Professor Abdul Jaleel
The Review of Religions, December 1993
Istighfar means to cover up, protect or suppress. The primary connotation of Istighfar is to supplicate for the suppression of human tendency to fall into error so as to be safeguarded against error or sin. Its secondary connotation is to supplicate for suppression of consequences of error. Thus Istighfar might connote suppression of a person’s tendency towards falling into sin or error, or his protection against the consequences of such errors or sin, or of the errors and sins of others.
On account of lack of knowledge of Arabic, the true significance of Istighfar has been lost to many. This word is derived from Ghafr, the other infinitive forms being Maghfirat, Ghufran etc. As given in all Arabic dictionaries, the word ghafr means – to cover or to protect. Therefore the primary meaning of Istighfar mean, seeking protection or a prayer of protection and support. All other meanings usually given to this word are derived or secondary.
To whom is the above prayer addressed and from what is the protection sought? Since we are discussing this subject from the Islamic point of view, the obvious answer to the first question is – to none other than the One God, Allah. The common form of this prayer is Astaghfirullah i.e., I seek the protection of Allah or I pray to Allah for His Protection and this makes it conclusive that the Istighfar is addressed to the One God alone.
The answer to the second question is the most important point to be settled and is the main subject of this discussion. Is the protection sought simply from the punishment of evil which a man has wrought or is it sought primarily from the evil itself and only secondarily from its consequences if the evil has been done? For the correct answer, one has to go to the fundamental question of relation between God and His creatures. God of Islam is not only the Creator but Supporter as well. Whatever has been made by Divine hand is also supported by it. If, therefore, man needs the creating hand of God to come into existence, it is equally true that he needs His supporting hand to be saved from corruption. The Divine attribute of creation required that man should be created in the image of God and the requirement of Divine attribute of support was that, what had been created in Divine image should not be given up to corruption and everlasting destruction. It is to denote these two Divine attributes, the adjectives Al-Hayyi, Al-Qayyum are used in the Holy Quran regarding Allah, which means, the One Who brings into existence and supports that which He has created.
By nature, man needs support for his existence. This is testified in the Holy Quran by the verse: man has been created weak. He is a creature and as such is dependent upon his Creator, resembling an infant that needs the assistance of its mother in every step. Thus we have in God, a supporter and in man, somebody who requires support.
Almighty God gives support to man in all matters in abundance without his asking. Yet as an intelligent being he must exercise his own will to avail himself of some gifts. Man is feeble in nature and as such is powerless to resist evil tendencies. If he, therefore, does not use his faculties to ask for aid from the Supporter against evil tendencies, he rejects the gift which he could have claimed by asking, and this leads him into evil. The Holy Quran teaches man how to ask for God’s help in the opening chapter of the Book – O God! Thee alone do we seek assistance that Thy support may hold us against the weakness of the flesh and protect us from stumbling and falling. (1:5) The more a man feels the weakness of his nature, the more he will ask for Divine strength and to a greater extent he will consequently be protected from evil.
This is the real significance of Istighfar – seeking protection of God from evil. Hence the necessity of Istighfar by every person is obvious without any consideration of actual commission of sin by him. In short, existence of sin is not a pre-requisite for Istighfar. There is a craving in the very nature of man to attain perfection. To satisfy this craving, he is guided to say Istighfar and this makes up the deficiency of human nature by imploring strength from God.
Istighfar is also needed for protection from the punishment of the evil that has been done. Hence it is of secondary significance, the primary one being the protection from the evil itself, whether a sin has been committed or not. This leads us to the role of prophets who have been raised from time to time among various people. The primary object of their appearance is to deliver men from evil, not to pardon them the sin they go on committing. In this respect Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) has an eminence not reached by any other prophet. He was raised at a time when darkness prevailed on the face of the earth and people had gone astray in doctrine and practice. The Arabs whom he addressed directly had sunk deep into vice. From this depth of degradation he raised them to the highest pinnacles of civilization. But how did he bring about this revolution? Since God alone can support man against the forces of evil, it is obvious that the Prophet must have taught them to pray to God for this protection. And it is Istighfar that he taught.
