Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Ramadan has arrived. In my world, Ramadan has always been one of he most important times of the year - a time for reflection, for rejuvenation, for remembering what my purpose is in this life. Normally, I spend the weeks preceding this month preparing, mentally and emotionally, so that I am prepared for all the blessings and challenges of the month.
But this year, I’ve found myself preoccupied with what’s happening around me. Between Christchurch and Sri Lanka and San Diego, it seems like faith itself is under attack. And the recent Alberta election results have only added to my sense of anxiety and vulnerability in the face of an increasingly hostile world.
It’s been a deeply jarring time for many of us. These events have crystallized a new reality, one which had been slowly taking shape over the last couple decades, but that many of us didn’t fully realize or accept until very recently; a reality in which not only are Muslims seen as a threat, but also a reality in which, to be a Muslim sometimes (maybe often) means to feel unsafe, even in the spaces where we feel have often felt the most safe and the most at home.
And in the face of this new reality, many of us, myself included, have been at a loss, trying to figure out what we should do, how we should respond. It can be a scary place, this new world we seem to have landed in, and often, our immediate impulse in the face of the unfamiliar and the frightening is to retreat into our own shells – into the shelter of the familiar and the comfortable, hoping against hope that we will find security and safety there, hoping we can weather out the storm.
And that is an understandable response. But as I’ve been thinking about Ramadan and what I love most about this month, I’ve been reminded that Islam presents us with an alternative response, one that I think might help us to better respond to the challenges of this new world, and perhaps even help to change it. This response was best highlighted by the imam of the mosque where the Quebec shooting took place a couple years ago, of which I was immediately reminded when the Christchurch shooting happened.
During the funeral for some of those who lost their lives, the imam noted the shooter as being among the victims. He said that, “before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head.”
Many people were surprised by that response. The notion that the congregational leader of that masjid, the man responsible for the spiritual care of those who lost their lives, would pause to note the shooter as a victim, and to pray for him, was considered by many to be nothing short of revolutionary.
But I wasn’t surprised. Because let me tell you, Islam, my Islam, our Islam, is revolutionary. Not because it is militant or violent or angry; quite the opposite in fact. Our Islam is revolutionary because of how we understand Rahma.
Rahma is at the heart of my practice and my philosophy on life, but it’s a complex and nuanced term whose meaning constantly deepens for me, so it takes a bit of unpacking to understand. I’ve found that the easiest way to do this is to consider the basamala, bismillahi rahmani rahim, which is for Muslims one of the most common invocations of God. We use it so often that almost instinctual, like a reflex. For many of us, it is woven into the fabric of our lives. But what is important for our conversation today is why we use this particular phrase so often.
The basmala uses two of the most common and oft-repeated names of Allah, ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim. These are the first two of the asma’ al-Husna, the beautiful names of Allah, because they are the first two names for Allah that are used in the Qur’an. Indeed, nearly, every chapter of the Qur’an begins with the basmala.
Now in Islam, we have many names for God – Allah, al-Khaliq, the Creator, al-Adl, the Just, al-Haq, the Truth. Colloquially, we say there are 99 names, though in practice, there are many more, and they all appear in the Qur‘an. And yet, Allah chooses to begin each of his revelations to us, every chapter of the Qur‘an, with Rahman and Rahim. Of all the possible names, why would these two be the ones Allah would use the most often? Why would they be the ones Muslims use the most often?
To answer that, we have to unpack a little more. Rahman and Rahim are traditionally translated as Compassion and Mercy but they are in fact very complex and nuanced terms. In Arabic, they share the same root, r H m, which is related to words that mean to care for, to have sympathy, to be mild, to have mercy.
Perhaps most interestingly, the word raham, which comes for the same root, means womb. This last word may seem like a strange one in context of the others, but when we reflect on it, it can in fact tell us even more about the basmala.
The connection is perhaps best illustrated by a hadith, which relates to us an incident that occurred during the Prophet's conquest of Mecca. At that time, there was a woman running back and forth, looking for her child, who had been lost in the chaos. When she found him, she immediately brought him to her breast and began to feed him. The Prophet, in witnessing this scene, turned to his companions and asked them if they thought this woman would ever throw her child into the fire. They replied that, of course, she would do no such thing. And so the Prophet said said to the companions “Allah has more rehma for His servants than this woman for her child.”
