This article is part of a free translation of al-Iftqar ila Allah, Lubb al-‘Ubudiyyah by Ahmad al-Suwayan.
One of the best explanations of repentance is one offered by al-Ghazālī, ‘It is a fire raging in the heart, a fissure within that does not heal.’ The sincere believer experiences both regret and pain in his heart for succumbing to disobedience – the fear and fright of his Lord renders his heart asunder. Repentance fills the heart with an incessant need for Allāh and the servant suffers the lowliness of poverty and indigence. This causes the repenting person to resort to his Lord in a dejected state, acknowledging his sin, weeping over his offense, seeking forgiveness from Him, and seeking refuge with Him. Allāh the Most High says,
“They used to sleep but little of the night. And in the hours before dawn they would ask forgiveness.”
‘Uqbah Ibn ‘Ᾱmir narrates, ‘I said, “O Messenger of Allāh! What is salvation?” He said, “O ‘Uqbah, hold back your tongue; let your house be sufficient for you; and cry over your faults!”’ Such dejection and indigence owing to disobedience continues to remain in the heart until the act of repenting from the sin becomes ever more so rewarding than many other acts of devotion. Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī said, ‘A person will commit a sin and will as a result remain downcast until he enters Paradise.’
Ibn al-Qayyim shed light on the following saying of some of the righteous scholars of old, ‘A servant will commit a sin and as a result enter Paradise and a servant will perform a righteous deed and as a result enter the Fire.’ He said, ‘A servant commits a sin which then stays at the forefront of his mind when he stands, sits, and walks – always recollecting his sin. This generates dejection, repentance, seeking of forgiveness, and regret that become the source of his salvation. Conversely, an individual performs a good deed and it then continues to be at the forefront of his mind when he stands, sits and walks, each recollection of it causes him to view himself with amazement, pride and the sense of having favoured [others], which are all causes for his destruction. So the sin provokes the offering of acts of devotion, good deeds and such treatment and conduct of the heart including fear of Allah, being shy of Him, casting oneself down before Him with a head bowed out of shame, weeping full of regret and turning towards his Lord. Each and every single one of these consequences is more beneficial for the servant than an act of devotion that generates tyranny, pride, belittlement of people, and viewing them to be beneath consideration. There is no doubt that this sinner stands in a better stead before Allah and remains closer to salvation and success than one who is conceited for reason of his own devotional observance, who tyrannises on this basis and expresses his favours upon Allah and His servants – even though he may utter to the contrary! Allah is indeed witness to what is buried in his heart. Such a person purports to declare enmity to all and anyone who does not esteem him or submit to him and he finds in his heart hatred for one who treats him in this manner.’