TAWBA AND ISTIGHFAR
The noun ‘tawba’ derives from the root ‘twb’ whose verb form is ‘taba’. It basically means ‘to turn to’ with the implication of seeking pardon or equally, granting pardon. So we read in the Qur’an a servant making tawba to Allah and Allah making tawba to the servant in return. In other words Allah and His servant turn towards each other in an act of reconciliation, the first act coming from the servant. The second word ‘istighfar’ derives from the root ‘ghfr’ whose verb form is ‘ghafara’ which means ‘to forgive’. Here, the servant need not necessarily be aware of his wrong let alone ask for forgiveness for his wrong. If he is aware of his wrong he makes ‘istighfar’ which means he asks for Allah’s forgiveness. If he is not aware of his wrong Allah still can forgive him in the sense of not minding his relatively small error. This act of forgiveness by Allah takes the form of ‘ghafara’ which means ‘He (Allah) ignored or pardoned’ the wrong act of the servant.
1. (On the brink of expulsion from the Garden) Adam received certain words from his Lord Who then forgave him, for He is the Merciful Pardoner (2: 37)
C. As soon as a believer commits a wrong and disaster looks him in the face Allah hurries to inspire him with words of asking for forgiveness. In other words Allah does not hurry to punish a lapsed believer but hurries instead to throw him a lifeline. The lifeline consists of an inspiration of helpful words for the believer to address and ask his Lord to pardon him. Since we can never become totally innocent and some mistakes we may always do, we should after each such unhappy episode give ear to what Allah will inspire to our heart about ameliorating our liability. Adam did that and was forgiven- BUT! But he was sent down to the earth to live a difficult earthly life all the same. This means once we commit a wrong its painful consequences may not be always stopped by the Creator. We do get some punishment and it can be quite bad but all the same the pardon helps to make it more bearable in this world and is lifted entirely in the next and replaced by rewards. So, we must not dare to depend on tawba concerning our sins but should rather not commit them to begin with. In other words repentance does not necessarily stop the painful consequences of a wrong we did; instead it will only stop further punishment in the Hereafter.
2. It has been (now) made lawful (halal) for you to approach your wives on the nights of fasting (Ramadan nights). (After all) you are covers for them and they are covers for you. He knew that you have been indulging your egos (all the same) and has turned to you (taba) in forgiveness…. (2: 187)
C. When the commandment of fasts of Ramadan came the practice was understood to include celibacy (i.e., no sexual contact) for the whole month. But who and how could anybody stop men, the fallible things that they were, from succumbing to their lust, especially when also wives equally understandably could encourage it. Accordingly there was an almost general failure in living up to celibate standards. Taking note of this Allah opted for His more gracious side and instead of issuing criticisms and threats on a matter in which people are so notoriously weak, He altogether withdrew the ban and allowed the indulgence with His blessings added. This is another example by metaphor that a good ruler and mentor should be realistic and lenient and if one law proves too demanding on his subjects he should gracefully waive it and say so. In this connection please never forget that acoording to good Sufi understanding Allah means, as far as human psychology is concerned, the very best in man. An extremely wise and kind ruler will not insist on putting burdens on his subjects they cannot bear despite their reasonable best efforts but will relieve them of the burden when he sees that there is an almost universal failure in the bearing of it. Now this does not mean that Allah is man’s psychology. He is infinitely other and more than all His creatures but that aspect is ontological and beyond the power of our minds to grasp.
Additionally we may observe for still another time that Islam is about humility, moderation, and non-pretention and all attempts at imposing too difficult strictures on believers on the part of other religions and cults have been deluded zeals. Idealism is nothing but departure from realism and abandonment of salvation only realism can bring. Both Buddhism and Christianity failed on account of being extremely strict on many matters man is weak about. Both anathematised sex and life’s reasonable licences and comforts and produced badly distorted, frustrated and extremist characters who often turned against ordinary fellow believers and persecuted them. Remember the Inquisition and all the cruelties and abominations it inflicted on fellow Christians over many centuries.
Both Allah and Rasul sws banned monastic/ascetic practices except a very small amount which was built into Islam. Fasting is one and i’tikaf (voluntary secluded devotion in a mosque for the last ten days of Ramadan) is another and both are realistic and eminently bearable.
3. Whoever returns (in repentance to Allah) after his wrong and improves his conduct then Allah returns to him (with forgiveness). Allah is Mercifully Forgiving (5: 39)
C. I deliberately translated ‘taba’ as ‘return’ instead of just ‘turn’ for that extra is implied in many verses like this one. A believer is a believer because his heart, therefore his essence is with Allah. On committing a wrong he loses the company of Allah and becomes stranded in a wilderness full of fearful devils. He is like a child lost while trying to cheat his parents and taste something they were banning him. He finds that going too far from home into such uncharted territory perhaps gave him what he sought but cost him the loss of his home. Since a child cannot cope with the wilderness without greater risks what he must do is finding his way back home and not to pass another night in the land of possible monsters. He must return home. He then traces his steps back and after a fearful journey he is back at his house door. His good parents had been both anxious and angry. But as soon as the child shows up they forget their anger and become pure love and press the child to their hearts. The child returned (taba) to his parental home, his parents returned to favouring him and abandoned their anger. In this verse Allah, responds to His servant’s coming back to Him by going back to the servant. The two are together again, Allah giving favours and the servant receiving them. In a hadith we read: “When the servant takes one step towards Allah, Allah takes ten steps towards the servant”.
