Istighfar or “seeking forgiveness” of Allah is not simply confined to when we commit sins. Rather, courtesy (adab) towards Allah requires us to feel a sense of shyness (haya) before Allah on account of committing what He considers disliked (makruh) too; even when no sin has been committed. At a loftier level of faith, those who are distracted from Allah, even if momentarily, see this a lack of adab and a sort of transgression, for which istighfar is to be made.
Imam al-Nawawi holds that one meaning of the “cloudiness” mentioned in the above hadith refers to the Prophet’s continuous dhikr, and heart’s focus and presence with Allah, being interrupted – albeit, for brief moments – out of having to occupy himself with the affairs of the ummah and the welfare of the people. He writes: ‘Its cause is his being preoccupied with the affairs of the ummah and its welfare; waging war against the enemy and their harms; winning over hearts; and other such things. Even though such matters are from the greatest acts of obedience and the best of deeds, it is still a come down from the even more loftier degree and higher station of his being present with Allah, exalted is He, spiritually witnessing Him, being vigilant of Him, and being emptied of everything else beside Him. Hence he sought forgiveness.’2
Thus, how can we not feel a sense of shame before Allah when we are immersed in his graces, day in, day out, yet use them in acts of sin and disobedience to Him. Shaykhs of suluk urge us to have a daily recitation (wird) of istighfar which we recite with the above thought in our hearts. Istighfar one hundred times in the morning, and again towards the day’s end, is a good beginning, they say. One such way of carrying this out is to earnestly repeat: astaghfiru’Llaha wa atubu ilayhi – “I seek forgiveness of God and repent to Him.”
The Prophet, peace be upon him, mentioned that Allah, exalted is He, said: ‘O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and place your hopes in Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done and shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth, and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.’3
Another hadith states: ‘Whosoever takes to seeking forgiveness [of Allah], Allah shall appoint for him a way out of every difficulty, a relief from every anxiety, and provide sustenance from where he never expects.’4
Rabbighfirli wa tub ‘alayya innaka
1. Muslim, Sahih, no.2702.
2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 17:20.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.3540, saying that the hadith is hasan sahih.
4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.1517; Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3819.