Istighfār (Arabic:الإستغفار) is to ask God to forgive one's sins. It does not merely consist in the recitation of sentences such as "اللّهمَ إغفِرلی" (God! Forgive me!), rather it is a true feeling of return to God and repentance for one's wrongdoings with a determination not to commit them again. Istighfar is not restricted to ordinary, fallible people; even the prophets asked for divine forgiveness. The Prophet Muhammad (s) was commissioned by God to ask for divine forgiveness for himself and for other believers, as an intercession for divine mercy.
The concept of asking for divine forgiveness has repeatedly appeared in the Qur'an in different forms. Istighfar does not have to occur at a special time or place and it is usually accepted by God. However, according to the Qur'an and hadiths, there are times and places in which istighfar will be more likely accepted by God.
Literal and Technical Meanings
The word "istighfar" literally means to ask for forgiveness. It is from the Arabic root, "gh-f-r", (غ-ف-ر) which originally means to cover. Technically, it means to verbally or practically ask God to forgive one's sins in order to be immune to the pernicious effects of the sins and divine punishment. Some scholars have taken some occurrences of the word "istighfar" in the Qur'an to refer to believing, converting to Islam, or saying one's prayers. These are instances of the practical sort of istighfar.
Istighfar is either a verbal expression, such as "استغفر اللّه" (I ask for God's forgiveness), or a deed, such as doing something that leads one to be forgiven by God. The verbal istighfar is discussed in jurisprudence in issues such as tahara, prayer, fasting, hajj, commerce, zihar and expiation.
Use of Istighfar in The Qur'an
The concept of asking for divine forgiveness has appeared in the Qur'an 68 times: 43 of these are different forms of "istighfar" (in the form of "istif'al"), 17 in the form "ighfir" (the imperative form, meaning forgive), three in the form of "yaghfir" (He forgives), two in the form of "taghfir" (you forgive), and one in the form of "maghfira" (forgiveness). In two verses of the Qur'an, the divine order for forgiveness has appeared with the word "hitta" (Arabic: حطة): God issued an order for the Israelites to be forgiven.
- The Qur'an 11:3:
- "and ask forgiveness of your lord and then repent to him. He will give you enjoyment till a stated term and will give of his bounty to those of grace. But if you turn away, I fear for you the punishment of a mighty day".
- The Qur'an 4:110:
- "he who does evil or wrongs himself and then asks forgiveness of Allah will find that Allah is the forgiver, the most merciful".
There are many other verses of the Qur'an in which the concept appears.
There is a hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a) according to which, "if a person frequently asks for divine forgiveness, the list of his or her deeds will rise (on the Day of Resurrection) while shining."
And Zurara quotes Imam al-Sadiq (a) as saying that "when a person commits a sin, he or she has a deadline until the end of night; if he or she asks for divine forgiveness, the sin will not be recorded [in the list of his or her deeds]."
Necessity and Importance
The necessity of istighfar is obvious from the invitation to istighfar in many Qur'anic verses and reproaching those who ignore it in some others (such as Qur'an 5:74). Ordinary people need to ask God for forgiveness constantly, because they are prone to sin and error. On the other hand, no one can do justice to divine rights; everyone meets divine commands in terms appropriate to the extent of their knowledge. Therefore, even true pious people are even ashamed of their worships and hence need to ask for divine forgiveness.
The importance of istighfar can be explained in different respects:
- The Prophet Muhammad (s) and other prophets (a) recommended istighfar; all people are commanded to ask for divine forgiveness, as implied by eight Qur'anic verses. Nearly 30 verses of the Qur'an talk about prophets themselves asking for divine forgiveness and the Prophet (s) himself was ordered in five Qur'anic verses to ask for divine forgiveness.
- Asking for divine forgiveness is considered to be an attribute of the pious people.
Istighfar: Recommended, Obligatory, and Forbidden
- Recommended istighfar: since istighfar counts as the best worship, it is particularly recommended in the following cases:
- between the two prostrations of the prayer;
- after Al-Tasbihat al-Arba'a;
- in qunut, especially the qunut of the watr prayer;
- during the dawn (sahar);
- for a dead person in his or her funeral, burial and visiting his or her grave;
- in rain prayers;
- in the Ramadan;
- for not doing some traditions, such as istighfar for hurting oneself while mourning as a expiation.
- Obligatory istighfar: one case in which istighfar is obligatory, is hajj; when the muhrim engages in a quarrel or commits a vice less than three times. Another case is when one is required to give expiation (the emancipation of a slave, fasting for two months or providing food or clothes for 60 people in need) but one cannot provide any of them. It is said that if one cannot provide the expiation for zihar, then istighfar will be obligatory, though there is a dispute over the issue. It is a matter of controversy whether istighfar is obligatory in saying prayers for a dead person as well as istighfar for a person about whom one has committed ghiba (or backbiting).
