CRUCIBLE: Act of Forgiveness

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 15 May) – A few weeks ago, news from Iran went viral in the Internet regarding a mother who forgave the killer of her son. It happened with the scene where the killer, having been incarcerated for six years, got a verdict of hanging in the gallows from Iran’s court. The day of public execution came where the man was made to stand over a chair with a rope tide around his neck; so that, what the Iranian mother would do is kick the chair to off balance the man and thus will hang him to death. Instead of kicking the chair, the mother simply slapped the man – forgiving the killer of her son in that moment.

It is a law in Iran where the enforcement of qisas or law of equality is made public. Government sees to it that family of victims participates in dispensing justice, including the execution of penalty. International media like BBC, Huffington Post, Arab News and many others bannered the news in their websites.

New Normal

What makes us interested in this subject is people’s attitude on supposed universal values like forgiveness that have become a rare commodity in our time. We live in the world of new normal. Violence, hatred, and killing have become the norm. Act of compassion and forgiveness becomes “abnormal” making it easily taken as “controversy” – a reason why international media capitalized on it.

This kind of news resonates strongly as killing and violence become widespread nowadays. Attempts to implement the hudud or penalty under Islamic Law are popular topics in many countries. In Brunei, for instance, Sultan Hassanul Bolkiah declared that his government will implement the shari’ah (Islamic Law) with the media capitalizing on possible effects against gays and so on. On its part, the PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia, is in the midst of debate regarding the implementation of hudud or penal law, including provisions on cutting off hands and many more.

In places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and others, bombings and other forms of violence remain unabated. In the ongoing war in Syria, beheading and crucifixion are creating more negative media image as Arab and Muslim warriors hardly distinguish between conducting war and doing propaganda. Hence, the media could not be solely blamed for getting interested on things that are now considered rare.

Freudian Psychology

Incidentally, the narrative of violence is not something new as far as the Qur’an is concerned. Since practically creation started, the Angels had already the prognosis regarding the violence and mayhem that man would do in the world. The Holy Qur’an says: “Will you place therein those who will make mischief and shed blood (Baqarah: 31)?”

On its part, Freudian Psychology advanced the idea that “there is a powerful measure of desire for aggression as part of man’s instinctual endowment.” There is a “drive toward death or thanatos as an intrinsic part of human nature (Montagu: 1968).”

There is no doubt that the trend of increasing violence continues day by day. Yet, we raise the question: if indeed the world carries such grim historical and natural origin amid today’s continuing “culture of death,” how could it have continued to exist and persist until our time and the future? Contrary to Angels’ pessimism and Freud’s dark reading of human nature, the world must be sustained by an intrinsic, primordial, and enveloping universal virtue of the highest quality.

Mercy as primordial attribute

There is a hadith or Prophetic tradition that reads:

“Allah divided Mercy into over one hundred parts and He kept its ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down its one part on the earth and because of that one single part His creations are merciful to each other.”

We say as we said many times in our khutbah (discourse) that mercy permeates creation. There is another hadith that reads:

“When Allah created men He gave an undertaking to them in His Book which is with Him in the Throne that reads: My Mercy will overcome My Anger.”

Mercy is Allah’s Primordial Attribute or Divine Name. For lack of better way in explaining the concept of asma or Divine Names, we may visualize hue of colors in constant movement. Viewed in cosmic level, such shade of moving colors is similar to how the universe moves. It takes resonance with what the Holy Qur’an says: “Every day in (new) Splendor doth He (shine) (Rahman: 29)!”

When converted into the self, the hue of moving colors appears as emotions in constant flux. They are never static. They continue to move as long as a person lives. Hence, one may carry invariably and interchangeably emotions or feelings of compassion, anger, joy, sorrow, and so on.

Mercy is what drives creation to move. It has been embedded in the order of things. It is the rationale why nature carries, too, the attribute of mercy. The hadith we read above continues: “so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it.”

