Fazal Ahmad, UK
Characteristics of Revenge
Revenge is an untamed and animalistic bitter desire to injure another in return for a wrong done to oneself or loved ones. It is an unrefined characteristic seen across nature. In humanity, it tends to create an unending cycle of violence and retribution, just as can be seen in long-term conflict zones around the world.
Religion tries to refine mankind to adopt better behaviour. It is worth exploring the teachings of various faiths on this subject.
The Torah or Old Testament describes the concept of retribution as follows:
“If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Torah, Exodus 21:23-25)
Often this is interpreted literally as equal retribution, but was also in place to restrict compensation to the value of any loss incurred. Later in Exodus, there is also the mechanism of a payment rather than a literal reciprocal harm, except in the case of murder.
Actually, if the same logic had been applied to Prophet Moses (as) to whom the Torah was originally revealed, as he had previously killed a man by accident, the literal interpretation would have demanded his life be sacrificed, in which case there would have been no Judaism at all.
The Talmud opened the door for taking compensation rather than a direct injury and there was ongoing debate on the interpretation of this law. There is also the following alternative teaching:
“Aid an enemy before you aid a friend, to subdue hatred.” (Tosefta, Baba Metzia 2.26)
Similarly in the Talmud, there is:
“One should choose to be among the persecuted, rather than the persecutors.” (Talmud, Baba Kamma 93a)
Sadly, the Jewish people have suffered repeated persecution and pogroms in Europe in recent centuries, and for many of them, their tolerance for forgiveness has been challenged.
Jesus’ Reformation Message
Jesus (as) was raised and practised as a Jew in Palestine. He was uncomfortable with the practices he witnessed. As the Messiah or reformer of Judaism, his response is recorded in the Bible was as follows:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Bible, Matthew 5:38-39)
In the same conversation, he said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
(Bible, Matthew 5:43-44)
So, it is clear that Jesus (as) was trying to balance the need for revenge with the potential for forgiveness. The Jews of the time struggled to adopt this, and then centuries later as Christianity adopted this teaching, although within Christian states they began to adopt a penal legal structure, this did not seem to apply to international relations and there are very few examples of Christian states adopting this approach. If anything, many times in history, Christian states have been the oppressors and colonising powers.
The concept of revenge or forgiveness also emerged in other faiths. In Buddhism, they have the teaching:
“Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.” (Dhammapada 5)
Confucius (as) is recorded as saying:
“He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon Goodness will dislike no one.” (Analects 4.4)
So, there is a general theme in faiths to prefer forgiveness to revenge. But there is also a need for reformation. Islam was presented with the most complete teaching.
The Holy Qur’an covers the subject in many places to provide context to the process of reconciliation, but the summary is provided in the following verse:
“And the recompense of an injury is an injury the like thereof; but whoso forgives and his act brings about reformation, his reward is with Allah. Surely, He loves not the wrongdoers.” (Holy Qur’an, Al Shura, Ch.42: V.41)
On an individual level, this is easy to understand, and is easier to adopt for the believers. But what about the need for reformation, if someone is forgiven and keeps making mischief? The following hadith recorded in Bukhari provides the answer:
According to Anas ibn Malik, the Holy Prophet (sa) said: “Help your brother whether he is the oppressor or oppressed.” Anas replied to him, “O Messenger of God, a man who is oppressed I am ready to help, but how does one help an oppressor?” “By hindering him from doing wrong,” he said.
Impact of Forgiveness
As we can see, in Islam, we have the concept of forgiveness and also reformation. However, as with all faiths, there are few people willing to practise these beautiful teachings and there have been ongoing conflicts worldwide.
However, there are notable examples to provide hope to the world.
For many decades there was a system of apartheid racism and violence towards the indigenous African people in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was wrongly incarcerated for many years because he tried to fight this. As the leader of his people, he could have sought retribution when he was finally released. Instead, he chose forgiveness and decided to create a vision in which South Africa was a ‘Rainbow Nation’. The oppressors did not feel like they had been defeated, and now became collaborators with the people that they used to oppress in order to develop their country.
Finally, we have the example of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa). The Muslims suffered cruel torture, persecution and murder at the hands of the Makkans for many years. They then migrated to Madinah, but were chased there by the Makkans and forced into defensive wars to defend themselves and their new faith. Eventually, as the numbers of believers grew, they marched on Makkah and could have easily slaughtered the city. But the Prophet (sa) chose to forgive his oppressors and to enable them to live freely with the Muslims, much to their shock. Most of them were inspired and joined the fold of Islam.
These are examples where, in order to achieve a lasting peace, not only was there forgiveness, but equally there was no desire to leave the other party feeling like they had been defeated, and this led to long-term reformation.
In modern times, with so many punitive conflicts, the world needs leaders to shun revenge and to adopt a different course. This message has been championed by His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, in his Voices For Peace campaign. Let us hope that the world listens and adopts the campaign.
About the Author: Fazal Ahmad is the Editor for the World Religions section of The Review of Religions. He also serves as the Global Operations Director with Humanity First, and is responsible for poverty alleviation projects in 54 countries, mainly in Africa, South Asia and Central America.