It is quite erroneous to say that the word dhanb (ذَنْب) which actually means ‘frailty’ in the context of the verse 1وَ اسْتَغْفِرْ لِذَنْۢبِكَ implies sin, because there is a difference between the Arabic dhanb and jurm (جُرْم). The word jurm or sin is always used for such an offence which is deserving of punishment. However, dhanb is applicable also to human frailty. Hence, the word dhanb applies to Prophets due to their human weakness, but the word jurm is never applicable to them. No Prophet has ever been referred to as a sinner in the Book of God. Further, the Holy Quran, which is the book of God, warns the sinner with hell; in other words, God promises that the sinner will be thrown into hell, but no such warning is given to such a one who is weak by human nature. Allah the Exalted states:
2مَنْ يَّاْتِ رَبَّهٗ مُجْرِمًا فَاِنَّ لَهٗ جَهَنَّمَ لَا يَمُوْتُ فِيْهَا وَ لَا يَحْيٰـى
Meaning, he who comes to his Lord a sinner, his punishment is hell; he shall neither die therein nor live. Now in this instance, God has used the word mujriman which means ‘a sinner’ and not the word mudhniban or one to whom human weakness may be attributed. For in certain cases, even a sinless person can be referred to as a mudhnib (مُذْنِب) but he can never be referred to as a mujrim (مُجْرِم). There is another argument in support of this, as is evident in the following verse of
وَ اِذْ اَخَذَ اللهُ مِيْثَاقَ النَّبِيّٖنَ لَمَاۤ اٰتَيْتُكُمْ مِّنْ كِتٰبٍ وَّ حِكْمَةٍ
ثُمَّ جَآءَكُمْ رَسُوْلٌ مُّصَدِّقٌ لِّمَامَعَكُمْ لَتُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهٖ وَ لَتَنْصُرُنَّهٗ
قَالَ ءَاَقْرَرْتُمْ وَ اَخَذْتُمْ عَلٰى ذٰلِكُمْ اِصْرِيْ قَالُوْۤا اَقْرَرْنَا 3
This verse categorically establishes that all the Prophets, including the Messiah, were commanded to believe in the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and they did affirm their belief in him. Read the above-mentioned verse with the following:
4 وَ اسْتَغْفِرْ لِذَنْۢبِكَ وَ لِلْمُؤْمِنِيْنَ وَ الْمُؤْمِنٰتِ
Now if, God-forbid, the word dhanb here is taken to mean sin, then even Jesus would be a sinner according to this verse, for he is also among the believers who believed in the Holy Prophet; and so, undoubtedly he too would be a mudhnib. The Christians ought to reflect over this point. In short, these verses demonstrate with absolute clarity that dhanb as it appears in this context, does not mean sin, but rather refers to human frailty, which is not blameworthy. It is essential for human nature to possess such weakness; and the reason it is termed dhanb is because the nature of man is characterised by deficiency and flaw, so that he may always remain dependent on God and continue seeking His strength to suppress his weakness. There is no doubt that the weakness of human flesh, if not attended to by divine strength, is bound to lead to transgression. So that which leads to dhanb or sin is metaphorically called dhanb as well. It is a well-known and familiar practice in expression that the very symptoms which cause certain ailments are sometimes given the name of those ailments themselves. So, weakness in human nature is also an ailment and its remedy is istighfar.
Thus, the Book of God uses the word dhanb to connote the weakness of the flesh, which testifies to the fact that man possesses a weakness in human nature. As such, Allah Almighty states:
5خُلِقَ الْاِنْسَانُ ضَعِيْفًا
In other words, man is created weak. It is this feebleness of man, which without the helping hand of God, leads to diverse forms of sin. The essence of istighfar therefore is that one should ever and always seek the succour of God, and beseech Him so that human failing, which is frailty of the flesh and is inescapable, may not come to light. A person who constantly takes to istighfar furnishes evidence that they have overcome human frailty through the descent of divine light, which covered it and prevented it from being exposed. Here, it ought to be remembered that the word istighfar is derived from the Arabic ghafrun meaning to suppress and cover up, i.e. to supplicate that human frailty does not become manifest, causing harm, but rather remains covered. Man is neither God, nor independent of Him, and so he resembles the child who at every step is dependent on its mother so that she may protect it from falling and stumbling. In the same way, humanity depends upon God at every step so that He protects them from stumbling and faltering. And so, istighfar is the remedy which aids this purpose.
At times, the meaning of this word is extended to apply to such people who have already committed a sin. In such cases, the meaning of istighfar or seeking forgiveness is that God may save them from the punishment of the transgression that has already been committed. However, this secondary meaning is not valid and acceptable in the context of the elect of God. For to them, God has already disclosed that no punishment shall touch them and the lofty stations of paradise would be conferred upon them and they shall be seated in the lap of God’s mercy. And not once but hundreds of times they are given such promises and they are enabled to behold paradise. Hence, if they sought forgiveness in the sense that they might not be cast into Hell due to their sins, then such istighfar would itself make them guilty of sin, for this would assume that they do not believe in God’s promises and consider themselves removed from divine mercy. How can one imagine about whom God Almighty says: 6وَ مَاۤ اَرْسَلْنٰكَ اِلَّا رَحْمَةً لِّلْعٰلَمِيْنَ i.e. We have sent you as a mercy for all peoples and you are mercy personified, that he himself doubted whether or not he would have God’s mercy; how then could he be a mercy for others?
All these circumstances clearly reveal to those who are fair-minded that ascribing this second meaning of istighfar, as mentioned above, to the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is a grave error and nothing short of mischief. In fact, the first sign of a sinless person is that they remain engaged in seeking forgiveness from God more than anyone else and unceasingly seek strength from the Almighty at every moment and in every situation, to protect themselves from human weakness; this, in other words, is called istighfar. The child that always walks with the support of its mother’s hand and does not leave her side even for a second will, without doubt, be saved from stumbling. But a child who is not led by its mother, and climbs up and down a dangerous set of steps alone, is bound to fall one day, and a terrible fall it shall be. Thus, just as it is preferable for a fortunate child never to part from its beloved mother and never to leave her lap and bosom, so is it the practice of holy personages that they lie at God’s threshold as children do in their mothers’ laps. A child fulfils all its needs through the strength of its mother and when faced by the opposition of another child, or when confronted by a dog or some other danger, or if it finds itself in a wavering situation, the child immediately calls for its mother so she may rush towards it and protect it from danger. So too is the case with spiritual children who consider their Lord to be their mother and consider His power to be their treasure, and at every moment without fail, they seek strength from Him. To illustrate, at a time of hunger when a suckling baby puts its lips to the breast of its mother and desires to draw out milk by virtue of its natural instinct, the mother immediately feels that just as the soft and tender lips of her wailing child touch her breast, milk gushes forth from her and pours into the baby’s mouth. The same law applies to such children who seek and thirst for spiritual milk.
1 And ask forgiveness for thy frailties. (Muhammad, 47:20)
2 Taha, 20:75
3 And remember the time when Allah took a covenant from the people through the Prophets, saying: ‘Whatever I give you of the Book and Wisdom and then there comes to you a Messenger, fulfilling that which is with you, you shall believe in him and help him.’ And He said: ‘Do you agree, and do you accept the responsibility which I lay upon you in this matter?’ They said: ‘We agree.’ (Al-e-Imran, 3:82)
4 And ask forgiveness for thy frailties, and for believing men and believing women. (Muhammad, 47:20)
5 an-Nisa, 4:29
6 al-Anbiya, 21:108