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Articles Section > The Meaning of Istighfar by Imam Kalamazad Mohammed

The Meaning of Istighfar:
by Imam Kalamazad Mohammed

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Istighfar is derived from ghafara: he covered, veiled, concealed or hid; and ghafara Lahu dhanbahu means: He (God) covered his sin, crime or offence or forgave it, pardoned it. Istighfaral-Lahu signifies he begged of God forgiveness or pardon, he sought of God the covering or forgiveness or pardon of his sin, crime, offence, by word and by deed (Lane).

The Holy Qur’an has numbered as one of the qualities of the muttaqin (pious ones) the following:

And those who, when they commit an indecency or wrong their souls, remember Allah and ask forgiveness for their sins (3:134).

And we are taught to pray thus:

And pardon us! And grant us protection! And have mercy on us! (2:286)

Maulana Muhammad Ali in his footnote to the above verse explains:

"Some of the words in which these prayers are addressed require to be explained. Isr means a burden which restrains one from motion, and, therefore, the burden of sin, as sin hampers the spiritual progress of man and restrains him from advancing spiritually. U’fu is from ‘afw, which means effacing or obliteration, and generally indicates the effacing or pardoning of sins. Ighfir is from ghafr, which means covering with that which protects a thing from dirt. In religious terminology, the word ghafr is used, as Barmawi explains in Qastalani (commentary of Bukhari), as meaning protection which, he says, is of two kinds, protecting man from the commission of sin or protecting him from the punishment of a sin that he has committed. This is in accordance with what is said in the Nihayah where the Divine attributes Ghafir and Ghafur are explained as meaning One Who protects men from the commission of sins and faults and One Who passes over their sins and faults."

The Imam of the Age, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, has identified at least ten separate but related entreaties, contained in the prayer for istighfar, in Islam:

  • To cover or suppress evil tendencies
  • To protect from committing sins because of human weakness
  • To ask for forgiveness for past sins
  • To protect from future sins and calamities or misfortunes; that is, for sinlessness
  • To seek help and guidance to do good deeds; that is, for perfection
  • To implant oneself deeply into the soil of God’s love
  • Through penitence in word and deed, to drink in the celestial water through the ducts of humility and meekness
  • To keep one’s heart steadfast in the love of God and never be severed from Him just as a child who is ill cannot bear separation from his mother even for a moment, and to pray that He never stops loving us
  • To make this prayer with total sincerity of heart

The following excerpts from the writings of the Imam shed further light on the matter. Before tackling the definition of istighfar, he encourages us, in this extract, to protect ourselves from the punishment of Allah through taubah (repentance) and istighfar.

"You ought to engage in taubah and istighfar. Without constant recourse to taubah and istighfar, what can man do? All the Prophets preached that God will forgive you if you make taubah and istighfar. So read salah and ask help of Allah to protect you from committing future sins and ask pardon for past sins and make istighfar repeatedly so that the innate inclination of man towards evil may not surface. Two propensities are found in the nature of man – one is the power to earn goodness and to perform acts of righteousness, and the other is the attraction to evil works. The power to impede this attraction is the responsibility of Allah, Most High, and this tendency to evil lies hidden in man as fire is latent in stone" (Malfuzat, vol. 9, p. 372).

He then gives the meaning of istighfar:

"The meaning of istighfar is that no sin may be committed openly and the propensity towards evil may be suppressed. It is true that in spite of being sinless the Prophets of God also engaged in istighfar, but their istighfar was for the purpose of preventing future lapses. But, for the common people, another dimension of istighfar is that Allah may save them from the repercussions of past crimes or sins and forgive them their sins and protect them from future ones.

In any case, it is imperative for man to be constantly engaged in istighfar. The purpose of famines and other kinds of calamities that descend on the earth is to remind people that they should constantly make istighfar. But the meaning of the word is not that one should repeat superficially astaghfir-ullaha, astaghfir-ullah. In fact, because it is an expression in a foreign language, Arabic, the deeper meaning is hidden from people. Of course, the Arabs are very cognisant of the various meanings of this expression, but in our country, because Arabic is a foreign tongue, many of the intricate realities of this language are unknown to us.

