Chapter 8: Repentance and Forgiveness

What can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 8: Repentance and Forgiveness

"There will be no peace in the world without peace between religions." This maxim of Hans Küng is well known. Recently I heard a Muslim friend add to it, ‘There will be no peace in the world without justice’ and ‘there will be no justice without forgiveness’. His remark stands in sharp contrast to the impression of many in the West that Islam is a harsh and punitive religion -- an impression fuelled by reports of women being stoned for adultery or thieves having a hand chopped off or criminals being flogged in some Islamic states.

These practices are condemned by many Muslims, who also condemn acts of terrorism. The popular impression of Islam in the West is unfair, as I have been at pains to point out. Almost every chapter of the Qur’an begins with the words, ‘In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.’ Even so, I have to admit that I was surprised when I read Mahmoud Ayoub’s words that ‘Repentance is an essential element of the Qur’anic world view’ or again that ‘repentance is one of the fundamental principles of Qur’anic theology and worldview.’

As I am writing this chapter on Ash Wednesday, repentance is an appropriate subject. The word most often used in the Qur’an for repentance is tawbah. Its basic meaning is turning. ‘While legally it signifies turning to God for forgiveness of a sin or act of disobedience, its primary sense of turning to God as a personal act of love and devotion, and not necessarily from a state of sin, is a more exalted and deeper level of repentance.’ The Prophet Muhammad, for example, whom Muslims believe to have been protected from all sin by God, is said to have declared ‘I turn to God every day seventy times.’ Repentance is more than just asking for forgiveness, it is a turning to God with sincere love and devotion. It includes awe in the presence of the Holy, awareness of sin and genuine remorse for it, regret over lost opportunities and a desire to amend one’s life. Yet this change of heart, as the Qur’an makes clear, can itself only be achieved by divine grace. Two other Arabic words used for repentance emphasize this wider meaning. Awbah has the sense of repeated returning to God with humility, devotion and praise and inabah signifies turning to God for help in total submission to his will.

The Qur’an has more than ninety words for sin or offences against God or fellow human beings. Yet there is no doctrine of original sin, although the human propensity to do evil is clearly recognized. As a just and moral sovereign, God is severe in punishment, but more important his mercy is repeatedly affirmed. ‘God is oft-forgiving and Most Merciful’ (5, 98). To despair of God’s infinite mercy is itself a grave sin. God says in the Qur’an, ‘O my servants who have transgressed against their souls, despair not of the Mercy of Allah, for Allah forgives all sins.’ (39, 53). It is a verse which is reminiscent of the sentiments in the hymn ‘Wilt thou forgive that sin?’ by the seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne. The poet lists his various sins which need forgiveness and then in a final verse confesses,

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But sear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

Shall shine, as he shines now and heretofore:

And, having done that, thou hast done:

I fear no more.

God’s mercy is affirmed in the hadith or traditions. It is said that ‘When God created the creation, He prescribed with His own hand for Himself, "my mercy shall overcome my wrath"’. Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, the Talmud says, ‘ "What does the Holy One, blessed be He, pray?" Rav Zutra bar Tovi said in the name of Rav, "May it be My will that My mercy suppresses My anger and that My mercy will prevail over My other attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice."’

Tradition in Islam speaks of God seeking the sinner and rejoicing at his repentance, as two examples vividly illustrate. In one it is said that ‘God is more joyful at the repentance of His servant when He returns to Him than one of you would be if he were upon his she-camel with his food and drink in an arid desert. She runs away from him, and he despairs of ever finding her. In desperation, he falls asleep in the shade of a tree. But when he awakes, he finds her standing beside him. With exceeding joy, he rushes to take her by the rope, exclaiming: "O God, you are my servant and I am your lord"; he erred from joy’. In another passage it is said, ‘God is more joyful at the repentance of His servant than a sterile man or woman who begets a child, an erring person who finds the right path, and a thirsty person who accidentally comes upon a source of refreshing water.’

On one occasion Muhammad, according to one of the Companions, Anas, said, Allah says: "When a servant of Mine advances to me by a foot, I advance to him by a yard and when he advances towards me a yard, I advance towards him the length of his arms’ spread. When he comes to me walking, I go to him running."’

Repentance or turning to God is prominent in the Sufi tradition. For the famous Persian Sufi master Hujwiri (d. c 1077), it is the first station of the traveler on the way to truth. For Sufis, the mystical life is a journey from God to the world of created things and back to God the creator of all things. This journey consists of acts of worship and obedience and a turning from carnal and worldly temptations. There is an ascetic strain in Sufism but also a deep sense of the love and mercy of God. Repentance is the means by which one is turned towards God. As Shaykh Ibrahim al-Daqqaq (d.1015 or 1021) said, ‘Repentance means that you should be to God a face without a back even as you have formerly been unto him a back without a face.’

