Your God is one God;
there is no other God than He,
the compassionate, ever-merciful.
Al Fatiha stated it clearly and it is the first segment of the Islamic creed of faith: there is but one God. There is but one supreme reality that underlies everything and that gives existence to all that exists. It makes no sense to go and look for other Gods because there can be but one divine principle that is the deepest of the deepest and the essence of the essence. For a believer, therefore, the question is not so much “Does God exist?” but rather: “How can I recognize this divine principle? How do I come to know that I’m indeed not worshipping a man-made idea or false image of God? How can I be sure that I’m in fact searching for that one God and not a figment of my imagination?”
The Quran offers the answer to that question again and again: God is the exceedingly compassionate and ever-merciful. Of all the names he receives in the Quran, Ar-Rahman – the compassionate – is the most used. This can teach us many things but above all it can teach us that our concept of God always has to be consistent with the fact that He is exceedingly compassionate. So whatever we think we discover of God, if it contradicts the fact that He is compassionate, then we know that we’re on the wrong track and our search has led us into illusions.
The same applies to our own dealings: if we become less compassionate, we are moving away from God. Compassion is an essential aspect of the divine and as such it is possible to recognize whether somebody is truly walking a spiritual path or not – that is to say, you can tell by that their compassion is growing or diminishing.
Therefore, whatever we might read in the Quran, although it might sometimes sound harsh or even aggressive to those who aren’t from a Muslim culture – and I am one of those – if we cannot reconcile it with the idea of an ever compassionate God, then we haven’t really comprehended it. Whatever explanation is given to any verse in the Quran, if that explanation is not consistent with a compassionate God, then it is a false explanation. And I believe this idea extends beyond reading or understanding the Quran. Whatever holy text we take into our hands, if it cannot be reconciled with the divine principle of compassion, then it’s either not a holy text or we haven’t comprehended it correctly.
What Christians can learn
The most essential virtue Christianity upholds is love. Even so much so that in a letter of John we can read that “God is Love”. Islam, however, seems to say “God is compassion”. Of course the two concepts are certainly not opposed to each other. On the contrary, they are intrinsically linked and one can certainly not exist without the other, but it is still more then worthwhile to think over the subtle distinction. For, while love is something that brings us to others, compassion is needed to keep us together. Love loves the good in others. Compassion forgives the bad.
Because of this, compassion is a surer road to peace, for love helps us transcend our ego while compassion is a virtue that helps us to transcend our conflicts.
It makes no sense to act as if we don’t have conflicts. Yet when love is our main focus, it has been my experience, people often avoid the conflicts and do not deal with them because they get into a cramped and illusionary effort ‘to love’. Because they think they have to love, they avoid the conflict because they are not able to forgive. So many Christians should perhaps question themselves whether they haven’t been running away from conflicts or have cut contacts with people because, when you get to the bottom of it, they simply couldn’t forgive the others for some or other reasons.
It is easy to love those that are a part of our group or family but how many times have we left out people that hurt us somehow and how much did we feel very justified in doing so? Many Christians should therefore reflect on the fact that God is not only ‘reaching out’ but also ‘embracing’. The same is true for spirituality: it should always reach out for the good but also embrace the bad – and in so doing, transform it.
Questions for Muslims
If God is all-embracing and ever compassionate why then does the Quran mention so many times that those who believe will find forgiveness but those that don’t will surely perish? Even the verse of Al Baqarah quoted here, is surrounded by verses who warn the disbelievers will not be given any respite. How then can this be coupled to his name of Ar-Rahman?
It seems to me that it all depends on what is understood to be ‘disbelieving’. Is disbelieving the reluctance to say a certain creed? Is a believer simply the one who says there is but one God and Muhammad is his prophet? Most certainly not. The Quran is more than clear on this matter in several verses. Many are hypocrites: they say they believe but they do not in any way live like a faithful person. So it isn’t because you call yourself a Muslim that you will get saved. It is because you live according to the divine principles that underlie existence. And a disbeliever is not a disbeliever simply because he does not say or mentally believe a certain set of propositions or creeds. It is not because you do not call yourself a Muslim that there will be ‘no respite’ for you. (If that would be so, it would have made no sense at all that Christian women could, according to Islamic tradition, stay Christian even when married to a Muslim).
In short then: ‘believing’ in a Quranic sense means submission to the divine principles and not the utterance of a specific set of words. Without saying any of the ‘correct’ words, we can be submitted to the divine principles for we can be a very compassionate person when our heart and soul yearns for it even when we don’t call ourselves a believer. And on the other hand, someone who says the shahada can be a very uncompassionate person – and as such be much more of an unbeliever, for he has not understood this very essential attribute of the divine.
When there will be no respite for the disbelievers then, it is not because God is uncompassionate towards them, but it’s because they themselves place their own being outside of the divine principles. They themselves choose a path of egoism and aggression. It is not God that hurts them, but is they themselves that hollow out their own hearts.
And if all of this is true, then I feel the need to ask: how hollow is the heart of those that want to punish or even kill Muslims who change their faith? Why is there often such a hard reaction to people who choose to leave Islam? If their choice leads them to a life of compassion, peace and service, what is wrong with that? Do they not live according to the divine principles? And are they in that sense not believers of Ar-Rahman, even though they might call him differently? Of course they are. But what about those that want to hurt them or that cast them outside their community of family and friends? Where is their compassion? Are they true followers of Ar-Rahman? I truly have my doubts about that.