Compassion in Islam- Theology and History

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

Islam is generally associated with Jihad. But it is more due to its history than its theology. It is interesting to note that while jihad in Islam is more historical than theological, compassion, on the other hand, is more theological than historical. The very opening of Qur’an, the holy book of Islam is with Bism Allahir Rahmanir Rahim i.e. I begin in the name of Allah who is Compassionate and Merciful.

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Thus it will be seen that Compassion is one of the names of Allah and it is among the most popular names of Allah. Muslims always begin their name with this incantation i.e. ‘I begin in the name of Allah who is Compassionate and Merciful’. A Muslim, who worships Allah has to be compassionate in his own behavior else his/her worship would not be complete. There are four key values in Qur’an which are repeatedly emphasized are: Justice (‘adl), benevolence (ihsan), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah) and compassion is one of them. Jihad, on the other hand, is not value but an instrument to realize certain objectives.

The Prophet of Islam too is described in Qur’an as rahmat lil ‘alamin i.e. mercy of the worlds. Since Prophet is messenger of Allah he too has to represent His virtues on earth. Allah is perfect and so His Prophet has to be a perfect human being imbibing all the attributes of Allah. So other believers (mu’minun) also must, with all their limitations, imbibe these virtues.

A believer, who is not compassionate within possible human limits, is no believer at all. A true believer has to imbibe all those values represented by Allah and His Messenger. In other words Qur’an and sunnah (Prophet’s sayings and doing) are binding on all Muslims and there is complete consensus on it among all Muslim theologians belonging to all sects of Islam.

Prophet lived in such historical situation and socio-political conjunction that occasionally he had to take to arms to defend himself and his community but this historical necessity cannot be counted as obligatory or value-oriented. At the most it can be called necessity-oriented. Al-Qaeda and some similar groups representing a miniscule minority among Muslims, are projecting jihad as if it is central value and obligatory. It is total falsification of teachings of Islam.

Bismillah in Arabic and Chinese calligraphy

Let us remember necessity is situational and values are transcendent; necessity may compel human beings to do things which may not be strictly speaking desirable but values make society more humane. War, may become necessity at times but results in bloodshed and destruction and needs to be avoided as much as possible. Values, on the other hand, help purposefully construct society and are eternal.

It was due to historical necessity on one hand, and vested interests which used concept of jihad in a way that it appeared to be central to Islam where as values like compassion remained confined to one section of society represented by Sufis and weaker sections and hence never appeared on the pages of history which are reserved for the ruling classes. As we all know we read more about ruling classes in history than the ruled. And what rulers and ruling classes do is interest-oriented rather than value-oriented and it is for this reason that pages of history are red with blood.

Prophet’s life history is full of value-oriented incidents but even biographers of the Prophet like Ibn-e-ishaq or Ibne Hisham have focused more on battles and wars than these events which would project the Prophet in true light. Prophet’s name Muhammad (the praised one) was not because of his wars but because of his human qualities and the Prophet came to be known as Muhammad much before he became head of the community.

These virtues were his truthfulness, wisdom and compassion. He loved justice and hence formed an organization called Hizb-al-fudul to help the victims of injustices in his society. He himself was an orphan and had suffered many tribulations in life and had great sympathy for the weaker sections of society he lived in. All this became part of his divine message also.

Allah chooses His prophets from among the weaker sections of society as only such persons can be value-oriented as they know importance of human values in life as against rulers and ruling classes who happen to be interest-oriented. Thus one would see in Qur’an that all prophets mentioned with the exception of David and Solomon (Daud and Suleman) (who were rulers) happen to be from weaker sections of society.

It is prophets from this section of society who can communicate with great conviction the divine message of truth, justice, benevolence, love, compassion, human dignity and equality. All prophets of Allah brought these values and exemplified them through their personal life. Prophet of Islam too was embodiment of these values, particularly compassion. There are numerous incidents from his life which show his compassionate approach towards fellow human beings irrespective of religion or station in life.

Once a woman was bought to his presence and was told she is sinner and must be punished. The Prophet, instead of asking her about her sins, asked her what act of compassion she had done to any fellow being. She said I cannot recall any act of good towards any other human being. She reflected and said no I can’t recall any such incident. The Prophet again asked her whether you have helped any living being?

The woman thought for a while and said, yes, once a dog was thirsty and there was some water in a pit he was unable to reach with his tongue. I took pity on the dog, took off my sock and fetched some water from the pit and gave it to the dog. The Prophet said go Allah will forgive all your sin for his act of compassion towards an animal.

A frail and sick person came to the Prophet and said I have committed a grave sin, please punish me. Prophet asked him what sin have you committed? Thereupon the person said I was sick and a woman came to inquire of my health and I committed an act of sin with her. Please punish me otherwise Allah will punish me eternally in the world hereafter. The Prophet once again asked him if you really did this to the woman so as to give him one more chance of denying. But the person persisted.

