Rahma, Mercy and Love: Exploring the Conceptual Universe of Islam

Peace, one and all…

In a beautiful and oft-quoted verse, the Quran states:

‘Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, – any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve’ (2:62; see also 5:69).

I have always seen a remarkable openness in this verse, a reaching out beyond narrow human boundaries.  Indeed, it has always been one of the most impressive verses in the entire Quran, especially in the way it extends the promise of redemption and salvation to all who believe.  I also find the same spirit of openness in the following passage:

‘Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching’ (16:125, trans. Ali, with slight adaptation)

In this beautiful passage, Muslims are encouraged to share their faith in a gentle, and open-handed way.  And, even though Muslims have sometimes strayed from such spiritual generosity, the ideal remains and continues to inspire real, human dialogue.

As I grow older, I begin to see ever more clearly that true dialogue can only occur through the development of human relationships.  Indeed, when such relationships exist, communication moves beyond mere surface ‘dialogue’, to a place where our differences cease to be something that divides us; they become the ‘spice’ that makes conversation enriching.  In other words, true dialogue is a means of soul-sharing.

The Sufi tradition places great emphasis on such relationships – describing them by the prophetic term suhbah (or sohbet in Turkish, and related languages).  Sohbet is a means of both spiritual companionship and spiritual conversation – a way of being with our companions that moves beyond these surface differences.  It is in this spirit that I wish to offer a personal exploration of some key aspects of the worldview of Islam – as a means of sharing, beyond sectarian and religious labels, from one human being to all those who happen to read these words.

In talking to others, I have occasionally encountered those who feel that the Islamic tradition has little to say of love.  According to this view, although the Quran and prophetic traditions spend a great deal of time extolling the power, might and majesty of God, they say almost nothing of Divine love.  Although the Quran contains numerous references to God’s kindness and compassion, as well as to His maintenance of the Universe, it presents these as attributes of a distant, cosmic ruler – Who is so exalted as to make any real relationship impossible.  On reflection, I think this idea comes from a misunderstanding of the conceptual universe of Islam.  In particular, it arises from a misunderstanding of how Islam conceptualises compassion, mercy and love.

A brief example might help to illustrate my point more clearly.  In Surah al-Dhariyat, we find the following verse:

‘And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me’ (51:56)

Without understanding the full range of meanings behind the key term ‘worship’ (`ibadah), it is easy to misunderstand this verse.  Indeed, it has often been seen as a command for mere robotic service, as though God requires human automata.  When the semantic range of ibadah is explored, it then becomes possible to have a much fuller understanding of the Quran’s vision of life’s pupose (this is something I hope to do soon, insha Allah).  Furthermore, even those verses that refer to Divine Immanence, are sometimes believed to paint a picture of God as an angry watcher.

Personally, this has not been how I have experienced God, as a Muslim.  Indeed, this picture is not one most Muslims would recognise I suspect.  So, where, then, does this idea come from?  Whilst, in part, this may derive from older visions of Islam as a dry, law-bound faith, I also think this misunderstanding comes from a lack of familiarity with the conceptual universe of Islam, as broadly conceived.  So, with these things in mind, I’d like to explore a key aspect of Islam’s picture of the Divine – namely, Rahma.

Arabic words are based on trilateral roots, which give the basic meaning of the term.  The root of rahma, ra ha ma, has the following basic meanings:

‘the womb, blood relatives; mercy, kindness, compassion, pity, sympathy, to show mercy, to show compassion, to let off, to be kind, forgiveness, bounty, good fortune, blessing’ (Badawi and Haleem, Arabic-English Dictionary of Quranic Usage, p.354)

Forms derived from this root occur some 342 times throughout the Quran.  As we can see, therefore, it is an important concept.  Indeed, every chapter but one opens with the phrase Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful).  As we can see, there are two basic senses: family ties and relationships (expressed in Quranic parlance as the ‘ties of the womb’) and compassion.

This connection between mercy and the ties of kinship is made explicit in an interesting tradition, related on the authority of Abdullah ibn Abu Awfa:

‘The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said, ‘Mercy is not conferred on people when there is someone among them who severs ties of kinship’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 63)

Those who deliberately weaken the bonds of family love are thus deprived of mercy in their own lives, leading to a further hardening of the heart.  Conversely, as this statement attributed to Ibn Umar makes clear, maintaining the ‘ties of the womb’ encourage the outpouring of divine grace and mercy:

‘Ibn Umar said: ‘If someone fears his Lord and maintains his ties of kinship, his term of life will be prolonged, he will have abundant wealth and his people will love him’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 58)

Here, rahma is decisively linked with love.  Indeed, this mercy is the intimate, personalised and life-enhancing outpouring of God’s love.  Strengthening the bonds of family strengthens love, and loving-kindness allows the development of deep, spiritual bonds.  It is only through rahma that one can acquire love; it is only through love (or perhaps we might say manifested mercy) that true spiritual companionship (suhbah) can emerge.  Perhaps this is why religious communities are often depicted as being spiritual families, as the context in which rahma and love can grow beyond their primary genetic roots.

Islamic ideas of mercy contain love – indeed, we might say that they point to the embodiment of love in all its fullness. Compassion is presented as the embodiment of love…testifying to a greater love beyond.  In a number of significant hadith, the relationship between rahma and parental love is given further nuance.  In one such tradition, Anas ibn Malik relates the following story:

‘A woman came to Aisha (God be pleased with her) and Aisha gave her three dates.  She gave each of her children a date and kept one date for herself.  The children ate the two dates and then looked at their mother.  She took the date and split it and gave each child half a date.  The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) came and Aisha told him about it.  He said, ‘Are you amazed at that?  Allah has granted her mercy because of her mercy towards her children’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 89)

This mother’s tender concern for her children’s well-being is here underlined as the very embodiment of rahma.  In the English-speaking world, we would use the word ‘love’ to refer to the quality that drives a mother’s compassion.  Abu Hurayra relates another interesting hadith:

‘I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, Allah divided mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down one part upon the earth, and because of that, this one single part, His creaures are merciful to each other, so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it. (Bukhari, Book 73, 29).

