Islamic Concepts and Beliefs

Repentance and Seeking Forgiveness

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Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Promised Messiah & Imam Mahdi

The Promised Messiah (as) wrote over 80 books in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian. Excerpts of his collected works have been translated into English and organised by topic. The Review of Religions is pleased to present these excerpts as part of a monthly feature. Here the Promised Messiah (as) discusses the need, conditions and result of repentance and seeking forgiveness from God Almighty. 

Extracts from The Essence of Islam – Vol. II. pp. 235-248

It is obvious that man is very weak by nature and has been charged with hundreds of divine commandments. On account of his weakness, he falls short in carrying out some divine commandments, and sometimes he is overcome by the desires of the self that incite to evil. On account of his weak nature, he deserves that at the time of any slipping, if he should repent and seek forgiveness, God’s mercy should save him from being ruined. It is a certainty that if God had not been the Acceptor of repentance, man would not have been charged with these hundreds of commandments. This proves conclusively that God turns towards man with mercy and is Most Forgiving.

Meaning of Taubah (Repentance)

Taubah (repentance) means that a person should discard a vice with the resolve that thereafter, even if he is thrown into the fire, he would not commit that vice. When man turns towards God Almighty with such sincerity and firm resolve, then God, who is Benevolent and Merciful, forgives him that particular sin. It is one of the high divine attributes that God accepts repentance and saves a sinner from ruin. If man had not the hope of his repentance being accepted, he would not be able to refrain from sinning. The Christians also believe in repentance, but on condition that the person who repents should be a Christian. Islam lays down no condition for repentance. The repentance of the followers of every faith can be accepted leaving out only the sin of denying the Book of God and His Messenger. It is impossible that a person should attain salvation only through his conduct. It is the benevolence of God that He accepts the repentance of some and bestows by His grace such powers on others that they are safeguarded against sinning.

—Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 189-190

To reject repentance and forgiveness is to shut the door of human progress. It is obvious to everyone that man is not perfect in himself, but in fact, he stands in need of perfection. As after his birth he gradually widens his knowledge and is not born learned and well-informed, in the same way, when after his birth he begins to be sensible of his surroundings, his moral condition is at a very low ebb. Observation of the condition of small children would show that most children are inclined to beat others on the slightest provocation and many of them are given to telling lies and using foul language with other children. Some steal and tell tales and are envious and miserly. When they grow up, they fall into the grip of the self that incites to vice and are guilty of diverse types of evil and wickedness.

Thus for most people, the first stage of life is impure, but when a fortunate person emerges from the fierce flood of youth, he turns towards God and withdraws from undesirable activities through sincere repentance and occupies himself with purifying the garment of his nature. These are stages of human life which a person has commonly to traverse. This shows that, were it true that repentance is not accepted, it would mean that God does not desire to bestow salvation on anyone.

—Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 192-193

Repentance Washes out the Stains of Sin

Though God Almighty has announced that the seed of the unity of God is present in every soul, He has also expounded that that seed is not in equal strength in everyone and that the natures of some are overcome to such a degree by their passions that the light almost disappears. It is obvious, therefore, that the innateness of animal or aggressive faculties is not inconsistent with the innateness of belief in One God. However much a person may be given to following his desires, and however much he might yield to his evil-directing self, he possesses to some degree a natural light. For instance, if under the impact of passion or anger, a person commits theft, murder, or adultery then though this act of his is a demand of his nature, the light of well-doing which is invested in his nature rebukes him at the very time when he indulges in any of these improper activities. Allah the Exalted refers to it in the verse:

فَأَلۡهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقۡوَىٰهَا [1]

This means that God bestows a type of revelation upon every person which is called the light of the heart and which is the faculty of distinguishing between good and evil.

For example, when a thief commits theft, or a murderer commits murder, God puts it in his heart at the same time that he has done ill and not good, but he pays no attention to it for the light of his heart and his reason are weak and are overcome by his animal faculties and his ego is insistent…The turmoil of the ego of such people cannot be reduced, for that which God has imposed cannot be removed by anyone else; yet God has provided a remedy.

What is that remedy? It is repentance, seeking forgiveness and remorse. This means that if they do evil in conformity with the demands of their ego, or an evil thought arises in their minds and they seek a remedy through repentance and seeking forgiveness, God forgives them. If they stumble repeatedly and are remorseful each time and repent, the remorse and repentance wash out the stain of their sin. This is the true atonement which is the remedy of a natural sin. Allah the Exalted refers to it in the verse:

وَمَن يَعۡمَلۡ سُوٓءًا أَوۡ يَظۡلِمۡ نَفۡسَهُۥ ثُمَّ يَسۡتَغۡفِرِ ٱللَّهَ يَجِدِ ٱللَّهَ غَفُورٗا رَّحِيمًَا [2]

Whoso does some evil or wrongs his soul in any way, and then asks forgiveness of Allah with remorse, will find Allah Most Forgiving, Ever Merciful.

