Some people find it hard to forgive because they were never given any other choice.
Forgiveness was the noose tightened around their neck, choking their voice.
After the strike to the face, the blow in the gut, and the tarnishing of their name,
They were told they must forgive if they were truly good, or else live in perpetual shame.
So they forgave and forgave, hoping to wipe away the toxic shame within
While those who’d guilted them into forgiving, seamlessly returned to sin
So forgiveness was their coping mechanism, their way of beautifying their abuser’s lie
So they smiled until their cheeks hurt, and laughed and cried until their heart went dry
All the while chanting, I forgive them, I forgive them, because that’s what good people do
If they asked about their abuser being accountable, they were told, “Forgiveness is for you!”
So they dropped their head in humiliation and disappeared into the shadows of shame
And learned to look completely happy and pious as they suppressed all anger and pain
Then they discovered the mercy of God’s justice in answering the prayer of the wronged
So they raised their hands in supplication and felt their heart come alive after far too long
Tears filled their eyes in grateful vindication, feeling for the first time that God was really there
But then a spiritual teacher told them that good people *always* forgive,
So again, they sunk deep in toxic shame and humiliation, and sought forgiveness for the prayer.
—Umm Zakiyyah, “The ‘Sin’ of Believing in God’s Justice”
The following is an excerpt from the book The Abuse of Forgiveness: Manipulation and Harm in the Name of Emotional Healing by Umm Zakiyyah:
I lived for years in a form of suffering that I now think of as an abusive relationship with myself. Like so many other abusive relationships, continuously subjecting myself to harm each day nearly cost me my life. When I reached the point where I genuinely believed I needed to take my own life, I realized that there was a level of emotional wounding that I had yet to fathom.
Some religious people would trivialize or dismiss my suicidality as being sinful or rooted in the influences of Shaytaan. In other words, they would say I was experiencing this urge due to my weak faith, my human propensity to disobey God, or my listening to whispers of the devil. While I certainly recognize that some trauma and mental health struggles deem a person unaccountable for their actions in front of God, I do not mention my suicidality and emotional wounding to suggest that I am in this category.
I have no idea if I would have been excused or forgiven had I followed through with the urge. My mentioning of emotional wounding as the root of this struggle is for the purpose of pinpointing the reason behind the battle, not to suggest that I had an excuse if I’d lost it. As with all realities dealing with a person’s true spiritual state and internal conflicts, I leave ultimate judgment to God, whether it concerns my soul or anyone else’s. Thus, the point I’m making here is not that we can use emotional wounding as an excuse for any trial, but that we should see the trial as a warning sign pointing to internal wounds that need to be acknowledged and addressed. However, we cannot do this unless we seek to understand where the wounding originated in the first place.
Even in a case where a person is undoubtedly being influenced by the devil, this influence should not to be trivialized. Rather it should be understood. In my journal, I reflect on the importance of understanding more than trivializing: Satan cannot reach us unless there’s an opening. So when we face our human weaknesses and sins, let’s not dismiss them by saying, “That’s Shaytaan”—but instead focus on finding the opening in ourselves and lives that allowed him in.
Put another way, even if we believe that all suicidality stems from the influences of the devil, this belief does not remove our responsibility to understand why a particular pathway of influence affects us more than others. Otherwise, what’s the point of identifying the influence of the devil at all? All human beings are influenced by forces of both good and evil, and our challenge in life is to align ourselves as far as possible with the good. Thus, anyone who understands the complexity of life would never view any source of harm as trivial, whether we call it the devil or something else.
Personally, what I ultimately uncovered beneath my suicidal urge was emotional wounding that originated from living a life of self-abuse since childhood. However, before that suicidal moment, I understood my self-abuse as embracing a life of optimism, forgiveness, and striving to be a good Muslim. In other words, I was experiencing firsthand the destructive outcome of extreme positivity: toxic negativity.
The Negativity Must Point Somewhere
When I say extreme positivity, I mean the mental and emotional state of viewing nearly all ostensibly positive emotions and expressions as categorically “good” and viewing nearly all ostensibly negative emotions and expressions as categorically “bad.” If a person who ascribes to extreme positivity believes in God, he or she will assume that God is pleased with “positivity” and that He is displeased with “negativity.”
In the culture of forced forgiveness, we see one of the many dysfunctional branches of extreme positivity. In forced forgiveness, sufferers are taught that their pain is effectively a punishment from God for not being “positive” (i.e. forgiving the abuser or wrongdoer). Thus, they are cursed to live out life with angry, bitter hearts until they submit to extreme positivity by always absolving any abuser or wrongdoer for accountability for his or her actions.
