Issue 90 / November - December 2012
The Messenger of Mercy
I was invited a while ago to a meeting in Little Rock which was held on the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. The audience watched a video entitled The Universal Mercy telling about how a merciful person the Prophet was. The title seemed to refer to a well-known verse of the Qur'an concerning the mission of the Prophet:
We have not sent you but as a mercy to all people. (21:107)
The verse tells that it is God's mercy that caused Muhammad to be a universal messenger, that Prophet Muhammad is the messenger of mercy, and that his message, namely the Qur'an, is the message of mercy.
Inspired by the Qur'an, Muslim philosophers have thought that mercy is the primary reason of the existence of Islam, just as love and generosity are the main reasons of the existence of the universe. To put it clearly, it can be said that God so loved His own beautiful names that He generously created the world for the manifestation of those names, and He had Mercy so much upon humanity that He sent Islam as a pure way of life.
Meaning "submission to God," Islam teaches the rules of goodness, originating from the eternal wisdom of the Maker of the universe. Given this generic definition, Islam does not mean only the religion instructed in the Qur'an, but the only religion instructed by God through all divine revelations and all prophets. In other words, submission to God refers to the essence of the heavenly prescribed religion. Some scholars even comment that Islam means the religion of all creation in the sense that all creatures in the universe, as Qur'an says, necessarily obey God. Only humans are exempt from necessity; they choose to obey or disobey.
As a result, Prophet Muhammad is not the only prophet of Islam in generic sense, but only the last prophet of the religion. He is also the last messenger of mercy, following and witnessing to all messengers before him. In fact, the Qur'an describes the previous revelations as manifestations of divine mercy. To mention some:
[Noah:] God has granted me mercy from Himself. (11:28, 63)
Before this was the Book of Moses as a guide and a mercy. (11:17, 46:12)
[For Mary's miraculous conception:] So that We may make him (Jesus) a sign to men and a mercy from Us. (19:21)
Following the previous revelations, Qur'an, the last scripture of Islam in generic sense, is a Book of mercy above all. At the first glance, we see that each chapter opens with a certain word: "In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate." Then the Qur'an describes itself as "mercy" again and again. To mention a few:
We have revealed the Book to you explaining clearly everything, and a guidance and a mercy and good news for those who submit. (16:89)
These are verses of the Book of Wisdom, a guidance and a mercy for the doers of goodness. (31:2-3)
These verses along with others should explain why the night of the first revelation of the Qur'an is called in the Book as the "night of destiny." The particular chapter concerning that special event informs us that "the night of destiny is better than a thousand months" (97:3). That is, a tiny slice of time bearing the divine message of mercy is better than an age deprived it. The verse should imply that the revelation of the Qur'an is as much significant for humankind as mercy is.
If the Qur'an is the message of mercy, and Prophet Muhammad the messenger of mercy, it is because God is the God of mercy. The very first sentence of the Qur'an movingly puts it: "Praise be to God, the Lord of all creation, the most merciful, the most compassionate, the master of the day of judgment." Such beginning indicates that the Qur'an's most fundamental teaching, the unity of God, is profoundly related to the mercy of God, as Qur'an reads elsewhere: "Your God is One God. There is no god but He, the most merciful, the most compassionate" (2:163).
In the Qur'an, mercy is so essential to the divine personality that the attribute Rahman, meaning "the most merciful," is many times used as a proper name replacing the name "God," Allah in Arabic. Here are a couple of examples:
Say, Call upon God or call upon the most merciful. Whichever you call upon, to Him belong the most beautiful names. (17:110)
The servants of the most merciful are they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say, Peace. (25:63).
