Allah Subhaanallahu Wa Ta’aala says in Surah 4 – An -Nisaa – Ayah 17-18:
أَعـوذُ بِاللهِ مِنَ الشَّيْـطانِ الرَّجيـم
بِسْمِ اللّٰهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
اِنَّمَا التَّوۡبَةُ عَلَى اللّٰهِ لِلَّذِيۡنَ يَعۡمَلُوۡنَ السُّوۡٓءَ بِجَهَالَةٍ ثُمَّ يَتُوۡبُوۡنَ مِنۡ قَرِيۡبٍ فَاُولٰٓٮِٕكَ يَتُوۡبُ اللّٰهُ عَلَيۡهِمۡؕ وَكَانَ اللّٰهُ عَلِيۡمًا حَكِيۡمًا
The repentance accepted by Allah upon Himself is for those who do evil in ignorance then repent shortly thereafter. So, Allah relents towards them. And Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.
وَلَيۡسَتِ التَّوۡبَةُ لِلَّذِيۡنَ يَعۡمَلُوۡنَ السَّيِّاٰتِ ۚ حَتّٰۤى اِذَا حَضَرَ اَحَدَهُمُ الۡمَوۡتُ قَالَ اِنِّىۡ تُبۡتُ الۡـــٰٔنَ وَلَا الَّذِيۡنَ يَمُوۡتُوۡنَ وَهُمۡ كُفَّارٌ ؕ اُولٰٓٮِٕكَ اَعۡتَدۡنَا لَهُمۡ عَذَابًا اَ لِيۡمًا
But repentance is not for those who do the evil deeds until when the time of death approaches one of them, he says, “Now I repent”, nor for those who die while they are still disbelievers. For them We have prepared a painful punishment.
Repentance from a deliberate sin
It should be noted that the Holy Qur’an has used the words “in ignorance” which apparently gives an impression that the repentance may be accepted when a sin is committed unintentionally and unknowingly. But if it is committed deliberately, it will not be acceptable.
According to the explanation of this verse given by the noble Companions, may Allah be pleased with them all, the word, جھالہ ‘jahalah” (ignorance) here does not mean that a sinning person is not aware of a sin as sin, or has no intention or volition to commit a sin. Instead, it means that it was the insensitivity and heedlessness of a person towards the evil end of sin and its ultimate punishment which became the cause of his audacity to venture into sin, even though he knew a sin as sin, and had approached it with intention and volition as well.
In other words, the word, ‘jahalah” or ignorance used here is in the sense of carelessness or stupidity.
This is supported by an evidence in Surah Yusuf. Sayyidna Yusuf (علیہ السلام) had said to his brothers:
هَلْ عَلِمْتُم مَّا فَعَلْتُم بِيُوسُفَ وَأَخِيهِ إِذْ أَنتُمْ جَاهِلُونَ .
Here the brothers have been called, ‘ jahilun”, the ignorant ones, although what they did was not the outcome of any error or forgetfulness but they had done that knowingly and with full deliberation. Yet, it is because of their heedlessness towards the evil end of their act that they have been called ‘jahil” (ignorant).
Abu al-`Aliyah and Qatadah (رض) report that the noble Companions, may Allah be pleased with them all, agreed that
کل ذنب اصابہ عبد فھو جھالۃ عمداً کان أو غیرہ
that is, ‘any sin committed by a servant of Allah is, anyway, an act of ignorance, be it deliberate or otherwise.’
The master of exegesis, Mujahid said:
کل عامل بمعصیۃ اللہ فھو جاھل حین عملھا
“Everyone who is doing anything in disobedience to Allah is, for that matter, ignorant while doing it,” even though, on the outside, he may appear to be a person of great learning. (Ibn Kathir)
In his Tafsir, al-Bahr al-Muhit, Abu Hayyan has said: This is just like what has been reported in a hadith
لا یزنی الزانی وھو مؤمن
that is, ‘a person who commits zina (adultery) will not be doing so while in a state of being a true Muslim.’ It means that the time when he succumbed to the temptation of this evil act, that was the time when he was flung far off from the demand of his faith. For this reason, Sayyidna `Ikrimah (رض) said : امور الدنیا کلّھا جھالۃ that is,
‘everything one does in this mortal world – outside the framework of obedience to Allah – is ignorance.’