A person was repeating the sentence استغفر الله (I ask God to forgive me) before Imam 'Ali (a). The Imam (a) told him there are six conditions to be met in order for an istighfar to be valid, and that it is only then that the recitation of such a sentence could help:
- Repentance over one's past deeds.
- Determination for never repeating that misdeed.
- Observing people's rights.
- Doing all one's obligations that one had ignored.
- One should, out of remorse, lose the flesh he grew in sins until he grows new flesh on his bones.
- One's body should suffer from worships, just as it had enjoyed the sins.
Here are some other manners of istighfar:
- Istighfar during the dawn (sahar).
- Istighfar at Thursday night.
- Confession to one's mistakes.
- Testimony of faith and submission to God.
- Attention to God's lordship.
- Attention to God's absolute wilaya.
- Appeal to the prophets.
- Mentioning divine attributes during istighfar.
- Remembering God.
Here some factors that prepare one for istighfar:
- Awareness of divine forgiveness.
- Hope for divine mercy.
- Considering that God accepts one's repentance.
- Considering divine wisdom.
- Considering God as the creator.
- Considering divine grace.
- Considering divine greatness.
- Considering that everything goes back to God.
- Considering divine power to forgive.
- Considering divine tortures.
- Keeping one's promises.
Acceptance by God
God will definitely accept one's istighfar, because:
- Some Qur'anic verses explicitly state that God accepts istighfar (such as Qur'an 11:11 and 61; and Qur'an 40:60).
- There are many verses of the Qur'an that order people to ask for divine forgiveness, so it is improbable that God does not accept one's istighfar.
- Many divine attributes, such as the Forgiver and the Pardoner, imply that God accepts people's requests for His forgiveness.
The Best Times for Istighfar
Istighfar is not restricted to any particular time, place or condition. But there are special moments or places in which istighfar will definitely be accepted. For example, according to the Qur'an, the best time for istighfar is the dawn (sahar). According to Qur'anic exegetes, the verse "soon will I ask my Lord for forgiveness for you: for He is indeed oft-forgiving, most merciful"
refers to the fact that the Prophet Joseph (a) (Yūsuf) will ask for divine forgiveness in the dawn.
According to the Qur'an and hadiths, istighfar has many constructive, worthwhile effects, such as the reformation of the community, divine blessings, and immunity to this-worldly and afterlife divine punishment.
Preventing Divine Punishment
Imam 'Ali (a) said: "there were two things on Earth that provided immunity to divine punishments: the presence of the Prophet (s) that is not available anymore, but the other one, that is istighfar, is always available; so appeal to it." He then recited the above Qur'anic verses.
Forgiving One's Sins
According to the Qur'an 71:10, the Prophet Noah (a) tells his people to ask for divine forgiveness, and then the verse goes on "He is the forgiver (ghaffar)". The divine attribute, Ghaffar (forgiver), as well as others such as Rahim (Merciful) and Wadud (loving), imply that God forgives the sins and gives His mercy to people. According to a hadith, istighfar cleans the effects of the sins from one's soul.
Increase of Livelihood and Children
According to the Qur'an 71:11-12, istighfar has as an effect the abundance of rains, removes poverty and helps increase one's livelihood. According to hadiths, istighfar leads to the increase of one's children.
Welfare and Longevity
Istighfar helps one achieve a good life and wealth, welfare, security, and respect. According to the Qur'an, "ask forgiveness of your Lord, then turn to Him; He will provide you with a goodly provision to an appointed term and bestow His grace on every one endowed with grace". The 'good provision' in the verse has been interpreted as wealth and good material life. However, some people interpreted it as longevity, satisfaction, and turning away from people to God. According to a report, by an appeal to the above Qur'anic verse, Hasan al-Basri advised people who suffer from drought, poverty, and lack of children to ask for divine forgiveness.
Tawassul in Istighfar
- According to some Qur'anic verses, it is permissible, and even recommended, to resort to people who are close to God in asking for God's forgiveness (e.g. Qur'an 5:35).
- In some Qur'anic verses, resort to others, such as the Prophet (s), in asking for divine forgiveness is mentioned (e.g. Qur'an 4:64).
- In other verses of the Qur'an, God orders the Prophet (s) to ask God to forgive him and his people (e.g. Qur'an 47:19).
- Some Qur'anic verses recommend believers to ask God to forgive their parents and other relatives as well as other believers (e.g. Qur'an 14:41, Qur'an 71:28, Qur'an 7:151, Qur'an 59:10,).
- Some verses forbid the Prophet (s) and believers to ask God to forgive polytheists; this implies that it is permissible to ask Him to forgive believers (e.g. Qur'an 9:113 ).
Istighfar of The Prophets (a) and Other Infallibles (a)
Most of the relevant Qur'anic verses are concerned with the istighfar of ordinary people. However, in one case the Qur'an refers to the istighfar of "ribbiyyun", by which are meant "people who do not engage themselves with anything other than God". And some verses talk about the istighfar of the prophets and angels.
