All but one surah(verse) of the Holy Qur’an begins with Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, a phrase, undoubtedly the most common, that is also used by Muslims before they begin any activity. I have fond memories of joking with friends about the beloved uncles of our community who say Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahimwith a vociferous sigh before sitting down on the couch, and with even more expression as they attempt to rise from the couch in one fell-swoop. The phrase loosely translates to “In the name of Allah, the most beneficent, the most merciful”. Perhaps it was the frequency of the phrase, which I hesitantly admit, made it banal for me until very recently. I always knew that the attributes of Rahmanand Rahimwere part of the cannon of the 99-names of Allah, a series of attributive-names, which Muslims meditate upon. One day, I heard a scholar of Islam discuss the Arabic root of these two related words, namely the R-sound, H- sounds, and M-sound, which taken together translates as “womb” or “uterus”. As a loyal feminist, these attributes were banal no more.
The womb, is not simply merciful as a king would be to its subjects, nor is it simply beneficent from afar. It is intimately bound to and encompassing the fragility of life, fighting to survive and grow. The womb provides the fetus all it needs without asking anything in return. Understanding these attributes with more depth made me wonder, if Allah (the Divine) holds the attributes of all encompassing love and mercy, what does this mean for me- the believer?In order to answer the question of relevance for me—mere mortal, I turn to the primordial mortal.
In the creation narrative given in the Qur’an, after the creation of Adam (archetypal man), Allah is said to have taught him all the names (Surah Baqarah) . Some interpret these names as the attributes of Allah. Those who hold this interpretation argue that since Allah breathed his spirit into man (Surah Sajdah), the spiritual nature (fitra) of humankind is pure. In other words, the nature of Allah, is within each one of his human creation. This understanding is one that is shared across various traditions, whether the search is for the Buddha-nature within, or in the acknowledgment of the Divine within each individual through the utterance or gesture of Namaste. While I am incredibly content moving forward believing that loving, all-encompassing, compassion is not only an important attribute of Allah, but it is also within my nature and therefore must be exercised, I am left wondering how this should be operationalized in today’s world?
Many Muslims, during the last 10-days of Ramadan, which we are currently in, observe the advent of the first revelation of the Qur’an. Although there are many narratives of this event, known as Laylat al-Qadr , which some translate as Night of Power and others as Night of Destiny, the general series of events recount a particular moment when Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him and his family) was meditating in a cave on a mountain in what is known today as Saudi Arabia. Suddenly a voice appeared commanding him to read/recite. The experience of this interaction, was incredibly powerful for the Prophet and in some traditions, it is said that after this experience, the Prophet came to his wife Khatija (peace be upon her and her family) and asked her to wrap him up (or, as I like to think of it in the romance of today’s vernacular, “hold him down”). Some traditions say, after she consoled him, she advised that he talk to her cousin Waraqa bin Nawfal, a spiritual guide associated with monotheist movements. What strikes me about these narrative, which incidentally is the same thing that would irk those who would disagree, is that the Prophet, referred to in the Qu’ran, (Surah Al-Anbya) as a mercy to the worlds, himself seeks loving, all-encompassing mercy and compassion from others in his life. This of course makes tremendous sense, as we all have the Divine breath within us, and with that, an understanding that the Divine is not only transcendent but it is also immanent.
While I have attempted to make the case that rehma, the notion of all encompassing, compassionate love is an essential attribute of the Divine which we must exhibit and seek in one another, I want to be clear that the compassion which is innately within each being, is not beyond corruption and that accountability must be seen as an act of compassion. While sitting uncomfortably with the pop-psychology that “hurt people hurt”, I ask myself: Will compassion alone satiate the generals of cannibalizing militaries who pellet children with impunity? If we simply show more love to misogynists, will they stop dehumanizing women whom they relegate to existing only in relation to them? If we give hugs to police officers, will they start seeing Black and Brown bodies as worthy of existence? Considering myself religious, I do not see justice bound to our conception of time, expecting progress simply by moving forward in months, years, and decades. Instead, I see struggle as the entirety of purpose. Just as the womb gives what it has without condition, because it simply must, so too must we labor in love for the attributes we are called upon to mirror.
– Dr. Natasha Hakimali Merchant