By Adnan Majid
As the Qurʾān’s first verse, the invocation above (known as the basmallah) is our gateway to divine revelation and our companion when beginning any activity. Its first part defines an essential element of Muslim identity – to approach all matters “in the name of Allah.” Its ending, listing two of Allah’s names, beautifully repeats the sounds r-ḩ-m in a way striking even to non-Arabic speakers.
Both these names of Allah center on the Arabic quality of rahmah: (a) al-Raḥmān, the One who is defined by complete and universal rahmah and (b) al-Raḥīm, the One who continuously shows much rahmah. It is thus by His rahmah that Allah introduces Himself repeatedly throughout the Qurʾān, so much so that after His tawhid (Oneness), the Qurʾān uses no other quality to describe Allah more than rahmah. This only underscores how central rahmah is to Islamic theology and our relationship with Allah.
So what is rahmah?
Our first answer may be that rahmah should be rendered as “mercy,” a word preferred in many Qurʾān translations. This, however, may be problematic. Although “mercy” is included in the meanings of rahmah, the modern English usage of “mercy” fails to do justice to the Arabic word in my opinion. Rather, I will argue that we speakers of modern English must understand rahmah as Allah’s Messenger understood the term – not simply as “mercy” but something deeper – an emotion closely tied with motherhood.
“Mercy” in modern English
Ask a native English speaker to describe his or her mother, and one often will hear adjectives like “loving” or “caring.” By contrast, native English speakers would rarely describe their mothers as “merciful.” Doing so sounds a bit odd to many of us, but why? The answer lies in the fact that “mercy” in modern English is associated with the negative connotation of the “power to harm,” something we do not associate with motherhood. Let’s look at the following definition from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:
- A kind and forgiving attitude towards somebody that you have the power to harm or right to punish.
a) to ask/beg/plead for mercy
b) They showed no mercy to their hostages.
c) God have mercy on us.
d) The troops are on a mercy mission (a journey to help people) in the war zone.
- An event or a situation to be grateful for, usually because it stops something unpleasant.
a) It’s a mercy she wasn’t seriously hurt.
b) His death was a mercy (because he was in great pain).
From an Islamic standpoint, Allah is indeed merciful. Allah is kind and forgiving towards us while having the power to harm us and the right to punish us for our sins. But the Arabic term rahmah is not limited to “mercy” in the encompassing manner by which the Prophet used the term.
Let’s consider instances where we use “mercy” in modern English. For instance, if a ruthless dictator decides to stop killing innocent people temporarily, he would have shown them “mercy,” even if his primary motivation is political and not based on a sincere emotional desire to alleviate suffering. And if a cold-hearted murderer decides against killing a terrified victim, he too would have shown “mercy.” As we shall see, neither case would necessarily constitute rahmah.
We plead for “mercy” from police who can fine us, judges who can punish us, rulers who can overpower us, and murderers who can kill us. But the Messenger never spoke of such fearful people when describing Allah’s rahmah. Instead he reminded us of our mothers and the familiar emotions they show us – emotions we call “compassion” or “nurturing love.”
Rahmah according to Allah’s Messenger
In the Prophet’s many sayings about rahmah on earth, the central theme of nurturing, parental love clearly stands out. Allah’s rahmah, according to the Messenger, is the sole source of all earthly rahmah, such that all creatures show “love and kindness to one another, and even a beast treats her young with affection.” Rahmah thus finds its most natural expression in the love of a mother.
And no one can match a mother’s love… except, of course, Allah. Imagine the emotions of a mother desperately searching for a lost child – and how much joy she must feel finding her child again. On witnessing this, the Messenger asked his companions, “Can you imagine this woman throwing her baby into fire?” When his companions responded in disbelief, he taught them, “Allah has more rahmah for His servants than this mother for her child.” Once again, the Prophet saw rahmah as an emotion we have all experienced – not the modern English “mercy” but a mother’s natural love.
