You might say: “I committed many sins, and I have repented, but my sins pursue me and I am haunted by what I have done. My memories disturb my sleep and do not let me have any rest. How can I free myself?”
My advice to you is that these feelings are evidence of your sincere repentance. This is essentially remorse, and remorse is repentance. But you can look at your past with hope: the hope that Allaah will forgive you. Do not despair of the mercy of Allaah, for He says (interpretation of the meaning): “And who despairs of the Mercy of his Lord except those who are astray?” [al-Hijr 15:56]
Ibn Mas’ood (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: “The gravest of major sins are to associate partners with Allaah, to feel secure against the plan of Allaah and to despair of the mercy of Allaah. (Reported by ‘Abd al-Razzaaq and classed as saheeh by al-Haythami and Ibn Katheer).
In the process of moving towards Allaah, the believer is always motivated by both fear of Allaah and hope of His mercy. One or other of them may prevail at times of need. If he sins, the fear of Allaah overwhelms him, and so he repents. When he repents, the hope of Allaah’s mercy fills his heart and he seeks the forgiveness of Allaah.
Should I confess?
A person may sorrowfully ask: “I want to repent, but do I have to go and confess the sins I have committed? Is it a condition of repentance that I should tell the qaadi (judge) in the court about everything that I have done, and ask him to carry out the appropriate punishment on me? What is the meaning of the story I have just read about the repentance of Maa’iz, of the Ghaamidi woman and of the man who kissed a woman in the garden?”
My response to you is that the slave’s direct relationship with Allaah, with no intermediaries, is one of the most important aspects of the belief in Tawheed (Divine Unity) with which Allaah is pleased. He says (interpretation of the meaning): “And when My slaves ask you (O Muhammad) concerning Me, then (answer them), I am indeed near (to them by My knowledge). I respond to the invocations of the supplicant when he calls on Me (without any mediator or intercessor)…” [al-Baqarah 2:186]. If we believe that repentance is only for Allaah, then confession is only for Allaah too. In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to pray in his du’aa’s asking for forgiveness: “Aboo’u laka bi na’matika wa aboo’u bi dhanbi (I acknowledge Your blessings and I acknowledge (i.e. confess) my sin to You).” This is a confession to Allaah.
We are not, by the grace of Allaah, like the Christians, with the priest, the chair of confession, the documents of forgiveness, etc.
Indeed, Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “Know they not that Allaah accepts repentance from His slaves…?” [al-Tawbah 9:104], i.e., He accepts repentance from His slaves without any mediator or intercessor.
As regards the carrying out of punishments, if the deed has not come to the official attention of the imaam, ruler or qaadi, a person does not have to go to them and confess. If Allaah has covered the sins of a person, there is nothing wrong with him covering his own sins. It is sufficient for him to repent to Allaah, and the matter is between him and his Lord. One of the Names of Allaah is al-Sitteer, meaning the One Who covers or conceals (the faults of His slaves), and He likes His slaves to conceal sins too. As far as the Sahaabah such as Maa’iz, the Ghaamidi woman who committed zinaa, and the man who kissed the woman in the garden are concerned, all of them did something which they were not obliged to do, may Allaah be pleased with them, because they were so keen to purify themselves. The evidence for this is the fact that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) turned away from Maa’iz and from the Ghaamidi woman at first. When ‘Umar said to the man who had kissed the woman in the garden, “Allaah covered his sin. He should have covered it himself?” the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) remained silent, indicating that he concurred with these words.
So it is not necessary to go to the court and register an official confession, if Allaah has covered one’s sins. Nor is it necessary to go to the imaam of a mosque and ask him to carry out the appropriate punishment, or to ask a friend to carry out the punishment of lashing inside the house, as some people imagine.
The following story will teach you how important it is to be careful of the attitude of some ignorant people towards those who repent: a man who wanted to repent went to the ignorant imaam of a mosque, confessed his sins to him and asked him what he should do. The imaam said, “Go to the court and confess your sins officially. They will carry out the appropriate punishment on you. Then we will see what to do next.” The poor man saw that he would not be able to do this, so he forgot about repenting and went back to his old ways.
Here I will take the opportunity to add an important comment: knowing about the rules of Islam, and seeking them from the correct sources is a trust. Allaah says (interpretation of the meanings):
“… so ask of those who know the Scripture, if you know not.” [al-Nahl 16:43]
“… The Most Beneficent! Ask Him, as He is al-Khabeer (the All-Knower of everything).” [al-Furqaan 25:59]
Not every preacher is qualified to issue fataawaa (rulings or edicts). Not every imaam or muezzin, speaker or storyteller, is qualified to deliver rulings to the people. But the Muslim is responsible for knowing from where he can take rulings. This is an important matter of religion. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) feared what might befall his ummah at the hands of misguided imaams. One of the salaf (early generation of Islam) said: “Knowledge is religion, so pay attention to who it is you are taking your religion from.” Beware of these pitfalls, and only consult trustworthy scholars when you are in doubt about an issue. And Allaah is the source of help.