In his well-known book, Al-Hikam (Words of Wisdom), sheikh Ahmad Ibn `Ataa'illah As-Sakandari says:

"If you find yourself having less hope in God when you make a mistake, then realize you are only relying on your work, not on God’s Mercy"

When I have an intention to commence on a spiritual journey to God, I have to ask myself: Where should I start from? And what should I take along with me on this journey? Should I recall the good deeds I have done and take them as my provisions in this journey? The answer given by Ibn `Ataa' in his word of wisdom is: ‘No! You should not rely even on your good deeds. You should start your journey to God by simply turning your heart to Him, putting your trust in Him alone, and hoping only for His Mercy and Bounty alone to carry you through your journey’.

However, one might ask: Is not receiving Allah's Mercy a result of my good deeds? But a counter-question goes: Does Allah’s Mercy and Bounty stop when I have no good deeds? The answer is: No.

{Now if God were to take humans immediately to task for all the evil that they do, He would not leave a single living creature upon the face of earth}. (An-Nahl 16: 61)

Therefore, it is not a matter of ‘deserving’ or ‘earning’ Allah's Mercy and Bounties. It is a matter of relying on Allah's Mercy and Bounties to receive Allah's Mercy and Bounties, despite my shortcomings. This is the right start for the right course.

But both turning to Allah and hoping for His Mercy have to be accompanied by repentance from one’s mistakes and errors. According to Allah's universal laws, if one wants to put anything in a certain place, there should be room and space for this addition. Faith and light is no exception. Thus, if I want to fill my heart with faith, light and Allah's remembrance, I should first create some room in my heart that is not occupied with all sorts of objects and desires. Only then can I fill my heart with goodness, or as the Sufi expression goes: Purity, then beauty, then light (al-takhalli thum al-tahalli thum al-tajalli).

Therefore, I must start this journey with repenting to God from my shortcomings.
{And always, O you believers – all of you – turn unto God in repentance, so that you might attain to a happy state!}.(An-Nur 24: 31)

Repentance should be accompanied by a certain feeling that Ibn `Ataa' emphasizes here in this word of wisdom. It is hope in Allah. But why is hope necessary for repentance? And what does this have to do with my journey? This is what Ibn `Ataa' explains here. He says: (If you find yourself having less hope in Allah when you make a mistake, then realize you are only relying on your work, not on Allah’s Mercy). This means that if you are keen to rely on Allah’s Mercy and put all your trust in Him, make sure that you are not self-righteous! Do not think that you have achieved virtue because of your efforts and deeds. And among the signs of one’s relying on his/her deeds, more than on Allah's Mercy and Bounty, is the decrease in hope when one makes a mistake. Hope in Him should always be at the same level.

Scholars counted four conditions for a correct repentance. First, one should feel remorse for the mistake he/she made. Secondly, one should stop making the mistake, if it is a continuing habit. Thirdly, one should have a sincere determination not to repeat the same mistake in the future. Fourthly, if the mistake has to do with people's rights, one has to give back to people what one owes them. A sincere repentant has to meet these four conditions.

The first condition is feeling sorry for the mistake. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "Remorse is repentance".Reported by Ibn Hibban and Ibn Majah. The second condition is to refrain from committing the mistake itself, because it takes a hypocrite to continue with the mistake while claiming repentance from it, doesn’t it? The third condition is to have a sincere determination never to repeat the same mistake in the future. One cannot feel regret about a mistake and give it up, while having an intention to commit the mistake again in the near or far future.
But if it happens that – God forbid – one falls in the same error again, the only way out is to repeat the same process again, that is to renew the repentance, renew remorse and regret, and decide not to fall again. And so on. One must know that Allah is Most Forgiving and Most Merciful. God does not mind accepting one's (sincere) repentance again and again. On the contrary, God is ‘happy’ when His servant repents to Him, as the Prophet said.

As for the fourth condition, scholars said that if the mistake one has committed has to do with people's rights, one have to give this right back. For example, if one unlawfully takes something without deserving it, it has to be returned. If injustice is committed, it has to be corrected. Scholars also mentioned that one has to seek people’s pardon if one speaks ill of them. And so on.

