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God's Mercy and Forgiveness II

By: Dr. Mansoor Alam

"May God have mercy on his soul." "May God forgive his sins." "God is merciful." "God is forgiving." "God is compassionate." "God is gracious." "God is beneficent." These words are recited (mostly in our own mother tongues) to express our faith in God. In difficult moments we consciously (or unconsciously) pray for God’s Mercy or Forgiveness. This is true of all religions.

Muslims begin the recitation of the Qur’an with the opening verse (1:1) "Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem," translated as "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful" (Yusuf ‘Ali). They recite this verse before beginning any activity. Will its recitation, in itself, please God? Is the purpose just recitation? Or, does it involve some action as well? Muslim youth, especially those educated in the West, need answers to many basic questions pertaining to Islam. These questions have both intellectual and moral aspects, both of which need to be appropriately answered. One can not be ignored in favor of the other as the Qur’an addresses both. If we are able to do that then we can save them and consequently future generations from the anti-Islamic forces. To do that however, we need an absolute criterion for right and wrong, which can only be the Qur’an (Al-Furqan).

Absolute Truth -- Al-Qur’an

The Qur’an contains the absolute Truth revealed by God to humanity that exists today in its original form. (No other book revealed by God exists in its original form today.)

Furthermore, Al-Qur’an is the only revealed Book that Allah has personally taken the responsibility to protect (15:9). It is unchangeable (6:34, 18:27, 10:64). It is the only book that can not be challenged (10:38, 11:13, 52:34). It is complete (6:115). Nothing essential has been left out of the Qur’an (6:38, 6:59, 10:61, 34:3). There is no doubt in it (2:2, 10:37, 32:2). And those who do not judge by what Allah has revealed (i.e., Al-Qur’an) are Kafirs (Unbelievers) (5:44).

Allah says in the Qur’an:

And say: "The Truth is from your Lord." Then whosoever wills, let him believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve. (18:29) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

[There are many verses in the Qur’an proclaiming it to be the only absolute Truth from Allah, e.g., please see verses 2:147, 2:252, 3:3, 3:60, 6:5, 6:66, 6:115, 8:32, 10:94, 10:108, 11:120, 13:2, 13:19, 17:105, 27:79, 28:3, 28:53, 32:3, 34:6, 34:43, 34:49, 35:31, 39:2, 39:41, 43:30, 45:6, 47:2, 57:16, 60:1].

So, we should use all our knowledge and sound reasoning to attract our youth to Islam in light of the absolute truth contained in the Qur’an. Our Prophet (PBUH) did not invite people to Islam with stories and rituals but on the basis of knowledge.

Say you (O Prophet (PBUH)): "This is my way; I invite unto Allah (i.e. to the Oneness of Allah -- Islamic Monotheism) with sure knowledge, I and whosoever follows me (also must invite others to Allah i.e. to the Oneness of Allah -- Islamic Monotheism) with sure knowledge." (12:108) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

To force acceptance of something simply because "a famous scholar said so" is against the spirit of this verse. Famous personalities in themselves (from past and present) are not authorities. This is what the above verse implies.

Muslim Youth and Their Questions

Our youth are the future of Islam. In order to move forward, they ask some basic questions about our current practice of Islam. They ask, is there any sanctity associated with recitation of Qur’anic words, even without understanding them? Should only the recitations of Muslims be acceptable to God? If yes, then is this not unfair to many non-Muslims who are better in action and behavior than many Muslims? What is the criterion for receiving God’s Mercy and Forgiveness? Should it depend only on customs and religious rituals?

They might further ask: what exactly is the meaning of God's Mercy? In what way are we related to God and how are we affected by His laws? Is God's mercy individual or collective or both? Is it objective or subjective? Is it qualitative or quantitative? Is God’s Mercy and Forgiveness universal or will only certain chosen people benefit from it?

Status Quo versus Change

To answer above questions we have to reflect on our current practice of Islam. According to the Qur’an, Islam is not a private subjective relationship between man and God. Allah addresses Muslims collectively and not individually. God’s Mercy and Forgiveness should, therefore, be sought collectively and not individually. Islam teaches us to sacrifice individual self-interests for the sake of the common good of the Muslim community.

But the majority of religious scholars and their followers teach us concept of God’s Mercy and Forgiveness that is based on subjective and private relationship between human beings and God. This has taken on the form of rituals now. Rituals give us self-satisfaction, which makes us resistant to any change. Any one who wants to change the status quo incurs the wrath of the established orthodoxy.

