The Divine Forgiveness Cluster
– a way to address layers of self-isolation and disconnection
The subject of forgiveness, and what forgiveness means to human beings, immediately brings up the issue of our sense of self-worth. This is a crux psychological issue, which is important to find a way to approach effectively. By examining the cluster of divine Names that comprise the forgiveness family, we have a unique opportunity to address crippling human problems such as self-loathing, guilt, and shame. The four Names in the forgiveness family offer an excellent way to describe and understand the different gradations of Divine Forgiveness and provide an effective avenue for spiritual growth.
Ya Ghaffar, Ya Ghafur, Ya Tawwab, Ya ‘Afuw
Al-Ghaffar, al-Ghafur, at-Tawwab, and al-‘Afuw have a very intimate relationship with one another. By exploring each Name’s meaning, as well as the interrelationships of the Names, different layers in the human psyche are exposed. Contemplation of these emanations of divine forgiveness leads directly to a process for remedying deep psychological wounds.
It is interesting how we were first guided to look into the forgiveness family. We were considering the moral and psychological problems connected with revenge that could be seen around al-Muntaqim, a Name often mistranslated as “the avenger.” Something in this Name was calling out for balance. We noticed that on the list of 99 Names, al-‘Afuw appears right before al-Muntaqim, and it is a true opposite to al-Muntaqim. Al-‘Afuw then became very important in our discussion of how the dynamic of divine opposites works. This directed us toward our present focus on the inner relationships in the forgiveness family.
Divine Names can have a meaningful relationship with each other both as opposites and as similars. As opposites they create balance, and this leads to integration and transcendence (see the chapter on the divine opposites). In dealing with similars, as we are in this discussion, we often come to see how gradations of essentially the same divine quality may reveal developmental stages of growth.
Ya Ghaffar, Ya Ghafur
(yaa ɡ̣ḥaf-FAAR, yaa ɡ̣ḥa-FOOR)
(yaa ɡ̣ḥaf-FAAR, yaa ɡ̣ḥa-FOOR)
The ground floor in the forgiveness cluster of Names, the starting point, is al-Ghaffar. It is appropriate to begin with this divine quality as it relates to a low point in the human process. People at this stage are usually unable to even consider the possibility of forgiveness. They are caught up in disbelief, grief, and judgment—often self-judgment. There is a progression of forgiveness implied in the Qur’an. Do the big forgiveness, and if you can’t do that, do a lesser forgiveness, and if you can’t do that, do a still lesser forgiveness. This is similar to the progression we are presenting in this chapter, but we are starting with the most basic level of forgiveness and working up to the most profound.
In the concluding part of this chapter we will focus on applying the healing properties of the forgiveness family to the human condition, and in particular to our emotional and mental health. Before we can properly do this, we will first focus on the layers of meaning in each divine Name in this family. Then we can turn our attention to each Name’s application in the various layers of the human psyche and in our psychological states.
The form of al-Ghaffar in the sound-code of Arabic grammar gives it a quality that is both continuous and repetitive. You may make the same mistake over and over again, a hundred or a thousand times a day. Every day. But such repeated errors never place you outside the realm of divine forgiveness. Repetitiveness is no problem for al-Ghaffar. Its nature makes it repetitive. Al-Ghaffar’s forgiveness is continuous and repetitive.
There is a memorable hadith where a Bedouin says to the Prophet, “What if I do this really bad thing?” And the answer is, “Allah forgives.” “But what if I do it again and again and again?” “Allah continues to forgive.” Then the Bedouin says, “Doesn’t Allah ever get tired of forgiving?” And the Prophet Muhammad says, “No, but you might get tired of doing that same thing over and over again.”
It must have been a great moment. At such a time you can see a simple mind becoming enlightened. This tradition of the Prophet beautifully shows the quality of al-Ghaffar. It is not simply an act of forgiveness, but continuous, repetitive acts of forgiveness. It puts in mind the thought inscribed on Mevlana Rumi’s tomb––that even if you have broken your vows a thousand times, you should always feel the invitation to return again. God’s forgiveness is inexhaustible, and it is continuous.
But we cannot properly introduce al-Ghaffar without introducing its partner, al-Ghafur. They share the same root and are basically emanations of the same divine forgiveness. Not only are they cognates, and thus naturally close in meaning, but they complement each other in another most fulfilling and wholesome way.