4. When those who believe in our verses come to thee (o Muhammad sws) say to them “Peace be on you! Allah prescribed for Himself Loving Mercy (to the effect that) Whoever from among you commits an evil out of ignorance and then returns (to Allah’s fold by asking for His Padon) and improves his conduct He (Allah) then is Mercifully Forgiving (6: 54)
C. Committing an evil is a sign of ignorance. As soon as the evil is committed the committing person, if he is not mad, finds something is troubling him in his heart. He may not be able to put a finger on it but it burns and hurts all the same. All joy departs from him and he begins to mourn his lapse. If he is lucky he will remember Allah and return to His door and knock on it for re-admittance. Why the commission of an evil troubles the heart of the sinner despite his lack of knowledge about the evilness of his act? It is because while he may not have a specific knowledge applying to his act he can still observe the harm and upset caused to his victims as well as to himself sometimes. A spiritually noble person cannot tolerate to remain too long a villain and returns to Allah for remedy. Each repenatance raises our spiritual rank. By repentance following an unhelpable error we make a profit we could not otherwise make. The whole is a learning process.
5. Allah did return to (pardoned) the Prophet sws and the Emigrants and the Helpers who followed him at the hour of hardship after the hearts of a party among them began bending. He subsequently returned to (pardoned) them as well. Indeed He is Mercifully Forgiving towards them (9: 117)
C. Perhaps the most testing time in the career of the Prophet sws and in the experience of his companions was the time and test of the expedition to Tabuk. Islam was triumphant in Arabia, both the polytheist and Jewish threats being conclusively dealt with. For the first time the Arab nation was united with a few small exceptions and given their religious zeal and war-hardened martial qualities of these Arabs as enhanced by Islamic zeal, all rulers neighbouring them were right to be concerned. One such worried power was the Roman Empire. As both champions of Christianity and Roman Peace (i.e., controlling the world and making all possible parts of it accepting Roman primacy) they felt that this upcoming new prophet had succeeded against extraordinary odds and was increasingly convincingly looking more genuine.
The Roman power did not feel transferring its allegiance to the new prophet was better than keeping to their existing allegiance to ‘Christian’ Jesus was also deified for imaginary extra support. Hence they began to field armed units tentatively on the border of Roman-controlled Syria with ‘lawless Arabia’ as they were fond of regarding it. Tabuk is a border town and the Prophet sws, based on the intelligence he had received decided to arrange a pre-emptive strike before the enemy could deploy more seriously. Be as it may, the name ‘Roman’ struck such terror in the hearts of all nations that some companions of the Prophet sws, were quite a bit alarmed and disheartened. The hypocrites were both incredulous of the audacity as they saw it of the Prophet sws and would secretly ridicule those who viewed such an expedition with trustful resignation. Preparations for the expedition followed a troubled course, some known to be wealthy dragging their feet and not contributing as they should while some others were greatly scared of hardships and dangers of such a warlike expedition against such a great power. As a result hearts swayed and setbacks threatened. Still the Prophet sws and the better companions kept their nerve and plodded on despite all such demoralising factors. As the reward Allah turned to them even in more compassion and helped to steady their hearts while He frowned on the vacillating and was angry with the incorrigible hypocrites. Eventually He also relented towards the initially vacillating and the evaders on account of their intense remorse as narrated in the Surat al Tawba. The lesson is that a ruler should not be too strict with or vengeful against any waverers or backsliders but wait for these to see their mistake and go through enough remorse and then kindly pardon them. There is also a legal lesson in such verses about the Prophet’s wars. He never resorted to military conscription, that is to say, he never imposed on his militarily eligible subjects a duty to join his armies but depended entirely on volunteers. This means that the law and practice of many modern nation states which raise their armies by conscriptions (forcible drafting of all healthy young men into the national armed forces) is not an Islamic practice.
6. Indeed I am very pardoning towards one who repents, believes (in Allah) and does good works and keeps to the Straight Path (20: 82)
C. Repentance is the very first and indispensable act for anybody who wants to break from his lower self and submit to Allah for his salvation. All follow from repentance.
7. (After explaining the difficulties the Prophet sws and early believers were going through and acknowledging the draining effect of their long devotional night prayer vigils on them Allah intervenes saying that He is Aware of the strenuous efforts they were exerting to glorify Allah for a long part of the night and shows pity) He knows that you cannot cope with so much and turns towards you (with merciful pardon). Then recite just what comes easy to you from the Qur’an. He recognised that from among you some would be sick while others will be roaming the land in search of Allah’s bounty (to earn a living) or others fighting in the Way of Allah. Therefore recite from the Qur’an which comes easy to you, pray the salat and pay the zakat…” (73: 20)
C. Allah approves and blesses the full social participation of His believers and is quite prepared to release them from too much self-immersed nightly devotions at the expense of their health or daytime social obligations. This is another proof and example that Allah does not entirely approve of self-imposed strictures but prefers for us a full social life with obedience to His Law as part of the bargain. Night devotions are praised and can make the servant praiseworthy but when within reason and within the limits imposed by our social duties. Lastly, perhaps contrary to traditional view, night vigils appear to be more about reciting the Qur’an than just performing the ritual prayer form called ‘salat’. Although salat contains a lot of recitation pure recitation has its own merits in its own right. In salat one is more concerned about the ritualistic precision of his motions while in pure recitation a pure and unimpeded contemplation of the message of the Qur’an occupies the mind more, which is most educational. Be it as it may, tahajjud (night) prayers are very much recommended.
