Why do human beings do good towards others? At the end of the day, is it always for some selfish motivation? Where does compassion come from and why is it important? How can compassion be revived in the world today?

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful – that is the verse that begins the Qur’an and is repeated 114 times. It is hard to ignore the theme of mercy and compassion (Ar. Rahmah) throughout Islam. The Divine Mercy of God “encompasses everything in existence” (Qur’an 40:7), and God states that the Qur’an is intended as a source of mercy and compassion (Qur’an 16:89), and that the Prophet Muhammad was only sent as “a source of mercy and compassion to all creation” (Qur’an 21:107) . The very first tradition of the Prophet Muhammad that a person learns when studying Islam is the saying, “The Most Merciful bestows His Mercy upon those who continually act with mercy. Be merciful to all those on earth, and you will be granted mercy by the One above Heaven” (Sahih Bukhari).

While it is most frequently translated as simply ‘mercy’, the arabic word rahmah actually conveys something deeper. It comes from the same root as the arabic word rahm, which mean’s a mother’s womb. It is the compassionate love that we see in a mother’s love for her child. It is the simple act of selfless caring. It is genuine concern for the well-being of another and a profound desire to alleviate their suffering and misery. The Prophet Muhammad likewise used the same example of motherhood, to explain to his companions that God’s rahmah towards His creation is unimaginably more intense than even a mother reuniting with her lost baby (Sahih Muslim).

An important trigger of compassion is empathy, sometimes called “perspective-taking”, or “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. The Prophet Muhammad advised, “A servant does not reach the reality of faith until he loves for all humanity the same good which he would love for himself” (Musnad Ahmad). In the field of psychology, much attention has been directed towards the concept of empathy as the motivator for altruistic behaviour among humans. The Austrian-American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut believed empathy to be the basis of all human interaction. 1Kohut 1980. And while many believe thats humans only help each other for underlying selfish motivations, American social psychologist Daniel Batson has concluded that true altruism can arise from feelings of empathy, compassion, warmth and concern for others. 2Batson et al 2002, Empathy and Altruism.

While they are related, compassion is not identical to empathy or perspective-taking, as many psychologists and philosophers have pointed out. A mother does not nurse her child after imagining what it would be like to be a thirsty infant; the compassion arises instinctively. It may be triggered by empathetic imagination, and it may be subsequently justified by rational argumentation – but the drive to compassion is rooted much deeper in human nature. It is a spiritual inclination. As Dr. Aref Ali Nayed explains, “If one is challenged to define compassion, therefore, one better not try to provide a rational definition.The best strategy is to say, “Compassion is what you felt in your mother’s arms!” We literally drink compassion in our mothers’ milk. It grows in our hearts as we grow in our mothers’ nourishing love. That is the creaturely source of our compassion, and the source of our deep pre-understanding of it.” 3Nayed, Does Moral Action Depend on Reason, Templeton Essays. 

Every relationship needs mercy

Compassion is what determines the success of any relationship – the ability to reach out and sincerely care for another human being. This is seen quite clearly in the case of marriages. Dr. Steven Stosny writes, “Most marriages end in a whimper, not a bang. The final rupture is not caused by too much anger or abuse or infidelity. Rather, most marriages die a slow, agonizing death from too little compassion.4Stosny, PsychologyToday, 11/4/09, emphasis added. And when marriages do fail, it’s not just the couple that suffers; children exposed to lots of parental conflict can often develop behavioural problems, emotional dysregulation, and poor academic performance .5Kleinsorge et al, Impact of Divorce on Children: Developmental Considerations. Peds in Review 2012.

The Holy Qur’an presents love and compassion as the defining characteristics of a marriage:

And from His Signs is that He created mates from amongst you, and placed love and rahmah (compassion) between you. Indeed, in that are signs for those who contemplate.” (Qur’an 30:21).

This verse is particularly interesting because it mentions that this mercy is a sign of God. In other words, appreciating and experiencing the bond of compassion in marriage uniquely enables a human being to attain a deeper understanding of God’s compassionate love for all His creation. There’s something about that act of caring for one’s spouse that familiarizes a person with the Divine.

Compassion is crucial for children as well. Children crave comforting contact with those around them. In a classic series of experiments, psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated the need of infant monkeys for maternal contact, and found that those who were deprived of maternal contact were permanent damaged and cruel towards others. Harlow wrote, “Other motherless monkeys were indifferent to their babies or brutalized them, biting off their fingers or toes, pounding them, and nearly killing them until caretakers intervened.” 6Harlow 1965 p 259, as cited in R. Joseph, Neuropsychology, Neuropsychiatry, and Behavioral Neurology, p. 124. The detrimental results of lack of compassionate care have been demonstrated in humans as well. Dr. Dacher Keltner writes, “First, children securely attached to their parents, compared to insecurely attached children, tend to be sympathetic to their peers as early as age three and a half, according to the research of Everett Waters, Judith Wippman, and Alan Sroufe. In contrast, researchers Mary Main and Carol George found that abusive parents who resort to physical violence have less empathetic children.” 7Keltner D, The Compassionate Instinct. GreaterGood – Berkeley 3/1/04.