Earlier we saw that the sound code of Arabic makes al-Ghaffar repetitive and unending. Now we see that the sound code places al-Ghafur in the group that carries the meaning of “penetrating right into the essence of a thing.” It goes right into the deepest place in the heart. Therefore al-Ghafur goes right to the worst crime we have ever committed in our lives. It goes right to the worst thing that has ever been done to us. Whether it is a grudge of self-loathing or a grudge held against another, the depth of feeling is the same. Allah’s forgiveness reaches that deepest place. From a medical point of view we might say that al-Ghaffar is a remedy for a chronic condition and Al-Ghafur is for an acute condition.
Contemplation on al-Ghafur is a profound and healing practice for anyone. It is even recommended for prisoners on death row. It reaches the deepest wound. It goes right to the heart of the matter. It penetrates to the essence. Divine forgiveness reaches that which we imagined was unforgiveable. That is the quality of al-Ghafur.
The very concept of forgiveness, even in English usage, is to give up the grudge, to let go of that revenge fantasy. Forgiveness comes by giving that away. So at this first stage in the process of learning to forgive, you need to learn to give up the revenging impulse that arises many times a day. And you also need to give up the grudge you hold about the inner wound you believe to be unforgiveable.
At this beginning stage in the process, you notice the fault either in other people or in your own self. Again and again you are asked to give up the grudge you are holding, and to invite in al-Ghaffar and al-Ghafur. You can then awaken to a kind of compassion that actually reaches the wound and covers over the fault in a soothing way.
Both al-Ghaffar and al-Ghafur have this same root meaning of covering over in a healing kind of way. One of the physical plane variations of the root of these Names refers to covering over the cracks in a leather water skin using the sticky substance that bees use to repair their hives. In a desert culture, a whole tribe could die of thirst from a leaky waterskin. This is a very earthy image that helps us understand the importance of this basic kind of forgiveness.
By calling on these two sacred Names we can actively moisturize and heal the cracks in our being that allow the water of life to dissipate and our hearts to dry up. Repetition of Ya Ghaffar, Ya Ghafur brings a pliability that allows us to overcome brittleness of character. It is a soothing balm to our woundedness. It begins to ease the pain that has caused us to isolate ourselves in our relationships in life.
Going beyond this, there an inner stage called tawba. Now you actually become able to turn away from perceived defects and shadows and face directly towards the divine perfection. At-Tawwab is both the divine reality that you turn to in such a way and the activity of turning. The form in Arabic is wa taaba ilallaah. We literally turn from the defect and toward Allah. “From” and “toward” are expressed simultaneously by the same verb in Arabic.
Tawba has a Hebrew equivalent of tauba, which is the same as teshuva. In Judaism, between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are the ten days of teshuva. These ten days are a time that is set aside to turn within, to turn to God, and to turn away from the point of view of the ego.
What does it mean to say we turn from a defect and turn towards Allah? We are turning towards, or are returning to, at-Tawwab. Because of the sound code embedded in Arabic grammar, we know that at-Tawwab must have a quality that manifests continuously, without beginning, end, or interruption. This allows us to see Allah is always turning toward us, always returning to us. When we give God bad words, God gives us good words. That is God’s way of turning.
At-Tawwab is always turning towards you without interruption. This is very important to understand! It allows us to overcome certain theological confusions that can arise in relation to our usual understanding of the English word ”repentance.” With the invocation of Ya Tawwab, you turn from the defect that you perceive to the face of Allah, who always is facing you. It allows you to let go of the grudge you have been holding onto and to face toward the light.
Tawba ada literally means to forgive someone by facing away from the defect towards Allah who is always forgiving. That is a very high stage of forgiveness. You are not stuck in the rights and wrongs of your personal relationships. What is quite remarkable is that it is by noticing the faults in the first place that you are impelled towards Allah, towards the One. The process of truly invoking Ya Tawwab is deeply healing, because negativity is transformed into its opposite. This is spiritual alchemy.
A hadith says, “If you make a mistake and ask for forgiveness, Allah will immediately turn your grief and sorrow into joy and gladness. God will give you sustenance from an unknown source and will deliver you from all difficulties and hardship into ease.” That is at-Tawwab in action.