The Shi’ite tradition with its more pessimistic view of human life sees sin as a primary cause of life’s troubles. Repentance, as Mahmoud Ayoub says, has therefore a redemptive significance and can help to lessen the evils in the world. Repentance should be expressed publicly through penitential liturgies.

Although, as I have suggested, there is much in Islam about God’s mercy, there is also clear teaching about a day of Judgement, when each person’s deeds will be weighed on an exact balance (7,8; 21, 47; 23, 103f; 101, 6-9) and the book of the record for each person will be opened (10, 61; 17, 13f; ). No one can help another person, each person is responsible for their own actions. Yet the possibility of intercession especially by Muhammad and later by angels and martyrs came to be accepted and modified this strict accounting.

The faithful are promised in the Qur’an the pleasures of affluence. ‘You and your spouses will enter Paradise and be glad. You will be served with golden plates and goblets. Everything the heart desires and that pleases the eye will be there, where you will abide for ever.’ (43, 70-71). Men will enjoy virgins with lovely eyes and swelling breasts (44, 54; 52, 20; 55, 72-76; 56, 34-37; 78,33). The great theologian Al-Ghazali claimed that the promise of sexual pleasure ‘was a powerful motivation to incite men... to adore God so as to reach heaven.’ I think myself that such imagery may easily be misunderstood and the self-immolation of suicide bombers makes one aware that the promise of heavenly rewards may be misused for political purposes. One of the early Sufis, Rabi’a of Basra (717-801) recognized that the vision of God was reward enough. ‘O my Lord’, she wrote, ‘if I worship Thee from fear of hell, burn me in hell; and if worship Thee from Hope of Paradise, exclude me thence; but if I worship thee for thine own sake, then withold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty.’

As for the wicked, the Qur’an says that they will burn ‘as long as heaven and earth endure’ (11, 106-7). There are two conditions attached to this. One is ‘except as Allah wills’ and the other, in the view of some theologians, is that the punishments are not eternal because the heavens and the earth as we see them are not eternal. Another verse says, ‘Those who deny Our revelations, we will roast in a fire. As often as their skins are consumed. We will give them fresh skins, so that they may taste the torment.’ (4, 56).

Imagery of heaven and hell is easily misleading, especially if taken too literally, as we are bound to use comparisons from this life which are not relevant to a life which we cannot imagine. The New Testament speaks of heavenly banquets and there are also grim warnings of hell where ‘the fire shall never be quenched, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9, 43-4 AV).

Both Christianity and Islam try to balance belief in both the justice and mercy of God. God’s justice is important, although it is not perhaps given adequate attention in modern Christian circles. The justice of God emphasizes moral responsibility -- that our behavior matters. It also suggests that there is redress in another world to the injustices and suffering of this world. Yet too easily pictures of God’s punishment of sinners can give a picture of a God of vengeance, which is especially dangerous when humans take it upon themselves to be agents of that vengeance. Umar ibn Khattab told of the occasion when some prisoners of war were brought to the Prophet. Among them was a woman who ran all over the place looking for her child. When she found it, she lifted it close toward her and suckled it. The Prophet then asked, "Can you imagine this woman throwing her child into the fire?" When his companions said, "No", Muhmmad said, "God is much more compassionate towards his servants that she is towards the child."’

The Qur’an suggests that those who appear before God after death are involved in deciding their own guilt or innocence. God will say to every person,

‘Read thine (own) record:

Sufficient is thy soul

This day to make out

An account against thee’ (17,14).

As the Saudi Arabian commentary says, ‘Our true accusers are our own deeds.’ The distinguished scholar Huston Smith explains, ‘What death burns away is self-serving defences, forcing one to see with total objectivity how one has lived one’s life. In the uncompromising light of that vision, where no dark and hidden corners are allowed, it is one’s own actions that rise up to accuse or confirm.’ In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he did not come to condemn the world. People condemn themselves by not coming to the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed (John 3, 17-20 and 12, 47-8).

In both religions there is the suggestion that in the presence of God, we shall gradually see our lives for what they are in the light of divine truth. Whether there is place for further repentance is not clear. As warners, neither Jesus nor Muhammad would have wanted to lessen the urgency of their call to repentance, yet both were deeply aware of divine mercy.

Sadly, the application of justice in some Islamic states does not reflect the compassion of God. As Farid Esack says, ‘The idea of an Allah who is compassionate and merciful is one that we need to retrieve in order to recapture Islam from those who insist that our faith and Allah are only about anger and vengeance.’ This is not to say that some so-called Christian countries are without fault. I find, for example, the continued use of capital punishment in the USA deeply disturbing.

