Bismilláhi r-Raḩmáni r-Raḩeem (In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent)
As the Qur’an’s first verse, the Bismillah is our gateway to divine revelation and our companion when beginning any activity. Its first part defines a Muslim identity—to approach all matters “in the name of God.” And its ending, listing two of God’s names, beautifully repeats the sounds r-ḩ-m in a way striking even to non-Arabic speakers.
Both these names of God center on the Arabic quality of raḩmah1 .
Ar-Raḩmán – the One who is defined by complete and universal raḩmah2
Ar-Raḩeem – again, the One who continuously shows much raḩmah
It is by raḩmah that God introduces Himself throughout the Qur’an, and after His Oneness3 , the Qur’an uses no other quality to describe God more than raḩmah4 . Raḩmah is central to Islamic theology and our relationship with God. So what is raḩmah?
Our first answer may be that raḩmah is simply ‘mercy,’ a word preferred in many Qur’an translations. This, however, may be very problematic. Although ‘mercy’ is included in the meanings of raḩmah, the modern English usage of ‘mercy’ fails to do justice to the original Arabic. Rather, I will argue that we modern English speakers must understand raḩmah as God’s Messenger ﷺ (peace be upon him) understood the term—not simply as ‘mercy’ but something deeper—an emotion so closely tied with motherhood.
‘Mercy’ in Modern English
Some of us first experienced ‘mercy’ as a painful playground game where children try to hurt one another until one “cries for mercy.” By contrast, we modern English speakers would rarely describe our mothers as ‘merciful.’ We find doing so very odd, but why?
The answer lies in the fact that ‘mercy’ in modern English is associated with the negative connotation of the ‘power to harm,’ something we do not associate with motherhood. Let’s look at the following definition from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary5 :
- A kind and forgiving attitude towards somebody that you have the power to harm or right to punish.
- to ask/beg/plead for mercy
- They showed no mercy to their hostages.
- God have mercy on us.
- The troops are on a mercy mission (= a journey to help people) in the war zone.
- An event or a situation to be grateful for, usually because it stops something unpleasant.
- It’s a mercy she wasn’t seriously hurt.
- His death was a mercy (= because he was in great pain).
From an Islamic standpoint, God is indeed merciful. God is kind and forgiving although He does have the power to harm us and the right to punish us for our sins.
But this is not the complete meaning of raḩmah as used by God’s Messenger ﷺ.
Let’s consider when we can legitimately use ‘mercy’ in modern English. For instance, if a ruthless dictator decides to stop killing innocent people temporarily, he would have legitimately shown them ‘mercy.’ And if a cold-hearted murderer decides against killing a terrified victim, he too would have legitimately shown ‘mercy.’ But as we shall see, neither case would constitute raḩmah.
We plead for ‘mercy’ from police who can fine us, judges who can punish us, rulers who can overpower us, and murderers who can kill us. But the Messenger ﷺ never spoke of such fearful people when describing God’s Raḩmah in terms we can easily understand. Instead he reminded us of our mothers and the familiar emotions they show us—emotions we call ‘compassion’ or ‘nurturing love.’
Raḩmah according to God’s Messenger ﷺ
In the Prophet’s ﷺ many sayings about raḩmah on earth, the central theme of nurturing, parental love clearly stands out. God’s Raḩmah, according to the Messenger ﷺ, is the sole source of all earthly raḩmah, such that all creatures show “love and kindness to one another, and even a beast treats her young with affection.”6 Raḩmah thus finds its most natural expression in the love of a mother.
And no one can match a mother’s love… Except, of course, God. Imagine the emotions of a mother desperately searching for a lost child—and how much joy she must feel finding her child again. On witnessing this, the Messenger ﷺ asked his companions, “Can you imagine this woman throwing her baby into fire?” When his companions responded in disbelief, he taught them, “God has more raḩmah for His servants than this mother for her child.”7 Once again, the Prophet ﷺ saw raḩmah as an emotion we have all experienced—not the modern English “mercy” but a mother’s natural love.
