Alexander Khaleeli looks at the human condition of sinning and why it is never too late to make a positive change in our lives
We are told that one day the famous scholar, Hasan al-Basri, said to people, ‘It amazes me that anyone goes to heaven.’ The statement reached Imam Ali ibn-Husayn (a) (Zayn al-‘Abidin). The Imam must have been smiling when he rejected the idea by saying: ‘It amazes me that anyone goes to hell.’ This brief exchange illustrates perfectly the dichotomy between fearing God’s punishment and hoping for His mercy. Quite often, especially when we are trying to make a positive change in our lives by following the teachings of the Prophet and Imams, we encounter obstacles and make mistakes. As a result, we often find ourselves beset by feelings of inadequacy – reflected by the words of Hasan al-Basri.
For some of us, particularly in our darker moments, we can feel like – despite our best efforts – we are such irredeemable sinners that we can never be “good enough” for God; we struggle to resist our temptations, but this only makes it hurt so much more when we have a lapse and slide back into bad habits. At other times, we overcome one sin only to fall straight into another. Despairing of our condition, we ask: how God could possibly love someone as broken and worthless as us? We weep, we rage, we feel like giving up.
Regret is not only an incredibly powerful emotion, but also a profoundly human one. No other creature (save the Jinn) can truly experience regret, because no other creature can truly sin. Only we have been endowed with both intellect and desire; a combination that means we can soar above the angels or sink beneath the beasts. Animals may experience anger, sadness and a host of other emotions, but they lack the moral reflection necessary for regret. Regret comes about because we sense we have somehow fallen short of a goal, and that this failure suggests something about our worth as a person. Angels, on the other hand, are incapable of erring as they lack any desire to lead them astray. In other words, the visceral, draining, I-want-to-curl-up-into-a-ball-and-die sensation of deep regret is a reflection of the innate recognition that we have somehow misused our God-given freedom.
But regret should not paralyse us. If regret is the pain of having made a mistake, the cure must be atonement. The same mix of intellect and desire that meant we could go astray also means that we can come back. One of the terms used in Islamic literature for repentance, “tawbah” literally means ‘to return.’ But it is not always easy for us to own up to our mistakes. Perhaps we feel vulnerable, or afraid that God will not take us back. A little voice wonders if our sin is too great to be forgiven.
We forget that this is the God – as we are told in Du’a Kumayl – whose ‘Mercy encompasses all things’, who opens almost every chapter of the Qur’an by invoking His name al-Rahman, which signifies the aspect of His mercy which is infinite in its scope, and His name
al-Rahim, which signifies His mercy which is infinite in its intensity. This is the God who offers ‘Whoever brings virtue shall receive ten times its like; but whoever brings vice shall not be requited except with its like, and they will not be wronged.’ (Qur’an 6:160) And the God who promises ‘If you avoid the major sins that you are forbidden, We will absolve you of your misdeeds, and admit you to a noble abode.’ (4:31). And the God who says, “O you servants who have exceedingly wronged yourselves do not despair in the mercy of God.” (39:53). So it is no more possible for us to discover a sin so heinous that it outstrips God’s boundless mercy than it is for us to conceive of a number larger than infinity.
And if we still harbour doubts, we need only look to the words of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a) : ‘Feeling regret is enough for God to forgive your sin.’ The very fact that we feel regret and acknowledge that we have fallen short is enough for God to forgive us. The Imam (a) has also said: ‘The one who repents for sins is like the one who has no sins.’ But repentance does not only erase our sins, it also earns us God’s reward. That is because implicit in repentance is humility; the acknowledgement that we have a master whom we serve, the admission that we are not perfect, and the promise that we will try harder next time. An arrogant person cannot repent. God prefers the sin that makes us humble to the good deed that makes us proud.
For a paragon of repentance, we need look no further than Hurr b. Yazid – the Umayyad officer who detained Husayn (the grandchild of the Prophet) and his companions at Karbala until the bulk of Ibn Ziyad’s army could arrive to surround and massacre them. Hurr’s conscience had been bothering him from the moment he met Husayn, but it was only on the day of battle, when the full gravity of his own actions became clear to him, that he could no longer follow his orders. Despite the hopelessness of Husayn’s situation, Hurr went over to his camp and pledged to defend him until his dying breath. Before Husayn stood a man directly responsible for the massacre about to unfold, but he welcomed him with open arms and told him ‘You are as your mother named you’ – The name “Hurr” means “a free man.”
So far from despairing at the magnitude of our sins, we should be grateful even for our sins and mistakes – the very fact that we recognise them as such is a blessing, because it represents an opportunity to correct them, the first step of which is repentance. The pain of regret is a reminder that we still have a choice; a reminder that even though we may have taken a wrong turn a while ago, we are always standing at a cross-roads. Like Hurr, we are free men and women. And like Hurr, freedom gives us the ability to make the right choice and atone for our misdeeds. When God’s mercy is so abundant, it is indeed amazing that anyone goes to Hell.
Written by Alexander Khaleeli
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.