Where is the love? 4 June 2014

Muslim chaplain Laura Jones argues that Islam’s teachings on love and compassion are in stark contrast to hardline portrayals of Muslims.

islamMany people are familiar with the instruction to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” that is prominent in Christian teachings. But you could be forgiven for thinking that this concept is absent from Islamic scriptures. Turn on the TV and it seems that us Muslims are always kicking up a fuss about something – whether it’s getting annoyed at the anti-Muslim rhetoric around the niqaab or halal meat, or trying to take over Birmingham’s schools, or protesting over the latest insults against our religion. In the eyes of the media, Muslims are pretty divisive and tend not to get along with people who don’t share their own religious beliefs.

But Islamic teachings are actually in stark contrast to this hard-line stereotype. Some of the most fundamental beliefs in Islam centre around the concept of rahma. Rahma is very difficult to translate into English but it has meanings related to love, compassion, generosity, mercy and kindness and should not simply be translated as ‘mercy’ as is so often the case. It is derived from the word rahm which means womb in Arabic, and as such rahma is akin to the completely selfless, devotional love of the mother for her child.

Rahma is essential in Islam – it forms the basis of two of God’s divine names, Ar-Rahmaan and Ar-Raheem, and is also used to describe the role of the Prophet Muhammad about whom God said “and indeed we sent you not except as a rahma to the worlds”. Thus rahma is at the heart of the first pillar of Islam, the declaration of faith: ‘there is nothing worthy of worship but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God’. Both God and Prophet Muhammad are believed to be full of love for humanity and the whole of creation, and are unfalteringly and perfectly fulfilling their needs just as the mother’s womb provides for every need of the developing child.

Muslims are taught to take Prophet Muhammad as the best role model and though some people see Islam as a religion of rules, regulations, halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden), Muhammad described his prophetic role as being “to perfect noble character”. The Qur’an describes how he was “gentle” with people, not “harsh or hard-hearted” and this is reflected in narrations of his life story.

One story relates how the Prophet would lengthen the prostrations in his prayer to allow playing children to continue clambering over his back. Another narrates how he cried out of love for later generations of his followers who would love him without having seen him. And he was adamant that love and respect should be granted to all human beings, not just Muslims – at one point he stood up during the passing funeral procession of a Jewish person and when his followers questioned him about this he replied “Is it not a human soul?”

So love for others in Islam is a must, and it is not selective. Islamic narrations describe how Muhammad once had a neighbour with a particular dislike for him, who used to throw rubbish outside his house every day. When one day the rubbish failed to appear, Muhammad enquired about the neighbour, and on discovering she was ill went to visit her. Thus Muhammad embodied Jesus’s teachings of loving one’s neighbour (literally and figuratively) and similarly enjoined others to “love for humanity what you love for yourself”.

So though the media like to paint Muslims as angry, aggressive and not the type of people you’d like to invite round for dinner, Islamic theology discourages this sort of attitude. At the end of the day, Muslims are human beings; we do get angry, we do upset people and we do make mistakes.

But this is not the norm and most of us feel guilty when we know we’ve hurt someone’s feelings or not acted as lovingly as our religion teaches us to. At the heart of Islamic practices and beliefs is love – for God, for Muhammad, for humanity and for the whole of creation – and we are taught that if we love others we will be loved by God; as Muhammad instructed “Have rahma with the ones on the earth and the One in the heavens will have rahma with you”.

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About Laura Jones

Laura researches and writes on religion and Muslims in the UK. She recently completed a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain, has previously worked as a Muslim chaplain, and is contributing editor for On Religion. She has a particular interest in inter-faith relations, mental health and Muslims in the public sphere.

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