Of course, this connection of raḩmah and motherhood should be no surprise, for the word is linguistically related to the Arabic word raḩm, which means ‘uterus,’ ‘womb,’ and, figuratively, ‘family ties.’ This close linguistic connection is so eloquently expressed in God’s Sacred Saying8 , “I am ar-Raḩmán and created the raḩm—And I named her after Me.”9 Therefore, if we are to grasp the raḩmah core of God’s very nature, we must look to what this feminine organ symbolizes—the nurturing emotions we find in mothers and in our loving families.
Mothers are not the only ones characterized by raḩmah, for the Prophet ﷺ himself embodied the quality when he would hug his grandchildren,10 kissing them. For the desert’s male-centered culture, this was far too ‘unmanly’ a characteristic. “I have ten children and have never kissed any of them!” retorted a proud, disapproving Bedouin. But the Messenger ﷺ, knowing the beauty of parental love in God’s eyes, warned the man, “He who has no raḩmah will have no raḩmah.”11 12 And in another instance, he reiterated, “He who has no raḩmah for children is not one of us.”13
“And God will show raḩmah but to His servants who show raḩmah,” said the Prophet ﷺ, his eyes filled with tears as he held his dying granddaughter. When asked about these tears, he only explained them as such: “This is raḩmah that God places in the hearts of His servants.”14 This was a most natural emotion so familiar to us—again, not ‘mercy’ but what we rather call a grandfather’s ‘love.’
The Messenger’s ﷺ mission was that we might truly know God, ar-Raḩmán, in the very language of personal experience. To help us comprehend God’s Raḩmah, he did not speak of the earthly ‘mercy’ of kings and judges—today’s modern English understanding of ‘mercy.’ Rather, his every example of human raḩmah directed us again and again to the love parents, especially mothers, have for their offspring.
Is Raḩmah Then ‘Love’?
Yes and no. Although raḩmah according to the Messenger ﷺ is indeed a form of love, we should be very careful shifting our dependence from one imperfect translation (‘mercy’) to another imperfect translation (‘love’). ‘Love’ is a very general term in modern English—we speak not only of ‘nurturing love,’ but also ‘platonic love,’ ‘romantic love,’ ‘desirous love,’ the ‘love of food,’ and the ‘love of money.’ All English speakers would agree that these can all be vastly different forms of ‘love.’
In contrast to English, Arabic uses a number of words to express these different forms of love, such as ḩubb, maḩabbah, wudd, and mawaddah. While the Messenger ﷺ described God’s Raḩmah as a compassionate, nurturing love, God’s ḩubb is a love merited to those conscious of Him,15 perfecting their deeds,16 turning back after their mistakes, and always trying to purify themselves.17 Whereas God’s Raḩmah in this world is universal, embracing everything,18 God does not have ḩubb for those who commit aggression,19 oppression,20 and corruption.21
I am not arguing that the English-speaking Muslim community should settle on one alternative translation for raḩmah, replacing ‘mercy.’ No perfect translation may exist. But if we seek to understand raḩmah as the Messenger ﷺ taught us, we may better understand revelation so as to clearly convey the divine message to others.
Dialogue with Christians
In our society, we Muslims must accurately convey Islam’s message to our non-Muslim peers. Though we should be very careful to not simply translate raḩmah as ‘love,’ understanding raḩmah as a form of love is important whenever engaging in dialogue with Christians. Some Christians disparage the Qur’an by claiming it rarely mentions ‘love’ whereas the New Testament is translated to state, “God is love.”22 We can readily see that this argument is weak when we take the Messenger’s ﷺ understanding of raḩmah, one of the Qur’an’s central themes.