This verse which is so profound and full of wisdom means that as stumbling and sinning are the characteristics of defective souls, which are manifested by them, there are corresponding to them the eternal attributes of God which are mercy and forgiveness and He is inherently Forgiving and Merciful. His forgiveness is not casual but is His eternal attribute which He loves and which He desires to exercise on deserving people.

Whenever a person turns to God in remorse and repentance at the time of stumbling or sinning, he becomes deserving that God should turn to him with mercy and forgiveness. This is not limited to once or twice, but it is the eternal attribute of God Almighty that He turns towards a remorseful and repentant servant whenever the latter turns to Him. Thus it is not God’s natural law that a weak person should not stumble or that the nature of those who are overcome by their animal faculties should be changed, but His eternal law is that those who commit sin should be forgiven through repentance and seeking forgiveness.

—Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 1, pp. 185-I87, footnote 11

Man Turns to God With Remorse and God Turns to Man With Mercy

In Arabic idiom, taubah (repentance) means ‘returning’, and that is why in the Holy Qur’an God’s name is also Tawwab, that is to say, He Who is Oft-Returning. This means that when a person discarding sin turns to God with a sincere heart, God Almighty turns even more to him. This is altogether in accord with the law of nature. God Almighty has made it part of human nature that when a person turns to another with a sincere heart, the latter’s heart is also softened for him. Then how can reason accept that when a servant turns towards God Almighty with a true heart God should not turn to him? Indeed God, Who is Benevolent and Merciful, turns even more towards His servant. That is why in the Holy Qur’an, God’s name, as we have just mentioned, is also Tawwab, meaning Oft-Returning.

Man’s turning to God is through remorse and humility and meekness, and God’s turning to man is with mercy and forgiveness. If mercy were not one of the attributes of God Almighty, no one would be delivered. It is a pity that people do not ponder over the attributes of God Almighty and depend entirely upon their own actions.

But can it be the attitude of God, Who without any action proceeding from man, has created thousands of bounties for him upon the earth, that, when weak man, being warned of his heedlessness should turn to Him, a turning which is like death and should put off his old garment and should be consumed in the fire of His love, God should not turn to him with mercy? Is this the law of nature?

لَعْنَةُ اللهِ عَلَى الْكَاذِبِيْنَ [3]

—Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 133-134

Three Conditions for Repentance

It should be borne in mind that there are three conditions for repentance, without fulfilment of which true repentance is not achieved.

The first condition is to get rid of wicked fancies which arouse evil propensities. Ideas have great influence. Every action is preceded by an idea. Thus, the prime condition for repentance is that evil thoughts and fancies should be discarded. For instance, if a person has an illicit relationship with a woman and desires to repent, it is necessary that he should conceive of her as ugly and should call to mind all her low qualities. As I have just said fancies exercise a powerful influence. I have read that some Sufis carried their fancies to such a length that they saw a person in the form of an ape or pig. Everything takes on the colour of how you imagine it to be. Thus, the first condition of repentance is that all thoughts, which give rise to evil pleasures, should be discarded altogether.

The second condition is remorse. Everyone’s conscience admonishes him over every evil, but an unfortunate person leaves his conscience suspended. So a sinner should express remorse over his sin and evil action and should reflect that the pleasure to be derived from them is temporary. He should also consider that every time there is a decline in that pleasure and that in the end, in old age when his faculties are weakened, he will perforce have to give up all these pleasures. Then why indulge in that which in the end has to be given up anyhow? Most fortunate is the person who turns in repentance and becomes determined to discard all corrupt thoughts and vile fancies. When he gets rid of this impurity, he should be remorseful.

The third condition is a firm resolve that he will not revert to those vices. If he adheres to this resolve, God will bestow upon him the strength for true repentance and he will be rid altogether of his vices which will be replaced by good morals and praiseworthy actions. This is a moral victory. It is for God Almighty to bestow the power and strength for it for He is the Master of all power and all strength, as He has said:

 أَنَّ ٱلۡقُوَّةَ لِلَّهِ جَمِيعٗا [4]

—Malfuzat, vol. I, pp. 138-40

The Meaning of Istighfar

The true meaning of istighfar is to supplicate God that no human weakness should be manifested and that God might support nature with His strength and might enclose it in the circle of His help and protection. The root of istighfar is ghafara, which means to cover up. Thus, the meaning of istighfar is that God should cover up the natural weakness of the supplicant with His power. This meaning is then enlarged to include the covering up of a sin that has been committed, but the true meaning is that God should safeguard the supplicant against his natural weakness and should bestow upon him power from His power, and knowledge from His knowledge, and light from His light.

