Repentance is a key concept in all monotheistic religions and all Abrahamic faiths have stressed its religious importance. On the contrary, other religions do not emphasise this spiritual aspect and do not consider it to be relevant for the upliftment of the soul. For example, in Hinduism and Buddhism karma carries a major significance; accordingly, the action of the individual affects his destiny after life. Such destiny, good or bad, is created by the same acting of the person and it is the outcome of his previous doing: good actions calls for good destiny while bad actions call for bad destiny.
This is true for Abrahamic faiths as well since actions also determine our state in the Afterlife; however, they are not the sole cause for spiritual requital. When describing the abode of suffering for the evil-doers, the Qur’an says “an appropriate requital” (78:26), pointing out the fact that what evil you do is what evil you get, but when describing the blessings of paradise it says “a requital from your Lord, a gift made due by account” (78:36). The word ‘gift’ in the last verse has very interesting connotations. As much our efforts may originate from devotion and sincerity, they will never be worthy of eternal happiness because limited and defective actions cannot make up an everlasting and infinite state of joy. It is here that divine mercy plays a greater role for the entrance into the gardens of bliss and liberation from all types of suffering.
Sometimes the concept of repentance has been compared to purification. According to the Qur’an, this is correct as it says: “Indeed God loves those who are much repentant and those who purify themselves” (2:222). However this purification will not be fully realized through self-endeavours but from Grace as it is God who causes to purify His servants: “and He sent upon you from the sky water by which He purifies you and remove from you the impurity of Satan and to make steadfast your hearts and plant firmly thereby your feet” (8:11). Thinking one can aim towards perfection through own’s efforts only, without holy intervention and divine grace, leads to inner arrogance which is one of the greatest barriers to spiritual freedom. Here repentance becomes necessary to humble own’s self in order to acquire the full taste of servanthood which is necessary for real worship. Real worship, in fact, is not what physical eyes can see but where your heart stands in front of the Lord’s greatness. It is, therefore, correct to say that repentance is the premise of all worship.
In this light, repentance stands in opposition to all those paths calling for boosts from the ego, even in metaphysical realms, while it makes us realise the source of all powers and wonders in the universe and our actual position and role in the cosmos in perfect harmony with everyone and everything.
Literally, the Arabic term used for repentance is ‘tawba’ which means ‘to return’ and implies turning one’s heart and soul towards God in utmost humility, removing the impurity of sin in order to enter a new stage of peace and tranquillity. In the Arabic language, the person performing tawba is called ‘ta’ib’ but in the Qur’an the form ‘Tawwab’ has been also stressed, for example when it is said: “Indeed God loves those who are much repentant [tawwabin]”. The form ‘Tawwab’ rhetorically insists on the intensity of the action and interestingly even God Himself has been called ‘Tawwab’: “Indeed He is Tawwab” (110:3). This intimate relation between the Creator and His servant, both of whom plays such an active role, is not to be found outside the monotheistic religions.
A specific discipline and particular ethical traits have been mentioned for repentance: remorse with the heart, pleading with the tongue and resolution with the body. Remorse implies to realise the gravity of the sin and to understand the unsuitability of the repentance of a sinner when compared to divine mercy, the pleading is the manifestation of the inner feeling with the awareness that God is All-Hearing and All-Seeing, and the resolution is the will to not fall back into sin with appreciation and gratefulness for all favours that have been bestowed upon us of which we are not worthy.
From what we have said, repentance should not be taken as a mere concept but as a full experience stemming from a feeling of both love and humility. Such a feeling is the most fundamental part of all devotional acts without which there would be no possibility of overcoming any inner pain and reaching desired lofty goals. This means that the believer should refine his intention out of sincerity and avoid any act of ostentation or any sort of fictitious ambition. Secondly, the person should not make a habit of his repentance since actions are outward manifestations of inner feelings; so if feelings are deficient and not right, actions will be deficient and not right as well. Interestingly enough, it has been mentioned in some Islamic traditions that a believer faces a calamity at least once every forty days: in this way, repentance will not be an act performed out of routine but a divinely-felt and much-sought mediation between himself and the All-Forgiving.
The power of invocation and supplicating to God at any moment of the day with a pure heart, so that He would be our best friend in the moments of hardship and ease, continuously remembering Him through intimate conversation and abiding proximity, admitting own’s shortages and deficiencies while confirming His full power over everything, is the real force enabling us to face and solve all our daily problems. Realising how small is our state compared to the Lord’s sublimity brings us to continuous repentance which in turn brings continuous invocation and supplication. A constant relationship with God, even for the apparently smallest and insignificant issues, grows the sentiment of love which is indeed the very spirit of faith.