While the general notion of repentance may be familiar to most, the Islamic concept of repentance is far less familiar and is often the subject of misconceptions and doubt. Repentance plays a central role in Islam and is comprehensive in nature. Deeply rooted within the belief system, it manifests in multiple dimensions—as the core of Islamic theology (aqeedah), as a subject of jurisprudence or rulings (fiqh), and ultimately in practice as an act of worship (‘ibadah). Equally important are the spiritual and self-purification (tazkiyah) aspects of repentance which reside in the heart. This paper specifically addresses how to repent, with a focus on two key dimensions of repentance (tawba)—the spiritual and the practical. It describes the necessary steps to tawba, its many benefits, and a number of commonly faced obstacles. The paper discusses the symbiotic relationship between the spiritual and practical components. It further emphasizes the holistic nature and distinct features of tawba as a source of optimism for every sinner and believer alike, and as a way of life, necessary for success in this world and in the Hereafter.
Tawba is initiated within the heart
What was it about the tawba of the man who the Prophet ﷺ informed us had murdered ninety-nine people (and eventually one more) that enabled him to obtain forgiveness? No doubt it was the manner in which it was sought. The answer may at first seem apparent in his having traveled in search of pious company on his quest for personal reform—but even more importantly, it lies in his having reached within his heart the spiritual stations of sincerity, remorse, and a firm resolve to repent. In Islam, the heart plays a crucial role far beyond its physiological function; the sacred text refers to it as the very control center of the human psyche and behavior. Hence, the heart is the gauge of one’s spiritual well-being from which one can ascertain and treat moral deficiencies or spiritual diseases pertaining to one’s true motives, desires, and doubts. These include a number of negative emotions such as arrogance and anger which, when left unchecked, have the capacity to adversely influence one’s actions. The Prophet ﷺ described the profound effects of sinning and repentance on the heart thus:
Verily, when the slave (of Allah) commits a sin, a black spot appears on his heart. When he refrains from it, seeks forgiveness and repents, his heart is polished clean. But if he returns, it increases until it covers his entire heart. And that is the ‘Ran’ [rust] which Allah mentioned: ‘Nay, but on their hearts is the Ran [rust] which they used to earn.’”
The corroded heart is further described in the Qur’an as the heart of one who is spiritually blind and this heart eventually may become lifeless with no hope of return to Allah. This deterioration is diagnosed as a spiritually “diseased” heart—its disease stemming from insincerity, arrogance, and hypocrisy among other human vices that lead one to sin, eventually becoming a slippery slope toward disbelief and damnation of the one who does not repent.
Renowned scholar Ibn Al-Qayyim (d. 1350 CE) recounts the many dangers of sinning. Among them is that the sinner becomes distanced from Allah, his heart then experiencing anxiety and sorrow, until eventually his sins lead him deeper into spiritual demise. Sinning can become the basis of losing one’s honor, wealth, and blessings. Not countering the dire effects of sin with tawba consequently leads the sinner to waste time. In doing so, denial of God and truth eventually takes root and leads to one being deprived of the very knowledge and consciousness needed to successfully return to Allah. Ibn Al-Qayyim’s assessment resonates to this day in the increasing secular discourse expressing doubts about God and religion.
And be not like those who forgot Allah, so He made them forget themselves. Those are the defiantly disobedient.
In their hearts is disease, so Allah has increased their disease; and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie.