Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.
It seems like every week I run into someone who seems to think that Islam has nothing to do with mercy, compassion and forgiveness. But the reasons for it are unfortunate. These people are not being vindictive -- they just really have never heard any Muslim speak or seen any Muslim live in a way where mercy seems to be a part of Islam. Most are not taken aback by negative media imagery or headlines that are painting Islam in a negative light. But rather in day-to-day conversations, many have walked away from speaking to Muslims with the feeling that Islam is pretty devoid of any principles of Mercy. Many that I've spoken to have been genuinely amazed when we've sat down and discussed the concepts of Divine Mercy, Forgiveness, and Compassion that exist within the Islamic paradigm. Even recent converts to Islam have said to me that an initial obstacle in their path to conversion came from conversations with Muslims who made Islam seem harsh. Upon becoming Muslim and learning about Islam, they were amazed at the fact that Muslims didn't speak more about the concept of mercy and forgiveness.
One of the first narrations that we are taught from the Islamic Tradition is known as the hadith ar-rahma, or the Tradition of Mercy. "The Merciful One is merciful to those who are merciful. Be merciful on the earth, The One who is in the heavens will be merciful to you."
I think one of the biggest issues that we have in conveying this fundamental aspect of our religion to people stems from our inability to really grasp it ourselves. Muslims need to start learning Islam. I can't really articulate to anyone something that I myself don't understand. In this situation its probably easier for me not to get the principle of mercy because if I did I would then have to embody it moreso for myself. I would then have to check myself before getting angry, before telling a lie, before being abusive, before yelling or screaming, before raising a hand, before standing up after prayer without making a supplication, before being judgmental, before being condescending, before being irresponsible, before being malicious, before being untrustworthy, before being impatient, or before being simply mean. It's just easier for me to be those things. It's also easier for me to sometimes believe I won't be forgiven. But the easiest options are not always the most beneficial.
Especially during these nights of Ramadan, it's really important for us to start to thinking about these things. One of the supplications that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, would regularly make and recommend to others to make during the month of Ramadan was Allahumma innaka 'afu'wwun , tuhibbul 'afwa, fa'fu 'annee, meaning -- O Allah! You are The Forgiver, and You love forgiveness. So forgive me.
The key word in this supplication is the divine attribute that God is being called upon by, Al-'Afu, the Forgiver.
The issue we run into in understanding the depth of forgiveness is when the original meaning of the Arabic words are lost in translation. There are a few words in the Arabic language that get translated into English as "forgiveness".
For example, another attribute that we understand God with is Al-Ghafoor, also translated sometimes as "The Forgiving". But Al-Ghafoor and Al-'Afu are two different words and have distinct meanings.
The way the Arabic language works is very interesting. Words are usually derived from a tri-lateral root and words that share roots have somewhat of a similar meaning. For example, the word Muslim, Islam, and Salaam are all derived from the tri-lateral root sa-la-ma, and it's easy to see how the words are linked.
In Arabic, the word ghafara, yaghfir is similar in meaning to satara, which means "to cover up" (words that some might know are sutra, satr, etc.) When we are calling upon God and asking Him for this kind of forgiveness, we are asking Him to not expose our sins, essentially to cover them up, both in this world and in the hereafter. 'afa, yafu' means to erase. When one calls upon Him as Al-'Afu, one is essentially asking Him to erase from all records from any consciousness of that action existing.
Hasan Al-Basri, a well-known sunni Muslim scholar from the second generation of Muslims, says: "How many humans are there whose faults are put by Allah under cover, yet they do not appreciate and are deluded by His grace."
Accoring to Islam, when a person commits any act, there are some witnesses to it:
1) The place where the action is committed: In the 99th chapter of the Quran, Al-Zalzala, it says:
"When the earth is shaken to her (utmost) convulsion, and the earth brings forth her burdens, And man says: What has befallen her? On that day she shall tell her news, Because your Lord had inspired her, On that Day will men proceed in companies sorted out, to be shown the deeds that they (had done), So, he who has done an atom's weight of good shall see it, And he who has done an atom's weight of evil shall see it." (99: 1-8)
Thus, every piece of land will have the ability to testify for us or against us. This is why you see many Muslims praying in different locations when in the mosque -- the logic being that each unique place that is prayed upon will bear witness that we did so. Similarly, each piece of earth that we did something wrong upon on will speak out against us.
2) The angels seeing the deeds: In the 82nd Chapter of the Quran, Al-Infitaar, it says "And most surely there are guardians over you."(82:10). This verse alludes to the angels that have been appointed over us and precedes the verse that speaks of the third witness.
3) The records that have been written by these angels: "Honorable and Recording"(82:11). The angels are putting in record notice of each and every deed and action that we have committed, both positive and negative.
4) An individuals' body itself: In the 24th Chapter of the Quran, An-Noor, it says, "Surely those who accuse chaste believing women, unaware (of the evil), are cursed in this world and the hereafter, and they shall have a grievous chastisement. On the Day when their tongues, their hands, and their feet will bear witness against them as to their actions. On that day Allah will pay back to them in full their just reward, and they shall know that Allah is the evident Truth." (24: 23-25).
It's interesting to note that these verses also include explicit mention of speaking ill of women. Something to discuss in a later post perhaps.
When one calls upon God as Al-'Afu, one is asking from Him for forgiveness in such a way, that any recollection of the action in question taking place is erased from any and all of these witnesses. That the land that you committed the act upon, the angels that saw you commit it, the records that they recorded the action upon, and the very limbs that committed the action all have it erased from each one respectively.
A final point that becomes important to note here is that one should embody this trait on a human level. Forgiveness on a human level is pretty much like canceling out a debt, where despite our feeling that someone owes us something to make up for a loss or pain that we have experienced, we try our best to let it go for both their sake and our own. Carrying a sense of retribution inside of ourselves can be really toxic so as much as forgiveness is for the one being forgiven, its also for the forgiver as well.
There is a story in our tradition of a man who owned a store and let many people purchase things on credit, including those who did not have the means to pay him back. When it came time for him to collect what was due to him, he would forgive the debts owed to him and not think about it twice. As the tradition goes, when this man passed away and his life's deeds are being taken into account, Allah tells His angels that this man possessed a strong sense of being 'afu and it is not possible for him to possess it moreso than He Himself so He forgives the man for any of his shortcomings and grants him entrance into paradise, all because he was forgiving.