Forgiveness and Respect

Although I’ve written on this subject before, I find myself still continuing to regularly grapple with forgiveness and respect – for myself. 

Earlier today a friend posted something from a Christian site that I found to be very powerful and true for all of us, regardless of religion – or lack thereof.  It stated:

“true respect for another comes from self respect. True love for another comes from self love.   True forgiveness for another comes from self forgiveness.” 

How true this is.  We can’t actually connect to others or have any impact on others until we first deal with ourselves.  Jesus (as) is reported to have said in the Bible that we must take the plank of wood out of our own eye before we can comment on the speck of dust in another person’s eye.  But, in order to begin that process, we must first see ourselves honestly.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) said the one who knows himself knows God.  What does that mean?  It essentially means that knowing yourself opens the door to understanding the world around you and all that is in it.  You must truly know yourself before you can know others, and most certainly before you can truly know God.   

My friend also commented that she found the advice timely as she had been “beating (herself) up” over some past sins that God had long forgiven.  Her thoughts resonated with me because I often do the same thing.  Past sins and mistakes sometimes come hurtling back, hitting me like a runaway train, paralyzing me with shame, fear, and self-loathing, leaving me incredulous that I could have ever done such a thing. 

Yet I often wonder what role our past sins and mistakes should have in our lives.  We should not forget them altogether, because then we may not remember the pain and anguish we suffered through the experience, and the important lessons learned may quickly fade.  We may also find ourselves back in the same place again because we failed to keep in mind the small, seemingly inconsequential steps we took initially that eventually brought us to that horrid place.  Yet in contrast, if we always think about our past sins, we may render ourselves unable to pick ourselves up and move on, paralyzed by the shame and self-hatred.  In essence, we can’t forget our past but we also can’t get lost in it.  It’s a difficult balance to maintain.  

Further, if we lose ourselves in our past sins, we’ll be unable to forgive ourselves, which means we won’t be able to love ourselves, and certainly not respect ourselves.  And if we can’t do that, we will have great difficulty in doing that with others in a way that feels genuine and real to the other person.     Yet, if we easily forget our past and dismiss it quickly, self forgiveness, love, and respect may be shallow, and perhaps not even a conscious process, which may eventually lead to not being aware that we’ve messed up in the first place.  Our ethics with others may be superficial as well; fleeting, changing, insincere.  We will quickly find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, either wondering why it keeps happening, or perhaps simply accepting it as an uncontrollable way of life, part of our personality or environment.  And eventually, some may become completely unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and others may even begin to boldy defend their actions as something good.  

As human beings, we have a tendency to block out the bad things and remember only the good.  Think back to your own childhood or to any fond memory.  Chances are, it’s a warming, glowing, positive memory – with nothing negative clouding the view.  In fact, maybe someday you’ll look back on this moment in time right now with fondness, completely forgetting all the hardship and agony you may currently be facing!  So, it appears that we should actually make concerted efforts to remember the shameful, sinful things we’ve done and struggle retain what it felt like and how we got there – because otherwise… we’ll quickly forget. 

A careful balance is necessary though, because if we go too far, it will be difficult to hold our heads up high, speak with any confidence, or even feel worthy to have friends or other relationships.  Ali ibn Abu Talib (as) encouraged us to look at those less fortunate than us.  This doesn’t mean only financially, but in all other aspects as well.  If you keep your sights set on the big picture, you’ll have a more accurate view of yourself and how you fit in with the world around you.  Chances are, you aren’t that bad.  And even if, in the worst case, you ARE that bad, more than likely you aren’t bad in EVERYTHING in your life.  You probably have something not so bad, or perhaps…. even something good. 

You might think that you’re the only one you know with this particular situation so you have no one less fortunate to look to, but in that case, I would suggest looking online!  There are forums on every possible subject imaginable in which people, strengthened by the anonymity the internet provides, share their stories and experiences with more honesty and detail than they ever would in real life.  Reading the accounts of others is eye-opening.  If you still don’t find someone in a worse situation than you, at the very least you’ll find someone who is similar to you, which helps to make you feel not so alone, and – not so bad. 

So, we can’t forget what we’ve done… but we can’t let it destroy ourselves either.  As Hussain ibn Ali aptly stated, “Moderation is wisdom.”  And so it is.  Balance, moderation… this is the wisest – yet most difficult – path.

