About eighteen months ago, I wrote an article about the particular leadership qualities of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that this beautiful verse reveals:
It is by some mercy from Allah that you have been gentle with them. Had you been rough and hard of heart they would have dispersed from around you. So pardon them, ask for forgiveness for them, and consult them. Then when you have resolved, put your trust in Allah. Allah loves those who trust Him. (3.159)
In summary, the verse commands the Prophet (PBUH) to treat those who were close to him, at least spatially, i.e. his Companions, with mercy and forgiveness and involve them in the decision making process. The reader may refer to the original article for further details.
But I would like here to further extend my interpretation of the verse, starting with these two critical observations from the verse:
1) By virtue of being close to the Prophet (PBUH), the Companions must have witnessed many of his miracles. In other words, the verse is talking about Muslims who were firm believers and whose faith was based on direct, powerful, and personal experiences.
2) This verse was revealed a few years after the migration of the Prophet (PBUH) to Medina. By then, a large part of the Qur’an had been revealed.
Yet despite this, the verse makes it absolutely clear that had the Messenger (PBUH) been rough and harsh, even his close Companions would have left him! Not even receiving the Qur’an and performing miracles, which further attested to his prophethood and nearness to Allah, would have been sufficient for him to fulfil the mission that Allah sent him for. He needed two critical virtuous personal qualities: mercy and forgiveness. This is mentioned in another verse that describes the Prophet (PBUH) as being “toward the faithful, kind, merciful” (9.128).
The Prophet (PBUH) had to be of great character to be charged with the responsibility of delivering the divine message. Allah would not have revealed the message of the Qur’an to someone who was rude, harsh, unforgiving, or had any such negative attributes. There are two reasons for this. First, the effectiveness of the message would have been greatly reduced, if it had any effect at all. For the message to have the utmost effectiveness, the Messenger (PBUH) had to be of outstanding character. Verse 3.159 tells us that even those who had strong faith would have walked away from the Prophet (PBUH), which means abandoning Islam, if he was of poor character.
Second, Islam is ultimately a way of life. It is about how to behave with Allah and how to treat people, other creatures, and the environment. Any behaviour that causes damage to the world is un-Islamic, as this verse shows: “Corruption has appeared in the land and sea by what the hands of people have earned” (30.41). In order for the behavioural teachings of the Qur’an to be conveyed as clearly and effectively as possible, the Prophet (PBUH) of the Qur’an had to live, reflect, and epitomize those teachings. He had to represent in every respect the ideal Muslim; the one to whom people point and say: “This is the person that we must aspire to be like.” The Prophet (PBUH) had to be of an ideal character because he was the example that Allah commanded every Muslim to try to emulate:
You have had a good example in the Messenger of Allah for whosoever hopes for Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah so often. (33.21)
The mercy of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was so great that when Allah wanted to describe His beloved Messenger (PBUH) with one attribute, He chose this very quality:
We have not sent you but as a mercy to all beings. (21.107)
The Prophet (PBUH) was many things to the world, but mercy is the attribute that Allah chose when He wanted to highlight one aspect of his excellent character.
Gentleness and kindness are so crucial to the character of every prophet that Allah starts inculcating them in the character of the prophet well before He commissions him and commands him to call people to his message. This, for example, is what He said about the prophet Moses:
So that you would be brought up under My eye. (20.39)
This special divine care continues throughout the prophet’s life, as we see in Allah’s following words to Muhammad (PBUH):
Be patient for the judgement of your Lord, for you are in Our eyes. (52.48)
The Qur’an also reveals the extremely high character standards that Allah set for the Prophet (PBUH) and demanded of him in these amazing verses:
He [Muhammad] frowned and turned away, (80.1) that the blind man came to him. (80.2) You [O Muhammad!] would not know, but he may purify himself? (80.3) Or he may remember and benefit from the remembrance? (80.4) As for he who considers himself to be in no need [to Us], (80.5) you attend to him, (80.6) though it is not your responsibility that he may not purify himself. (80.7) Yet for him who comes to you eagerly, (80.8) while being fearful [of Allah], (80.9) you busy yourself away from him. (80.10)
There is a very poignant story behind these verses. One day, the Prophet (PBUH) was busy trying to convince one of the chiefs of the tribe of Quraish to embrace Islam when a blind man called ʿAbd Allah bin Umm Maktūm came to see him. The blind man wanted the Prophet (PBUH) to listen to him read the Qur’an and to correct any mistakes he made. But as he was busy with a man whose conversion could give Islam a big boost, the Prophet (PBUH) felt annoyed by ʿAbd Allah’s repeated attempts to engage him, so he frowned and left. Chapter 80 was then revealed.
