SubhanAllah (Glory be to God)—the last 10 days of Ramadan have begun. One of these nights will be Laylat al-Qadr (The Night of Power) insha’Allah (God willing)—a time for intensified reflection, worship and giving. Aisha radi allahu anha (may God be pleased with her), realizing the magnanimity of this time, asked the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him): “O Messenger of Allah, if I know what night is the night of Qadr, what should I say during it?” He said: “Say:
اللهم إنك عفو تحب العفو فاعف عني
Allahumma innaka `afuwwun, tuhib al-`afwa fa`fu `anny
O Allah, You are the One who pardons, and You love to pardon, so pardon me.” (Bukhari)
Out of all of the things the Prophet ﷺ could have advised, he taught us to ask for ‘afw. ‘Afw is sometimes translated as ‘forgiveness,’ but so is maghfira [i.e. when we say astgahfirullah, I seek forgiveness from God]. Unfortunately, there is something that is lost in translation, because ‘afw is more expansive than maghfira—and here we will see why.
One of the meanings ‘afw is the complete removal of something—removing its traces. For example,
هذه أرضٌ عَفْو
This is a land with no traces on it, i.e. it is untouched.
So what does this have to do with the du’a (supplication), “O Allah you are ‘afw, and You love al-’afw, so have ‘afw on me”?
When we ask for maghfira, we are asking for Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) to cover up our sin for us and to protect us from the effect of our sin. We ask Allah (swt) that even though we committed that sin, that He not punish us for it. When we ask for ‘afw, we are asking Allah (swt) to completely erase the sin, such that its traces are also removed. This means that our slate is literally wiped clean—there will be no questioning for those sins on the Day of Judgment insha’Allah.
The Prophet ﷺ teaches us about this difference in two ahadeeth (narrations). In the first hadith, the Prophet ﷺ tells us about a person who is questioned by Allah (swt) on the Day of Judgment. Allah tells His servant, “O my servant, do you remember when you did such and such a sin?” and the servant will lower his head in shame, nodding, thinking that surely he will be of the people punished. Then Allah (swt) tells him, “I concealed these sins from people in dunya (world), and I will not shame you here. I have forgiven you (ghafartu lak),” (Ahmad).
That is maghfira.
In the second hadith, the Prophet ﷺ is told that 70,000 of his ummah (global community of Muslim believers) will enter jannah (paradise) without reckoning because:
عفا الله عنهم
Allah has pardoned them.
And then the Prophet ﷺ asks for more, so with every thousand people of those pardoned, Allah will pardon 70,000 more.
Laylat al-Qadr and ‘afw
Sufyan ath-Thawri said, “During this night [i.e. Laylat al-Qadr] the most beloved thing for me to ask for is what the Prophet ﷺ told us to ask for.”
This is a night of ambition. We don’t simply ask for forgiveness, but for removing even the traces of our sin. We ask for a clean slate. The Prophet ﷺ tells us of a person who goes to the Eid prayer after Ramadan and he does not have one sin in his book—it was all pardoned.
When Allah (swt) tells us about ‘afw in the Qur’an, it is usually with something major—as if to tell us, there is no sin too great. It can all be wiped away.
When the Children of Israel worshipped the calf, Allah tells us:
“And [recall] when We made an appointment with Moses for forty nights. Then you took [for worship] the calf after him, while you were wrongdoers. Then We forgave [pardoned/'afawna] you after that so perhaps you would be grateful.” (Qur’an 2:51-52)
Allah pardoned, wiped away the greatest sin—the sin of shirk (polytheism). So if you come to Allah (swt) sincerely in these last 10 nights, if you come to the One who loves to pardon, then insha’Allah He will erase that sin you are so worried about, and those many sins for you.
O Allah! You are the One who pardons, and You love to pardon, so pardon us!