In order to understand the toxic, destructive nature of extreme positivity in all of its forms, we must first understand the nature of creation itself. Nearly all faith traditions and spiritual ideologies recognize the inherent duality of human life: hot/cold, dry/wet, up/down, right/left, feminine/masculine, pleasure/pain, ease/hardship, happiness/sadness, tolerance/intolerance, love/hate, and so on. This duality is referred to in different terms depending on the spiritual ideology or faith tradition.
In Chinese philosophy this duality is referred to as the “yin and yang” of existence. In Islamic tradition, this duality is referred to in various terms depending on the context. In the subject of qadr (which was discussed in brief earlier), this duality is referred to as the khayr and sharr of what is divinely decreed or predestined for all life. In simplistic terms, khayr refers to our positive experiences, and sharr refers to our negative experiences. These terms also refer to the good/evil duality in life.
Regarding the nature of creation itself, Islamic tradition refers to this inherent duality in the concept of everything being created in pairs. The Qur’an says what has been translated to mean: “And of everything We have created pairs, that you may receive instruction [or be reminded]” (Adh-Dhaariyaat, 51:49).
Those who ascribe to extreme positivity reject the inherent duality of life (or at least the goodness in it). Thus, they seek the positive in nearly every circumstance, even when the positive is not appropriate or healthy. Proponents of extreme positivity also live in denial of the inevitable negative and sometimes evil consequences of their words, actions, and choices, even when they are wronging or harming others. Any person of faith who has been accosted, slandered, or abused by those who claim to call for “tolerance” but who are really calling for the criminalization of religion knows on a deeply personal level the toxic negativity that extreme positivity produces.
Undoubtedly, the subject of extreme positivity is vast, but for the purposes of this book, it is sufficient to say this: Whenever we resist, deny, or run away from the inevitable negativity in life, that negativity does not disappear. It simply points in a direction that we refuse to see, admit, or take responsibility for. Sometimes that hidden (or denied) negativity harms ourselves; other times it harms others. However, no matter what we think is happening, whenever we choose positivity, the negative aspect of the positive/negative duality must point somewhere.
In my case, my self-abuse meant that I continuously harmed myself in the name of honoring and respecting others. My extreme positivity had created a toxic mental and emotional environment for my spirit-soul because of the positive/negative duality inherent in my “always see and choose the good” approach to life.
As I sought to be a loving, forgiving person and a “good Muslim,” I pointed all of my positive energy, assumptions, and love toward others—even in obvious cases of abuse and wrongdoing—and thus inadvertently pointed all negativity toward myself. Thus, it only makes sense that my “extreme positivity” ultimately resulted in emotional wounding that led to the next logical step of “positive” self-sacrifice: remove my negative, harm-filled existence from the world.
Healing Isn’t in Positivity, It’s in Submission
At the center of all humans’ dual experiences is the soul, which was created by God and will be returned to Him after it leaves its earthly shell. Thus, the human soul does not find ultimate peace or healing by aligning with only what is positive in life. It finds ultimate peace and healing by aligning with what reflects its divine purpose. This divinely assigned purpose is sometimes manifested in positive experiences and choices, and it is sometimes manifested in negative experiences and choices. However, in each divinely inspired alignment, the human submits to the center of its being—its soul’s purpose—which is neither exclusively positive nor negative in earthly experience. In Islamic tradition, this “center of being” is emaan (authentic spirituality) as found in submission to Allah.
Those who ascribe to manmade life paths that contradict authentic spirituality will always be at odds with this divinely centered purpose, even when they imagine they are always choosing love, tolerance, and forgiveness. As discussed in brief earlier, when people ascribe to a culture of extreme positivity (such as forced forgiveness) and thus recognize no justifiable or necessary reason to ever not forgive, their chances of being continuously subjected to injustice, wrongdoing, and abuse increase tremendously.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise, as alluded to earlier in the context of Black people’s misguided obligation to always forgive, that oppressive systems love influential personalities that call for love and forgiveness, but vilify influential personalities that call for justice and defending the oppressed. For this reason, historical figures like Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) are less celebrated than non-threatening figures like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, not coincidentally, was assassinated shortly after he began vocalizing regrets for his singular approach to social justice).
Moreover, it is no accident that these oppressive systems require love and forgiveness only from those they continuously harm, but not from themselves as the oppressors. In other words, by establishing a one-sided culture of forced love and forgiveness (no matter how egregious their own crimes), oppressors ensure that their systems of hate and injustice will never be meaningfully challenged. In this, oppressors want the sufferers to believe that defending oneself against hate and injustice is a manifestation of hate and injustice itself.
Though nothing could be further from the truth, the brainwashing of the masses into accepting extreme positivity (which includes the culture of forced forgiveness) as the only way of life makes it impossible to discern harmful negativity from beneficial negativity, and harmful positivity from beneficial positivity.
