Forgiveness: Islam’s path to free your soul

In the Islamic tradition, teachings on forgiveness are intimately connected to and rooted in a deeper theological understanding that defines the relationship between God and the human being.

In the Islamic tradition, teachings on forgiveness are intimately connected to and rooted in a deeper theological understanding that defines the relationship between God and the human being.

Forgiveness is at the heart of a number of spiritual and ethical traditions, but it can be one of the most difficult teachings to live up to. Forgiveness requires an extraordinary struggle against the offended ego. The bigger the hurt, the more difficult it is to forgive. Sages and our wisdom texts have repeatedly emphasized that there is nothing like forgiveness that can set a person free, to put a mind at rest. It is a tough challenge. but those who have mastered the technique are certainly the most blessed both in this earthly life as well as the hereafter.

In the Islamic tradition, teachings on forgiveness are intimately connected to and rooted in a deeper theological understanding that defines the relationship between God and the human being.  The foremost attributes of God – which open up every chapter of the Qur’an – are the merciful (Al-Rahman) and the compassionate (Al-Raheem). One of the most celebrated names of God in the Qur’an is the forgiving (Al-Ghafur). There are several other divine attributes that are similar. The way in which this relates to the human being is two-fold.

First, at the heart of Islamic spirituality is this idea that we have a share, no matter how small in comparison to God, of divine attributes by virtue of the life-giving and divinely originating soul (ruh) that is breathed into us by the angels when we are still fetuses in our mother’s wombs. It is, then, our spiritual task to cultivate and grow these beautiful attributes within our soul and character in order to draw closer to the divine. Forgiveness is an opportunity to adorn our souls with Godliness. The more difficult it is to forgive, the greater and more beautiful the adornment. As such, one of the motivations to forgive is to draw closer to God’s attributes. Forgiveness should be seen as an opportunity – a chance at experiencing and achieving a nearness to God that is indescribable in its beauty and tranquility. This is why the Qur’an describes those who are deeply aware of God as “when they are angered they forgive” (Q42:37) and “when they are prompted by the ignorant they respond with words of peace” (Q25:63).

Second, there’s a deep sense that the way we treat others is the way that we will be treated by God. In other words, if we wish for God’s gentle treatment towards us then we must be gentle toward others. This teaching is reflected in what is referred to as the foundational Prophetic teaching – meaning that the first saying attributed from the Prophet (hadith) that a teacher of hadith imparts to his or her student – which states: “Show mercy towards those on earth and the One above the heavens will show mercy toward you.” This is, furthermore, a reflection of the Qur’anic advice: “And let not those who possess dignity and ease among you swear not to give to the near of kin and the needy, and to fugitives for the cause of God. Let them forgive and show indulgence. Do you not understand that God forgives? God is forgiving, merciful.”(Q24:22). The allusion to God as “forgiver” occurs at 125 places in the Qur’an and is invariably followed by mention of His attribute of “compassion”.

The Prophet always repelled evil with the good of forgiveness and kind behavior for, in his view, an antidote was better than poison. He believed and practiced the precept that love could foil hatred, and aggression could be won over by forgiveness. He overcame the ignorance of the people with the knowledge of Islam, and the folly and evil of the people with his kind and forgiving treatment. With his forgiveness, he freed people from the bondage of sin and crime, and also made them great friends of Islam.  

Despite all the provocations of evil-doers and his own fellow tribesmen’s objections, the Prophet made agreements with his crucial adversaries and fulfilled peaceful commitments with them. The Prophet tried his best to take advantage of every single opportunity to get in touch with any of them. After his immigration to Madinah, the economic and social conditions of Makkah had gradually deteriorated. The Makkans were suffering from drought, famine, hunger, and misery. For sure, the Prophet could not have remained indifferent to this heart-rending situation. He sent them food and other needed aid; he literally inundated them with an immense benevolent contribution on the back of hundreds of camels. But, unfortunately, the Makkans rejected all of it. Then he sent all the aid directly to Abu Sufyan who distributed it to the poor and needy Makkans.

During his lifetime, the Prophet bore insults and ridicule on a daily basis. His opponents mocked his message and used physical violence to stop him from challenging the status quo. At no stage during this ordeal did the prophet lose his temper or react to these provocations.

