By Dr. Eren Tatari
What we perceive the meaning of life to be and what we make of the hardships in life makes us or breaks us. And it is a strong possibility that our understanding of reward, sin, punishment, repenting…etc. is way different than how it is described in the scriptures (the fact that we are using the same words to describe a phenomenon does not guarantee that we mean the same thing). This story summarizes the Islamic perspective on who God is, why He creates us (the purpose of life), the nature of our relationship with Him, and the meaning of so-called challenges in life. Contemplating this story is an amazingly powerful prayer that will hopefully open many doors to Divine love…
“Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a very merciful and kindhearted teacher, who wanted nothing but the best for his students. He went to great lengths to create the most nourishing atmosphere for his students so that they could make the best of their abilities.
He always cared for them and advised them at every opportunity. He did not want his students to find themselves unprepared for life once they left school. He knew that by studying his works, they would be equipped with the knowledge and wisdom to become the individuals they were meant to be. He knew that if students did not educate themselves during the years they spent at school under his guidance, they would feel miserable and suffer great pain for the rest of their lives.
The teacher prepared tests for his students and advised them to study and give their all to make good grades. These tests would enable them to assess their skills and improve themselves.
Out of his endless benevolence towards his students, he made it clear that if they failed to pay attention to what he was teaching at school, they would experience the consequences later on in life.
Some students did not understand the teacher’s methods. Instead of studying, they entertained themselves with trivial games. Those students began to think that the teacher was a cruel person for making them do things they did not feel like doing. They were unmotivated by the teacher’s descriptions of the “real world” and did not understand or care for his advice. They felt that the tests he was giving them were meant to make their lives miserable.
When the end of the semester came, the lazy students failed and complained, accusing the teacher of being a cruel and uncaring punisher. ‘He failed us,’ they complained, completely ignoring the fact that they had prepared themselves for this end.
Some of those students, though, realized the truth and repented for what they had done. They realized that, not only did they wrongly describe him as unjust and cruel, but they also committed an injustice against themselves since they did not take the opportunity to make the best of their abilities.
Knowing how easily the teacher forgave, those who repented went to him to ask for forgiveness. The teacher forgave each student who was willing to realize his or her mistakes. The students learned to enjoy their education and realized that they were being prepared by their benevolent mentor to do well in the life that was to come thereafter.
Since they were thus equipped with what they needed for their life, they were doubly rewarded after graduation and led very successful and blissful lives. The students were always thankful for the guidance the teacher had provided them, without which they would not be in the heavenly conditions that they are now. And they lived happily ever after.”
Questions to ponder:
1. What is ‘sin’?
2. What is ‘punishment’?
3. Who ‘punishes’ you when you commit a ‘sin’?
4. What is ‘asking for forgiveness’?
5. What happens when you ‘repent’?
6. What happens if you commit the same sin a thousand times? Can you still repent?
There are approximately 339 references to God’s compassion in the Qur’an. God states on many occasions that He is the Forgiver and reminds people to repent of their mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Repentance means: a) To realize and acknowledge that we have been on a wrong or self-damaging path (as a state of mind, heart, being, or action), b) state a commitment to strive to be on the straight path that fits our nature best, and c) ask for forgiveness from God because we have insulted Him by thinking that He is unjust or uncaring. Repentance helps us to heal the damage we have done to our hearts. It is not an act for God. Even the last component of repentance (asking God’s forgiveness for having insulted Him) is for us to make it right within our self again.
The following verses speak directly about God’s forgiveness:
In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 1:1)
And when (O Messenger) My servants ask you about Me, then surely I am near: I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me. So let them respond to My call (without hesitation), and believe and trust in Me (in the way required of them), so that they may be guided to spiritual and intellectual excellence and right conduct. (Qur’an, 2:186)
God wills to turn to you (with mercy and favor, by explaining to you His commandments and guiding you to the Straight Path), whereas those who follow (their) lusts (i.e. for women, offspring, wealth, fame, status, and position) desire you to deviate greatly (from the Straight Path). (Qur’an, 4:27)
The above verse refers to a common human-state. When we do good or bad, we want others to follow suit. When we do good deeds, we want to share them with others so they feel the same joy we feel. When we do bad deeds, we know somewhere inside that it is bad, hence we do not want to be the only one doing it. For instance, the class clown tries to make his actions look cool so others will want to be like him. A person who has an irresponsible lifestyle tries to make others feel inadequate or boring for having orderly and responsible lives. Hence, as the verse states, when we follow our lowly desires, we want others to deviate from whatever good they are doing. It is like seeking an accomplice in our mischief.