The context in which Islam and Christianity influenced legal development was different. Unlike the early Muslims, the early Christians did not constitute a political entity or state, so they had no responsibility for framing or administering laws. Especially those who lived outside Palestine lived under the law of the Roman empire, which was not based on revelation, but was roughly in accordance with the ethico-legal parts of the Mosaic law. When in the fourth century the Roman Empire accepted Christianity as the official religion, there was no need to create a new system of law based solely on the teaching of the Bible. Christians, therefore, generally accepted that it was possible to reach a satisfactory legal system based on sound reason apart from revelation. Thus in both mediaeval and modern Western Christendom, although the laws were expected to be in accordance with biblical teaching, it was not considered necessary to show how a particular law was derived from scriptural texts.

This over-lapping of civil law and personal and family law, which in some countries is reserved to religious courts, may be illustrated by the fact that when I officiate at a wedding as a clergyman of the Church of England, I not only bless the couple as a priest, but also act in a legal capacity in registering their marriage. In the twentieth century there has been increased questioning of Christian moral teaching, but religious communities in Britain have not demanded separate legal systems for personal and family law. The courts have tried to adapt to a more multi-religious society by, for example, allowing the oath to be sworn on the scriptures of the faith community to which a witness belongs.

Islam by contrast was a political unit from very early days -- from Muhammad’s Hijra to Medina. Even so, it did not have to construct a system of law out of nothing. In general the customs of the nomadic Arabs prevailed even in the towns of Mecca and Medina, although customary practices did not entirely fit urban life. Where something was unsatisfactory, the Qur’an gave new rules and tried to limit tribal vengeance and blood feuds, but otherwise the situation was unchanged.

As the Islamic state grew into an empire, influential Muslims came to think that the legal system should be based on the Qur’an, which, as we have mentioned in chapter two, was interpreted in the light of the hadith or stories about the Prophet, analogy, precedent and the mind of the community. The great jurist ash-Shafi’i (d. 820) produced a theory of ‘the roots of law’, which gained wide acceptance. He showed how to interpret the Sunna and how to apply the rules of the Qur’an and the Sunna to new situations. In theory, therefore, it was possible to show how the whole legal system was derived from the God-given law, or Shari’a, revealed in the Qur’an. The legal system was therefore what is called theocratic -- it was based on the revelation of God, whereas the law of Christendom was primarily based on sound reason and, especially in English Common Law, precedent. For Christians sound reason and the revealed law of God should be in agreement. For example, in Britain both the Church and the law of the land make clear that marriage should be a lifelong commitment.

Shari’a was intended for a Muslim society. Provision was made for non-Muslims who were known as Dhimmi. Originally intended for People of the Book -- Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians -- this status came to refer to all non-Muslims living in a Muslim state.

Many colonial powers imposed Western legal systems on their empires. Some Muslim countries have retained or revised these, whereas others have reintroduced Islamic or Shari’a law. As has been mentioned, there are various schools of Shari’a. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Shari’a is based on the teaching of the Wahhabiya movement, which is ultra-conservative and puritanical. The Wahhabiya movement rejects centuries of development in Islamic legal thinking and is strict in its ban on luxury and on the introduction of non-Muslim or kafir practices, which in effect cover much of the behavior and life-style of modern Western societies. The movement also treats those Muslims who do not accept their teaching as heretics.

It is important, therefore, to recognize that cruel punishments such as stoning for adultery or amputation of a hand for theft, which are unacceptable to western opinion, are equally unacceptable to many Muslims. It is also helpful to remember that the Arab society in which Muhammad came to have political power was one of tribal rivalries. As Kenneth Cragg makes clear the bonds of blood and kin-relationship were transformed into a faith-based unity with a single worship and command. The Qur’an sought to limit private retaliation. Although it is still allowed this, it insisted that revenge, if exacted, must be strictly limited, and made clear that forgiveness or compounding for money were preferable (2, 178-9). Legal systems, based on the Qur’an tend to give greater weight to the injured party or his or her relatives than does British law. Nonetheless cruel punishments, wherever they occur, need to be challenged both in the name of God and in defense of human rights. True religion should emphasize the justice and mercy of God and seek to have this mirrored in human society.

This takes us back to the question of repentance and forgiveness. Most offences against another human being are also offences against God. This means that repentance addressed to God is necessary as well as compensation to the injured party.

If compensation is made and the repentance is genuine, is punishment still required? Maybe acceptance of punishment is a sign of contrition. It is interesting to compare stories of how Muhammad and Jesus dealt with a woman who had committed adultery. It is said that a woman who had committed this offence confessed to the Prophet and asked that she be duly punished, which meant being stoned. The woman was pregnant. The Prophet told her to go away and wait until the baby was born. In due course, she returned with the child in her arms and again asked for punishment. The Prophet sent her away again to nurse the child until it was weaned. The mother returned again leading her child who had a piece of bread in his mouth. Had the woman not returned and simply repented, she would have escaped punishment. But since she wished her sin to be expiated, the Prophet ordered that she be stoned to death. Afterwards he prayed over her and gave her an honorable burial. Umar B. al-Khattab, who was to become the second caliph, protested that Muhammad had prayed over a woman who had committed adultery. Muhammad replied, "But she had performed such a sincere act of repentance which, if it were divided among seventy inhabitants of Madina, it would suffice them. Is there anything nobler than her offering her life freely to God?"’

