Self-Criticism and Asking Forgiveness from God

Self-Criticism and Asking Forgiveness from God
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Question: What are the points to be considered in the face of misfortunes, so that a person can endure different tests in this world as a believer?

Answer: It is stated in the verse (which means): “Whatever good happens to you, it is from God; and whatever evil befalls you, it is from yourself” (an-Nisa 4:79). People who believe in this Divine decree must first of all ascribe every trouble and misfortune that strikes them to their own faults and sins. For example, if they drop a glass or plate and break it, they must wonder what wrong they committed for this to happen, since there is no event that takes place by blind chance in this universe. When flow of life is observed meticulously, it will be noticeable that even very trivial things going wrong are warnings and all that happens gives a signal. If people take notice of that signal, turn to God repentantly, and commits a good deed to serve as a shield against the oncoming greater trouble, they can be saved by God’s grace. Lesser misfortunes, such as a broken glass, may prevent the oncoming misfortunes and serve as expiation for sins. As it is stated in a hadith,1 there is no case of tiredness, illness, grief, worry, trouble, gloom, or even pricking one’s foot on a thorn but it surely serves as expiation for the sins of a believer. Those who fail to recognize the real causes of the troubles or misfortunes that befell them usually start saying (unacceptable) things which can be interpreted as complaining about God.

On the Way to Finding the Right One to Blame

We may not always clearly see the underlying reasons behind events. However, people with sound faith are supposed to think about the wrongdoings they may have committed, even in the face of seemingly irrelevant adversities. Because being self-critical is a very significant step in the process of finding the one to blame. Otherwise, those who always look for somebody else to put the blame on will not succeed, even if they continue their search their entire lives. Concerning this issue, Bediüzzaman wrote in one of his letters: “Now I have understood the real reason for the wrongdoing and tortures I have been suffering from. Here I say with true remorse that my fault was taking my service in the way the Qur’an as a means to progress spiritually.” These words of this great figure show the profundity of his self-criticism. Moreover, we can infer from these words that serving in the way of faith should not be seen as a means of making spiritual progress or being favored with Divine inspirations and blessings—not even of sublime goals like entering Paradise or being saved from Hell. Taking these as real motives means sabotaging our own way. Our primary and sole concern must be sincerity and gaining God’s pleasure and approval. Neither love of Paradise nor fear of Hell must have priority over true worship. God Almighty gives generous rewards for deeds sincerely done. The blessings of God are infinite whereas our worship and servitude is limited. Even if you become king of the world and a multi-millionaire in wealth, you still feel shy while giving, since your wealth decreases in proportion with the amount you give. But the blessings of God are beyond count. Therefore, things you ask for are so minor in comparison to what He grants.

Refraining from all Kinds of Complaint

As we have said, those who fail to recognize the real reason for the troubles and misfortunes that befall them say things which can be taken as complaining about God Almighty. It is acceptable to complain about wrongdoers to the authorities to defend our personal rights. In other words, people who think that they are subjected to wrongdoing  would naturally seek justice through petitioning God or the people of justice. However, no person in no form has the right to complain about God to anybody else. Let alone doing that overtly, even the act of puffing and other gestures that show grievance in the face of troubles and misfortunes will be regarded as complaining about God. Therefore, it is commendable to keep away from all kinds of words and attitudes that express complaint in an overt or covert fashion.

Indeed, blaming oneself for troubles and misfortunes depends on a consciousness of serious self-criticism—this in turn depends on a sound faith in God and the Day of Judgment. It is narrated that Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “Call yourselves to account before being called to account.” This clearly shows that self-criticism is directly related to one’s faith in being called to account on the Day of Judgment. When we study the personal prayers and litanies of great saints, it is understood that each of them lived with a serious consideration of self-criticism out of their concern for the accountability of their deeds. For instance, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani debases himself  in one of his  litanies to such an extent that we will probably never do ourselves in an entire lifetime. Likewise, after debasing himself with certain negative phrases, Abu’l-Hasan ash-Shadhili implores God with hope and asks for forgiveness by saying, “So many people like me knocked on Your door of mercy, and were not let down.” Hasan al-Basri’s weekly litany, which is included in the Imploring Hearts,2 also sets an important example. This monumental figure who recited a separate habitual prayer for each day of the week virtually makes a mountain out of a molehill at blaming himself. This hero of faith, who was one of the foremost among the second generation after the Prophet, directly benefiting from the Companions of the Prophet, who stood up as a scholar against the misguided schools of thought in the Basra region, and from whom Imam Azam Abu Hanifa greatly benefited, was a person who kept away from sin even in his dreams. This great man expresses his wrongdoings in such a way that he virtually sees himself as the worst of sinners. He turns to God as if he were an ultimate loser in the spiritual sense, as if he had been one who incessantly committed sins. He would criticize himself every single day.

