Anas (May Allah be pleased with him) said:

I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) saying, "Allah, the Exalted, has said: 'O son of Adam! I shall go on forgiving you so long as you pray to Me and aspire for My forgiveness whatever may be your sins. O son of Adam! I do not care even if your sins should pile up to the sky and should you beg pardon of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam! If you come to Me with an earth full of sins and meet Me, not associating anything with Me in worship, I will certainly grant you as much pardon as will fill the earth."'



The Arabic term ghufran means clemency or forgiveness. The propensity to forgive is one that is highly praised within both Islamic law and practice. The Qur’ an and the hadith literature are filled with statements encouraging forgiveness, yet the academic study of Islam has given the topic little or no attention, with markedly few references to forgiveness within the introductory and reference sources available in English.

 This does not negate the fact that offering forgiveness to fellow humans and seeking forgiveness from both humans and Allah are fundamental imperatives within Islamic culture and the Islamic textual tradition. The verb form of the term is used over a hundred times throughout the Qur’an, often referring to Allah’s act of forgiveness. The three adjectives,  ghaffar/ghafur/ghafir  are names of Allah , and all mean the same thing: one who forgives, the Clement. The only difference in the meaning of the three words is the intensity of the act of exoneration.

The Qur’ an describes Allah by many names and attributes, often referred to as the ninety-nine names of Allah. Among the most repeated names, appearing 101 times, are al-Ghaffar (ever forgiving), al-Ghafur (most forgiving), al-Ghafir (forgiver). There are multiple other names that bear God’s attribute of forgiveness: al-‘Afuw (ever indulgent; 8 times), al-Tawab (relenting; 11 times), al-Wahhab (generous; 3 times), al-Halim (clement; 15 times), al-Karim (generous; 27 times), al-Wadud (loving; twice), ar-Rahim (most merciful; 95 times, with an additional 114 times at the beginning of each sura, with only 2 exceptions), ar-Rahman (compassionate; 57 times, plus 114 times at the beginning of each sura, with 2 exceptions), as-Salam (peace; 33 times) and al-Latif (gentle; 6 times).

Many of the verses end with a message reminding the reader or listener of the merit of mercy, kindness and forgiveness, and that Allah is indeed merciful and compassionate. Islamic theology divides the attributes of Allah in two categories: the attributes of essence (dhat), such as hay (alive) and  'alim (all knowing), or the attributes of action (fi’l ). The attributes of essence have always been with Allah and the opposite of them cannot apply: namely, Allah has always been alive and death does not apply to Allah’s essence. However, Allah’s attributes of action, which became necessary only after creation, can be qualified by their opposites: for example, Allah is  'affuw (forgiver) and also al-muntaghim (avenger). The complexity of the matter ensues from the prevailing use of the contradictory attributes of Allah. The God of the Qur’ an is ar-ham  ar-rahemin (the compassionate of compassionates) and khayr-ul ghaferin (the best of forgivers) but also dhul-intigham (avenger), jabbar (forceful), muntaghim (avenger), ghahhar (subduer) and sari) ul-'ighab (quick in retribution). If forgiveness is an attribute of Allah , by the same token so are retaliation and vengefulness.

 To add to the complexity of the matter, in some cases forgiveness for one group seems to require vengeance and retribution against others. These seemingly contradictory attributes provide the space for justice. Those who repay an injury in kind and then are wronged again shall be helped by Allah.     Allah is merciful and forgiving (22.60), but those who have committed an injustice will face His reprisal, which is in accordance with Allah’s mercy and forgiveness: mercy for the victims is retaliation against the oppressor. The Qur'an implies that one who has been oppressed has the right to speak to the oppressor using unkind words: Allah does not love harsh words, except when uttered by one who is truly wronged. Allah hears all and knows all: whether you do a good deed openly or keep it secret – whether or not you forgive an injustice – Allah is forgiving and all-powerful (4.148–149).

 A common observation made when comparing Islam to Christianity is that Christianity is the religion of love, whereas Islam is above all the religion of justice. Is the God of the Qur’ an a loving God (wadud) or a vengeful God (al-montaghem, jabbar)?   How do these two attributes come together, and are they compatible with the attribute of justice – for the God of Qur’ an is also called adil (the Just)?     The emphasis on love within the Islamic sapiential tradition is such that all of creation is considered to rely on love.     As for justice, the references to the words ( idala, ( adl, qist (justice) and mizan (scale) permeate the Qur’ an. The Arabic term   ‘adl means  ‘to bring about balance’, ‘to put something in its right place’. The relation and balance between divine love and mercy and Allah’s wrath presents a quandary for Muslim theologians, just as it does for Christian theology. On the one hand, Allah is utterly incomparable and distanced from the cosmos but, on the other, Allah  is closer to humans than their jugular veins. The names of majesty and severity (Jalal), as well as the names of beauty and gentleness (Jamal), are comparable to Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans.

Just as the two aspects of awe and intimacy have to function together, so the attributes of love and wrath cannot be asserted, one in the  absence of the other. If justice is to be realized, the equilibrium between the two must be maintained, within both the microcosm and the macrocosm. Even in strictly legal matters, leniency marks Islamic teachings. Repentance is highly encouraged throughout the Qur) an, and the promise of forgiveness is strongly stated. Making amends for major penal offences, even apostasy, has been considered within the shariah. Conflict resolution and the settling of mutual differences are considered more important than prayers and fasting. Ghufran (forgiveness) is more compatible with the essence of the Qur’ an than an ‘eye for an eye’ approach that follows the letter of the law. The strictness of the letter of the law and the leniency of its practice are to be viewed as a means of maintaining the moral order while denying opportunities to injustice.


The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia

Routledge Press / London-New York