Ibn `Ataa' assumes that you have fulfilled these conditions, and adds that you have to have a feeling of hope in your Lord. This is not a ‘condition’ but rather an ethic (with Allah).

{These it is who may hope for God's grace: for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 218)

Sometimes, hope is lost when one asks himself: How should I look forward to Allah’s grace after making all these mistakes? How is Allah going to accept my repentance? This questioning itself is a mistake! A feeling that your mistakes are too great and too many for Allah to forgive them goes against the very belief in Allah, The Merciful. This will make one lose hope in Allah’s mercy and eventually leads to despair and hopelessness.

{And who -other than those who have utterly lost their way- could ever abandon the hope of their Sustainer's grace?}.(Al Hijri 15:56)

Therefore,if I lose hope, then I am not really relying on Allah. Rather, I am relying on my weak self, limited mind, and humble actions. Of course, this does not mean that I stop working and say that I have hope. This is also wrong. Relying on Allah is a feeling in the heart while the body is in action.

What Ibn `Ataa' says here is that, no matter how grave one's mistakes are, they should not affect his hope in Allah's mercy. This is because if one repents sincerely to Allah, Allah surely will accept his/her repentance. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said:

"A person who has repented of a sin sincerely is exactly like the person who has never sinned at all" (Reported by Ibn Majah).

And he said: "Allah says: 'O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind! O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth, I would forgive you, and I shall not mind’". ( Reported by At-Tirmidhi).

Really, hope should not be affected by the gravity of one’s mistakes. Rather, one should make a sincere intention to repent to Allah and simply expect His Mercy. The Prophet also said: "Allah says: 'I am as My servant expects Me to be! So, let him think of Me as he wishes’". (Reported by Bukhari and Muslim)

Ibn ‘Ataa' says here: If you find yourself having less hope in Allah when you make a mistake, then realize you are only relying on your work, not on Allah’s Mercy. And this meaning is similar to the meaning of a hadith in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) says:

"None amongst you can enter Paradise because of his deeds alone”. The companions asked: “Allah's Messenger, not even you?” The Prophet said: “Not even myself, unless Allah bestows His Forgiveness and Mercy on me”.

In this hadith, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) says: "There is none whose deeds alone would entitle him to get into Paradise." Does this mean that we lose hope in God's Mercy? Of course not. What is meant is not to rely on our deeds and to put our trust on the Godly Mercy. This is the same message that Ibn `Ataa' conveyed in his words of wisdom.

But so much hope should not turn into a feeling of immunity, that is to feel immune and saved from God's punishment, whatever you do.

{And they say, "The fire will most certainly not touch us for more than a limited number of days}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 8)

The verse was revealed regarding some of the previous nations who had a belief that they are God's chosen people, regardless of their actions and regardless of whatever they do in this life. Nowadays, some Muslims think that as long as they are Muslims, they can do whatever they want and they will not be harmed. Allah says:

{But none feels secure from God's deep devising save people who are lost}. (Al-`Araf 7: 99).
Hope should not turn into a false state of immunity or some sort of guarantee that Allah will bestow His Mercy on you no matter what you do. The only guarantee is your actual admission to Paradise. Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) said:

"I would not feel safe from Allah's deep devising even if one of my feet was in paradise and the other is still outside".

Thus, we should strike a balance between hope and awe. Balance is a universal law that we have to struggle to find in everything. Balance in repentance is to repent sincerely to Allah, not only out of hope in His Mercy but also out of fear of His repayment.

Some disbelievers have an illusion of hopelessness. They might be interested to turn to their Lord, but they think that He will never forgive the evil they did. Therefore, they continue in their wrong ways. Allah says:

{Your Sustainer has willed upon Himself the law of grace and mercy – so that if any of you does an evil deed out of ignorance, and thereafter repents and lives righteously, God shall be much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. And thus clearly do We spell out Our messages so that the path of those who are lost in sin might be distinct [from that of the righteous who repent].}(Al-'An`am 6: 54).

The sinner is the one who rejects this Divine offer of repentance. What is required here is to strike a balance between hope and awe.

Therefore, the first step on this path is to affirm your hope in Allah's Mercy and simply turn your heart to Him. This is the first stop in your long/short journey.


ٍSource: — Ibn Ataa's Pearls of Wisdom — Jasser Auda