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At the Crossroads; It is never too late

AL_LE_Cross Roads, Pantanal, Brazil (from the Full

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.

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