8. Punish both sides in a sexual indecency case but if they repent and improve their conduct let them alone. That is because Allah has always been Relentful and Mercifully Forgiving. True repentance is that of those who commit the evils out of ignorance and repent soon afterwards. Only their repentance Allah accepts. Allah knows of everything and is Wise. Otherwise repentance is not theirs who keep doing the evils until death looks them in the face when they say “I now repent” or die altogether as unbelievers. For them We prepared a painful punishment (4: 16- 18)
C. So, there is no eternal blame against once scandalous people provided they repent soon enough. Once they repent and pull themselves together Allah forgives them and in deference to Allah their fellow believers should forget about the scandals their repentant brothers and sisters were involved in. Is this really the case among Muslims? Those who make a sexual error of judgment are forever gossiped about and cautioned against and also often ridiculed and jeered to their faces as well. Where are the standards of spirituality and morality Allah seeks to gift us and where is our despicable unwillingness for growing up more in understanding and charity!
Lastly repentance is no joke and planning to cheat Allah by living an impious life until death shows up and only then say repentance is only self-cheating. We have to be good when we are performing our social role and death-bed repentance cannot save us from our responsibilities towards those whom all our life we let down or hurt. Allah banned Himself waiving the right of servant on servant however well-worshipping the wrongful servant has otherwise been. And one of the wrongs so doable is looking down on ex-sex offenders who repented credibly.
9. Those who commit evils and then repent and believe then after all this thy Lord will certainly be Mercifully Pardoning (7: 153)
C. Please note that faith follows repentance; an unrepentant servant is not in faith but outside it until he repents. For faith is not only belief but behaviour. The Devil also believes that Allah exists and is One, but he does not like this fact and will not behave himself.
10. (As for your victory at Badr) it was in order Allah to cut down a bit the unbelievers and frustrate (the rest of) them so that they would go back empty-handed- there is nothing thou couldst do about the matter- He may (induce in them regret and) accept their repentance or else punish them because they were wrongdoers (3: 127- 128)
C. Look at the inexhaustible Compassion of Allah! Even unbelievers out to smother Allah’s Religion and His people are not entirely written off by Him All-Gracious. He not only always keeps the door of repentance open to them till they drop dead but may inspire regret in their hearts which will drive them to repentance in which case He will only rush too willingly to forgive and embrace them once they so come back to Him.
Are some self-styled champions of Islam (whom are often called terrorists) doing like this or are they wantonly and indiscriminately blowing up crowds of people while also waylaying and killing or abducting and executing fellow Muslims who should be better than total infidels openly fighting against Islam if that is what the angry fighters are fighting against?
10. That is because Allah will reward the truthfully loyal on account of their truthful loyalty and also, if He so wills, will punish the hypocrites or turn towards them in forgiveness. Allah has always been Mercifully Pardoning (33: 24)
C. Look at the inexhaustible Compassion again! The All-Gracious is actually reluctant to write off even the hypocrites with so much to answer for. He intimates He may act first to arouse a desire for repentance in them which desire they are unable to find in themselves. And guess the reason: Because He is so willing to forgive and bless afterwards. Deep down so should we be towards all sinners whether Muslims or not- but of course without unwisely giving away our secret prematurely. Outwardly we may act sternly but our hearts are more desirous of their salvation.
11. Are they (the hypocrites and the lukewarms) not seeing that once or twice every year they are hit by tests yet they neither repent nor contemplate (9: 126)
C. Among all Muslims there always have been and shall always be an irreducible mass of hypocrites and those not quite hypocritical but cowardly and escapist. Such people are never left without some disastrous-looking trying situations chasing them year in year out. They are required to be aware of this fact as Allah’s displeasure with them and His warning to them and as a result enter the fold of faith sincerely and whole-heartedly. Which means all that hit the Muslim nation is because of their less than satisfactory relations with Allah. Why is this so? Because poor relations with Allah means poor recognition of facts as can be seen from a noble and charitable and just point of view and one who is ignorant of facts and negligent of measures against dangerous facts cannot extricate himself from the rut he is in. Let him turn to high values and standards which Allah represebnts and offers and he must and will be happily successful.
12. When Moses had said to his people “O my people, by adopting the calf your god you have abused yourselves, therefore return (in repentance) to your Creator and kill your (ever idolatrous and blasphemous) egos. This is better for you in the Sight of your Creator, may He forgive you. He is verily the Mercifully Relenting and Forgiving (2: 54)
C. In Egypt the poor and oppressed Jewry regularly saw their Egyptian masters worship magnificently carved and often also bejewelled idols being worshipped and prayed to with not infrequent positive-looking results. It is a fact of social psychology that subject nations relationship to their master nation is always an ambiguous love-hate relation, or rather an envy-despair one. Once free and away from the control and persecution of the Egyptians the followers of Moses into the exodus could not either shake off the envied example of idol worshipping of their ex-masters nor could they suspect and resist the inherent tendency of all immature egos towards idolatry. All religious history, when studied under the authority of the Qur’an boils down to a competition between true (invisible and one) God worship which is too austere and abstract a proposition for immature souls additionally infected by world-worship virus and idol worship in the sense of both believing in many gods which often are either conceived as human-looking gods or humans who subsequently became gods.
Simple-minded or too worldly people have an almost incurable penchant for visible glories which idols often are designed to project. The more human-like but with miraculous elements about the idol can be visualised and represented the more attractive it becomes to the worshipper. Hence the gods with snakes for hair-locks or paintings in which the man-god is surrounded by winged angels and haloes of light and perhaps also some mist to add more mystery and mysticism the better. All prophets came to demolish such romantic superstitions and install in their place the worship of One True Invisible God Who stood for universalism instead of tribalism, equality instead of favouritism and scientific and philosophical thinking instead of wishful thinking and superstitions going with it.