Since prophets (a) are Infallible, their istighfar does not mean asking God to forgive their sins. According to Shiites and many jurists from Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi'i schools, all prophets are infallible and they never commit even minor sins, since all people are commissioned to follow their lead, which is incompatible with their being fallible. Moreover, the Qur'an has described prophets as "mukhlasun". According to the Qur'an 38:82-83, there is no way for the Satan to tempt and deceive "mukhlasun" (dedicated servants). Thus istighfar in the case of prophets (a) should be explained in different ways.
Istighfar of Prophets (a)
- Istighfar in the case of prophets is a way of teaching people how to ask for divine forgiveness.
- It might mean that they ask God to forgive them because of not doing what is recommended of them to do (rather than what is obliged for them), that is, something that had better do or not do.
- It might well mean asking God to forgive the sins of their people.
- Prophets might practice istighfar in order not to commit sins, rather than asking for the forgiveness of something they did.
- The prophets' missions had effects that seemed wrong to many people. Thus they asked God to cover those effects from people. For example, people of Mecca thought that the Prophet (s) was an aggressive person who overlooked the traditions. However, after the Hudaybiyya peace treaty and the conquest of Mecca, they learned the truth. And about the Prophet Moses (a), the Qur'an 26:14 says: "they hold a sin against me", although it was not a sin for Prophet Moses (a) to kill the man from Copts, since it counted as a case of helping an oppressed person. However, it was considered by people as a sin, and thus Moses (a) asked God to forgive him, in the sense of covering the deed from people so that they no longer consider him as sinful. Likewise, according to the Qur'an 7:129, "they [that is, Israelites] replied: 'we were hurt before you came to us, and after you came to us.'" Thus they blamed Prophet Moses (a) for their troubles.
- For their natural lives, the prophets had to spend part of their time meeting their bodily needs, such as eating and drinking, and thus they were disconnected from the divine world during such engagements. So they asked God to forgive their having to engage in such activities.
- Istighfar by prophets means that they only care for God, rather than their spiritual rankings, since such things prevent them from seeing God.
- Since prophets always ascend to higher levels of spirituality, whenever they reach a higher level, they ask God to forgive their being in a lower level.
These interpretations of istighfar by prophets also apply to that by Imams (a) and other Infallibles (a), since they also asked for God's forgiveness, such as Imam 'Ali (a) in the Supplication of Kumayl and Imam al-Sajjad (a) in the Supplication of Abu Hamza Thumali.
The Viewpoint of Sunni Scholars
According to some Sunni scholars, the fact that prophets (a) asked for divine forgiveness makes it probable that they committed some major sins, and so they asked God to turn their major sins into minor sins or asked Him to make them immune from insistence on minor sins. Some other Sunni scholars reject that they commit any major sins, but they think that they asked God to forgive some minor sins they committed before or after their prophecy. Others maintain that prophets asked God to forgive their unintentionally committed sins.
Istighfar by Angels
Prohibition of Istighfar for Polytheists
According to the Qur'an 9:113, the Prophet (s) and other believers are prohibited from asking God to forgive polytheists and pagans. This is because such a request is pointless, since God will never forgive them. Some scholars hold that the prohibition is because if believers think that God may forgive polytheists, they would think that their faith gives them no advantage to them over polytheists, since they both might be forgiven by God. Moreover, istighfar is an expression of love and attachment to polytheists, which is forbidden by God.
Ibrahim's (a) Istighfar for Azar
After prohibiting istighfar for polytheists, the Qur'an refers to why the Prophet Ibrahim (a) asked God to forgive Azar; according to the verse Qur'an 9:114, he asked God for Azar's forgiveness only when he still hoped that Azar would believe in God; thus he promised him to ask for his forgiveness. However, when he realized that Azar was an enemy of God, he dissociated himself from him.
Ineffectiveness of istighfar for hypocrites
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- O you who have faith! Be wary of Allah, and seek the means of recourse to Him, and wage jihad in His way, so that you may be felicitous.
- We did not send any apostle but to be obeyed by Allah’s leave. Had they, when they wronged themselves, come to you and pleaded to Allah for forgiveness, and the Apostle had pleaded for them [to Allah]for forgiveness, they would have surely found Allah all-clement, all-merciful
- Know that there is no god except Allah, and plead [to Allah] for forgiveness of your sin and for the faithful, men and women. Allah knows your itinerary and your [final] abode
- Our Lord! Forgive me and my parents, and all the faithful, on the day when the reckoning is held.’
- My Lord! Forgive me and my parents, and whoever enters my house in faith, and the faithful men and women, and do not increase the wrongdoers in anything but ruin.’
- He said, ‘My Lord, forgive me and my brother, and admit us into Your mercy, for You are the most merciful of the merciful.
- And [also for] those who came in after them, who say, ‘Our Lord, forgive us and our brethren who were our forerunners in the faith, and do not put any rancour in our hearts toward the faithful. Our Lord, You are indeed most kind and merciful.’
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