By Altaf Gawhar

‘Tawbah’ is essentially a contract with the future. I shall explain this in the light of Quranic verses and the relevant explanatory notes in Tafhimul Quran.
The Arabic word ‘Tawbah’ means ‘to return’ and is used to convey two distinct thoughts: man turns to God for mercy, and God turns to man in mercy. It also implies the existence of a state of right conduct from which man has strayed by committing some wrong.

Right and wrong

What is right and wrong? I ask this question not to answer it at this stage but to suggest, and this is immediately relevant to the subject, that whatever may be right or wrong and people have given different definitions at different times, the Consciousness of right and wrong is now almost universal. You may not be able to compile a list of all that you consider right or wrong, and even if you were to do so the first man taking a look at it might put it aside as arbitrary or pedantic. What is considered right in a given situation may be no better than a habit or an atrophied custom which we are too lazy or too self conscious to shake off.

A society might find it convenient to consign to the category of wrong all that endangers the vested interests or the status-quo. Again, rights and wrongs may fluctuate, even alternate, in terms of social manifestations or modes of behaviour, with the passage of time and change of environments. Yet, you have and I have, indeed all of us have, an instinct for right and wrong and it is this Instinct which helps us to discriminate between good and evil. Man has developed this Instinct and discrimination during the course of his development as a social being. He knows what is right even when he is engrossed in the pursuit of wrong. And inspite of variations in specific acts and practices, a consensus or an acceptable standard does establish itself from time to time according to which all human dealings and relations are judged and regulated. This consensus is not all contained in penal codes adopted by a community. These codes, however comprehensive can at best deal with certain types of violations and provide for punishing or preventing them.

A penal code may help a person to remain on the right side of the law, but no one will seriously contend that this by itself will ensure right conduct or turn a man into a good man. Similarly, a person who, in the light of his convictions, openly and deliberately violates a provision or a code which he considers unjust or oppressive does not necessarily become a bad man. The consensus on right and wrong is an unwritten law and represents what might be called the collective conscience of society.

Unwritten law

The Quranic concept of ‘Tawbah’ is related to this unwritten law which is not administered by any institution. A person who causes injury to another will be punished by Islamic courts according to due process, ‘Tawbah’ cannot influence, delay, or obstruct that process. ‘Tawbah’ is not a spell or an incantation, a dispensation or a device to frustrate the course of law.

A wrong has to be established according to due process before the person responsible for it can be punished. This is basic to any civilised system of law. What happens if a wrong is never discovered or brought to a court of law for determination? Does it cease to exist? Is the person who perpetrated it not responsible for it? Does he have no problems or conflicts within himself ? Is he the same man that he was before he committed the wrong ? No court of law may be seized of the matter and no one may know about it. But he knows what he has done and within him a ‘seizure’ has occurred. He will hide it.

He will wince involuntarily and feel exposed whenever the wrong is mentioned even without reference to him. He will try to forget it and may even remove himself from the scene but it will keep gnawing at his heart. Going over it again and again, explaining and rationalising it, he will only exhaust himself without finding any solace. When a wrong is committed a moral situation arises for the man responsible for it and he has to resolve it in order to be able to live with himself and with other people. This situation does not disappear if there is no judicial cognisance or determination of the wrong.

Indeed, it does not disappear even when it is so determined and the man undergoes suitable punishment for it. In the latter case social rehabilitation of the individual may become easier, but his problem with himself will continue until he finds a solution.

Moral crisis

The problem arises because man’s instinct for good and evil is violated by a transgression thereby creating a moral crisis. This crisis may be called, for convenience, the consciousness of guilt which is not removed by punishment alone. Punishment helps to restore order. It does not restore good. Man’s consciousness of guilt is distinct from the fact of the wrong which is committed. While an offence can be objectively dealt with according to some recognised procedure regulating the, administration of justice, the subjective situation requires a different treatment.

It is in this context that the Quranic concept of ‘TAWBAH’ can be best understood. But before dealing with this concept it is necessary to mention the Quranic position regarding ‘atonement’ and ‘intercession’. That some one else can carry our burden of sin in addition to his own finds no acceptance in the Quran. That some one can intercede on our behalf is also ruled out except for a limited purpose under specific conditions.


