Question: In this contemporary age when sins have spread like an epidemic, what does istighfar (asking forgiveness) promise for believers? Would you talk about particular segments of time that may be preferable for seeking God’s forgiveness?
Answer: Every child is born with the pure primordial nature, as stated by the Messenger of God.1 The essential idea in man’s responsibilities in this world is preserving this original nature until the time of death. All of the good acts that can lead one to eternal bliss are apt to protect this original nature, whereas all of the forbidden acts that might lead one to destruction are apt to corrupt it. While believers should build up sound sets and barriers against destructive sins on the one hand, they should constantly seek ways of preserving their original nature in untainted form. Every sin committed is a deformation with respect to human nature. Restoring one’s original nature after such deformation is only possible through istighfar—asking the forgiveness of God Almighty. Sometimes a heart contaminated by sins may come to the point of inability to fulfill its function.2 Thus, freedom from sins, which take one nearer to unbelief, and clearing up the stains sins leave on the heart are only possible through seeking God’s forgiveness and protection from sins.3
Indeed, believers must adopt a resolved stance from the very beginning and not step toward even the pettiest kind of sins. They need to strive for an auspicious atmosphere to keep them clean from sins and avoid dangerous grounds, just like one escapes from (the venomous bites of) snakes and scorpions. Such resolution and alertness can be achieved only by those with a believing heart and profound conscience that feel as if he or she is falling into Hell with every sin. If one does not feel disgusted at a sin, then it is possible to judge that that person’s heart has already lost its vitality. A heart that does not feel upset and react against one’s wrongdoings or a heart that does not cause the person to lose sleep in remorse resembles a dead body. For this reason, a true believer’s heart reacts against sin. And the foremost reaction to be shown is istighfar—seeking God’s forgiveness and protection from wrongdoings.
As a believer says “Astaghfiru’llah” (I seek the forgiveness of God), he or she actually says—with the immense meaning of the Arabic present tense (mudhari)—that I seek Your forgiveness all the time as I am now asking and will always ask forgiveness from You. In this way the repentant one renders the wish for forgiveness of a past sin as a petition that includes an entire future. In fact, the All-Forgiving God may accept a single repentance and demand for forgiveness as forgiving of all sins of that person. However, what befalls on us is not sufficing with a single petition but continuing to ask forgiveness for a lifetime and bearing the remorse within. One must think how shameful it is to have committed the sin despite being shown the right guidance, what an insolence it is to dismiss a promise like Paradise and indulge in sin, always feel due shame within, and thus constantly make istighfar, to the degree of asking forgiveness ten thousand times for a single sin. Sometimes one should be unsatisfied even with that much, and say “alfu-alfi (a million times) Astaghfiru’llah,” trying to feel it within a million times over.
The Elixir That Cuts Out the Root of Inclination toward Evil
As istighfar restores the damaged human nature, it cuts out the root of inclination toward evil as well. A person who continuously purifies oneself by istighfar eliminates a ground of sins at the same time and no virus to invite others remains in the heart. In addition, God Almighty may curtail the feelings of inclination toward evil in a person who makes istighfar continually. In the Quran, God Almighty gives the glad tidings about the repentant ones who do good, righteous deeds that He will efface their sins and record righteous deeds in their place (al-Furqan 25:70). As He erases the record of deeds from sins, He can fill those gaps with beautiful things out of His infinite mercy. It is a different manifestation of the fact that His mercy surpasses His wrath.4
Bediüzzaman interprets this verse with a different approach and states that a person’s abilities for evil can transform into ability for goodness, as a consequence of repentance and asking forgiveness. Accordingly, when a person shows loyalty to God by turning to Him repentantly, He may respond as, “Now that you have turned to Me, I will change your potential for evil into potential for goodness.”
Important Time Segments for Istighfar
It is a tradition of the Prophet, upon whom be peace and blessings, to ask forgiveness three times right after performing the obligatory (fard) Prayers.5 The following two points can explain the wisdom of asking God’s forgiveness right after carrying out this act of worship—which is most loveable to God—with the prostrations during which the worshipper is expected to ascend to the nearest proximity to his or her Lord: firstly, people’s inability to maintain full concentration at the Prayer, failing to sense standing in the Divine presence but still roaming through their own world and running after their own pursuits. Such attitude constitutes a kind of disrespect toward God, especially during the Prayer, which is, indeed, the believer’s ascent to the proximity of God. If one is immersed in personal considerations instead of seeking the meanings the Prophet felt during his Ascension, that person needs to make istighfar for such a light hearted attitude.
Secondly, as the Prayer signifies a (lofty spiritual) state in which requests from God are more likely to be accepted, supplications made right after the Prayers have a different value. Therefore, the Messenger of God recommended using this opportunity and asking forgiveness three times. In this respect, the five prescribed Prayers are important grounds and opportunities for seeking God’s forgiveness and protection from sins.
A Qur’anic verse points out an important segment of time for making istighfar: “They used to sleep but little by night (almost never missing the Tahajjud Prayer). And in the hour of early dawn (sahar), they would implore God’s forgiveness” (adh-Dhariyat 51:17–18). This verse expresses appreciation for the believers who get up during the final hours of the night and make istighfar, who open up to God imploringly, and who prostrate and nearly forget to rise back up from the prostration position; it announces this appreciation to all dwellers of heavens, spiritual beings, and to all believers. As certain praiseworthy qualities of believers are related by the Qur’an or the Prophet, others who do not yet have those desirable qualities are encouraged to acquire them. Therefore, it is extremely important to rise during the final hours of the night when others are sound asleep and offer servitude to God by two units of Tahajjud Prayer, at the least.
Also, there are times when the heart is softened, when one feels the weight of sins on the conscience and overflows with emotion… they must be taken as great opportunities for istighfar. We can call them times for breezes of proximity to God. Additionally, turning to God repentantly right after one commits a mistake or sin will mean taking the opportunity of “the first moment of realization that one has stepped into mistake and sin,” for such moments are among the time periods when istighfar is most acceptable. Sins resemble whirlpools and they pull the individual into them like an addiction. It is difficult to rid oneself of sins after a person is immersed in them. If somebody in such a situation does not give the willpower its due and make resolved efforts to be freed from swamp of evils, that sinner may begin to wish for the non-existence of the Divine commandments that forbid those evils, and this wish might lead to one’s ultimate spiritual downfall by losing faith completely. This has been the general pattern for those who fall. This is why it is so important to step back from sin immediately, fearing to come to a point of no return.
Let me conclude with one final point. Even though the times we mentioned above are important opportunities for istighfar, it is not necessary to allocate a special time for seeking God’s forgiveness and protection from sins; indeed, limiting istighfar to those segments of time is wrong. One can and should ask forgiveness from God at any time during night and day, taking every moment of life as an opportunity for it. Whenever possible, one can draw to a corner, sit on bent knees, or prostrate oneself, and turn to God repentantly and ask forgiveness. One can open up to God through istighfar while walking somewhere, driving, or waiting for someone; one should make use of every available moment in this respect. Death can come any time, and meeting death with lips mumbling istighfar is a very important means in terms of walking to the realms beyond in a purified state.
1. Sahih al-Bukhari, Janaiz, 80, 9
2. This does not refer to the marvelous blessing of the physical heart in the chest that pumps blood throughout human body, but to its spiritual counterpart. (Ed.)
3. Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Tafsir al-Surah, (83) 1
4. Sahih al-Bukhari, Tawhid, 22
5. Sahih Muslim, Masajid, 135
This text is the translation of “İstiğfar“