“Forgiveness is more for you than for your abuser,” we are told. And that’s true. But here’s what’s also true: Not forgiving is also more for you than for your abuser. When you make the healthy choice to not forgive because you trust in Allah’s justice, it’s more about your heart being at peace than it is about your abuser being punished. But forced forgiveness advocates want us to believe that the latter is not true healing. But both are healing.
You know what is not true healing? Feeling forced to forgive out of fear that your heart will never heal fully without it. That’s not healing. It’s emotional manipulation, and it needs to stop.
The beauty of forgiveness is in the free choice of forgiveness. That we can find emotional freedom without forgiveness, yet we still sometimes choose to forgive is remarkable and beautiful. But so is finding emotional freedom in trusting that you will be rewarded for your suffering in ways that only God can bestow.
In forced forgiveness culture, we are guilted into forgiving abusers and oppressors by being taught that healing is impossible without forgiveness. We are taught that our hearts will be trapped in resentment, anger, and bitterness if we don’t forgive. This is completely untrue.
Ironically, these unhealthy feelings of resentment and bitterness are often the result of forcing ourselves to forgive, not the result of withholding forgiveness. Why? Because healing and forgiveness are two different things, and when you seek healing through forgiveness before seeking healing through healing itself, it burdens the heart and forces it to suppress natural feelings of anger and frustration. But these emotions need healthy release—before you make the decision to forgive (or not).
When we force ourselves to forgive under the misguided belief that forgiveness equals healing, we run the risk of increasing toxic resentment, anger, and bitterness in our hearts. How? By inadvertently suppressing and denying our natural feelings in the name of seeking automatic healing through forgiveness. However, we remain oblivious to our internal suffering because we have convinced ourselves that forgiveness has magically cured all of these. But one day these emotions will likely find release and harm us in ways we cannot fathom.
True emotional healing begins with carefully, lovingly, and patiently validating your emotional wounding, even the part of your wounding that is angry about what happened to you. Anger is a natural healthy emotion, and it only becomes unhealthy when we don’t channel it in healing ways. And this unhealthy anger is exactly what we are building when we force ourselves to forgive when what we really need is to honor our wounds.
After we honor the needs of our emotional wounding, we can begin to make the choice to forgive or not. However, keep in mind, this choice comes only after foundational healing. Forgiveness is not a necessary part of foundational healing. Yes, some people find deeper healing through forgiveness. But others find deeper healing through not forgiving.
Either way, our hearts become healed because we have chosen what brings us the most internal peace: whether it’s forgiving the abuser, or patiently trusting that God will reward us on the Day of Judgment—or in this life—for what we suffered.
The reason that forced forgiveness advocates cannot accept the latter as true healing is because most of them don’t truly believe in God, and most don’t truly believe in the Day of Judgment. When Muslims subscribe to the myths of forced forgiveness culture, they are often blind followers of secular forced-forgiveness ideology. They have further never taken the time to honestly and thoroughly study what their faith teaches about this topic. And most shocking, especially for those in the mental health field, they haven’t even studied the healing journeys of survivors (Muslim and non-Muslim) who have found emotional freedom through not forgiving.
As is the habit of many Muslims today, when we hear a “warm and fuzzy” teaching from secular society (like forgiveness is required to heal), we rush to find evidence in our faith for what we’ve already embraced as true. It is rare that we first understand what our faith teaches and then seek to understand the “warm and fuzzy” secular teaching based on it. More seriously, we forced this incomplete and ignorant mentality on friends, patients, clients, and loved ones who trust us.
The truth is, forced-forgiveness advocates who are non-Muslim (or Muslims who are blind followers of them) have no clue about the holistic needs of the human heart and spirit. This is because without integrating authentic spirituality (i.e. emaan as defined by the Creator) into healing, a proper and complete understanding of the needs of the human heart and spirit is simply impossible. Thus, by default, due to our ignorance, we will harm many people in our teachings about forgiveness, just as we help many others.
Even amongst those who don’t believe in God at all, there are many who have found their own healing through not forgiving, and it has absolutely nothing to do with them holding on to anger and bitterness. The reason they have found their internal peace this way is because they have tapped into that part of the human heart and spirit that seeks balance through justice instead of absolution.
In a healthy human heart, both types of healing are necessary: forgiving and seeking justice. Yes, as a general rule, forgiveness is the preferred path of internal peace. However, it is not the only path to internal peace. It is not even the only path to external peace.
Just as we keep the external world in balance by generally forgiving things that anger and upset us daily, we keep our internal world in balance by generally forgiving things that anger and upset us daily. And just as we sometimes have to stand up against wrong in the external world and demand that justice is done if we are to have peace on earth, we sometimes have to patiently trust in God’s justice when we have suffered vicious wrongdoing—instead of choosing forgiveness—if we are to have peace in our hearts and souls.
Anyone grounded in a holistic study of the human experience knows that both choosing forgiveness and seeking justice represent balanced healing and internal peace. At times the best and most healing option is choosing forgiveness. At others the best and most healing option is choosing justice.
Similarly, any Muslim grounded in a holistic study of the prophetic example knows that both choosing forgiveness and seeking justice represent the balanced life that Allah showed us through His Messenger, peace be upon him. Yes, as a general rule, the Prophet (peace be upon him) chose forgiveness and pardoning wrongdoing. However, when the greater harm would come to him and the believers through absolution, he chose justice and standing up against wrong.
In this perfect example of true balance and honoring the full human spirit, we can find beauty in both forgiving and not forgiving, depending on our mental, emotional, and spiritual needs at the moment.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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