God’s Mercy and Forgiveness – Part 1 (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

Although, the Qur’an mentions only one “Lailat-ul-Qadr” which occurs in the month of Ramadaan, a vast majority of Muslims celebrate another one in the month of Shabaan which is famously known as “Shab-e-Baraat.” The Persian term “Shab-e-Baraat” means “Night of Kismet” in English and “Lailat-ul-Qadr” in Arabic. [Generally “Qadr” is translated as destiny. For a more in-depth meaning of “Qadr” please see a two part article on “Taqdir”, MONITOR, March/April 1997, pp.6-9; and June/July 1997, pp. 6-9.]

This Night of Kismet or destiny is of special significance in the landscape of Islam especially for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. My journey towards an understanding of God’s mercy and forgiveness began a long time ago during one such night of “Shab-e-Baraat” that left its indelible marks in my mind forever.

The Night of Kismet

I still remember very vividly the details of how I spent that night. I was still very young, may be eleven or twelve years old. After the ‘Isha prayer, we started praying nafl prayers. The Imam had told us that this was a very special night. Those who spend this night praying and asking for Allah’s forgiveness would be forgiven.

The Imam also emphasized that every one’s kismet is also decided this night until the next year’s Night of Kismet. Who will gain Allah’s reward and who will incur His wrath; who will be good and who will be bad; who will be healthy and who will be sick; who will live and who will die are all decided this night. Who will go to Heaven and who to Hell (if one were to die in the coming year) is also decided this night. “Essentially, everything is decided this night for the coming year. Praying this night pleases Allah very much. So, pray as much as you can”, the Imam told every one. And that’s the reason I was busy praying, when suddenly, I heard a voice informing every one that tea is ready. It was around midnight.

Heavenly Feeling – on Earth

Apparently, some people wanted to make this night a little enjoyable for the worshippers. To me, it really felt good. Especially since we were sitting in the open courtyard of the mosque, sipping hot tea prepared on firewood in the middle of the night under a clear night sky shining with stars. The garden in the courtyard was full of different kinds of flowers and a gentle breeze suffused with all their fragrances made the atmosphere very serene and sublime. I became totally mesmerized by the wholeness of the occasion and I lost (complete) sense of time and space. This heavenly feeling had lifted my spirits. I was savoring this heightened state of awareness when suddenly I heard a call that it is now time to start our journey to visit the various community cemeteries. My mind’s subliminal journey into the heavens was thus suddenly interrupted.

There were three cemeteries in our town. We visited each one of them. We recited Fateha and prayed for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness for the souls of our departed ancestors. We came back to the mosque for a final prayer and then we went to our homes. By the time I reached my home, it was three in the morning.

When I went to bed I could not go to sleep. I was still overwhelmed by the events of the night. So, my mind started on another journey into what I can better describe now as the metaphysical world in search of truth.

Searching for Truth

I had done everything sincerely. (As a child, I did not have any motives or self-interest, nor did my parents pressure me in any way.) But somehow, I was not sure whether or not my kismet had been decided that night. Obviously, I had hoped for only good things to come my way but I was not sure. I started thinking about the rich people in the community. Are they not interested in God’s mercy and forgiveness? Most of them stayed home that night. Some came to the mosque but they left after the ‘Isha prayer and the fund raising. The management of the mosque always took advantage of the large turn out on this night to do some fund raising.

I remember when the Imam exhorted people to donate money to the mosque, he stressed that they will be donating it to Allah. “Allah will be very pleased with you and reward you amply in the hereafter for your generosity here in this world. Allah will build palaces in Heaven ready for you to occupy, and you will enjoy the company of beautiful women,” the Imam emphasized. I recall that many people who never prayed except possibly Jumm’a or Eid, came that night. But most of them went home after the ‘Isha prayer.

Lying in my bed and not being able to sleep, several thoughts started to cross my mind. Are there two ways of earning the pleasure of God: one for the poor, and the other for the rich? Since the poor do not have any extra money (they even go hungry many times), they obviously cannot donate money. Those who stayed in the mosque and prayed and visited the cemeteries were almost all poor. So, in a way, they were trying to earn the rewards of Allah by their prayers and penance. Those sleeping in their nice and comfortable homes, it seemed, were trying to buy Allah’s rewards by money. I was wondering why rich people enjoy all life’s pleasures and comforts here on earth and are also promised pleasure and comfort of Heaven in the hereafter. Is it fair or just? I was wrestling with this question when the next thing I remember is that my mom was waking me up and asking me to hurry up and get ready for school.