Having created man, God has not become separated from him, but as He is man’s Creator and the Creator of all his external and internal faculties, He is also All-Sustaining, that is to say, He safeguards with His support everything that He has created. It is, therefore, necessary for man that as he has been created by God, he should seek to safeguard the features of his creation through the All-Sustaining attribute of the Divine…

Thus this is a natural need of man for which he has been directed to carry out istighfar. This is referred to in the verse:

ٱللَّهُ لَآ إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ٱلۡحَيُّ ٱلۡقَيُّومُ [5]

He is both Creator and All-Sustaining. When man was created, the function of creation was completed, but the function of sustaining is forever and that is why istighfar is needed all the time. Every attribute of God possesses a grace and istighfar is needed for winning the grace of the attribute of ‘All-Sustaining’. The same is indicated in the verse of Surah al-Fatihah:

إِيَّاكَ نَعۡبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسۡتَعِينُ [6]

This means that: we worship Thee alone and implore Thee alone for help. Thy attributes of Providence and All-Sustaining should help us and should safeguard us against stumbling, lest our weakness may become manifest and we should fall short of worshipping Thee.

It is thus obvious that the true meaning of istighfar is not that a default has occurred, but that no default should occur. Human nature finding itself weak, naturally seeks strength from God, as a child seeks milk from its mother. As God has bestowed upon man from the beginning, tongue, eyes, heart, and ears, etc., so He has bestowed upon him from the beginning the desire for istighfar and has made him feel that he is dependent upon God for help. This is indicated in the verse:

وَٱسۡتَغۡفِرۡ لِذَنۢبِكَ وَلِلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ وَٱلۡمُؤۡمِنَٰتِ [7]

This means that the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) was directed to supplicate that his nature should be safeguarded against human weakness and should be so strengthened that that weakness should not become manifest. He was also directed to supplicate by way of intercession on behalf of the men and women who believed in him that they should be safeguarded against the punishment for the defaults that might have been committed by them and that during the rest of their lives, they should be safeguarded against sin.

This verse comprises a very high philosophy of protection against sin and intercession. It indicates that a person can achieve a high stage of protection against sin and win intercession if he prays constantly for the suppression of his own weakness and for delivering others from the poison of sin and himself draws strength from God through his supplication and desires that those who are related to him through faith should also partake of that strength. A sinless person needs to supplicate God for strength inasmuch as human nature possesses no excellence of its own but receives excellence at every moment from God, and has no strength of its own but receives strength at every moment from God, and has no perfect light of its own but receives light from God. A perfect nature is bestowed an attraction so that it might draw to itself strength from above, but the treasure of strength is the Being of God. Angels draw strength for themselves from this treasure and so also the perfect man draws the strength of sinlessness and grace from this Fountainhead of strength through the pipe of servitude. Thus from amongst men, he alone is perfectly innocent who draws divine strength to himself through istighfar and occupies himself throughout with humble supplication so that light should continue to descend upon him…

Then what is istighfar? It is an instrument through which strength is obtained. The whole secret of divine unity is that the quality of innocence should not be regarded as a permanent possession of man, but God should be taken as the Fountainhead for acquiring it. God Almighty metaphorically resembles the heart which has a store of pure blood and the istighfar of a perfect man is like the veins and arteries which are connected with the heart and draw pure blood from it and convey it to the limbs that need it.

—The Review of Religions—Urdu, vol. I, pp. 187-190

Priority of Istighfar over Repentance

Istighfar and taubah (repentance) are two separate matters. From one point of view, istighfar has priority over repentance, inasmuch as istighfar is the help and strength which are obtained from God and repentance means standing on one’s own feet. It is the way of God that when a person seeks help from Him, He bestows strength and with that strength the supplicant stands on his own feet and thus possesses the faculty to do good, which is called ‘turning to God’. This is the natural sequence of it. It is appointed for seekers that they should seek help from God in every condition. Till a seeker obtains strength from God, he can do nothing.

The strength for repentance is acquired after istighfar. If there is no istighfar, the faculty of repentance dies. If you will thus follow up istighfar with repentance, the result will be as set out in the verse:

يُمَتِّعۡكُم مَّتَٰعًا حَسَنًا إِلَىٰٓ أَجَلٖ مُّسَمًّي [8]

This is the way of God, that those who follow up istighfar with repentance will achieve their cherished grades. Every sense has its limits within which it achieves its high grades; not everyone can be a prophet or a messenger or a truthful (Siddiq) or a testifier (Shahid).

