The Concept of Mercy in Islam
By Shaikh Alomgir Ali
The Bible states, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
It also states, “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you.”
Those who are used to hearing the peaceful message of Christianity might find the above passages somewhat confusing. How could such a merciful god condone such violence? It can be argued that these passages hold a particular context which when understood, would shape the way we view such passages, in the intended way. A similar statement could also be said about the verses from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh).
However, some move beyond citing the correct context card as an argument and try to brush many rulings and texts under the carpet with one brush; the mercy of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). It is argued by many that a god of mercy cannot surely legislate rulings that impose harm, pain and suffering and therefore superimpose their understanding of God’s mercy to overrule established rulings and traditions. Herein lies the problem: how do we reconcile between the mercy of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and those contentious issues that make us question the mercy of Allah? In fact, should there be a scenario where we have to ask such a question?
It must be made clear from the very onset that the mercy of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is something beyond what we can imagine. He is the Rahmaan and the Raheem. He is the one who said, “My punishment - I afflict with it whom I will, but My mercy encompasses all things.”
And likewise the Prophet (pbuh) said: “Allah has divided mercy into one hundred parts; and He retained with Him ninety-nine parts, and sent down to earth one part. Through this one part creatures deal with one another with compassion, so much so that an animal lifts its hoof over its young lest it should hurt it”. And in another version the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “Allah has one hundred mercies, out of which He has sent down only one for jinn, mankind, animals and insects, through which they love one another and have compassion for one another; and through it, wild animals care for their young. Allah has retained ninety-nine mercies to deal kindly with His slaves on the Day of Resurrection.”
However, the essence of Allah’s (subhanahu wa ta’ala) mercy has been a subject of theological debate for centuries. Some speculative theologians opined that in essence, Allah’s mercy is just a metaphor for Him to favour someone with his blessings since (to them) mercy is not without a painful empathy which moves the merciful, which surely is a deficiency for Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). Also, since mercy is a human quality and Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) said, “There is nothing like unto Him…” we cannot attribute this to Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala).
This figurative interpretation has its weaknesses, no doubt, since if we were to take the same logic and apply it to the other attributes of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) we would be forced to interpret them figuratively as well, such as the fact that He is al-Hayy (the Living), a quality that is shared with humans, which cannot be interpreted figuratively.
Although we should not interpret Allah’s mercy in this figurative manner, there are clear differences between His mercy and ours, since His mercy ‘is both perfect and inclusive: perfect in as much as it wants to fulfill the needs of those in need and does meet them; and inclusive inasmuch as it embraces both deserving and undeserving, encompassing this world and the next, and includes bare necessities and needs and special gifts over and above them. So He is utterly and truly merciful.’
However, a lesson that can be learnt from the above is that while Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is free from the weaknesses and the tenderness of our hearts which make us inappropriately merciful at times, it is important that we do not superimpose our understanding of mercy onto His mercy. For example, it may be the case that a parent has mercy for his/her teenage children and so does not want to wake them up for the dawn prayers since they fear that doing so will be very burdensome and difficult for them, even though they are technically mature and accountable before Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) for their deeds. This application of mercy is clearly wrong since it has resulted in the disobedience of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) especially if the parent told his/her child not to wake up for the prayer. In origin though, the feeling of the parent is naturally born from love and affection, however it was not regulated by the teachings of Allah. On the other hand, sometimes the parent may discipline the child for the overall good of the child even though the child may temporarily suffer and not see the wisdom in his parents’ treatment. In this regards, the parent, through his/her foresight has seen something the child cannot perceive whereas in the first case, the parent could not see the consequences of his/her action due to a number of possible causes; such as a weak connection with the Hereafter and the lack of veneration of Allah’s commands.
Based on the above, it is quite evident that in a lot of our discourses, we are in fact at times superimposing our limited understanding of mercy onto Allah’s mercy. For example, many people refuse to accept the laws of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) regarding the penal code, treason, apostasy and gender relations because it does not fit well with their understanding of mercy. Some even argue that the mercy of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) dictates that such rulings are in fact wrong and therefore are not suitable for this time and age. Does this imply that those laws were correct and merciful when they were revealed but later they lost their qualities of justice and mercy as time passed by? A strange affair indeed!
It is important to note that we do not conflate two issues at hand here -- the mercy (rahmah) of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and His ra’fah (compassion). Allah (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) is both Rahmaan and Raheem as well Ra’oof (compassionate). Failure to recognize the difference between the two can lead to a huge misunderstanding. Ra’fah is a finer aspect of mercy whereas mercy is more encompassing. Whilst mercy can sometimes involve inflicting suffering (like the disciplining of a child or surgery on a person), ra’fah on the other hand is enjoyed and appreciated by everyone.
Hence it is important that we realise that at times we may not perceive His mercy or wisdom behind a particular ruling or incident and therefore must train ourselves to submit to Him
(subhanahu wa ta’ala) whether we like it or not. If a child is expected to be patient with the discipline of his parents, what then of a human with his Creator!
Reflect over the following verse: “And [recall] when Moses said to his people, ‘O my people, indeed you have wronged yourselves by your taking of the calf [for worship]. So repent to your Creator and kill yourselves. That is best for [all of] you in the sight of your Creator.’ Then He accepted your repentance; indeed, He is the Acceptor of repentance, the Merciful.”
Ibn Katheer (rahimahullah) said regarding this: “An-Nasa’i, Ibn Jarir and Ibn Abi Hatim recorded Ibn Abbas as saying, “Allah told the Children of Israel that their repentance would be to slay by the sword every person they meet, be he father or son. They should not care whom they kill. Those were guilty whose guilt Musa and Haroon were not aware of, they admitted their sin and did as they were ordered. So Allah forgave both the killer and the one killed.”
There can be no doubt of the magnitude of the action which was required from them and anyone whose faith in Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is weak or has been tarnished by misunderstanding would have struggled to have performed such a tremendous task. Many of us would have failed in fulfilling such a task whilst admitting to their own weakness. But the greater calamity would have been if someone were to have refused to accept the decree that Allah (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) ordained and even be bold enough to claim that it was wrong because it did not fall in line with His mercy! We have to realise that life is a test that pushes you to your limits to see whether you have the certainty, courage, faith and resilience to accept what is due from you in order for you to succeed in the Hereafter. Never accept that everything in Islam will appeal to you at first, and there even may be matters that will never really settle with you. In such situations remember the verse of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala): “But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows while you know not.”
(1) Matthew 10:34 (King James Version).
(2) Deuteronomy 13:6-11 (King James Version)
(3) Qur’an (7:156)
(4) Agreed upon.
(5) Qur’an (42:11)
(6) Ibn al Qayyim went to great lengths to prove the fallacy of this argument in his book: as-Sawa’iq al-Mursalah ‘ala al-Jahmiyyah al-Mu’attilah. A summary of his arguments can be found in an-Najdi’s al-Nahj al Asma, p. 1/60 (Maktabah al Imam adh-Dhahabi).
(7) The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God by Imam al Ghazali (r), p.53
(8) al Nahj al Asma, p. 453.
(9) Qur’an 2:54
(10) Tafsir Ibn Kathir 1/401 (Mu’assasah al Qurtubah).
(11) Qur’an 2:216