The question of justice and fairness stuck in my mind. I did not have an answer then. I simply thought in my mind that God is merciful and forgiving. He deals justice in His own ways, which cannot be understood. But whenever (and this was quite often) I was dissatisfied with something unfair or unjust in the society, my father (May Allah bless his soul) used to say: ” Son, have faith in Allah. He is watching every thing and will take care of it. Our job is to please him with our prayers. The rest is up to Him. He is all forgiving and all merciful.”

But my mind was curious to know: How to be forgiving and merciful without being unjust and unfair to any human being. This question always remained in my mind as I continued on my life’s journey in search of truth. To my surprise and discomfort this journey also led to many other questions in my mind. It seemed to be a never-ending process.

One Journey Ends, Another Begins

Thanks to Allah, my curiosity still continues to find the truth concerning anything about Islam for myself. This journey has been rather heart wrenching and difficult. It touched my emotions and jolted my deep feelings. It questioned my traditional beliefs and challenged age-old customs. It disturbed my self-created physical and mental comfort zones. It induced mental storm and caused psychological turmoil. In short, this journey has not been easy. But I have come to the conclusion that this is the only way to search for the truth.

Conforming to the status quo is easy; challenging it is difficult. Flowing with the main stream does not require any effort; going against the flow is a daunting task. Following the majority (called Ijma’a in Shariah terminology) blindly does not require any mental energy; challenging it requires all the energy which the human mind can muster. Therefore, the search for truth is a consuming mental task. This cannot be done without an unwavering conviction that is based on deep knowledge and firm understanding. This requires a lot of patience and tolerance as well as an ample dose of perseverance. But the most important thing and an extremely comforting aspect is that this is the way our Prophet (PBUH) did it. So, this is the way we should do it.

Let us now move on to the main question of mercy and forgiveness.

There are many situations in life in which we are faced with difficulty, and have to figure out what forgiveness really is, and how sins are forgiven. Obviously, we would like to believe that God forgives the sins of Muslims if they sincerely repent for their sins. But what do we mean by sincere repentance? Does it involve reciting the words “Astaghfir-u-Allah” several times after our prayers for sins to be forgiven? Or is there more to it than that? What is the meaning of Tauba? And how is one sure that one’s Tauba has been accepted? Is there any objective standard? These are the questions that naturally arise (and should arise) in any thoughtful and curious mind. We will have to analyze the topic in-depth to find satisfactory answers to these questions. But as a first step towards that end, let us present several scenarios, which might cause us to reflect on this question of God’s mercy and forgiveness a little more deeply. This has been done mainly to drive home that real life involves real people with real incidents involving real victims. Therefore, forgiveness cannot be something imaginary and disassociated from real life and we cannot brush it aside and move on by saying, ‘Allah knows best’ or ‘Allah has His own ways.’ If we do that, then we will be defeating the main purpose of the Qur’an, which was sent to solve the challenges and real problems facing humanity (4:105, 10:57, 10:108, 14:1, 14:52, 16:44, 17:89, 18:54, 39:27, 39:41, 45:20). We must keep this fact in our minds all the time.