When those who believe in all of Our Revelations and signs (whenever they come to them) come to you, say in welcome: “Peace be upon you! Your Lord has bound Himself to mercy (to treat His servants with mercy) – so that if any of you does a bad deed due to ignorance (an instance of defeat to the evil-commanding soul), and thereafter repents and mends his way and conduct, surely He is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 6:54)
Whoever comes to God with a good deed will have ten times as much, and whoever comes with an evil deed will be recompensed with only the like of it; and they will not be wronged. (Qur’an, 6:160)
… and My Mercy embraces all things; and so, (although in the world every being has a share in My Mercy, in the Hereafter) I will ordain it for those who act in reverence for Me and piety and pay their Prescribed Purifying Alms, and they are those who truly believe in all of Our Revelations and signs. (Qur’an, 7:156)
Inform, (O Messenger) My servants that I surely am the All-Forgiving, the All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 15:49)
For God will blot out from them (even) the worst of what they once did, and pay them their reward in accordance with the best of what they used to do. Is not God sufficient for His servant? (Qur’an, 39:35-36)
Say: “(God gives you hope): ‘O My servants who have been wasteful (of their God-given opportunities and faculties) against (the good of) their own souls! Do not despair of God’s Mercy. Surely God forgives all sins. He is indeed the All-Forgiving, the All-Compassionate.’” (Qur’an, 39:53)
He is the One Who accepts repentance from His servants and excuses evil deeds, and He knows all that you do. (Qur’an, 42:25)
God also encourages us in the Qur’an to be forgiving towards our fellow human beings:
They spend (out of what God has provided for them) both in ease and hardship, ever-restraining their rage (even when provoked and able to retaliate), and pardoning people (their offenses). God loves (such) people who are devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing them. (Qur’an, 3:134)
As for asking for forgiveness, we are taught Prophet Abraham’s prayer: “He said: ‘Who would despair of his Lord’s mercy, other than those who are astray?’” (Qur’an, 15:56). An essential part of the Qur’an’s message is that God forgives those who ask for forgiveness. The following are examples of the numerous verses in which God states that He accepts sincere repentance:
They are also the ones who, when they have committed a shameful deed or wronged themselves (through any kind of sinful act), immediately remember God and implore Him to forgive their sins – for who will forgive sins save God? – and do not persist knowingly in whatever (evil) they have committed. (Qur’an, 3:135)
God’s acceptance of repentance is only for those who commit evil due to ignorance (an instance of defeat to the evil-commanding soul), and then (pull themselves together and) repent shortly afterwards. It is they whose repentance God returns with forgiveness; and God is All-Knowing (of what everyone does and why), and All-Wise. (Qur’an, 4:17)
Pray God for forgiveness. Surely God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 4:106)
Yet, whoever does an evil or wrongs himself (by committing sins to harm himself spiritually), and then implores God for forgiveness will find God All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 4:110)
But he who repents after having done wrong, and mends his ways, surely God accepts His repentance. For God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 5:39)
But as for those who do evil deeds, but later turn to God in repentance and (truly) believe – after that (effort of self-reform) your Lord is assuredly All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate (especially towards His servants who turn to Him). (Qur’an, 7:153)
But God would not punish them so long as you were among them; and God is not to punish them (or other people) while they implore Him for forgiveness for their sins. (Qur’an, 8:33)
Except he who gives up his way in repentance and believes (without associating partners with God), and does good, righteous deeds – such are those whose (past) evil deeds God will efface and record virtuous deeds in their place (and whose faculties which enabled the evil deeds He will change into enablers of virtuous deeds). God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (Qur’an, 25:70)
He said (in supplication): “My Lord! Indeed I have wronged myself, so forgive me.” So He forgave him. Surely He is the One Who is the All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate (especially toward His believing, repentant servants). (Qur’an, 28:16)
The only exception to God’s encompassing forgiveness is assigning deity to anything other than God:
Assuredly, God does not forgive that partners be associated with Him; less than that, He forgives to whomever He wills (whomever He has guided to repentance and righteousness, either out of His pure grace or as a result of the person’s choosing repentance and righteousness by his freewill). Whoever associates any partner with God has indeed fabricated a most heinous sin. (Qur’an, 4:48)
Indeed God does not forgive that partners be associated with Him; less than that He forgives to whomever He wills (whomever He has guided to repentance and righteousness as a result of his choosing repentance and righteousness by his freewill). Whoever associated partners with God has indeed strayed far away (from the Straight Path). (Qur’an, 4:116)