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Know Allah: The Most Compassionate and Merciful God
By Ustaz Muhammad Haniff Hassan
The Importance of Knowing Allah
Belief in God is the essence of Islam.
The shari`ah of Islam brought by prophets evolved over time. Thus, the shari`ah brought by Moses a.s. is different from the shari`ah brought by Jesus a.s. and therefore there are differences in the shari`ah revealed to Muhammad.
Nevertheless, the aspect pertaining to belief in God is always constant and immutable shared by all prophets from Adam to Muhammad and should remain so till the end of time.
In Islam, the essence of belief in God is the right knowledge of Him (ma`rifat Allah). For this reason, scholars of Islam hold, “the first and foremost in the religion is to know Allah”, which is to have the right knowledge of Him.
Man is created with the intellectual and psychological ability to know the existence of God, if such ability is correctly harnessed. However, intelligence or rational thinking alone will not lead Man to have the right knowledge about God due to its inherent limitation. In today’s context, this limitation can be demonstrated by the science of particle physics where some of the actual realities of these particles are not known except in the form of a mathematical formula. It is for this reason, God sent His revelations to Man via His chosen prophets often documented in the form of holy books to guide and inform Man about Him, although He has bestowed them with `aql. Also, when left to Man’s intellect and rational alone, thinking about God would always lead to the forbidden anthropomorphism.
Indeed, the primary source of knowledge about someone must come from himself. Thus, what God describes Himself is superior to Man’s perceived knowledge of Him and should be the basis of one’s understanding of God. In other words, to know God is to know how He describes himself via divine revelation which is the Qur`an and authentic hadiths, which make up the primary sources of Islamic teaching across time.
The are many aspects of God that Man must know in order to have a correct belief in Him i.e. He is One and Unique with no equal or lesser associates (smaller Gods).
Another important aspect is about His attributes and characters. This is known in Islamic theology as the study of God’s Asma’ (Names) and Sifat (Attributes) which is the focus of this article.
How, then, does God introduce Himself in the Qur’an from which Man could discern His most preferred attribute and representation?
The Most Compassionate and the Most Merciful first
We don’t need to read the Qur’an in entirety to have an overview of God. In fact, we don’t need to read tens of pages from the Qur’an and hundred verses of it.
God introduces Himself in the first page, the first chapter and, in fact, the first verse of the Qur’an in which He says, “In the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate and the Most Merciful.” (The Qur’an, 1:1) – the chapter and the verse which is read by Muslims 17 times every day when performing the obligatory five prayers.
This verse signifies two key points about belief in God in Islam by virtue of it being the first verse of the Qur’an. Firstly, God wants to make it known that belief in God is the most important aspect of Islamic teaching. God introduces Himself first before other teachings of Islam. Secondly, God seeks to provide an overview of His personality as the first introduction of Him to Man.
So, how does God introduce Himself in the verse and how does God want to be recognised by Man that is commanded to worship Him?
By choosing the Most Compassionate and Most Merciful as the first introduction of God, He gives a clear signal of His preference – to be recognised by His creations primarily by these two attributes.
This becomes more evident from the fact that God could have chosen from His 99 Names that would describe and introduce Him as Al-Muntaqim (the Avenger), Al-Jabbar (the Powerful), Al-Qahhar (the Subduer), Al-Mudhil (the Humiliator) and Al-Mutakabbir (the Greatest) and Al-Qawiy (the Powerful) to show His supreme, dominant and powerful status like many rulers would do.
In other words, God prefers to be recognised as the Loving God by His creations and He like to be the Most Compassionate and the Most Merciful when dealing with them first and above the rest of His attributes, not out of sheer power and dominance.
The reverse is equally true that He wants Man to worship and submit to Him out of His love to them, not out of fear and threat of punishment.
This understanding of God can be supported by many verses of the Qur’an such as:
- “Tell My servants that I – I alone – am truly forgiving, a true dispenser of grace. And [also,] that the suffering which I shall impose [on sinners] will indeed be a suffering most grievous.” (The Qur’an, 15:49-50)In this verse, God commands the Prophet to tell Man that He is the Most Forgiving and the Most Merciful first before warning them about His severe punishment. It must be noted also that God does not describe Himself as the Punisher. He merely informs them that severe punishment will befall on those who disbelieve and disobey Him.