Supporters of status quo do not allow freedom of enquiry, which the Qur’an encourages so much. They justify their positions as professionals and custodians of Islam by comparing it with the medical profession. (The argument goes like this. When you have a medical question, you go to a doctor. So, when you have a religious question, you should go to a religious scholar.) No doubt medicine is a noble profession (although it has changed over the years). Islam, however, is not a profession. As a matter of fact, our religious institutions are mainly responsible for turning Islam into profession. Our Prophet (PBUH) and the Sahaaba (R) did not practice Islam as a profession. They practiced Islam as a coherent and integrated system, which covered every aspect of life of the Muslims as an Ummah, whether political, economic, healthcare, social, judicial, and military. God’s Mercy and Forgiveness, therefore, can not be sought outside this integrated system.

Present Difficulties

A digression from our topic may poignantly illustrate some of the difficulties we are faced when challenging the status quo. Many Islamic scholars insist that changing the status quo is a deviation in religion. Actually Muslims, whether practicing or not, have a deep love of Islam and the Prophet (PBUH). So, how can they even think of deviating from it? What these scholars, therefore, mean to say is that no one is allowed to deviate from their version of Islam. For example, if he happens to be a Sunni scholar then Shi’ias will be the deviated ones in his opinion, and vice versa. Even among the Sunni sect, various sub-sects call each other deviated. They go to the extent of calling each other Kafirs (Unbelievers). In fact, they even resort to violence and murder (recent events in Pakistan and elsewhere provide proof of this).

Thus the whole idea of preserving status quo by Islamic scholars is obviously meant to introduce dictatorial authority and control over their followers. It is sad to note that the majority of our religious scholars use this as a threat against those (e.g., Sir Syed, Iqbal and Quaide Azam Jinnah) whose interest is none other than to improve the political, economic, and the social conditions of the Muslim masses. Instead of changing themselves, these scholars change the message of Allah. This attitude of majority of our Islamic scholars forced Iqbal to say:

"Khud badalte nahin Qur’an ko badal dete hain
Huay kis darja faqeehane haram be taufeeq" (Transliteration from Urdu)

"These scholars do not change themselves, but they change the Qur’an (by their interpretations). To what degree have these so called experts of Shari’ah been degraded."

(Author’s translation from Urdu)

"Ehkaam tere haq hain magar apne mufassir
Taaweel se Quran ko bana sakte hain Pazhand" (Transliteration from Urdu)

"O Allah! Your Book of Guidance is no doubt The Truth; but our interpreters of the Qur’an can turn it into Pazhand* by their interpretations."

(Author’s translation from Urdu)

[* Pazhand is the book compiled by Zoroastrians which, according to them is the interpretation of Avesta, the original book given by Zoroaster. His followers inserted their own thoughts that suited them and changed the original book to serve their interests.]

Importance of Change

According to the Qur’an (13:11), no change in the external world will ever occur unless we change our mental attitudes, our psychology and our present thinking. On the other hand, Islamic scholars keep bombarding the Muslim masses with the concept that Allah does everything and nothing happens without His permission. If this is so then why has Allah permitted the slaughter of millions of Muslim Bosnians, Kosavars, Kashmiris, Palestinians, etc? The simple fact of the matter is that we have been very selective in matters of Islam. We select what appeals to us and reject the rest like the Jews and the Christians (2:85). We have to enter Islam completely (2:208) if we are to receive Allah’s Mercy and His forgiveness. We have ignored our primary obligations and responsibilities towards Islam, which requires change and we put too much emphasis on maintaining isolated rituals. We do not want to change our present system (which was developed by kings, capitalists, and religious scholars mainly during the Abbasid dynasty). This is what we are practicing today and the results speak for themselves. Allama Iqbal has termed this version of Islam as ‘Ajami Islam or Persianized Islam. He says:

"…during the course of history the moral and social ideals of Islam have been gradually de-Islamized through the influence of local character, and pre-Islamic superstitions of Muslim nations. These ideals today are more Iranian, Turkish, or Arabic than Islamic…The only alternative open to us then is to tear off from Islam the hard crust which has immobilized an essentially dynamic outlook on life, and to rediscover the original verities of freedom, equality and solidarity with a view to rebuild our moral, social and political ideals out of their original simplicity and universality."

[Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, second edition, jointly published by Iqbal Academy Pakistan and Institute of Islamic Culture, page 124.]

Our condition has been deteriorating globally for the past thirteen hundred years. In fact, this has accelerated recently even as our numbers have sharply increased. If collectively we are not receiving His mercy and forgiveness, then how can we expect to receive it individually? The only way we can find out whether or not we are receiving God’s Mercy and Forgiveness is to look at our own condition.

If a tree is to be recognized by its fruits, then the fruits we are reaping today are pretty bad indeed. If the enemies of Islam say (and they do say) that this tree (i.e. Islam) itself is bad then how should we respond to them? It seems we do not have the courage to tell them: taste the fruits and find out the answer for yourselves. Perhaps we are afraid that we will be forced to face the reality since we are not producing the same fruits as our Prophet (PBUH) and the Sahaabah (R). So, we put even more emphasis on rituals and feel satisfied that we have fulfilled our obligation. Rituals by their very nature are quantitative (i.e., reciting something a certain number of times) and subjective (i.e., establishing a private relationship with God). But to receive the Mercy and Forgiveness of Allah we will have to establish strong relationship with His law of action and its result (i.e., if we want to change the result we will have to change our action). In a nutshell, we have to follow God’s law of Tauba.