—Malfuzat, vol. II, pp. 68-69

Istighfar is a Spiritual Exercise

وَأَنِ ٱسۡتَغۡفِرُواْ رَبَّكُمۡ ثُمَّ تُوبُوٓاْ إِلَيۡهِ [9]

Remember, the Muslims have been bestowed two things; one for obtaining strength and the other for the practical demonstration of the strength that has been obtained. Istighfar is for obtaining strength. It is also called seeking help. The Sufis have said that as physical strength and power are fostered through exercise, in the same way, istighfar is a spiritual exercise. Through it, the soul obtains strength, and the heart achieves steadfastness. He who desires strength should do istighfar.

—Malfuzat, vol. II, p. 67

The Gates of God’s Grace are Never Closed

The gates of the grace and benevolence of God Almighty are never closed. If a person turns to Him with a true heart and in sincerity, then He is Forgiving and Merciful and accepts repentance. It is great impertinence and disrespect to speculate how many sinners God Almighty will forgive. The treasures of His mercy are unlimited. He lacks nothing and His doors are not shut upon. All those who arrive before God shall attain high ranks. This is a sure promise. The one who despairs of God Almighty, and his last moment arrives in a state of heedlessness, is most unfortunate and ill-fated because at that time the door is closed.

—Malfuzat, vol. III, pp. 296-297

There are some people who are aware of sin and there are others who are not even aware of it. That is why God Almighty has prescribed istighfar in all circumstances so that man should occupy himself with istighfar with regard to all sins, whether external or internal, and whether he has knowledge of them or not. A person should seek forgiveness for every type of sin, whether of the hands, or of feet, or of tongue, or of nose, or of ears, or of eyes. In these days we should supplicate like Adam:

رَبَّنَا ظَلَمۡنَآ أَنفُسَنَا وَإِن لَّمۡ تَغۡفِرۡ لَنَا وَتَرۡحَمۡنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلۡخَٰسِرِينَ [10]

This prayer has already been accepted. Do not live heedlessly. He who is not heedless would not be involved in any calamity that is beyond his strength. No misfortune arrives without divine command. That is why I have been taught the prayer in a revelation:

رَبِّ كُلُّ شَيْءٍ خَادِمُكَ رَبِّ فَاحْفَظْنِيْ وَانْصُرْنِيْ وَارْحَمْنِيْ [11]

—Malfuzat, vol. IV, pp. 275-276

Heedlessness arises from unknown causes. Sometimes without a person knowing it, his heart is suddenly afflicted with rust and darkness. Hence the need for istighfar. It means that one should not suffer from that rust and darkness. The Christians foolishly argue that istighfar shows that the supplicant has been sinful. The true meaning of istighfar is that no sin should be committed. If istighfar means forgiveness of sins committed, then what is the phrase for suppressing sins in future? Ghafara and kafara have the same connotation. All prophets needed istighfar. The more a person supplicates by way of istighfar, the more innocent he is. Its true meaning is that God saved him. To call someone innocent means that he has been forgiven.

—Malfuzat, vol. IV, p. 255

Salvation Comes from God’s Grace

Then arise and repent and win the pleasure of God through good works. Remember that the punishment of wrong beliefs is after death. Being a Hindu or a Christian or a Muslim will be determined on the Day of Judgement. But a person, who goes beyond the limit in wrongdoing, transgression, disobedience and vice, is punished in this life. Such a one cannot escape God’s chastisement. So hasten to win God’s pleasure and before the dreadful day arrives namely the day of intensity of the plague of which the prophets have warned, make your peace with God. He is very Benevolent. Through the one moment of the repentance that melts the heart, He can forgive the sins spread over seventy years. Do not say that repentance is not accepted. Remember that you cannot be saved by your deeds. It is grace that saves and not deeds. Benevolent and Merciful Lord, bestow Thy grace upon all of us. We are Thy servants and have fallen down upon Thy threshold. Amin.

—Lecture Lahore, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 20, p. 174


[1] The Holy Qur’an, 91:9.

[2] The Holy Qur’an, 4:111.

[3] Curse of Allah be upon the liars.

[4] ‘All power belongs to Allah.’ – The Holy Qur’an, 2:166.

[5] ‘Allah – there is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining.’ – The Holy Qur’an, 2:256.

[6] The Holy Qur’an, 1:5.

[7] ‘Ask forgiveness for thy frailties, and for believing men and believing women.’ – The Holy Qur’an, 47:20.

[8] ‘He will provide for you a goodly provision until an appointed term.’ – The Holy Qur’an, 11:4.

[9] ‘And that you seek forgiveness of your Lord, and then turn to Him.’ – The Holy Qur’an, 11:4.

[10] ‘Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves; and if Thou forgive us not and have not mercy on us, we shall surely be of the lost.’ – The Holy Qur’an, 7:24.

[11] ‘Lord, everything serves Thee; then Lord protect me and help me and have mercy on me.’