Someone repented for his sins, then despite his better judgement, his nafs overcome himself and he commits the sin again. Is his repentance accepted?
Alhamdulillah, praise and thanks to Allah for the many countless blessings He has blessed us all with. Blessings and salutations to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, his wives, his family, companions and all those that follow his teachings to the day of judgement.
The Concept of Repenting in Islam
Ibn Manzur said, repentance is returning to Allah from sins, or returning to Allah or return back to obedience after committing sins or returning from sins. (See Lisan al-Arab, 2/61)
According to Kamus Dewan, repentance is regret for the sins committed (or other evil deeds) and determined to never commit the sin again, he feels regret for committing the sin and is determined to never repeat the sin again. It can also be defined as returning to God (leaving the sin and everything that has been prohibited and obeying the commandments) (See 4th Edition Kamus Dewan.) 
Repenting from sin is obligatory. Allah SWT states:
وَتُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّـهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
“And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.”
Surah al-Nur (31)
Ibnu Kathir said: Do everything that has been commanded upon you with beautiful and noble character. Leave the norm of the Jahiliyyah that practise despicable manners, for success can only be achieved through the obedience towards Allah SWT and His Prophet PBUH and leaving what has been prohibited by Allah SWT and His Messenger PBUH. (See Tafsir al-Quran al-‘Azim, 10/225)
Allah SWT also states:
وَأَنِ اسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ ثُمَّ تُوبُوا إِلَيْهِ يُمَتِّعْكُم مَّتَاعًا حَسَنًا إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى وَيُؤْتِ كُلَّ ذِي فَضْلٍ فَضْلَهُ
“And [saying], "Seek forgiveness of your Lord and repent to Him, [and] He will let you enjoy a good provision for a specified term and give every doer of favour his favour. “
Surah Hud (3)
Ibnu Kathir said: It means, and I command you to seek forgiveness from Allah SWT for the sins that you have committed and repent to Him from those sins, and you would continuously do it. (See Tafsir al-Quran al-‘Azim, 7/411)
Imam al-Nawawi mentioned in his book Riyadh al-Salihin: “Islamic scholars said, the ruling for repenting from sins is obligatory. If the evil deed (sin) is between Allah SWT and His slave and has no connection with other people, there are three conditions for repentance:
- Avoid and leave the sin
- Regret for committing the sin
- Determines and resolves to never repeat the sin ever again
If one of the conditions is not fulfilled, then his repentance is invalid.
However, if the sin involves the rights of other people then, the conditions for repenting is four, the three stated above and an addition of one more condition:
- He must ask to be freed from the rights of the mistreated person. If it’s in the form of property or money and the like, he must return it (to the person he took it from). If it’s in the form of false accusation or the like, then he must clear the person’s name or apologize to the person. If it’s in the form of ghibah then he must ask for clemency. (See Riyadh al-Salihin, pg. 41-42)
The Ruling of Repenting Repeatedly
In a hadith from Abu Hurairah RA, he heard the Prophet PBUH said:
إِنَّ عَبْدًا أَصَابَ ذَنْبًا ، وَرُبَّمَا قَالَ : أَذْنَبَ ذَنْبًا ، فَقَالَ : رَبِّ أَذْنَبْتُ ، وَرُبَّمَا قَالَ : أَصَبْتُ ، فَاغْفِرْ لِي ، فَقَالَ رَبُّهُ : أَعَلِمَ عَبْدِي أَنَّ لَهُ رَبًّا يَغْفِرُ الذَّنْبَ وَيَأْخُذُ بِهِ ، غَفَرْتُ لِعَبْدِي ، ثُمَّ مَكَثَ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ ، ثُمَّ أَصَابَ ذَنْبًا أَوْ أَذْنَبَ ذَنْبًا ، فَقَالَ : رَبِّ ، أَذْنَبْتُ أَوْ أَصَبْتُ آخَرَ ، فَاغْفِرْهُ ، فَقَالَ : أَعَلِمَ عَبْدِي أَنَّ لَهُ رَبًّا يَغْفِرُ الذَّنْبَ وَيَأْخُذُ بِهِ ، غَفَرْتُ لِعَبْدِي ، ثُمَّ مَكَثَ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ ، ثُمَّ أَذْنَبَ ذَنْبًا ، وَرُبَّمَا قَالَ : أَصَابَ ذَنْبًا ، قَالَ : قَالَ رَبِّ ، أَصَبْتُ أَوْ قَالَ أَذْنَبْتُ آخَرَ : فَاغْفِرْهُ لِي ، فَقَالَ : أَعَلِمَ عَبْدِي أَنَّ لَهُ رَبًّا يَغْفِرُ الذَّنْبَ وَيَأْخُذُ بِهِ ، غَفَرْتُ لِعَبْدِي ثَلَاثًا ، فَلْيَعْمَلْ مَا شَاءَ
I heard the Prophet PBUH saying, "If somebody commits a sin and then says, 'O my Lord! I have sinned, please forgive me!' and his Lord says, 'My slave has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for it, I therefore have forgiven my slave (his sins).' Then he remains without committing any sin for a while and then again commits another sin and says, 'O my Lord, I have committed another sin, please forgive me,' and Allah says, 'My slave has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for it, I therefore have forgiven my slave (his sin). Then he remains without Committing any another sin for a while and then commits another sin (for the third time) and says, 'O my Lord, I have committed another sin, please forgive me,' and Allah says, 'My slave has known that he has a Lord Who forgives sins and punishes for it I therefore have forgiven My slave (his sin), he can do whatever he likes."