And most interestingly, many Christians are unaware that the Bible’s understanding of ‘love’ is not today’s general, modern English understanding of ‘love’! Just like in Arabic, biblical Greek had many different terms for forms of love. Let’s look at an analysis of this from a Christian website:
The Bible speaks of different kinds of love. Perhaps the most dominant usage of the word “love” in Western society refers essentially to sexual love but is not found in the New Testament. One kind of love that the Bible does speak of is a friendship sort of love. This is expressed by the Greek word “philia.” It is a preferential type of love and not much different than a person saying that they love chocolate ice cream. “Agape” love however is the most common form of love in the Bible. It might be more likened to the sacrificial love a parent has for their child regardless of whether such love is reciprocated…23
It may seem that Christian ‘love’ in the Bible—agape—could actually be more similar to raḩmah and not other Arabic words like ḩubb. By contrast, ḩubb may correspond more to the Greek philia.24 Though no two languages can ever match perfectly, both raḩmah and agape are non-desirous, nurturing forms of love that God expresses universally.25
In light of this, the Qur’an’s emphasis on raḩmah in dialogue with Christians stands out. For instance, the Qur’an commends the early followers of Christ, may peace be upon him, by saying God put raḩmah, not ḩubb, in their hearts.26 And ponder the stunningly high frequency by which the Qur’an uses God’s name ar-Raḩmán in Surah Maryam, a chapter named after Jesus’ mother Mary, peace be upon them.27 If this is to remind a Christian audience familiar with God’s agápē that He needs no son, it demonstrates the importance of conveying the prophetic understanding of raḩmah in all discourse with non-Muslims.28
Raḩmah, Our Salvation and Our Obligation
If Christianity is said to be a “religion of love (agápē),” Islam is unquestionably the “Religion of Raḩmah.” In this present world, God’s Raḩmah is universal, “having embraced everything,”29 and the Messenger ﷺ has no more eloquent a statement of purpose than being sent as “raḩmah to the worlds.”30 In the hereafter, God’s Raḩmah is synonymous with salvation,31 for no one can be saved, not even the Messenger ﷺ, except by God’s Raḩmah alone.32 33
This should give us a moment of pause. Remember, with regards to the hereafter, the Messenger ﷺ warned us, “He who has no raḩmah will have no raḩmah,” and taught us, “God will show raḩmah but to His servants who show raḩmah.” If raḩmah is our salvation, showing one another raḩmah is an obligation upon each of us. We must take the Prophet’s ﷺ commandment to heart:
Ar-Raḩmán has raḩmah for those who show raḩmah. Show raḩmah to those on earth – the One in heaven will show you raḩmah.34
If one wants to learn how to show raḩmah to those on earth, look to someone who shows compassion and nurtures another the way our mothers loved and nurtured us—someone who lets his or her tears flow feeling the pain of the poor, hungry, and oppressed.
Raḩmah does not simply mean showing people ‘mercy’—holding back from harming people when we have a right to. This ‘mercy,’ though good, only scrapes the surface of raḩmah, which must come from the heart.
Neither does raḩmah mean showing ḩubb to those who commit evil and oppression, ‘loving’ what they do and ‘liking’ to please them. That too is not raḩmah. Instead, raḩmah is to let one’s heart ache for those people, caring about their eternal well-being, that maybe we may all enter God’s Raḩmah, His salvation, in the hereafter. Raḩmah is to embody the way of the Messenger ﷺ, who said, “I was not sent to curse, but I was sent as a raḩmah.”35
Last Word: Hope
God’s revelation is timeless and should resonate with us always. It thus becomes the obligation of each generation to understand that revelation in the language of our own personal experiences. Unfortunately, our dependence on the modern English ‘mercy’ as a translation of raḩmah may be faulty and inadequate. All the Messenger’s ﷺ descriptions of raḩmah point to something deeper, something we are familiar with, something we readily know as ‘compassion’ or ‘nurturing love.’36
With this understanding, how much more amazing are the Qur’an’s words – that rain is raḩmah, that revelation is raḩmah, and that the Messenger himself ﷺ is raḩmah! We suddenly see all these blessings as God’s deep expressions of compassionate love.
