Question: If a person's self recognition of errors or sins is the first step to the path of perfection, how do you advise us to actually detect these mistakes?
All the errors, offences and sins committed by humans vary greatly in nature, form, and severity. A majority of these mistakes and sins have been portrayed and clearly defined within the disciplinary guidelines revealed in both the Divine revelation and in the Prophetic traditions, therefore referring to them is usually sufficient for a person to recognize prohibitions, mistakes, offences and sins. One may think, for instance, that not everyone has an equal capability of understanding matters entailing detailed knowledge in accordance with the original sources of religion, however a person of faith, a sincere believer should make every effort to strive, and learn the essential matters of faith to the best of their individual ability. Besides there is sufficient literature available for those who make an effort to read and learn. The main goal here is to purify oneself of these mistakes and sins at the first possible opportunity.
If a person has been lured into, or trapped in one of the various dungeons of evil, he should strive in every way possible to repent, to ask his Lord for forgiveness and escape from sin at the first possible opportunity. He should reform himself and throughout life continuously bare the shame of this sin in his conscience, for a true believer is a person who never forgets sins of the past. Of course a person may have repented to God for his sins, and these sins may have been long forgiven, and may have repented with deep sincerity sufficient to eliminate his sins many times over. But even if years pass, a believer of perfection should constantly sense an emotion of regret and distress in his soul every time he remembers, as if he committed the sin yesterday, with the constant thought: "O Lord! How did I commit these sins when I know You exist, when I believe in You, when Your commands were clearer to me than the shinning sun" and continually interrogate his own self.
Such a belief and such an approach can lead to the elimination of sin, and it can even earn a person reward. This reward may be described as the virtue for suffering, the reward for finding the truth, a reward for repenting today for a sin of the past, or the reward for abandoning a recent sin and turning towards the Creator in repentance. Therefore it is appropriate to say that every time a believer regrets, or suffers for a sin he committed in the past, he is rewarded with a good deed which purifies the blemished pages in his book of actions and deeds.
The second point regarding the matter is that constantly remembering past sins with anguish and grief in fact prevents new mistakes and sins, for instance when an individual has the sincere understanding that: "Sinning was a huge mistake, an error which could spoil my relationship with God. For someone like me to act in such a way was sheer disrespect towards my Creator. I cannot ignore, or ever forget my disrespect and heedlessness, and I will continue to sense this grief and remorse until the day I die" He will continuously remember and sense the regret of committing sin, and when faced with the same situation again will seriously consider: "Only yesterday I hated myself for committing such a sin, so how can I possibly have the audacity of making the mistake and repeating this evil action again? Which spiritual understanding can possibly accept, or explain the tendency to repeat sin." Therefore the probability of a person who sincerely repented for committing sin repeating the same mistake again is quite rare.
Such a person's approach to the bestowal of rewards will be that even if he performs the greatest of deeds, or induces a deed more significant than we can possibly imagine, he will still think "I have not been successful in achieving a desirable result, under the same conditions somebody else could have achieved much more than I did." He will continuously attempt to fulfill or substitute personal deficiencies with kindness and good deeds.
In terms of religious discipline, these observations are both a clear account and a guide of the limitations of mistakes, sins and deficiencies for humans.
Identifying intention and guiding the soul
In addition to the specified mistakes and sins, there are also prescribed judgments in accordance with certain conditions, or an individual's actual intention of actions and behavior, for example if a person has the intention of committing evil. There are certain aspects that can prevent or deter from evil actions: this may be a person's environment, friends or various other factors. The main problem here is that this person has the determination and tendency in his soul to commit evil as soon as the opportunity arises. Only the individual knows his true abilities and characteristics relating to this matter, therefore we are compelled to make an accurate decision between the "prohibited and lawful" as prescribed in the Divine commands, and the human conscience is the evaluator and judge between the two. If we go back to the previous example of questioning the self-conscience, we see that this is the only true means of an individual reaching a conclusion if he actually avoided an evil action due to an obstacle ordained by God, or by his own accord and willpower.
In one of the traditions, the Prophet referred to this subject: "God the Almighty ordered His angels: 'Whenever My servant intends to do a bad deed, do not record it against him until he actually commits evil. If he commits a bad deed, write it down as one sin. But if he refrains from it for My sake, write down this as a good deed in his favor'" (Bukhari).