There are many people who claim to have made istighfar abundantly – that they have read a hundred tasbihs (prayer of glorification), or a thousand, but if you ask them the purpose and meaning of istighfar, they may well become dumbfounded. Man ought, with full sincerity and in the depth of his heart, to ask forgiveness for the sins and transgressions he committed in the past, that he may not suffer punishment for them, and as regards the future, he should, with genuine sincerity of heart, continuously beseech Allah for His help in guiding him to do good deeds and to save him from future transgression.

Remember well that nothing is achieved by mere words. Istighfar can be made in your own language by asking Allah to efface your past sins and protect you from future ones and to guide you to do righteous deeds, for this is the essence of istighfar. There is no need to repeat constantly, like a parrot, astaghfir-ullaha, astaghfir-ullah, while your heart is untouched. Bear in mind that it is only that prayer which is uttered with sincerity of heart that reaches Allah, Most High. Therefore, you should make abundant du’a (supplication) to Allah in your own tongue, for this makes an impression on the heart. If there is enthusiasm in the heart and if this is shared by the tongue, then that is a commendable thing. Without participation of the heart, it is futile to make du’a with the tongue alone. Verily, du’as that issue from the heart are indeed genuine.

If, before a calamity strikes, man constantly makes sincere supplications to Allah, Most High, and also engages in istighfar, then, through the mercy and beneficence of Allah, that disaster is averted. But when the disaster actually descends, it is too late to be warded off. One should therefore always make du’a before the misfortune falls and one should also immerse oneself in istighfar beforehand. In this way, Allah protects a person in the time of affliction.

My Jama’at members [members of the Movement] should display a distinctive feature in their lives. If someone takes bai’at (oath of fealty / the pledge) and goes away and yet shows no difference in his behaviour, for example, he treats his wife in the same way as before and so, too, his family and relations, then that cannot be regarded as exemplary conduct. If, after having taken the bai’at, he still maintains the same bad morals and behaviour, then what is the use of the bai’at? After having taken the bai’at he ought to present such an example of probity that, not only his relatives, but strangers and his neighbours, too, will proclaim for themselves that he is not the same person he was in the past.

Remember well, too, that if you purify your heart and do good deeds, you will certainly cast fear in the hearts of others. Look at the awe-inspiring personality of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Once, the unbelievers were terribly afraid that he would hurl imprecations on them, so they came together to him and requested him not to curse them. A truthful person certainly possesses a commanding personality. So, you must purify yourselves thoroughly and do good deeds only for the sake of Allah and you will be sure to exert a powerful influence on others and put fear in their hearts" (Malfuzat, vol. 9, pp. 372-374).

In one of his writings Mirza Sahib makes the point that the istighfar of the prophets of God was not only for sinlessness and perfection, but also for another noble and subtle purpose. He explains that when the prophets contemplated the favours of God and tried to count them, they realised they could not. So to express their human inability to thank their Creator adequately for His innumerable gifts they made istighfar in the hope that this prayer for forgiveness would make up for their inability to thank God fully. Or, in other words, their istighfar was for the purpose of making up for the shortfall in their thanksgiving.

Mirza Sahib goes deeper into the subject of istighfar as he explains:

"The laws of nature also testify that rules similar to those laid down by the Quran for the attainment to spiritual purification and real salvation obtain in the organic world also. We daily observe that diseases attack all fauna and flora fed on unwholesome diet for want of nutrition. For combating those diseases, nature has laid down that wholesome nutrition should be provided, and what is unhealthy should be stopped. Look at the trees, for instance. To keep themselves healthy they are provided with two faculties; one, that they continue burying their roots deep into the earth, lest being unattached they should dry up (this is to ward off unhealthy atmosphere and unhealthy food for the root), and second, that they draw in moisture from the earth through the tiny tubes of their roots (capillary attraction). (This is to feed on healthy sustenance.) By this combined process, the trees grow. For man, too, the Divine Dispensation has ordained a similar principle. That is, he succeeds in living a spiritually holy life only when, first, he truly and firmly holds himself fast to God and through istighfar he implants his self deep into the soil of God's love; and secondly, with penitence expressed in word and deed and complete turning towards God he drinks in the celestial water through the ducts of humility and meekness, and in this way he so draws this water into himself that he washes away the barrenness of sin, and purges himself of spiritual weakness.