In almost each and every case idolatry at least partially or marginally survived among the populace and this survival made it very profitable for some spiritual crooks to invest in idol worship as much as circumstances could allow. Moses’s Jews also succumbed to this penchant and Allah struck them with blows until they repented. Moses identified the culprit which led immature people to idol-worship: It was the human ego moulded under a lot of idolatrous and world-worshipping elements plaguing all cultures in practice. Moses advised the discarding of this deeply compromised and deformed sense of self (ego) in his people and its replacement by a God-oriented and God-illuminated sense of self (the Higher Self) which is next door to the Holy Spirit itself. Lastly he means to say that only by such a change of heart Allah will turn to them in Merciful Forgiveness and admit them back to His Favour.
13. (Hud AS said) “O my people, I am not asking from you a reward for it (my offer of guidance). My reward is with the One Who created me. Will you not understand? O my people, ask pardon from your Lord and then return to Him so that He may send the sky to rain on you and add power to your power. Do not turn away as sinners (11: 51- 52)
C. A prophet’s or a pious person’s pious advice to his audience need not and cannot be rewarded by anybody but their Creator Allah. “My reward is with Allah” means “My reward is already received by my deepest heart and it is so great and delicious that no reward you can devise from your worldly means can come anywhere near it in quality or magnitude. To understand a bit how this can be let us imagine a situation where you come across a lost and very badly afraid and distressed child. Otherwise it is so beautiful to look at, given its innocent and age-appropriate behaviour. Your heart goes all out to the child and enquiring about its problem you offer to help it to rejoin its parents. You hug and comfort it, give it some food and drink and taking it from its hand somehow take it to its devastated parents. Will it be too much exaggeration to say that you become as happy as its parents about the reunion? Now, if the parents give you a money reward for your kindness will you not feel insulted or at least misunderstood? Will it be a misstatement if you respond by saying “I have enough reward already in the form of the joy I found on account of this otherwise painful episode” ? In the view of God’s people each and every charitable act is its own reward although a lot remains to be added by Allah in due course. Amen.
Heedless people like the people of Hud AS are then asked to ask for Allah’s pardon after only which they can return to Allah’s service; unrepentant sinners cannot serve both the Devil and Allah, they can only do Devil’s bidding. If and when they do return to the service they were created for, namely Allah’s service, then Allah promises to send the sky raining on them all the rain they may need and help them achieve greater and greater personal and national power of highest moral and material quality. That is the full recipe of success.
14. O ye who believe! Return to Allah with a sincere repentance that your Lord may cover
up your evils and make you enter the Gardens from under which rivers flow, the Day when Allah will not disappoint and humiliate the Prophet sws and those who believed alongside him. Their Light runs in front of them and to their right while they say “Our Lord, complete our Light and cover up for us (our sins and defects); Thou art Able to do all things (66: 8)
C. We twice hear the ‘cover up’ of our sins and defects as the main thing all believers must ask for first. Which means we can never be perfect simply because only Allah is perfect and a second or third ‘perfect’ being cannot simply be since all such beings are created by Allah and can only be His servants in need of His guidance and sustenance which needs are imperfections themselves. Which again means even in Paradise none of us can be perfect but will still be needing Allah’s guidance and sustenance and to enjoy our stay in there we will also need our inalienable defects and shortcomings to be covered up like we need them covered up here and now. That must be why we are promised gorgeous and sumptuous dress in there; the dress covers up defects and enhances any beauty existing in man. Lastly saved believers shall have their ‘Light’ and the Light will illuminate them in the front and also from on the right side which must be metaphors for future-oriented (front) ambition of a worthy (right and righteous) kind. That also is open to increase in that world. Glory be to Allah for compressing so many spiritual secrets so comfortably and aesthetically sitting together in a singe verse in about a mere forty words!
15. Most of the People of the Bible wanted to make you to apostatise after your believing (in Islam), because of their jealousy and despite the truth being manifest to them. For your part, graciously ignore (afw) and indulge them (their bad faith) until Allah implements His Will (and decides the matter) (2: 109)
C. Here we have our gold standard in our response to any spiritual treacheries and provocations on the part of Jews and Christians. Allah commands that we do not respond in kind to their aggressive or subversive attempts against our faith but simply ignore and excuse them and keep to what is given us from our Lord. Against Christian proselytising activities the best response should then be informing and supporting any Muslims who are in danger of falling into the traps the proselytisers would lay for them and make sure in general that all Muslims know enough comparative religion to see Islam’s superiority. Nasty fights and debates are not very useful and can only fan the flames of hatred.
16. Those who abandoned you when the two armies met (at Uhud) did so because the Devil had unsteadied their feet on account of their doings. Still Allah forgave them, for He is Indulgent in Pardon (3: 155)
C. A most important eye-opener: Why a person, despite his sincerity in faith and determination to do his duty can have cold feet and run away from a test Allah put him in? It is because he accumulated a number of not entirely pious acts among his record of acts and these give leverage to the Devil to access and manipulate his limbs and organs, subverting and disorganising them at the crucial moment. Still, just because this compromised person is a well-meaning if shaky believer Allah does not abandon him to the Devil but pardons him and keeps him on board for a second, third, etc. chance. So must we keep our fellow Muslims with us despite their any weaknesses or some bad records.
