Perspectives on Compassion in Islam
Imam Ibrahim Amin
Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies
Bismillāh ar-Raḥmān ar-Raḥīm
In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
This is the standard invocation, of Divine authorship according to the Islamic tradition, with which Muslims are encouraged to initiate not only acts of worship, but also all acts of virtue, and with which all but one of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an commence. For the one that doesn’t, exegetes have explained that this is on account of its thematic continuity with the preceding chapter. As such, this invocation serves as the perfect entry point into a discussion on compassion in Islam.
However, at least two important questions present themselves immediately in any such endeavour, one generic and the other specific: What is compassion; and how can a view on compassion be said to be Islamic? In response to the first question, it may be said that compassion, which literally implies ‘suffering with others’, is a virtue. However, this is not a universal view, since there exists some cynicism concerning the virtuosity of compassion in the philosophical tradition. It is argued that ‘suffering with others’ cannot be an ethical position since it only serves to increase suffering in the world. The counter-argument to this view, and one that can be said to be representative of most religious viewpoints, would be that sharing in others’ suffering is a means to lessen its burden on them, and the opposite of compassion is not the absence of suffering, but rather apathy, indifference and even cruelty. Hence, compassion, at least by contrast, is a virtue.
The second question is predicated on the question of representation: on what authority can anything be proclaimed to be authentically Islamic? Such is the diversity within the Islamic religious and cultural heritage that it is only in terms of perspectives that we can properly speak of most things Islamic, particularly on a broad subject such as Compassion. This poses a significant challenge in a general discussion on the subject, because it is of paramount importance that no one perspective is unduly privileged over another. In a conscious effort to be critically aware of the need to minimise this risk, this paper is limited by what may be described as scriptural reason, remaining within parameters on which the rich variety of Islamic exegetical traditions is broadly, even if not in fuller details, in consensus.
Having registered these disclaimers, we may return to the invocative formula cited earlier. Fundamentally, its ubiquity in Muslim experience seeks to enshrine the primacy of God’s Compassion and Mercy over and above all other characteristics of perfection that are necessarily attributed to the Divine in Islam, as in other monotheistic faith traditions. This is immensely significant, not only because it tells us something about God, but more importantly, because it tells us that this is how God Himself wished to reveal Himself to us, as both the most Compassionate and the most Merciful. And since the ultimate purpose of this Divine Self-Revelation is to facilitate our own self-realisation – that is, coming to terms with the deeper meaning, immense potential and ultimate objective of our divinely-inspired and oriented but essentially human destiny – compassion and mercy emerge as existential traits intrinsically embedded within human consciousness. It is, therefore, this essential relativity of the latter to the former – of the inherently deficient but potentially perfect human qualities to the absolutely perfect Divine attributes – that constitutes the proper basis for broaching a topic such as ours from within the Islamic religious tradition; re-ligio, of course, etymologically meaning to re-tie, or re-bond, heaven with earth. One example of the Qur’anic affirmation of such relativity, specifically on the subject of compassion, is the description of God as Arḥam ar-Rāḥimīn (the most Compassionate among all those who may show compassion) that features a number of times, mostly in the form of citations from a number of earlier Prophets including Moses, Jacob and Job, thereby indicating the universality of its significance.
But the formula for Divine invocation under consideration signifies much more than this. Outwardly, it comprises of, apart from the proper noun for God in Arabic, (which, by the way, is not exclusive to Islam, but also shared, for example, by the Arabic Bible) Allah, two Divine Attributes, (ar-Raḥmān) often translated as the Most Compassionate and (ar-Raḥīm) the Most Merciful. Notably, the two attributes share the same lexical root; their variation in morphological declension conveys two dimensions, or rather modalities, of one and the same Reality. While there is no firm consensus among Muslim theologians and mystics as to the precise signification of this contrast, what is nonetheless broadly acknowledged is that it revolves around meanings that can properly be understood in terms of intensity and extensity respectively: ar-Raḥmān signifies the intensiveness of Divine Compassion and ar-Raḥīm the extensiveness of its scope. From this fundamental understanding, exegetes of the Qur’an then proceed to suggest ways in which this intensive/extensive duality may manifest itself.