Meaning of Tauba (Repentance)

Every Arabic word has a root meaning. Just as the root of a tree is its most important part, so is the root meaning of every Arabic word. All the words derived from a single root reflect its root meaning although they may vary in shades and flavors. In order to understand the meaning of any Arabic word, we must first of all understand its root meaning.

The root of Tauba is t-w-b. Suppose you are travelling somewhere and by mistake you took a wrong turn. After some time you realized that you are travelling on the wrong path. After this awareness, the first thing you will do is to return to the place from where you took the wrong turn -- this process is called Tauba in Arabic. The word repentance does not fully reflect the root meaning of Tauba. Repentance may or may not involve any action. In fact, the way we practice repentance nowadays is by recitation and prayer. But Tauba requires action and change. Only good deeds can compensate bad deeds (11:114). This is Allah’s law. And Allah does not change His law for any one (48:23).

So, Tauba is not a ritual but a process that requires real change. We have to change our present course and return to the point from where we took the wrong turn. Then we will have to focus our minds collectively towards one and only one destination (i.e., Qibla) (not just bodily but mentally, psychologically and politically as well) together in submission to the Will of Allah. (And the Will of Allah is contained in His Book, the Qur’an and no where else (18:29, 65:5).) Then Allah guarantees that His Mercy will start flowing which will provide the necessary and timely nourishment for the body of the Muslim Ummah to develop and grow, flourish and produce fruits. (Please see the root meanings of Rahmah (Mercy) and Istighfar (Forgiveness) in the May/June 1999 issue of the MONITOR, pages 9-14.) If we stick, on the other hand, with our present corrupted system based on ‘Ajami Islam, we will be left behind to be tossed and turned, to be beaten and burned. (The problems mentioned in the various scenarios presented in part I of this article are the result of this ‘Ajami Islam that we are practicing today.) Then all our wealth and effort will be of no use to us here and all our prayers and sacrifices will be of no use to us in the hereafter. Allah says that those who are blinded here will be blinded in the hereafter as well (17:72). We have to follow the Qur’an the way our Prophet (PBUH) did. That is, we have to do (not read) our part first and only then will Allah do His part.

Mercy and Forgiveness in Numbers

It is clear from above that simply reciting the words "Ya Allah Tauba", "Yarhamu Kumullah", and "Astaghfirullah" is not sufficient for us to repent and to receive God’s Mercy and Forgiveness. However, Muslims have been led to believe that reciting the words of the Qur’an (even without understanding) a certain number of times will bring God’s mercy and forgiveness. In fact, many Muslims have come up with sophisticated schemes for reciting different verses of the Qur’an a different number of times, on different occasions for solving different practical problems of life. [For example, by reciting Sura Al-Waqe’a 41 times one can remove poverty and hunger and can achieve one’s goal.] There is a mountain of books on this subject and plenty of pupils and teachers of this profession and they sincerely believe and practice it. [In fact, many religious people including Muslims often consider the numbers themselves sacred, e.g., 786 written on top of letters especially by Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.] It is of course a different matter whether or not the problems get solved and the rewards start coming. Many believe that if the rewards do not come here in this world then they will come in the hereafter. Since there is no way to check or prove the validity of this belief it appeals to people everywhere regardless of their religious affiliations.

We might ask the practitioners of this faith certain questions. What happens if someone recites more that the recommended number? Is the chance of getting the reward lost and does one have to start all over again? Is this purely a number game? Who has decided these numbers? And on what authorities have these numbers been decided? The Qur’an has not mentioned any of these short cuts for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. In fact, our Prophet (PBUH) and Sahaabah (R) struggled very hard in the path of Islam. The success of our Prophet (PBUH) and the Sahaabah (R) did not come easily. They had to fight more than eighty battles (big and small) during the Prophet’s lifetime. Why didn’t they use these techniques for achieving success against the enemies of Islam instead of going to battlefields to face these enemies?

Dear Brothers and Sisters! There are no short cuts to Islam. So let us not fool ourselves into believing that we can achieve Allah’s Mercy and Forgiveness through short cuts what our Prophet (PBUH) and Sahaabah (R) achieved through real hard work, constant struggle, dedicated perseverance, and selfless service to humanity. In a system based on the Qur’anic concept of Tauaba, Istighfar, and Rahmaah (as explained here and the previous article in the May/June 1999 issue of MONITOR, pages 9-14.) God’s Mercy and Forgiveness will flow like a river for the benefit of all, here as well as in the hereafter.