For many Muslims, the idea of forgiving a bigot, pardoning an aggressor or a harsh unflattering critic or letting a so-called Islamophobe off the hook, is much easier to conceptualize or articulate than it is to actually put into practice. Exacting revenge, seeking recompense, or holding a grudge, simply requires a dash of anger, a pinch of indignation and a tablespoonful of knee-jerk emotional reaction. Even hurt feelings are enough to spur a person to take punitive or compensatory action against another. Forgiveness, on the other hand, requires a particular measure of spiritual courage, moral fortitude, and emotional intelligence. Forgiveness requires a charitable heart.
While Islam recognizes the concept of retribution; forgiveness and forbearance have always been the higher and more magnanimous moral option.
“O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty. (2:178)
Without diverging into a separate discussion about criminal justice policy, I’ll just say that murderers need to be prosecuted and brought to justice. That being said, it stands that in the religion of Islam, it is still meritorious to forgive, even if the perpetrator is prosecuted.
However, we’re not talking about murderers here. The people who have murdered or committed violent acts against Muslims in America because of their faith need to be condemned for their actions. However, they constitute only a fractional percentage of those whom we have regarded as anti-Muslim or Islamophobes. What we’re talking about are the thousands upon thousands of everyday interactions, the minor skirmishes, the contemptuous glances, the unwanted comments, the simple acts of dishonor and disrespect that are aimed at Muslims and Islam. Sometimes it’s simply a case of misunderstanding but many times there is no ambiguity at all. There are the people who make it perfectly clear that they hate you because you are a Muslim.
The moral high ground in Islam affirms that it is okay to forgive such instances of bigotry and ignorance and to continue to walk in dignity. This is the higher moral ground that the Quran speaks about:
“And the servants of the Merciful; they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace.” (25:63)
So what we are talking about here is attitudinal change, a paradigm shift, an increased output of good old fashioned moral fortitude. For lesser infractions such as someone calling you names, criticizing your faith or your religious group, or insulting your honor, forgiveness is a praiseworthy option. There is nothing immoral, cowardly or demeaning about forgiving someone who has wronged you; nothing at all.
“The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah: for (Allah) loveth not those who do wrong.” (42:39-40)
In the ongoing back and forth of American Muslims mitigating anti-Muslim sentiment in our country, we seem to be neglecting the part of our religion that encourages forgiveness. I’m not saying that it is easy to forgive; I’m saying that it’s good to forgive, and that forgiveness is a grossly underused option considering how prominently forgiveness ranks in our religion. It’s even okay to forgive when there is violence but that might be a bit much to ask of our community because we’re not that used to forgiving, to begin with, and if we do forgive, we’re likely to make a full-fledged media event out of it.
The customary behavioral reaction in the Muslim community anti-Muslim sentiment is to fight fire with fire, to counter attack, to counter debate, polemicize, or to react to nearly every disparagement with either complaining about it, reporting it to the authorities, seeking some kind of redress or revenge, or amplifying our self-victimization. Many of our responses to bigotry are aimed more at getting people to see us as victims of injustice, intolerance, and oppression than they are at being forgiving, patiently gracious, and magnanimous under fire.
I’m not suggesting that Muslim-Americans entirely overlook religious intolerance and bigotry directed towards them, or that we do not maintain vigilance against unwarranted verbal, institutional, political or violent attacks against Muslims. There have been enough incidents of violence directed towards people thought to be Muslim that warrants vigilance and awareness. Nor am I advocating that we abdicate common sense in assessing the public image disadvantages that we sometimes encounter as Muslim Americans.
What I am saying is that being Muslim brings with it a certain standard of moral fortitude standard to aim for that encourages us to withstand a fair amount of nuisance as we work to educate people and educate ourselves and that it is okay to forgive sometimes.
“You (believers) will certainly be tested by the loss of your property and lives and you will hear a great many grieving words from the People of the Book and the pagans. If you will have patience and piety, it will be a sign of firm determination and steadfastness (in life).” (3:186)
It’s also important that we don’t overstate the problem. Nor fail to recognize that the majority of people do not show hatred and bigotry towards Muslims. Many Muslims are still learning about the United States and there are many areas of improvement in how we handle bigotry in America as a Muslim people. We are a fairly contentious and thin skinned people when it comes to criticism, bigotry, and anti-Muslim sentiment, and we can do a lot better in the way we deal with what some of us call Islamophobia. Forgiveness and taking a high moral ground should not be taboo when it comes to our critics, detractors, and our shameless antagonists.
