Is there a difference between Istighfār and Tawbah?
Istighfār (seeking forgiveness) and Tawbah (turning to Allah in repentance) are from those pairs of words that when mentioned separately generally mean the same thing, but when used together, emphasise certain aspects of the repentance act individually. Yet at the same time, there are small differences between the two and it could be argued that Tawbah is the more encompassing concept.
Some of the verses of Istighfār in the Qur’ān include:
وَمَا تُقَدِّمُوا لِأَنْفُسِكُمْ مِنْ خَيْرٍ تَجِدُوهُ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ هُوَ خَيْرًا وَأَعْظَمَ أَجْرًا وَاسْتَغْفِرُوا اللَّهَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ
“And whatever good you will send ahead for your own-selves, you will find it with Allah much better in condition, and much greater in reward. And seek forgiveness from Allah. Indeed Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Sūrat’l-Muzammil, 20)
ثُمَّ أَفِيضُوا مِنْ حَيْثُ أَفَاضَ النَّاسُ وَاسْتَغْفِرُوا اللَّهَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ
“Then set off together, from where all the people set off. And seek forgiveness of Allah, for Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Sūrat’l-Baqarah, 199)
وَمَا كَانَ اللَّهُ لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَأَنْتَ فِيهِمْ وَمَا كَانَ اللَّهُ مُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَهُمْ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ
“But Allah was not going to send them a penalty whilst you [O Prophet] were amongst them; nor was he going to send it whilst they were asking for forgiveness.” (Sūrat’l-Anfāl, 33)
فَقُلْتُ اسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ إِنَّهُ كَانَ غَفَّارًا
“I said, ‘Seek forgiveness of your Lord, He is Oft-Forgiving.’” (Sūrah Nūḥ, 11)
لَوْلَا تَسْتَغْفِرُونَ اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ
“If only you (were to) ask Allah for forgiveness, perhaps you may receive mercy.” (Sūrat’l-Naml, 46)
Istighfār as an act of seeking forgiveness is the beseeching of Allah to cover that sin in this world (linked to its Arabic root verb ghaffara غَفَّرَ which means to cover, and where the ghufrah غفرةis a cover itself) and to not make that sin public.
But more than just covering, it also entails a complete removal of that sin and a protection of the evil that may occur from that past sin, both in the dunya and theĀkhirah, so as to not be held accountable for that action on Judgment Day.
As Ibn al-Qayyim mentioned in the Madārij, Allah jalla wa ‘alā covers the sins of many people who don’t make Istighfār, so when one does actually seek forgiveness they are being more conscious of the enormity of that action, and the evil consequences that may occur. Consider that the helmet is called a Mighfar مِغفَر as opposed to just a hat or a turban because it does both the job of covering and protecting the head.
Yet we realize now that people might make Istighfār for a sin they have committed, but not commit to making Tawbah which includes a firm determination never to return to such a sin. This is one of the possible differences between these very similar words/concepts as mentioned by some of the ‘Ulemā.
As for Tawbah in the Qur’ān then as Allah jalla wa ‘alā says:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا تُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ تَوْبَةً نَصُوحًا
“O you who believe, turn in repentance to Allah with a sincere repentance.” (Sūrat’l-Tahrīm, 8 )
وَتُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَا الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
“And turn in repentance to Allah all of you, O Believers, so that you may achieve success.” (Sūrat’l-Nūr, 31)
Tawbah comes from the root word تاب which means to turn in repentance, in penitence for any sin committed. It means literally to “turn back to Allah” and as in Lisān’l-‘Arab, “to return back to the obedience of Allah.”
It also includes a call from the sinner to not be held accountable for that sin in the Hereafter. Thus some of the ‘Ulemā mentioned that whilst Istighfār focuses more on the evil consequences of that sin in the past, Tawbah is more focused on the consequences of that sin in the future.
Tawbah is a more comprehensive word than Istighfār as mentioned above but also because of what the ‘Ulemā mentioned from its conditions such as immediately stopping the sin, having a firm determination to not return back to that sin ever again, showing clear regret, and helping to fix any damage caused by that sin.
By fulfilling these conditions after sinning, the effect of this purification process ofTawbah can be incredibly powerful and indeed praiseworthy, for we have all been created weak along with a tendency to sin – but the best of the sinners are those who return back to Allah from such a state of disobedience to the obedience and love of Allahjalla wa ‘alā.
Hence Ibn al-Qayyim said, “The true essence of Tawbah is to return to Allah and to adhere to what He loves and renounce that which He hates – Tawbah is a journey from the disliked to the liked.” (al-Madārij)
As for those verses when both Istighfār and Tawbah are mentioned together:
وَأَنِ اسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ ثُمَّ تُوبُوا إِلَيْهِ يُمَتِّعْكُمْ مَتَاعًا حَسَنًا إِلَى أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّى
“Ask forgiveness of your Lord, then turn in repentance to Him; He will provide you with a goodly provision for an appointed time.” (Sūrah Hūd, 3)
وَيَا قَوْمِ اسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ ثُمَّ تُوبُوا إِلَيْهِ يُرْسِلِ السَّمَاءَ عَلَيْكُمْ مِدْرَارًا
“And, O my people! Ask forgiveness of your Lord, then turn in repentance to Him; He will release the Heavens pouring upon you…” (Sūrah Hūd, 52)
وَإِلَى ثَمُودَ أَخَاهُمْ صَالِحًا قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ مَا لَكُمْ مِنْ إِلَهٍ غَيْرُهُ هُوَ أَنْشَأَكُمْ مِنَ الْأَرْضِ وَاسْتَعْمَرَكُمْ فِيهَا فَاسْتَغْفِرُوهُ ثُمَّ تُوبُوا إِلَيْهِ إِنَّ رَبِّي قَرِيبٌ مُجِيبٌ
“And to Thāmūd their brother Ṣāliḥ. He said, “O my people! Worship Allah, you have no god other than He; He brought you into being from the earth, and made you dwell in it, therefore ask forgiveness of Him, then turn in repentance to Him; surely my Lord is Near, Answering.” (Sūrah Hūd, 61)
وَاسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ ثُمَّ تُوبُوا إِلَيْهِ إِنَّ رَبِّي رَحِيمٌ وَدُودٌ
“Seek forgiveness from your Lord, then turn in repentance to Him. Surely, my Lord is Merciful, Loving.” (Sūrah Hūd, 90)
So when both Istighfār and Tawbah are mentioned together, each word becomes more specific in its role in the entire repentance process.
Now, Istighfār is emphasizing protection of the evil for what has occurred from the sin, particularly in a worldly sense, covered up from the public eye.
And Tawbah now focuses on begging for safety from ever returning to such a sin again, and the consequences thereby.
As Imām al-Ālūsi mentioned in Rūh’l-Ma‘ānī that with both mentioned here together, the Istighfār is effectively the stopping and leaving of that sin and Tawbah is then the return to Allah and to obedience of Him ‘azza wa jall. It is the specific determination never to return to such a low state ever again.
But as explained before, if any of these two words were mentioned separately, this would be understood from each term according to the majority of the ‘Ulemā. When both are used together, each aspect of this return journey to Allah’s obedience is emphasised as concluded by Ibn al-Qayyim, may Allah have mercy upon all of our great scholars.
And Allah jalla wa ‘alā knows best.