True healing, whether on a personal or national scale, can only occur when the proper duality of human existence is embraced as a fundamental right of every human soul. Yes, as a general rule, we are most closely aligned with our soul’s divine purpose in environments of love, tolerance, and forgiveness. However, there are moments that courageously standing up in the face of injustice, oppression, or abuse is healthier spiritually and practically than choosing “extreme positivity.”
In the Qur’an, God says what has been translated to mean:
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, your parents, your kin, and whether it be [against] rich or poor. For Allah can best protect both. So follow not the lusts [of your hearts], lest you may avoid justice. And if you distort [justice] or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do” (An-Nisaa, 4:135).
In cultures of extreme positivity, the lusts of our hearts which prevent ultimate justice can at times be our inclination to avoid negativity altogether.
Toxic Entitlement in Forgiveness Culture
Today, forgiveness peddling has become so widespread that abusers and wrongdoers themselves demand the extreme positivity it incites, specifically toxic negativity in the form of toxic entitlement. Because forced forgiveness links one’s personal internal goodness and emotional wellbeing to forgiving abusers and wrongdoers (a manifestation of extreme positivity), it only naturally follows that anyone can now remind the sufferer of the threat of this cursed reality. Consequently, those involved in inflicting the emotional wounding itself feel emboldened to demand that their victims hand over their “get out of jail free” card.
If the victims don’t hand out forgiveness on demand, the abusers now have every right (according to extreme positivity and forced forgiveness ideology) to tell their victims that they will pay with angry hearts and self-destructive bitterness. In the true definition of forgiveness—the one given to us by God—there is no requirement for all anger and blame to be gone from one’s heart before one decides to forgive, and there is no threat of toxic anger and bitterness afflicting the heart if one exercises his or her option to not forgive. More importantly, irrespective of what is happening in a victim’s heart, under no circumstances does an abuser or wrongdoer have the right to demand forgiveness.
When Toxic Negativity Points Toward God
One of the most spiritually destructive results of extreme positivity and forced forgiveness ideology is when humans attribute positivity to themselves and negativity to God. This happens either consciously or unconsciously, and it generally stems either from a manmade system of spirituality, or from a partial or complete rejection of authentic spirituality altogether.
Two popular manifestations of this anti-God toxic negativity are atheism and anger with (or disagreement with) God. This is undoubtedly a vast topic that warrants an entire book itself. However, in brief, we can understand these manifestations as follows: Both are forms of toxic negativity rooted in extreme positivity, which in its non-extreme, healthy form merely stems from the fitrah, that inherent spiritual nature and recognition of God that is imprinted on every spirit-soul.
In this fitrah, the human soul knows that its Creator is (among other things) Just and Merciful. Thus, whenever the human hears about God, the spirit-soul is at peace when the information complements the fitrah’s inherent knowledge of His Justice and Mercy. However, two things happen during the spirit-soul’s sojourn on earth that cause natural positivity to morph into extreme positivity (and thus toxic negativity):
- The spirit-soul is exposed to corrupt and inauthentic concepts of God and spirituality (often from the mouths and lives of those who claim to devoutly believe in Him).
- The spirit-soul gradually begins to trust only its perceptions of the world (even regarding matters of the unseen) and what it feels should be gained materially and spiritually on earth.
Naturally, for a person engaged in daily nourishment of the spirit-soul through authentic spirituality, any exposure to corrupt or inauthentic spirituality merely inspires the person to remove himself or herself from the toxic environment that is confusing the fitrah of the spirit-soul. The authentically spiritual person will further be inspired to focus on what the fitrah knows of God, not what corrupt humans have done while using His Name. This is because the fitrah inherently knows that Reality neither changes nor disappears simply because the word reality is often used outside of its proper context and understanding.
However, for soon-to-be atheists experiencing number 1, they do not guard the spirit-soul from these environments, nor do they tap into the fitrah’s “common sense” understanding of Reality. Thus, they become spiritually corrupt themselves. They then borrow from the definition of God that they know from the fitrah and compare it to the “reality” of God they see in “real life” (i.e. the toxic “realities” they are exposed to), then conclude that God does not exist because this toxic reality contradicts the Reality of God’s Justice and Mercy. Ironically, it is their spirit-soul’s inherent knowledge of God’s existence and His flawless attributes of Justice and Mercy that even allow atheists to reject Reality at all.
Though atheists also fall into the pitfalls of number 2 (trusting only their own perceptions of and experiences with the world), pitfall 2 chiefly defines people who believe in God (or a Higher Being) but reject all or part of authentic spirituality. In their efforts to make sense of the material and/or spiritual world sans the toxic “realities” they witness, they adjust their definition of Reality such that they distance themselves as far as possible from what they think is at the root of the spiritual corruption and widespread harm they see. Furthermore, when true Reality contracts their heart’s desires, they redefine Reality such that their heart’s desires are met (even if only in their imagination). When they know their desires contradict Reality, they become angry with God or openly disagree with Him. This results in efforts to redefine how Reality should be. Ultimately, the end result of number 2 is the rejection of authentic spirituality and putting a manmade spiritual path in its place.
