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.
This article is already published in Forgiveness (is a two-way street) by amina wadud (feminismandreligion.com)