The subjects here are both the servant's intention, and self-determination of avoiding evil for the sake of his Creator, thus the individual is rewarded by God for his willpower and self exertion. As we see in this tradition of the Prophet, even the human's willpower of abstaining from evil can lead to virtue, but is this the case if the servant's willpower or determination is not in question? Although this may not be recorded as a major sin, if a person is deterred from evil due to an obstacle beyond self-control, he may be called to account for it as a minor sin on the Day of Judgment. Therefore in every aspect of life, a human must constantly take both his good deeds and sins into consideration, and act accordingly.
There are of course many examples to be mentioned on this subject. For instance imagine a preacher who conveys to his audience some famous quotes from a scholar like Bediuzzaman Said Nursi: "Work for God's sake, meet with others for God's sake, labor for God's sake; act within the sphere of 'For God, in God's name, on account of God's pleasure.'" And if this preacher has the sincere intention to evoke emotions and excitement of acting for the sake of God deep in his soul, he most certainly will be rewarded accordingly. But if these words are conveyed solely to impress others with his knowledge or self-esteem, this is nothing but ostentation, and of course a sin. Again the only one able to judge this is the individual himself, his own conscience.
Considering this case as it appears from outside, this preacher is conveying the good message of God to others and speaking of Truth. But a true judgment of his speech depends on how much self-pretense and self-expression are involved. Keeping oneself out of the way is the basis of a true conversation of the Beloved. In fact it is a person's duty to consider "If it was not me who said those words, they may have made more profound impact; it is because I said those words that some among the audience reacted negatively." So if a person has the slightest emotion of self-expression or self-recognition in his soul while conveying the words of God, and the Prophet, or explaining belief to others, he is in fact committing a sin.
"If my good deeds are this impure..."
Similar considerations may be relevant even in the context of prayer, which is in fact a twin sister to faith. A person who is exalting God almighty should utter the words "God is the greatest" in a low voice, only audible to the individual himself. So if a person stands for communal prayer with the intention of portraying an image of submission and concentration, but lacks sincerity and consciousness, and repeats these words "God is the greatest" in a loud voice, instead of obtaining reward for performing worship, his vain behavior is recorded as a sin.
Another example is of a person who leads the prayer and recites the verse "True believers are only those who, when God is mentioned, their hearts tremble with awe, and when His Revelations are recited to them, it strengthens them in faith, and they put their trust in their Lord" (8:2) and during this recitation, this individual becomes so excited, as if his soul is overcome with submission and awe. He is displaying the conduct of a person desperate to obtain the pleasures of the Lord, just as the Companions stood in worship during the time of the Prophet. If this individual's behavior is solely to imitate or resemble others, he is in fact corrupting his prayer, for even though these actions are not objected to if they occur as the result of indigenous motivation, deliberately portraying this type of conduct for show or self esteem does affect the merit of worship, and can also lead to sullied thoughts and opinions. It is the duty of every individual to behave according to his self-conscience and honor, thus when a person prostrates, and recites:
"Glory be to my Lord, the most high" he can become so overwhelmed with emotion that without even realizing, he recites this in a loud voice. The passion portrayed here is not a sin, but if there is the slightest emotion or desire of expressing self esteem in these actions, the individual blemishes the prayer with evil, thus adding to the list of bad deeds.
So following all these examples, if we return to the main topic we realize that although on many occasions there is no specific definition of the sins or mistakes recognized solely by a person's instinct, it is the duty of every believer to question his actions, and his good and bad deeds in every aspect of life in order to determine and amend mistakes and sins. A sincere believer should constantly seek refuge and plead for forgiveness from the Creator in conduct which may seem favorable, but in fact could possibly entail evil or sordid intent. He should continuously bear the question and doubt in his soul: "What will become of a person like me whose good deeds can bear such impurity?" A true believer must acknowledge his faults, and repent to the Lord asking forgiveness for sins: "O Lord of Mercy and kindness! This servant of weakness, heedlessness, disobedience and ignorance who strayed from the path of truth acknowledges, and repents for the sins he committed, and seeks refuge in Your compassion, for only You are the forgiver of sins."
Primarily a person must purify his egoistic desires, and recognize the ego as the essence of disobedience and sin in order to purify the soul of evil. A believer who lives with the constant fear in his heart will always recognize mistakes and deficiencies in every aspect of life, and with God's will and mercy, as a result of his awareness, he will never be exposed to serious downfalls in life. As for repentance from minor sins, such a person turns to the tidings of forgiveness in the Divine declaration "If you avoid the major sins which you have been forbidden, We will blot out from you your minor evil deeds and make you enter by a noble entrance (to an abode of glory)"(4:31), seeking forgiveness from God the most Merciful, the most Gracious with the sincere aspiration that He will forgive our minor sins.