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The reality of repentance (at-tawbah) and its significance and the rules governing it is among the most sublime Islamic realities and among the highest Qur’anic teachings not found in any other religions or books.
At-Tawbah literally means to return. It signifies the returning of a servant to God with remorse for his misdeeds and a firm intention to leave the way that was distancing him from the path of servitude. Repentance is a good deed but it requires strength and willpower.
According to the Qur’an, a servant’s single repentance is flanked by two turnings from God: …then He turned to them so that they might turn (to Him) (9:118) is the first turning and …these it is whom I turn (2:160) is the second turning.
First turning from God:
God manages the affairs in such a way that the servant can repent, gets strength to cut himself off from the factors that were taking him away from God – thus he returns to God. After being helped in this way to repent, he again needs a second turning.
Second turning from God:
It is when God turns to the servant with mercy and forgiveness
God has made it obligatory for Himself to accept a servant’s repentance. This does not mean that anyone else can obligate God to do something. The obligation is evident in the following verse: Repentance with Allah is only for those who do evil in ignorance, then turn (to Allah) soon, so these it is to whom Allah turns (mercifully), and Allah is ever Knowing, Wise (4:17). The obligation covers all types of repentance – whether the servant repents from polytheism or disbelief and returns to true faith or from sin and disobedience if he is already a believer.
The clause those who do evil in ignorance in verse 4:17 covers both the disbelievers and the believers provided they are not obstinate in their disbelief or sin.
The word “ignorance” is the opposite of knowledge. People are conscious of the fact that they do all their deeds with knowledge and will. Take an example of a person who commits a sin and has knowledge of the action being a sin. Notice that his knowledge did not prevent him from falling into a trap. That knowledge is counted as non-knowledge and he is now called ignorant. That is why they call a young inexperienced person “ignorant” as his actions are governed by desire and emotions dominate his life. It is for this same reason they do not call a sinner who feels no remorse for his sins and does not turn away from desires “ignorant”. His condition is rather called obstinacy and willfulness.
It is now clear that “ignorance” in this context means doing an evil deed under the influence of desire or anger – without being obstinate to the laws of God. It is an intrinsic nature of such deeds (done in ignorance) that when the storm subsides, and the inflamed desire or anger is extinguished – the person returns to the knowledge and that ignorance goes away; then he feels remorse for what he had done.
It happens sometimes that an obstinate and stubborn person turns away from his evil deeds; and instead of confronting the truth he now submits to it and enters the fold of servitude. From this point of view no one could be called an obstinate and stubborn sinner except the one who never turns away from his evil deeds to the last moment of his life and health.
The man who does evil because of ignorance would not remain busily engaged in his misdeed all his life; he would not do what the obstinate ones do; they never show any sign of returning to obedience. He would rather turn away from the misdeeds and return to God soon. The adverb “soon” refers to nearness of time and it means “before death comes to him and before the signs of the other world appear before his eyes”. The Qur’an says: And repentance is not for those who go on doing evil deeds, until when death comes to one of them, he says: Surely now I repent; nor (for) those who die while they are unbelievers. These are they for whom We have prepared a painful chastisement (4:18).
The clause “then turn (to God) soon” in verse 4:17 is an indirect allusion to those who go on postponing repentance until its chances are lost forever!
References: Al-Mizan, Eng Vol. 6