One lesson that experience teaches me is that sincere repentance must always be followed by vigilance.
In Ramadan we have the gift of being able to distinguish between two types of sins: those that come from within, from the nafs, and those that come from outside. When, in the midst of that blessed month, we find our tongues dry of words, it becomes quite apparent that our misuse of speech throughout the remainder of the year derives largely from the inspiration of the whispering one. But as for those other sins that accompany us even through the month of fasting, it is usually self-evident that they come from deep within.
I have tried and tried to conquer the sins of the nafs, failing constantly but nevertheless returning to repentance in due course, falling down upon my face with a commitment to strive against them. It is hard work, for I have fed them since childhood and thoughts of them now pervade my mind and memory. On occasion it has been possible to abstain from thoughts of them for weeks and months, but usually progress is less effective: sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes just days, sometimes only part of a day or an hour. It is a painful battle, wherein even the body reacts with hunger, persuading the mind to drop its guard and return to those transgressions that will be its downfall.
Nevertheless there is repentance and the possibility of redemption. It is possible to return to that ultimate realisation that the only way forward is to slay and conquer the sins of the nafs, to burn them out, even if the heaviness of desires causes that aching pain within to become unbearable. And so, slowly in time, even as we stumble along the way, we make ourselves a covenant with God, committing to strive steadfastly on this path, closing down every avenue that could lead to its return.
But experience has taught me that this is not enough. For without vigilance, it is all too easy to replace one sort of sin with another. My epiphany of reform came early on Sunday morning, driving me to fall down in prayer, to beg for forgiveness, help and guidance. Yet on Monday morning, heading into town to take care of some business, I would find myself tallying up a new set of marks in my record. Encountering a friend there, innocent greetings and an exchange of news would soon dissolve into one of those heedless conversations that carries us perilously close to danger. We both believed that we were speaking out of concern for our friends, petitioning one another to action, intent on them rectifying their affairs.
It was not until the midnight hours as I lay in bed that it occurred to me that the source of my sudden concern for a friend was not what I had thought it was. Instead of responding with measured advice and leaving it there, or even saying I don’t know, we had listened to the provocations of the whispering one and threw ourselves into sin, all the while convincing ourselves that we were acting with integrity, speaking up only out of love and mercy.
All of a sudden, quite horrifically, it occurred to me that just as last time when I had promised never to feed those sins of the nafs again, I had hurriedly dashed into another trap without even looking where I was going. And I know not what harm I have caused.
The avenues to our destruction are many — some wide, some narrow, some appealing, some repulsive — and so we must permanently remain on guard. If we are making an effort to overcome one sin that constantly plays on our mind, we must remind ourselves of others of which we are unconscious. The whispering one only requires us to be unmindful for an instant for us to throw all of our good deeds to the wind. So be vigilant both in times of strength and weakness, of joy and sadness, of contentment and of rage. Without it, our progress may forever remain a mere illusion.