Mercy for a Suffering World: The Islamic Model

Published April 5, 2020

By Dr. Suzy Ismail

In the Islamic faith, there is one phrase that is recited more frequently than any other. It begins every chapter of the Quran except for one. It is the opening for every prayer and the invocation that begins each action — whether it is eating and drinking, facing the most difficult of challenges, or starting the most mundane and routine of tasks. This phrase is “bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem,” a few short but powerful words so often recited habitually, routinely, and ritually, but, nonetheless, a phrase that conveys one of the most beautiful expressions of faith: in the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.

The mercy of Allah (SWT) is captured in this awe-inspiring phrase with which we are commanded to begin so many actions in our lives. The reminder that our Lord is the most Merciful and the one who is truly filled with compassion is meant to be on our minds, on our tongues, and always in our hearts. The question plagues us as to why something difficult must befall us or another human being, when we are in the midst of suffering or see the suffering of others. The most critical pivot in those moments is to return to the words of Allah (SWT) and the reminder that is not meant to be far from our thoughts. For in the recognition of a most Merciful and Compassionate God exists the answers that we are so often seeking. Encompassed within His rahmah (mercy) is an implicit promise that whatever befalls us in this dunya, it is meant to be, and is, a blessing for us, even as we experience the test. As the one who has created us, we understand that He is closer to us than a mother is to her child. We are reminded in an authentic Sahih Muslim hadith that “Verily, Allah has one hundred portions of mercy. From one portion, the creation has been given mercy between themselves, and ninety-nine portions are reserved for the Day of Resurrection.”

The Mercy of Allah (SWT) Is So Much Greater

Imagine knowing that here on earth, the acts of kindness and mercy we see and engage in, such as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, donating to charities, taking care of our families, and so much more, are just a tiny portion of Allah’s mercy towards His creation. In the beautiful narration of a situation witnessed by Aisha (RA), we see the mercy of a mother to her children and are in amazement of the fact that the mercy of Allah (SWT) is so much greater than that. “A woman entered, upon Aisha, with her two daughters, and she [Aisha] gave her three dates. [The woman] gave each of her daughters a date, then she split the last one between them. She [Aisha] said, ‘Then the Prophet (pbuh) came and I told him about that.’ He said,’ Why are you surprised? She will enter Paradise because of that.'” Although the mother herself was hungry, knowing that her daughters were also hungry, she willingly gave them the dates in an act of caring and compassion. We see glimpses of such mercy in humanity on a regular basis.

The infinitely greater mercy of Allah (SWT) can be understood in the examples of His rahmah in forgiving our sins and in rewarding us for our repentance. We are reminded of the beautiful verse in the Quran which commands us to never despair of the mercy of Allah: “Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful’” (39:53). When we give in to despair, it becomes easy to fall into a depression that questions the mercy of our Creator. If we find ourselves in this dark place, then it becomes very difficult to hold onto the hope of relief through repentance and forgiveness, and we may turn away from Allah. Yet, it is He who is Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, and in the darkest hour, we need the connection with our Creator the most.

The Man Who Killed 100

There is a hadith that beautifully illustrates the immeasurable mercy of Allah (SWT). Abu Said Al-Khudri (RA) reported that the Prophet said, “There was a man from among a nation before you who killed ninety-nine people and then made an inquiry about the most learned person on the earth. He was directed to a monk. He came to him and told him that he had killed ninety-nine people and asked him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. He [the monk] replied in the negative and the man killed him also, completing one hundred. He then asked about the most learned man in the earth. He was directed to a scholar. He told him that he had killed one hundred people and asked him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. He [the scholar] replied in the affirmative and asked, `Who stands between you and repentance? Go to such and such land; there are people devoted to prayer and worship of Allah; join them in worship, and do not come back to your land because it is an evil place.’

So, he went away and hardly had he covered half the distance when death overtook him, and there was a dispute between the angels of mercy and the angels of torment. The angels of mercy pleaded, ‘This man has come with a repenting heart to Allah,’ and the angels of punishment argued, ‘He never did a virtuous deed in his life.’ Then there appeared another angel in the form of a human being and the contending angels agreed to make him arbiter between them. He said, `Measure the distance between the two lands. He will be considered belonging to the land to which he is nearer.’ They measured and found him closer to the land [of piety] where he intended to go, and so the angels of mercy collected his soul” (Bukhari and Muslim). It is purely from the mercy of Allah (SWT) that his intention to do good was known and that the weight of that intention, by the measure of Allah’s compassion, carried him away from his past wrongdoings and towards mercy and forgiveness.

In fact, rahmah comes from the same root in Arabic as rahm (womb). In a hadith qudsi, Allah SWT says, “I am al-Raḥman and created the rahm – and I named it after Me” (Ahmad). We know that the bond of the mother to her child is profound, and the love, kindness, and compassion she feels is sublime and awe-inspiring. Yet, the merciful Lord cares for those He has created more than a mother cares for her child, His rahmah so great and all-encompassing that it cannot be conceived fully by the human mind or experience.

