Forgiveness (is a two-way street) by amina wadud


Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

I don’t know why this came to me as the discussion I want to have in blog form today, but here you go–

Imam al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) said that Allah (God) only stops forgiving when the believer stops asking for forgiveness.  This is the crux of the Islamic view of divine forgiveness.  Start with the fact that we have NO FALL story, because despite mis-conduct in the Garden, Adam and Eve ASKED for and were granted forgiveness.  Thus, they leave without the mark of some eternal “original sin.”  They live as we all do, here on earth, not as some punishment but because that is where they were intended to live in the first place.  The creation story in Islam describes human creation as per a primordial conversation between the Creator and the unseen creatures known as angels, when God says, “Indeed, I will create ON THE EARTH a khalifah (moral agent, vice-regent of God).”

Thus, the relationship between divine forgiveness and human sin or error is fixed in a dialectic where sin and error might be part and parcel of the human being but likewise forgiveness is part and parcel of the Divine Creator.  In fact, the language used is telling.  Taubah, which is also translated as forgiveness, means “returning to the original place/station.”  Our original place is at one with the Creator, and we are in that station in harmony with all of creation ~ a sort of cosmic bliss.  When we err, we fall away from our true nature and the nature of the entire universe so must return to realign ourselves with this cosmic harmony… and everything will be alright.

Sin or error, then is to turn away from our “true” nature and to succumb to something beneath our station as favored amongst God’s created “things.”    The structure of many prayer formulas for forgiveness hints at this.  “Oh Allah, I have wronged myself and none forgives wrongs except for You. So do forgive me the forgiveness which is within You, and have mercy on me.  You are the Forgiver, the Compassionate Merciful One.”  “Oh Allah, do not let my heart go away (from that place to which I ask for return taubah) after You have given me the guidance (how to choose right from wrong). And grant me from Your Gracious Self, Grace and Mercy.”

There is a caveat here.  For while seeking forgiveness is tantamount to receiving forgiveness from a Forgiving and Loving Creator and Sustainer, this cannot be happen if the wrong has been against another person.  In the Islamic construction of forgiveness, a wrong against another person must first be corrected, that is, stopped from occurring, then the perpetrator must seek forgiveness from the one harmed, and then upon release from the victim s/he may seek forgiveness from Allah.

In 2006 I participated in a conference which was focused on the theme of multi-culturalism and diversity in Aarhus, Denmark.  Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and I were two keynote speakers.  She described her assignment to act as psychoanalyst to one known as the butcher of Apartheid, and how this led to the writing of her book: A Human Being Died that Night.  The main theme of her talk and she said of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was forgiveness.  Something seemed missing for me and another participant of Jewish background.  We both agreed that there was more at stake for things like the Holocaust and Slavery than just “forgiveness.”  But I was impressed with Dr. Gobodo-Madkikizela and sought out her book, reading it through with heartfelt interest and humility.

For it is true, if there is an offense against someone, or if a collective of persons has been visited by intentional harm and dishonor—as in the case of Apartheid, Racism, Slavery, the Holocaust, Zionism, Sexism, etc., it is not the duty of the one so harmed or oppressed to just “forgive.” That makes it seem like the onus is again on the victim who must then be the better person.  Instead, her book confronted the Buberian notion of equitable humanity, the I-Thou.

She writes about the perpetrator as losing his or her humanity with the acts of violence, oppression or dishonor.  The victim has been violated.  However, when the perpetrator commits these acts, s/he is outside of human-ism and more in a barbaric state of being.  Unless the perpetrator FULLY acknowledges his or her act and the violation of it, and then ACTIVELY seeks to return to his or her humanity, THEN asks for forgiveness and seeks reparation, the enactment of the forgiveness paradigm is not possible.

The thing that fascinated the doctor was the consistency with which the persons who were victims, or families of victims, ACCEPTED the act of reparation, the humility of the perpetrator, and THEN forgave.  She said, indeed, had they not, when they were given the opportunity, had they instead opted for vengeance (the common glorious ending of 99% of American “action movies”), then it would be the victim who lost an opportunity to be fully human, thus arriving instead at a place outside the Buberian formula for reciprocity and dignity.

