What Is Forgiveness Exactly? Why Oprah Can’t Help Us

“You can’t dictate what forgiving and letting go of hurt looks like for someone else.”

—excerpt of PAIN. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah

The following is an excerpt from Umm Zakiyyah’s latest book The Abuse of Forgiveness:

As I continuously faced forgiveness peddlers who effectively told me that I was a bitter, spiritually devolved person because I didn’t feel I had to forgive in order to heal, I came to a realization. The way I understood forgiveness was not the way that they understood forgiveness. While I certainly recognize the phenomenal power of forgiveness in its own right, I began to understand that the culture of forced forgiveness had robbed the term of its magnificent, luminous qualities and put in its place a tool of manipulation and harm—just as abusers and emotional manipulators had done with the term love.

Part of the reason that forced forgiveness has inflicted so much emotional wounding, even as it has indeed inspired ostensible healing, is that the word forgiveness itself has taken on a life of its own. In forgiveness culture as it is practiced today, sometimes forgiveness means actual forgiveness, and sometimes it means something else entirely. Oddly, many who are at the forefront of insisting that forgiveness is the “cure all” to survivors of trauma do not have a clear idea of what the word actually means—to themselves or others. However, most forgiveness peddlers have a pretty clear idea regarding what they imagine it actually does (i.e. heal emotional trauma), which is why they push it so relentlessly and insist that it is the antidote for healing from abuse and wrongdoing.

Some forgiveness peddlers have a clear idea of what they mean by forgiveness, but then erroneously (and sometimes arrogantly) project their definition onto others. When they guilt, demand, or pressure others to forgive in the name of healing, what they fail to realize is that the recipient of the advice might understand the term in a completely different way. As such, even if the survivor were to implement the advice, forgiveness often cannot (and does not) produce the desired result (i.e. emotional healing).

Like discussions of love in abusive, toxic and dysfunctional families and relationships, discussions of forgiveness have become convoluted, ambiguous, contradictory, confusing, and even damaging when linked inextricably to emotional healing. And like love, forgiveness is declared and encouraged much more than it is clearly defined and understood.

Most seriously, even when forgiveness is clearly defined by the one speaking about it, it is very rare that the speaker shows compassion and empathy toward the one he or she is speaking to—except to display obligatory patience with the hurt that the person is feeling, while “humbly” insisting that the person will one day “come around” to be freed from the anger and bitterness that (allegedly) binds them to their wounds.

In this, forgiveness peddlers fail to realize the high possibility that it is they who are less emotionally evolved than the survivor who has chosen not to forgive. In many cases, the survivor is merely emotionally mature and spiritually intelligent enough to realize that his or her emotional wellbeing is in no way connected to the abuser or wrongdoer. Survivors who have both healed and chosen not to forgive their abuser have merely embraced their right to human choice. Their hearts are no more fettered to anger and bitterness than those who peddle forgiveness as the cure to those very ailments.

Moreover, many survivors are merely “fully feeling” individuals, as author Pete Walker would describe them, who embrace their full range of natural human emotions and feelings. These include pain, sadness, and even anger, as none of these should be cast away completely in a mentally and emotionally healthy individual.

The problem with many forgiveness peddlers is that they link all emotional healing to having a heart completely free of “negativity.” As such, they imagine that any experience or expression of negative feelings means you are a negative, bitter person. This view is similar to their assumption that the act of not forgiving makes a person “unforgiving.”

For this reason, it is sometimes the survivor who hasn’t forgiven the abuser who is more emotionally evolved than the advisor who insists that forgiveness is the only path to healing. All anger and blame do not equal bitterness, as some experience with and expression of these—even after healing from abuse—merely reflect healthy acceptance of one’s authentic human feelings, and the freedom to embrace all of them.

Ironically, it is often the practitioners of forced forgiveness who are most bound to toxic anger and bitterness. Their forbidding themselves the expression of these emotions in their healthy forms most likely means they have not purged them from their heart in their toxic forms. Thus, what they are really feeling is not a heart free of anger and bitterness, but a soul trapped in denial and suppression. This denial and suppression is masked by positive words and external behaviors that mimic gratefulness, love, and forgiveness—as the culture of forced forgiveness demands.

Unfortunately, forced forgiveness has produced a dysfunctional forgiveness culture wherein so many of us have become expert pretenders, and the ones whom we fool most are ourselves. As a result, we have droves of humans who have ostensibly forgiven everyone who has hurt or wronged them, but they deny their own healthy feelings if they are not one hundred percent positive and free of apparent anger and blame.