Since this person was too weak Prophet did not want to punish him with hundred lashes which is the Qur’anic punishment for adultery. Prophet thought for a while and asked hundred branches of palm date tree to be brought, he tied them together and delivered one soft blow and told the person go you have met with your punishment.

There is another often repeated story of a Jewish woman who sued to throw garbage on the Prophet whenever he passed through that way. When no garbage was thrown one day he inquired about the woman and was told she was sick. He went to her house to inquire about her health and prayed for her recovery. She of course was overwhelmed with this gesture of the Prophet and converted to Islam.

Needless to say it was not Prophet’s intention to convert her but to show his deep personal concern for her illness. Had he not been compassionate he would not done that. These stories make it clear that the Prophet of Islam felt others sufferings as his own and would try to do whatever he could to lessen or remove these sufferings. It is strikingly like concept of dukkha in the Buddhist tradition and removal of dukkha is an act of religion.

Forgiveness is another quality essential for a compassionate behavior. Allah thus repeatedly described as Ghafurur Rahim (Forgiver and Merciful) in the Qur’an. He is not so much as Punisher but Forgiver. Sincere repentance (taubah) on the part of human beings leads to forgiveness of Allah.

The Prophet too was great forgiver. As far as possible he would forgive even worst of his enemies. When he conquered Mecca without shedding a drop of blood, he declared he would not punish anyone provided they did not fight and gave up arms. His enemies who had indulged in inhuman persecution of the Prophet and his companions, feared for the worst but were pleasantly surprised that Prophet pardoned all of them.

Abu Sufyan and his wife Hinda who were in the forefront of persecuting the Prophet and his companions and Hinda had chewed liver of his uncle Hamza who was most dear to him, were also pardoned. There can be hardly better example of forgiveness and compassion. And think of Arab society with all its tribal customs which considered qisas (retaliation in equal measure) a basic necessity. The whole society considered doctrine of qisasi central in the absence of any law enforcing agency.

Various Qur’an did sanction the doctrine of qisas (as there was no law enforcing machinery) but made it clear that forgiveness and compassion to the offender are superior values and who would practice these values if not the Prophet? He practiced them as the human exemplifier. Thus the Prophet did not teach anything but practiced it himself in most trying conditions. To forgive his worst enemies in Mecca was most challenging and no one would have complained if the Prophet had sought revenge. It was the norm of that society. But the Prophet wanted to establish superiority of higher values.

In Islamic world then there were two parallel streams and together they constituted Islamic mainstream. These two streams were socio-political stream and Sufi stream and both these stream had their own respective understanding of jihad. The socio-political stream which consisted of ruling and upper classes and on the other Sufis who got support mainly from weaker sections of society though part of the ruling class also had faith in Sufi saints due to their popularity among masses of people.

While the ruling classes understood by jihad defense of Islamic state and expansion of limits of Islamic state. A section of theologians depended for their sustenance on the ruling classes and hence their discourse on jihad was mainly to promote interests of ruling classes. Thus the large part of theological discourse on jihad supported the point of view of ruling classes and they defended jihad in the sense of military operations.

Jihad, on the other hand, meant inner struggle to suppress desires and cultivate virtues of patience (sabr) and reliance on Allah (tavakkul), for the sufi stream of Islam. There was’nt much support for war and political struggle among the sufi saints. The sufi saints tried to cultivate what Qur’an calls nafs-e-mutmainna (the contented soul) and not nafs-e-ammarah (desiring soul). Since it requires great deal of struggle to cultivate nafs-e-mutmainnah it was real jihad for sufi stream of Islam.

And let us remember it is nafs-e-mutmainna (contented soul) which also creates attitude of compassion. A grabbing and greedy soul which is nafs-e-ammarah can never show compassion towards the suffering of others and ruling classes and their supporters have this kind of soul as their greed can be fulfilled only by inflicting suffering on others. Thus it will be seen that jihad in the Qur’an is not in absolute sense of war or fighting against kafirs as usually understood.

Jihad is, on the other hand, layered concept and has been interpreted very differently by different classes of Muslims. Jihad is mainly spiritual and the Prophet of Islam had very complex kind of challenges both material and spiritual and hence he and his companions used jihad in both material and spiritual senses. However, its centrality lay in spiritual struggle and Sufis were basically enchanted by spiritual struggle of the Prophet and hence jihad for them was a supreme and most challenging struggle to suppress nafs-e-ammarah (desiring soul) and hence from them jihad had significance as a spiritual struggle.

Sufis had very caring and sharing attitude which is an important ingredient of compassion. They expressed their solidarity with suffering people and weaker sections of society and that is why thousands of people had great reverence for them. Though they received lot of money from their devotees including members of ruling classes, they never spent it on their self.

