The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.
Forgiveness is at the heart of so many spiritual and ethical traditions. But, it can be one of the most difficult teachings to live up to. Forgiveness requires an extraordinary struggle against the bruised ego. And, the bigger the hurt, the more difficult it is to forgive. Ultimately, though, there is nothing like forgiveness that can set a person free and to put a mind at rest.
In the Islamic tradition teachings on forgiveness are intimately connected to and rooted in a deeper theological understanding of God and of the relationship between God and the human being.
The foremost attributes of God – which open up every chapter of the Qur’an – are the merciful (al-rahman) and the compassionate (al-raheem). And, one of the most celebrated names of God in the Qur’an is the forgiving (al-ghafur). There are several other divine attributes that are similar.The way in which this relates to the human being is two-fold:
First, at the heart of Islamic spirituality is this idea that we have a share, no matter how small in comparison to God, of divine attributes by virtue of the life-giving and divinely originating soul (ruh) that is breathed into us by the angels when we are still fetuses in our mother’s wombs. It is, then, our spiritual task to cultivate and grow these beautiful attributes within our soul and character in order to draw closer to the divine. Forgiveness is an opportunity to adorn our souls with godliness. And, the more difficult it is to forgive, the greater and more beautiful the adornment. As such, one of the motivations to forgive is to draw closer to God’s attributes. Forgiveness should be seen as an opportunity – a chance at experiencing and achieving a nearness to God that is indescribable in its beauty and tranquility. This is why the Qur’an describes those who are deeply aware of God as “when they are angered they forgive” (42:37) and “when they are prompted by the ignorant they respond with words of peace” (25:63).
Second, there’s a deep sense that the way we treat others is the way that we will be treated by God. In other words, if we wish for God’s gentle treatment toward us then we must be gentle toward others. This teaching is reflected in what is referred to as the foundational prophetic teaching – meaning that the first saying attributed from the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) that a teacher of hadith imparts to his or her student – which states: “Show mercy toward those on earth and the One above the heavens will show mercy toward you.” And, this is, furthermore, a reflection of the Qur’anic advice: “…pardon and forgive. Do you not wish that God should forgive you?” (24:22).
In this month of Ramadan we’re especially encouraged to seek God’s forgiveness for our wrongdoings and shortcomings. What better way to seek this divine forgiveness then by forgiving those who have wronged and hurt us?
Once when the Prophet Muhammad was sitting in the Mosque with a group of his companions, he caught everyone by surprise by stating that the next person to enter the sanctuary would be a person of paradise. The Prophet’s companions waited eagerly to see who it would be. Finally, a rather simple man by the name of Abu Dumdum appeared. The companions were befuddled because they didn’t think that this person was extraordinarily pious. One of the companions asked Abu Dumdum if he could stay with him for a few nights making an excuse of need. In reality he just wanted to know what was so special about Abu Dumdum. In the night the companion expected Abu Dumdum to pray all night – but no such thing happened. During the day, the companion expected Abu Dumdum to fast, but that didn’t happen either. Finally, the companion told Abu Dumdum about what the Prophet had said and why he was actually spending nights in his home. Abu Dumdum replied that the only thing he did that was different and unique was before going to bed every night he would forgive anyone who had offended him knowingly or unknowingly, and would go to sleep with a clean heart toward others.
Forgiveness is not easy, but boy is it worth it!