Atonement in Christian theology means the reconciliation of God and man by means of the incarnation and death of Christ. This has no place in the Quran where every individual is finally accountable for his own acts. There is no ritual of appeasement, reparation or expiation in Islam. The only act directly connected with the redemption of a wrong is ‘Qissas’. This word has been translated as ‘law of equality’ by Allama Yusuf Ali and as ‘retaliation’ by Rodwell and Muhammad All. I prefer the word ‘reparation’.

Let us see how the concept of Qissas is described in the Quran. In giving my own rendering in English of the relevant verses from the Quran, I have relied mainly on the Urdu translation in Tafhimul Quran:

“in the Torah we inscribed a Commandment for the Jews: Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth and equal injury for all injuries. But he who forgoes the right of retaliation out of charity is atoned. And those who do not judge according to the Divine Law are transgressors indeed.”

(5:45 Vol. 1 Tafhimul Quran Page 474)

In Surah 17, Verse 33 (Tafhimul Quran Vol. 11 page 614) it is said:

“It is forbidden by God that you should kill a human being except when it is justified. And if a person is killed wrongfully his heir is entitled to reparation but not beyond reasonable limit. In this he will be helped.”

Surah 2 verses 178 and 179 (Tafhimul Quran Vol. I pages 137-139) provides:

“0, Believers, reparation is ordained in cases of murder; The free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. However, if an aggrieved person, is willing to be charitable toward the culprit the matter should be compounded according to common usage. The amount awarded should be honestly paid. This is in mitigation of the crime and a favour from God. Whoever exceeds the limit after this will incur awful punishment. There is security for you in the law of reparation, O man of understanding. Hopefully, you will restrain yourself.”

The law of reparation applies to cases of murder alone and its purpose is to establish security and compensation is permitted ‘in mitigation of the crime’ as a favour from God. In respect of other wrongs and offences the law of reparation is of no avail.


Quranic injunctions relating to atonement (Asffara), sacrifice (qubanai) and charity (sadaqa) show that these are not acts of reparation but virtues which carry their own reward. They are not offerings to God in expiation of one’s sins. ‘Kalfirs’ (atonement) has been discussed in note 125 of Tafhirnui Quran (Page 383, Vol. 1). ‘Kaffara’ is not a fine but a form of penance.

Payment of fine is rarely accompanied by any regret, nor does it imply any desire to reform oneself. Indeed, the payment of fine is often the result of compulsion which creates a sense of bitterness and disgust. ‘Kaffara’ literally means ‘something with which you conceal’, Something good done in the spirit of ‘Kaffara’ covers an evil act just as a black spot on a wall is covered by a white coating.”

Kaffara is offered in certain situations e.g. those involving violation of oaths. In encourages humility, discipline and charity.

“To atone for a pledge you have violated you must feed ten poor people in the same way in which you feed your family”. (Surah 5, verse 89).

Obviously, if the violation of the pledge has caused injury to another the feeding of ten people will have no bearing on the offence or its punishment.

Form of prayer

Similarly, sacrifice is not a form of reparation. it is a form of prayer. ..it is the act of piety in making a sacrifice that pleases God. Not the flesh and blood of the animal which is sacrificed.” (Surah 22, verse 37).

In Surah 108, verses 1 to 3, prayer and sacrifice are mentioned together:

“0 prophet, we grant you bounties unlimited so turn to your God in prayer and sacrifice. Your detractors are forever doomed.”

And ‘foregoing’ (sadaqa) means a willing surrender of one’s claim. This is explained in Surah 5, verse 45 relating to ‘Qissas’ quoted earlier. The relevant portion is ‘but he who forgoes the right of retaliation is atoned’. The essential element here is charity toward others rather than atonement for oneself.

No ceremony or ritual is prescribed in the Quran to propitiate God. The very word propitiate conjures up the image of a power malevolently disposed toward Man, whereas God is most forgiving, and most compassionate He does not have to be appeased. His sole concern is that Man should avoid evil, which brings him pain and pursue good, which brings him happiness, and leads him to eternal bliss.


