Opinion and Editorial

Forgiving better than punishing

Ameen Izzadeen
Filed on July 31, 2007

THE 19-year-old Sri Lanka girl Rizana Nafeek has been convicted of a gruesome crime – killing a four-year-old child in her care — and sentenced to death by beheading.

An appeal has been filed in a Riyadh court – not by the cash-starved Sri Lankan government, which is known for its extravagance, but by the Hong-Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission. In the international outcry against the death sentence, it is Rizana who emerges as the victim. The story is Rizana-centric. There is little mention of the pain and agony of the parents who lost their child whom Rizana is alleged to have killed.

Parents cannot even bear when a child falls sick or is hurt. The love that binds parents with children is unexplainable. Nothing can compensate the loss of a child, not even the beheading of the Sri Lankan girl or the blood money.

But we who try to seek the release of Rizana through the appeal process and through a pardon must not forget that the parents of the child she is alleged to have killed are undergoing immense mental trauma.

The case needs to be handled carefully. We need to approach the parents diligently. We must not forget that the parents of the child are Arabs and Muslims – followers of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is known as a mercy to the whole world. The prophet, when he conquered Makkah, forgave its people who persecuted him, his followers, killed his uncle Hamza. During the early days of his prophethood, he went to Taif to preach Allah’s message, a message of peace, submission, forgiveness and hope. But he was assaulted and jeered. When Allah’s angels sought his permission to destroy Taif, the holy prophet said he was sent as a mercy to the universe.

It was this message of peace that Pakistan’s representative at the 1951 San Francisco peace conference highlighted when denouncing his country’s right to war reparation from Japan while Sri Lanka, in forgiving Japan, invoked Buddha’s message that urges us to conquer hatred with love.

The American Psychological Association defines forgiveness as the mental, emotional and/or spiritual process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offence, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.

Religious scholars may go beyond this definition to bring forth the spiritual value of the act of forgiveness.

The case of Rizana, the poverty-stricken girl who as a 17-year-old teenager took up a job in a strange country with which she shared only her religion, prompted me to turn the pages of Quran and Hadith, as some people in Sri Lanka view Muslims as stone-hearted incapable of forgiving. I won’t blame them for having such a view because the senseless killings in Iraq, the brutality of the Taleban in Afghanistan, the suicide bombs in Pakistan and bloodshed elsewhere in the Muslim world have contributed to the stereotyping of Islam as a violent religion.

I remember how as a member of a South Asian Muslim delegation visiting the United States on a State Department sponsored programme I had a lively debate with two professors of the Xavier University in Cincinnati who posed the question “Why is Islam a violent religion?”

Islam is not. But Muslims, unfortunately, to a great extent, are. We have failed to live by the non-violent teachings of Islam. Perhaps, we react violently because we live with a siege mentality — the shame of being culturally and militarily subjugated by the West.

Islam, on the contrary, calls for peace and order. God is oft-forgiving and most merciful and as His representative (Khalifa), we are urged to emulate His qualities. The holy Quran exhorts us to forgive those who sin against us, for forgiveness is the foundation of peace.

"Say: 'O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the mercy of God: for God forgives all sins (except shirk): for He is oft-forgiving, most merciful.'" (39:53)

"Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid those who choose to remain ignorant." (7:199)

Even when dispensing justice, forgiveness is stressed. Islam stands for justice which based on equality and punishment which is based on proportionality.

“O ye who believe! The law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty.” (2:178).

It is this aspect of forgiving even a killer that perhaps offers the last straw for us in Sri Lanka to hang on to in anticipation of freedom for Rizana.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "If there is any way (to avoid punishing someone for a legal offence), let that person go. For it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing." (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011).

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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