There is a story in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)--found in the collection of Imam Al-Bukhari--in which there was a serial killer. After murdering 99 people, he set out to ask if there was any forgiveness for him.

He was led to a monk who replied in the negative. The man then killed the monk to make his count 100. He was then led to a scholar who, replied "yes" but told the murderer that he must leave town and begin a new life elsewhere. On his way to the new town, he died. Two angels descended to claim him: one was an angel of mercy, and the other was an angel of punishment.

The angels got into an argument over where this man should end up. They took their dispute to God, who sent a third angel to mediate. The third angel decided that they should measure the distance between the two towns. If the man was closer to the old town, he would go to Hell; if the man was closer to the new town, he would go to Heaven. At this moment, God ordered the new town to move closer to the man, which it did. Then he ordered the old town to move farther away, which also obeyed.

The serial killer went to Heaven.

I have read and heard this story tons of times, and it meant the most to me this year on the plain of Arafat during the Hajj, where I was immersed in and surrounded by God's infinite mercy. Yet, no one has ever told the story of the killer; what was it that made him finally want to seek forgiveness?

I want to tell that story now.

No, I don't know him. He lived thousands of years ago. But I know his struggle. No, I have never killed anyone, but I have sinned, and the experience of sin is basically the same. Not all sins are alike, obviously, and thank God, the sins I have committed have never risen to the depravity of murder. Nevertheless, all sins do the same thing: they estrange the sinner from God.

That is the dilemma of the human condition. In the Qur'an, God says that He created humanity in "the best of moulds" (95:4). With that blessing comes the enormous test: free will to commit both good and evil. That serial killer exercised his free will to the worst degree: murdering 100 presumably innocent people. The estrangment of sin is a horrible condition, and no one can continue to be estranged from God forever. It makes you empty, lonely, melancholy, ashamed, embarrassed. It darkens the heart and soul, and the only thing that can fill the heart is God's light. And that is why, I believe, the serial killer sought God's forgiveness.

He was tired of being estranged from God. All of us, it is believed in Muslim tradition, were in the Divine Presence before we were placed on earth, and we all affirmed God's Lordship over us. Thus, each of us yearns to be with God and is attracted to His Light.

The problem is that we sin, and the sin can lead us down other paths toward false gods: wealth, power, prestige, lust, whatever. We take these to be our god, and it does not fulfill us.

Tired of feeling empty, the serial killer sought God. And that is why God forgave him. That is the saving grace for all of us: God's infinite mercy. If God forgave a serial killer, a man who committed perhaps the worst crime in the history of humanity, then God can forgive me whenever I slip.

I cannot fully express how comforting that is. Not because I can then sin at will knowing that, if I ask for forgiveness, God will forgive me. That is the utmost disrespect for my Creator. Rather, I know I will sin in the future because that is part of my nature as a human being.

As long as I do my best and try my hardest to be good, I know my Lord will forgive me if I slip up and then turn back to Him in repentance.

Now, there are human beings who sin with impunity and have no qualms about doing so at all. They are the truly evil but thankfully, only a small minority of humanity.

The Qur'an says that God told the heavens, earth, and mountains that He would give them free will as a trust, but they adamantly refused. They could not run the risk of slipping up and then having to endure the possibility of God's punishment. We took up that trust, and as you can see from the condition of the world today, humanity has squandered that trust horribly.

It is impossible not to sin as a human being. In fact, the Prophet told us that had human beings been perfect and totally sinless, God would replace them with other people who sin and ask for forgiveness. The fact that I continue to walk on this earth is open testimony to God's unending mercy. Otherwise, I would have been destroyed long ago for my sins.

Getting the opportunity to live in God's mercy is such a wonderful experience that it makes sinning actually worth it. Well, almost worth it, anyway.

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