Repentance must occur while there is still time to make amends and amends can be made only by deeds, not by words. Repentance offered at the last moment might ease the pain of death but it is no more than a ritual. Repentance is relevant when man’s capacities are still intact and he can choose between good and evil. The door of repentance does not open on the threshold of death.

“Repentance is only for those who err in ignorance and lose no time in making amends. God is all-knowing and He turns to such people in mercy. But those who persist in evil until death overtakes them and then repent merit no consideration. Nor do those who reject faith till the very end. There is awful punishment for such people.

(Surah 4, Verse 17-19, Vol. 1, page 332-333).

Note 27 under Verse 18 explains the point:

“Take the example of a servant who turns away from his master in defiance and returns to him in remorse. The master takes a com- passionate view and accepts him back in service. This is the process of repentance. In this verse it is clarified that this arrangement extends only to those who err not blatantly and deliberately but out of ignorance. The moment they realise their mistake they retrace their steps and seek forgiveness. Such people, whenever they return to the right path, find the doors of forgiveness wide open. These doors do not shut out hope. All your lapses notwithstanding, return when you will.”

Before signs of death

To expect that one should be able to repent when one is dying after a life of indulgence makes nonsense of repentance. The Prophet said, “God accepts repentance before the signs of death set in” How does one make amends in this life after it is over? Similarly, if one persists in disbelief throughout one’s life and awakens to truth on the other side of death one gives oneself no chance for repentance. (Vol. 1, page 333)

Repentance helps man to regain his inner right which is the source of guidance. The purer the repentance, the clearer the light.

“0 Believers, turn to God in unalloyed repentance. He may relieve you of your ills and admit you to Gardens with rivers beneath them. On the Day of Requital God will not disappoint His Prophet, nor those who shared his faith. Their light will shine ahead of them and beside them as they pray “0 God, keep our light intact and grant us pardon for you are the Master of all’.”

(Surah 66, Verse 8, Vol. VI, page 30) There is a detailed note under this verse:

Note 19: The words used in the text are Tawbatun Nasuhah. The word Nasuhah in Arabic means sincerity and goodwill, Pure honey is called Asi Nash which is free of wax and other impurities. Sewing a piece of torn cloth and repairing it at the seams is referred to as Nasabatus Saub. The use of the word Nasuh after Tawbah would mean,

(a) to offer sincere repentance in which there is no element of hypocrisy 
(b) to exercise fore- thought to avert disaster
(c) to repair a cleavage in one’s faith and
(d) to turn one’s life into a model for others.

The Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, explained the meanings of Taubah-e-Nusuh in the following words:

‘When you have committed a sin you should feel sincere regret within yourself. Then in remorse you should turn to- God for forgiveness and after that never commit that sin again.’

Hazrat Umar said: “Let alone repeating a sin, after repentance one cannot even think of it.”

Hazrat Ali’s words

Hazrat Ali once saw a bedouin repeating words of repentance in a great hurry. “This is fake repentance”, remarked Hazrat All. The bedouin asked, ‘What is true repentance?’ Hazrat All explained that there are six elements in an act of true repentance:

(i) You should regret what has happened.
(ii) You should discharge the duty which you have neglected.
(iii) You should restore the right which you have misappropriated.
(iv) You should apologise to the one whom you have caused injury.
(v) You should resolve not to repeat the act.
(vi) You should dedicate your self entirely to the service of God, so that you may experience the rigours of obedience as you relished the pleasure of transgression.

There are certain other aspects of Tawbah which need to be understood.

“Firstly, repentance must be based on the consciousness that one has acted in a manner contrary to the will of God. 
Secondly, repentance must follow this consciousness directly so that amends are made without delay. Repentance cannot be postponed. 
Third, repentance is not a sport. You cannot take a pledge to violate it again and again. Repentance is the result of regret and if one lapses into the same kind of conduct after repentance the element of regret must be missing. 
Fourthly, if there is a relapse, due to human weakness, the old sin is not revived, and a fresh resolve for the future is required.
Fifthly, the memory of sin, however pleasurable should evoke a sense of shame and fear of God through constant repentance.” (Vol. VI, page 30)

To conclude, I quote Verse 3 from Surah 9, which sets out the terms of the covenant between God and man:

