman sixty gold coins to let himself have his way with her. Then when he had seated himself in the position a man takes with his wife, she began to weep. He asked: “Why do you cry. Have I done something to make you feel detest?”
She said: “No, but this is something I have never done.”
He asked: “Then what is making you do it now?”
She replied: “I am in serious need of the money.”
So he stood up and left her, saying: “The sixty gold coins are yours.”
Then he said: “I swear by Allah, I will never sin against Allah again.”
He died before waking the next morning, and Allah had forgiven all his sins.
These stories clearly illustrate the conditions of sincere repentance, and Allah’s acceptance of it. If the sin was against the rights of Allah and involve no injustice against anyone else, the conditions of repentance are three:
1. To abstain from committing the sin.
2. To feel regret for committing it.
3. To have a firm resolve never to return to the sin again.
If the sin involved a wrong against another person, then there is an additional condition, which is to redress that wrong. If it involved money, the money should be repaid. If it involved false accusation, the falsehood should be cleared up. If redress is not possible, the person’s pardon should be sought.
Some sins exist on the societal level, like ignorance, backwardness, civil strife, prejudice, and the culture of bigotry. These are among the most serious of sins, and we should certainly repent for them.
We must repent for all of our sins. If we repent for some of them, our repentance is valid for those sins, but our other sins remain.