Discovering God's Mercy in the Quran

Cambridge, MA. Ironically, sadly, just when Donald Trump wants to close the door on Muslims, Pope Francis was opening the holy door in St. Peter’s Basilica, insisting that divine mercy is never a closed door. Indeed, as he insisted back in April when he announced the Holy Year of Mercy, this is truth shared widely with Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths. After offering a strong affirmation of God’s mercy in Jewish tradition, he turned to Islam:

Among the privileged names that Islam attributes to the Creator are ‘Compassionate and Merciful.’ This invocation is often on the lips of faithful Muslims who feel themselves accompanied and sustained by mercy in their daily weakness. They too believe that no one can place a limit on divine mercy because its doors are always open.

So let us begin there, with the first words of the Quran itself: “In the name of God (Allah), the Compassionate (al-Rahman), the Merciful (al-Rahim” (1.1). These words open every chapter of the Quran except one, the ninth (“Repentance, al-Tawbah), which speaks of repentance but also of fierce contest with idolaters; more on that difficult chapter another day. Here, in the very first chapter, the next verses echo the same theme: “Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful” (1.2-3).

The Study Quran— a wonderful Christmas gift for studious friends and family in all its magnificent 2,000 pages—invites us to simply read the chapters of the Quran itself, or to ponder any given verse with commentary, or, as I have begun to do, also to look into the 57 page index, to follow a word across the many chapters. But surely the basic point is simple: right from the first verses of the first chapter we begin to learn much about God’s compassion and mercy. We are confronted with it, surprised by it, drawn into it. This is a core truth of Islam, repeated over and over, and neither the bigoted nor the violent can obscure the fact.

The first chapter of the Quran is only seven verses long, but the commentary in The Study Quran extends for nearly seven pages, and is full of insights for beginners like myself. “God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:” the divine essence (Allah, God), the unity of all divine attributes (Compassionate), and the unity of divine acts (Merciful). “The Compassionate” is a divine name that no other can bear, since “it connotes the Loving-Mercy by which God brings forth existence.” “The Merciful” indicates “the blessing of nourishment by which God sustains each particular being.” Compassion is like the sun, mercy is the ray of sunshine warming and vivifying every given thing on earth. The first (Compassion) brings the world into being, the second (Mercy) “is that by which God shows Mercy to those whom He will, as in 33.43, ‘And He is Merciful unto the believers,’” enabling them to endure as they were created to be. And that Mercy is, in turn, the wellspring of other Divine Names: the Kind, the Clement, the Beautiful.

We learn later on, in 21.107, that the Prophet Mohammed is sent by God as an act of mercy: “And We sent thee not, save as a mercy unto the worlds.” The commentary here explains the subtlety of the Arabic: “The grammar of the verse allows it to be understood to mean either that the sending of the Prophet Mohammed was a merciful act by God or that the Prophet is himself a mercy that God sent. It can signify that the Prophet is a possessor of mercy, is merciful, or is himself a mercy.” This is, the comment continues, a manifestation of the mercy to which the Law tends, and a mercy for all, the whole “world,” and not just believing Muslims. Even those who do not believe in the Prophet experience his mercy, which wards off doom even from those who reject him; he will intercede for all, on the Day of Judgment.

And finally—I cannot go on too long—this mercy brings peace and harmony to men and women, who find their partners by divine mercy: “And among His signs is that He created mates for you from among yourselves, that you might find rest in them, and He established affection and mercy between you” (30.21). This, we are told in the commentary, is “an address to both men and women, telling of the manner in which God has extended His own Love and Mercy to them through the love and mercy that they manifest toward one another.” One could continue tracing "the Merciful" for a long time; God is invoked this way well over 100 times in the Quran (or so my counting in the index suggests).

The comments are, we are told, drawn from the 41 traditional commentaries listed at The Study Quran’s beginning. One thousand five hundred years of wisdom across the bottom of the page. Like most of you reading this, I cannot go and check those original sources for myself, but it seems that the illuminations of every word of every verse are rooted in the consensus of a long lineage of earlier readers. We do not read the Quran on its own, but with those who have gone before us. Is this not the Catholic faith, too?

And, as I have just shown, mention of the opening of the Holy Door of Mercy by Pope Francis, seen by him to be an act that will resonate with Jews and Muslims and believers in other traditions, has opened easily, smoothly, into these passages from across the Quran. The Study Quran makes it so very easy for us to meditate on God’s mercy, the reality that shames and extinguishes hatred among people of different faiths. In the same declaration I cited at the start of this post, Pope Francis makes an appeal for a Merciful Encounter among believers, the very opposite of fear and discrimination, hatred and violence against the outsider:

I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.

Granted, his words do not, and my words certainly will not, suffice suddenly to change the reckless tone of our politics and extinguish the international infatuation with violence. Last night, I listened to a moving conversation at the Harvard Divinity School, with Pastor Dr. James Movel Wuye and Imam Dr. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, as part of the H.D.S. Religions and the Practice of Peace initiative. These courageous figures have opened doors to reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, and their work is more immediately important than the study we do. But learning, study, teaching are fundamental to living faith in any tradition, part of the human race’s spiritual DNA, essential to our survival in a world that spirals downward when ignorance prevails. Pray, study and act.

(Note to readers: I haven’t forgotten my intention to offer reflections on Mary and Jesus, as seen through this Study Quran. But going slowly here, too, is a help, and in either the next post or the one thereafter, I will take up that theme.)