Naturally, Muslim theologians have been at pains to emphasise the necessity of avoiding anthropomorphism or ascribing any form of human sentiment to the Divine when speaking of His Attributes, and so, they prefer to speak of Divine Compassion itself, first and foremost, and then its intensity/extensity, in terms of their final effects in the realm of Creation, as opposed to their essential nature, which is beyond our ordinary frames of reference. Compassion of God, for example, cannot imply suffering with creation on the part of the Divine, but is only representative of the final effect of such fellow-feeling in the human sphere of reference, which is mercy, clemency and assistance, understood in their most perfect and absolute sense when attributed to the Divine.
A natural question that arises here is: what is the purpose of dividing Divine Compassion into the intensive and extensive kind? What does this duality actually imply? Before we move on to assess their particular implications, it is important and interesting to note that, historically, the milieu of the revelation of the Qur’an upon the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), or at least some elements within it, found themselves unable to reconcile their notion of God with the intensive character of Divine Compassion signified by ar-Raḥmān. The Qur’an made a point to record their negative response to such a characterisation of the Divine. Qur’an 25:60 reads, “And when it is said to them, ‘Prostrate yourselves before ar-Raḥmān (the Most Compassionate One)’, they say, ‘And what – no who – is ar-Rahman? Should we prostrate ourselves to whatever you bid us?’ And it increases their aversion.”
To be sure, their perturbation was not on account of any neologism. Though the morphological variant of this root was not widely in circulation in their idiom, they fully knew what it signified. Therefore, the source of their disconcertion must have been the radical challenge it posed to their perception of the Divine.
Admittedly, their perception of God was a reasonable one. They had no qualms with the attribute, ar-Raḥīm, the Most Merciful, as they duly recognised that the Supreme Deity – theirs was a polytheist religious culture – ought be supreme in all respects, including in the dispensation of mercy. But, this mercy was something that had to be earned; its extension to Creation was a deliberated act of God. Its recipients must have somehow deserved to have been, at the exclusion of others, worthy of Divine Mercy. Naturally, such mercy also necessarily needed to be dispensed to someone. There needed to be a recipient, or recipients, of divine mercy and benevolence. In this way, Divine Mercy was equal in their understanding, still quite reasonably, to human compassion and benevolence, and thus fundamentally redemptive in nature.
In contrast to this reduction of Divine Mercy to the redemptive kind, the concept of Divine Compassion that the Qur’an wished to convey as an essential attribute of the Divine went far beyond such a reciprocal gesture. It situated compassion in the very essence of the Divine, thereby uniquely designating ar-Raḥmān as a full substitute for the proper noun for God in Arabic, Allāh. In 17:110, the Qur’an proclaimed, instructing the Prophet Muhammad: “Say: ‘Call upon Allah or call upon ar-Raḥmān; whichever you call upon, to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names.’” As such, both Allah and ar-Raḥmān became entirely interchangeable and exclusive designations for the Divine in Islamic thought; they could not be said of anyone else.
It was this radical essentiality of Divine Compassion, its identification with the very Being of God, proclaimed by the Prophet that had upset his Makkan interlocutors, mostly his own tribesmen and women, who failed to see how a deity could be so disinterestedly compassionate. In their imagination, God simply represented the supreme authority in a hierarchical social order. As such, their God ultimately needed to be seen as just within their self-defined social and cultural parameters, and so it was necessary for His Compassion to be qualified by the social constraint of visibly imparting justice. As a result, the nature of His Compassion needed to remain essentially salvific and redemptive.
In direct contrast to this, the Prophet’s proclamation of God seemed to quite brusquely dispossess God of His hallowed position in their established social hierarchy in favour of affirming His direct unmediated personal relationship with each individual human spirit. This amounted to a total upheaval of their socio-political order. It was primarily this impact of the Prophetic ministry that served as a catalyst for its suppression through the employment of all options at their disposal, resulting in the Noble Prophet’s (peace be upon him) personal, familial and communal persecution. This eventually led to the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) emigration to Madina along with his followers, but this did not put a stop to hostility from Makka and her allies, inevitably leading to a number of armed confrontations.