17. (Despite some unworthy behaviour on the part of thy companions at Uhud o Muhammad sws), thanks to mercy from Allah thou behavest towards them leniently. Had thou been rude and hard-hearted they would long disperse from around thee. Therefore indulge (afw) them and ask Allah’s forgiveness for them and consult them on matters; once thou makest up thy mind then put thy trust in Allah (and go ahead); Allah loves those who trust Him (3: 159)
C. After the easy victory at Badr some of the companions were a bit too complacent about the challenge of Uhud. Believing too soon that the enemy was defeated they abandoned discipline and exposed themselves to an attack by the Meccan cavalry which was looking for an opening in Muslim lines. As soon as surprised by the Meccan cavalry a lot of companions just ran for their lives leaving the always steadfast Prophet sws face the enemy almost alone. Yet as always the Prophet sws did not scold them but explained them their lapse and forgave them. This verse gives us the clues to good and blessed leadership: To be kind and polite to one’s subordinates and colleagues and use mistakes not for persecuting any makers of them but to educate them kindly if firmly. Unfortunately the usual practice is executing the deserters and liquidation of any perceived rivals using the pretext presented.
18. Race towards the forgiveness of your Lord and the Garden whose expanse is the heavens’ and earth’s, prepared for the pious, those who spend in charity both in prosperity and hardhip, swallow their anger and forgive people. Give good news to the gracious (3: 134)
C. The vastness of the Garden promised to the pious is the same as the whole universe, which is, incidentally practically infinite. Why so? Because man’s soul itself is as vast as the universe and no less space can do justice to man’s soul once it aligns itself with its Creator. In fact the pious already inhabit the whole universe in a spiritual sense in that such a man identifies himself with the whole creation and with great love and mercy in his heart he constantly blesses that whole in his heart even if he could not do much for even the smallest part of creation. Among the signs of being such a universal man in the sense of being universally loving merciful is this man’s generosity with charitable donations and help, both when he has much and he has little. Another sign is his tender attitude towards others: Even when others oppress and exasperates him until he becomes real angry he still prefers to hide his anger and do his best to look calm and unconcerned. What is more, he also forgives the offender and keeps rendering charity to him. No being under Allah can be as great as such a man and such a man truly inherits from the Prophet sws the capacity and authority to help others save themselves if they so wish. Look out to locate such men and go and keep his company if you want to acquire gnosis of the Divine.
19. Those who follow them (the Emigrants and and the Helpers, the members of the first generation of Muslims under the Prophet sws) say “Our Lord forgive us and those who preceded us in faith and do not put bitterness in out hearts for any who believed. Our Lord, Thou art Tenderly Merciful (59: 10)
C. All great commentators agree that ‘those who follow’ the early sahaba of both Mecca and Medina owe them absolute respect and well-wishing and should not hold any negative thoughts and feelings about them. This is unambiguously stated. Yet, some later Muslims made a faith out of accusing and cursing some of these earliest companions of the Messenger of Allah sws and rage at them with mouthfuls of hatred and incrimination and do even declare them unbelievers. The Devil must have wanted and liked this only too much! In a more general sense we should remember our Muslim ancestors with kindness and gratitude and avoid unnecessary criticism of them except when we are in a position to serve lessons to our fellow Muslims through historical research and learned and insightful commentary but never stooping to the level of judging any Muslim conclusively, considering that only Allah knows the Ghaib and only He can judge.
20. (O Muhammad sws) stick to kind indulgence (afw), enjoin the reputable (ma’ruf) and turn away from the ignorant (7: 199)
C. Formula for full salvation. A man who wants to be saved should at all times stick to patient and kind indulgence of offenders against him (not others!!!) and make his business to inform or remind people he thinks he can talk to what is the best course of action in a pious sense in every situation they find themselves in. Not every person is talkable to however. There is a kind of person who is so full of himself and assumes such airs of importance that he is offended if anybody however knowledgeable offers advice to him let alone criticism. It is these who are called the ignorant. Once a person exposes himself as an incorrigible ignorant in this sense it is better to leave him alone lest some nasty things erupt and unnecessary harms ensue.
THE INCOMPARABLE VERSE OF ABSOLUTION
21. “Say ‘o My servants who went to excess in abusing themselves! Do not despair of Allah’s Loving Mercy. Indeed Allah covers up and effaces all sins whatsoever in forgiveness, because He indeed is the Merciful Forgiver (39: 53)
C. Who are we and what are our sins compared to Allah’s Greatness and Grace? This verse strongly implies that Allah is not too willing to punish us as much as He describes in many places in His Qur’an but He is only too ready and willing to give us complete absolution of all our sins once we sincerely pronounce the word of repentance. That is because the insant we remember Allah with reverence and hope we are brought near Him at no time and put in top favour among His servants. Whoever is brought near to Allah is drenched in purest and most intense Light on whose impingement no darkness remains in the thing impinged upon.
This verse however should not be understood as a blank licence to go on a sinning spree. Instead it should be understood as a most encouraging promise of forgiveness followed by salvation as soon as a sincere repentance is offered to Allah the Most Wise and Gracious. Be as it may no religion other than Islam dared to issue such an all-inclusive, all-sweeping and unequivocal guarantee of forgiveness for every member of the human race whatever their past record, once they realise the wrongness of their ways and turn to Allah for forgiveness and salvation. Unlike some other faiths, NOBODY HAS TO DIE AS A VICARIOUS SUFFERER IN ORDER FOR THEM TO BE FORGIVEN. Most gloriously and authoritatively Allah is simply absolving all through His Infinite Grace. Amen.
What to make of all above? It looks that the whole business of sin and forgiveness of sin is another version of stating man’s relation to His Creator. It looks very much like that man is left pondering his next move between approaching His Creator or distancing himself from his Creator in a moral and spiritual sense. Incidentally many people have no precise idea what spirit and spiritual mean. Before we draw more conclusions from the above verses let us briefly explain what spirit and spiritual mean in practical, down to earth, day-to-day terms. Spirit means making sense of a being or event and also the sense so made. For example, the Essence of all spirits, namely God, makes perfect sense when we want to understand and explain and thereby benefit from the universe. The perfect logical and experimental order in the universe points to a Top Conscious Intelligence and named God this Top and necessarily uncreated Being can account for anything and everything we can find in our experience in an overall sense.