To conclude, we should always remember that Raḩmah is God’s very nature and our only salvation, and that should always be a cause of immense relief and hope. For as the Qur’an and Sacred Sayings relate:
And when there comes to you those who believe in Our signs, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has prescribed Raḩmah on Himself: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then turns back and makes amends – He is indeed forgiving, raḩeem (full of raḩmah).”37
Proclaim: “O My servants who have laid waste to their own souls, never lose hope in God’s Raḩmah. God forgives all sins entirely. God is forgiving, raḩeem.”38
When God completed creation, He inscribed with Himself: “My Raḩmah has triumphed over My anger.”39
- I will generally lower case raḩmah unless in usage when the Arabic term is grammatically definite, i.e. “God’s Raḩmah,” Raḩmatulláh [↩]
- Ibn Kathir records from Ibn Jarir that ar-Raḩmán refers to universal raḩmah with all creation and ar-Raḩeem refers to a special raḩmah for the believers: Huwa r-Raḩmán li jamee’i l-khalq, wa r-Raḩeem bil-mu’mineena kháşşah [↩]
- The core Muslim concept of Tawheed or Unity – that there is no god but God [↩]
- God describes Himself and His actions through raḩmah numerously in the Qur’an. In addition to the names ar-Raḩmán and ar-Raḩeem at the start of all but one chapter, the name ar-Raḩmán occurs 64 more times and the description of raḩeem occurs an additional 114 times (although once in reference to the Messenger ﷺ). God’s Raḩmah is explicitly mentioned an additional 116 times. With other references to God’s Raḩmah (arḩamu r-ráḩimeen, khairu r-ráḩimeen, or uses of the verb yarḩam), the concept of raḩmah in the Qur’an occurs at least 545 times. [↩]
- Oxford University Press, 2011 [↩]
- Abu Huraira relates that God’s Messenger ﷺ said, “God’s Raḩmah has one hundred parts. He sends down one part of Raḩmah for the jinn, humans, animals, and insects such that they love and show kindness to one another. And even a beast treats her young with affection. And God saves ninety-nine parts of Raḩmah for his servants on the Day of Resurrection.” And in a similar narration, “Because of this one part of Raḩmah, there is mutual love among creation that a mare lifts its hooves from her young for fear of harming it.” Muslim, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab relates once being with God’s Messenger ﷺ with a group of women and children detained after battle. One woman among them was searching for her child. Whenever she saw any child, she took the child to her bosom and began breastfeeding it. The Messenger ﷺ asked his companions, “Do you think this woman would throw her child into fire?” They said, “No, by God, unless she has no power otherwise.” He replied, “God has more raḩmah (arḩam) for His servants than this woman for her child.” Muslim, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- Ḩadeeth qudsi in Arabic [↩]
- Related by the Messenger ﷺ through ‘Abdur Rahman ibn ‘Auf. The ḩadeeth qudsi continues, “I have drawn close one who has drawn her (the raḩm) close (maintaining family ties) and have cut off one who has cut her off (breaking family ties).” Ahmad, who deemed its chain sound, and others [↩]
- ‘Usama ibn Zaid relates that as a child, the Messenger ﷺ used to put Hasan and him on his lap, hug them, and pray, “O God, have raḩmah for them (irḩamhum) as I have raḩmah for them (arḩamuhum).” Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- Man lá yarḩam, lá yurḩim. Abu Huraira relates that the man was Aqra’ ibn Habis at-Tanim, who was sitting besides the Messenger ﷺ when he kissed his grandson Hasan. Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- In a similar narration, ‘A’isha relates that Bedouins visited and said, “You all kiss children! We never do that.” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “What can I do for you if God removed raḩmah from your heart?” Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- ‘Anas ibn Malik relates that when the people were slow to attend to an old man, the Messenger ﷺ said, “One who does not show children raḩmah or respect the elderly is not one of us.” Tirmidhi, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- Innamá yarḩamulláhu ‘ibádahu r-ruḩamá. Related by ‘Usama ibn Zaid. When the Messenger ﷺ began weeping as his dying granddaughter gasped for air, some of his companions, such as Sa’ad ibn ‘Ubada, initially expressed surprise. Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- Fa innalláha yuḩibbu l-muttaqeen. Qur’an 3:76 [↩]