Our faith requires a higher degree of moral fortitude and spiritual maturity that would preclude us from feeling the need to counter every affront or criticism of Islam or Muslims. We should own the fact that we have within our communal body, cultural and historical predilections that make us particularly sensitive to any hint of criticism or rejection. The Muslim culture of revenge and outrage and holding grudges is legendary and make the Hatfields and McCoys look like Donald and Mickey. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse that is. However, we have better examples to choose from.
When the companion of the Prophet Mistah ibn Athaatha participated in the awful slander of the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, at the time, his only income was the regular charity he was getting from Aisha’s wealthy father, Abu Bakr, who was a distant relative of Mistah by way of Mistah’s grandmother, Ru’haita bint Sakhar. Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq, clearly ruffled by Mistah’s role in spreading the terrible rumors about his daughter Aisha, the wife of the Prophet ?, Abu Bakr swore by Allah to never to give any more money to Mistah. It was about this matter that the verse was revealed;
“Let not those among you who are endued with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want, and those who have left their homes in Allah’s cause: let them forgive and overlook, do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”. (24:22)
After this verse was revealed to the Prophet (pbuh), he summoned Abu Bakr and asked him; “would you like that your sins be forgiven?” Abu Bakr replied; “yes”. Then the Prophet (pbuh) informed him that this verse was revealed about him. After that, Abu Bakr forgave Mistah and swore that he would never withhold help from Mistah, ever again.
Another example is that when the Prophet (pbuh) conquered the holy city of Mecca on the 20th day of Ramadan in the Julian year of 630, there were many Meccans who had fought against him in previous battles. Polytheist combatants had violently opposed the Prophet ?, and persecuted, tortured and Killed many of the Prophet’s companions over the years. Many of those killed were people close to the Prophet ? and people even made attempts on his life ?.
The Prophet ? had plenty of reasons to exact revenge on his enemies and he ? could have easily done that. However, that’s not what he did once he was in power. What he did was to forgive everyone. He even paid some of them in order to sway their favor.
A young Muslim recently asked me about what should a person do when they are confronted with anti-Muslim sentiment or an Islamophobic act. My response to his question was to see if he could find a way to overlook the slight and forgive them. That’s what the Prophet (pbuh) used to do; he used to forgive people. Forgiveness is a much more redemptive act than revenge and holding onto anger and contempt. As Allah has mentioned:
“The good deed and the evil deed cannot be equal. Repel (the evil) with one which is better (i.e. Allah ordered the faithful believers to be patient at the time of anger, and to excuse those who treat them badly), then verily! he, between whom and you there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a close friend.”
This verse was revealed about Abu Jahl, who was a staunch enemy of the Islam and of the Prophet ?.
Certainly, American Muslims should address Islamophobia, although it would help significantly if we conclusively defined the word; something that has yet to be done, but that’s the topic for another discussion perhaps. However, we should deal with the anti-Muslim sentiment using the tools of faith.
“Those who spend [in the cause of Allah] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good”. (3:143).
We should forgive at least some of the time.
When we fail to employ the full breadth of moral tools and principles in our religion when defending our faith and ourselves against bigotry, it gives a distinct impression that perhaps we really don’t understand our religion. American Muslims are long overdue for a major metanoia in our approach to what we call Islamophobia. Perhaps If we were more forgiving and showed more fortitude in the face of the bigotry that we occasionally encounter here in the United States, people who have negative views of Islam and Muslims would begin to see and perhaps understand another side of what it is to be a Muslim. In the process, maybe we too would start to see and realize another, higher minded side of ourselves.
American born Luqman Ahmad is a Sunni Muslim, the son of converts to Islam. He is a writer, consultant, and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom in Folsom California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation, a founding member of COSVIO, (the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations), and the author of the new book “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States. He also authored, “The Devils Deception of the Modern day Salafiyyah Sect”, a detailed look at modern-day extremist salafiyyism, the ideology which in part formed the mindset of ISIS. He blogs at, imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.