The logic is very obvious since the person disobeying Allah is preferring short-lived pleasures over those everlasting; and, anyone who takes the punishment which will last forever and ever in exchange for this short-lived series of pleasures cannot be called rational, sensible or smart.
Meaning of the words “Shortly thereafter”
The gist of the discussion so far is that the sin that a man commits, deliberately or mistakenly, gets committed due to nothing but jihalat’ or ignorance. Therefore, there is a consensus of the entire Muslim ummah on the principle that the repentance of a person who commits some sin deliberately can also be accepted. (al-Bahr a1-Muhit)
Incidentally, there is another point worth attention in the present verse which prescribes a condition for the acceptance of repentance – that one should repent soon without delaying it. The Qur’anic words are: “Shortly thereafter”.
It does “shortly” signify and how much time will come within the limit of “shortly”?
The Holy Prophet (صلی اللہ علیہ وآلہ وسلم) has himself explained this in a hadith in the following words:
اِن اللہ یقبَلُ توبۃَ العبد مالم یغَرُغِرُ
The hadith means that Allah Almighty accepts the repentance of His servant until the time he passes into the throes of death and his soul struggles to get out of his rattling throat.
Muhaddith Ibn Marduwayh has narrated from Sayyidna `Abdullah ibn `Umar (رض) that he heard the Holy Prophet (صلی اللہ علیہ وآلہ وسلم) saying:
‘A believing servant of Allah who repents from his sin a month before his death, or repents a day or a moment earlier, Allah Almighty shall accept his repentance, the condition being that the repentance should be genuine and sincere. (Ibn Kathir)
In short, the explanation of “min qarib” (shortly thereafter), given by the Holy Prophet (صلی اللہ علیہ وآلہ وسلم) himself tells us that virtually man’s whole life-time comes under “qarib” and, as such, any repentance which is offered well-before death shall be acceptable. However, the repentance made by man while in throes of death is not acceptable.
Maulana Ashraf Thanavi (رح) in his Tafsir Bayan al-Qur’an, has elaborated the subject by saying that man faces two conditions when close to death. Firstly, there is the condition of utter hopelessness when all medicines and efforts fail and man comes to realize that death is round the corner. This is known as the state of بأس i.e., conscious suffering.
The second condition relates to what comes after, that is, when the pangs of the departure of human soul begin and the fated time of “ghargharah” (the onomatopoetic rattling sound emerging from the throat, a herald of approaching death) comes close. This is known as the state of بأس i.e., total despair.
The first condition, that is, the condition of conscious suffering comes within the sense of مِن قرِیب “min qari’b” and the repentance made at that time is accepted; but, the repentance in the second condition, that is, the condition of total despair, is not acceptable, for this is a condition when the angels and things belonging to the Hereafter may start appearing before the dying person, and they are not included in the sense of “min qarib”.
This explanation given by the Holy Prophet (صلی اللہ علیہ وآلہ وسلم) has been pointed out by the Holy Qur’an itself in the following verse (i.e. verse 18) where it is expressly mentioned that repenting, after the sure signs of death are visible, is not accepted.
So, in the light of this explanation the addition of “min qarib ” (shortly thereafter) in this verse serves to indicate that the very life-span of man is limited in time, and death, which he may think is far away, may actually be quite near.
“ Relenting taken by Allah upon Himself” is a form of promise the fulfillment of which is certain. Otherwise the truth is that Allah Almighty does not necessarily owe anything to anyone.
The Second Verse
The second verse (18) describes those whose repentance is not acceptable with Allah, those who fearlessly go on committing sins throughout their entire lives yet, when death stands on their head and the withdrawal of their soul is set in motion and the angels of death start becoming visible, they start offering repentance. How could their repentance become acceptable when they kept running wild with their lives and wasted all opportunities of repenting while there was still time to repent. This is very much like Pharaoh and his people who called out while drowning that they were ready to believe in the Lord of Musa and Ha-run (Alaihimas salaam)
Naturally, they were told that their declaration of faith at that time was of no consequence, because the time set for it was all over.
The same thing has been pointed out in the last sentence of the verse which says that Allah also does not accept the repentance of those who die while they are still disbelievers.
What is the worth of a declaration of faith right in the middle of one’s match with death facing the pangs of the withdrawal of they soul from the body? This confession or this declaration of faith is out of tune with the time and quite worthless now as their punishment stands prepared for them.
What is repentance?