This hadith adds to our understanding of rahma, which is again connected to parental love.  In this case, the way a mare cares for its foal is also described as mercy.  That is, compassion is an innate quality given to all living creatures – in a sense, mercy is the default setting of creation.  We are then told that this universal mercy is merely one small aspect of God’s compassion for creation.  Again, what the Islamic tradition describes as rahma, the English-speaking world would understand as love.

It is this compassion, this loving-kindness, that should form the basis of every action.  Qurra ibn Iyas relates the following hadith:

‘A man said, ‘Messenger of Allah, whenever I slaughter a sheep, I show mercy to it (by using a sharp knife to ensure the least suffering)’ – or the man said, ‘I show mercy to the sheep when I slaughter it.’  He said twice, ‘If you showed mercy towards the sheep, Allah will show mercy to you’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 373)

Performing each action from a state of loving-kindness brings a greater, deeper love from God.  A number of ahadith underline this reciprocity:

Abu Hurayra said: ‘The Messenger of God (as) kissed al-Hasan ibn Ali while al-Aqra’ ibn Habis al-Tamimi was sitting with him.  Al-Aqra’ said, ‘I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them.’  The Messenger of Allah (as) looked at him and said, ‘Whoever does not show mercy will not be shown mercy’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 91).

Abu Hurayra said: ‘The Prophet (as) said, ‘Anyone who does not show mercy to our children nor acknowledge the right of our old people is not one of us’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 353)

A’isha, may Allah be pleased with her, said: ‘A bedouin came to the Prophet (as) and said, ‘Do you kiss you children?  We do not kiss them.’  The Prophet (as) said, ‘Can I put mercy in your hearts after Allah has removed it?’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 90)

The connection between rahma and love is again given in this early commentary on a Quranic verse:

Urwa commented on the verse, ‘Lower the wing of humility to them out of mercy’ (17:24) (It means): ‘Do not refuse them anything they love’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 9, Ath 5)

Drawing these things together, we can see that rahma denotes loving-kindness, a mercy that flows directly from love.  Perhaps we might go so far as to describe rahma as embodied love, as love made manifest, the word made flesh.  Understanding the earthly operation of rahma also provides us a semantic context within which to approach more metaphysical expressions.  One report has this to say:

‘Abu al-Harith al-Kirmani said: ‘A man said to Abu Raja, ‘I greet you and I ask Allah to join us both of us together in the abiding Abode of His mercy (rahma)’.  Abu Raja said, ‘Is anyone capable of that?  What is the abiding abode of His mercy?’  The man said, ‘The Garden’.  He said, ‘That is not correct’.  The man said, ‘Then what is the abiding abode of His mercy?’  He said, ‘The Lord of the Worlds’.

In other words, the true abode of divine mercy is God Himself.  The true Source of Rahma is al-Rahman.  This makes for a very interesting reading ofSurah al-Rahman, the 55th chapter of the Quran:

‘The Most Merciful (al-Rahman), taught the Quran, created Man, [And] taught him eloquence’ (55:1-4).

Ahmad ibn Ajiba (d. 1809), in his spiritual commentary on these verses, has this to say:

‘The mercy thus comprised by the Name of al-Rahman has two aspects.  One is Essential, inseparable from the Divine Essence, and the other Attributive, by which the sustenance of creation comes about and God shows mercy to those He will … Since the Quran is among God’s greatest gifts, He relates the act of its teaching to His very Essence.  Indeed, the Quran is itself a theophany of of the Attributes of the Divine Essence, of Its mysteries and Its acts, and it unveils these spiritual realities to anyone whose inner vision God Most High has opened’ (The Immense Ocean, trans. M A Aresmouk & M A Fitzgerald, 2009, page 11).

Elsewhere in the Quran we read the following verse:

‘Say, ‘Call upon Allah or call upon the Most Merciful (al-Rahman).  Whichever [nam] you call to Him belong the Names Most Beautiful’ (17:110)

In this verse, al-Rahman is set beside the Name Allah, the All-comprehensive Name (Ism al-Jami`).  In other words, compassion, mercy and love flow from the very Essence of God – suggesting that Creation itself represents the manifestation of loving-kindness, of embodied love.  In this regard, it is worth closing with the following profound hadith qudsi (or sacred tradition):

‘Indeed My mercy and compassion (rahma) prevail over My anger’ (Ibn Arabi, Mishkat al-Anwar, 47)

Beloved, gather us all within the folds of Your mercy.  Enliven every heart with Your overflowing love!

Related Post:

Ask olsun,
Abdur Rahman


3 thoughts on “Rahma, Mercy and Love: Exploring the Conceptual Universe of Islam

  1. Personally, this has not been how I have experienced God, as a Muslim. Indeed, this picture is not one most Muslims would recognise I suspect. So, where, then, does this idea come from?

    —I would agree—Most Muslims have a personal, intimate and private relationship with God. IMO—The idea of Majesty may come from Christians who want to explain the Chritisan God as one of “love” in opposition to the Judeo-Islamic God as one of “majesty” so as to claim that Christian relationship with God is more intimate and based on love as opposed to the formality of Majesty of Judeo-Islam………I think it is an artificial difference to provide Christians with a feel-good narrative…..

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