St John’s Gospel tells of a woman, caught in the act of adultery, who was brought to Jesus by some religious leaders who pointed out that the Law required her to be stoned. Jesus replied, "That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone." Gradually, one by one, the accusers went away. Jesus then turned to the woman and asked her, "Has no one condemned you?" "No", she replied. Jesus answered, "Nor do I condemn you. You may go; do not sin again."

Religious teaching focuses on the inner relation of the soul to God, which is known only to God. Legal systems have to focus on outward behavior. Neglect of prayers out of laziness and apostasy are offences, but the law has to be satisfied by an outward show of repentance. God’s verdict has to be left till the Day of Judgement. If punishment is carried out here on earth, the intention is to bring the recalcitrant person back to the community or to make him an example to others.

Where injury is caused to another person, the first requirement of the wrongdoer is that he should compensate the victim. The prophet, however, urged victims to offer forgiveness:

Let them forgive and overlook,

Do you not wish

That Allah should forgive you? (24, 22).

According to an early tradition, Muhammed advised, ‘If anyone would like God to save him from the anxieties of the Day of Resurrection, he should grant a respite to one who is in straitened circumstances or remit his debt.’ (Mishkat 12,9). Aisha reported that the Prophet said, ‘Avert the infliction of prescribed penalties on Muslims as much as you can, and let a man go if there is any way out, for it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing’. (Mishkat 16,1).

Any religious tradition is complex and the outsider especially should avoid quoting one verse or example as definitive for a religion’s teaching on a particular matter. It may be that in terms of Biblical texts and their guidance for behavior today, Christians are more willing to set them in a historical context, but most Muslims also read the revealed teaching in the context of the agreed interpretation of the community. Both faith communities to my mind need constantly to review moral teaching and behavior according to the highest ethical standards of the faith and rightly there should be criticism of any behavior that devalues other human beings.

Religions should have an important role in bringing the teaching of forgiveness to bear on situations of conflict, many of which are inflamed by long memories of cruelty and injustice. It was suggested at the time of the Millennium that Christians should apologize for the Crusades. The Churches, sadly, declined to make an official apology, although a few brave Christians went to the Middle East to do so. Acknowledgment of past wrong-doing is a step towards healing its continuing poison.

Faith communities have a particular opportunity to play a healing role during the process of peace-building. The most striking recent example is South Africa. Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said, ‘We here in South Africa are a living example of how forgiveness may unite people’. The example was set by Nelson Mandela. When he was released after twenty-seven years in jail, he declared that his mission was to the victim and the victimizer. ‘Our miracle’ Tutu continues, ‘almost certainly would not have happened without the willingness of people to forgive, exemplified spectacularly in the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela.’ It was recognized that the evils of the apartheid era had to be faced. A general amnesty, which would have amounted to amnesia was rejected, but also the Nuremberg option of the victors putting the vanquished on trial. The participation of white South Africans in the new nation was essential to its economic development. A third option -- a Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- was agreed. This was not like the one in Chile which was behind closed doors and on condition that General Pinochet and other members of the military junta were given amnesty. South Africa’s third way was ‘the granting of amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought.’ This dimension seems to have been lacking in the peace process in both Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine and there is little sign of it in former Yugoslavia.

There are many dimensions to forgiveness and these are increasingly being studied. Forgiveness is essentially a religious concept, although there are important differences of emphasis between religions. I agree with Desmond Tutu that ‘Without Forgiveness there really is no future’, which is the title of the final chapter of his book No Future Without Forgiveness. He recognizes that a papering over the cracks is a cheap peace that is no peace. ‘True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. . . People are not being asked to forget. . . Forgiveness means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss which liberates the victim.’ He ends the book by saying, ‘God wants to show that there is life after conflict and repression -- that because of forgiveness, there is a future’.

Where conflict is also a clash between members of different faiths, there is a responsibility on religious leaders to call for reconciliation. Indeed, wherever there is an abuse of human rights, injustice or violence, people of faith need to speak and act together, inspired by the teachings of their scriptures. Strikingly, one of first occasions in South Africa on which people of different faiths shared in reciting passages from their scriptures was in a prison cell. Members of different religions who had taken part in a protest against apartheid were arrested and locked up. They passed the time by reciting passages from the Bible, the Qur’an and the Hindu Vedas.