When, through the realization of at-Tawwab, the student on the path has learned to use every particular event as an opportunity to become aware of the face of Allah, surely it is not out of place to ask what more could there possibly be?
The ultimate stage of forgiveness is expressed by al-‘Afuw. Let’s begin with a physical metaphor that is part of the word’s root meaning: Afu til … (Arabic?). This is an image of the wind blowing across the desert vastness and completely erasing all the tracks in the sand. It is as if no one had ever walked there. Such a fundamental image in the root of the word shows us that with al-‘Afuw, you do not even notice the fault.
In the first stages of forgiveness you definitely do notice the fault, but you feel there is a possibility for forgiveness, a chance for some healing salve to reach your wounded places. Then you find the strength to overlook it. Eventually you are moved to turn away from the fault towards Allah whenever awareness of the fault arises, thus transforming negativity into a vision of the divine face.
Finally we come to al-‘Afuw, which means to completely forgive, with no trace of the fault even subtly retained. There is not even a trace of resentment or memory. There are no footprints in the sand. There are no impressions. Your awareness is clean and incapable of being stained. Such is the highest stage of divine forgiveness.
We want to strongly emphasize that the state of “not seeing” we are referring to here should not in any way be considered to be unconsciousness or lack of awareness. Rather, it is that your consciousness has been raised to the level of seeing in accordance with the divine reality.
There’s a story of a teacher who goes to a town, and when he comes back to his students they ask him what he saw. He says, “It is beautiful, but I don’t want any of you going there.” Nonetheless, one of them goes to the town; however, he experiences it to be utterly ugly. He comes back and says, “It’s a horrible place. What were you talking about?” The teacher replies, “Well, you’d have to be able to see it through my eyes.”
With al-Ghaffar and al-Ghafur, you see the shadows. You even see the worst ugliness when you look at the “unforgiveable place” into which al-Ghafur penetrates. In at-Tawwab we notice patches of light and shade, so to speak, because there is still awareness of that fault you are turning from. But with al-‘Afuw, there is none of that. You no longer have any negative connotation about whatever events have happened to you. We want to make it emphatically clear to our readers that this is not a stage that you should try and rush into. It is the culmination of a lengthy inner process. If the negative conditions are not respected sufficiently, they become masked and remain active in the unconscious.
Al-‘Afuw is the doorway in the heart where all attachment to hurt and pain, and memories regarding hurt and pain, are absolved from within. In that station, such impressions are gone like the footprints in the desert after the wind. It is like they were never there. There is no sense of a mistake that needs to be corrected.
If you are graced to have this realization, you are with humanity, but you are not caught up in it, because you are beyond being touched in a reactive way. You leave the relative perspective, which evaluates people and their limitations. You merge in al-‘Afuw in the absolute state of the Divine heart. There is forgetfulness of duality and of separation. There is no such thing as poison anymore. Divine Forgiveness has come.
The phrase astafir’allah, often repeated by Sufis, shares the same root as both al-Ghaffar and al-Ghafur. Its meaning is both penetrating and continuous. The “ah” sound at the end of the word adds a sense of yearning or longing. The phrase includes the sense of an “I” that yearns. It is the separated “I” that is the persona of the longing lover. That is why the great Saint Rabia of Basra said, “Astafir’allah to Allah, for having to say astafir’allah.” She wanted forgiveness for still needing to overcome that “I” of separation.
With al-‘Afuw there are no gradations any more. There is the erasing of the “I.” No more is there the feeling, “I got hurt yesterday.” There simply is a state of Being itself, a being that is continually flowing. No more is there the ego’s wound-engendered self-identification that causes people to hold on to their grudges and experience themselves as something separate.
People often repress memories. They say that they don’t remember some event, and then they imagine that they have actually forgiven the parties involved because they don’t remember an incident any more. But when a counselor shakes them up a little bit, all their memories come out. This is very different from the state we have been discussing.
In the spiritual state, there is no barrier between you and al-‘Afuw itself, and it is flowing gently all the time. Nothing is repressed. Every system is released and there is just the continual emanation of that presence. Such a person is very much awake, not asleep and forgetful. They are awake, but they are not carrying the past.