Merciful treatment towards children was emphasized repeatedly by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Once a man saw the Prophet kiss his grandchild with affection, and commented, “I have ten children but have never kissed any of them.” The Prophet Muhammad replied, “Whoever does not show mercy, will not be shown mercy“ (Saheeh al-Bukhari). One of the youth, Mu’awiyah ibn al-Hakam al-Sulami said,  “I swear I have never seen anyone who was a better teacher than the Prophet – he never rebuked me, punished me, or shamed me.” The Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever does not show mercy to the youngsters and respect to the elders is not one of us.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi).

The world needs mercy

Despite the impressive material and technological advances of mankind, the savagery and brutality of man has remained unabated. In fact, the world today is more desperately in need of compassion than ever before. But where is one to find compassion in the materialistic paradigm? The universe is fundamentally pointless, its rules without meaning. When humans see themselves as an unintended byproduct of these mechanical forces, why should any discomfort be endured for the sake of benefiting someone else? As the Harvard historian of science, Anne Harrington, has written, “I am moved to say that the world that comes into view through the focusing lens of science is, at its deepest explanatory level, one in which compassion is irrelevant. We understand ourselves to be emergent products of indifferent physiochemical process; and—though we have always admitted our capacity to experience and practice compassion— there is little in the stories we tell of our origins and emergence that is likely to incline us to see compassion as fundamental to our nature.” 8Harrington 2002, A science of compassion or a compassionate science, in Visions of Compassion 

The cruelty and violence of man has exploited religious paradigms as well. Throughout history and in modern times, groups have arisen which have framed their political and military aims in the language of religion to grant cosmic significance to their earthly struggles. By twisting scripture to suit personal gains they concoct ideologies bereft of spirituality, emphasizing only hostility towards those who differ with them, and fundamentally a lack of compassion or concern for the wellbeing of others. The Prophet Muhammad warned of this phenomenon precisely describing the future emergence of people “who recite the Qur’an, but it does not go below their throats“, having failed to internalize the central message of mercy and compassion. It should be patently obvious that anything done in the name of Islam that is found to be merciless or unmerciful can never be considered part of deen al-rahmah – the Religion of Mercy. Nor can it ever be considered from the teachings of the Prophet of Mercy, sent by God “as a mercy to all creation” (Qur’an 21:107). Nor it can ever be considered from the commandments of al-Rahman – God the Most Merciful (Qur’an 1:1).

It will be crucial for the coming generations to revive the message of mercy and compassion, and appreciate its centrality in the worldview of human beings. When a bedouin confessed that he never kissed his children, the Prophet Muhammad replied, “What can I do for someone, if God has removed mercy from his heart?” (Sahih Bukhari). The famous scholar Imam al-Munawi (d.1031H) commented on this hadith stating, “When a person does not possess mercy and compassion, the heart hardens and becomes severe, softening neither for himself nor for anyone else.” 9Fayd al-Qadir 1/689. The Prophet emphasized that true faith must manifest itself in compassion towards others saying, “Whoever goes to sleep full while his neighbour is hungry is not a believer” (Mu’jam al-Tabarani). Al-Munawi explains, “Complete faith has been negated from such a person because such behaviour indicates a hardened heart, excessive selfishness, loss of dignity, and a vile and evil nature.” 10Fayd al-Qadir 5/520. Changing the mentality of the next generation is crucial for the future of humanity. Psychologist Ervin Staub, has argued that ultimately raising compassionate, caring children is necessary “to prevent genocide, as well as to create a caring world in which human welfare is enhanced.” 11 Staub 2002, Emergency Helping, Genocidal Violence, and the Evolution of Responsibility and Altruism in Children, in Visions of Compassion

Every civilization that loses rahmah eventually crumbles, every society deprived of rahmah degenerates, every family that forgets rahmah fails, and every person who neglects rahmah ultimately suffers a life of misery and discontent. The Prophet Muhammad stated, “Mercy is not removed except from the most miserable” (Sunan Abi Dawud). Any serious spiritual revival must begin with reiterating the message of mercy that begins the Divine revelation and is ubiquitous in the faith. Any moral or humanitarian ambition must focus on cultivating compassion in the hearts of people. Any intellectual endeavour must necessarily return to the question of bettering the condition of those around us. Of course, no matter how dark and bleak the situation may seem, mercy will always conquer cruelty. After all, one has only lost when one despairs of God’s mercy (Qur’an 15:56).


1 Kohut 1980.
2 Batson et al 2002, Empathy and Altruism.
3 Nayed, Does Moral Action Depend on Reason, Templeton Essays. 
4 Stosny, PsychologyToday, 11/4/09, emphasis added.
5 Kleinsorge et al, Impact of Divorce on Children: Developmental Considerations. Peds in Review 2012.
6 Harlow 1965 p 259, as cited in R. Joseph, Neuropsychology, Neuropsychiatry, and Behavioral Neurology, p. 124.
7 Keltner D, The Compassionate Instinct. GreaterGood – Berkeley 3/1/04.
8 Harrington 2002, A science of compassion or a compassionate science, in Visions of Compassion 
9 Fayd al-Qadir 1/689.
10 Fayd al-Qadir 5/520.
11 Staub 2002, Emergency Helping, Genocidal Violence, and the Evolution of Responsibility and Altruism in Children, in Visions of Compassion
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