Islam and Forgiveness: Symposium Showcases Reflections on Justice and Conflict Resolution

While scriptural texts compel Muslims to be merciful and compassionate in their actions towards others, little is known about the actual practices and effects of this mandate in their local contexts. Legal anthropologist Arzoo Osanloo (Law, Societies, & Justice) has organized a two-day symposium to examine the Islamic mandate of forgiveness. Called Islam and Forgiveness, this symposium will take place at the UW Feb. 6-7, 2014. Its keynote address, to be delivered by renowned legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl (University of California, Los Angeles), is free and open to the public.

According to Osanloo, although mercy—as commonly understood in Western traditions—and forgiveness are not entirely interchangeable concepts, Islamic mercy encompasses forgiveness and often takes shape through it. Osanloo says that for Muslims, some of God’s most important qualities come from the words Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, meaning “The Most Gracious” and “The Most Merciful.” These attributes comprise the opening verse of the Qur’an: “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” They are repeated at the beginning of 113 Qur’anic chapters and remind Muslims of their obligation to be just and compassionate towards others.

While religious and philosophical texts that explore the Muslim compulsion to forgive exist, very little is written about the actual practices and their effects, and despite religious obligations, many portrayals of Islamic justice showcase vengeful retribution. “As such,” Osanloo explains, “one might ask: where is the compassion that guides Muslims? How does Islamic mercy manifest in the daily lives of Muslims, those living in Muslim-majority societies and not?” She has organized this conference around such questions.

For this symposium, Osanloo is bringing together scholars who explore the relationship between Islam and justice in post-conflict contexts, with an eye on how the Muslim compulsion to forgive fits into a social reality in Muslim societies. Participants, among them Thomas Barfield (Boston University) and Bertram Turner (Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology), will consider such topics as mercy and compassion through social and legal contexts to shed light on Islamic practices of forgiveness and reconciliation.

On Thursday, Feb. 6 at 6:30 pm in Kane 210, Khaled Abou El Fadl delivers the symposium’s keynote, titled “Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World: The Theology of Shahada in the Modern Age.” One of the world’s foremost authorities on Islamic law and a prominent scholar in the field of human rights, Dr. Abou El Fadl was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and also served as a member of the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch.  Among his many honors and distinctions, he was awarded the University of Oslo Human Rights Award and named a Carnegie Scholar in Islamic Law in 2005. A prolific scholar and public intellectual, Dr. Abou El Fadl is most noted for his scholarly approach to Islam from a moral point of view.

Osanloo hopes that the dialogues that emerge from Islam and Forgiveness will contribute to developing discourse on human rights, restorative justice, and reconciliation. “There is a growing community of scholars, activists, and journalists who are chronicling acts of humanity, forgiveness, and compassion among Muslims,” she says. “Because there are numerous people involved, from religious conservatives to secular anti-death penalty activists, we can unravel a multitude of motivations that are conditioned by Muslim-majority countries’ unique systems of governance and their relationship to Islam.”  


Islam and Forgiveness is sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and Law, Societies, & Justice with support from the Departments of Anthropology and Near East Languages & Civilization, the Near & Middle East Studies Interdisciplinary PhD, Comparative Religions Program, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, the Center for Comparative Law & Society Studies, and the Middle East Center.

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Image (above): A classic calligraphic expression of the bismillah or the verse that opens the Qur’an and every chapter with the prayer for mercy and compassion.


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