- “And ordain Thou for us what is good in this world as well as in the life to come: behold, unto Thee have we turned in repentance!” [God] answered: “With My chastisement do I afflict whom I will – but My grace overspreads everything: and so I shall confer it on those who are conscious of Me and spend in charity, and who believe in Our messages [emphasis added].” (The Qur’an, 7:156)Although God mentions His punishment first in this verse, He seeks to highlight that His mercy is greater that the punishment. The former spreads to everything while the latter is limited to those He wills.
- “…[God] has willed [kataba] upon Himself the law of grace and mercy…” (The Qur’an, 6:12)“…Your Sustainer has willed [kataba] upon Himself the law of grace and mercy – so that if any of you does a bad deed out of ignorance, and thereafter repents and lives righteously, He shall be [found] much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” (The Qur’an, 6:54)
The original Arabic word for “willed” is kataba which means ‘to make obligatory’. Nothing could impose anything onto God. However, to emphasise His merciful character, He choose to impose on Himself to be merciful, instead of avenging and punishing.
Al-Tabari and Al-Qurtubi in their respective book of tafsir wrote that the verses highlight one of the many signs of God’s mercy, that He is not quick to bring down punishment upon those who disbelieve and disobey Him. On the contrary, He will grant chance upon chance for them to repent and return to the right path.
Some scholars opine that these verses establish that mercy is not only God’s attribute but the very essence of His divinity.
These verses make mercy dearer to God as compared to His other attributes.
There are also many hadiths to support the above understanding. Some of them are:
- “On the Day of Resurrection, some of the Muslims will come with sins like mountains, but Allah will forgive them…” (Narrated by Muslim)
- “Allah, the Exalted, has said: O son of Adam, I forgive you for as long as you pray to Me and hope for My forgiveness (for) whatever sins you have committed. O son of Adam, I do not care if your sins reach the heights of the heaven, then you ask for my forgiveness, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, if you come to Me with an earth load of sins, and meet Me associating nothing to Me, I would match it with an earth-load of forgiveness.” (Narrated by Al-Turmuzi)
- “My servant committed a sin and then he came to realise that he has a Lord Who forgives the sins and takes to account (the sinner) for the sin. He then again committed a sin and said: My Lord, forgive my sins, and Allah, the Exalted and High, said: My servant committed a sin and then came to realise that he has a Lord Who would forgive his sin or would take (him) to account for the sin. He again committed a sin and said: My Lord, forgive me for my sins, and Allah (the Exalted and High) said: My servant has committed a sin and then came to realise that he has a Lord Who forgives the sins or takes (him) to account for sin. O servant, do what you like. I have granted you forgiveness.” (Narrated by Muslim)
- God forgave a murderer of 100 lives who died on his way to turn over a new leaf. (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
- God forgave a prostitute for helping a thirsty dog to get its drink from a well. (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Taqwa is not God-fearing
The above understanding is significantly in contrast with an understanding that calls upon Man to fear God and submit to all His commands out of fear of His severe punishment in this life or in the Afterlife.
This can be discerned from a popular [mis]translation of Arabic word of taqwa to God-fearing, although the real Arabic word is far from the notion of fear or God as the Being to be feared.
Etymologically, taqwa comes from the word waqa which could mean to protect, preserve, shelter and safeguard.
What is to be protected, preserved and safeguard? From what? How should it be done?
The answer is protection of one’s self from failure to attain al-falah (success) in this world and in the Afterlife by fulfilling all that God has commanded and abstaining all that He has prohibited.
This meaning of taqwa could be achieved with little relation to fear because, in reality and more appropriately, Man could still fulfil all God’s commands and prohibitions out of love for Him.
Positive motivation first
There are two types of motivation to make Man do what is required of them; positive and negative motivation. Fulfilment of taqwa out of love of God and hope of His heaven is positive motivation, whereas fulfilling it out of fear of God’s punishment in this world and hell in the Afterlife is negative motivation. Both can make Man to perform their duties to God in order to attain taqwa and this would mean fear is not the essential meaning of taqwa.