Pondering on the correspondence between the names "God" and Rahman, scholars comment that the so-called "greatest name of God" is the name Rahman, the most merciful. Ibn Arabi, the well-known Sufi philosopher, thinks that Rahman is the "mother" of all divine names. That means Rahman comprises or involves the meaning of all other divine names, such as the Forgiver, Provider, Lover, Creator, and Reviver. Therefore, in Sufi philosophy, creation is mainly for the purpose and by the manifestation of God's mercy. Just two samples from amongst many verses in accord with this mystical insight:
And out of His mercy He has made for you the night and the day, that you may rest therein, and that you may seek of His grace, and that you may give thanks. (28:73)
Look then at the signs of God's mercy: How He gives life to the earth after its death. Surely He will raise the dead to life; and He has power over all things. (30:50)
Everywhere in the Qur'an, God speaks as the God of Mercy. That is not only for introducing the merciful personality of the Creator, but also for prescribing mercy to the servants, who have been created for the purpose of living in conformity to the divine goodness. A few out of hundreds:
Say, To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth? Say, To God. He has prescribed mercy for Himself. (6:12)
Say, In the bounty of God and in His mercy: therein let them rejoice. It is better than what they hoard. (10:58)
[Prophet Shuayb:] And ask forgiveness of your Lord, then turn to Him. For my Lord is Merciful, Loving. (11:90)
O My servants, who have transgressed against their own souls! Do not despair of the mercy of God. Surely God forgives the faults altogether. He is Forgiving, Compassionate. (39:53)
Nonetheless, God is not only the God of mercy or the God of love, but also the God of wisdom and the God of justice. As theologians have perfectly articulated, His absolute mercy does not cause Him to behave unwisely or unjustly. Having conscience, humans are responsible and accountable for their actions. We are here for this reason, as reiterated in the Qur'an. Although all our mistakes and faults are subject to forgiveness as long as we seek, some grave crimes might be unforgivable if insisted. Mercy upon the victim does not excuse the lack of punishment, which would also leave the judgment meaningless.
Tell My servants that I am Forgiving, Merciful, and that My punishment is the painful punishment. (15:49)
God had mercy so much upon humanity that He sent Islam as a pure way of life, we said earlier. Then mercy should be essential to all aspects of the religion. An analysis on Islamic morality and law would reveal that all prescribed rules ultimately function for the establishment of mercy in human life in parallel to the merciful establishment of nature by God. Perhaps the most apparent rule of mercy in Islamic life, as instructed by the Prophet, is what is called basmala, namely saying "In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate," in the beginning of any action-eating, dressing, reading, writing, having a seat, starting the car, getting on the bus, sleeping, waking up, etc. Doing so, one is constantly trained in that mercy and compassion is the basis of everyday life.
As well recorded, the Prophet's everyday life was full of words of mercy and acts of compassion. A study on his elaborate biography would ensure that he always aimed at requirements of a soft heart. I would like to give a single example, which would illuminate all examples. Prophet Muhammad has had billions of lovers, and had many enemies as well. Abdullah bin Ubayy, the chief adversary of Islam in Medina, was one of the latter and so harsh. He was the person behind many betrayals and plots including adultery slander to the wife of the Prophet. One day Abdullah passed away with his all mischief. The Prophet was saddened at such an end. He participated in his funeral, condoled with the family, performed the funeral prayer asking God forgiveness for the dead, even gave his garment to be put on the body as a cause for divine mercy, and left the funeral in sadness.
One of the sad things about his legacy is that his biography has been generally narrated with emphasis on the struggles and battles that he was forced to get into by the hostile opponents. This has been a focus-shift from the elegant face of the rose to its protective thorns. The fact is, Prophet Muhammad cultivated a community in peace and justice, and nurtured them with sympathy and mercy. As they grew, so did the enemies. The early Muslims in Mecca were threatened, oppressed, persecuted, murdered, and forced to migrate by the pagans of the city. Responding in silence, they migrated to Medina. Then military assaults on the early Muslims were carried out by the same pagans. The revelation allowed the Muslim community to defend their faith and existence in justice. After several years of struggle, the Prophet initiated a long-term peace agreement at a time when his community got stronger than the opposite. As the Prophet had expected, peace caused thousands to embrace Islam. When the pagans eventually broke the agreement with a final attack, the Prophet marched on Mecca and occupied the city without any drop of blood. He announced freedom to all, saying: "No reproach this day shall be on you. May God forgive you. He is the most compassionate." This was the only way in which he struggled.
Meaning "struggle in the way of God" and referring to any kind of endeavor for goodness, jihad naturally includes protective actions and, in case of offense, fighting in justice and mercy. Textual and historical analyses show that all verses in the Qur'an concerning fighting are in this category, the category that might be called the rightful pacifism. Qur'an teaches that disbelief itself is not a reason of fight at all. However, in today's world, due to ignorance or misconception, as well as living under oppression, those verses are often taken arbitrarily out of their textual and historical contexts, and used for various purposes. Indeed, for those who sincerely and seriously appeal to the Qur'an and the Prophet, neither hatred nor antagonism can be the stable rule of the relationship with the other. What is the rule then? The messenger of mercy reminds: "Have mercy upon those on earth, so that He Who in the Heaven has mercy upon you" (Tirmidh, Birr, 16). Peace, God's mercy and blessings be upon him and his fellow messengers.
Erkan M. Kurt, PhD, is a researcher at the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, Houston, Texas.