After the literal explanation of these two verses, it seems necessary to define Taubah or repentance and determine its real nature and status. In his اَحیا العلوم ‘Ihya’ al-`Ulum, Imam al-Ghazali (رح) has identified three different situations with regard to committing sins:
The first state is that of total sinlessness, that is, no sin has ever been committed. This is either the hallmark of angels or that of the prophets, may peace be on them.
The second stage of getting involved in sin comes when one takes the initiative and ventures into sin and then repeats and persists with it, never feeling ashamed or regretful and never thinking of stopping and abandoning it. This is the degree of the satans and the devils.
The third station belongs to human beings, the children of Adam who, immediately after having committed a sin, regret it and resolve firmly not to go near it in future.
This tells us that failing to repent after committing a sin is the style of devils exclusively. Therefore, it is the consensus of the entire Muslim ummah that Taubah is obligatory.
The Holy Qur’an says:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا تُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّـهِ تَوْبَةً نَّصُوحًا عَسَىٰ رَبُّكُمْ أَن يُكَفِّرَ عَنكُمْ سَيِّئَاتِكُمْ وَيُدْخِلَكُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ
(0 those who believe, repent before Allah, a sincere repentance; may be your Lord removes from you your sins and admits you to gardens beneath which rivers flow.) (66:8)
How generous is the mercy of our Lord!
A man spends a whole life-time in disobeying Him. Nevertheless, when he repents sincerely before his death, not only his sins are forgiven, but he receives much more when he is admitted into the circle of favoured servants of Allah and made an inheritor of Paradise.
In a hadith, the Holy Prophet صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم has been reported to have said: التَّایٔب حبیب اللہ والتایٔب منَ الذَنّبِ کمن لاذنبَ لَہ that is,
‘one who repents from sin is loved by Allah and one who has repented from sin is like one who had never committed a sin.’ (Ibn Majah)
According to some narrations, if a servant of Allah repents from a sin and his repentance finds acceptance with Him, he is not only absolved from having to account for it, but the very record in writing posted by the angels is erased out from his book of deeds so that he may not be disgraced either.
However, what is necessary is that the repentance is genuine and is offered in sincerity. This repentance stands on three pillars.
Firstly, one should regret over and feel ashamed about what he or she has done. According to hadith, اِنَّما التَّوبۃُ النِّدم that is, ‘Taubah is (another name of) remorse’.
Secondly, one should immediately leave off the sin he has committed and he should, for the future too, firmly resolve to stay away from it. Thirdly, one should think of making amends for what has gone by, that is, he should try to take measures to rectify what has happened in sin to the best of his ability. For example, if he has missed a prayer or a fast, he should make up for it by doing what is known as qada (compensatory worship).
If one does not remember the correct number of such missed prayers and fasts, he should think, calculate and come to an-estimated number and then go on to offer qada for these in all seriousness. If one finds it impossible to do so all at one time, he could offer, with each salah due at its time, one qada of each salah he missed throughout his life, which is commonly known as `umri gada.
In the same way, one should do his best to make up, as and when convenient, for obligatory fasts he missed by offering qada fasts.
May be one has not paid the obligatory zakah due on him; he should, then pay the zakah due on him for previous years as well, paying it all or paying it gradually.
Allah forbid, if one has usurped someone’s right, he should return it back to him and if he has hurt someone, he should seek his forgiveness. But, should it be that one does not regret what he has done, or, despite being regretful, he does not leave off that sin for future, then, this repentance is no repentance even though it may be said a thousand times, as so delightfully put in verse by a Persian poet:
توبہ بر لب سبحہ برکف دل پُر از ذوق گناہ
معصیت را خندہ می آید از استغفارِ ما
Repentance on the lips, tasbeeh in hand and a heart full of the taste of sin,
Sin laughs at my style of seeking forgiveness!
The point being made here is that man, once he repents as stated earlier, and despite having been in all sorts of sins, becomes a servant dear to Allah. And should it ever be that, out of human weakness, one does fall into sin yet another time, he should immediately renew his repentance in the fond hope that this time, like every other time, Allah Almighty shall, being Most-Forgiving, relent towards him.
Let me conclude with yet another Persian couplet which says:
ایں درگہ ما درگہِ نومیدی نیست
صد بار اگر توبۃ شکستی بازآ
This is the Court of My Presence, not the Court of Despair.
Even if you have broken (the promise in) your repentance a hundred times, come.