This story shows how Allah ensured that the Prophet (PBUH) developed and maintained the highest standards in the way he treated people. It is worth noting that Allah’s intervention in these verses concerned a blind man at a time when disabled people were mistreated and any disability was seen as something to be ashamed of. Just remember that this happened in the 7th century in Arabia! Allah instructed the Prophet (PBUH) to be kind, gentle, and generous with everyone, regardless of whether they were rich or poor, strong or weak, male or female.
The character of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was so outstanding that Allah dedicated a verse to praising it:
You have great character. (68.4)
Mercy, kindness, gentleness, forgivingness, and patience are among the qualities that gave the Prophet (PBUH) this unique character.
Therefore, the Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes the critical role of the character of every prophet for the success of his mission. Even when blessed with divine knowledge and miracles, the Prophet (PBUH) had to have those good qualities for his practice of Islam to be complete. This expounds a profound fact about Islam: Showing mercy and kindness and being willing to forgive are necessary characteristics of the Muslim.
The Qur’an starts with this verse: “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.” Of all His Beautiful Names, Allah chose two that remind us of His compassion and mercy. Every time a Muslim reads the Qur’an, they must start by reading this verse. So every time we read the Qur’an, we are reminded of Allah’s compassion and mercy before anything else. Realizing the significance of mercy in the Qur’an has become even more important in today’s world.
Two years ago, I wrote an article in which I explained that “fanaticism is a problem of arrogant self-belief not of faith.” No humble person can be fanatical about their faith. Any fanatic would have become so only after losing their humility, presuming they had any. The chief representative of arrogance in the Qur’an is Satan. He behaved arrogantly even with Allah. A fanatic can never understand why the prophet Joseph — who was already a prophet, a miracle worker, in possession of the special knowledge of interpreting dreams and signs, and a king — made this prayer to Allah: “Make me die as a Muslim and join me with the righteous” (12.101). The fanatical person cannot comprehend why the prophet Joseph would be uncertain about his end when he/she is certain about himself/herself.
The present article exposes another flaw and sign of fanaticism which is critical to recognize today as extremism flourishes. Fanatics not only lack humility, but they are also void of mercy. Their behaviours are characterized by cruelty. Their self-image as good Muslims reflects an obliviousness of the teaching of the Qur’an. It only would have taken recalling a few verses to clearly recognize that their perception of themselves is fundamentally flawed. As explained earlier, not even a prophet with divine revelation from Allah and spiritual powers to perform miracles can be a proper Muslim without having a merciful heart. Yet extremists are cruel, even to their own ranks. They are skeletons without substance, bodies without hearts, claims without proof. So one way to test whether someone’s teachings are genuinely Islamic or not, is to see whether or not they reflect and are grounded in mercy.
Failing the test of mercifulness, regardless of one’s beliefs and its strength, is a certain sign that such a person is not a proper Muslim. They may pretend to advocate the cause of Islam, but in reality they use and abuse this great religion. This test can easily expose the un-Islamic nature of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremely cruel organizations. Those who are tricked by such extremist groups could have easily realized that these are not genuine Islamic groups, had they realized the role that the Qur’an gives to mercy.
Fanaticism and extremism should be fought in every way possible. But combating them with the argument of mercy is easier, clearer, and stronger than any doctrinal discourse. Everyone — educated and uneducated, young and old — understands mercy and recognizes it. Allah may have given us different degrees of knowledge, but He has made us all equally capable of feeling mercy and identifying cruelty. Any Muslim, or indeed non-Muslim, only needs to recognize the role of mercy in the Qur’an to be able to see that those who practice cruelty in the name of Islam have nothing to do with this heart-nurturing religion.