We men also have spirits or are spirits in the sense that we both make sense of ourselves and everything else as well as other men making sense of us and again everything else. Among these ‘everythings’ are events; an inconvenient, unexpected breakdown of my car while I am anxious to reach a place makes sense to me as God’s kind interference to stop or delay my going to the place. And from this we can go to the spiritual: The mechanical explanation of my car’s breakdown is the materialistic/scientific explanation while its explanation as God’s wise and kind interference is the spiritual explanation. Which means our spiritual life is our mental system of interpreting our existence and its relations to all the rest of existence whose top is God. We can make ourselves happy by putting happy or at least optimistic interpretations on our life experiences or can make ourselves dejected by insisting on unhappy and pessimistic interpretations. The first is a foretaste of Paradise while the second is that of Hell.
Now it is common experience that whoever we are we are unable to live morally perfect lives. With more or less frequency we are tempted and commit questionable acts to say the least. That we think of more evil than we can actually commit is another sobering fact. Similarly, we want to be loved and appreciated and know that love and appreciation from others come at a price. We must respond to good done to us with doing good to others; not only that, we must also forgive a lot of offences caused to us if we do not want to lose all our friends who are similarly fallible like us. Around this realistic core of morality is an idealistic infinity at the one end of which is God as the Supreme Good and at the other is the Devil as the Lowest Evil. We can easily form or acquire these two concepts and begin to relate to them in our inner life of intentions and emotions.
Long term experience always show that, provided a person is not a psychopath or otherwise mad, he has a developed enough conscience which keeps criticising and advising him on all his important acts. As he goes through life with increasing lessons from it he may realise that he better turns more and more towards the Light (glorifying and optimistic) end of interpretation of life, which is the interpretation by the Good, Wise, Almighty God and avoid the sordid and depressing interpretations. The more this meaning/spirituality possesses him the both more conscientious and happy the person becomes. But hardly anybody can ignore the dark pole of spirituality, namely the Devil. It keeps knocking on our soul’s door and even burgle in unannounced. Suddenly we may find ourselves burning with a wicked desire and some times we succumb to it as well. When we do succumb we have a brief spell of joy which looks out of this world (the Devil’s false paradise) but this effect quickly rubs out and a deep sense of shock and self-disgust envelops us. We feel that from our seemingly near to God location we moved a light-year’s of distance to the Devil’s den. If we become blind to the way back to God we settle down with the Devil and continue committing cruellest and most shameful acts hiding behind an ever thickening skin. Great criminals and atrocious dictators live like this. But if we retain some faith in God despite our fall we may then call on Him to forgive and save us. He is not coy, He is not too resentful, He immediately turns towards us as we turn towards Him and we are instantly transported from the den of the Devil to the Garden of God, which in this world is represented by our spiritual joy with Him.
The last verse above could not be more categoric: It says “Ask for pardon sincerely and have no doubt that you will be forgiven”. In other words sincere regret is the key to absolution of our sins in absolute terms. This leads us to another fact: that the main job of all prophets and godly, knowledgeable servants of Allah is persuading people to inspect their lives and consciences until they see all the bad things they thought and did and feel all the shame and regret they need until their hearts and mouths open to their Creator in begging His forgiveness in all sincerity and with a determination for never to go back to the same sins or commit others. At this point the begging servant is no less than the beloved of Allah and his salvation is assured barring a too bad relapse which is not very likely, for present sincerity almost ensures future prosperity in spirit.
All sums up to this: Salvation is when we make self-inspection and self-correction our greatest concern in life. We simply must not accumulate sins which are evils we committed in our personal life record. Like regular bath taking or house cleaning we must daily issue a balance sheet of our acts to ourselves and make sure that we recognise our any wrongs for the day and ask Allah’s pardon for them and Allah’s protection against doing them again.
10. TA’WIL (ULTIMATE INTERPRETATION)
All Holy Scriptures are universally agreed to need interpretation. From Hindus to Jews to Christians to Muslims, this is the belief and the practice. And the reason is obvious: A lot of the statements in Holy Scriptures contain allegories and metaphors and sometimes a verse refuses to make sense unless it is interpreted as an allegory or metaphor. Another device to make Scriptures more understandable is comment (tafsir) but this often includes a lot of interpretation. To see the difference between tafsir and ta’wil let us explain each and exemplify.
Tafsir is needed to fill in any information gaps the reader suffers from. For example, in the Surat al Fil (the Elephant) in the Qur’an Allah says “Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?”. If we do not know the history behind this allusion we cannot make much sense of it. Here the commentator (mufassir) steps in: He explains that around the birth date of the Prophet sws Mecca had come under an attack by an Ethiopian governor of the Kingdom of Abyssinia. His army was headed by an elephant which was supposed to act as a frightener for the enemy and also as a demolishing device like today’s tanks. But they were prevented from taking Mecca and demolishing the Kaaba when a flock of birds passed over them like a vast, dark cloud and deposited on them stones from their beaks and claws. The speed of the birds and the gravity of the earth added together to make these rather small stones very effective missiles which decimated the Abyssinians.
