Forgiveness in Islam: A Virtue, Not an Obligation

Sometimes it's hard to forgive and that's okay.
by Ustaz Dr Muhammad Haniff Hassan 2020-09-22 • 12 min read
Research Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
2020-09-22 • 12 min read

Forgiveness: An Islamic Perspective

On 27 August 2020, Brenton Tarrant, a Right-Wing terrorist, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the New Zealand court, for committing armed attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that killed 51 Muslim worshippers and wounded 40 others.

forgiveness islamic quotes

Before the sentence was issued, victims and family members of the attacks were given an opportunity to make impact statements to the court expressing how the convict’s heinous acts have caused tremendous physical and psychological pain to them due to injury and the loss of their beloved ones. There are those who speak for a just punishment from the court. However, some are able to forgive the convict while others choose not to forgive. 

The sentencing has triggered discussions within Muslim communities across the globe. Which is the right stand - to forgive or not to forgive? Is forgiving of someone’s evil deed obligatory upon Muslim, while not forgiving is reprehensible?

In such situations, the pressure is often on those who are unwilling to forgive. 

They are perceived negatively for choosing a vengeful position which does not represent the virtuous and compassionate image of Islam. 

Some Muslims who have been wronged experience an internal dilemma. On one hand, they are grappling with grief, pain and the desire for justice. On the other hand, they are also coping with what is the expectation of the religious injunction to be forgiving. The burden of this dilemma gets heavier when there are expectations from forgiveness-inclined family and community.

This article seeks to offer a balanced perspective for Muslims who have been wronged based on readings of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet s.a.w.

Virtue and superiority of forgiveness

what allah says about forgiveness in islam

There should not be any doubt that Islam strongly encourages Muslims to practice forgiveness to those who have wronged or committed injustices to them.

The referred to point can be found in Quranic verses, such as:

وَسَارِعُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ. الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ فِي السَّرَّاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

And hasten towards forgiveness from your Lord and a Paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth, prepared for those mindful (of Allah). (They are) those who donate in prosperity and adversity, control their anger and pardon others. And Allah loves the good-doers.

(Surah Ali-’Imran, 3:133-134)

Some key lessons from these verses are, a) forgiving is one key attributes of God’s beloved servants, and b) those who forgive others are promised with God’s forgiveness

وَلَا يَأْتَلِ أُولُو الْفَضْلِ مِنكُمْ وَالسَّعَةِ أَن يُؤْتُوا أُولِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَالْمُهَاجِرِينَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ ۖ وَلْيَعْفُوا وَلْيَصْفَحُوا ۗ أَلَا تُحِبُّونَ أَن يَغْفِرَ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

Do not let the people of virtue and affluence among you swear to suspend donations to their relatives, the needy, and the emigrants in the cause of Allah. Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not love to be forgiven by Allah? And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful

(Surah An-Nur, 24:22)

and the verse:

وَإِن تَعْفُوا وَتَصْفَحُوا وَتَغْفِرُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

But if you pardon, overlook, and forgive their faults, then Allah is truly All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

(Surah At-Taghabun, 64:14)

In another verse, Allah s.w.t. promised other great rewards. Allah s.w.t. mentions in Surah Ash-Shuraa that the reward is with Him, without specifying the entitled reward itself. Truly He is the All-Powerful and The Most-Giving.

وَجَزَاءُ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِّثْلُهَا ۖ فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الظَّالِمِينَ

The reward of an evil deed is its equivalent. But whoever pardons and seeks reconciliation, then their reward is with Allah. He certainly does not like the wrongdoers.

(Surah Ash-Shuraa, 42:40)

The strong encouragement to forgive in the Quran could also be seen from the fact that God provides for a convicted murderer a right to be forgiven by his victim’s kin that would spare him from the death penalty and the kin who chooses to forgive is promised with great rewards such as high and honourable position in the eyes of Allah. 

وَلَكُمْ فِي الْقِصَاصِ حَيَاةٌ يَا أُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

And there is for you in legal retribution [saving of] life, O you [people] of understanding, that you may become righteous.