Sahih al-Bukhari (7507)
Imam al-Nawawi said: “This hadith is an evidence that states even if the sin is committed for more than a hundred times, and he repents every single time he commits it, then his repentance is accepted, and his sin is annulled. Even if he repented for all the sins with one repentance, then his repentance is valid.” (See Syarh al-Nawawi ‘ala Sahih Muslim, 9/128)
However, the repentance must be from the heart and with real feelings of guilt and regret. Not just with the recitation of istighfar, but the heart still wants to commit the sin.
This has been stated by al-Imam al-Qurtubi as written by al-Hafiz Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari, he said: “The hadith (above) shows how great the benefit of istighfar is and the greatness of Allah’s gifts, the extent of His grace, tenderness and mercy of Allah SWT. But the real istighfar is the istighfar whose heart has the same intentions as what the tongue utters to abstain and is accompanied by a sense of regret. This is what repentance means.”
"It means he who repeats sin and then repents, every time he is trapped in sin, he will immediately return to repentance. It does not mean that anyone whose tongue asks for forgiveness of Allah SWT, while his heart continually wants to commit the sin." (See Fath al-Bari, 21/89)
Hence, when repenting, it must be done with both feelings and heart. And when he falls back to sin, asks for forgiveness from Allah SWT for the sin committed. Don’t give up on istighfar.
Someone said to al-Hassan al-Basri: “Is it wrong for someone to be shameless towards his God? He commits sin and ask for forgiveness then repeat the sin and ask for forgiveness again?”
Then Imam al-Hassan al-Basri said: “Shaytan hopes for you to feel that way. Don’t ever feel tired of istighfar.” (See Jami’ al-‘Ulum wa al-Hikam, 19/26)
Allah SWT also states:
وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً أَوْ ظَلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ ذَكَرُوا اللَّـهَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا لِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَمَن يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ وَلَمْ يُصِرُّوا عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلُوا وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ
“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? - and [who] do not persist in what they have done while they know.”
Surah al-Imran (135)
Ibnu Kathir said, regarding the statement of Allah SWT, (وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ) “while they know”, Mujahid and ‘Abdullah bin ‘Ubaid bun ‘Umair said: “They know that whoever repents to Allah SWT, surely Allah would accept his repentance.”. This verse is in accordance to Allah SWT statement:
أَلَمْ يَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّـهَ هُوَ يَقْبَلُ التَّوْبَةَ عَنْ عِبَادِهِ
“Do they not know that it is Allah who accepts repentance from His servants,”
Surah al-Taubah (104)
And another statement of Allah SWT:
وَمَن يَعْمَلْ سُوءًا أَوْ يَظْلِمْ نَفْسَهُ ثُمَّ يَسْتَغْفِرِ اللَّـهَ يَجِدِ اللَّـهَ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
“And whoever does a wrong or wrongs himself but then seeks forgiveness of Allah will find Allah Forgiving and Merciful.”
Surah al-Nisa’ (110)
As a conclusion, repentance and istighfar that is done repeatedly is accepted as long as there is no intentional repeating of the sin and the repentance fulfils the conditions of repentance.
Allah SWT states:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا تُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّـهِ تَوْبَةً نَّصُوحًا عَسَىٰ رَبُّكُمْ أَن يُكَفِّرَ عَنكُمْ سَيِّئَاتِكُمْ وَيُدْخِلَكُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ
“O, you who have believed, repent to Allah with sincere repentance. Perhaps your Lord will remove from you your misdeeds and admit you into gardens beneath which rivers flow [on]”
Surah al-Tahrim (8)
Ibn Kathir said: Real repentance is with resolve and determination, that can eliminate the evil deeds, unite and gather people who repent, and refrains oneself from misconduct and sins.
Due to this, Islamic scholars say: Real repentance is to have resolve and determination to avoid and leave sins in the future and regret the past sins that he has committed, and then to have determination to never repeat the sin again in the future. Then, if the sin is related to human rights, let him return (right) what he has taken. (See Tafsir al-Quran al-‘Azim, 14/60-61)
Finally, may Allah SWT forgive our sins and bestow upon us the understanding, to practice His commandments.
For more information on this issue, we have answered it in Irsyad Al-Fatwa Series 49: The Meaning of Repentance and Its Conditions  and Al-Kafi 651: Taubah Prayer .