In justifying these manmade spiritual systems, these anti-God people (who claim to believe in God or a Higher Being) draw on their extreme positivity model and thus point to number 1 (negative behavior of “religious” people) as an excuse for their innovated life path. By claiming that humans’ concepts of God and “organized religion” are negative and corrupt, they argue that traditional religious Reality needs an extreme makeover or outright rejection. In doing this, they merely introduce to the world a new “organized religion,” which if practiced by human beings (the only possibility) will over time witness obvious negativity and widespread corruption—as is already happening in the forced forgiveness culture.
The reality of toxic negativity and widespread corruption is inevitable in any life path practiced by humans because the root of all widespread harm and corruption is the human heart. Thus, we can change our spiritual path and religious affiliation a zillion times over (and we can even remove “religion” from the face of the earth entirely) and the world would still be plagued with widespread harm and corruption—until humans make the conscious choice to change the condition of themselves by rooting out the pollution in their hearts.
In Islamic tradition this fact is addressed in many verses of the Qur’an, but here is one of the most famous: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Ar-Ra’d, 13:11). The word that is being translated as themselves is the Arabic term anfusihim, which refers to the heart-spirit-soul essence of humans.
However, as the culture of forced forgiveness and extreme positivity has made painfully obvious—especially in its devastating effects on black slaves historically and on systems of abuse and oppression currently—this purification of the heart-spirit-soul can never be successful without authentic spirituality. In authentic spirituality, we have a balanced, self-correction approach to life that emphasizes love, peace, tolerance, and forgiveness as a general rule, but also emphasizes the need for justice and standing up against wrongdoing and oppression when necessary. It also allows for the healthy, natural duality of life that prioritizes self-care over self-harm and balances both positivity and negativity wherever one is more appropriate and healthier for the spirit-soul and circumstance.
Forced Forgiveness and Toxic Entitlement Toward God
In understanding the spiritually destructive harms that toxic negativity produces, it is relevant to mention the forced forgiveness and toxic entitlement that some “religious” people ascribe to under the guise of having a positive definition of faith. In this form of extreme positivity, a person’s forced forgiveness and toxic entitlement ideology is directed at God himself. Like those who ascribe to number 2 above (i.e. trusting only their own thoughts and conclusions about the world), these people exhibit an extreme positivity that manifests as anger with God or disagreement with Him, specifically regarding who should or should not be forgiven, and who should or should not be granted Paradise.
These people’s underlying mentality mirrors the toxic entitlement of abusers and wrongdoers who demand forgiveness from those who, in reality, owe them nothing. In their self-serving concept of faith and spirituality, they imagine that God is here to heed their desires and demands, and not the other way around. Therefore, if they perceive that they or someone they love is not getting what they “deserve,” whether materially or spiritually, they accuse God of being unjust and unmerciful.
In truth, God owes humans nothing at all while humans owe God everything. Allah, the Creator of all, is the Provider of our very being and existence while we are the provider of absolutely nothing—except from what He himself has given us. However, some of us still manage to use these very gifts of life, speech, and thought to rage against the One who has given them to us. Thus, due to feeling that we (or our loved ones) have been denied something we “deserve,” we openly criticize His rules, decrees, and principles of material and spiritual reward.
In anti-religion crowds, this raging is sometimes against the idea of God having any spiritual requirements at all before a human can enter Paradise. [Meanwhile, humans themselves have scores of worldly requirements that they put in place before anyone can touch or enjoy anything they own (which was incidentally given to them by God).] In those who claim to accept religion, this raging is sometimes against the same concept when they have decided that a specific individual “deserves” forgiveness or Paradise. In this, if they perceive that someone they love does not (or will not) fulfill the spiritual requirements to enter Paradise or to be forgiven, they deduce that it is God who is wrong and not the person who chooses to reject Him.
Ironically, instead of inviting the person they love to authentic spirituality (and thus true forgiveness), they rage against the idea that authentic spirituality should matter to God at all. This, despite the fact that (by definition) rejecting authentic spirituality is denying the rights of God. However, just like the toxic entitlement of abusers and wrongdoers who demand forgiveness from those whose rights they violated, these people violate the rights of God—then they tap into their toxic negativity and entitlement to demand forgiveness when they haven’t even made efforts to deserve it. In this, they imagine that they can use the same manipulation techniques of forced forgiveness that they use on humans when demanding undeserved gifts from God.
READ THE BOOK: The Abuse of Forgiveness: Manipulation and Harm in the Name of Emotional Healing by Umm Zakiyyah
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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