This worked for me as it aligned with the way I understood forgiveness in the Islamic ethical structure.  One who has wronged another, must first acknowledge the wrong done, confess, in a manner of speaking.  Then the one doing the wrong must make amends (like in the 12-Step formula, which involves approaching the one who has been offended), and then correct the perpetrating or oppressive behavior. Then they can ask forgiveness from the ones offended.

Only then can they supplicate for Divine forgiveness.

I think about this with systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, class elitism, ableism, xenophobia, Zionism, and Islamophobia.  We must confront our tendencies to Other.  Then, by addressing the other as the one offended, we must cease such behavior and policies.  Still we must seek forgiveness from the ones we have offended by Othering. Otherwise, can our world be the good it is intended to be?

 amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe. 



Categories: Feminism, General, Human Rights, Islam, Peacemaking, Redemption, Relationality

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19 replies

  1. I could not agree more.

    My entry into this conversation is Alice Miller’s work on child abuse. She argues that “forgive him” is often thrust into the face of the abused child by well-meaning parents, clergy, social workers, etc. This can be a way of not confronting the harm that has really been done. Just last night I was with a young woman of 16 who had suffered vicious cyber-bullying for 2 years. When I looked across the table and said to her, “this should not have happened,” tears welled up in her eyes. Obviously she is still looking for acknowledgement that a) it happened and should not have happened, and b) adults did not look after her well enough.

    I make a distinction b/w forgiveness, which I agree should come after acknowledgement of the harm that has been done; and revenge, anger, etc.; and a third way in which the victim acknowledges the “truth” and continues to speak of the harm that has been done, but without wishing ill to the other person. I do not forgive unless the harm is acknowledged and forgiveness is asked for, but I try to move from red hot anger and hurt to a place of clear sight. From this place I do not forgive, but I can wish, hope, or pray that the offender will see the truth and make reparations, and I can also not wish the offender harm, but healing and health.

    Thanks for that clear exposition of Islamic forgiveness. I did not know the Islamic view, and I am so glad to hear it is different from the “Christian” view which in focusing on forgiving one’s enemies often glosses over the fact that great harm has been done in both to individuals and in societies. Unfortunately this “pattern” is often carried over into the New Age, Neo-paganism, and Goddess spiritualities.

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    • I want to thank you for your comments. I am on the road so it takes a minute to get on line and carefully read all comments let alone make a meaningful reply. Mostly I wanted to thank you for the confirmation about our ethical responsibility to NOT OVERlook harm and this is equally true at the level of the individual as at the systemic.

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  2. I found Alice Miller’s writing to be really helpful too.

    As regards to this blog piece I understand what you’re saying, especially in regards to collective injustice. I do however think that there is a great deal of ‘grey’ area as it were. Certainly the injustice has to be acknowledged but I think in regards to the Islamic perspective there is another side to it. Certainly we ask for forgiveness and almost by default are guaranteed it.

    However, for those who don’t ask for forgiveness in an outright matter, through fear or ignorance, rather than arrogance, I think that maybe Allah reserves the right to judge what is in the heart. As far as us humans are concerned, sometimes the issue of forgiveness is not so much about having it acknowledged by others, as acknowledging it ourselves. Again in the Islamic paradigm, I think that maybe this is reflected or found in the relationship process that you describe between Allah and humankind. We first and foremost approach the issue of forgiveness by embracing it’s necessity in the first instance. Where it differentiates in our relationship with God and humans, is that with humans we don’t necessarily or always, need their approval or acknowledgement. That is something which is always secondary in comparison to our need for the same from Allah, as it were.

    I’m not sure that I agree that when committing acts of savage violence, human beings lose their ‘humanity’. It could be argued that negative energy built up through non-forgiveness reveals a more primal side of humanity but it still IS humanity hypersensationalised, nonetheless. Maybe humanity has hypersensationalism and humble superstrength as it’s opposing force-fields?