And istighfar with which the elements of faith are strengthened has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an in two senses. The first is that keeping the heart steadfast in one’s love for God, one should, by means of this attachment, stop the manifestation of sins, which surge up in a state of severance from Him; and further, one should seek God’s help through complete union with Him. This istighfar is peculiar to those near to God, who consider even a momentary severance from Him disastrous to themselves, and who offer istighfar that God may always hold them in His love. The second sense of istighfar is that one should depart from sin, and fly towards God, and should try that one’s heart be seized with the love of God, just as a tree implants its roots into the earth, and thus being blessed with a holy development for the soul one may escape the aridity of sin and spiritual decay. Both these connotations have been included in the word istighfar, for ghafara, from which this word is derived, means to conceal, to cover up. In other words, by istighfar we mean the prayer that God may cover up the sins of one who keeps himself steadfast in His love, and may prevent the elements of his human frailties from uncovering themselves. Nay, He may draw him into the mantle of His Divinity, and bestow on him a portion from His Holiness, so that, if perchance human weakness should manifest itself through sin, God may again cover it up, and save him from the evil consequences of such an exposure" (The Four Questions Answered, pp. 32-34).

As a matter of fact, the concept of istighfar is not limited to this earthly existence but extends into the life after death and is really "the pride of man" which leads to unimaginable progress and excellence as Mirza Sahib explains in his commentary of:

And those who believe with (the Prophet) their light will gleam before them and on their right hands – they will say: Our Lord, make perfect for us our light, and grant us protection! Lo! Thou art able to do all things (66:8).

He explains:

"This unceasing desire for perfection shows clearly that progress in paradise will be endless. For, when they will have attained one state of excellence they will not stop there but, seeing a higher stage of excellence, will consider that to which they will have attained as imperfect and will, therefore, desire the attainment of the higher excellence. When they will have attained this, they will yet see another higher excellence and thus they will continue to pray for the attainment of higher and higher excellence. This ceaseless desire for perfection shows that they will be endlessly attaining to excellence: the righteous will go on making progress and will never recede a step nor shall they ever be deprived of those blessings" (Teachings of Islam, p. 145).

He further amplifies the point in his footnote:

"The question may arise here as to the seeking of maghfirat after entry into paradise and obtaining God’s pardon. Such a question is, however, based upon ignorance of the actual meaning of maghfirat and istighfar. Maghfirat really means suppression of a defective state. The righteous will be continually praying to the Lord for the attainment of perfection and complete immersion in light. They will be ever ascending upwards and will regard every state as defective in comparison with a higher one to which they will aspire and will, therefore, pray to God to suppress the defective state that they may be able to get to the higher one. Their desire for maghfirat will, therefore, be endless, because the progress which they will have to make will also be endless. We can clearly see from this that the true significance of the word istighfar and also that the desire of it is really the pride of man, because it is the only thing which leads him on to the highest excellence which a man can possess" (p. 145).

To further underline the importance of istighfar, the following are some selections from the sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

I swear by God that I ask God’s pardon and turn to Him in repentance more than seventy times a day.

My heart is invaded by unmindfulness, and I ask God’s pardon a hundred times in a day.

By Him in Whose hand my soul is, if you had not sinned God would have removed you and brought a people who sin, then ask God’s pardon and are forgiven.

God’s Messenger stated that God has said: If anyone knows that I have power to forgive sins I will pardon him and not care, so long as he associates nothing with me.

If anyone continually asks pardon, God will appoint for him a way out of every distress and a relief from every anxiety, and will provide for him from where he did not reckon.

All the sons of Adam are sinners, but the best of sinners are those who are given to repentance.

God loves the believing servant who is severely tried and is penitent.

Finally, the Holy Prophet (pbuh) gives us the best prayer of istighfar:

"O God, Thou art my Lord. There is no god but Thee. Thou hast created me, and I am Thy servant and hold to Thy covenant and promise as much as I can. I seek refuge from Thee from the evil of what I have done. I acknowledge Thy favour to me, and I acknowledge my sin. Pardon me, for none but Thee pardons sins."

Articles Section > The Meaning of Istighfar by Imam Kalamazad Mohammed


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