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The concept of compassion in Islam- i
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Is compassion central to Islam? Many people think jihad is more central to it than compassion. At least this is the general impression of people including of course Muslims. But this is not so. Compassion is far more central to Islam than jihad. It is certain happenings in history of Islam and also in contemporary world that this impression about jihad goes round.

In fact compassion represents the true spirit of Islam and compassion is far more vital to Islamic teachings than any thing else. In fact compassion in Islam, after the concepts of unity of God (tawhid) and risalah (messengership of Muhammad) is as central to Islam as it is to Buddhism. We will throw light on compassion in Islam in the following passages.

There are certain key words in the Qur’an which are greatly stressed of which four are very often repeated i.e. rahmah, ihsan ‘adl, and hikmah (compassion, benevolence, justice and wisdom). Rahmah (compassion, mercy) and its roots abound in the Holy Qur’an. Among Allah’s own names are Rahman and Rahim (compassionate and Merciful). A Muslim begins everything by reciting Bi Ism-i- Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim (i.e. begin in the name of Allah Who is Compassionate and Merciful). Thus a Muslim is supposed to invoke Allah the Compassionate and Merciful at every step. He does not invoke Allah’s other names (Allah has 99 names according to the Islamic belief) as he invokes Him as Merciful and Compassionate.

The very first chapter of the Qur’an has the second verse as Al-Rehman al-Rahim (The Compassionate, the Merciful). The first verse too carries the sense of compassion when it describes Allah as Rabb al-‘Alamin (i.e. Sustainer of the whole world). The concept of sustenance of the whole world itself is based on His Mercy and Compassion for every thing He has created. In fact rahmah is so central to Allah’s existence that it embraces all that exists in the universe (wasi`at kulla shayin) see verse 40:7.

In fact He sent His Messenger Muhammad also as the Mercy of the World (21:107). Thus the Prophet of Islam also represents universal mercy. As the Messenger of Allah he is representative of His Mercy and hence the Prophet himself is known as rahmatal lil `alamin (mercy of the worlds). Thus a true follower of the Prophet (PBUH) has to be merciful and compassionate to the extent humanly possible. Any one who is cruel and has no sensitivity towards sufferings of others cannot be Prophet’s true follower in any sense.

This is a great pity that Muslims themselves except the sufis and their followers have forgotten the emphasis of the Holy Qur’an on the quality of compassion. The Sufis lay tremendous stress on compassion. Their very fundamental doctrine is what is called sulh-i-kul i.e. peace with all which means no violence and no aggressiveness. The majority of Muslims of course follow sufi approach. It is only some frustrated fringe groups of Muslims who keep on talking of jihad and power. 

It is important to note that in Qur’an there is no concept of war of aggression and no concept of permissiveness of violence. Even where permission of war has been given it has been given to defend and protect rights of the oppressed and exploited, and not for achieving power. There is no verse in the Qur’an which permits violence for conquering territory or for achieving power. In fact war has been qualified in the Qur’an by the words fi’ sabilillah i.e. in the way of Allah. Thus a war can be fought, if at all necessary, not for any personal ambitions or for grabbing territory or for personal animosity or for revenge but only in the way of Allah.

And what is the way of Allah? Allah’s way is of justice, Allah’s way is of protecting the rights of the poor and exploited. In fact the very first verse in the Qur’an permitting the use of violence reflects this very well. It says: “And what reason you have not to fight in the way of Allah, and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper.” (4:75) (emphasis added). 

Thus explaining the import of this verse, a noted commentator Maulana Muhammad Ali says in his The Holy Qur’an (Lahore, 1973, pp-211) “ This verse explains what is meant by fighting in the way of Allah. While most of the believers who had the means had escaped from Makkah, which is here spoken of as the city whose people are oppressors, there remained those who were weak and unable to undertake a journey. These were still persecuted and oppressed by the Makkans, as is clearly shown by the words of the verse, and not only men, but even women and young children, were persecuted. Fighting to deliver them from the persecution of the oppressors was really fighting in the way of Allah. …” 

Since any fighting has been permitted only in the way of Allah it cannot be a war of aggression in any case. It has to be only on compassionate grounds, not on any other ground and hence the doctrine of compassion remains central. If there is no other way to liberate the oppressed except through use of force only then use of force will be justified otherwise not.

The Qur’an again and again shows its sympathy for the weaker sections of the society in which it includes, among others, the orphans, the widows, the poor and the exploited, the slaves and other politically or socially and economically oppressed people. It emphasises different ways of helping them. This is all on the grounds of compassion. Compassion really means sensitivity to others suffering. A person cannot be compassionate unless he/she is sensitive to others suffering. And this suffering includes, as we will show, not only human beings but also animals and plants.

First, let us take suffering of human beings. The Qur’an shows great compassion to orphans, the widows, the poor and the slaves. It wants to liberate these poorer and oppressed sections from their situation. Zakah, a toll tax, has been made obligatory on all believing Muslims, men or women to help these sections. Thus the Qur’an says, “(Zakat) charity is only for the poor and the needy and those employed to administer it, and those whose hearts are made to incline, and (to free) the captives, and those in debt, and in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer – an ordinance from Allah. And Allah is Knowing, Wise.” (9:60) 

Thus all the categories indicated in the above verse except two i.e. those who administer it (i.e. collect the zakah on behalf of the Islamic state or bayt al-mal (state treasury) and ‘those whose hearts are to be inclined or won over (by Muslims for their help) all other categories are of weaker sections of society – those who suffer i.e. the poor, the needy, the captives (in war), those indebted (who but the poor are indebted), the slaves and the wayfarers. They all stand in need of help. A believer who is well off must be sensitive to the needs of these categories and must help them financially to remove their sufferings on compassionate grounds. Thus even for the payment of zakat compassion remains central.

Not only that the Qur’an wants to remove those who are arrogant because of their wealth and power and empower the weak so that there is no suffering in the world. It says clearly and unambiguously “And We desired to bestow a favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the leaders, and to make them the inheritors.” (28:5) Thus the Qur’an favours the mustad`ifin (the weaker sections) to the mustakbirin (those powerful and arrogant).

The powerful and the arrogant people are insensitive to others suffering and want to grab as much as they can – be it wealth, be it territory or be it symbols of power. In the Qur’anic approach the powerful are most insensitive and hence most un-compassionate. They are overpowered by the greed and hence can never understand others needs. Therefore, the Qur’an says that “And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in Allah’s way – announce to them a painful chastisement.” (9:34)

In several verses of the Qur’an one finds strong denunciation of the accumulation of wealth. The chapters 104 and 107 are devoted to denunciation of accumulation of wealth and not helping the poor and sufferers. Thus compassion becomes quite an important concept in all these verses. It is important to note that suffering could be both spiritual and material. Spiritual suffering certainly follows material suffering. It is also reflected in the Holy Prophet’s famous saying al-kalam ba`d al-ta`am (i.e., first eating and then prayers. If one is starving one cannot pray with complete absorption.

Even fasting during the month of Ramadan can be interpreted both spiritually and materially. Fasting in spiritual sense is a form of `ibadah i.e. a form of prayer and an attempt to shun consumerism for cultivating one's spiritual potentialities. But it also helps make one sensitive to other’s pangs of hunger and develop sensitivity to others suffering and this develops compassion towards the poor. 

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