Imam Ghazali: On the Nature of Repentance and its Definition [pdf e-text]

from his Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din  

Explication of Repentance and its Definition

Repentance is a concept consisting of three successive and joined elements: knowledge,state [of remorse] and action. Knowledge is first, awareness second and action third. The first necessitates the second, and the second necessitates the third, in accord with the continuity of the divine regimen in matters temporal and spiritual.

As for knowledge, it is the realization of the magnitude of the sin’s harm and its being a barrier between man and the divine. If he realizes this with utter and decisive certainty, overwhelming his heart, this reali­zation will stir a heartache on account of the Beloved eluding him. For the heart, whenever itperceives the withdrawal of the Beloved, is pained. If the withdrawal be through man’s own action, he is regretful of that alienating behaviour. Such grief of the heart over behavior alienating the Beloved is called Regret.

When this anguish becomes overpowering, another inner state is induced, termed volition and aspiration towards [new] behaviour con­nected with the present,the past, and the future. Its connection with the present consists of the repudiation of the sin with which he was entwined. For the future, it involves the determination to abandon forever the sin which causes alienation from the Beloved. With regard to the past, it entails correction of what was omitted by[doing] good and performing [the omitted act], if it is susceptible to [such]restoration.

Thus, knowledge is prerequisite and is the starting point of these bless­ings. By this knowledge I mean faith, and certitude. To have faith is to accept as true that Sins are adeadly poison. Certitude consists of the assurance of the acceptance of this truth, the removal of all doubt about it and finally its mastery over the heart,so that whenever the illumina­tion of this Faith shines upon the heart it produces the fire of Regret. It, in turn, will bring forth anguish as the heart perceives, through this illumination of the light of the faith, that it has become veiled from its Beloved. As one who was in darkness and on the verge of ruin, and, with the dispersal of clouds and the rending of a veil, the illumination of the sun shone and radiated upon him,223 and he saw his Beloved. Then the flames of love burn in his heart and these flames flare up in his will to rise to correct his ways.

Knowledge,Regret, and the intent connected with abandonment [of sin] in the present andfuture, and correction of the [sin perpetrated in the] past are three successive concepts within this process. The term Penitence (tawba)refers to this totality. Frequently, the term Penitence is used for the concept of Regret alone, as if making knowledge a precon­dition, and abandonment a result and later consequence. It is in this sense that the Prophet said: ‘Regret is Repentance,’ for Regret is void of knowledgewhich [4] necessitates and evokes it, and of determination which follows it.  Regret is surrounded at both ends, by its result and its cause.

In this sense it is said, about Repentance as such that it is the melting of the entrails as a result of previous offense for this exposes to sheer agony. It is therefore said: /It is a fire raging in the heart, a fissure within that does not heal/. With respect to the meaning of Abandonment as an element of Repentance, it is related: It is the casting off of alienation and the start of fidelity.

Sahl ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Tustari has said: Repentance is the change from reprehensible acts to commendable acts. This can be accomplished only in solitude and silence, eating from that which is allowed [i.e., earn­ing an honest livelihood]. He seems to have pointed to the third element of Repentance.

The sayings about Repentance are innumerable. Yet, if you have understood these three aspects in their junction and sequence you will know that all that has been said regarding it falls short of encompassing all its aspects. The search for the knowledge of the true essence is more important than the pursuit of mere verbalizations. [pdf e-text]

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