Of course, this connection of rahmah and motherly love is linguistically unsurprising, for rahmah is related to the Arabic word rahm, which means “uterus,” “womb,” and figuratively “family ties.” This close linguistic connection is so eloquently expressed in Allah’s statement as transmitted in a hadith qudsi, “I am al-Raḥmān and created the rahm (uterus) – And I named it after Me.” Therefore, if we are to grasp the rahmah that is core to God’s very nature, we must look to what this feminine organ symbolizes – the nurturing emotions we find in mothers and the bonds that tie families together. However, mothers are not the only ones characterized by rahmah; the Prophet himself embodied the quality when he would hug his grandchildren, kissing them.
In the patriarchal Bedouin culture of his day, this was considered an effeminate characteristic.“I have ten children and have never kissed any of them!” retorted a proud, disapproving Bedouin. But the Messenger, knowing the beauty of parental love in Allah’s eyes, warned the man, “He who shows no rahmah will be shown no rahmah (in the hereafter).”, And in another instance, he reiterated, “He who has no rahmah for children is not one of us.”
“And God will show rahmah but to His servants who show rahmah,” said the Prophet, his eyes filled with tears as he held his dying granddaughter. When asked about these tears, he simply explained, “This is rahmah that God places in the hearts of His servants.” This was a most natural emotion so familiar to us – again, not “mercy” but what we would call a grandfather’s “love.”
The Messenger’s mission was that we might truly know Allah, al-Raḥmān, in the very language of personal experience. To help us comprehend Allah’s rahmah, he did not speak of the earthly “mercy” of kings and judges – today’s modern English understanding of “mercy.” Rather, his demonstrations of rahmah directed us again and again to parental love, especially motherly love.
Is rahmah then “love”?
Yes and no. Although rahmah, according to the Messenger, is indeed a form of love, we should be very careful shifting our dependence from one imperfect translation (“mercy”) to another imperfect translation (“love”). “Love” is a very general term in modern English – we speak not only of “nurturing love,” but also “platonic love,” “romantic love,” “desirous love,” the “love of food,” and the “love of money.” These all signify different forms of “love.”
In contrast to English, Arabic uses a number of words to express these different forms of love, including hubb, mahabbah, wudd, and mawaddah. While the Messenger described Allah’s rahmah as a compassionate, nurturing love; Allah’s hubb is a love merited to those conscious of Him, perfecting their deeds, turning back after their mistakes, and always trying to purify themselves. Whereas Allah’s rahmah in this world is universal, embracing everything, Allah does not have hubb for those who commit aggression, oppression, and corruption.
I am not arguing that the English-speaking Muslim community should settle on one alternative translation for rahmah which will serve to substitute “mercy.” In fact, no perfect translation may exist. However, if we seek to understand rahmah as the Messenger taught us, we may better understand revelation so as to clearly convey the divine message to others.
Dialogue with Christians
In our society, we Muslims must accurately convey Islam’s message to our non-Muslim peers. Though we should be very careful to not simply translate rahmah as “love,” understanding rahmah as a form of love is important whenever engaging in dialogue with Christians. Some Christians disparage the Qurʾān by claiming it rarely mentions “love” whereas the New Testament is translated to state, “God is love.” We can readily see that this argument is weak when we take the Messenger’s understanding of rahmah, one of the Qurʾān’s central themes.
And most interestingly, many Christians are unaware that the Bible’s understanding of “love” is not today’s general, modern English understanding of “love”! Just as in Arabic, biblical Greek had many different words that signified the various types of love. Let’s look at an analysis of this from a Christian website:
The Bible speaks of different kinds of love. Perhaps the most dominant usage of the word “love” in Western society refers essentially to sexual love but is not found in the New Testament. One kind of love that the Bible does speak of is a friendship sort of love. This is expressed by the Greek word “philia.” It is a preferential type of love and not much different than a person saying that they love chocolate ice cream. “Agape” love however is the most common form of love in the Bible. It might be more likened to the sacrificial love a parent has for their child regardless of whether such love is reciprocated…
It may seem that Christian “love” in the Bible – agapē – could actually be more similar to rahmah and not other Arabic words like hubb. By contrast, hubb may correspond more to the Greek philia. Though no two languages can ever match perfectly, both rahmah and agapē are non-desirous, nurturing forms of love that God expresses universally.
In light of this, the Qurʾān’s emphasis on rahmah in dialogue with Christians stands out. For instance, the Qurʾān commends the early followers of Christ, may peace be upon him, by saying Allah put rahmah, not hubb, in their hearts. And consider the high frequency of Allah’s name al-Raḥmān in Surah Maryam, a chapter named after Jesus’ mother Mary, peace be upon them. Is the Qurʾān, while vehemently rejecting the notion that God has any need for a son, using this repetition to remind Christians that He remains the source of universal agapē as discussed in their religious texts? If so, it underscores the importance conveying the prophetic understanding of rahmah whenever giving da’wah to non-Muslims.
Rahmah, our salvation and our obligation
If Christianity is said to be a “religion of love (agapē),” Islam is unquestionably the “Religion of Rahmah.” In this present world, Allah’s rahmah is universal, “having embraced everything.” Moreover, the Messenger’s purpose is eloquently described as “rahmah to the worlds.” In the hereafter, Allah’s rahmah is synonymous with salvation, for no one can be saved, not even the Messenger, except by Allah’s rahmah alone.,
This should give us a moment to reflect. Remember, with regards to the hereafter, the Messenger warned us, “He who shows no rahmah will be shown no rahmah,” and taught us, “God will show rahmah but to His servants who show rahmah.” If rahmah is the means to our salvation, having rahmah towards one another is an obligation upon each of us. We must take the Prophet’s commandment to heart:
Al-Raḥmān has rahmah for those who show rahmah. Show rahmah to those on earth – the One in heaven will show you rahmah.
If one wants to learn how to show rahmah to those on earth, look to someone who shows compassion to others the way our mothers love and nurture us – someone who lets his or her tears flow in empathy, feeling the pain of the poor, hungry, and oppressed. Rahmah does not simply mean showing people “mercy” – restraining from harming while having the capacity to hurt. This “mercy” only scrapes the surface of rahmah, which must come from the heart. Neither does rahmah exclusively mean showing hubb to those who commit evil and oppression, “loving” what they do and “liking” to please them.
Instead, rahmah is to let one’s heart ache for those people, caring about their eternal well-being, so that we may all enter Allah’s rahmah, His salvation, in the hereafter. Rahmah is to embody the way of the Messenger, who said, “I was not sent to curse, but I was sent as a rahmah.”
Last word: Hope
God’s revelation is timeless and should resonate with us always. It thus becomes the obligation of each generation to understand that revelation in the language of our own personal experiences. Unfortunately, our dependence on the modern English “mercy” as a translation of rahmah may be faulty and inadequate. All the Messenger’s descriptions of rahmah point to something deeper, something we are familiar with, something we readily know as “compassion” or “nurturing love.”
With this understanding, how much more amazing are the Qurʾān’s words – that rain is rahmah, that revelation is rahmah, and that the Messenger himself is rahmah. We suddenly see all these blessings as God’s deep expressions of compassionate love.
To conclude, we should always remember that rahmah is Allah’s very nature and our only means to salvation, and this should always be a cause of immense relief and hope. For as the Qurʾān and hadith qudsi relate:
And when there comes to you those who believe in Our signs, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has prescribed rahmah on Himself: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then turns back and makes amends – He is indeed forgiving, Raḥīm (full of rahmah).”
Proclaim: “O My servants who have laid waste to their own souls, never lose hope in Allah’s rahmah. Allah forgives all sins entirely. Allah is forgiving, Raḥīm.”
When God completed creation, He inscribed with Himself: “My rahmah has triumphed over My anger.”
Matthew 22:36-40 – “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Jesus replied, “’Love (agapḗseis) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love (agapḗseis) your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.”John 14:21 – (Jesus says:) “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves (agapȏn) me. Anyone who loves (agapȏn) me will be loved (agapēthḗsetai) by my Father, and I too will love (agapḗsō) them and show myself to them.”
That day We will gather the God-conscious to al-Raḥmān as honored guests and will drive criminals to hell thirsty. None will have the benefit of intercession except those who have made a bond with al-Raḥmān. And yet they have said, “Al-Raḥmān has taken a son”! Indeed you claim something monstrous – as though the skies would tear apart, the earth split asunder, and the mountains collapse in ruin – that they have ascribed to al-Raḥmān a son! For how inconceivable it is that al-Raḥmān could have a son! Indeed, none comes before al-Raḥmān except as a servant. (Surah Maryam 19:85-93)