Real Scenarios, Real Questions, and Real Victims

  1. A Muslim is engaged in a business, which involves selling or buying alcoholic beverages. He is honest and hardworking. He prays, fasts, and gives Zakat regularly. He performs Hajj as well. In other words, he practices the five pillars. But in his heart he feels that he is committing sin because of the nature of his business. So, he asks for God’s forgiveness. He thinks that his pieties in religious matters are sufficient to outweigh his sin due to his business. Is he justified in his thinking?
  2. Two Muslims are engaged in some business activities. One is honest and hardworking, the other is not. The hard working Muslim consequently has a hard time meeting the basic needs of his family. The not-so-honest Muslim is flourishing economically and donates a lot of money for charities and performs Hajj annually. He believes that his sins due to not being honest will be forgiven. Will his sins be forgiven?
  3. A son is fighting a court battle over a business concern and some expensive properties left by his father with an associate and friend of his father closely involved with the business. His father’s friend is very powerful and has well-established connections with authorities. He uses bribery and personal connections to influence the decision in his favor. He prays and asks for forgiveness from God for his sins. He even builds a Mosque and furnishes it with expensive chandeliers and carpet for the comfort of the worshippers. He believes that he will get continuous flow of rewards after his death and that all his sins will be forgiven. Is he justified in his belief?
  4. A Muslim dies with his entire family in an accident. A particular member of the family is in a position to facilitate the recovery of the wealth left by the deceased family. He gets the approval of the rest of the relatives to legally acquire all the material and financial assets in his own name on the condition that he will distribute them equitably according to the injunctions of the Islamic Shari’a. After acquiring the assets, he keeps the entire wealth for himself. He even gets a fatwa from a Mullah in his favor. (These days one can get fatwa for almost anything.) He is also very particular in practicing the five pillars of Islam. He, therefore, believes that he will be forgiven for any sins on the day of judgement. Will Allah really forgive him no matter how much he prays and no matter how many times he performs Hajj?
  5. A Muslim king is kind and warm-hearted except that he does not allow any opposition to his rule. He keeps his people economically very happy. They are free to pray and practice the five pillars based on the Shari’a proposed by the clergy and endorsed by the king. He even distributes free copies of the Qur’an. The king thinks (and is supported by the clergy’s fatwa) that all his sins (like gambling, drinking, womanizing etc.) will be forgiven because of his services to Islam. Will it be so on the day of judgement in front of Allah?
  6. Many Muslims mistreat their wives. There are many religious and so-called pious Muslims among them. They offer regular prayers and ask for Allah’s mercy and His forgiveness. Will they be forgiven for their mistreatment of woman?
  7. Many Muslims don’t spend sufficient time with their families. They seem to be too busy with their jobs and careers. Whenever they face some serious family problems and difficulties (or when they get sick), their belief in God’s eternal mercy and forgiveness springs up in their heart. They ask for forgiveness from God for their lack of attention to the family. Will they be forgiven?
  8. Many Muslims especially in Muslim countries (although it happens elsewhere as well) practice polygamy. Almost none of these men marry widows, divorcees, or orphans as prescribed by the Qur’an (4:3). They mostly marry young and beautiful girls or women. They shower all their love and affection on the younger wife and neglect and are even rude to their older wives. Most of these men are rich and also religious. They pray regularly and give charity. Being very religious they always pray for Allah’s forgiveness for their sins, if any. Will Allah forgive their sins?
  9. A Muslim man rapes an innocent and helpless girl. He threatens her to keep quiet about this incident. After several years the man falls sick with a deadly disease. Seeing signs of death he suddenly remembers the sin he had committed. He does not know where that girl is or what happened to her. He asks for Allah’s forgiveness for his sins. Will Allah forgive his sins?
  10. A Muslim girl employee is raped by her Muslim employer. She reports it to the authorities. They ask her to produce four eyewitnesses who can testify on her behalf. Since the employer raped her in a closed room when no one was around, she fails to produce any eyewitnesses. The authorities then sentenced her to be lashed. In the mean time she is raped again by the men who were supposed to guard her. The girl is released after receiving eighty lashes. The men who raped her get away with this heinous crime. They even go to their respective mosques and pray for God’s forgiveness. What kind of forgiveness do they deserve? Will there be any forgiveness for them for what they did?
  11. Let us suppose in the above scenario that the girl’s mother finds later that her daughter is pregnant. The girl’s parents feel ashamed. They don’t trust her explanation and even accuse her of shaming the family name. The girl falls into a deep depression and commits suicide. The girl’s parents are shocked and distraught especially after they find out that their daughter was an innocent victim. They cry and ask for forgiveness and mercy from God for not believing their daughter and causing her to take her life. Will God forgive the parents?
  12. The above scenario happens among some very religious Muslim families in Muslim as well as non-Muslim countries. Lately, the so-called “honor killing” has been attracting western media attention as well. Many girls have been murdered without proper investigation to find the truth. Not only that, many of these girls have been deceptively lured back home by their family members with the promise that they would not be harmed in any way but, in fact, were brutally murdered once they came home. These family members think that they have preserved the dignity and honor of the family by killing their daughters. They even pray for God’s forgiveness and mercy on the souls of their dead daughters. Will the prayers of those who murder their daughters in the name of family honor be heard? What about the murderer(s)? Will he (they) be honored by Allah or punished by Him on the day judgement?

