The Meaning of Mercy in Islam
Divine mercy is mostly known in its relation to sin, but mercy (raḥmah) in Islam is the foundation of God’s eternal nature as a loving creator.
We often associate God’s mercy with sin. We do a bad deed, sin against God and others, and then request the All-Mighty’s mercy. Although this is true, God’s mercy – as Islam understands it – is infinitely more encompassing than just forgiving sins. If anything, God’s name and attribute of al-Ghafūr (the Oft-Forgiving) is more fitting for that description.
The word for God’s mercy in Arabic is raḥmah. In English, the word raḥmah can either be translated as “mercy” or “grace”; both are acceptable and appropriate translations. It is rooted in the word raḥim which means a womb, and hence signifying a loving relationship between God and creation that is analogous to the love between a mother and her child.
Islam teaches us that everything proceeds from God’s mercy. Mercy is the reason for why there is such a thing as creation; it is why it rains in the world, why we breath air, why we have food on the table and why we have the ability to love and care for others. The purpose of creation and everything good in it flows upon us through Allah’s mercy.
In Islam, God’s mercy extends to all of creation, good and evil; heaven or hell bound, believer or non-believer. God’s mercy even encompasses all of creation, including hell and its inhabitants by virtue of Imam Ali’s (as) popular supplication in duʿā kumayl when he says “by Your mercy which encompasses all of creation” (bi-raḥmatika allatī wasiʿat kulli shayʾ).
Abrahamic religions teach us that we are made in the image of God. However, our inner evil (which we vastly underestimate) as expressed in sin distorts this image. Falling out of God’s grace is not so much an absence of mercy between Creator and creation but a distortion in one’s being or image which progressively and gradually makes us unlike Him. However, by expressing mercy towards God’s creation, and especially to our enemies, we fulfill our purpose in creation by living in the image of the Lord.
The conclusion that we can derive from the above is that compassion – both for loved ones as well as one’s enemies – is quintessential for real īmān (faithful and trusting relationship with God) and is the cornerstone of Islamic akhlāq (spiritual ethics).