‘Compassion or Rahma is the most important virtue in Islam’

Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar

We have not sent thee (O Muhammad) except as a source of mercy, compassion and tenderness to all of creation.
(Qur’an: Surah al-Anbiya 21, verse107)

In the above verse of the Glorious Qur’an, Allah, the Most High, describes the raison d’etre of Prophet Muhammad’s mission as rahmatan lil ‘alamin, a source of compassion and mercy to the world and everything that exists. Consonant with this perspective the Arabic word rahmah is undoubtedly the most important virtue in Islam. This is underscored by the fact that al-Rahman, or the Compassionate One, is the most pre-eminent attribute of God in Islam. One of the most well-known Qur’anic verses with which Muslims commence every action is bismillahir rahmanir rahim, translated as, “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, and the Dispenser of Grace.” Compassion is so central to God’s existence that it embraces all that exists in the universe (Q40:7).

Moreover, the Arabic word rahmah (which can be translated as compassion, mercy and tenderness) and its various derivatives occur more than 326 times in the Qur’an. According to Imam Raghib al-Isfahani in his famous lexicography, Mufradat al-Qur’an, the term rahma means “softening of the heart towards one who deserves our mercy and induces us to do good to him/her.” It is interesting to note that the womb of mother is also called rahm. A mother is always very soft and gentle towards her children (raqiq); she showers love and affection on them

In bearing witness to the Islamic message of rahmah the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke so much about compassion that his companions felt compelled to respond by saying: “but we are compassionate and merciful to our spouses and children.’’ The Prophet clarified what he meant by saying: “What I mean is rahmah in an absolute sense, towards each and everything – including the entire universe (animals, plants and the environment).”

To further underscore this core teaching of Islam the Prophet (pbuh) once told an anecdote of a sinful man who was forgiven by God for showing compassion to a thirsty dog by providing him with water. When the Prophet Muhammad’s companions heard the story they were astonished at the radical nature of this teaching on compassion and so to make doubly sure that they had understood his message clearly they inquired: “O Messenger of God, will we be rewarded for being compassionate to animals?” He said: “Yes, there is a reward for showing goodness and compassion to every living creature.” (Bukhari)

The early scholars of Islam understood the all-embracing nature of compassion in Islam clearly. They taught that compassion emanates from a healthy heart that is spiritually alive. Utter lack of compassion, on the other hand, reflects a heart that is spiritually dead. The implication is profound: compassion and spirituality do not cohabit hearts where hatred and the utter disregard for others reign. Classical Muslim scholars of prophetic traditions (hadith), such as Imam al-Nawawi (d.1278), further clarified that the compassion Muslims are commanded to show is not exclusively for themselves or the righteous among them. It extends to all human beings: Jews, Christians, people of faith or none, the righteous and the immoral.

Building on this profound teaching of compassion a contemporary scholar, Shaykh `Umar Faruq Abdullah, likens the Islamic teaching on compassion to that of the karma law of universal reciprocity by which God shows compassion to the compassionate and withholds it from those who hold it back from others (Mercy: The Stamp of Creation, 2004). Such a karmic perspective of compassion and mercy in Islam is supported by the following prophetic tradition (hadith) narrated by the companion `Abdullah bin `Amr (may Allah be pleased with him): “Ar-Rahimina yarhamuhuma ‘r-rahimuna:
irhamu man fi’l ardi yarhamukum man fi ‘s-sama’i

“People who display compassion to others will be shown compassion by the Most Compassionate. Be compassionate to those on earth,
and He who is in heaven will be compassionate to you”

(This prophetic tradition (hadith) is transmitted in the collection of Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi both of whom classified it as authentic (sahih)).

The critical challenge facing contemporary Muslims is how the central Islamic concept of rahmah (compassion, mercy and tenderness) which was the chief purpose of Islam and main reason for the Prophet Muhammad’s mission may be recovered and reinvigorated such that it once again becomes part of the fabric of contemporary Muslim culture.

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