In his book The Tao of Fully Feeling, author Pete Walker aptly describes this dysfunctional aspect of forgiveness culture today when he says, “Most experts on forgiveness seem to be oblivious to the differences between healthy and dysfunctional blame” (2015).

Spiritual Definition of Forgiveness

What all the dictionary definitions of forgiveness have in common is that they deal only with the worldly realm of human existence and experience—for both the one granting forgiveness and the one being forgiven. However, as it is understood by those who believe in God and in humanity’s ultimate entry into Paradise or Hellfire, forgiveness is essentially a spiritual experience, and it is rooted in the Hereafter and granted solely by God. Thus, for many people of faith, any worldly use of the term forgiveness is merely a reflection or extension of this foundational spiritual understanding.

In the spiritual understanding of the term, forgiveness is God’s divine decision to suspend a human’s deserved punishment in the Hereafter for a sin (or set of sins) committed in the world. While the spiritual definition of forgiveness is rooted in humanity’s accountability to God in the Hereafter, what humans are actually accountable for in the afterlife is rooted entirely in how they lived out their lives in this world. Thus, their accountability before God is rooted in their worldly experience, both internally and externally.

Nevertheless, this accountability in front of God in the Hereafter includes humans’ accountability to each other in the world. As such, an aspect of the spiritual understanding of God’s forgiveness includes the worldly understanding of human forgiveness.

For example, in all major faith traditions, humans are required to respect their brothers and sisters in humanity with whom they share the earth. For this reason, following rules that prohibit stealing, killing, lying, slandering, and so on are essential to authentic faith practice.

In Islamic tradition, any disobedience to God is by definition dhulm—wrongdoing or oppression—and every dhulm has the threat of punishment in the Hereafter. This dhulm is manifested in two possible behavior types: wronging oneself or wronging others. Both are forbidden and thus can subject a person to punishment in the Hereafter. Punishment in the afterlife includes one or more of the following: torment in the grave, torment on the Day of Judgment, and/or torment in Hellfire.

Generally speaking, the first type of dhulm behavior harms only oneself while the second type harms both oneself and others. Although all sin falls under the category of dhulm and thus brings potential harm upon the wrongdoer’s soul in the Hereafter, the second type of dhulm (wronging others) exacerbates that self harm in that it multiplies the wrongdoer’s sins and supplants an added barrier to God’s forgiveness.

For the generally sinful (i.e. those who have wronged only themselves), there is only the single barrier of the necessity of sincere repentance in the world as a condition of God’s forgiveness. However, for the sinful who have transgressed the rights of someone else, there is the added barrier of the victim being granted the right to demand full requital for the wrong—in addition to the necessity of the wrongdoer sincerely repenting to God.

Spiritually speaking, this means that the abuser or wrongdoer has two levels of punishment: one from the victim of the wrongdoing, and the other from God. Additionally, in Islamic tradition, a person who has wronged someone is not forgiven by God until the victim of the wrongdoing first forgives the person.

Therefore, when understanding the concept of forgiveness in light of one human wronging another, there is worldly forgiveness, and there is Hereafter forgiveness. Worldly forgiveness simply entails the victim voluntarily relinquishing any claims to the wrongdoer being issued either a legal punishment for the crime or a punishment in response to du’aa (prayerful supplication). Hereafter forgiveness simply entails the victim voluntarily relinquishing any claims to spiritual recompense (in the form of the wrongdoer paying for the crimes in the afterlife). However, all forgiveness has the natural spiritual recompense (for the victim) of increased mercy and forgiveness from God.

Whenever a victim forgives a wrongdoer (i.e. voluntarily relinquishes rights to worldly or spiritual requital), God rewards them manifold for this, as this is not something that is required of them. However, under no circumstances does God punish a victim of wrongdoing, even if this “punishment” is merely afflicting their hearts with toxic anger and bitterness until they agree to forgive the wrongs.

Oprah’s Healing and Forced Forgiveness

Undoubtedly, one of the most influential American personalities on matters of self-awareness, personal improvement, and emotional healing is Oprah Winfrey. The widespread positive influence of her inspirational nature and serene charisma are arguably unparalleled in television history. The positive effect that she has on others is usually reserved for in-person relationships, whether in therapy or friendships. In sharing her own healing journey following abuse and loss, Oprah has awakened in the American consciousness the need to embrace love and forgiveness as a way of life. As such, her story has effectively become one of the most powerful real-life proofs that forced forgiveness is a good thing.