- Innalláha yuḩibbu l-muḩsineen. Qur’an 2:195 [↩]
- Innalláha yuḩibbu t-tawwábeena wa yuḩibbu l-mutaţahhireen. Qur’an 2:222 [↩]
- ‘Adhábee uşeebu bihí man ashá’u wa Raḩmatee wasi’at kulla shai’. My punishment (in this world) strikes whom I wish, but My Raḩmah has embraced/enveloped everything. Qur’an 7:156 [↩]
- Innalláha lá yuḩibbu l-mu’tadeen. Qur’an 2:190 [↩]
- Walláhu lá yuḩibbu ḍh-ḍhálimeen. Qur’an 3:57 [↩]
- Walláhu lá yuḩibbu l-mufsideen. Qur’an 5:64 [↩]
- Ho Theòs agápē estín, in Greek. First Epistle of John, 4:8. Interestingly, this verse is translated as “God is charity” in the King James Version in order to distinguish agápē from the general English understanding of ‘love.’ [↩]
- Emphasis mine, with minor grammatical corrections, from Berean Christian Bible Study Resources. “An Analysis of Agape Love.” February 10, 2009. Accessed at http://www.bcbsr.com/topics/love1.html [↩]
- Philia is the Greek root from which we get words such as philosophy (love of knowledge), philanthropy (love of people), and anglophile (lover of English). [↩]
- There are undoubtedly linguistic differences between how raḩmah is used in 7th century Arabic and how agápē is used in 1st century Koine Greek – no two languages are perfectly matched in meaning. However, I’d like to use this space to go into a somewhat lengthy discussion as to why the relationship between the two terms may be more than just a coincidence. The question I raise is the following: Would Christians in 7th century Syria or Yemen hearing the Qur’an for the first time recognize raḩmah as something similar to the agápē of the New Testament? I will argue that this may indeed be the case, with the following evidence:
Firstly, although raḩmah is an Arabic term, speakers of closely related Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac would have recognized the three-letter r-ḩ-m root formation from their own languages. The root itself does appear in the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible (Old Testament) as רחם. Here’s the entry from the Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scripture (1881), which I have copied from the Islamic Awareness website (cited below) and which can also be found at http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=H7355:
The above definitions of “love of parents towards their children” and “the compassion of God towards men” are precisely in line with the Messenger’s ﷺ own usage of raḩmah in Arabic.
This Semitic correspondence relates directly to the Greek term agape used in the New Testament. In order to understand the New Testament in their own Semitic tongue, early Syrian Christians translated the Greek text into the Syriac Peshitta beginning around the 2nd century. These pre-Islamic Christians often used the r-ḩ-m root (written as in Syriac) as one translation for the agápē verb-form (although they sometimes also did use the ḩ-b root as well). Please consider these Gospel verses followed by the old Syriac translations obtained from http://www.aramaicpeshitta.com/aramaic_nt_resources.htm where words with the r-ḩ-m root are boxed (remember, Syriac like Arabic is read right to left):
Matthew 22:36-40 – “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love (agapḗseis) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love (agapḗseis) your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.”
John 14:21 – (Jesus says:) “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves (agapȏn) me. Anyone who loves (agapȏn) me will be loved (agapēthḗsetai) by my Father, and I too will love (agapḗsō) them and show myself to them.”
Thus, 7th century Syrian Christians first hearing the Qur’an may have immediately recognized raḩmah as a term very similar to their own translation of the Greek agápē.
