The Prophet Muhammad (upon him, peace) tells us that Ramadan is a month whose beginning is mercy, whose middle is forgiveness and whose end is freedom from the fire. We cannot deny that forgiveness is one of the more noble virtues, better than holding a grudge, better than holding on to the bitterness that leads to hardness of heart. Forgiveness clears our mind of the detritus of a million small grudges, lifting the burden and physical and psychic stress of resentment. It has been established: people who forgive easily lead healthier, happier and more spiritually meaningful lives.
But forgiveness is a word that is often used loosely. We speak of the ideal of forgiveness, as if it's a state of mind that can be plucked whole from the sky and presto! -- all is forgotten. Yes, forgiveness is an attitude, but it is no less a process. This process requires immense inner work as well as a commitment to act. In fact, the process of forgiveness often requires the most extreme types of action that may seem at odds with an idealized conception of what it means to forgive. And forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation.
It is one thing to forgive a rude remark, a slight or even a series of uncomfortable encounters. But what about those who are living under daily, sustained oppression? I'm not talking here about political or military oppression (though one oppression does inform the other). I'm talking about oppression in the family, by those we were taught to love and trust and from whom we expect only the best. Surely many of us have heard the refrain: "How many more chances are you going to give him?" or "Hasn't she done enough to our family?" We all know someone who has extended themselves to breaking point for another person, bound in a relationship that is only a source of pain. We all know, somewhere, an abusive husband; an emotionally absent mother; a brother who steals to feed a habit; a sister whose jealousy is a poison.
And then there are the less obvious but equally insidious types of oppression -- like well-meaning parents who in their shortsightedness, out of fear, apathy or loyalty to received traditions, ask their children to abdicate their God-given humanity and responsibility for their own selves. Who expect their children to commit their lives to dreams that are not theirs, to marriage partners that have been chosen for them, to responsibilities that were never theirs to take on. On the surface, we see a functional family. Underneath, perhaps unknown even to the one being oppressed, there is a sustained pressure that will lead to increasingly complicated psychic distress, as the oppression, often in the form of guilt, passes down through generations.
Let us look to the example of two prophets of God in the Quran, Abraham and Noah (upon them, peace):
And Noah called out to his Sustainer, and said: "O my Sustainer! Truly, my son was of my family; and, truly, Your promise always comes true, and You are the most just of all judges!" [God] answered: "O Noah, behold, he was not of your family, for he was unrighteous in his conduct. And you shall not ask of Me anything about which you cannot have any knowledge: thus, behold, do I admonish you lest you should be of the ignorant. Said [Noah]: "O my Sustainer! Truly, I seek refuge with You from [ever again] asking of You anything about which I cannot have any knowledge! For unless You grant me forgiveness and bestow Your mercy upon me, I shall be among the lost! (Surah Hud, verses 45-47)
And Abraham prayed for his father's forgiveness only because of a promise he had made to him. But when it became utterly clear to him that he was an enemy to God, he disassociated himself from him: for Abraham was most tender-hearted, forbearing. (Surah Tawbah, verse 114)
Surah Hud was revealed in Mecca after the deaths of the Prophet Muhammad's beloved wife and friend Khadija, and of his uncle and protector Abu Talib, and during the persecution of the young Muslim community by the leading families of Mecca. Sura al-Tawbah was revealed in Medina after a military expedition and repeated breaches of treaties and agreements by the Meccans. The stories of Abraham and Noah are embedded in this context: the Prophet and his followers, in pursuit of justice and a God-centered life, had not only left family members behind but were in fact engaging in armed conflict with fathers and brothers.
In the trials of these two prophets, we are introduced to the idea of disassociation. The first story is about Abraham's father Azar, who could not conceive of a world beyond ancestral practice and actively thwarted his son's religious mission. The second story is about a son of Noah, who called his father a liar and a fool and refused to come aboard the Ark for fear that he would look ridiculous. He drowned in the Flood. Both Abraham and Noah stepped away from a family member for the sake of God. What might this mean? Noah's story gives us a clue: the meaning of family has changed. It is no longer blood-relation but just and righteous action that determines family. When family prevents us from living out just and God-centered lives, when family becomes the source of oppression, our loyalty to family must be tempered accordingly.
Curiously, the story of Abraham emphasizes his tenderheartedness and forbearance. In placing the term "tenderhearted" in close proximity to the term "disassociated," the Quran creates a semantic connection between the two. We are meant to think of these two terms in relation to one another. At first glance, this seems illogical. How can it possibly be an act of tenderness to engage in the distasteful act of disassociation from a close blood relation, especially a father who bestows name and lineage? Can the act of disassociation ever be an expression of mercy? In revisiting the passage, we see that it had become "utterly clear" to Abraham that his father was not vaguely opposed to Abraham's path, but was "an enemy" (uduwun), committed to its destruction. An individual who consistently declares and demonstrates that he is bent on a particular course of action does not welcome intervention; he is invested in the path that he follows, for reasons that may be beyond anyone's control, reasons that are deeply rooted in his psyche. When someone is so clearly a "lost cause," isn't it more merciful to step away rather than torture him further? Is it not in fact an act of benevolence on the part of Abraham to stop harassing his father? And is it not an act of benevolence to himself, the tender-hearted one, to disassociate from this person completely? Abraham is not only allowing his father to save face, he is protecting his own heart from being pummeled and bruised beyond repair.
The story of the prophet Noah casts more light on this process. Noah asks God to make good on a promise that his family would be saved from the flood, taking refuge in the fact that God's promise always comes true. Instead, God declares that Noah's son, based on his record of unrighteous behavior, is no longer part of Noah's family. God goes on to chide Noah for insisting on things of which he has no knowledge. The passage ends with Noah seeking refuge in God and asking for God's forgiveness. Like Abraham, Noah makes a good faith attempt to save a recalcitrant family member, but in both cases there is an element of wishful thinking, of testing God's boundaries. In fact, in an earlier Quranic passage recounting the events of the Flood, it is clear that some members of Noah's family would not be saved. Despite his knowledge of this, Noah insists on asking God about his son and in desperation invokes God's truth and justice to support his hesitant plea. His cry at the end of this passage emerges from a place of pain, as he seeks refuge in God's mercy: "For unless You grant me forgiveness and bestow Your mercy upon me, I shall be among the lost!" This is a reminder that the decision to disassociate from loved ones is a terribly painful one to make and, without God's mercy, almost impossible to commit to.
Even great prophets like Abraham and Noah found it difficult to take this step. Both struggled to excuse the behavior of their family members and to justify their own last-ditch attempts to rein them in: I made a promise to my father! Or, God made a promise to me! Both refused to let go until the reality of circumstances forced them to turn away. In such a situation, only extensive inner work and reliance on God's mercy will ensure that the one who turns away does not bear the scars of resentment, anger and despair, to join the ranks of those who are "lost." Noah's cry further reminds us that righteousness too emerges from God's mercy. Disassociation must not carry the slightest hint of arrogance. It is not vindictive, nor is it triumphant. It is only through God's mercy that we are not on the other side of the fence, watching the ones who love us walk away.
Forgiveness is challenging, at best. At the worst of times, it requires actions that are gut-wrenchingly painful. In difficult cases, the process can only begin by removing yourself from the orbit of the oppressor. In some cases, the removal must be permanent; in most cases, it means giving others (and yourself) space to breathe and time to reflect. So let us commit this month to the process of forgiveness. Let us pray for the strength to recognize oppression in all its forms. Let us pray that we are not among the oppressors. And let us pray for the strength to make the really hard decisions with grace.