Muslim forgiveness jars circle of prejudice

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Large convictions are tested in hard times. When we suffer at the hands of others it is natural to forget tolerance, forbearance, forgiveness, understanding and other values to which we may subscribe, and to lash out, vituperate and demand revenge dressed up as justice.

Raeed DarwicheThat is why it is so heartening and chastening to see someone whose beliefs we do not share, beliefs that some even believe dangerous and irrational, appeal to those beliefs when acting with a generosity of which we doubt we would be capable. It calls us beyond the polemic and prejudices that may mark our larger attitudes to reflect on how the people whose beliefs we scorn actually live.

Last week we saw the magnanimity and personal depth of Raeed Darwiche (pictured). While travelling to Rookwood Cemetery in the hearse carrying the body of Jihad, his eight year old son, he pleaded for an end to the vituperation directed at Maha Al-Shennag. The car she was driving had crushed his son and his best friend. Darwiche appealed to his Islamic faith in explaining why he forgave Al-Shennag and invited her to visit and eat with his family when ready. She later asked his forgiveness and promised to accept his invitation.

His response was both extraordinary but also human in the best sense of the word, just as the anger and hatred directed at the driver was human in the lowest common denominator sense. Anger and hatred see their targets as objects, faceless representatives of a class. Forgiveness sees its recipients as subjects, as persons each unique and precious.

Anger, hatred and the desire for revenge are natural responses to terrible loss occasioned by others. For most of us they might take years to work through. Forgiveness and hospitality so promptly offered are extraordinary and breathtaking. Whether offered by a Muslim, a Christian or an atheist, they are rare and challenging.

The personal largeness of heart of Darwiche in the face of the abuse directed at the person responsible for his son's death, and his reference to the Muslim tradition to explain his action, also invited reflection on public discourse about religions and other philosophies of life.

Discussion about philosophies is commonly objectifying. It looks not at the way in which people with different religious views actually think and act, but rather at the moral or rational value of the views as defined by their adherents or critics.

 

"His generosity of spirit calls us to move beyond seeing people as objects that embody beliefs to the mystery of persons whose beliefs can nurture extraordinary magnanimity as well as narrow hostility."

 

Christians, Muslims or Atheists are seen by their critics as robots programmed by their beliefs into predictable ways of feeling, responding and acting. If Islam is seen as inherently aggressive and non-democratic, so must be its adherents. If Christianity is seen as inherently homophobic and discriminatory, so must be Christians. If atheism is seen in as coldly rational, so must atheists lack moral sensitivity. If religions are inherently irrational, so must be the people who accept them.

Where these negative views are shared, any stories told about a targeted group will describe the actual people who belong to it either as embodying its characteristics or as rebels against it. They do not explore what inspiration people draw from their beliefs, or what accommodations they make when carrying them into their daily living.

In such a world we shall rarely be challenged in our view of beliefs and attitudes we scorn or to their adherents. The more admirable or more like us a Christian, Muslim or atheist appears to be, the further we assume they have moved from their religion and its beliefs. Our prejudices become iron plated, particularly if we confine our meeting and reading to people with the same views as ourselves.

Darwiche's response after his son's death is a circuit breaker in that sterile circle of prejudice. It does not question only our understanding of Islam and our objectification of Muslim people. It also confronts those of us who hold different beliefs than his with our own humanity, and invites us to wonder whether we, with our 'superior' attitudes and beliefs, could ever act as Darwiche did. His generosity of spirit calls us to move beyond seeing people as objects that embody beliefs to the mystery of persons whose beliefs can nurture extraordinary magnanimity as well as narrow hostility. It leads us to touch our shared humanity with all its contradictions.

Such a generous gesture also challenges our society to move beyond a conversation in which one group tries to establish its rationality and virtue by belittling the beliefs and attitudes of others. It invites us as citizens to explore with others the ways in which their distinctive view of the world helps them transcend the normal limits of generosity and human possibility.

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Islam, Christianity, atheism, forgiveness


 

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Existing comments

It was an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness and love. At a time of unimaginable personal heartbreak and grief, Darwiche thought of another human being experiencing the same heartbreak and grief over a terrible accident. That does show his depth of character. The death of a child, for family involved and the wider community, is an unspeakable tragedy. I think many people could not reach a place, in the midst of that kind of grief, where they could forgive. Forgiveness is a painful, long process and in being able to articulate his forgiveness now he has brought a measure of peace to both Maha and himself.
Pam | 13 November 2017


Thanks Andrew. As Matthew put it "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."
Kimball Chen | 15 November 2017


He forgave her, and invited her into his house to eat with his family. (No 'forgive her as a Christian, but never speak to her again' as Jane Austen's fictional Mr Collins might have put it). Something in this reminds me of the Middle Eastern roots of Christianity and Judaism, too. Perhaps in inviting Maha into his tent to break bread with him, he is entertaining an angel unaware, an angel with good news for all of us.
Joan Seymour | 16 November 2017


It would take someone like the late great Arthur J Arberry, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, whose work The Koran Interpreted is still regarded as the best translation by both Christian and Muslim scholars in general, to properly explain the Muslim concept of forgiveness which Mr Darwiche exemplifies so wonderfully. Professor Arberry was a practicing Christian. In his introduction to the aforementioned translation, he referred to 'the Power or powers' which inspired the Prophet Muhammad. Obviously Mr Darwiche, a Muslim, follows this guidance, just as Christians follow Jesus. Religious and ethnic prejudice often combine in the common Western view of Islam. It is a cultural hangover from the days of the Crusades and the Western colonial empires, when Muslims, as 'the enemy', were denigrated for political purposes. There is a large and active Muslim community in Greenacre where this tragic accident took place. They are part of us and do not need to be either marginalised or demonised. Perhaps this incident is a sign of how Islam can exist in the West? I am sure, Andy, that there are broad general principles to be drawn from this but I think it is important that we Westerners see this primarily as a living enactment of the truth contained within the Parable of the Good Samaritan by a Muslim.
Edward Fido | 16 November 2017


A lovely piece, Andy, reminding us that it is the Samaritan and the despised outsider who shows the elect, as Jesus parabolically taught, how to love and forgive.
Michael Furtado | 17 November 2017


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