In defining forgiveness, Oprah refers to one man’s definition that resonated most with her when he was a guest on her show: “It really means letting go of the past we thought we wanted.” In reflecting on this, Oprah says in an episode from Oprah’s Lifeclass, “That was a transcendent moment for me — bigger, even, than an aha [moment]. He said forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.”

Oprah goes on to say, “It took me to the next level of being a better person.” She then offers viewers advice for their own lives: “I don’t hold grudges for anything or any situation — and neither should you. [Forgiveness] is letting go so that the past does not hold you prisoner” (HuffingtonPost.com, March 2013).

When looking at Oprah’s definition of forgiveness, it is undeniable that believing with all your heart that the past could not be any different is a crucial part of healing. However, the problem with this definition is that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with forgiveness.

Faith, Forgiveness, and Healing

In Islamic tradition, there are six pillars of emaan, which can be translated as sincere faith or authentic spirituality. The first pillar is having sincere faith or belief in Allah (the Arabic term for God or the One who has sole right to worship), and the last pillar is having sincere faith in the qadr. It is this last pillar of faith that encompasses Oprah’s definition of forgiveness.

In simple terms, qadr can be translated as divine decree or predestination. It refers to the fact that everything that occurs in life unfolds exactly according to what has already been written and decreed by God. However, qadr does not negate human choice or accountability; it includes it. Nevertheless, once an event has passed, it is quintessential to emaan itself to fully accept with a humble, sincere heart that things could not have turned out differently. Thus, it is upon the one endowed with true and sincere spirituality to move forward in acceptance of qadr and glean the necessary life lessons from that experience.

Interestingly, one of the most famous prophetic narrations regarding the six pillars of faith mentions these words following the necessity to believe in the qadr: “both the good and evil thereof.” In other words, it is a fundamental part of emaan to humbly accept the natural duality of human life: pleasure and pain; happiness and sadness; health and sickness; and so on. Thus, for those already endowed with authentic spirituality, Oprah’s transcendent, “bigger than an aha” moment is merely a basic, rudimentary part of living life with a heart full of faith. Forgiveness, however, is another matter entirely.

Success and Sincerity in Forced Forgiveness

Though Oprah’s definition of forgiveness is not actually forgiveness, this does not mean that her (or anyone else’s) emotional healing is incomplete, faulty, or disingenuous. Nor does it mean that Oprah has not also engaged in forgiveness in addition to engaging in acceptance. It is fully possible (and I would imagine it is quite likely) that Oprah’s acceptance of the past has indeed also meant forgiveness for her. Thus, what is important here is not any alleged faultiness in Oprah’s personal experience, but the inherent faultiness in seeking to make her personal truth our personal truth.

While there are some for whom Oprah’s journey of “forgiveness” (i.e. acceptance that includes forgiveness) fully resonates, this does not make the culture of forced forgiveness any less dysfunctional or harmful in itself. Just as each human has a genetic makeup and physiological sensitivities unique to him or her, so it is with emotional and spiritual needs and sensitivities for each individual. There are certainly foundational emotional and spiritual truths that apply to all human beings, but the teachings of forced forgiveness culture are not among them.

Whenever we tap into narcissism instead of authentic spirituality to guide others on their healing journeys, we inevitably fall into subtle abuse through manipulation and harm, even when we have the best of intentions and sincerest of hearts. For this reason, nearly all spiritual traditions emphasize focusing on the self and respecting the sanctity of others’ lives, families, and properties. These faith traditions have a multitude of proverbs and principles that guide how we are to use our tongues and limbs in this world, as well as our hearts and minds, for this noble purpose.

In the context of emotional healing, we would do well to reflect on the fact that respecting the sacredness of someone else’s life, family, and property is not limited to the physical realm of existence. The bodily home that encloses the human spirit-soul is no more our right to violate than the physical home that encloses others’ intimate life, family, and personal property. While our personal experiences and successes might be fully authentic for our lives (and those with similar realities), the authenticity and rightness of our personal paths to healing do not equal them being authentic and right for others’ paths to healing.


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 parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Read HIS OTHER WIFE novel now: CLICK HERE. Subscribe to Umm Zakiyyah’s YouTube channel, follow her on Instagram or Twitter, and join her Facebook page.

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