Our Imams say that repentance (tawbah) is the starting point of one’s journey to God. Masters of the inward life say: inna’l-dhunub hijabun ‘ani’l-mahbub – “Indeed sins veil one from the Beloved.” To this end, the Qur’an instructs: And repent to God, O you of faith, that you may be successful. [24:31]
Tawbah – stemming from the word to “turn” or “re-turn” – is to turn away from sin. In other words, it is the act of turning away from other than God, to God. Without repentance, our sins rapidly mount-up to form veils of darkness upon our hearts, till they become so filthy or opaque that they become blinded to divine light: It is not the eyes that become blind, but it is the hearts in the chest which become blind. [22:46] Also in the Qur’an: No! They have rust on their hearts because of what they do. [83:14].
The following is a succinct treatment sketching something of the mood, manners and prerequisites of repentance. Written by Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi (d.741H/1340CE) as part of his acclaimed Quranic exegesis, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil – “The Facillitation of the Sciences of the Revelation” – it is a masterful précis of the subject. Particularly useful is the way in which he depicts the degrees of repentance, hence allowing the believer to deepen his “re-turning” to God and make the upward ascent to Him:
‘And repent to God, O you of faith, that you may be successful. [24:31] Repentance is an obligation upon every legally-responsible believer according to the evidences in the Book, the Sunnah and the consensus of the [Muslim] nation (ummah).
It has three obligations: (1) Feeling remorse over the sin due to disobeying God, not due to some harm that may have come to one’s wealth or self. (2) Refraining from the sin as immediately as possible, without procrastination or slackness. (3) Resolving not to repeat it again; but if one does, then one renews the resolve.
It has three courtesies: (1) To acknowledge one’s sin along with feeling utterly broken. (2) To increase in entreating God and beseeching His forgiveness. (3) To increase in doing good works so as to erase past wrongs.
It has seven degrees: (1) Repentance of disbelievers from disbelief. (2) Repentance of the sincere ones from major sins. (3) Repentance of the upright ones from minor sins. (4) Repentance of the devout worshippers from slackness. (5) Repentance of wayfarers from defects and vices of the heart. (6) Repentance of the high-minded, scrupulous ones from doubtful matters. (7) Repentance of those spiritually witnessing God from being distracted from God.’1
1. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 3:122.