By Zarmeen Ghoor
The Quran offers an abundance of wisdom and guidance, explaining the best and most holistic ways of living in this life. One of the traits that is often lauded and encouraged is the ability to forgive. This virtue is a form of self-purification and self-improvement and is also a means of strengthening relationships between individuals and between individuals and their Creator.
Forgiveness: An all-in-one cure
Forgiveness is universally admired as a noble attribute. It is encouraged by most religious traditions as a saintly virtue – one of the building blocks of a strong moral foundation and a trait that brings one closer to God. Religious ideology aside, it is also considered a powerful psychological tool to reduce stress, depression and anxiety and is associated with higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction. Some studies have shown that actively practicing forgiveness can have wonderful effects on one’s health, such as lowering the risk of heart attacks, improving cholesterol levels and reducing pain and blood pressure.
Forgiveness in the Quran
The Quran is replete with verses encouraging to forgive and to seek forgiveness; some of these verses are shown below:
A kind and courteous word and forgiveness are (much) better than charity that is followed by (emotional) abuse… [Quran 2:263]
And We have not created the heavens and earth and that between them except in truth. And indeed, the Hour is coming; so forgive with gracious forgiveness. [Quran 15:85]
And those who avoid the major sins and immoralities, and when they are angry, they forgive… [Quran 42:37]
The first verse quoted above describes how kind words and forgiveness – neither of which are of monetary value – are better in the sight of God than charity which is followed by insults (or reminders of said charity). This shows how heavily forgiveness is weighted because in Islam charity is not only a praised virtue, but an obligatory act.
The second verse shows that one should forgive graciously, not begrudgingly and certainly not indignantly. Because the injunction to forgive is preceded by the phrase “indeed, the Hour is coming”, one can’t help but feel one should forgive sincerely, and without delay.
The third verse continues a description of “those who believe.” Here the Quran does not describe believers simply as “those who forgive,” but rather those who “when they are angry, they forgive.” In this verse the Quran tells us that believers too can get angry, implying that anger is not necessarily a bad trait. It is a very natural human reaction, which the Quran acknowledges. Indeed, at times anger at witnessing or experiencing wrongdoing can even result in action to defend victims and promote justice. Believers are people who despite the outcome of events don’t hold on to their anger or bear a grudge, and can find it in themselves to forgive.
Many verses in the Quran were revealed directly as a response to circumstances occurring in the life of Muhammad (pbuh); one of the verses on forgiveness was revealed during the period the Prophet’s wife, Aisha, was subjected to slander in her community. Aisha was the daughter of one of Muhammad’s (pbuh) closest companions, Abu Bakr. One of the people responsible for spreading the false rumours about Aisha was Abu Bakr’s needy cousin, Mistah, whom Abu Bakr had been supporting financially. Once Aisha was cleared of her accusations by revelation, Abu Bakr stopped his financial aid to his cousin. After this development, the following verse was revealed:
And let not those of virtue among you and wealth swear not to give [aid] to their relatives and the needy and the emigrants for the cause of God, and let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that God should forgive you? And God is Forgiving and Merciful. [Quran 24:22]
Upon hearing this verse, Abu Bakr exclaimed “By God, we do want that God should forgive us!” and resumed and increased his support to Mistah. This episode shows us the benchmark set by the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh). To forgive someone who was responsible for encouraging vile slander of one’s daughter, causing widespread agony and pain, is not easy. To go further and support this person financially, with even greater support than before, is truly remarkable. This is the standard the Quran presents to us; the standard believers should aspire to.
But what about justice?
Some may struggle with the idea of blanket forgiveness because it is sometimes conflated with giving someone a ‘free pass.’ When the Quran encourages us to forgive, it is by no means acquitting the guilty party of its actions. Justice is a key theme in the Quran; the holy book does not expect us to sit idly by as injustice occurs:
And the retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it, but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation – his reward is [due] from God. [Quran 42:40]
Act against those who oppress people and transgress against justice. They will have an agonizing punishment – though, if a person is patient and forgives, this is one of the greatest things. [Quran 42:42-43]
These verses concede that evil acts should be fought against, but beyond seeking out justice one of the greatest acts is to forgive. The Quran seems to admit that forgiving can be difficult, because it promises a special reward from God for those who can achieve it. By turning forgiveness into a character goal to strive for, the Quran separates one’s emotional reaction to being wronged (anger, resentment, etc) from the injustice itself. This assists in moving forward psychologically and emotionally irrespective of whether or not the party at fault received justice. This is a useful tool because justice is not always attained in this world. However, God promises that the heavens and earth were indeed created to be just, and that He will ensure everyone earns what they should:
God has created the heavens and the earth with just purpose, and so that everyone is recompensed for what he or she earned, and they will not be wronged. [Quran 45:22]
Forgive to be forgiven
The verse revealed about Abu Bakr offered something else besides the instruction to continue funding his cousin Mistah. The last past of the verse asks “Would you not like that God should forgive you? And God is Forgiving and Merciful.”
Ultimately, like Abu Bakr himself stated, we all would want God to forgive our many indiscretions on this earth. We know that this life is a test, and no matter how hard we try not to, we will commit acts that we regret and will need to be forgiven for. So we should develop a forgiving nature in the hope that God would forgive us too. By re-framing it like this – and putting us in the position of someone who needs forgiveness – the Quran helps us to understand the position of people who need our forgiveness.
But it’s not just about wanting to be forgiven – because cultivating an attitude of forgiveness is a means of getting to know God. How so? The Quran uses three names to describe God’s forgiving nature: al Ghaafir (the One who Forgives), al Ghafoor (the All-Forgiving), al Ghaffar (the Oft-Forgiving). These names appear 91 times collectively in the holy book. Forgiveness is a divine attribute, and inculcating it helps to nurture the part of us that comes from the divine. It serves as a means to connect with the Creator and can also serve as a constant reminder of our fleeting life here.
There are so many advantages to learning to forgive. The Quran calls on us to pardon and forbear, and it is also a divine attribute of the Creator – these facts alone make it a worthy feature to develop that assures untold benefits. But to encourage us even more, the Quran promises a special reward from God for forgiving. The perks start in this life, with various studies having shown the psychological, mental and health benefits that arise from practicing the act of forgiveness. In this way God has indeed provided enough incentive to develop this most noble and valuable of virtues.
Share your favorite verse about forgiveness below!
Harvard Health Publishing (2021). The power of forgiveness
John Hopkins Medicine (2022). Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It
Sayyid Qutb (2015). In the Shade of the Qur’an (Fi Dhilal al-Qur’an). Islamic Foundation.