This tension between the Absolute Compassion of God and His Ultimate Justice does not exclusively characterise the theological preferences of Makkan society at the dawn of Islam, but also continued to shape some of the earliest rationalist theological thinking in Islam, particularly that of the Mu’tazilites. Within a conceptual framework that required God to be bound by popular norms of social justice even in His soteriological judgements that entirely transcended the this-worldly domain of reference, there was little scope for a true and holistic appreciation of the overarching compassion of God that He had wished to convey through His self-appellation as ar-Raḥmān.
Owing arguably to such speculative theological propensities and, on the other hand, to the increasingly legalistic tendencies that justifiably came to define much of the intellectual pursuits of the early and expanding Islamic nation, proper engagement with the wholly spiritual eventually came to be almost solely the purview of the originally ascetic and later mystical tradition. The historical reasons for this division of interests are beyond the limited scope of the current undertaking, but may arguably be explained in terms of the increasing rigour and sophistication of the Islamic sciences, leading to the birth of a culture of disciplinary specialisation that we are all too familiar with. It was, therefore, within the later mystical tradition that the full potential of the concept of ar-Raḥmāniyyah, which established ar-Raḥmān not only as an Essential Divine Attribute, but also as a Necessary Ontological Principle, was meticulously unravelled.
Though a significant amount of mystical ponderings on the matter will certainly be met with strong resistance from within the Islamic theological tradition, not least due to the rich diversity that characterises both of them, the basic underlying idea here certainly cannot be dismissed as simple mystical speculation. Rather, it is squarely located within scripture. In the parlance of the Qur’an, the Divine has inscribed Compassion upon His Being, as per the literal rendition of the verse, which is more idiomatically translated as: ‘He has prescribed Compassion upon Himself’ (6:12, 6:54). The Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) had further explained that this self-prescription preceded the Creative Act of God. He had said: ‘When God wished to bring His Creation into existence, he wrote, and this inscription is with Him above His Majestic Throne: ‘Indeed my Compassion supersedes my Wrath.’’ (Bukhari: 2973) Therefore, as an Attribute of the Essence of the Divine, it is the intensity of Divine Compassion – the kind that does not require the prior presence of a recipient for its expression – that had manifested itself in Divine Creativity ex nihilo. From this perspective, it is only through a holistic conceptualisation of the Divine Raḥma as both creative and salvific that we may begin to understand its proper Qur’anic import.
Furthermore, both the transcendence of the Divine and the immanence of His Revealed Word, His Ascent and Descent in a manner of speaking, are characterised by this Intensive Compassion. Qur’an 20:5 tells us that it was ar-Raḥmān that ascended the Throne of Majesty. And 55:1-4 sources in ar-Raḥmān the teaching, and therefore, revelation of the Qur’an, creation of humankind and its unique endowment with the capacity for linguistic expression. Furthermore, one of the most profound Qur’anic epithets for Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who is tasked not only with conveying the Divine Message, but also with practically guiding humanity to live by it, is Raḥma lil-ʿĀlamīn (Mercy for the Worlds), signifying both the ontological nature of Prophethood as well as the manifestation of Divine Compassion through it in the form of moral guidance.
