Slipping Towards God: Reflections on Sin, Guilt, Shame & Repentance

“Except those who repent with conviction, believe and do righteous deeds; Allah will turn their sins into acts of virtue, for Allah is ever pardoning and compassionate.” (Qur’an 25:69-70)

Every Muslim has experienced the feeling—waking up to the soft heat of the morning sun, the bright rays of sunlight peer through the bedroom window. As you gain full consciousness, a painful realization enters your heart: “I slept through fajr1, again!”

Devastated, you force yourself out of bed and purify for prayer. Standing in broad daylight, you pray a late dawn prayer in a state of brokenness and humility.

Now, this experience can be particularly devastating for someone who regularly wakes up for tahajjud, the voluntary night vigil. But, perhaps they did so with arrogance and pride, thinking to him or herself, “I pray at night, while others sleep….” God, in His infinite mercy and wisdom, caused the believer to “wake up” from his prideful state by causing him to oversleep.

A central, yet oft-neglected spiritual principle is that even in one’s mistakes, there is a path to divine compassion and providence. That late fajr prayer in a state of humility could be better than a lifetime of good deeds. In fact, it could be the act of worship that God accepts and, through His grace, a means to ultimate salvation. This reality is captured in an aphorism of the 13th Century Egyptian jurist and sage Ibn ‘Ata'illah:

"It may be that He opens the door of obedience for you, but not the door of acceptance; and it may be that He decrees a sin for you, and it leads you back to Him. "

It is a reminder that our obedience is from God’s grace alone and is only valuable if accepted. Our sins are also decreed by God and can actually be a means of bringing us closer to Him. Though all of us sin, the best of us are those who frequently repent. Of course, this is not to downplay the gravity of sinning. No one can deny that repeated sins, without repentance, take a toll on the spiritual health of a person2, as in the words of God:

“Nay! The deeds they acquired have blemished their very hearts.”3

There may be other, more visible effects. Sins, particularly those committed in public, bring shame on an individual and/or family. They may even bring ostracism from the community. Sins, both private and public, also engender a ranging degree of guilt, depending on the health of one’s faith.

Shame v. Guilt Cultures

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf mentions in his commentary on Imam Mawlud’s “Purification of the Heart” that anthropologists divide societies into shame and guilt cultures. A shame culture is a society in which the primary instrument for maintaining control and social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism, whereas that instrument in a guilt culture is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the individual believes to be undesirable. Concerning Muslim cultures, Shaykh Hamza states:

What Islam does is honor the concept of shame and take it to another level altogether—to a rank in which one feels a sense of shame before God. When a person acknowledges and realizes that God is fully aware of all that one does, says, or thinks, shame is elevated to a higher plane, to the unseen world from which there is no cover. So while Muslims comprise a shame-based culture, this notion transcends shame before one’s family—whether one’s elders or parents— and admits a mechanism that is not subject to the changing norms of human cultures. It is associated with the knowledge and active awareness that God is All-Seeing of what one does—a reality that is permanent.4

Both shame and guilt bother modern people, including many Muslims. Nowadays, we abhor public shame and resent the feeling of guilt. 5 Many of those raised in religious households lament that “[l]ife was all don’ts and dark thoughts.”6 The concept of such guilt is even propagated on primetime television. In an episode of “30 Rock,” Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) explains after learning that Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) converted to Catholicism:

Jack Donaghy: That's not how it works, Tracy. Even though there is the whole confession thing, that's no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you're simply... eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.

Tracy Jordan: I don't think I want that. I'm out.7

While funny, the sad reality is that this is also the sentiment of many Muslims today. Instead of guilt being constructive and focused on forgiving one's ethical lapses and changing one's behavior, it becomes destructive and experienced as self-loathing. As a result, Muslims are increasingly justifying immoral behaviors and engaging in interpretive gymnastics to carve out new space in the religion to accommodate sin. Though motivations may vary, one clear goal in changing public opinion about what is or is not moral conduct is to eliminate shame. Once a society no longer recognizes our sins, we can free ourselves of that “crushing guilt.” The unfortunate side effect is that the tenet of ultimate concern, shame before God, is lost.

This is not to deny a real need to condemn the abuse of guilting people into depression; however, we should realize that guilt is one of the first steps toward repentance to God, rectitude in oneself, and reconciliation with others. Not condoning improper behavior is a sign of a healthy society. Feeling guilty for committing a sin is an indication of a sound heart.

