All through their lives, certain people pursue a flawless image for themselves. Their efforts center around one goal: to be perfect and to look perfect. This is a natural consequence of finding it degrading to make a mistake. The ideal person, they consider, is one who can project an aura of impeccability.
However, this “flawlessness” is an illusionary goal. Neither is it one of the attributes of a believer we find extolled in the Qur’an. We would go so far as to say that such a “believer model” does not exist. For man is inherently weak, humble, and helpless before Allah and can consequently make mistakes all throughout his life. No doubt, he will always do his best to avoid mistakes and sins, yet, being a frail servant of Allah, he will not be successful in being free of all mistakes. In the Qur’an we are informed that man has faults and sins before Allah:
[If Allah were to punish men according to what they deserve, He would not leave on the surface of the earth one single living creature: but He gives them respite for a stated term.] (Fatir 35:45)
Accordingly, the attitude expected of a believer is not that of being faultless or sinless. He is only expected to constantly seek forgiveness from Allah.
This is actually an attribute which makes the distinction between a believer and non-believer: Unbelievers struggle to cover up their faults and sins. Yet a believer never tries to do this. What is important for him is to feel an inner regret and consequently turn to Allah and seek His forgiveness.
While reading the Qur’an, we see that the willingness to ask for forgiveness is a natural and unfailing attribute of the believers. On that account, we understand that believers never see themselves as beings purified of all sins and faults. On the contrary, they continually seek refuge in Allah’s mercy.
The distinction between and inter-relatedness of the concepts of repentance and forgiveness should be carefully considered. Asking for forgiveness of Allah is a regular aspect of worship for believers. Man can ask forgiveness of Allah all day long for all his sins, whether deliberately or unintentionally committed. Moreover, as well as asking for forgiveness for oneself, one can also do it for other believers, as stated in the Qur’an.
Repentance, on the other hand, is seeking refuge in Allah for one’s sin, promising not to commit that sin again and, to this end asking the guidance and help of Allah. The exact meaning of repentance is “to turn back.” Thus, repentance expresses an absolute commitment not to commit any particular sin again.
The intention behind repentance is not to repeat the same sin. Allah enjoins the faithful thus:
[O you who believe! Turn to Allah with sincere repentance, in the hope that your Lord will remit your evil deeds and admit you to Gardens beneath which Rivers flow.] (At-Tahrim 66:8)
However, this is not to say that a believer repents for a sin or fault only once. He may repent on one occasion, and then, in a moment of weakness, repeat the same sin. However, the mercy of Allah never ceases to encompass him. This is why he can still repent to Allah and seek refuge in Him. Allah is always ready to show grace and mercy to the believers. This is stated in the Qur’an as
[O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Do not despair of the Mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Turn to your Lord (in repentance) and bow to His Will, before the Penalty comes upon you: after that you shall not be helped.] (Az-Zumar 39:53–54)
Still, there is one kind of repentance Allah will not accept: the insincere repentance offered when death comes to a man. This is actually the moment a man meets the angels of death. Of this the Qur’an says
[Allah accepts the repentance of those who do evil in ignorance and repent soon afterwards; to them Allah will turn in mercy: for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. Of no avail is the repentance of those who continue to do evil, until death faces one of them, and he says, “Now have I repented indeed” nor of those who die rejecting Faith: for them We have prepared a painful chastisement.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:17 –18)
In the Qur’an Allah gives the striking example of such an act of repentance made at the last moment. Pharaoh, who chased Moses and the believers in order to kill them, ended by expressing his repentance while he drowned in the sea, a miracle wrought by Allah.
[When the (fate of) drowning overtook him, he said: I believe that there is no god except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit (to Allah in Islam).] (Yunus 10:90)
However Allah’s response to him was as follows:
[Ah now! But a little while before, you were in rebellion! and you perpetrated mischief (and violence!)] (Yunus 10:91)
Since repentance is essential to the eternal salvation of man, one should well be aware of its importance and observe this form of worship to the best of one’s ability. One may have sinned extensively or have rebelled against one’s Creator. Yet, Allah encompasses His servants with so much mercy that He grants eternal salvation in response to a sincere repentance:
[When those who believe in Our signs, come to you say: Peace be upon you: Your Lord has decreed for Himself (the rule of) mercy: truly, if any of you committed evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented, and mended his ways, (he would find) Allah Oft-forgiving and Most Merciful.] (Al-An`am 6:54)
Keep in mind that Allah even forgives unbelievers and hypocrites who fought against Him and His Messenger, if they turn back to Allah with sincere and true repentance:
[The Hypocrites shall be cast into the lowest depths of the Fire: no helper will you find for them; But those who repent, mend their ways, hold fast to Allah, and are sincere in their devotion to Him—they shall be numbered with the believers. And soon Allah will grant to the believers a reward of immense value.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:145–146)
[Those who conceal the clear signs We have sent down, and the guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book—on them shall be Allah’s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse, except those who repent and make amends and openly declare the Truth. Toward them I shall relent; for I am the Relenting one and Most Merciful.] (Al-Baqarah 2:159-160)
This is a great opportunity Allah grants to His servants. He commands man never to be overwhelmed by despair due to any sin he has committed and always to turn to Him in hope. However, misinterpretation of this concept and an insincere attitude do not earn a man divine approval. Knowing the commandments of Allah, yet deliberately committing sins, saying “no matter what happens I will be forgiven,” shows completely flawed reasoning. Such are the people who [reject faith after they accepted it, and then go on adding to their defiance of faith] (Aal `Imran 3:90). The repentance of an insincere person who simply takes repentance as the freedom to commit sins is, however, rejected.
It is hardly necessary to say that heartfelt regret and sincerity are the keys to divine forgiveness. The Qur’anic injunction [Call on your Lord with humility and in private] (Al-A`raf 7:55) also applies when showing contrition asking for forgiveness. While repenting for serious errors especially, deep regret and a sincere attitude are essential.
Asking forgiveness of Allah and repenting one’s sins serve as pure expressions of being a sincere servant to Allah. The believer should be well aware that he may commit sins, but that he should take refuge in the mercy and grace of Allah.
Harun Yahya was born in Ankara in 1956. He studied arts at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan University, and philosophy at Istanbul University. Since the 1980s, he has published many books on political, faith-related, and scientific issues.