Therefore, the recognition of the fullest exposition of ar-Raḥmāniyyah as the prerogative of the mystical tradition in Islam must be appropriately contextualised within the broader recognition of the Divine Raḥma as constituting one of the central leitmotifs of the Qur’an, which, as the primary scripture of faith, remains integral to all Islamic discourses, and therefore, to all Muslims. The Divine proclamation in the Qur’an: ‘My Compassion encompasses everything’ (7:156), is universal in its appeal and applicability. Furthermore, the Prophetic precedent of not only promulgating, but also living, the essence of Qur’anic revelation, later termed his Sunnah and its documentation Hadith, served to entrench even further in the Muslim consciousness both the Qur’anic view of Divine Compassion and the reciprocation this realisation requires of humans. In a celebrated Hadith, which is uniquely referred to in the literature as the Ḥadīth Musalsal bi ‘l-Awwaliyyah, which effectively means that it is the first ever Hadith that every single person in its chain of transmitters since the Companion of the Prophet till today has heard from his or her teacher, the Prophet had proclaimed: ‘The compassionate ones are shown Compassion by the Most Compassionate; have compassion for those on earth, the One in the Heavens will show Compassion to you.’ (Tirmidhi: 1843)
Apart from the labour of love that has preserved this practical tradition to this day, so that every teacher will endeavour to ensure that this is the first Hadith of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) that their student hears from them, we also learn something important about the Prophetic temperament from it. Exhortation to compassion constituted one of the first themes of the Noble Prophet’s (peace be upon him) instruction to his followers and visitors. Equally importantly, this tendency of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) was not arbitrary, but was rather in compliance with Divine instruction. The fuller verse conveying the Divine’s self-prescription with Compassion that was partially referred to earlier reads: ‘And when those who believe in Our signs come to you (O Muhammad), say, ‘Peace be with you. Your Lord has prescribed upon Himself Compassion and Mercy. Truly, whoever of you had committed evil in ignorance and repented thereafter and made amends, then truly He is All Forgiving, Most Compassionate.’
This essentiality of Compassion in the Divine meant that, on the human plane, compassion could not simply remain a virtue. Because God had created man in His image – as we are told by the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) (Bukhari: 6227) – compassion is an existential property of the human spirit and the unalloyed soul. In Arabic, the lexical root of Raḥma, r-ḥ-m, is also shared by the word, ar-Raḥm, which means ‘the womb’. Compassion is as integral a quality of the perfection of the human soul as the nurturing and nourishing qualities of the womb is essential for human existence. In fact, the closest thing to the nature and extent of Divine Compassion within our earthly frame of reference is its motherly equivalent.
The Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) had once told his Companions that God had divided Compassion into a hundred parts, out of which ninety-nine He had reserved for Himself, and only 1/100th of it had been sent down on earth. As such, all compassion that existed on the earthly plain was on account of that 1/100th part. And so, when they saw a mare lift her leg to avoid inadvertently hurting her foal, it was due to her share of that 1/100th portion of compassion. (Bukhari: 2236) On yet another occasion, upon observing the distraught behaviour of a mother who had lost her infant child and so frantically sought infants of a similar age within the group with whom she had arrived in Madinah, and when she found one she frenziedly put it to her breast to suckle, the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) had asked his Companions: ‘Can you imagine this lady ever throwing her baby in fire?’ Upon their emphatic response in the negative, the Prophet (peace be upon him) had remarked: ‘By God, indeed the Almighty is far more compassionate to His creation that this distraught mother could ever be with her child.’ (Bukhari: 5653)
Through these and similar regular exhortations, the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) had embedded within his message the unassailable notion of the intrinsic inviolability of not just humanity, but all of God’s creation. The realisation that the relationship of God to everything in His Created Realm was essentially compassionate without parallel, only symbolically reflected in motherly compassion, would entail a complete overhaul in an individual’s perception of his or her relationship with God’s creation. To treat His Creation with anything less than compassion would become akin to violating the sanctity of God’s relationship with it. The Prophet (peace be upon him) had established this point in a more positive tone, when he had said: ‘Creation is akin to the family of God. And the most dearest to God from His Creation is one who is best in conduct towards His family.’ (Bazzar: 2450; Abu Ya’la: 3266) The use of such a profoundly personal metaphor to express the extent of Divine compassion for His Creation acquires all the more significance when considered in light of the fundamental Qur’anic emphasis on establishing the absolute transcendence of the Divine, in particular its absolute negation of any possibility of physical kinship with the Divine.
Consequently, this centrality of the ethical value of compassion underscored by the inviolability of God’s creation had profound theological and eschatological implications. It found expression in the maxim, upon which there is near consensus in Muslim ethical thought, that while violation of obligations to God (called Ḥuqūqullāh) may be forgiven through His Grace and Benevolence, those concerning or affecting His Creation (called Ḥuqūqul ʿIbād) can never be forgiven unless satisfactorily compensated for or forgiven by the persons affected.
