It is human nature to make mistakes. Adam was made from clay, and he was instilled with lusts and desires as part of his nature. Allah also created the devils who seek to call the children of Adam to sin and lead them astray. As a result, when people choose to be upright and virtuous, they attain the highest rank possible, above that of the angels. However, they can also fall to the point of being the lowest of the low, comparable to the devils.
It is Allah’s favour upon His servants that he is Generous, Oft-Forgiving, Most Kind, and accepts our repentance. He forgives of our sins whatever He wishes, and pardons all of our faults and transgressions if we truly repent for them and desist. One of the greatest acts of devotion that Allah has prescribed for us is to ask Him for forgiveness. The simple act of doing so protects us from sin and its evil consequences.
Allah commands Prophet Muhammad to beseech His forgiveness many times in the Qur’an. For instance, He says: “Know that there is no god but Allah, and seek forgiveness for your sins.” [Sūrah Muhammad: 19]
Al-Mughīrah b. Shu`bah relates that the Prophet was asked why he would stand in prayer at night until his feet and ankles swelled up, when all his sins had already been forgiven. He replied: “Should I not then be a grateful servant?” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1130) and Sahīh Muslim (2819)]
The Prophet used to fast for so many days in a row that the people thought he would never break his fast. He used to pray from one third to over half the night, and at times almost all of the night. His whole life was a relentless, concerted act of devotion. He was constant in his supplications and constantly being tried. In spite of all that, Allah tells him: “Know that there is no god but Allah, and seek forgiveness for your sins.” [Sūrah Muhammad: 19]
And He tells him: “Seek forgiveness for your sins (O Muhammad) and glorify your Lord’s praises night and day.” [Sūrah Ghāfir: 55] and: “Seek Allah’s forgiveness. Indeed, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 106]
The Best Times for Asking Forgiveness
1. After performing an act of worship. This is an important time to beseech Allah for forgiveness. In doing so, we can compensate for the shortcomings in our worship. It also keeps us from becoming conceited and self-satisfied with the worship that we do.
Among the final verses of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet were: “When the help of Allah and the victory comes, and you see the people entering Allah’s religion in crowds, then glorify the praises of your Lord and ask His forgiveness. Truly, He is the Accepter of Repentance.” [Sūrah al-Nasr: 1-3]
After the Prophet received these verses, he would say during every prayer: “Glory and praise be to You, Allah our Lord. O Allah, forgive me.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (4967) and Sahīh Muslim (484)]
From this, the Companions realised that Allah was telling the Prophet his time on Earth was coming to an end, so he enjoined upon the Prophet to make beseeching forgiveness his final state of affairs. Indeed, one of the last things anyone heard the Prophet saying was: “O Allah, forgive me and let have the company of the Highest Companion.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (4440) and Sahīh Muslim (2444)]
The Prophet used to conclude every act of righteousness by beseeching Allah’s forgiveness, like when he broke his fasts and completed his prayers. After completing the pilgrimage, he would start his return trip to Madinah by saying: “We are returning repentant, worshipping and praising our Lord.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (3086) and Sahīh Muslim (1345)]
The Prophet spent his life engaging in righteous deeds, and he concluded that life beseeching Allah’s forgiveness.
We are supposed to conclude our meetings and assemblies by beseeching Allah’s forgiveness, even if everything in the meeting was an act of righteousness.
2. After falling into sin. Allah says: “And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins – and who forgives sins besides Allah – and then do not knowingly persist in the wrong that they did.” [Sūrah Āl `Imrān: 135]
The Prophet said: “If any of Allah’s servants commits a sin, then performs ablutions properly, offers two units of prayer, and beseeches Allah for forgiveness, Allah will forgive them.” Then he recited from the Qur’an: “Those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah...” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī (406) and Sunan Abī Dāwūd (1521)]
3. After being heedless. All people make mistakes, and most of them are heedless of what they do, and through their heedlessness the wander further astray. If we consider the Prophet’s example, we find that he was vigilant never to let himself become heedless about beseeching Allah’s forgiveness. He said: “Sometimes I perceive a veil over my heart, and ask Allah for forgiveness one hundred times a day.” [Sahīh Muslim (2702)]
The Prophet’s circumstances were very different than those of ordinary folk. The office of prophethood demanded that his heart was ever-present at all times, pure of all base thoughts and constantly focused on his Lord. This is something that most people cannot even imagine achieving. Allah chooses the best of His servants to be His prophets and messengers: “And most surely they were to Us, of the elect, the best.” [Sūrah Sād: 47]
When we seek Allah’s forgiveness wholeheartedly, we get it. Allah praises those who seek His forgiveness and promises them that He will forgive them. Of course, part of doing so wholeheartedly is to refrain from the sinful behaviour.
Some of the Pious Predecessors used to say: “If a person’s seeking forgiveness does not result in their abandoning the sinful behaviour, then they are lying about seeking forgiveness.”
By abandoning the sinful act and seeking forgiveness, we can truly hope that Allah will forgive us. As for saying “I seek Allah’s forgiveness” with our tongues, but our hearts are not abandoning the sin, it is still an invocation and a prayer for forgiveness, and one we can hope Allah will answer.