“The truth is that God has entered into a Covenant with the Believers accepting their life and property and giving them in return the promise of paradise. Under this Covenant the Believers persevere in the way of God and offer the supreme sacrifice. The promise of paradise, in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Quran, is irrevocable. Who can fulfils a promise better than God ? So rejoice at the transaction you have concluded. This in itself, is a great achievement. Those who subscribe to this revert to God again and again. They obey Him and pray to Him bowing, prostrating, and singing His praise, and they traverse the earth in His cause. They enjoin good and forbid evil. Give them good tidings, 0 Prophet”. (Vol. 11, page 235)

Note 108 explains: “The word used in the text is ‘Altaibun’, which literally means ‘those who repent’. But the context in which the word occurs shows clearly that repentance is a fundamental characteristic of the Believers. They repent not once but all the time. The rendering we have adopted to convey the real spirit of the word is, they ‘revert to God again and again’.

A Believer enters into a Covenant with God with a full sense of responsibility, pledging his life and property to His cause. But there are moments when he tends to treat his life and property as his own, forgetting that God is the real Master. These moments occur quite often and man, ignoring his obligations, acts in a defiant manner. It is only after he realises, with a sense of mortification, that he has been guilty of a lapse, and turns to God in remorse that he re-assumes the responsibilities imposed upon him under the Covenant. He seeks forgiveness and revives his pledge.

 It is this willingness to revert to God again and again, this readiness to resume one’s obligations after having gone astray which distinguishes a Believer and in- vests his faith with a quality of permanence. To expect that man should carry out his part of the contract consistently and flawlessly throughout his life without a single lapse would be setting an impossible target, considering how vulnerable and exposed to temptation man is by nature.

Distinguishing quality

God has not defined a Believer as one who never deviates from the path of duty. Indeed, a Believer is one who returns readily to the right course after being led astray. Man has the capacity to rid himself of evil and to identify himself of evil and to identify himself with good. In these verses the ability to repent has been mentioned as the distinguishing quality of a Believer. The preceding verses refer to elievers who have been guilty of something inconsistent with their faith and the first quality they are asked to cultivate is the willingness to turn to the right path as soon as they discover their mistake and not to persist in transgression lest they should find themselves completely enmeshed in a life of sin.”


The concept of Tawbah is based on (i) the recognition of man’s weakness which exposes him to temptation and (ii) the availability of opportunities to man to reform himself. Tawbah becomes meaningful when man avails himself of those opportunities and undertakes to make amends by his conduct. Surah 16, Verse 119 says:

“However, those who transgressed out of ignorance, And after repentance Reformed their conduct Found God Merciful and Gracious. (Vol. 11, page 579)

The word, ignorance, means not just lack of knowledge but also improper understanding. One may be led into an erroneous or wrongful course of action due to faulty reasoning, poor appreciation of factors relevant to a decision, and failure to maintain a balance between the means and the end, between reason and emotions or between self-interest and social interests. The plea of ignorance ceases to be relevant when man, having come to realise his error, deliberately persists in it.

‘But those who turn away after they have come to believe and grew in disbelief must know that their repentance is futile. They are confirmed in sin.’

(Surah 3, Verse 89, Vol. 1, page 271) Nations

Nations, like individuals, commit themselves to pursuits which result in their destruction. They too are given warnings and offered opportunities to reform themselves.

“And we sent to Aad their brother Houd. Turn to God, he said, you have no god but Him the rest are mere figments of your imagination. I want nothing from you. My reward is with the One who created me. Use your mind a little and ask for forgiveness. Turn to Him and He will open the skies to you in their abundance and you will grow from strength to strength. Do not turn aside like culprits. (Surah 11, Verse 50-52, Vol. 11, page 345)

Note 57 under this Verse (Vol. 11 page 346) says:

“This is the same thing which the Prophet was called upon to say in the first section of this Surah: ‘Ask forgiveness of your God and turn to Him, He will give you the good things of life’ “.

The rise and fall of nations depends on moral factors. Divine control of the universe rests on ethical foundations and not on abstract laws devoid of moral content.

Note: The above is an extract of the article that first appeared in “The Muslim.”

The Muslim
May-June 1973