It is evident from the foregoing that compassion, not simply as a virtuous yet voluntary sentiment, but as an existential trait at the very core of our humanity, has a central place in Islam. The entire enterprise of Divine Revelation, Inspiration and Prophecy is founded on the premise that God is essentially loving, caring and compassionate towards His Creation, for whose ultimate good he periodically revealed His Guidance throughout history, culminating in the Final Message revealed to Prophet Muhammad. Without subscription to this central tenet of Divine Compassion, revelatory faith fails to make much sense.
Furthermore, the transcendentalisation of compassion and its location within the Essence of the Divine serves to firmly embed it in a sphere of meaning that is distinct from and superior to the earthly domain of its manifestation in human behaviour. Therefore, its reduction to human righteousness runs the risk of conflating the virtue with the act, thereby relativizing meaning by equating it with its form. From this perspective, an act of compassion can certainly be seen as positive behaviour, however, without its absence necessarily being seen as negative. Such relativisation, especially within an essentially humanistic frame of reference that is fundamentally configured by constantly shifting social, cultural and ethical norms, ultimately makes not only the underlying virtue, but also the modalities of its expression, subservient to individual subjectivities. On the contrary, enabling individual subjectivities to positively aspire to a higher, yet accessible, sphere of meaning for the derivation of ethical value serves to both unveil the full potential of human perfection as well as incentivise the conscious and conscientious realisation of that potential within oneself, with the recognition that abstention from such an endeavour is not simply value-neutral, but in fact disharmonious with and ultimately injurious to one’s human constitution that has as its spiritual core the ‘breath of the Divine’, in the Qur’anic parlance.
At the same time, the transcendentalisation of compassion also serves its arguably most important function of universalising the scope of its expression with little regard to the particular caprices and partialities of the acting agent. Since it is ultimately one’s duty to God, and not to His Creation in isolation from Him, that one discharges through compassion, any subjective decision to extend it to some at the exclusion of others becomes unacceptably arbitrary. In fact, since the idea of arrogating to oneself the right to arbitration in accepting and observing duties owed to God is inherently paradoxical, and dismissed in the Qur’an as effectively creating a partnership in Divinity, the very concept of ‘otherness’ in the context of compassion entirely loses its meaning. Since Divine Compassion unveils itself in its most fundamental expression universally, our compassion is expected to reflect that universality. To exclude someone from it as an ‘other’ is to disengage it from its Divine origin, and, as such, to proclaim one’s independence upon God with all its associated consequences. Subsequently, com-passion, which literally means suffering with others, is most fully achieved on the human plane.
This crucial distinction has found its most profoundly inspirational expression on the tongue of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In a celebrated Hadith, he is reported to have said: ‘God Almighty will say to a person on the Day of Resurrection: ‘O son of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit me!’ The person will reply: ‘How could I have visited you when you are the Lord of all Universes?’ The Almighty will reply: Did you not know that such-and-such a person from my servants had taken ill, and you still did not visit him. Had you visited him, you would have found me by him.’ (Muslim: 2569) The Hadith further enumerates a number of other opportunities for compassion, such as feeding the hungry and quenching someone’s thirst, that a person had missed in his or her worldly sojourn.
As such, the primary emphasis of Islamic scriptural guidance, when holistically considered, is not so much on individual acts of compassion and goodness, though they too are heavily emphasised, but on determinedly and consistently cultivating one’s temperament to bring it in increasing harmony with the essence of compassion as well as other qualities of perfection in line with their corresponding Divine Attributes.
Finally, within an Islamic framework, the value of personal fulfilment derived through an act of compassion is not limited by its celebration as a meritorious human accomplishment, but transcends beyond the acting self to entail the greater satisfaction of having fulfilled one’s duty towards God and His metaphorical ‘family’ – as per the Hadith cited above – in humility and in anticipation of Ultimate Felicity.