The Story of Ka`b ibn Malik (may God be pleased with him)

The incredible story of the repentance of the great companion of the Prophet (may God bless and sanctify him and his family) Ka`b ibn Malik8 is illustrative of the spiritual benefit of a heart initially led by guilt. It also reinforces the benefit of repenting without excuse, and accepting legitimate community ostracism.

Ka`b himself tells of how he did not join the Prophet (may God bless and sanctify him and his family) in the expedition of Tabuk. He readily admits that he had no excuse, and that he was more than capable of joining the expedition. However, because he delayed readying himself for battle, he was left behind. Realizing that everyone had left, he became devastated. The only people exempted from the battle were those who had a valid excuse and the hypocrites, and he did not have a valid excuse, so one can only imagine what he must have felt! It reached Ka`b that although thousands of Muslims participated in Tabuk, the Prophet (may God bless and sanctify him and his family) noticed his absence. Ka`b did not entertain any excuses and made a firm resolution to confess the truth to the Messenger of God. Others offered excuses, and were forgiven, but Ka`b simply said: “By Allah, I have no excuse for remaining behind. By Allah, my situation was such that no one was stronger or more affluent than me when I remained behind.” The Prophet (may God bless and sanctify him and his family) said: “This one has spoken the truth.” He told Ka`b to go until Allah’s decree concerning the matter.

Ka`b and two others in his same situation were ostracized and would remain aloof from the community for fifty days. It was an intensely difficult period for them, and they were even forced to separate from their families. Then when God’s decree absolved them, Ka`b was greeted with glad tidings and congratulations. He returned to the community and was gifted a momentous meeting with the Prophet (may God bless and sanctify him and his family):

“When I greeted the Messenger of Allah (may God bless and sanctify him and his family), his face was beaming with happiness. He said to me: ‘Glad tidings to you on the best day of your life since your mother gave birth to you.’ I asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Is this from you or from Allah? He replied: ‘No, it is from Allah.’ Whenever the Messenger of Allah (may God bless and sanctify him and his family) was taken by happiness, his face would shine as if it were a piece of the full moon. This was how we would recognize his happiness.”9

The story of Ka`b teaches us that when we slip, we should simply acknowledge our shortcomings without excuse, and return to God. Although tough, we accept legitimate ostracism from the community and use the internal guilt to motivate us to be and do better. Ka’b could have offered excuses, justified his behavior, or explained away his mistake. He embraced the definition of sin without excuse and actually ended up better off. Although he erred, that error led to a repentance confirmed by divine revelation and the beautiful smile of the Prophet (may God bless and sanctify him and his family). Ka`b reflected that his honesty was a means to this great acceptance and, as a result, vowed to speak nothing but the truth for the rest of his life. Ka’ab confesses that after being guided, this incident, which came about because of his mistake, was the greatest bounty he ever received from God.

Like Ka’b, let us be honest with our mistakes and embrace the definition of sin. This is not a time to justify or explain away. We must keep accessible the door of repentance, no matter how many times we need to come knocking. If I slip, I repent; if I slip again, I repent again; and so on. The archers continue to shoot, and if they do not take their game home today, then they will take it home tomorrow. Repeated sins should not cause one to despair. Of course, one should not be deceived and intentionally drink poison, relying on the continued availability of its antidote. Still, the believer is always optimistic, even after disobedience to his or her Lord. In the words of Ibn ‘Ata'illah:

Let not your sin ever occasion your despair of attaining uprightness with your Lord, for it just may be the last sin ever decreed for you to commit.

1. Fajr is the Arabic word for “dawn” and is the proper time for the first of five daily ritual prayers required of Muslims.
2. “There is no minor sin when His justice confronts you; and there is no major sin when His grace confronts you.” Hikma 50 of Ibn ‘Ata'illah.
4. Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Purification of the Heart, pp. 14-15, Starlatch Press (2004)
6. Id.
8. Ka`b ibn Malik (died 50 AH, may God be pleased with him) was one of the poets of the Messenger of Allah (may God bless and sanctify him and his family). He was present for the pledge of ‘Aqabah and participated in all of the battles after Uhud, except Tabuk. He narrated 180 hadith.. (Riyad as-Salihin, Imam Nawawi, Translation and Commentary, by Muslims at Work Publications, pg. 56, FN 15.)


Faith & Spirituality Related Articles