(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:179)

Forgiving is not obligatory

 forgiveness meaning according to islam

On the flip side, one could also deduce from the Quran that forgiving is not an obligatory act upon Muslims. This can be seen in the mentioned verse from Surah Ash-Shuraa (42:40) where Allah allows those who are wronged to inflict equal and proportionate to the evil-deed through legal means while highlighting that forgiving the evil-deed is preferred. A similar point could be seen in Surah Al-Baqarah (2:179) where the kin of a murder victim is given a choice between waiving the death penalty through forgiving or following through with the execution.

Other proofs that forgiving is not obligatory are:

 a) Allah who is The Most Pardoning (Al-`Afw), The Most Forgiving (Al-Ghafur) and the Most Compassionate (Al-Rahim) does not forgive all sins as stipulated in the verse:

وَلِلَّهِ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۚ يَغْفِرُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيُعَذِّبُ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

To Allah (alone) belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. He forgives whomever He wills and punishes whomever He wills. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

(Surah Ali-’Imran, 3:129)

And other verse in Surah An-Nisa (4:48), Surah Al-Maidah (5:18) and Surah Al-Fath (48:14) respectively. 

b) After the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet s.a.w. forgave Arab populations of Mecca except for a few individuals who were sentenced to death for their crimes. 

c) story of a person in who is bankrupt in the Afterlife in a hadith as follows: 

“The real bankrupt of my Ummah would be he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with Salat, Sawm and Sadaqah (charity), (but he will find himself bankrupt on that day as he will have exhausted the good deeds) because he reviled others, brought calumny against others, unlawfully devoured the wealth of others, shed the blood of others and beat others; so his good deeds would be credited to the account of those (who suffered at his hand). If his good deeds fall short to clear the account, their sins would be entered in his account and he would be thrown in the (Hell) Fire.”

(Narrated by Imam Muslim)

If forgiving is obligatory, those who seek retribution in the Afterlife should be reprimanded for not forgiving others who had wronged them in this life.

Thus, there should not be a stigma towards those who chose not to forgive and demand rightful punishment for a convicted criminal. What is reprehensible by Islam is seeking punishment on a criminal through extrajudicial means.

Forgive and forget

 forgiveness islam hadith Quran

The Quran uses multiple terms for forgiveness. Two most notable ones are;

a) Al-Afw in Surah Ali-’Imran (3:134), Surah An-Nur (24:22) and Surah At-Taghabun (64:14)

b) Al-Safh in Surah An-Nur (24:22) and Surah At-Taghabun (64:14).

Al-Afw means “to forgive”, and Al-Safh is “to forgive and forget”. The former is the minimum, while the latter is a higher and nobler type of forgiveness.

Both are not obligatory as explained above. Muslims who wish to forgive a person who has wronged him have two choices; either “to forgive” only or to “forgive and forget”. There should not be any stigma towards Muslim who choose “to forgive” only because he is not ready or able “to forget” yet.

Conclusion

Islam is a realistic, practical and humanistic religion. It is only human for a person to feel hurt when he is wronged. Naturally, time is needed for the person to overcome the pain in order to forgive and more time is needed to forget.

forgiveness quotes in islam

The duration of time differs from one person to another because humans are naturally created diverse and different emotionally, physically, intellectually, etc. Thus, the ability to forgive differs too. Some may be able to overcome the pain quickly. While others require more time. The cause of hurt differs too from a person to another. Thus, what can be forgiven easily by a person may not be so for another.

A person may have forgiven 100 wrongdoings. However, a certain wrongdoing may be too painful for him to forgive, what more to forget. Thus, it is alright if a Muslim cannot and would not want to forgive because he is not ready yet. It is also alright for a Muslim to merely forgive, but not forget.

In the case of the New Zealand convicted terrorist, forgiveness remains a deeply personal choice each of the victims is grappling with. While forgiving is not obligatory, there is room in Islam to allow each person to decide for themselves the extent at which they are able to forgive, and with Allah’s grace also forget. 

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