The scholar Dr. Reza Shah Kazemi, cites this incident as an example that tells us something about the nature of God. The woman's rehma in this case is not compassion or mercy in the sense that we normally use it. Instead, it is about love. She acts as a mother, feeding her child out of her concern for his well being, because of the deep love that she has for her child.
It is based on this understanding that we begin to see rehma as not the beneficence and mercy of a God who is so far removed from us, so high above us, but rather the loving compassion of a God with whom we are so completely connected and intertwined that that connection is even stronger than the one we have with our own mothers.
It is in this way that we can understand the connection between rehma and the raham, the womb. The womb holds the child, nurtures it, protects it, cares for it. The womb does this because it is in its nature. Similarly, Allah cares for us, loves us, graces us with compassion and mercy, because that is the nature of God.
This is the rahman and rahim that we invoke when we use the basmala. When we say bismillahi rahmani rahim, we are calling upon God the compassionate, God the loving, the God who cares for us in ways that we can only just begin to comprehend.
So what does all this have to do with what’s going, especially now, as we begin the month of Ramadan? It is relevant because these names of Allah that we invoke, they’re not just names, they're attributes, attributes that we, as human beings, are meant to emulate. They are one of the many ways in which Allah calls on us to do more, to be more. They models for us to follow. And Rahma, as the attribute that Allah chooses to use the most often, and the attribute we most often attribute to Allah in our lives and in our prayers, is arguably the attribute we are most meant to reflect in our lives on this earth.
In this kind of a world, one filled with fear and doubt and anger, to reflect Allah’s Rahma is an act of radical resistance. To love one another with deep compassion, with the kind of love a mother has for her child, pure and unadulterated, to recognize that we are so deeply interconnected that love is the only logical response, is the absolute opposite of what most of us are inclined to do. That’s what makes it radical. We want to be angry and scared and dubious. But because we are Muslims, because Allah has shown us what it is to be loved, deeply, compassionately, with all our faults and all our flaws, we are responsible for loving others in the same way, for resisting the our base impulses and what the world tells us we should be doing, for being more and doing more.
And that is exactly what the imam of the Quebec mosque was doing when he decided to pray for the shooter as a victim in his own right. Is that revolutionary? You bet it is. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Now more than ever. Because it is only this kind of radical Rahma, this loving compassion that allows us to care for those who wrong us, this empathy that allows us to understand even those who wish us harm, that allows us to resist the tide of anger and hurt. It is Rahma that allows us to realize the vision of Islam, which Allah shares with us in the Qur’an, which says: “We have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” It is only through Rahma that we can truly know another person. Only by having empathy, by loving them completely, can we really start to see the gift that is inherent in the messy, tumultuous diversity of Allah’s creation.
I want to be clear though, that recognizing the gift of diversity, loving one another through the difficulties that that diversity poses, doesn’t mean that we sit quietly on the sidelines. There’s a quote from Dr. Cornell West, that I think helps us to take Rahma one step further. He says “justice is what love looks like in public.” If we take Allah’s words seriously, then each and every one of us is responsible for creating the kind of world we want to have. And that will take deep love and commitment. But it also requires that we practice that love in active ways, rather than just in passive ones. As tempting as it is to hide away and wait it out, hoping for the best, our faith expects us to do more.
So this Ramadan, I encourage all of us to speak up, stand up, and not to run away, to be ambassadors of the loving, compassionate, open, intellectual Islam we know, to reflect Rahma as clearly as we can.
Now that will look look different for each of us. Although Ramadan is traditionally about fasting and prayer, not everyone can or does fast. And though ramadan is also often about community and family, not everyone has family that lives and accepts them and not everyone feels like they have a space in which they are accepted and welcomed. But Allah’s Rahma is open for all of us, to take in and also to reflect our to others. Find the path to that Rahma that fits for you and allow it to fill you. And then turn it back out into the world. Our Rahma must be able to encompass everyone, because Allah tells us in the Qur’an “Rahmati wasi‘at kulla shay” – my Rahma encompasses everything. Our goal, always, is to model that quality as much as we can, within our own, limited, human capacities.
As we strive to do so, may we be blessed with the strength to resist the swelling tide of anger and hurt and instead reflect Rahma in these difficult times; may our efforts help to heal our world; and may those efforts be returned to us a hundred-fold, throughout this blessed month and beyond. Ameen.