The Feeling of Self-Criticism That Results in Asking Forgiveness

Individuals who are aware of their wrongdoings with a consciousness of self-criticism consequently resort to repentance and ask forgiveness. After God Almighty mentions different wrongdoings and states that the one who commits them deserves punishment, He gives tidings about the truly repentant: “. . . except he who gives up his way in repentance and believes, and does good, righteous deeds—such are those whose (past) evil deeds God will efface and record virtuous deeds in their place. God is the Forgiving, the Compassionate” (al-Furqan 25:70).

According to this verse, if the ones undergoing spiritual deformation with sins and wrongdoings immediately turn to God in repentance and ask forgiveness, then God will replace their wrongdoings with good deeds. Bediüzzaman approaches this verse differently and says that the unlimited human potential for evil turns into a potential for goodness. Then turning to God in sincere repentance becomes a means for them to undergo such a great transformation.

Asking Forgiveness: A Life Spring for Personal Revival

The Messenger of God, most perfect blessings and peace be upon him, stated the importance of asking forgiveness from God by saying, “Whoever wishes to be rejoiced at the book of his deeds (on the Day of Judgment), let him increase the amount of asking forgiveness (istighfar) in it.”3 Being a hero at asking forgiveness, the Messenger of God also stated that he made istighfar one hundred times a day. We can interpret this situation as a sign of his continuous progress at spiritual journeying, while regarding it as a presentation of the ideal example for all other people to follow. A person with a leading position in a community presents a role model with all of his attitudes and behaviors for the entire community. For example, a corrupt leader of an organization will most probably drift his subordinates to corruption as well. In the same way, the presence of a guide who constantly strives for goodness is a very important incentive in terms of guiding people toward goodness. In this respect, it can be said that the Messenger of God, who was such an ideal role model and who elevated his followers to the horizons where angels hover, made istighfar one hundred times a day. In fact, no matter what level, believers who question their lives in retrospect can find lots of wrongdoings to make them ask forgiveness from God. They might have cast lustful looks at forbidden sights while going somewhere or they might have backbitten somebody in another case, without even realizing this grave sin. Thus, people must realize that even one such sin can bring them to eternal ruin, so they must immediately seek refuge in asking forgiveness. In The Gleams,4 Bediüzzaman drew attention to the fact that seemingly little things might cause someone to be lost for good: “So be alert and careful, always act with caution and in fear of sinking. Do not drown in a morsel, a word, a grain, a glance, a beckoning, or a kiss! Do not cause your faculties—that are so extensive that they can contain the whole world—to drown in such a thing.” People make very serious plans even about worldly matters. For example, before starting a new business, they conduct in-depth feasibility studies and invest accordingly. Then they make monthly analyses to monitor progress and profitability. If even business in this passing world takes so much planning and evaluation, should we not take much more of eternal life into consideration?

I think it will be useful to mention another point related to this issue. Bediüzzaman says, “Prayer and trusting God greatly strengthen our inclination to do good, and repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness defeat our inclination to evil and break its transgressions.” That is, as repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness (tawba and istighfar) serve as a barrier against human inclination for evil and neutralize sins by slamming them with a sledgehammer, supplicating to God similarly strengthens our inclination for goodness. Accordingly, people moving with the wing of repentance and asking forgiveness on the one hand and supplication on the other, by God’s grace, may ascend to the peak of human perfection and find themselves below the feet of the Pride of Humanity, upon him be peace and blessings.

On the other hand, let me express how I wish that—instead of struggling to restore their hearts and spiritual lives—people could build up barriers against their destruction from the very beginning, for it is very difficult to restore something after it has been destroyed. As I have mentioned in different talks, when I was assigned as a young imam to the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, restoration work had begun. During my stay of six to seven years in Edirne, the restoration of the mosque, which had been built at the time of Sultan Selim III in six years, was still not completed. Because restoring something ruined into its original condition is far more difficult than constructing it anew. So, spiritual restoration of a person who underwent sinful deformation is not as easy as thought. Then one must try to be cautious of destruction from the very beginning and remain vigilant of sins. 

1. Sahih al-Bukhari, Marda, 1
2. Imploring Hearts (Al-Qulub ad-Dari‘a) is a collection of prayers and supplications selected and compiled into a volume by Fethullah Gülen from various Islamic sources. (Ed.)
3. Kanz al-Ummal, 1/475, 2065
4. The Gleams is one of the four main volumes of the collection of the Risale-i Nur (The Epistles of Light) by the leading Islamic scholar Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960). The other three main volumes in this modern commentary of the Qur’an are The Words, The Letters, and The Rays. (Ed.)

This text is the translation of “Muhasebe ve İstiğfar

  • Herkul Radyo