Dear sisters and brothers! The above scenarios do happen in practice. There is a good chance that they may be happening somewhere right now. Therefore, these are not fictitious stories. In fact, many of us (or someone we know) may be going through (or have gone through) similar episodes in life. It is impossible for any one (with a sensitive heart) to go through the list and not be emotionally moved by it and, in the process, even shed some tears. (Please take few moments from your busy schedules and allow yourself to feel the pain and suffering of other fellow human beings and let the tears (if any) gently drop. This is a good Sunna to practice since our Prophet (PBUH) often used to cry for the pain and suffering of others.)

But, as much as our hearts may weep due to this terrible injustice (perpetrated especially against woman), we cannot just leave it to the Mullahs and religious scholars to solve these problems. No problem can be solved without the participation of the people affected by it. But this requires knowledge.

Importance of Knowledge

The first and the most important prerequisite for solving any problem is to acquire knowledge. Our Prophet (PBUH) always prayed to Allah to increase his knowledge (20:114). He commanded us to acquire knowledge even if we have to go to China (implying far off places). Allamah Iqbal says:

“The search for rational foundations in Islam may be regarded to have begun with the Prophet himself. His constant prayer was: ‘God! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things!” [The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p.2]

Therefore, all of us have to acquire knowledge and not be dependent upon others all the time. We actually do understand this when it comes to worldly knowledge. But as soon as we come to Islam, we start looking for others (especially the so-called professional Islamic scholars) to guide us. As a result, we generally feel helpless to make any real creative and intellectual analysis and diagnosis of any problem facing the Muslim Ummah. Instead, we start quoting names of present and past Islamic scholars without even trying to understand the underlying causes and the nature of the problem ourselves.

Dear brothers and sisters! Unless we, ourselves, go deep and dig further, we will never be able to answer the fundamental questions posed earlier. Let us take for example the central question arising out of all the scenarios presented above. The central question revolves around the concept of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Therefore, once we understand the real concept of God’s forgiveness and His mercy, many of the problems that cause confusion and contradiction in our minds will automatically be cleared up. The only way to do that is to go back to the Qur’an and find out from it the true concept of God’s forgiveness. There is no other way to find THE TRUTH about it.

Qur’anic Concept of God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

So, let us go to the Qur’an then. The Qur’anic word Ra’hmah is usually translated as mercy, and Ma’ghfirah as forgiveness. And that is where the problem lies. Because, instead of understanding the root meanings of these Arabic words, we start building superstructures based on the concept of mercy and forgiveness that are alien to the spirit (and are Christian concepts) of Islam. The word Rah’mah comes from the root r-h-m which means a mother’s womb. The child’s growth and nourishment under the protective, yet flexible, shield of the mother’s womb gives us a true picture of God’s Rah’ma. The mother nourishes the child with her blood without expecting anything in return. (She even puts her life on the line in this process.) This process of gradual and timely nourishment, in order to develop and actualize the latent potential, is called Ra’hmah.

The words Maghfirah, Istighfar, Ghafoor, and Ghaffar all come from the root Gh-f-r, which means to protect. (Mighfar is the protective shield worn by soldiers.) So, Maghfirah means, first of all, admitting that something wrong has taken place. Then, in the heart, developing a desire and a will to do something about it in order to seek protection from the adverse circumstances. So, a corrective action is involved here and not just verbal recitation of few words. One more point is important here: the person and his deeds cannot be separated. It is not that his bad deeds are washed away from his personality and then he goes to Allah without his bad deeds. In fact, the Qur’an says that every one’s entire life’s deeds (good and bad) will be hanging in one’s neck on the day of judgement and every one will be held fully accountable for all the deeds (17: 13-14, 75:13-15).

Sisters and brothers! We are far from a proper understanding of the Qur’anic concept of God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we have come to a point where it is time to take a break. I hope you have gotten a reasonable picture of my journey to find the truth about God’s mercy and forgiveness. However, many important questions and issues still remain to be discussed. This will be done in a future issue of MONITOR. But, in the meantime, I do request that you apply critical thought to the questions posed in this article. (You may be pleasantly surprised at your own potential for self-thought and understanding.) Please remember, developing the habit of independent and critical thinking is the Sunnah of our Prophet (PBUH) (34:46).

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