70 Excuses: A Backtrack
In 2016, I got ripped off in a business transaction because I didn’t have enough foresight or patience to write up a proper contract. I hired a freelancer to do some work for me, we agreed on a fair price and a fair deadline.
The deadline came and went and the project was still incomplete. I conferred with the freelancer and we set a second deadline. Again, the second deadline came and went and the project was still incomplete.
What followed was a saga of impatient and angry back and forth emails. I tried my best to value the work that she did, even though it was incomplete.
I kept making excuses for this freelancer, giving her chance after chance to behave professionally, but that did not work. Although I managed to sort it out in the end, I suffered a financial loss and couldn’t use any of the work the freelancer had produced.
We are taught in our families, mosques, and Sunday schools to “give your brother 70 excuses.” We’re taught the importance of being accommodating to others’ mistakes and forgiving them. For decades I believed the “give your brother 70 excuses” quote was from a hadith simply because of how often it’s mentioned in sermons and Islamic writing.
Recently, with a simple Google search, I found out that it’s actually a quote from a 9th century Islamic scholar that has become a common refrain amongst Muslims. To this day, whenever I mention this fact to friends or family members, they’re shocked to learn it’s not a saying of Prophet Muhammad (saw).
It’s incredibly problematic that we are led to believe that giving people “70 excuses” is irreversibly ingrained in our faith. Without well-rounded knowledge, this statement on its own causes many people to endure years of abuse.
While the idea of being compassionate to those who make mistakes is important, as a community we have shamefully exploited the concept of giving someone “70 excuses.” We sometimes, unfortunately, use it to defend people who are guilty of oppression, violence, or misdeeds that negatively affect others.
Allah (swt) teaches us that suspicion is bad: “O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful” (49:12).
We’re also taught that we shouldn’t expose someone’s personal sins: Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “…Whoever conceals [the faults of] a Muslim, Allah will conceal [his faults] in this life and the Hereafter. Allah is helping the servant as long as the servant is helping his brother…”
These are two statements amongst many that show us Islam is a beautiful, compassionate faith that values the dignity and honour of human beings. We should not seek the faults of others, spy on them, nor take pleasure in exposing their sins!
However, as the well-known statement goes: a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Prophet Muhammad (saw) once said, “A believer does not allow himself to be stung twice from one (and the same) hole.” (Bukhari)
(Our messenger’s words were often brief, but those words were saturated with meaning. Thought it’s a short statement, it encapsulates so much beauty.)
A believer is meant to constantly be learning from his or her experiences. If we are ripped off by a store that sold us an item for five times its actual price, we’re likely not going to shop there again, right? If friends “borrow” our things and money all the time and never return them, we’re going to rethink allowing them to have access to that stuff, right? If we tell our secrets to people, then they go make those secrets public, we’re likely not going to tell them any more secrets, right?
Simply put, it’s a natural inclination to want to distance ourselves from those who have mistreated us. Yes, we absolutely forgive, and we are kind, and we are patient with people as much as we are able – but there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. There is our dignity that shouldn’t be trampled on.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe very strongly that hiding people’s sins and imperfections (as long as they don’t cause harm to others) is a beautiful quality. I also believe that suspicion is a terrible thing to practice. Usually.
But I also believe that Islam is not a faith that allows us to be doormats on which others wipe their feet. Islam is a faith that imbues in us a sense of personal dignity and justice. If someone takes advantage of me, my family, or my wealth, then it’s incumbent upon me to not fall prey to his or her deceit a second time.
It’s incorrect to practice the concept of “giving your brother 70 excuses” without understanding the other side of that coin.
I’m glad that I had the experience of being ripped off. It taught me something incredibly valuable: business, much like life, requires firmness and accountability. There is always space for kindness and flexibility, but there is no space for being taken advantage of. Needless to say, I now always write contracts when I enter any kind of business transaction with someone.
This brings to light an important issue. When we have only tidbits of knowledge, we’re unable to practice our faith in a truly balanced manner—just like those who believe Muslims should only practice kindness and generosity as the default, but do not temper that with justice, common-sense, and accountability. Only pain and alienation can come from this kind of imbalanced understanding of our faith.
Prophet Muhammad (saw) to say:
O Allah, benefit me from that which You taught me, and teach me that which will benefit me, and increase me in knowledge.
While this is a short dua, it’s filled with a depth of understanding to which we should aspire. We ask Allah (swt) to grant us the ability to learn knowledge in a balanced and beneficial way.