Today, we invite the Jamat to explore the notion of tawba. The term tawba is widely understood as repentance and viewed as a solitary act of repentance and seeking forgiveness. However, a more accurate translation of tawba is “turning back.” It is, in fact, a lasting feature of the soul’s return to Allah and its turning away from everything other than Him.
We often think of ourselves as the initiators of tawba; that is, we commit a mistake and then decide to seek Allah’s forgiveness for it. In the Qur’an, however, Allah appears as the first mover who instills the desire of repentance in us. In Surah At-Tawbah, Ayah 118, Allah says: “(it was then that) Allah turned towards them in pardon that they might turn to Him. It is Allah Who is All-Pardoning, Compassionate to each.”
What we see in this verse is that when we go astray, Allah turns towards us and calls on us to return toward Him. The desire to seek forgiveness, thus is a blessing in itself. In our daily prayers, we ask Allah to guide us to the right path—Sirat al-Mustaqim. The task for us then is to polish our hearts in such a way that we become attentive to Allah’s call.
Let us observe a prayer of Prophet Muhammad, in which he polishes his own heart.
“And I ask You, O Lord, for an untainted heart and a truthful tongue, and I seek forgiveness for what You know (of my faults), and I ask You for the best of what You know (to be good for me); and I seek refuge with You from the evil of what You know, for surely You know and we do not know, and You are the Knower of the unseen.” 1
Through the Prophet’s prayer, we are able to see clearly the intention which he holds as he repents to God, as well as the guidance that he asks for. Simultaneously, “accompanying these outward acts [of prayer] is the inner life of the individual.” 2 The inner intention and reflection of repentance can encourage a believer's commitment and conviction towards ethical action.
Ibn Arabi, a Sufi mystic and philosopher, has identified three conditions for tawba. The first is that of remorse; the second, an immediate abandonment of the sinful action; and the third, a firm resolve to never repeat similar acts of disobedience. If we are sincere in our return toward Allah, Allah will even replace our transgressions with His kindness. As Allah says in Surah Furqan, Ayah 70:
“Save for those who repent and believe and perform righteous deeds For them, God will replace their evil deeds with good deeds, and God is Forgiving, Merciful.”
As human beings, we often find ourselves in such situations where we rely on Allah to forgive us in His mercy. But the relation of tawba is not just between us and our Creator; there are times when we wrong our fellow brothers and sisters or feel that we were wronged by them. It is important in those moments to not only practice tawba, but also learn to forgive. In Surah an- Nur, Ayah 22, Allah says: “Let them pardon and forebear. Do you not desire that God forgive you? And God is Forgiving, Merciful?”
Tawba is thus both an action and a phenomenon; it is action when we repent for a transgression; but it is a phenomenon because it entails a constant spiritual intelligence and constant intention that must be maintained throughout one’s life. One must always, at every station of life, try to turn away from that which Allah dislikes and rather turn toward Allah.