The Centrality of Compassion In Islam

Speech by Sultan Eusoff

Given At The Sea Of Faith Conference 1 October 2010, Wellington, New Zealand

Assalaam Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatoh
(Peace and Blessings Be Upon All of You)

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded to me to give a speech on behalf of the Muslim community in New Zealand on the subject of "Compassion".

Islam has given science, maths and technology for humanity. Islam as a noble religion believes in co-existence. Islamism believes in the universal theory and practice of "live and let live".

Is compassion central to Islam? Many people think jihad is more central to it than compassion. At least this is the general impression of people including of course some Muslims. But this is not the case. Compassion is far more central to Islam than jihad. This impression of jihad has arisen due to certain isolated historical and contemporary happenings.

Compassion represents the true spirit of Islam and compassion is far more vital to Islamic teachings than anything else. In Islam, after the concepts of unity of God (tawhid) and risalah (messenger-ship of Prophet Muhammad), Compassion is as central to Islam as it is to Buddhism.

There are certain key words in the Qur'an which are greatly stressed of which four are very often repeated i.e. rahmah, ihsan 'adl, and hikmah (compassion, benevolence, justice and wisdom). Rahmah (compassion, mercy) and its roots abound in the Holy Qur'an. Among God's own names are Rahman and Rahim (compassionate and Merciful). A Muslim begins everything by reciting Bi Ism-i- Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim (i.e. begin in the name of God Who is Compassionate and Merciful). Thus a Muslim is supposed to invoke God the Compassionate and Merciful at every step. We don't invoke God's other names (God has 99 names according to the Islamic belief) as we invoke Him as Merciful and Compassionate.

The very first chapter of the Qur'an has the second verse as Al-Rehman al-Rahim (The Compassionate, the Merciful). The first verse too carries the sense of compassion when it describes God as Rabb al-'Alamin (i.e. Sustainer of the whole world). The concept of sustenance of the whole world itself is based on His Mercy and Compassion for everything He has created. In fact rahmah is so central to God's existence that it embraces all that exists in the universe (wasi'at kulla shayin) verse 40:7.

God sent His Messenger Prophet Muhammad also as the Mercy of the World (21:107). Thus the Prophet of Islam also represents universal mercy. As the Messenger of God he is representative of His Mercy and hence the Prophet himself is known as rahmatal lil 'alamin (mercy of the worlds). Thus a true follower of the Prophet (PBUH) has to be as merciful and compassionate to the extent humanly possible. Anyone who is cruel and has no sensitivity towards sufferings of others cannot be the Prophet's true follower in any sense.

It is important to note that in the Qur'an there is no concept of war of aggression and no concept of permissiveness of violence. Even where permission of war has been given it has been given only to defend and protect rights of the oppressed and exploited. There is no verse in the Qur'an which permits violence for conquering territory or for achieving power. In fact war has been qualified in the Qur'an by the words fi' sabilillah i.e. in the way of God. Thus a war can be fought, if at all necessary, not for any personal ambitions, territorial gain, personal animosity or for revenge but only in the way of God - that is to defend and protect the rights of the oppressed and exploited. Unfortunately, the world has distorted its concepts and beliefs and some of Islam's followers have used it for their own ulterior motives. As fighting is permitted only in the way of God this vetoes a war of aggression in any case. Any fighting has to be only on compassionate grounds, not on any other and hence the doctrine of compassion remains central. If there is no other way to liberate the oppressed except through the use of force only then the use of force will be justified otherwise it is not.

The Qur'an again and again shows its sympathy for the weaker sections of the society in which it includes, among others, orphans, widows, the poor and the exploited, slaves and other politically or socially and economically oppressed people. It emphasises different ways of helping them. This is all on the grounds of compassion. Compassion really means sensitivity to others suffering. A person cannot be compassionate unless he/she is sensitive to other's suffering. And this suffering includes not only human beings but also animals and plants.

Let us take suffering of human beings. The Qur'an shows great compassion to orphans, widows, the poor and the enslaved. It wants to liberate these poorer and oppressed sections from their situation. Zakah, a toll tax, has been made obligatory on all believing Muslims, men or women to help these sections. Thus the Qur'an says:

(Zakat) charity is only to be given to the poor and the needy and those employed to administer it, and those whose hearts are made to incline, and (to free) the captives, and those in debt, and in the way of God and for the wayfarer - an ordinance from God. And God is all Knowing, Wise.


Thus all the categories indicated in the above verse except two i.e. those who administer it (i.e. collect the zakah on behalf of the Islamic state or bayt al-mal (state treasury) and 'those whose hearts are to be inclined or won over (by Muslims for their help) all other categories are of weaker sections of society - those who suffer i.e. the poor, the needy, the captives (in war), those indebted (who but the poor are indebted), the slaves and the wayfarers. They all stand in need of help. A believer who is well off must be sensitive to the needs of these categories and must help them financially to remove their sufferings on compassionate grounds. Thus even for the payment of zakat compassion remains central.

Not only that the Qur'an wants to remove those who are arrogant because of their wealth and power and empower the weak so that there is no suffering in the world. It says clearly and unambiguously:

And We desired to bestow a favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the leaders, and to make them the inheritors.


Thus the Qur'an favours the mustad'ifin (the weaker sections) to the mustakbirin (those powerful and arrogant).

Powerful and arrogant people are insensitive to others suffering and want to grab as much as they can - be it wealth, be it territory or be it symbols of power. In the Qur'anic approach the powerful are most insensitive and hence most uncompassionate. They are overpowered by greed and hence can never understand others needs. Therefore, the Qur'an says that:

And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in God's way - announce to them a painful chastisement.


Once a woman was bought to the Prophet's presence. He was informed that she was a sinner who must be punished and he was asked to determine a suitable punishment. 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 she had 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 God will forgive all your sin for his act of compassion towards an animal.

There is another often repeated story of a Jewish woman who used 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 was overwhelmed with this gesture of the Prophet and sought his forgiveness for her sins. These stories make it clear that the Prophet of Islam felt other's sufferings as his own and would try to do whatever he could to lessen or remove these sufferings.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said:

God the Almighty will say on the Day of Resurrection: O son of Adam, I fell ill and you visited Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so asked you for food and you fed him not? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found that with Me?

Forgiveness is another quality essential for a compassionate behavior. God 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 God.

Jihad, on the other hand, means inner struggle to suppress desires and cultivate virtues of patience (sabr) and reliance on God (tavakkul), for the sufi stream of Islam. There wasn't 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 a 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 an 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, a layered concept and has been interpreted very differently by different groups 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 the 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.

Muslims the world over have just completed the fasting of the month of Ramadhan, a time when we are called to the remembrance of compassion.

We remember the Compassion of God - for Ramadhan is the month in which He revealed the Holy Quran to his servant Mohammed (pbuh) to be a light for times to come in an age when prophethood would cease but the message would remain. We remember the compassion for others - to know hunger and thirst as a physical reality and to allow that reality to inform our love for others, most especially those whose fast is dictated by poverty and deprivation. What the charter of compassion refers to as empathy - moral imagination that enables us to feel for others. To understand that the inner reality of fasting is to abstain from anger and suspicion, from pride and negativity as well as food and drink.

We remember compassion for our own selves - when we realise that our bodies too have a right over us. That our physical being is a part of the whole and as we conceive of God as One so we strive to become whole and to surrender that wholeness of self to God - the definition of what it is to be Muslim.

Our own hearts must beat with the rhythm of compassion, compassion must found our intentions, it should permeate our every action, compassion must be our mode of interaction with the earth and all those who dwell on her and compassion must become the perfume with which our lives are scented.

Thank you and May God Bless you all. Wasalaam

Sultan Eusoff
Chief Executive Officer
The Federation of The Islamic Associations of New Zealand

This page last updated 26/08/2011 21:50p.m.