They used to open what is called langar i.e. a common kitchen where anyone irrespective of caste and creed could eat any time of the day. Thus they had very compassionate attitude towards suffering people. They derived their inspiration from a hadis-e-qudsi (a divine hadis) which is as follows: Allah would ask on the Day of Judgment “I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not quench my thirst and I was naked and you did not clothe me. The person being held to account would say O! Allah you are the Provider of food how could I feed you? Allah would say my servant (abd) was hungry and you did not feed him. If a human person is hungry as if I am hungry and if a human person is thirsty as if I am thirsty, and if a human person is naked as if I am naked.” Thus the Sufis always saw to it that any human being who came to them should not go back hungry. They would do everything possible to feed him/her.

They would even go hungry and feed the person who happened to be hungry. And this compassion extended to even animals and plants. The Prophet once saw a donkey who was indentured on its face. He berated its owner that you have no compassion for this poor animal. You have disfigured its face. The owner said it is required for identifying the animal. Prophet told him at least do not disfigured its face and do it on some other part of the animal.

Sufi Junaid once say an ant crawling in his room. He got worried that someone would trample it underfoot and ant will be killed. He thought for a moment how to save its life. He saw a container containing wheat flour lying in the room. He gently lifted ant and put it in the container. Such was the compassion of Sufis towards human beings, animals and even an ant.

Compassion is highly necessary for sustenance of life on this earth. A compassionate approach only can make our life rich. It is greed which makes human beings ruthless towards others as one can fulfill once greed only by inflicting suffering on others. For a compassionate person thus it is necessary to lead need-based life, not greed-based life. The Qur’an exhorts believers to give away their surplus to the needy people (2:219).

Qur’an also levies a tithe on Muslims called zakat which has to be spent on orphans, widows, poor, needy, wayfarers and for releasing of prisoners. All these are helpless sections of society and hence need our compassion. It is obligatory for all Muslims to spend of their wealth on these helpless sections of society. It is not possible without having compassion towards them.

Thus it is compassion which makes us real human being. A human being who is not sensitive towards suffering of fellow human beings or animals and plants cannot be human being indeed. Thus there is constant struggle between greed and need and generally it is greed which triumphs and result is lot of suffering of large number of human beings on earth.

We can triumph over greed only through compassion. In fact all religions want to enrich our spiritual life and thus teach compassion. It is no religion which does not teach compassion. No religion promotes greed. But history of that religion is often history of its ruling classes and ruling classes are overpowered by greed for power and self and thus often we find lot of bloodshed and wars in history of these religions including that of Islam.

However there is always a parallel stream which is never highlighted in history which is that of Sufis and saints engaged not in struggle for power but struggle to overpower, over power their desire and greed and cultivate compassionate attitude towards others. It is this section of people who are salt of life and who find eternal reverence in the hearts people, though not in their history.

We are also increasingly becoming insensitive to suffering of our own climate. We want to live greedy life and do not mind even destroying our climate. It is our over consumption which is leading to destruction of our climate and our sensitivity towards it.

Thus we have to cultivate an attitude of compassion towards our climate also. Reducing our consumption would achieve two purposes: one, helping needy people on earth who are deprived of their just right to exist and secondly, would help normalize our climate.

Thus compassion towards others suffering can result in enriching our life both materially and spiritually. Today ours is consumer society and whole emphasis is on consumption and the capitalist system draws its dynamism from ever increasing consumption and it is sought to be boosted through high-powered advertisement. This race forever increasing consumption has made us, increasingly insensitive, towards other’s suffering.

It is not easy to reduce our consumption as a whole though some individual may succeed in doing that. We have to carefully cultivate the attitude of compassion towards suffering of others to achieve this objective. According to me religion can become a rich resource for cultivating compassion in human beings. This can happen only when our understanding of religion is transformed by religious leaders.

Our understanding of religion is entirely ritual centered today. We have to go beyond rituals and religion should be our active guide for transforming our inner self, a contented inner being wholly occupied with values like love, selflessness, compassion and truthfulness. This in fact is real religiosity, not merely performing certain rituals. This also often leads to competitive religiosity and tension between communities.

Qur’an repeatedly talks of istibaq al-khayrat i.e. excelling each other in good deeds and what are good deeds, if not deeds based on these values of love, compassion and truthfulness. The Prophet is reported to have said that it is more meritorious to feed a hungry widow than pray whole night. Thus compassion towards a hungry soul is more important than prayer. Allah hardly needs our prayer.

And actually prayer and fasting has also been prescribed to cultivate with these values, not because Allah needs them. Rituals are a means to an end, not an end in themselves but we have reduced them to an end itself. We must urgently revise our attitude towards ritual-oriented religion and replace it with value-oriented one, if we have to reduce suffering of humanity. Buddhism and Islam both greatly compliment each other in cultivating compassion among their followers. Christianity and Hinduism too with their emphasis on love and non-violence can be valued associates and we can transform our world. Will these religions join hands to reduce suffering of our earth?