As for ta’wil, we may understand it from what Allah teaches us in Surat al Yusuf about that prophet’s AS interpreting the dreams of two of his prison mates and then the dream of the king. What the king saw in his dream, among other things were seven lean cows eating seven fat cows. Since all true dreams are messages from Allah we can regard them as Divine revelations on a reduced level and scale compared with revelations to a prophet. And most true dreams (note that they can be shown to both believers and unbelievers, for Allah is the Lord of all and belief or unbelief are temporary states while humanity in us is constant. Allah is too kind not to warn even unbelievers about what may await them) are in metaphor language which we may also call dream language. The king’s attendants, whom he had consulted on the matter were baffled by the dream and dismissed it as an ordinary nightmare. But the king knew better; his heart was testifying that his dream should be interpreted. All the while the term Allah uses for interpreting dreams is ta’wil and the taw’il of the king’s dream Joseph AS made was that seven years of bumper crops were going to be replaced by another seven years of severe draught and therefore possible famine. The king had to save enough grain throughout the seven bumper years in order to feed his people during the seven lean years, explained Joseph AS and the king gratefully and admiringly agreed. What we see here is translating dream/metaphor language often (not always) used in Divine revelations which look like lies or wishful thinking or nightmares to the unbelievers but impress the believers as containing a Divine truth in a symbolism which impresses them as highly significant and portentous but otherwise they are unable to fully explain.
What to do with this symbolism we shall insha Allah see in the verse that follows. But to drive the message home we must momentarily return to Joseph’s ta’wil: What he did was translating the two seven cows metaphor in two seven years of bumper and lean years. Since this was the ultimate reality behind the dream’s metaphors we can conclude that the word ta’wil means translating a metaphoric statement by Allah Almighty into the statements about tangible, effective realities in our existence. When we consider this we see that the unbelief of some people in matters like Paradise and Hell comes from their failure in understanding their metaphoric status and that like the king’s dream it needs to be translated into their ultimate realities which at the present only Allah knows.
THE MAIN VERSE ABOUT THE TAW’IL OF THE QUR’AN
1. It is He Who sent down on thee the Book. Some of its verses are ‘muhkamat’ (literally meant and explicit). They are the ‘Ummu’l- Kitab’ (the matrix of the Book). The rest are ‘mutashabihat’ (allegorical, metaphorically meant). Those in whose hearts is a crookedness pursue whatever (verse) metaphorises, thereby seeking trouble and seeking its ta’wil. Its taw’il none knows but Allah. Those profound in learning say “We believe in it (as it says), all (verses) are from our Lord. However only the people of intelligence can think soundly (3: 7)
C. So, the Qur’an’s metaphors are not as easy to decipher as the dreams a Joseph could so easily do. Their ultimate explanation, their ta’wil that is to say, entirely are within the competence of Allah the Most High. Almost all verses about the heavens, angels, the Last Day and its concomitants like the Resurrection, Judgment and Paradise and Hell…, simply on account of their being beyond our common experience and even beyond our possible scientific discoveries must be metaphorical expressions some things far greater and profounder than our simplistic if scientific view of the universe. Spiritual experiences suggest that some insight into these realities lying beyond these Qur’anic metaphors may offer us a few imperfect glimpses but we can never be sure nor can we know enough until Allah allows- that is to say after our soundest possible sleep- the death. Intelligent people know and resign themselves to this fact and patiently plod the Path of Allah humbly leaving it to Allah to disclose the realities so metaphorised as and when He Almighty sees fit. This resignation solves at least half of the problem and that it gives peace and a happy and hopeful expectancy to the servant who can now wait for, without undue curiosity or stress, the revelations on the way from Allah.
2. He (Joseph) said, o my dear father, this (your prostrating to me all my family) is the ta’wil of my dream which I had seen before (as a child when I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating to me). My Lord caused it to come true (12: 100)
C. This was when Joseph’s once treacherous brothers were told by the king’s glorious minister Joseph that he was their castoff brother and which news the brothers had then broken to their father. All then emigrated to Egypt (for Joseph has asked them to) and presenting themselves before the raised son prostrated themselves to him as the king’s minister as the custom of the age demanded. Joseph then reminded them his dream he had seen as a young boy as described above which telling had ignited his brothers’ jealousy even more and has sent them into their treachery. What is important here is the idea Allah gives us about what ta’wil is. Since the bright dream (which is a Divine revelation) featured a naturally improbable scene of eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating themselves to Joseph while the ta’wil (ultimate verification) was in the form of perfectly natural and factual event of his whole family of two parents (the sun and the moon in the dream) and eleven brothers (stars) prostrating to Joseph we understand that the Qur’an despite being the superior and supreme Revelation has the same situation between its metaphorical statements and their actual nature as real events which, for example Resurrection and Judgment are.
These two look, from a scientific or common sense point of view, improbable or impossible events but they are not: The ordinary meanings of the words may have nothing to do with the actual form of Resurrection and Judgment, events which a scientific analysis cannot fathom. Some profound Sufis are of the opinion that ours is a multi-layered world with multilayered consciousness in us and Resurrection, Judgment, Paradise and Hell are simultaneous parts of this existence which fact becomes clear at death. We can relate this to our dreaming and waking modes of consciousness. While dreaming we rarely recognise that we are dreaming and react to our dreamed experiences with all the emotionality of reacting to our wakeful experiences. Now who can guarantee that there is not another and still another… levels or modes of consciousness awaiting our entry into them and then they revealing to us what Allah means by Resurrection etc, Paradise etc.? Which shows how shallow must one be to dismiss Allah’s Messages simply because they do not satisfy our standards of reality at the mode and level of consciousness that we are. Allah knows best.