Prophet Muhammad: A Mercy to the Worlds

The story of the first humans created, Adam and Eve, is also a story of repentance and rahmah and lays the foundation for our understanding of what it means to seek forgiveness and to always maintain our hope that despite our frailties and wrongdoings, that when we sincerely repent, Allah (SWT) will forgive us. The story of Adam and Eve is a lesson about repentance and forgiveness, and the centrality of rahmah in the design of life by Allah SWT. Extending that theme, the world was also sent Muhammad (pbuh) as a mercy for all mankind. We are reminded of this in the Quran: “Indeed, in this [Quran] is message for a worshiping people. And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds” (21:106-107).

The mercy of the Prophet (pbuh) is evident in his actions with both those closest to him in his own family and those who were harshest with him from among the disbelievers. From being pelted with garbage and harassed in the streets, to being constantly cursed and belittled by the leaders of Quraysh, the Prophet (pbuh) never swayed from his mission to worship Allah (SWT) and to spread the message of Islam with mercy and compassion. There are many hadiths that document the demonstration of love, kindness, and mercy in the actions of the Prophet (pbuh). In Sunan Ibn Majah, Aisha (RA) narrated, “Some Bedouin people came to the Prophet (pbuh) and said, ‘Do you kiss your children?’ He said, ‘Yes’. They said, ‘But we, by Allah, never kiss [our children]’. The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘What can I do if Allah has taken away mercy from you?'”

Being merciful for the sake of Allah (SWT) includes actions that show genuine caring about the well-being of others. In a hadith, we are told the Prophet said, “…removing a harmful thing from the path is a charitable act” (Bukhari and Muslim). Such a simple act, removing a harmful item from the path of another, is a beneficial act of mercy for all, not in any way self-serving. In many situations where others may have reacted harshly, we again see the Prophet (pbuh) exhibiting the utmost rahmah. Anas bin Malik narrated, as recorded in Sahih Bukhari and Muslim, the following: “While we were in the Mosque with the Messenger of Allah, a Bedouin came and stood urinating in the Mosque. The companions of the Messenger of Allah said, ‘Stop it! Stop it!’ and were about to attack him. But the Messenger of Allah said, ‘Do not interrupt him; leave him alone.’ So, they left him until he had finished urinating, then the Messenger of Allah called him and said to him, ‘In these Mosques it is not right to do anything like urinating or defecating; they are only for remembering Allah, praying and reading Quran,’ or words to that effect. Then he commanded a man who was there to bring a bucket of water and throw it over [the urine], and he did so.”

Recognizing that the Bedouin did not know any better, the Prophet (pbuh) showed him compassion and tolerance in response to his action in the masjid. Today, we often see things that are much less offensive in our masajid and yet we react with less tolerance and compassion. Such intolerant, condemning reactions only serve to alienate the person and make him defensive. The beauty of a merciful act and a merciful word can also be seen in the way the Prophet (pbuh) responded to the people of Taif who had treated him so badly and caused him great physical harm. When Jibreel (AS) told him Allah (SWT) could command the angels of the mountains surrounding Taif to crush the people therein as a punishment for their actions, the Prophet (pbuh) said “no” because he maintained hope that some of the offspring of the people of Taif would believe. And his hope was borne out and his rahmah was rewarded in seeing that day when the children of Taif and the grandchildren of Taif accepted Islam and became among the staunchest believers.

Allah (SWT) Ordains that We Extend Mercy to Those on Earth

While we may be well-acquainted with the narrations of the seerah and able to easily recognize the rahmah of the Prophet (pbuh) and the signs and manifestations of the rahmah of Allah (SWT) all around us, it can be difficult to consistently extend acts of mercy to those around us. When we view someone suffering today, often if the suffering feels very far away, we throw some money at the problem and hope that it will help in some way. But, truly living in a way that demonstrates caring, kindness, tolerance, and compassion requires that we take action, extending kindness also to those who are not of our own families or communities. In the reminder of the oft-repeated phrase that began this article, there exists a recognition that no matter what we experience in this dunya, there is a Merciful Lord who wants us to return to Him and who will see us through our most difficult trials. But in the midst of our lowest moments, it is also our own mercy, towards ourselves and others, that must lift us up and bring us closer to our Creator. To truly be a mercy, we must live according to the phrase “bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem,” and we must deepen our gratefulness to the most Merciful Creator; and we must celebrate His praises with “al-hamdulillahi Rabb il-alameen (praise be to God, Lord of the worlds).

Let us always remember what the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the one in the heavens will have mercy upon you” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi).

Dr. Suzy IsmailAuthor Dr. Suzy Ismail is a speaker, consultant and author of “When Muslim Marriage Fails: Divorce Chronicles and Commentaries”.

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