COMPASSION PRACTICES OF ISLAM
Invoking Compassion Within
by Habīb Todd Boerger
In considering the topic of compassion, I am reminded that each of the Abrahamic faiths directs us to love and care for others – those who are poor, those who are needy, neighbors and strangers – as we love and care for ourselves. My approach to understanding compassion is grounded in my religion (Islam) and my spiritual practices as a Muslim, as well as in my experience of God during my ‘most human’ moments. Secondary to this exploration of compassion is my relationship with myself. Next is my relationship with others. Hence, I explore the topic of compassion through these filters.
A central tenet of Islam is that God is as He has described Himself in the Holy Qur’ān. The name for God in Arabic, Allah, is known as the unifying name, the name that unifies God’s other names and attributes. While some of those names describes God’s attributes of majesty and severity, the names relating to love and compassion appear ten times more often. One name in particular, ar-Rahman, is given special attention in the Qur’ān: “Say: ‘Invoke God, or invoke the Most Gracious: by whichever name you invoke Him, [He is always the One – for] His are all the attributes of perfection’” (17:110). This name, ar-Rahman, translated here as “the Most Gracious,” is singled out as being commensurate with the name Allah and is commonly translated as mercy, grace, beneficence, and compassion.
God has described Himself first and foremost as being merciful by beginning the Qur’ān with the phrase “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” (Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahīm). This phrase, referred to as the Basmala, is also translated as “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious/Merciful/Loving, the Bestower of Grace/Compassion/Mercy/Care.” In the Arabic language, the root letters for the Arabic words raḥman and raḥīm are rā (ر), ḥā (ح), and mīm (م). These letters form words with meanings related to having and showing mercy, compassion, love, kinship, motherhood (specifically the womb), and understanding. In Arabic the word for mercy and the word for womb share root letters with the word for Lord (rabb).
The words of the Basmala invite us to consider a mother’s love for her unborn child, the function of the placenta and the umbilical cord, and so on, and to consider how much greater is the love of the Creator Who designed this system of inherent care in motherhood. God’s description of Herself as the universally merciful and singularly compassionate Lord connotes the concept of love that is like a mother’s womb. Through the language of the Qur’ān, God is invoking this loving care and reminding us of Her mercy, a mercy that is of love, of creating and sustaining, of caring, of compassion, grace, and giving – that transcends all perceived boundaries and reaches all of creation – a mercy that is so vast we only get glimpses of it, even when we experience immersion in its ocean.
The five ‘pillars of Islam’ are the testimony of faith (shahadah), the ritual prayers (ṣalāt), charity (zakat), fasting during the month of Ramadan (sawm), and the pilgrimage (hajj). One could argue that each pillar invokes being compassionate with oneself as a means of fulfilling the Islamic obligation to be compassionate with others. This relationship may be most readily apparent with the pillars related to individual responsibility in relation to redistribution of wealth and social welfare, i.e., charity and fasting (the person who experiences the hunger and thirst of the fast aligns himself with the experience of hunger and thirst of those who are poor and needy). By extension, self-compassion that leads to compassion for others also will help others be compassionate with themselves, and thereby increase their compassion for others.
In the performance of as-ṣalāt, the compulsory Islamic ritual prayer, the worshipper stands to recite verses of the Qur’ān, beginning with the opening chapter, Sūratu-l-Fātiḥah, which is known as the “essence of the Qur’ān.”The two divine names al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm appear in the opening line of the Holy Qur’ān and are repeated in the third verse of the Fātiḥah. Every Muslim who performs the five daily obligatory prayers, performs 17 rakats (a unit of prayer). In each rakat, the worshipper repeats the Fātiḥah, which means s/he has repeated four times that God is compassionate. For each second verse the worshipper recites beginning with the Basmala, s/he repeats that God is compassionate another two times.
