Thursday, October 15, 2009

Islam and Forgiveness

I saw a post underneath a video trailer for the new movie "The Stoning of Soraya M." This post said among other things. "I believe the Muslim society shows no forgiveness". This is just plain wrong. Forgiveness is recognized as a virtue in the Koran, and there are specific criteria explaining when it is permitted and encouraged. The famous commandment about cutting off hands for stealing, for example, is supposed to be carried out ONLY if the thief refuses to ask for forgiveness. It's true that there are lots of people raised as Muslims who do not live up to this ideal. There are also Christians who called out for the Blood of Tookie Williams, and would not let him live out his life sentence in prison, even though he had clearly repented his past actions and was doing everything he could to make amends for them. The worst Muslims do not define Islam, and the worst Christians do not define Christianity.

One of Islam's great contributions to moral reasoning is that they use a three part distinction where most other religions use two. Instead of dividing actions into Good and Evil, Islam make a distinction between actions which are 1) Forbidden 2)Permitted and 3)Blessed. When someone has been wronged, they are permitted to ask for justice, but it is considered blessed to forgive.

I really like this distinction. When I was a Christian, I was frustrated by the fact Christianity required far more from us than anyone could ever possibly give. As Nietzsche and Ayn Rand pointed out, being a good Christian seemed to be a formula for self-mutilation. Muhammad perceptively realized that there are certain things that people must never do under any circumstances, such as murder or theft. However, he also realized that there was more to being a spiritual person that just being a respectable citizen. With the concept of blessed action, he gave people the opportunity to be called to moments of spiritual greatness, recognizing that this opportunity would encourage people to frequently rise above the minimum. It was one more example of his recognition of the principle that there should be no compulsion in religion. If you give people an opportunity to be exceptionally good, they will often take it. If you try to force them to be good, all you produce is backsliders and hypocrites. It's a shame that so many contemporary "Islamic" states have forgotten this.

Reading articles and comments on The Roman Polanski case reminded me of this distinction. Many people have pointed out that Polanski's victim has publically forgiven him, and said that she sees no reason to send him to jail. Others have replied by saying that this makes no difference. According to Western Law, he has committed a crime against the state, and therefore her forgiveness is irrelevant. I am told, however, that according to Sharia Law, if a criminal asks his victim for forgiveness, and the victim grants it, sentences can be reduced or eliminated. Is this why so many people say that Western and Islamic values are incompatible? Because Muslims are not as violent and vengeful as Westerners?


  1. forgiveness is a great part of Islam; in Islam it is said that allthough a person has a right for an eye for an eye, yet it is better to forgive and return good for evil

  2. Thanks for this comment. I am glad to see that somebody is actually reading these. Coincidentally, I was planning on expanding this blog entry, so this comment gives me the opportunity to do that. I'm going to put that expansion in the main post, however, in hopes that more people will see it.

  3. There are 3 types of "Justice" systems in the Quran
    1) Retributive Justice---punishment in proportion to the crime
    2) Deterrent Justice---threat of severe punishment to deter crime---punishment rarely implemented.
    3) Restorative Justice---focus is not on punishment but on reconciliation of victim and offender. Mercy/forgiveness and or compensation of harm play a major part in this form of justice.