Istighfar, as seen in the Holy Quran, is the true and only means of drawing strength and support of God, the only course for attaining nearness of God and the only path by walking on which man may attain to sinlessness and salvation. The Holy Quran speaks of it as the highest accomplishment of good men. In the chapter Scattering, we read: Verily the righteous shall dwell amid gardens and fountains with the blessings which their Lord has given them. This is a reward to them, for, before this they were the greatest doers of good, passed greater part of the night in devotion to God and when morning came, they retorted to `Istighfar’, i.e., they sought the Divine strength and support. (51:16-19) As clearly seen here, Istighfar is described as a deed of righteousness and the effect of which is not that they were saved from the torment of hell fire but Divine blessings and favours were showered upon them in abundance. The Arabic word Mohsin translated as good man in the fore-quoted Quranic verse has been defined by the Holy Prophet as one who worships God so sincerely as if he actually sees Him or at least the one who deems himself in the presence of God Who sees him. It should be noted that when a person reaches this stage, he cannot sin. Hence his Istighfar is not for the protection from the punishment of hell but is a part of his goodness. Such a man keeps himself in the presence of God during night, praying for Divine protection and support in the morning to keep him firm in His path and not to let him slip. He feels that without the strength and support in the morning to keep him firm in His path and not to let him slip. He feels that without the strength and support of God, he would not be able to overcome the frailties of his nature and, therefore, prays constantly that he might not be deprived of heavenly bliss due to the weakness of his flesh.
Another Quranic verse which shows Istighfar as a highly commendable deed for righteousness is: the patient, the truthful, and the lowly and charitable and those who resort to Istighfar at morning times. (3:17) In this verse, the Istighfar is deemed as a necessity for good together with patience, truth, lowliness and charity. Here Istighfar clearly is indicated not only for saving from punishment but also for drawing blessings and favours of God.
Not only is Istighfar described as leading to virtuous deeds, but Maghfirat is also promised as a gift of God to those who lead a virtuous course of life. We read in the Chapter Hud, thus: Those who stick to virtue and shun vice and work righteousness, to them shall be granted `maghfirat’ and a great reward. (11:12) Here maghfirat is promised as a reward to those who do righteous deeds and does not mean pardon of sins, because the persons to whom it is promised are plainly described as being those who have been doing righteous deeds. In fact man always stands in need of maghfirat and maghfirat of God shall continue even in paradise. The Holy Quran attests to this in the words: they will have all kinds of fruits therein (the paradise) and `maghfirat’ from their Lord. (47:16) Here maghfirat is plainly described as a reward which shall be granted to the good in paradise. In chapter Al-Tahrim of the Holy Book we read: Those (who enter paradise) will pray: Lord, perfect our light for us and grant us `maghfirat’. (66:9) This unceasing desire for perfection and maghfirat shows clearly that progress in paradise will be endless.
From these two verses, it is plain that even after entry into paradise which will only be possible after obtaining God’s pardon to those who have committed sins, the faithful will still have a continuous desire for maghfirat, or in another words, they will resort to istighfar, though they shall have been saved from punishment.
What does maghfirat in paradise mean? As mentioned earlier, Istighfar is a requirement of the nature of man as a creature and of the attribute of God as the Creator and Supporter. The attribute of support of the Creator must remain constantly at work as long as there are creatures. Notwithstanding continual progress in heaven, men will still be creatures and still be dependent upon God. Any degree of perfection they may attain in this world or the next cannot be equivalent to the perfection of the Creator. In paradise, the righteous will ever be ascending upwards and will regard every state as defective in comparison with the higher one to which he will aspire and will, therefore, pray to God for maghfirat. Since progress is endless, the desire for maghfirat will never cease. In spite of the fact that God has granted maghfirat to the Holy Prophet for short comings, past and future (48:3), he has been advised to `resort to Istighfar’ and seek maghfirat from God (110:4) even after assurance of God (48:3).
In short, Istighfar is the closest form of communion with God, the highest flight of the spirit of man towards the Divine Being. The man who resorts to Istighfar humiliates himself before God, admitting the weakness of his nature and dreads the Power and Glory of the Creator. His whole delight, his very paradise, is in this fact that he should fly to that rock of strength, without whose shelter he cannot live. His own self is annihilated and God is all in all to him. The man who constantly recurs to Istighfar, feels his own dependency and turns to God for help and aid and thus gives evidence that he was overcome the weakness of flesh and resisted the evil tendency because the strength of God is with him and His light descending upon him, has suppressed every infirmity of nature which could have led to sin.
- Review of Religions, 1903, From writings of Hazrat Ahmad, the Promised Messiah and Mahdi
- The Quran – Preface to the English Translation by Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan