The first step on the path of affinity to God is repentance (istighfar or tawbah). Repentance is a characteristic of the human being that sets it apart from animals.

The human being possesses certain high aptitudes and distinctive qualities not found in animals. One of these is the ability to repent or ask Allah’s forgiveness. It does not mean only uttering the phrase, “I seek forgiveness from God, the Most High and I repent to Him.” Repentance is far from just verbal. It is a psychological and spiritual state, a revolution of the mind. It is an internal revolution of the human being against the self.

The rise of one group of human beings against another group is natural and quite common. But the rise of a person against the self is not so simple and obvious. Why does it happen? The reason is that, in spite of having one body, a human being is intellectually and spiritually a complex being. The human being is a mixture of animal ferocity and emotions, on the one hand, and of angelic qualities on the other. Sometimes the animal takes over as a ferocious beast, giving no choice to the angel within to act.

A sinful person is one who is dominated by the inner beast or devil, which overcomes the angel and its noble qualities. Repentance is the arising of the noble qualities, putting an end to the domination of our mean and wicked side and destroying all its force.

People often think that they are too young to start repenting for they see old people engaged in worship and penitence. But the truth is that the time for repentance is youth. A young branch can be straightened, but when it grows thicker it does not lend itself to a change of shape.

One advice of Imam Ali (a) is, “Be not one of those who feel repentance to be necessary and yet they postpone it.”

Someone came to Ali (a) claiming strongly his intention to repent. The Imam realized that he was not serious and asked him, “Do you know what repentance is? It is an act worthy of exalted being; it is a holy state of mind that makes you feel that God has bestowed His grace on you and that you are surrounded by angels. You lose your egoism and feel you are purified.”

In repentance there is no need to go to a clergyman or to another human being. Repent to your God as it is said in the Qur’an,
Say, “Oh my people who have been prodigal against yourselves, do not despair of God’s Mercy,” surely God forgives sins altogether.” (Qur’an 39:53)

The following sentence has been quoted in a sacred tradition,
The groan (of repentance) of sinners is dearer to Me than the glorified glorifications (of Me) so you should sigh and groan in these precious nights. Be your own judge and censor, confess all your sins and be sure that God will forgive you and purify your soul. Then you taste the sweetness of worship and sin and the pleasure obtained from them will seem to you so trifling that you will never feel inclined to commit them any more nor to lie or slander or accuse others.

Here are some interesting points mentioned by Imam All (a) on repentance;

The first part of repentance is regretting what has passed. It means looking at the dark deed and being so sorry and ashamed of it that it makes your heart burn.

The second part is a decisive resolution not to repeat the foul deed again. Repentance does not depend on the enormity of sin. Every kind of sin, whether big or small, lends itself to repentance provided the Penitent is serious in his or her intention.

One of the conditions for the acceptance of repentance is to return what belongs to others, whether it is something that is seized or a right that has been trampled on. It must either be returned itself or, at least, the rightful owner must be given satisfaction. God will not forget him and the same applies to a person who has been backbitten. He must be given satisfaction. He must accept the apology.

. The Qur’an in speaking of repentance mentions the following points:
God loves those who repent and He loves those who cleanse themselves. [2:222] And he who repents, after his evil doing and makes amends, God is Allcompassionate. [5:39]

This means that you must cleanse yourself not only physically but also spiritually. The Prophet was a fine example of both kinds of cleanliness.

The greatest joy of chaste people has always been to admit to God their shortcomings, their faults, their needs and their poverty, saying that they show nothing but negligence, while God grants nothing but favor and grace. The following prayer is quoted from Imam Hussein (a) “My Master, when I glance at my sins I am overcome by fear but when 1 glance at Your Grace I am filled with hope.”

At the mention of Imam Hussein, let us look at a real penitent of Karbala whose repentance was accepted:
Hurr ibn Yazid Riahi. He was a brave warrior of Kufa. When Ibn Ziyad sent a thousand men for the first time against Imam Hussein (a), Hurr was the man chosen as their leader. He was therefore a person who had oppressed and mistreated the Prophet’s household. It is said that the night before Ashura, Hurr was seen to be trembling like a leaf The same narrator was surprised and, approaching him, asked him the reason for his tremors and whether he was afraid. Hurr told him,
“No. I have no fear of fighting but I see myself at a cross roads between heaven and hell and I am wondering which route to take.”

His inner noble qualities had started to surface. At last he chose the right route. Slowly, he turned his horse away in such a way that no one knew what he intended to do. When he reached a certain point, he spurred his horse on until he reached the Imam’s tent with his shield turned backward as a sign of coming in peace.
On seeing the Imam he asked, “Is my repentance acceptable?” The Imam (a) said, “Yes.” Our Imam’s chivalry was such that he did not put one word of blame upon him for his past conduct. Hurr begged Imam Hussein (a) to let him go and fight. The Imam said, “You are our guest. Get down off your horse and stay with us awhile.” But he felt shy, whispering to himself with shame for his past, for having sinned against the family of the Prophet. That is why he again requested that Imam Hussein let him go and fight the attacking foes lest one of the children look at him and cause him to die of shame. Thus, his repentance was so sincere that this penitent became the first martyr of Kerbala.

(Adapted from Repentance by Ayahullah Murtaza Mutahhari,