Mercy, indeed, permeates creation as animals and other entities carry such quality. In the case of man, the primordiality of mercy as human virtue is connected to the fact that no less than the “Divine Breath” has been originally imbued to him. The Qur’an says: “And I breathe into him of My spirit (Sad: 72).” Hence, it can be said that man’s original nature is essentially good and is of highest quality. If, at times, a person commits or acts not in accord with mercy, it is because the fluctuation of emotions is difficult to handle. The use of reason can be clouded, at times, closed. Those who commit murder and other crimes are, in many cases, in their state of anger and hatred.

Qisas and forgiveness

The recourse of the Qur’an, if say, murder has been committed, is for the law of equality or qisas to apply. The Qur’an says: “The recompense for an injury is an injury (equal in degree).” In another verse it says: “O you who believe the law of equality is prescribed to you in case of murder.”

Islam is anchored on the principle of justice. If wrong is committed against a person, there has to be similar act to be done on said perpetrator equal to the crime or wrong s/he has committed. Yet, in many cases where the law of qisas and other injunctions about justice and equality are mentioned, the Qur’an emphasizes, too, the idea of forgiveness, remission, and charity. The Qur’an says: “But if a person forgives and makes reconciliation his reward is one from God. For God loves not those who do wrong.”

In another verse, the Qur’an reads: “But indeed if any show patience and forgive that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs.” In another verse, the Qur’an says:

“But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand in compensate him with handsome gratitude. This is a concession and a mercy from your Lord. Although the Qur’an continues: “after this whatever exists the limits shall be in grave penalty.”

Mercy and forgiveness in the Qur’an speak of the universality of values. They have to be taken primordial as justice should be dispensed with. The idea being is to allow persons to experience the value of compassion, mercy and forgiveness as it would allow them to know their pitfalls and accord “cover” to fill-up the void of negative emotions that comes through hurt feelings. In our time, as we said, we are lost why the virtue of compassion and forgiveness becomes “abnormal” despite the fact that it is, as we said, what drives creation while intrinsic in the nature of man.


The culture of rido or feuds amongst Muslims in the Philippines reflects strongly this subject. We live in abnormal times indeed. Hardly we hear news of compassion and forgiveness extended by one family to another. In Moro society, what reigns is culture of vengeance and retaliation. Such a culture continues to perpetuate. It pesters throughout generations. In fact, the problem of rido has never been addressed holistically these past decades. There are no institutions capable of resolving or coming up with sustainable solution to rido even if there are instrumentalities and processes available.

Weak political institution and ineffective judicial system reinforced the problem. Warlordism, traditional politics, and political dynasties complicate it. Traditional politicians are generally involved in rido making them ineffective in resolving the problem and long-standing conflict among families. Hence, those families that could not afford to carry protracted rido would rather migrate from their respective places and turn themselves to live as squatters in cities like Zamboanga, Cotabato, Cebu, Manila, and Sabah, and so on.

Understandably, it is difficult to extend hands of forgiveness without being mistaken for cowardice or being scared to others and even abused especially by powerful, heartless ones. It requires enlightened souls who have fully grasped the quality and logic of compassion and mercy before real forgiveness could be extended to others.

There is no doubt that feud happens everywhere. In the context of Iran, the idea of justice and equality in that country is so strong. No less than the late Imam Khomenei who experienced early in his life the need to quest for justice. Accordingly, the father of Khomenei was killed when he was still very young. It was his auntie that sought justice for his father’s death. At one point, the auntie with the young Khomenei tugging her said that she would not leave the office of the governor unless the killer of Khomenei’s father is brought to justice.

This shows that even in his early days Imam Khomenei was already honed with the virtue of justice. We assume the same virtue must have animated preceding and succeeding generations of Iranians. Hence, when an Iranian mother extends forgiveness to the killer of her son, it is something that goes beyond the norm in that country.

Sensitive silk

The Arabic etymology of the word forgiveness is very rich. It comes from the word ghafara, which means “to forgive.” It also means “to put into” and connotes “cover” or “veil.” Some of more familiar derivatives are: ghafir, ghafra, ghufran, maghfirah, istighfar. These terms all connote, or are related to, the term forgiveness.

