There is no doubt that apologizing and seeking forgiveness for having done something wrong is an ethical act. It is something we should all do for any of our mistakes and shortcomings that became the cause of harm and nuisance to others. Apologizing shows us that the individual has intuitively realized the flaws of a certain decision they had made and their regret over it, and so, we qualify it as a moral and ethical act originating in their recognition of this fact.
However, we only qualify the act of apologizing as an ethical act when it is within a certain framework and meets certain conditions. If one’s apology does not meet these conditions, the act of apologizing itself becomes immoral and unethical. This is something Muslims at large need to be wary off, particularly the Muslim diaspora in the West.
An apology is only ethical when it is offered in response to one’s own mistake or criminal offence. If one apologizes in a situation where they know they have committed no crime nor offence, this is an unethical instance of an apology. Imam ‘Alī (a) has been reported to have said: “One who seeks pardon without having sinned, has imposed that sin upon himself.” This is because by apologizing, one gives the impression of being guilty of something, even though they are not guilty of anything. A very apparent example of this is the initiative taken by some Muslims to apologize for crimes certain other Muslims happen to commit.
An even more unethical type of apology is one that is done after fulfilling a religious responsibility and duty. This is an apology one offers after doing something they had to in order to fulfill the commands of Allah (swt), yet after doing so, they offer an apology because they realized that the other party was unhappy with them for whatever reason. In another tradition, Imam ‘Alī (a) has said, “Do not seek pardon for obeying the commands of Allah – it being a sign of honour for you should suffice.” A simple example of this would be Muslims who refuse to shake hands with the opposite gender, yet still apologizing for their behaviour.
Furthermore, one notices that the Islamic tradition is silent on whether one should expect and insist on an apology from someone who causes them harm. On the contrary, what we find are ample traditions on accepting an apology when it is offered. It is not strange then that we do not find any historical reports telling us that Imam ‘Alī (a) demanded an apology during his own caliphate from anyone who caused him trouble. This notion of being expected to apologize is important to note because another instance of an immoral apology is one where one is expected to give an apology by an individual or a community for a wrong ulterior motive – often political.
For example, when ‘Uthmān exiled Abū Dharr, he ordered Marwān to take Abū Dharr out of the city and not allow anyone else to accompany them. Despite the orders of the caliph, Imam ‘Alī (a) alongside ‘Aqīl and his sons came to accompany Abū Dharr – their presence also signifying a sign of protest against the exile. Marwān saw this as an insult to himself and the caliph was also angered when he came to know about this. The seniors amongst the Muhājirūn and the Anṣār began pressuring the Imam to apologize to Marwān, implying that he expects an apology, but the Imam (a) responds to them, “As for Marwān, I will not go to him and neither will I apologize to him.” In our own day to day life, we see these expectations being put on Muslims – often with ulterior motives behind them – where one is to apologize for certain positions or views they hold or certain decisions they make while being within their right to do so.
In the same light, another unethical apology is one that is to someone who sees you as worthless, denies you your rights, and sees themselves as the possessor of all rights. In one of the wisdom of Luqmān, narrated by Imam Ṣādiq (a), he is reported to have said, “do not apologize to someone who does not ascertain any rights for you.” This is because apologizing to such an individual does nothing but bring humility and shame to you.
Finally, one should only apologize if they know they are truly in the wrong. This is the case even if one is found guilty in court after evidence has been established against them. They can be reprimanded according to the law for what they were found guilty of, but despite this, if they themselves know they were not guilty in reality, apologizing in such a situation cannot be considered ethical. We also see that Islamic law is silent on the matter of demanding and insisting the guilty to apologize for their errors.
– Parts of this post were paraphrased and summarized from a discussion on the subject by Ustad Mahallati.
Featured Image: Tekyeh Moaven al-Molk in Kermanshah – Tiles depicting Prophet Yusuf (a) giving his brothers a feast in the palace.
 Sharḥ Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, v. 8, pg. 255
 Biḥār al-Anwār, v. 13, pg. 419