Repentance (tawba) simply means that one feels regret and is filled with remorse for wrongdoing and turns to God again with a new intention to make up what one has neglected. According to truth-seeking scholars, repentance signifies a sincere effort to be saved from opposing the Divine Essence in feelings, thoughts, intentions and acts and to sincerely comply with His commands and prohibitions. Repentance does not consist in feeling disgust at something bad or prohibited and giving up doing it. Repentance is remaining aloof from whatever God hates and prohibits, even if it seems agreeable to sense and reason. Repentance is usually used together with nasuh, literally meaning pure, sincere, reforming, improving and repairing. Tawba nasuh-sincere and reforming repentance - means a pure, sincere repentance that perfectly reforms and improves. It is that one feels sincere, heart-felt and true remorse for the wrongdoing one commits and sets a good example for others in this respect.
The Qur'an points to it where it mentions true repentance: O you who believe! Turn to God in true, sincere repentance. (66.8) There are three categories of repentance: (a) The first is the repentance of ordinary people who are unable to discern Divine truths. A man feels his disobedience to God as disquietude and, conscious of his sinfulness which clouds his heart, turns toward God and expresses his repentance with relevant words - such as: 'I have fallen or committed a sin, forgive me'! Or, 'I ask for God's forgiveness.' (b) Those half-awakened to Divine truths beyond veils of material existence feel an inward thrill of sinfulness and remorse just after anything occurring to their minds or hearts incompatible with the consciousness of always being in the omnipresence of God or after every instance of heedlessness enveloping their hearts - they then immediately take refuge with the Mercy and Favor of God. One with such degree of wakefulness and spiritual alertness is as described in the following Tradition: God's Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, declared: One who sincerely repents of his sin is as if he had never committed it. When God loves a servant of His, his sins do not harm him. Then he recited the verse: 'Assuredly, God loves the oft-repentant and those who always seek to purify themselves.' When asked about the sign of repentance, he declared: It is heart-felt remorse. (c) Those who live so careful a life that, as is declared in a Tradition, even while they themselves are sleeping, their hearts are awake, immediately discard whatever intervenes between God and their hearts and other innermost faculties and regain the consciousness of their relation to the Light of the Lights.
They always manifest the meaning of How excellent a servant! Truly he was ever turning in contrition (to his Lord). (38.44) Repentance means regaining one's essential purity after every spiritual deformation, and frequent self-renewal. [The stages of] repentance are: one feels sincere remorse and regret; one is frightened whenever one remembers the sins one has committed in the past; one tries to eradicate injustices and supports justice and right; one reviews one's responsibilities and performs or makes up obligations neglected in the past; one reforms oneself by removing spiritual defects caused by deviations and errors; one regrets and laments the times one has spent without mentioning or remembering God and thanking Him and reflecting on His works, and is always apprehensive and alert that one's thoughts and feelings may be tainted by things that intervene between oneself and God. This last quality is particular especially to those greatly distinguished with nearness to God. If a man does not feel remorse, regret and disgust for the error he has committed, however great or small it is, and if he is not fearful and apprehensive that he may fall back into it at any time, and if he does not take shelter in servanthood to God and sincerity in servanthood in order to be freed from the deviations and errors into which he has lapsed as a result of falling away from God, his repentance will be no more than lying. Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says about sincere repentance: I have repented and turned to God so sincerely that I will not break [the vow of penitence] until my soul leaves my body. In fact, who other than an ass steps toward perdition after having suffered so much trouble (on account of his sins)? Repentance is an oath of virtue, and holding steadfastly to it is heroism requiring a strong will-power. The lord of the penitents, upon him be peace and blessings, says that one who repents sincerely and holds steadfastly to it is of the rank of the martyrs, while the repentance of those who cannot be freed from their sins and deviations although they repeatedly repent of them means mocking the 'door' toward which the truly repentant ones turn in utmost sincerity and resolution. A man who does not refrain from sins although he claims that he fears Hell, and does not do righteous deeds although he claims that he looks forward to Paradise, and is indifferent to the way and practices of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, although he asserts that he loves the Prophet, cannot be serious and true in his claims. So also it is difficult to accept as sincere and pure-hearted one who spends his life between turns of sin and shows of repentance.
The first station of an initiate is repentance, while the second is inaba (sincere penitence). In everyday usage, inaba is also used to express the ceremony held when a man submits himself to a spiritual guide (as a murshid). While repentance requires training feelings, thoughts and acts to direct them from opposition to admission and obedience, sincere penitence demands critique of the authenticity, sincerity and sufficiency of that admission and obedience. Repentance is a progressing or journeying toward Go d - meaning efforts to do whatever is pleasing to God and refraining from whatever is forbidden by Him. Sincere penitence is an ascension through the stations of journeying in God - meaning efforts to live an upright life in self-annihilation and in absorption to seek God's good pleasure in whatever one does and thinks. Awba (turning to God in contrition), is an ascension through the stations of journeying from God-meaning being responsible for guiding others after having embodied the Islamic way of belief, thought and conduct. In other words, taking refuge with God in fear of dying an unbeliever and deserving eternal punishment is repentance; one's annihilating one's self in God with the desire of preserving one's spiritual rank is sincere penitence, and a man's closing himself to any other desires, ambitions or aims other than God's good pleasure is turning to God in utmost contrition. The first is the state of all believers and expressed in the verse: Repent you all to God, O believers! (24.31); the second is an attribute of saints and the foremost in belief and good conduct brought near unto God. Its beginning is to be seen in the verse, Turn to your Lord repentant (39.54) and its end is stated in, He comes with a contrite heart (50.33). The third is particular to Prophets and Messengers. God appreciates and praises them: How excellent a servant! Truly he was ever turning in contrition (to his Lord). (38.44) The words expressing repentance uttered by those who are always conscious of being in the Omnipresence of God in fact express sincere penitence or turning to God in contrition. It is in this sense that the words of the best of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, should be understood when he said: I ask God's forgiveness seventy or a hundred times a day. Repentance is the act or manner of those who try to live an upright life but are unconscious of God's constant supervision of His servants and what nearness to God really means.
Those who live in awareness of nearness to God regard it as heedlessness to turn to God in the way ordinary people do so, for He directs them however He wishes and constantly supervises them and is nearer to them than anything else. Their station is not the station of the people of the Unity of Being, ecstatic saints who view the creation completely annihilated in God and therefore accept God as the only truly existent being. It is the station of the people of the Unity of the Witnessed, the scholarly saints who accept that the truly existent one is He Who is witnessed or discerned beyond the creation. More than of those, it is the station of those progressing in the shadow of the practice of the Prophet Ahmad (Muhammad), upon him be peace and blessings, or in the light of the lamp of Muhammad. It is merely an assertion and groundless claim when those who are not of this station and live on [merely] the outer surface of their existence talk of awba and inaba and especially of the final points of these two stations.
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