The mercy of the Prophet extended even to those who brutally killed and then mutilated the body of his uncle Hamzah, one of the most beloved of people to the Prophet. Hamzah was one of the earliest to accept Islam and, through his power and position in the Qurayshite hierarchy, diverted much harm from the Muslims. The wife of Abu Sufyan, Hind, sought out and killed Hamzah in the battle of Uhud. The night before the victory of Makkah, Abu Sufyan accepted Islam, fearing the vengeance of the Prophet. The latter forgave him and sought no retribution for his years of enmity. After Hind had killed Hamzah, she mutilated his body by cutting his chest and tearing his liver and heart into pieces. When she quietly came to the Prophet and accepted Islam, he recognized her but did not say anything. She was so impressed by his magnanimity and stature that she said, “O Prophet, no tent was more deserted in my eyes than yours; but today no tent is lovelier in my eyes than yours.”  

Ikrama, son of Abu Jahl, was a great enemy of the Prophet and Islam. He fled to Yemen after the victory of Makkah. After his wife embraced Islam, she brought him to the Prophet under her protection. The Prophet was so pleased to see him that he greeted him with the words: “O emigrant rider, welcome.” The entire guilt of Ikrimah dissolved in one warm embrace. Safwan bin Umaya, one of the chiefs of Makkah, was also a great enemy of the Prophet and Islam. He promised a reward to Umair ibn Wahab if he could kill Muhammad (peace be upon him). When Makkah was conquered, Safwan ran away to Jeddah in the hope of finding a berth that would take him to Yemen by sea. Umair ibn Wahab came to the Prophet and said, “O Prophet! Safwan ibn Umayya, a chief of his tribe, has run away from fear of what you might do to him and threatens to cast himself into the sea.” The Prophet sent him a guarantee of protection and when he returned, he requested the Prophet to give him two months to come to a decision. He was given four months, after which he became a Muslim by his own will.

Habir ibn Al-Aswad was another vicious enemy of Prophet and Islam. He inflicted a serious injury on Zaynab, daughter of the Prophet when she decided to migrate to Madinah. She was pregnant and the polytheists of Makkah tried to stop her from leaving. This particular man physically assaulted her and intentionally caused her to fall down from her camel. Her fall resulted in a miscarriage of the baby, and she herself was badly hurt. He had committed many other crimes against Muslims as well. He wanted to flee to Persia but, when he decided to come to Muhammad (peace be upon him) instead, he was forgiven.  One of the greatest opponents of Islam and a personal enemy was Abdullah bin Ubayy, the leader of the hypocrites of Madinah. Outwardly proclaiming Islam, he surreptitiously inflicted great harm on the Muslims and tried to sabotage the mission of the Prophet. Abdullah bin Ubayy worked all his life against the Prophet and Islam and left no stone unturned to bring him into disrepute. He withdrew his three hundred supporters in the battle of Uhud and thus almost broke the backbone of the Muslims at one stroke. He engaged in intrigues and acts of hostility against the Prophet and the Muslims. It was he who tried to bring shame to the Prophet by inciting his allies to falsely accuse the Prophet’s wife, A’isha, of adultery in order to discredit him and his message. Knowing his state of affairs, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) still offered the funeral prayer for him and prayed to God for his forgiveness. The Qur’an mentions this incident in these words:

“And never (O Muhammad) pray for one of them who dies, nor stand by his grave. Lo! They disbelieve in God and His Messenger, and they died while they were evil doers.” (Q9:84)

Rarely in the annals of history can we come across such an instance of forgiveness.

If we can find a way to live inside of a deep gratitude for our own undeserved grace and mercy, past hurts have very little power to cause us pain in any lasting way. The gratuitous surrendering of hurts (forgiveness), the refusal to make them our identity is almost the heart of the matter. If you do not transform your pain you will with transmit it to others.

When we stand before the Almighty, hands stretched out towards the heavens, our eyes squeezed shut as we beg for forgiveness, what do we ask for? What kind of forgiveness do we ask for? We want a completely blank sheet, don’t we? We want another chance. We want our mountains of crimes to be erased, right? We want Him to accept our repentance and let us start again. We don’t want to be reminded of it or be taunted about it later on, or have it come back to haunt us. We want our sins to be forgiven here and veiled on that day. That is the true spirit of forgiveness.

By Moin Qazi

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