الْعَفُوُّ is translated as The Forgiving and The Effacing. It comes from the word عفو meaning forgiveness.
Linguistically it means to let go / to leave something, so it means to overlook acts of disobedience or to erase them. It is similar to الْغَفُورُ and التَّوَّابُ but الْعَفُوّ is more expressive. الْغَفُورُ is that Being Who conceals sins on the Day of Judgment and though they will be in the book of deeds, others will not be able to see them whereas الْعَفُوّ means to totally erase the sins from the book of deeds. Therefore there are different levels of forgiveness and الْعَفُوّ is considered higher than الْغَفُورُ or التَّوَّابُ.
Another way to understand is it is The One Who removes the consequences of sin meaning punishment is not given. There is considerable amount of overlooking of sins and Allah ta’ala’s general Sifat is to forgive and this Sifat is more expressive of that.
Different ways Sins are Forgiven
Allah ta’ala forgives sins with Tawbah or Istighfaar or through the intercession of the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alayhi wasallam on the Day of Judgment. Sins are also forgiven due to good deeds.
وَإِنِّي لَغَفَّارٌ لِمَنْ تَابَ وَآمَنَ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا ثُمَّ اهْتَدَىٰ
but the one who repents, becomes a believer, does good deeds and follows the Right Way shall be forgiven [ Surah Taha:82]
So Hidaayah comes through the combination of doing Tawbah, working on one’s Imaan and doing good deeds.
In the Qur’an
It is mentioned 5 times in the Qur’an of which four times it is paired with الْغَفُورُ and it is like intensifying or emphasizing the forgiveness.
وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَفُوًّا غَفُورًا - for Allah is indeed an absolver of sins, much-forgiving. [Surah Nisa’: 99]
It comes with Qadeer in the following verse. Allah forgives even though He is powerful.
إِنْ تُبْدُوا خَيْرًا أَوْ تُخْفُوهُ أَوْ تَعْفُوا عَنْ سُوءٍ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَفُوًّا قَدِيرًا
If you do good deeds openly or in private or forgive an evil, then surely Allah is Pardoning, Powerful. [Surah Nisa’:149]
Forgiving despite being able to take Revenge
A truly forgiving person is one who has the power to take revenge but still forgives. A person who is in a weak position, not able to take revenge and forgives someone is not the same as one who forgives despite having the power to take revenge. Through the verses regarding forgiveness, Allah ta’ala is inviting us to be forgiving to people because Allah ta’ala Himself is forgiving.
Another word used in the Qur’an for forgiveness is صفح which most Scholars say is a higher level of forgiveness than عفو.
In Surah Baqarah (Verse 109) Allah ta’ala says,
فَاعْفُوا وَاصْفَحُوا - Forgive them and bear with them.
Therefore there are different levels of forgiveness where you forgive but remind the person and you forgive and do not remind or malign the person who wronged you. It is difficult to forgive and be patient however the reward will be greater.
Story – Forgiveness despite having power to punish
Zaynul ‘Aabideen, the grandson of ‘Ali RA has a female servant who broke something and injured his face. She looked at him and said,
وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ - who control their anger. So he controlled his anger.
She then said,
وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ - and forgive other people. So he forgave her.
Thereafter she said,
وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ - for Allah loves such charitable people, [Aali ‘Imraan: 134]
So he freed her. He forgave her even though he had the power to punish her. (This shows how much knowledge of the Qur’an even a slave woman had in those days.)
There are many such episodes in the Seerah where the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alayhi wasallam forgave those who hurt him and fought against him i.e. Abu Sufyaan RA and Wahshi RA.
Story – Abu Bakr’s RA Forgiveness
During the episode of the slander of Aishah RA, one among those who spread the rumours was the cousin of Abu Bakr RA, Mistah bin Uthatha RA who was poor and Abu Bakr regularly gave him money. After the verse was revealed regarding Aishah’s RA innocence, hurt and angered by Mistah’s previous allegations, Abu Bakr RA took an oath that he will never spend on Mistah again.
Then Allah Ta’ala revealed:
وَلَا يَأْتَلِ أُوْلُوا الْفَضْلِ مِنكُمْ وَالسَّعَةِ أَن يُؤْتُوا أُوْلِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَالْمُهَاجِرِينَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَلْيَعْفُوا وَلْيَصْفَحُوا أَلَا تُحِبُّونَ أَن يَغْفِرَ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
And let not those among you who are blessed with graces and wealth swear not to give to their kinsmen, al-Masaakeen [the poor], and those who left their homes for Allah’s Cause. Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not love that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Al-Ghafuwr (the Most-Forgiving), Ar-Raheem (the Most Merciful). [Surah Noor, verse 22]
Abu Bakr RA despite his anguish and hurt feelings immediately responded by exclaiming, “By Allah, I would love it that Allah forgives me!” He resumed his spending on Mistah.
This was the mercy and forgiveness the Qur’an teaches, the mercy and ties of kinship that Allah is pleased to see in His servants.
Our Deen has a very balanced concept of social and human interactions. We live with families and extended families and everyone at some stage is hurt or wronged. Our Deen teaches us to be forgiving.
خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ
Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.
To be forgiving one has to be a person of Sabr and Tahammul.
Du’a for Forgiveness
اللَّهُمَّ إِنَّكَ عَفُوٌ تُحِبُّ الْعَفْوَ فَاعْفُ عَنِّي
O Allah, you are the Forgiver, You love to forgive, so forgive me.