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Asghar Ali Engineer


The concept of compassion in Islam- ii

By Asghar Ali Engineer



Compassion towards the poor is so important that the Prophet used to say that even if one person remains hungry in a locality no angel will descend in that locality until that hungry person is fed. Also the Prophet is reported to have said that it is more meritorious to feed an hungry widow than to pray whole night. 

Thus one can see the intensity of the Prophet’s compassion towards others suffering, particularly those of the weaker sections of society. It was for this reason that even for expiation of one's sins the Qur’an as well as the Holy Prophet require to feed the hungry or to liberate the slaves. 

The Prophet not only asked people to treat their slaves in a humane way and give them to eat what they eat and give them to wear what they themselves wear but also encouraged them to liberate them and set example by liberating his own slave Zaid and adopted him as his son and treated him most affectionately. Zaid became so attached to him that when his father came to take him away after the Prophet liberated him he refused to go with him and chose, instead, to stay with the Prophet. Not only this, the Holy Prophet married him to his close relative Zainab. But unfortunately it did not prove to be a successful marriage. But that is not our concern here.

It was his compassion for the weaker sections of society that he not only got Bilal Habashi manumitted but gave him the highest honour of giving azan i.e. calling the faithfuls to prayer five times. This honour was denied even to his closest colleagues who intensely desired it. If it was not compassion for the weaker section what was it? It is this compassion which is most desirable aspect of Islamic teachings.

Prophet was equally kind to animals. When a woman of disrepute came to him and said that she saved a thirsty cat from dying by fetching water from a pit with the help of her socks, the Prophet said Allah will pardon all your sins and you will go to paradise. The Prophet, according to one hadith described entire creation (including humans, animals and trees and plants) as family of Allah (‘ayal Allah) and all should be treated with compassion and sensitivity. 

We find a hadith in Bukhari and also in Sahih Muslim that the Prophet (PBUH) told his companions that one previous prophet burnt an anthill because an ant bit him. Allah reprimanded the prophet for destroying the anthill as these ants also sang His praises. We are also reminded here of the story of a sufi saint (Zubayr) who became restless when he saw an ant crawling in his room. He feared that someone will tread on it and kill. He then gently picked up the ant and put it in a box containing wheat floor as he thought it would be safe there.

We find in Imam Malik’s Al-Muwatta that the Prophet once was seen gently wiping the face and mane of his horse with his gown. On being asked by his companions he explained that he was admonished by Allah for neglecting his horse. Hazrat `Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law used to admonish the Muslims not to eat too much meat and make their stomachs graveyards for animals.

Prof. Iqbal Ansari, in his paper “Religion and Animal Welfare – The Islamic View” says, “A large number of Prophet’s traditions dealing with kindness and compassion to animals are included in the authentic hadith literature. Cruelty to and torturing of animals. Even the obnoxious ones in any form is forbidden. This criterion is so absolute that even when for valid reasons man is permitted to kill any animal for food or to save himself from its venom or other harm, he is enjoined to do so without causing avoidable pain or torture.”

The Qur’an itself, as pointed out earlier, uses the word rahm (mercy, compassion) repeatedly. This word and its various derivatives have been used more than 326 times. According to Mufradat al-Qur’an by Imam Raghib, an authentic dictionary of the Qur’anic terms rahmah means softening of 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. Mother is always very soft towards her children (raqiq) and showers love and affection on them. Thus anyone who does so to others qualifies for rahm. Thus to cultivate rahm is to be faithful to ones mother.

The Qur’an also says that the believers (mu’minin) are merciful to each other. Allah is named by the Qur’an as Rahim and Rahman. And according to Mufradat of Imam Raghib Rahman is one whose mercy encompasses all, not all human beings but also entire creation. Thus only Allah can be Rahman, no one else. We human beings have our own limitations. We love our fellow religionists more than those belonging to other religious groups; we love those speaking our own tongue more than those speaking other tongues and we love human beings more than the animals.

