Ramadan is always a time filled with hope; a time to start over with a clean record and get back on track. But for some – or many – of us, it may feel like we were never on track to begin with. It may feel like we are too far out to ever find the way back. What is the point of trying this Ramadan, when we so inevitably slip back into our old habits? Whatever the reason for our apprehension, Allah’s got us covered. He has a Name, or rather, three Names, that address all of our insecurities. For those of us who say:
“I messed up.”
“I messed up way too many times. I still mess up.”
“I’m too ashamed to even tell you how I messed up!”
Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) responds that He is al-Ghāfir, al-Ghafūr and al-Ghaffār.
Many of us already call on Allah (swt) by this Name, and worship Him by this attribute, even though we do not know the actual nuances of the Names.
So what is the difference between them, and what does this mean for us?
These Names comes from the same root: gh-f-r (غ-ف-ر), which linguistically means to cover and protect. When we say “Rabby ighfir-ly”—which is usually translated to “My Lord, forgive me”—what we are actually asking Allah (swt) for is to cover our sin and protect us from it.
So what are the kinds of things that Allah (swt) covers and protects us from?
Allah tells us in the Qur’an:
“Indeed, Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills.” (Qur’an, 4:48)
Allah tells us that He forgives everything; the only thing He does not forgive is if you were to die associating another deity with Him. This maghfira is a covering and protection in this life and the next. Allah (swt) covers your sin in this life and protects you from its effect, and covers the sin up in the Hereafter and protects you from the Hellfire.
Who does He forgive?
Allah (swt) did not give Himself three different Names from the same root for no reason: He is inviting you to call Him by these Names, inviting you to be forgiven. Let us look at how these Names have come in the Qur’an:
Al-Ghafūr appears 91 times in the Qur’an. Allah (swt) says:
“And when those come to you who believe in Our verses, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has decreed upon Himself mercy: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then repents after that and corrects himself – indeed, He is Forgiving (Ghafūr) and Merciful.”” (Qur’an, 6:54)
Al-Ghaffār appears five times in the Qur’an. In the example below, it is the Prophet Noah (as) calling his people after they have committed grave injustices:
“And said, ‘Ask forgiveness of your Lord. Indeed, He is ever a Perpetual Forgiver (Ghaffāra).” (Qur’an, 71:10)
And Ghāfir appears once:
“The forgiver (Ghāfir) of sin, acceptor of repentance, severe in punishment, owner of abundance. There is no deity except Him; to Him is the destination.” (Qur’an, 40:3)
The number of times and the context these Names appear in give us a glimpse into what their nuances mean. Ghāfir occurs once in the Qur’an, and it tells that Allah (swt) forgives sin. Some of us might shake their heads. Sin? We have way too many to count! Then Allah (swt) reminds us, He is Ghafūr. Ghafūr is the One who forgives over and over and over again. Some of us might still be skeptical. It might not be the number of sins, but it might be that we have sins we are too ashamed to talk about. And this is where He tells us that He is Ghaffār: this Name relates to intensity. Allah (swt) forgives the gravest of sins. So Allah (swt) is telling us that He has covered all the bases. No matter how many sins or even the type of sin, Allah will protect you from it.
Allah tells us in a beautiful hadith (narration):
“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 your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.” (Tirmidhi)
What is beautiful is that Allah (swt) is inviting you. We are told in the Qur’an:
“Their messengers said, “Can there be doubt about Allah, Creator of the heavens and earth? He invites you that He may forgive you of your sins, and He delays your death for a specified term.”” (Qur’an, 14:10)
The Day of Judgment
On the Day of Judgment, Allah (swt) will bring all of us forward and will speak to us without an intermediary. We will be confronted with our sins. When our book of deeds is open, Allah (swt) will ask us, “Do you know this sin? Do you know that sin?” and the believer’s reply will be, “Yes, O Lord,” until they are reminded of all of their sins, and they think they will perish. Then Allah will say, “I covered up your sins during your life, and I will forgive your sins today,” (Bukhari/Muslim). Then the believer will be given their book of good deeds.
That is the beauty of Allah’s forgiveness.
Do not make a mockery of the forgiveness of Allah
Knowing that Allah forgives should give us so much hope. But we should balance fear and hope so that we do not purposefully disobey Him and say that we will repent later. These are some things to keep in mind:
1- Allah (swt) will forgive all of us a first, second and third time, sometimes even before we ask for forgiveness. But Allah may remove His covering in this life if we are persistent in doing what we know we should not. Once a man was caught for stealing at the time of Umar radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him). And the thief said, “I swear it is the first time!” And Umar, knowing al-Ghaffar, said, “No, for Allah would never expose you on the first time.” And then it was found that it was actually his eighth time stealing.
Of course, if we turn back sincerely, Allah tells us that He will forgive us.
