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REPENTANCE. The Arabic term tawbah literally means “return.” When used with reference to humans it means the individual’s return to God after falling into sin or error; when used with reference to God, it means that divinity has turned to the penitent with compassion.

Repentance is an informal act in Islam and does not require atonement or ecclesiastical confession. The most comprehensive expression of repentance is essentially a moral one. The penitent should be convinced that a sin did occur, show remorse, and resolve to abstain in the future. If the sin committed involves the violation of a fellow human being’s rights, then restitution is a precondition to repentance. If it does not infringe on others’ rights but involves an offense against God, then penitence, remorse, and a resolution to abstain are sufficient.

Classical scholars saw sin and repentance as related to the individual; in modern writings there is a notable shift in emphasis relating these to questions of morality and social reform. This trend is noticeable in the writings of the nineteenth-century reformers and culminates with their recent revivalist successors.

The Egyptian reformer Muhammad `Abduh (18491905) and his disciple Muhammad Rashid Rida (18651935) stress the dimension of public acknowledgment of sin as a vital part of the act of repentance. This stems from the Qur’an, surah a. 160, where the accent is on repentance, making amends, and acknowledging the truth by disavowing sin and error. However, the same verse concludes with the statement, “And I am the most Forgiving and the Dispenser of grace,” in which God personalizes repentance. Reformist scholars understood repentance to be society’s moral crusade against evil. Failing to repent means being an accomplice to wrong. The notion of repentance was harnessed as part of the project of social reform. While individual repentance was not rejected, it became subordinate to broader social concerns.

In the writings of revivalist leaders like Abu al-A’la Mawdudi (1904-1979) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the notion of repentance as social reform takes on another guise. According to their analysis, societies have fallen into a state of modern “barbarity” that can only be remedied by the implementation of the Islamic penal code. Repentance both individual and social takes place after the expiation of the sin by the law. Contrast this to the traditional view of al-Shafi’i (d. 819) that a penal sanction (#add) lapses if it is preceded by an act of repentance. This is also the view espoused by most modernist scholars.

Contemporary revivalist and even modernist discourses on repentance are polemical and consistently oppose Christian doctrine of original sin. Individual repentance is posited as the antithesis of the crucifixion and its accompanying salvation. While these polemics are primarily directed at Christianity, they indirectly serve as a puritan countermeasure to certain strains of popular Islam in which salvation through the intercession of saints features prominently. The subtle influence of doctrines of salvation in cultures that coexist with Islam is clearly distinguishable in the notion of repentance. Both Mawdudi and Qutb present repentance as a doctrine of hope and describe the Christian doctrine of original sin as a doctrine of despair.

Reformist and revivalist expressions of Islam maintain that genuine repentance means a renewed commitment to the faith followed by sincere and virtuous deeds. Traditionalists part company from the other expressions of Islam by arguing that faith alone can lead to salvation after expurgatory punishment has been suffered. According to this belief, a nominal believer will not suffer perpetual damnation. Other schools of thought contend that faith and action together constitute an acceptable definition of Islamic belief.

Twentieth-century writers on repentance also derive explanations from psychology and sociology. Sayyid Qutb, commenting on surah 25.70 regarding the one who “repents, attains to faith and does righteous deeds, God will change the evil of such persons into good,” says that by a process of “positive substitution” sinful impulses are replaced by virtuous ones. Others view the Qur’anic concept of tawbah not as repentance from singular identifiable violations, but rather as the transformation of personality. This resembles the Sufi attitude toward repentance, in which the term denotes spiritual conversion. Whereas traditionalists insist on the confession of sin and the declaration of the truth as a precondition for repentance, modernists following the Sufi tradition emphasize a change in personality as the goal of repentance. In Sufism any recollection of sin or thought of remorse is wrong; for to remember sin is to forget God and a cardinal sin. The Qur’an constantly exhorts believers to return to God, and the prophet Muhammad is said to have sought God’s forgiveness several times a day.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. “The Qur’anic Vocabulary of Repentance: Orientations and Attitudes.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, Supplement (December 1979).

Maududi, Sayyid Abu al-A’la. The Meaning of the Qur’an. Lahore, 1978.

Muhammad Shafi`. Ma’arif al-Qur’an (Urdu). Karachi, 1969. Nicholson, Reynold A. “Tawba.” In First Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 7, p. 704. Leiden, 1913-.

Qutb, Sayyid. Ft Zildl al-Qur’an Cairo and Beirut, 1981. Rashid Rida, Muhammad. Tafsir al-Mandr. Beirut, n.d.

EBRAHIM MOOSA

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/repentance/
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  • writerPosted On: July 16, 2017
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