What about Arabic-speaking Christians before Islam? Interestingly, note that the name ar-Raḩmán was unfamiliar to the pagan Arabs of Mecca. Suhail ibn ‘Amr, for instance, admitted, “We do not know what is meant by Bismilláhi r-Raḩmáni r-Raḩeem,” when objecting to the term in the treaty of Hudaybiya (Muslim and others). By contrast, there is evidence from pre-Islamic inscriptions that ar-Raḩmán was used as God’s name by Christians and Jews in Southern Arabia, such as those of Najran. (Please see this fascinating review by MSM Saifullah and ‘Abdullah David at Islamic Awareness: http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Sources/Allah/rhmnn.html.) As we shall soon see, the name ar-Raḩmán is used with high frequency in Surah Maryam. Could this be to address a Christian Arab population (and maybe also the Abyssinian Christians to whom Ja’far Ibn Abi Talib recited Surah Maryam on the First Emigration) using the very names of God they are familiar with? [↩]
- Wa ja’alná fee quloobi lladheena t-taba’oohu ra’fatan wa raḩmah. Qur’an 57:27 [↩]
- The name ar-Raḩmán occurs in Surah Maryam an amazing 16 times, much higher in frequency than in any other part of the Qur’an. Consider the following verses:
That day We will gather the God-conscious to ar-Raḩmán as honored guests and will drive criminals to hell thirsty. None will have the benefit of intercession except those who have made a bond with ar-Raḩmán. And yet they have said, “Ar-Raḩmán has taken a son”! Indeed you claim something monstrous – as though the skies would tear apart, the earth split asunder, and the mountains collapse in ruin – that they have ascribed to ar-Raḩmán a son! For how inconceivable it is that ar-Raḩmán could have a son! Indeed, none comes before ar-Raḩmán except as a servant. Qur’an 19:85-93 [↩]
- Not only Christians, but also Buddhists, for whom raḩmah is precisely the Pali concept metta (Sanskrit maitri). Consider the Metta Sutta: “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart one should cherish all living beings.” Buddhists translate metta to ‘compassion’ or ‘loving-kindness’ to differentiate it from plain ‘love,’ which can be desirous and harmful to the self. [↩]
- See above. Qur’an 7:156 [↩]
- Wa má arsalnáka illá raḩmatan li l-‘álameen. Qur’an 22:107 [↩]
- Abu Huraira relates that the Messenger ﷺ said, “The Garden (paradise) and Fire (hell) quarreled before their Lord. The Garden said, ‘Lord, what’s wrong with me that only the poor and humble enter me?’ And the Fire boasted, ‘I have been favored to inherit the arrogant.’ So God told the Garden, ‘You are My Raḩmah,’ and told the Fire, ‘You are My punishment, which I inflict upon whomever I wish. And both of you will have your fill.’” Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- ‘A’isha relates that God’s Messenger ﷺ said, “Observe moderation, and if you can’t observe it perfectly, try your best. And be happy (hopeful), because no one can enter the Garden on account of one’s deeds alone.” They said, “O Messenger of God, not even you?” He said, “Not even me, unless God wraps me in His Raḩmah. And remember that the deed most loved by God is the one done constantly even though it’s small.” Muslim, who deemed it sound [↩]
- And Abu Huraira relates that God’s Messenger ﷺ said, “None of your deeds can save you.” They said, “Not even you, O Messenger of God?” He said, “No, not even me, unless God bestows His Raḩmah upon me. So do good deeds properly, sincerely, and moderately, and worship God in the morning and afternoon and during part of the night. And always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course to reach your goal.” Bukhari, who deemed it sound [↩]
- Ar-ráḩimoon, yarḩamuhumu r-Raḩmán – urḩamoo man fi l-arḍ, yarḩamkum man fi s-samá’. The English translation fails to do justice to the poetic beauty of the Prophet’s ﷺ statement, related by ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. The narration continues, “The uterus (raḩm) derives from ar-Raḩmán. God has drawn close one who has drawn her close and has cut off one who has cut her off.” Tirmidhi, who deemed it good and sound, and others [↩]
- Related by Abu Huraira when someone urged the Messenger ﷺ to send a curse upon the polytheists. Muslim, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]
- Though again, we should be careful to simply call it ‘love’ without specifying its form. [↩]
- Qul: salámun ‘alaikum. Inna Rabbakum kataba ‘alá Nafsihi r-Raḩmah. Qur’an 6:54 [↩]
- Qul: yá ‘ibádia lladheena asrafoo ‘alá anfusihim, lá taqnaţoo min Raḩmatilláh. Qur’an 39:53 [↩]
- Related by the Messenger ﷺ through Abu Huraira. Narrations use ghalabat (has triumphed/won over), sabaqat (has excelled over/raced past), or taghlib (triumphs/wins over) and may additionally mention God “upon the Throne.” Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others [↩]