Although both positive and negative motivations could motivate Man towards righteous life but each has a different psychological effect on Man’s religious life. They also shape Man’s relationship with God differently. The motivation type that dominates a person would also influence how he calls (da`wah) onto others to practise Islam.
A simple example to understand this point is in the education of children. There will be differences in motivating them to love learning through the love of knowledge and parents, which is a positive motivation; as compared to motivating them out of fear of punishment and authority.
Ironically, it is not uncommon to find that a person would easily comprehend the superiority of positive above negative motivations in worldly matters such as education and sports, but would rather choose a negative motivation in religious matters such as fulfilment of religious duties and abstention from religious prohibitions.
God’s preference to be merciful than harsh towards Man can also be discerned from His command to Prophets to give preference to their role as bashir (deliverer of glad tidings) than nadhir (deliverer of warnings) which can be found in many verses of the Qur’an.
Utility function of fear and punishment
The above understanding does not seek to deny the utility function of fear and punishment or to proclaim that the concept of fearing God and His punishment has no basis in Islam.
No doubt that fearing God and divine punishment are mentioned in the Qur’an and hadiths and are discussed in detail by classical and contemporary Muslim scholars.
However, the words that are often associated with fear in the Qur’an are khawf (3:175, 5:94, 16:50) and khashyah (13:21, 36:11, 50:33, 98:9), not taqwa.
Admittedly, there is an abundant mention of punishment, sin and hell in the Qur’an and they make up a part of Islamic faith (`aqidah). The abovementioned verses 49 and 50 of chapter 15 of the Qur’an is one clear example.
These, however, do not make the above understanding of God – He prefers to be recognised and chooses to be the Most Compassionate and the Most Merciful above other attributes – invalid or void.
Punishment, sin and hell are mentioned to illustrate Islam’s balance (wasatiyah) approach in religious matters, that Man would not take God’s mercy and forgiveness for granted and that God maintains the option, being a Supreme Being who has none to impose anything on Him, to effect His other attributes such as the Most Just; He will not only reward Man for their good deeds but also punish them for the evil that they have committed and the latter becomes pertinent when Man has been given endless chances and warnings in order to set example for others.
There are many hadiths that state God’s compassionate treatment of sinners, that He will be quick to forgive them regardless of the size of their sins, which points to His preference to being forgiving and merciful. And God would rather forgive, even for a slight reason, than punish. Some of these hadiths are mentioned above, but one of the most explicit statement to that effect is, “When Allah created the creatures, He wrote in the Book, which is with Him over His Throne: ‘Verily, My Mercy prevailed over My Wrath” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
True, conveying to and teaching Man about sin, punishment and hell is part of Islam. However, to make them as the very basis of Man’s devotion and submission to God is seriously problematic in Islam.
Application in real life
The importance of the above understanding is not just due to the need for a comprehensive knowledge of God. More importantly, it is also because such understanding has a bearing on our behaviour vis-à-vis his religious commitments such as how do we convey Islam to Man, how do we practise Islam daily and how do we relate with others, be it fellow human beings or God’s other creations.
If we agree to embrace the above understanding of God, it means the way we introduce God to Man must reflect God as the Most Compassionate, not an angry and avenging, persona.
When performing our religious duties and calling others to it, we will do it out of love of Him and yearning of His love first, not out of fear.
We will have to propagate Islam as a message of love first to all, not a threat for obedience and submission, in contrast to group like ISIS.
God’s preference to compassion, mercy and forgiveness when dealing with Man’s imperfections and weaknesses, should become a good guiding example for us when dealing with Man – we strive to be kind and gracious (not harsh/violent) and forgiving (not bearing grudge) to others.
With such behaviour, we will be portraying an image of a kind, compassionate and gracious Muslim father/teacher/ leader etc. We are respected because of our compassion and kindness, not power or authority that we could bear upon others. Others are willing to obey us out of love for us, not fear
Truly, we should not neglect God’s other attributes that project His power and ability to effect fearsome punishment. However, this should not also blind us from seeing what God has chosen for himself and showed His preference as elucidated in the Qur’an and many hadiths when making calls to Man to take the path of Islam.