What is interesting to note even from Arabic root word itself, there is an immense wisdom we could learn from. One way to look at etymological significance of the term forgiveness is to view emotion like sensitive silk wherein when a person is hurt, the silk is likened to being grabbed by animal claws. The recourse to qisas or retaliation is to commit the same act against the supposed silk of another person.

When a person forgives, that is – when “one puts into” something it means instead of retaliating, said person corrects or provides a “cover” into his or her previously destroyed silk. There is no retaliating or counter injury committed. Instead, the silk is repaired or “put back” into its original nature. In short, when a person forgives, s/he is reconstituting hurt feelings and is “putting back” mercy into one’s heart. And the same is given to another person so that both are made to envelope their hearts with mercy.

In other words, act of forgiveness is primarily a way by which a forgiving person is able “to put back” mercy into his heart as s/he is also able to reconstitute mercy in the heart of the one that hurts and oppresses him or her. Thus, the person who receives forgiveness is actually helped as his own silk is made to function “whole” again while he is not made to suffer from the same act that s/he previously commits.

Undeniably, this view on forgiveness is quite difficult to understand or easy to accept or do. We have been made to believe that it is only those so-called saintly individuals who are able to extend this rare act of values. In truth, forgiveness is an act that any individual can do. It is intrinsically imbedded in our humanity.

Justice and mercy

If the Qur’an is emphatic with retaliation, it is because justice is taken as absolute. And to dispense justice, penalty is the way in which sin is expiated or removed. If a person is allowed to go scot-free, he will have to pay his sin in the Hereafter where penalty is much graver and where one is subjected to eternal suffering. That is why during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), people would flock to him and asked for penalty of their sin or crime because they are so convinced that penalty in the Hereafter is much graver than the penalty in this world. Ironically, this virtue has become so rare. That is why, we said, the culture of violence and retaliation continues to persist.

For one to appreciate the case of that Iranian mother and her decision to forgive the killer of her son, one has to consider time element as an important factor why she instantaneously changed her decision. If penalty were immediately enforced after the commission of crime, possibly, forgiveness would not be extended. Indeed, time heals. Said person has already served for around six years. I think the policy of the State is to allow bereaved family to undergo a period of healing for them to become compassionate.

The State cannot interfere in applying the law of qisas except when the family of the victim is willing to receive diya or blood money. In this case, the Iranian mother refused to receive anything. It was just that an act of compassion dawned upon her that day. Thus, the man who killed her son was saved from the gallows.

By the way, who could be the person that should have asked for blood for the killing of her son than the said mother? She was the one who bore him for nine months and saw her son grow up. And with the violence perpetrated against her son, everything was lost. That woman’s act of forgiveness is indeed rare.

Incidentally, when we say that mercy permeates creation, there is a direct allusion to any mother and the womb she carries. There is another hadith that says that the word “rahm” or womb derived its name from Arabic word rahman or mercy. In the said hadith, Allah said: “I will keep relation with the one who keep good relation with the womb.”

The first entity of creation in man is by itself named or associated with mercy. Of all entities, it is the womb, which is the place of the first stage of creation. This is why we said mercy is primordial in man. Creation gains existence from the Divine Word “kun” or Be! It is sustained through the nafs rahmani, the Breath of the All-Merciful. In the level of man, the idea of nafakha (breathing) is sustained through the Ruh (Spirit) as mentioned in one of Qur’anic verses above.

Virtue of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness is intrinsic in both creation and man. In certain context, the call for some governments to institute shari’ah and hudud is understandable. But that should not diminish the primordiality and universality of mercy and compassion. What kind of world we live in when the people we possibly meet are burdened with their hands cut-off or parts of their body severed? Why don’t we remind ourselves about man’s innate quality as essentially compassionate, merciful, and forgiving?

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 09 May 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]