For many years, Zainab had been struggling to understand the true meaning of forgiveness. She was especially distressed whenever she thought about her father who had died in 1973. He was someone she loved more than anyone in the world. But sadly, Zainab’s father was afflicted by an addiction: gambling.
Zainab believed, according to her religion Islam, that Allah, the loving Creator, prohibited certain actions to Muslims because those actions had the potential for the most harm. Gambling was one of the most destructive among them. So Zainab could not reconcile her father’s beloved status with the abominable act he was committing.
But, it was life, and her father did what many people do: rationalize the wrong he was doing when, in fact, the wrong he committed affected everyone in his life. It caused Zainab’s family to be dysfunctional and had a disastrous effect on her mother. This unhappiness rained down from the mother onto her children. And though Zainab’s parents tried their best to hide their shame and to protect their children from this wrong, they fought constantly in the house.
Many a night Zainab would hide at the top of the stairs silently cowering and listening, as the battle raged below over the gambled money-whether won or lost. Her home was a scary place that she forever associated with emotional turmoil. In Zainab’s home, the rights that were given to the children by their religion were violated each time she and her siblings were exposed to the wrong and the undeniable harm it caused. Her one thought was to grow up and get away from that house, from the confusion, the humiliation, and the pain.
About six months before he died, her father quit gambling. At the time of his death, Zainab was 25, and she had already succeeded in getting as far away from home as possible. She came back for her father’s funeral, went through all the motions, but she didn’t shed a single tear. She could never understand why because she had loved her father so deeply.
Five years after Zainab’s father died, she finally dreamt of him. In her dream, there was a room full of people crowding around the bottom of a long staircase, anticipating her dad’s arrival. He was delayed upstairs for some reason. Earlier in the day, Zainab had agonized over what to wear-just as she always did in real life-but she finally borrowed the perfect dress from her friend for this special occasion of seeing her dad after so many years of being apart. With the arising of a loud hum of excitement, she looked up to see her father slowly descending the stairs. He was pale and sickly looking, but he never said a word as he made his way through the crowd. He came directly to Zainab and took her in strong arms, hugging tightly. The desperation of the greeting alarmed her.
The next thing she knew, her father had some sort of convulsion and he vomited all over the front of her dress. She tried to push him away, thinking foolishly only of the borrowed dress, but he held her and pulled her closer. Zainab straightened her arms, trying in vain to get out of the embrace. But then her dad had another convulsion. He seemed to be weakening and leaning on her for support. Responding, Zainab finally gave in. Ignoring the ruination of her dress, she held his weakened body, making sure he didn’t fall. When she awoke, she was squeezing her wet pillow and sobbing hard. For over thirty years to come, she wondered about the meaning of that dream.
Then one day she was reading how practicing Jews fasted on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and asked God to forgive them their sins of the past year. It was interesting to learn that they must also ask for forgiveness from anyone they might have harmed. Thinking of the harm she had suffered as a child, Zainab suddenly realized the meaning of her dream: her dad had come to ask for her forgiveness. This revelation was really a shock to her. For so many years, she had held anger and resentment rightfully against her dad. Yet now, forgiveness was being asked of her.
In fact, her own religion Islam placed a great emphasis on seeking forgiveness from other people for the harms one might have caused them. So putting herself in her father’s shoes, Zainab could easily understand why he needed to free himself of this burden.
Zainab began her journey toward forgiveness by realizing how important it is to ask for forgiveness from Allah. It comforted her to know that one of the 99 names of Allah is the Most Forgiving (Al-Ghafur). A hadith qudsi (those words of Allah on the tongue of his prophet that are not part of the revelation of the Quran) reads as follows: “Oh son of Adam, were your sins so great as to reach the clouds of the sky, and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith). She dared to think that even she might be forgiven for her sins. Then she pondered: doesn’t everyone want their sins forgiven?
Still struggling to free herself from anger and resentment, Zainab sought the advice of a Christian friend who directed her to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he encouraged his readers to understand that as God has forgiven us, so we must also forgive one another. Paul’s words, like the hadith qudsi, described forgiveness as a gift from God.
These words strengthened Zainab’s belief in the Most Forgiving (Al-Ghafur), but forgiving another had never been easy for Zainab and granting forgiveness felt so much heavier than asking for it. But in this case, she wanted reconciliation more than anything. She wanted to feel her heart whole (not divided) again, as she did as a child. She wanted to forgive her dad… if only she could.
Then, one night, as Zainab was making a supplication, she felt the warmth of God’s love gripping her heart, and she heard herself whisper effortlessly, “I forgive you, Dad.” In that overwhelming moment, Zainab experienced forgiveness as both an act of giving and a gift from Allah. For Zainab, the greatest favor she had sought from Allah was forgiveness, and it brought her the peace and reconciliation that she had desired.
Mary Lahaj has a master’s degree from the Hartford Seminary in Islamic Studies and Christian/Muslim Relations. She is currently the first Muslim woman chaplain at Simmons College in Boston, an all girls’ undergraduate Liberal Arts College.