A Muslim praying the five daily prayers and 12 Sunnah (optional) rakats in this manner (assuming that s/he recites a second verse in the first two rakats only of the obligatory prayers and not in the Sunnah prayers), who also offers an after-prayer practice with recitation of four verses beginning with the Basmala and the Fātiḥah, is repeating that God is compassionate 140 times a day in performing daily prayers. Clearly, God is instilling in each Muslim the message that He is compassionate, that the creation is an expression of that compassion, and that as part of that creation, we too are an expression of that compassion.
The conception of the prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, as merciful, loving and compassionate is also central to Islam. In order to begin understanding how Muslims conceive of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, one must consider both his spiritual essence and his humanity. One of the points that is most striking in relation to Muslims’ perception of his spiritual essence is the universality of the Prophet—that Muhammad’s spiritual essence is the light of God that has been in every one of God’s messengers and prophets and is now in every human heart.
This universality is also conveyed in Qur’ān 21:107: “And We have not sent you [Muhammad] save as a mercy to all the worlds.” Muhammad is functioning as God’s messenger, the light through which She creates individual essence, the vessel through which She communicates to all of humanity, the example by which She teaches us how to remember who God is, how to realize our purpose, how to achieve happiness, and how to treat each other — in other words, how to be in relationship with God, ourselves, and each other.
If God’s quintessence is compassion, humankind’s primordial nature is compassion, and all of creation is an expression and continuation of the precipatory force of God’s compassion, self-compassion seems a natural outcome of an Islamic view of compassion. The topic of self-compassion is specifically addressed by Jamal Rahman, Kathleen Schmitt Elias, and Ann Holmes Redding in Out of Darkness Into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Qur’ān with Reflections from Christian and Jewish Sources (2009). These authors support their case for self-compassion as a starting point for compassion with the rest of creation by relating the following ḥadīth: “A Bedouin once entreated the Prophet to reveal to him how he could invite God’s boundless compassion to be bestowed upon him. The Prophet replied, ‘Have compassion on yourself and on others, and infinite compassion will be given to you.’” (Rahman et al., 144.)
Because of the correspondence of Allah, raḥman and raḥīm, the names and the concepts for God, Lord, mercy, compassion, and love, are interwoven, inseparable. Accordingly, I would argue that any Islamic spiritual practice is meant to be a compassion-forming practice. Compassion is built in, so to speak. The same argument can be made for Jewish and Christian practices.
So how do we deepen and expand our capacity to be compassionate toward ourselves and others in the interfaith movement and beyond? Practice. One of the spiritual practices that was most helpful in clearing my childhood misconceptions about God was reading a chapter of the Qur’an and reciting “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahīm” 21 times after each verse.
The practice that helped me have compassion for those who had inflicted some of my deepest wounds was reciting the divine names for forgiveness, repentance, and pardon (ya Ghafūr ya Ghaffār ya Tawwāb ya ‘Afūw), first on my behalf and then on their behalf. Any forgiveness practice, like asking for forgiveness in a repentance recitation, is a compassion-forming practice because seeking forgiveness is simultaneously asking God to return you to your true nature and to unveil that true nature, which is the indwelling of God’s love, mercy, compassion.
A practice I often use in difficult conversations is to visualize the name of God written in the eyes and heart of the other person as a way of reminding me of the divine in-blowing within them. Other Islamic spiritual formation practices include reciting Sūratu-l-Fātiḥah, reciting it once or multiple times for specific person(s), situations; repetition of the Basmala with daily activities, for yourself, for others, for a situation; salawat, i.e., sending blessings and peace upon the Prophet, which can be done in a variety of ways, like repeating the phrase ‘blessings and peace be upon him,’ litanies,and so on; giving charity and fasting; and taking part in any social justice action.
Like giving charity, fasting, and taking part in social justice, many of these compassion-forming practices are ‘translatable’ to other traditions, such as performing lectio divina with Matthew 25:31-46, or continuously reciting Exodus 33:19, Isaiah 63:7, or Psalm 116:5. And they are all useful ways of deepening our connection to God and manifesting God’s compassion in how we relate to all of Her creation.
Header Photo: Max Pixel