3. (Khidr AS says to Moses AS at the end of their unsuccessful association) “This is the ta’wil of what you were unable to keep patience with” (18: 82)
C. The two went about as teacher and pupil with Khidr AS trying to teach Moses AS ‘al ilm al ladun’- that God-given, untutored knowledge which enables one to see the future in certain situations and act to prevent any evil. All of us have ‘hunches’ about as to who is who and what to expect from a situation and this hunch ability is God-given. Some are born with more of it than others. In exceptional persons like Khidr AS this ability to read into both situations and the future is very well developed. In those with less well developed ability certain ascetic practices may enhance it. In itself the ability, whether naturally given (given by Allah without asking) or developed by ascetic exercises, is neither good nor bad. It is just an ability which one may use for bringing about good or abuse to bring about evil. Obviously a developed hunch ability is no sign of either spiritual elevation or sainthood. The ability is perhaps more prevalent among great criminals. It seems to depend on the size and sophistication of the lower centres of the nervous system, especially the abdominal ganglia. Such ganglia in some lower animals is the only ‘brain’ they have. The sign among people about hunch ability seems to be big abdomens (anatomically speaking) with or without them being also fat. Against this they may have naturally narrower chests. It must not be for nothing that people with big bellies among their rivals seem to be a bit more likely to become top politicians and bosses in other professions, provided of course that they are also very intelligent.
Success in worldly life definitely depends more on human relations skills than academic achievement and to be successful in human relations one must be able to read the minds of others, foresee situations and thereby be more able to manipulate or anticipate them. As already said, in both saint and sinner this ability may be present and in itself proves nothing about the person’s spiritual worth. The latter is only measured by the quality and amount of good character and good conduct when the combination is sincere and consistent.
Now, Khidr AS, was so much well developed that his skill could no longer be called hunch but seership or precognition, call it what you will. Add to this his facility of an inspired dialogue with the Creator and in him we have either a special prophet or a very exceptional saint. With his exceptional ability he could see some parts of the future with great clarity (called precognition) and that in his waking mode of the mind. Many can do it only while asleep and are given prophetic dreams. Khidr AS felt that he could confidently act to prevent any evil which may happen in future. Being a full and top saint as well, he could act with added inspiration and well-inspired permission from the Creator. Accordingly, he disabled a boat to save its passengers from capture by a corsair king waylaying boats in the open seas, he killed a boy for fear that he would grow up to be a tyrant and unnecessarily torment his good parents and lastly he, with Moses AS as his pupil-sevant (murid) repaired a derelict wall to stop it collapsing altogether and expose a treasure intended for two certain orphans by their dying father from whom they had inherited a house- the one which was now falling to ruin. Not knowing the reasons, the legal minded prophet Moses AS vehemently objected each time only to be embarrassed and to apologise to Khidr in the end and admit that he was not made for that kind of gnosis, as Khidr had warned him from the beginning.
This situation repeats itself also among some ordinary ulema and sufi masters. The former, trained in law but not equipped with the gnosis called ilm al ladun, cannot sometimes understand why a sufi master acts in a way which seems to offend the law. Let us take music and dancing among some Sufis. It is highly likely that in certain cases a sufi master allowed this knowing full well that without this neutral (not haram) concession it would be almost impossible to win new converts to Islam among a population who were too used and addicted to music and dance. In fact many religions feature a big music and dance element without which their devotees cannot feel spiritual. If killing a child (as Khidr did) is allowed to prevent an evil, why not allow music and dance to prevent the refusal of a people to embrace Islam. Not that one must allow everything coming from pre-Islam; but some things present a tolerable price to advance Islam. How can a saint with ilm al ladun allow kufr to win over Islam? What greater evil than kufr for a nation. Let them dance and sing but otherwise become good Muslims.
After these detours we may come to the message of this verse: It means that some disturbing gnostic acts on the part of some saints are not what they seem to be but are deliberately and legitimately committed in order to bring about a great good or prevent a great evil. The ta’wil of the disturbing act is its ultimate purpose; in this we have another definition of ta’wil. Lastly and MOST IMPORTANTLY: Many people are disturbed by Allah’s doings and begin to shout “Had Allah existed or been a good god He could not possibly have done this or that painful thing to so-and-so etc.” They forget that, as the Creator of Khidrs, Allah has infinitely more gnosis than all His servants and in his Kindness He acts in our ultimate best interests although from a narrow and simplistic worldly viewpoint many of His Acts may disturb and alarm us.
4. Are they (the unbelievers) awaiting its (Qur’an’s) tawil? The Day when its ta’wil arrives those who forgot about it (the Qur’an) before say “Indeed the messengers of our Lord had brought the truth (7: 53)
C. So, unbelief is caused by failure to understanding that all the creedal statements of the Qur’an, from the qualities of Allah to His treatment of His servants in another world and the accompanying descriptions are metaphorical. They take them literally instead and begin to ridicule and dismiss them calling them “the tales of the ancients”. Most moderns, including many scientists and most notably adherents of the biological sciences are of the same blind and deplorable opinion. They fail to recognise that faith is about curative and saving depth psychology and the realities a true faith like Islam conveys exist at a deeper or higher level, call it what you wish, and therefore outside the bounds of materialistic science.
5. (Shuaib AS says to his Midianites, very much noted for their commercial crookedness) “Measure with full measure when you measure and weigh with sound balances (and do not cheat people); this is better and best of ta’wils (17: 35)
C. What a gem of a gnostic verse! Does it mean less than the fact that piety eventually boils down to the quality of our dealings with fellow men? Obviously Allah means to say that whatever your protestations of faith and piety the ultimate meaning of them (their ta’wil) is the excellent reality of your very honourable and charitable dealings with Allah’s other servants. So long as you cheat or intend to cheat your faith is weak and your piety unreliable. A hadith supports this only too beautifully. Said the Messenger of Allah sws “Do not look a man’s prayers and fastings (to judge his piety) but look at how he deals with gold and silver coins (is he generous or stingy, honestly charging or dishonestly etc).