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Ibn Ataa on repentance and hope 

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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 Allah 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.

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.

Second, one should stop making the mistake, if it is a continuing habit.

Third, one should have a sincere determination not to repeat the same mistake in the future.

Fourth, 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.

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