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Staying the Moderate Course

One of the challenges of living a balanced and healthy life is to constantly stay in the middle in all things – to not fall into the extremes of too much or too little.  Sometimes I find myself feeling satisfaction that I’m staying balanced in one area, but then have to remind myself to look at everything else in my life as inevitably something else is slipping into extremes!  It’s a constant struggle, which is what jihad is all about.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) told us that the struggle with the self is the greater jihad (jihad al akbar), as it is a constantly, daily condition that every single human being, rich or poor, powerful or insignificant, young or old, must face.  No one is immune and no one can escape it.

The Quran also reminds us to stay away from extremes:

“O you who have faith!  Do not prohibit the good things that Allah has made lawful to you, and do not transgress.” (5:87).

This is something incredibly important to remember as we look at the state of the world around us, particularly in so-called ‘Islamic’ countries and even in certain Muslim groups.  When I was a non-Muslim, I often wondered why on earth people in some of these countries would follow Islam after all the numerous oppressive restrictions it places on its adherents.  What I know now is that this severe restriction is not from Islam, but is from those who transgress the bounds of Islam by prohibiting the good things God has allowed for us!  In fact, the things that actually are prohibited have been expressly articulated in the Quran and by the Prophet, and constitute the exceptions, not the rule.  Everything is allowed except what has been specifically addressed.

Too often we make our lives too difficult in our zeal to please God, in an attempt to forsake everything for the hereafter.  Yet, God did not ask us to live a life of asceticism or extreme denial and hardship.  Rather, the true test lies in fully participating in life while balancing the very difficult tightrope of moderation.  Anyone who has tried to lose weight will know that it is much more difficult to stay away from sweets when you have cookies and cake in your kitchen as opposed to when you have no food in the house whatsoever!  Likewise, forcing yourself to have restraint and live life by partaking in only what you need and not going to excess is much harder than getting rid of everything altogether!  For instance, it’s hard to balance having a spouse and children with your relationship with God – it’s much easier to reject marriage and lock yourself up in a convent in order to devote your life to God.  Some people may not go to such extremes as committing themselves to celibacy, and may get married and have families – yet will devote all their time to furthering the cause of Islam while neglecting their relationships with their families at home!

Rather, our challenge is to avoid going too far as some groups have done by banning things altogether, or by giving up and going off the edge and doing things too much!  Instead, we must strive to enjoy the wonderful life God has given us by staying within the healthy parameters of moderation.

Prayer for Seeking Refuge from Sins of the Self

Prophet Muhammad (saws) often said that the greatest jihad is the jihad an-nafs, the struggle with the self.  None of us, from the very poorest to the richest and most famous, can escape the trial and torment of struggling with ourselves, trying to stay on the middle, moderate path, attempting to avoid slipping into extremes of too much or too little.

A supplication (prayer) I often read is one by Imam Ali bin Hussain, otherwise known as Imam Zain al-Abideen (‘the best of worshippers’) and Imam as-Sajjad, or the ‘prostrating imam’.  Although this particular supplication is not lengthy, each word is so eloquently put that I could not say it better myself, nor could I come even remotely close to doing so, mashAllah.  Each word is so powerful and meaningful, and each phrase speaks exactly to situations I constantly find myself fighting against.

Supplication for Seeking Refuge

O God,
I seek refuge in Thee from the agitation of craving,
the violence of wrath,
the domination of envy,
the frailty of patience, the lack of contentment,
surliness of character,
urgency of passion,
the disposition to vehemence,

following caprice,
opposing guidance,
the sleep of heedlessness,
undertaking the toilsome,
preferring falsehood over truth,
persisting in sin,
making little of disobedience,
making much of obedience,

vying with the wealthy,
disparaging the poor,
guarding badly over those in our hands,
failing to thank those who have done good to us,

aiding a wrongdoer,
abandoning someone troubled,
wanting what is not rightfully ours,
and speaking about knowledge without knowing.

We seek refuge in Thee from harboring dishonesty toward anyone, being pleased with our works, and stretching out our expectations.

We seek refuge in Thee from
ill-mindedness,
looking down on the small,
Satan’s gaining mastery over us,
time’s afflicting us,
and the sovereign’s oppressing us.

We seek refuge in Thee from acting with prodigality and not having sufficiency.

We seek refuge in Thee from the gloating of enemies, indigent need for equals, living in hardship, and dying without readiness.

We seek refuge in Thee from
the most dreadful remorse,
the greatest affliction,
the most wretched wretchedness,
the evil end to the journey,
the deprivation of reward,
and the advent of punishment.

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household and through Thy mercy, give to me refuge from all of that, and to all the faithful, both men and women!

O Most Merciful of the merciful!

Other supplications of Imam Ali bin Hussain can be found here:

http://www.duas.org/sajjadiya/sajjadiya.htm