The Dialectics of an Apology, Chapter 26, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

Arrogance and jealousy, two primordial sins, are fed by the iniquity of entitlement. From the blasphemy of Satan to the obscenity of Cain with Abel, the delusion of entitlement permeates and prevails. The arrogant person feels entitled to what people are not willing to concede, and the jealous person feels entitled to what God did not give. Both persons confuse their wishes with the Divine Will, and wed the two in an unholy bond.


A religious person lives his or her life in search of the Divine Will. But there is always the danger that if one searches for something long enough, one might come to believe that he or she is entitled to find it. The tragedy, however, is when one comes to believe that he or she has in fact found it.


This Conference is my peace and repose. The legacy preserved and sustained in these books constructs and deconstructs me every night a thousand times. When I am constructed, I am taken apart by the majesty of God, and when I am deconstructed, I am inspired by the power of God. The dialectics of the process keep the Conference humbled, but vibrant and alive.


This month, three cases are brought to my attention. Each one of them is saturated with claims of entitlement, arrogance, and jealousy. In the first case, due to jealousy, the imam of a mosque is conspired against, accused of misappropriating funds, and fired. The missing funds are later found and the imam is vindicated. In the second case, a father forces his daughter into a marriage, which she detests. Later, the husband is found to be a scoundrel who drinks, gambles, and enjoys thrusting obscenities at his wife. In the third case, a wife plans to divorce her husband months before he is even aware of her intentions. In preparation for the divorce, she quietly transfers the family savings to a secret private account in her name. Years later, when her new husband does the same to her and misappropriates her funds, it dawns on her that she has committed the crime of theft against her first husband. In all three cases, the offenders realize that they have wronged their victims. In all three cases, the offenders wish to seek forgiveness from God. But in all three cases, the offenders refuse to seek forgiveness from their victims. Forgiveness, they argue, is a matter between them and God, and, therefore, what difference does it make if the victims forgive or not? The administrators of the mosque refuse to apologize to the imam; the father refuses to apologize to his daughter; and the wife refuses to apologize to her first husband.


The only one before me right now is the woman, and as I sit listening to the careful articulation of a philosophy of arrogant repentance, I am reminded of the man who recently awarded me the title of the Great Satan. Realizing that perhaps the title might be a bit of an exaggeration, he decided that an istighfar might be in order—an apology, however, is a superfluous gratuity.

            In all the cases mentioned above, the individuals concerned received counsel that the forgiveness of a human being is no more than a technical nicety unrelated to the mechanics of tawba or repentance. The woman argues with me that since she now has asked God to forgive her what does her ex-husband have to do with anything! I am amazed at the arrogance which permits a person to use the remembrance of God as the tool for forgetting human beings. I am amazed at the fact that the absolution of God becomes the mechanism by which the rights of human beings are derogated and dismissed.


In the discourses of this Conference, the rights of human beings are not a useless marginality. The rights of God are forgiven by God but the rights of human beings must either be redressed or forgiven by the possessor of the right. For example, the Hanafi jurist al-‘Ayyini (d. 855/1451) states in Sharh al-Hidaya that the usurper of property will not be forgiven for his sin, even if he repents a thousand times, unless he returns the stolen property. Muslim jurists debated at length as to whether even the imposition of the criminal sanction will constitute an immediate forgiveness for one’s sins.


I ask the woman for permission to read her a passage from Ahkam al-Qur’an by the Maliki jurist Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 543/1148). The passage states: “The rights of human beings are not forgiven by God unless the human being concerned forgives them first, and the claims for such rights are not dismissed [by God] unless they are dismissed by the person concerned… The rights of a Muslim cannot be abandoned except by the possessor of the right. Even the imam does not have the right to demand [or abandon] such rights. This is because the imam is not empowered to act as the agent for a specific set of individuals over their specific rights. Rather, the imam only represents people, generally, over their general and unspecified rights.”


I am not sure about her response. She asks with a tone that betrays a degree of indignation: “Are you saying that God cannot forgive? Isn’t this shirk?” But we are not talking about God’s Ability or even Will. We are talking about the morality of justice. Forgiveness cannot justly be given for a persistent and continuing sin. It is the dismissal of peoples’ rights which permitted the initial infraction—the stealing of the money, the firing of the imam, and the forcing of a woman to marry someone she detests—and it is the dismissal of peoples’ rights which now makes one refuse to apologize. In other words, it is a continuing, uninterrupted infraction. She exclaims now with open indignation, “And what is this Ibn al-‘Arabi saying anyway?”


I take a deep breath, and strain to reach beyond the veils of ignorance and the structures of discourse to the elusive essentials. I smile as if I discovered it. “He is saying it is rude not to apologize.”