2- Do not expose yourself. The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) taught us:
“All of my nation will be forgiven except al-mujahirun (those who are public about the wrongs they do). It is a part of sinning openly when a man does something at night, then the following morning when Allah has concealed his sin, he says to someone, ‘I did such and such last night,’ when all night his Lord has concealed him and the next morning he uncovers what Allah had concealed.” (Bukhari/Muslim)
The Benefits of Seeking Forgiveness
1- People would ask al-Hasan al-Basri, the scholar, for advice for various problems, and he would tell them to seek forgiveness from Allah (swt). One man heard him and said to him, “You give the same advice to everyone!” And al-Hasan al-Basri responded with the following aya (verse) from the Qur’an:
“’Ask forgiveness of your Lord. Indeed, He is ever a Perpetual Forgiver. He will send [rain from] the sky upon you in [continuing] showers. And give you increase in wealth and children and provide for you gardens and provide for you rivers’.” (Qur’an, 71:10-12)
2- The Prophet ﷺ told us: “When a slave commits a sin, a black spot appears on his heart, but if he gives it up, seeks forgiveness and repents, his heart will be cleansed.” (Tirmidhi)
Sometimes, we do not realize the spiritual effects of sins on our heart. Seeking forgiveness polishes the heart and gives way for a spiritual light from Allah (swt).
3- The Prophet ﷺ told us: “The one who (regularly) seeks forgiveness, Allah will relieve him of every burden, and make from every discomfort an outlet, and He will provide for him from (sources) he never could imagine.” (Abu Dawud)
How to do istighfaar (seeking forgiveness)
1- Start with the heart: Reflect on yourself and your deeds, so that you become aware of the mistakes you made, and what you need to do to get better. This ensures that we are always evolving for the better, because we are always seeking to improve.
2- Ask for forgiveness, and do it A LOT. The Prophet ﷺ would sometimes seek forgiveness 70 or 100 times in one sitting!
One of the best du`a’ (supplication) for istighfar was told to us by the Prophet ﷺ.
اللَّهُمَّ أَنْتَ رَبِّي لا إِلَهَ إِلا أَنْتَ خَلَقْتَنِي وَأَنَا عَبْدُكَ وَأَنَا عَلَى عَهْدِكَ وَوَعْدِكَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُ أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنْ شَرِّ مَا صَنَعْتُ أَبُوءُ لَكَ بِنِعْمَتِكَ عَلَيَّ وَأَبُوءُ لَكَ بِذَنْبِي فَاغْفِرْ لِي فَإِنَّهُ لا يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلا أَنْتَ
“O Allah! You are my Lord! None has the right to be worshiped but You. You created me and I am Your slave, and I am faithful to my covenant and my promise as much as I can. I seek refuge with You from all the evil I have done. I acknowledge before You all the blessings You have bestowed upon me, and I confess to You all my sins. So I entreat You to forgive my sins, for nobody can forgive sins except You.”
He said: “Whoever says it during the day with firm faith in it, and dies on the same day before the evening, he will be from the people of Paradise; and if somebody recites it at night with firm faith in it, and dies before the morning, he will be from the people of Paradise.” (Bukhari)
3- Go to Allah (swt) with good deeds and be in gatherings of the remembrance of God: We are told in the Qur’an to “establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember,” (Qur’an, 11:114).
Ibn Taymiya said about the Prophet Moses that he made grave mistakes, but that Allah (swt) still loved him. Why? Because he also did great and amazing deeds. He even stood up to the Pharoah of Egypt.
As for being in gatherings where we are remembering Allah (swt), the Prophet ﷺ tells us that Angels seek out such gatherings and then have a conversation with God about those people. Allah (swt) then says to the Angels: “You are My witnesses that I have forgiven them.”
One of the angels will reply: “Person x is not really one of them; he came (to the gathering) for some other reason.”
And Allah will say, “They were all in the gathering, and not one of them will be excluded (from forgiveness).” (Bukhari)
4- Forgive others if you want that Allah (swt) should forgive you. In the incident of al-Ifk, a slanderous rumor was being spread about Aisha (ra), the wife of the Prophet ﷺ. When it was discovered that one of the people who was spreading the rumor was a relative whom her father, Abu Bakr (ra), was helping financially, Abu Bakr promised that he would not help him anymore. Then this verse was revealed:
“And let not those of you who possess wealth and abundance swear against giving to the near of kin and the poor and those who have had to emigrate for Allah’s sake. They should forgive and forebear. Do you not love that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Qur’an, 24: 22]
Allah (swt) was telling Abu Bakr (ra) that the best path was to forgive, because wouldn’t he like Allah to forgive him?
May Allah forgive us, raise us and help us in embodying prophetic characteristics.
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