The loss of mercy-and where to find it

SECTARIAN BLOODBATHS IN Iraq . . . suicide bombers blowing themselves up in parking lots of hotels, taking innocent lives . . . female madrassah students in Islamabad waving cane sticks at shopkeepers and vendors . . . people being turned away from Islam from the harshness of many of those deemed “religious” . . .

There is a loss of mercy and gentleness around. Yet we see anger and harshness abound, and one wonders what has gone wrong.

In reality, Divine guidance and Prophetic teachings are nothing but a manifestation of mercy – and any understanding of religion lacking in mercy is lacking in true understanding.

Our problem is that we fail to act on the implications of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) having been, “sent only as a mercy to all creation.” (Qur’an, 21 .107) The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself emphasized that, “I was only sent as a gift of Mercy.” (Bazzar and Tabarani, from Abu Hurayra)

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) explained, too, that, “The merciful are shown mercy by the AllMerciful. Be merciful to those on earth and the Lord of the Heavens will be merciful to you.” (Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud, from Abd Allah ibn Amr; rigorously authentic) It is a sign of the way of traditional Islamic scholarship that this is the first hadith (Prophetic teaching) traditionally conveyed by a scholar to their students.

Learning to Love

Mercy relates to how one views others. A leading Kuwaiti scholar whom I met last summer advised that, “We have to teach people how to love God’s creation, because this is central to the Prophetic example and teachings. “This look of love and mercy is a condition of faith itself, for the Prophet cautioned us that, “None of you truly believes until they love for their brethren what they love for themselves.” And the “brotherhood” mentioned here is the brotherhood of humanity, not merely that of Islam – as Imam Nawawi and other classical commentators have mentioned.

Dealing with Disagreements

In dealing with disagreements, Imam Razi mentions an important principle in his great Qur’anic exegesis: there is no contradiction between being firm on what one understands to be the truth, and between being gentle. Rather, the way of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is to be firm, when firmness is called upon, but with mercy and gentleness – in both attitude and action.

When one differs with others, one must maintain the excellence of character and conduct that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said was the very purpose of Divine Guidance, when he explained that, “I was only sent to perfect noble character.”

It is only with this gentleness and excellence that people, ultimately, listen to the call to guidance. It once happened that some non-Muslims greeted the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) with an insult. His wife, A’isha, insulted them back. But the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not. Rather, he simply replied, “And upon you,” which is the standard reply to the greeting of, “Peace be upon you.” Then, he said to his dear wife, “A’isha! Allah is gentle and loves gentleness in all matters.” (Bukhari, from A’isha) And he also taught that, “Gentleness is not found in anything except that it makes it beautiful; and gentleness is not taken out of anything except that it makes it ugly.” (Muslim and others, also from A’isha)

Imam Razi explains that the very purpose of Divine revelation is for messengers to convey the call to believe and submit to God. This purpose cannot be fulfilled unless people incline towards the message and are at ease with it. And this, in turn, cannot be fulfilled unless its bearers are merciful and generous; overlooking others’ mistakes and forgiving their errors; and being respectful of them.

This is how the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself was. Ailah commends him, saying,

“It is from the Mercy of God that you were gentle with them. Were you harsh and hard-hearted they would indeed have fled from you.”(Qur’an, 3.159)

The underlying respect of others, even those one differs or disagrees with, is affirmed in the Divine command in the second part of this very verse, “So overlook their errors, seek forgiveness for them, and consult them regarding matters.”

The Fault in Fleeing

Harshness within communities leads to disunity and discord (fitna), as people “flee from each other,” to use the Qur’anic metaphor above. The Prophetic example entails that we differ with respect for the other party. We should see the good in them; consider the points and issues of commonality, and not merely those of difference; and always assume that they, too, are sincerely seeking the truth.

And then when we act or speak in matters or situations where there is disagreement or difference – whatever it may be and whomever it may be with-we should stop and consider: how would the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) have acted in this situation? If we reflect on his example, we cannot possibly imagine him acting with other than excellence, mercy, and gentleness in any situation or with anyone.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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