    Lol, I hope that I make sense, though I do feel as if I’ve just regurgitated some of what you’ve written! This is an issue which is very close to my heart though.

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    • Yes, thank you for your comments. I admit, I wouldn’t second guess Allah or pretend to know about ultimate judgment, so I refer back to al-Ghazali regarding being constant in seeking forgiveness. I’m in Indonesia right now and here, and in Malaysia at each Eid (festival) they add to their greetings of celebration maaf zaahir dan batin… Which is basically forgive me for any fault (or trespass I committed) knowingly or unknowingly. Still, it reflects the taking of responsibility for harm.

      As for the question of humanity or the loss there of via acts of violence and violation, I defer to Dr. Pumla. In my analysis here it is Buber who sets the tone for why I agree with her that it is inhumane. I make no reference to anything specifically Islamic in text or other resource.

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  3. Reblogged this on TOAL and commented:
    Well worth a read and brilliantly written, Dr Wadud

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  4. Excellent posting. I enjoyed the distinctions you made throughout.

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  5. What a wonderful view — so compassionate, so caring. Thank you for sharing this with us. I would note, too, that from the victim’s standpoint there is often a difference between “forgiving” and “letting go”. Sometimes we cannot forgive; we are simply human, and forgiveness is sometimes a goddess’ trait. But we often need to let go, to not let the harm continue to infest our lives. Carol, I think your approach allowed the young woman to simply let go of her feelings, and that is what she needed. It is often what we all need. After the letting go, and the healing, then sometimes we can forgive.

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  6. I can’t forgive myself for having had an abortion, though i would never abandon support for the right of women to choose. I think I want to be perfect, somehow. Anyway, every time I think of that mistake, I forgive everybody everything.

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    • My comment above reflects oh how so well I know what you mean. Thank you for your sharing. I might also describe something I have gleaned from another tradition outside my own and that reminds me why sometimes we need to invoke intense liturgical acts or ritual to embrace the things from our own path that teach us greater compassion to others while neglecting to extend it equally to ourselves. Rise to the occasion to fit ourselves into our view of humanity and embrace all with compassion equally..

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  7. Very well explained and perfect except the mention of homophobia because Islam does not permit homosexuality.

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    • Hmm, this is interesting… Since Islam holds unequivocally that all humankind have a single origin (bani-Adam) and a single Creator (Allah…who coincidentally created everything in do measure or proportion, that is in accordance to their own nature), then there can be but one response to ANY human being–no matter their sex, their sexual orientation, their class, their race, their abilities, their religion, etc., and that is WITH DIGNITY.

      Thus, no matter what opinion one might have of homosexuality (as there are differences of opinion even amongst Muslim scholars and lay persons) there is only one opinion about homophobia: it violates human dignity and can never be justified in the name of Islam.

      Any manifestation of homophobia is then a clear sign of a loss of human decency in the one who manifest it and s/he is guilty of a grave sin against another human being and as this blog has advocated, is a sin not forgiveable unless they desist, apologize, repair and seek repentance.

      Astaghfir-Allah for trying to justify homophobia in the name of Islam!

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      • I do not say anything except that the Qur’an, 7:80–84, 11:77–83, 21:74, 22:43, 26:165–175, 27:56–59, and 29:27–33, clearly mentions the punishment of the people of prophet Lot (may peace be upon him) for the males had lust for males instead of females, proved when they snatched from Lot the angels that were disguised as young boys to test them.

        Allah mentions in the Qur’an 02:085 about the punishment for believing in one part of the Qur’an and rejecting the other. Islam is not about personal likes and dislikes, it is voluntary submission to Allah and obeying the commands unlike Iblis.

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      • Back to the point of this blog…NONE of the passages you refer to here give permission for any one to treat ANY other human being inhumanely. Indeed all of the passages have been subject to various interpretations.

        Thus there is NO consensus about any sort of “punishment” among the various schools of Islamic law, let alone as could be taken for permission to treat anyone inhumanely at the level of the individual.

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  8. Lovely, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, as always.

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  9. “Zionism” is equivalent to “systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, class elitism, ableism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia?”

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