But it is not so with Allah. Allah loves and showers His Mercy equally on all. And if we are really worshippers of Allah we too should not make such distinctions. We should love all human beings equally whether they belong to our religion or not, whether they speak our tongue or not and whether they have same colour of skin as we have or not. If Allah is Rahman (Compassionate) to all we, His servants too should try to imitate Him as much as we can. True ‘ibadah (worshipping) can be claimed only when we try to imbibe elements of His attributes.

Thus a real Muslim is one who despite being firm in his/her faith tradition shows equal love and compassion for all human beings whether they belong to his faith tradition or not. Every faith tradition is unique and should be recognised as such but it should not become a tool of discrimination. The Qur’an itself declares that all human beings, all children of Adam have been honoured equally (17:70). Thus there is no justification in showing any discrimination on the basis of faith as far as the Qur’an is concerned.

Many prominent `Ulama have argued that Allah is Rahman (Compassionate) in the sense that he provides for even kafirs. There is an important Sufi lore which is pointer to this compassion of Allah. It is said that the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) would not eat unless there was some guest on his table. Once it so happened that there did not come any guest and Prophet Abraham was hungry.

Abraham then went out in search of a guest and he found one very old man in the nearby forest. He invited the old man to dine with him and the man agreed and started out with Abraham. On the way Abraham asked him about his religion and he said I am an atheist. Prophet Abraham was angry and cancelled his invitation. When he did so he heard a voice from above: O Abraham We tolerated him (the old man) for seventy years despite his disbelief and you could not tolerate him for seven minutes. Abraham repented and took the old man home for dining.

The lesson is clear what to believe and who is right and who is wrong should be left to Allah rather than our weak judgement. Our judgement is often influenced by several factors including our ego, our interests, our beliefs, colour of our skin and our ethnicity. Allah alone can judge most impartially. Thus our respect for others and our compassion should not be meant for limited number of groups. It should be as wide in sweep as possible.

When the Qur’an refers to weaker sections (mustad`afun) it does not qualify it with Muslim. It uses mustad’afun as inclusive of all human beings. And all of them are equally entitled to our compassion and Allah’s mercy, no less, no more. The Qur’an no where uses words like Muslim orphans, Muslim widows or Muslim slaves. It uses these words in general without any qualification whatsoever. Similarly the Qur’an does not use any qualification for the powerful and arrogant mustakbirun. They can belong to any religion, race or ethnicity. Arrogance is condemnable, found anywhere.

The Qur’an’s attitude is so compassionate towards all human beings that even in the matter of wasiyyah (i.e., making a will) it advises that if apart from your relatives, some one needy is present at that time, make some provision for him also. Also, the Qur’an uses the word sadaqah for charity which is derived from the root sidq which means truthfulness. Real charity (sadaqah) is one which is done with sincerity and truthfulness. Anything which is given to show off, or not with sincere and compassionate intention, will not quality as sadaqah. 

Only that feeling qualifies for compassion, which moves our heart for suffering of others and that motivates us to help others. Thus the use of the word sadaqah for charity is very significant. It is the condition of a human person, rather than his/her religion that should move us to help. Compassion is the best quality one can have towards other creatures, particularly towards other human beings and animals. It is suffering which is most fundamental not one's religion, language or race.

A Qur’anic verse which describes some of the qualities of a good believer says, “ Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men. And Allah loves doers of good (to others).” (3:133). 

Thus it will be seen that those who control their anger and pardon others and do good to others are those whom Allah loves. And these qualities are very much the basis of compassion. Anger and violence are always denounced by Allah. They are just opposite of compassion. One of Allah’s name is Ghafur i.e. one who pardons, one who is not revengeful. A compassionate person can never be revengeful.

Thus one can conclude from closer study of Qur'an and hadith that compassion is the best human quality and no one deserves to be human unless he is compassionate. Thus it is quite central to the teachings of Islam.