A Quick Survey of Forgiveness in the Quran

I’ll refer to three different words used by the Quran for forgiveness.

1. ghafara: (ghayn fā rā, غفر).
“To cover [someone’s sins].” Used by the Quran exclusively to denote the forgiveness of God for human beings.

2. ‘afawa: (`ayn fā wāw, عفو).
“To pardon lovingly” Used to denote forgiveness in the general sense, occasionally by God, but mostly among human beings. This word root has the implication not only of forgiveness, but of the complete erasure of wrong.

3. safaha: (ṣād fā ḥā, صفح).
“To overlook;” literally “to turn the page [of a book].”

Forgiveness is an astonishingly abundant concept in the Quran. The first kind of forgiveness alone, ghafara, is mentioned 234 times in the book. God’s capacity and willingness to forgive human beings is such an established concept in the Quran that it is difficult to choose the verses to cite on the subject. However, one quintessential verse is:

“And whoever does a wrong or wrongs himself but then seeks forgiveness of Allah will find Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” (Quran 4:110)

The second and third word roots, ‘afawa and safaha, are often mentioned together — 34 and seven times to mean forgiveness, respectively. Readers of the Quran are repeatedly told to “forgive and overlook.”

“And We have not created the heavens and earth and that between them except in truth. And indeed, the Hour is coming; so forgive with gracious forgiveness.” (Quran 15:85)

“And you will still observe deceit among them, except a few of them. But pardon them and overlook [their misdeeds]. Indeed, Allah loves the doers of good.” (Quran 5:13)

“Many of the People of the Scripture wish they could turn you back to disbelief after you have believed, out of envy from themselves [even] after the truth has become clear to them. So pardon and overlook until Allah delivers His command. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.” (Quran 2:109)

“And let not those of virtue among you and wealth swear not to give [aid] to their relatives and the needy and the emigrants for the cause of Allah , and let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Quran 24:22)

“And [Allah acknowledges] his saying, “O my Lord, indeed these are a people who do not believe.” So turn aside from them and say, “Peace.” But they are going to know.” (Quran 43:88–89)

“O you who have believed, indeed, among your wives and your children are enemies to you, so beware of them. But if you pardon and overlook and forgive – then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Quran 64:14)

All in all, verses that talk about forgiveness in the Quran amount to an impressive 4.4% of the entire text. This is not even taking into account related concepts like “mercy”, “benevolence”, or “generosity”. Mercy, for example, is mentioned 339 times in the Quran.

It is also worth noting that the first two roots ghafara and ‘afawa make up three of God’s 99 defining attributes in Islam, what Muslims call “God’s 99 Names”. This list is a compilation of the attributes used by the Quran in reference to God, which more or less define the character of God in Muslim consciousness. Essentially, three of God’s defining attributes in Islam are variations of the “forgiving” or the “pardoner”.

♣ Only two verses contain mentions of ghafara in the negative, relating to the worship of other Gods. The two verses are in the same chapter and almost identical.

“Indeed, Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills. And he who associates others with Allah has certainly fabricated a tremendous sin.” (Quran 4:48)

“Indeed, Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills. And he who associates others with Allah has certainly gone far astray.” (Quran 4:116)


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