By Zarmeen Ghoor
The phrase Astaghfirullah (Arabic: أسْتَغْفِرُ ٱللَّٰهَ) is familiar to the ears and hearts of Muslims across the world. This post explores what this phrase means, how we can use it, and the marvelous benefits of repentance promised by Allah.
What does Astaghfirullah mean?
The phrase Astaghfirullah consists of two parts:
- astaghfiru which means “I seek forgiveness”
- Allah which is the Arabic term for the One true God
The first part, astaghfiru, is derived from the root غ-ف-ر (gha-fa-ra) which means to cover something, usually with the intention of keeping it clean or protecting it from being stained.
This phrase is the most common and basic form of repentance. Seeking forgiveness is like polishing the part of you that feels sullied after committing a sin. That soiled feeling is the prickling of one’s conscience. It’s the unwelcome mix of guilt, regret and an innate aversion to what just occurred.
Where others may consider this guilty regret that follows wrongdoing a negative emotion that can lead to a spiral of self-loathing, Islam teaches us to harness this guilt, to allow it to flower into the desire to improve and the will to never commit the same fault again.
The first step in this process is seeking forgiveness, or in Arabic istighfar.
Istighfar in the Quran
Forgiveness is a core theme in the Quran, and both the act of seeking forgiveness and forgiving itself are unreservedly encouraged. The Quran contains a wealth of words built on the root غ-ف-ر (gha-fa-ra), the root from which both astaghfirullah and istighfar stem.
Many of these references are mentions of Allah’s names that describe his various attributes of forgiveness:
- Al-Ghaafir (The One Who Forgives)
- Al-Ghafoor (The All-Forgiving)
- Al-Ghaffar (The Oft-Forgiving)
These names alone appear 91 times altogether in the Quran – clearly emphasizing this attribute of everlasting, all-encompassing forgiveness.
There are many verses which encourage seeking forgiveness:
And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves (by transgression), remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah? [Surah Ali’ Imran 3:135]
Whoever commits evil or wrongs themselves then seeks Allah’s forgiveness will certainly find Allah All-Forgiving, Most Merciful [Surah An-Nisa 4:110]
And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful [Surah An-Nisa 4:106]
But Allah would not punish them while you, (O Muhammad), are among them, and Allah would not punish them while they seek forgiveness. [Surah Al-Anfal 8:33]
These verses are both instructive and comforting; they guide Muslims on how to act after wrongdoing, while also giving hope that Allah will certainly be forgiving and accept repentance.
It is also consoling that the Quran does not simply criticize those who “commit evil or wrong themselves” – rather it offers a way out by giving practical advice: when you’ve done wrong, take action (like seeking forgiveness).
This is an important lesson to apply to any mistake we make in life, not just to what we may think is “sinning” in a religious sense.
We should always seek forgiveness from Allah – but when we wrong people, we should apologize and seek their forgiveness too, take any action we can to remedy the situation and resolve to not err in the same way again.
In this way we counter the negative responses of guilt and regret with progress, and instead of mistakes leading to despair, they lead to evolution.
Istighfar in the Hadith literature
The sunnah mirrors what the Quran says about forgiveness. These sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) encourage one to repent and emphasize Allah’s boundless forgiving nature:
Anas narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said:
“Allah, the Exalted, has said: ‘O son of Adam! I shall go on forgiving you so long as you pray to Me and aspire for My forgiveness whatever may be your sins. O son of Adam! I do not care even if your sins should pile up to the sky and should you beg pardon of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam! If you come to Me with an earthful of sins and meet Me, not associating anything with Me in worship, I will certainly grant you as much pardon as will fill the earth.’” [Tirmidhi]1
Another one of Anas’ narrations record Muhammad (pbuh) as saying:
“Every son of Adam sins, the best of the sinners are those who repent.” [Tirmidhi]2
Abu Ayyub Khalid bin Zaid relates that the Messenger (pbuh) said:
“Were you not to commit sins, Allah would create people who would commit sins and ask for forgiveness and He would forgive them.” [Muslim]3
Like the Quran, the wording in these narrations is effusive in urging one to repent no matter the enormity of one’s sins.
At times it’s too easy to give up on oneself, thinking that we’ve taken one step too far, that we’re beyond salvation. These words emphatically refute such notions.
Sometimes turning back to Allah after making a mistake is much harder than simply never making a mistake at all.
And when we turn back, God is eager to forgive.
Humans are often hasty to sentence each other to eternal damnation for trifling sins, but we need to always remember what Allah promises for sincere repentance.
But its not just forgiveness that Allah will bestow, but so much more as narrated by ibn ‘Abbas:
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “If anyone constantly seeks pardon (from Allah), Allah will appoint for him a way out of every distress and a relief from every anxiety, and will provide sustenance for him from where he expects not.” [Abu Dawud]4
How can we use Astaghfirullah?
There are many ways to repent and ask for Allah’s forgiveness – a spontaneous, silent prayer in your heart, a long prostration pouring your regret out with your head on the floor, or reciting any of the beautiful and comprehensive Prophetic duas. Using the phrase astaghfirullah is just one of many approaches.
A common method is to make dhikr (typically translated as remembrance) of the phrase, repeating astaghfirullah a set number of times, thinking about what you are asking to be forgiven for, allowing yourself to face your error, and feel the regret. Some prefer to count on prayer beads, others on their fingers. Some prefer not to count at all, but rather to sit quietly and repeat it over and over until their hearts feel lighter.
There is no set time of the day when one should make dhikr, but it was the practice of our esteemed Prophet (pbuh) to dedicate some time to dhikr on his prayer mat after the daily prayers. Making dhikr once a day after any prayer is a practical way of turning it into a habit. This time can be used to think about the mistakes made during that day, or even to repent for a deed from long ago that still weighs heavily on the conscience. Some demons from the past may require daily dhikr for days, or even months, before the heaviness truly lifts.
Benefits of Repentance
One of the remarkable outcomes of this continued action is the greater awareness that develops as a result of facing your transgressions and regrets daily – it becomes easier to avoid even the smaller mistakes and produces a heightened sense of wanting to always do right by yourself and those around you.
There are so many benefits to seeking forgiveness – it is of course an act of obedience, and following in the path of the final Prophet (pbuh). But it also offers psychological and emotional benefits in dealing with one’s weaknesses and sins. God promises us not only unlimited forgiveness and mercy, but also relief from anxiety and unexpected sources of sustenance – and it can all start with astaghfirullah.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
Khutbah: The Process of Seeking Forgiveness
- Al-Nawawi, Riyad as-Salihin, Book 19, Hadith 10
- Jami’ at-Tirmidhi, Vol. 4, Book 11, Hadith 2499
- Al-Nawawi, Riyad as-Salihin, Introduction, Hadith 423
- Al-Nawawi, Riyad as-Salihin, Book 19, Hadith 5