We Muslims begin the recitation of the Qur’an with the opening verse (1:1) “Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Rahim,” translated as “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful” (Yusuf‘Ali). Reciting this verse before beginning any activity (including meals) is considered an essential part of Islamic life. But how many of us try to find out how is God Most Merciful? And what is the relationship of His Mercy with human beings?
Take the Arabic words RAHIM and RAHMAN used so often in the Qur’an. They are most often translated in English as MOST MERCIFUL and MOST GRACIOUS (as given above). These translations do not fully explain the depth and the breadth of the meaning contained in the original Arabic.
The root of both RAHIM and RAHMAN is R-H-M, which means mother's womb. The womb of the mother is where a child grows from conception until birth. The mother nourishes the child with her blood. The child develops there slowly and gradually according to a timetable. As the child grows, its nourishment is adjusted accordingly. Also, this nourishment for the child is free. The mother’s womb provides a flexible yet completely protected environment in which the child may grow. All of these aspects are included in the root meaning of the Arabic word RAHIM. Thus RAHIM is one who provides free nourishment slowly and gradually for growth and development that adapts to changing needs.
The difference between RAHIM and RAHMAN is that RAHIM is based on the weight of FA’EELUN and that RAHMAN is based on the weight of FA'LAANUN. FA’EELUN implies a gradual or progressive act and FA'LAANUN implies a sudden or emergent action. A child's growth inside the mother's womb will be considered a progressive evolution. This is one kind of God’s mercy on a gradual, slow and progressive basis. But, as soon as the child is born, her requirements suddenly change. Providing nourishment on a sudden or emergent basis is characterized as RAHMAN. This is called emergent evolution. Since God has provided both kinds of nourishment for our growth and development HE is both RAHMAN as well as RAHIM.
Now consider this. The Earth is our home from which we derive all the nourishment for our growth and development. But this would not have been possible if our Earth was not protected from the constant bombardments from deadly radiations such as X-rays and Gamma rays. The protective shield that God has created to block these deadly radiations from reaching the Earth is similar in function to the mother’s womb. God has created this nature’s womb so that we can grow and develop within its protective shield. He has also provided all the essential nourishment for our growth and development for free. But this is only one aspect of His Mercy.
The other aspect of His Mercy includes our spiritual growth and development. For this he has sent His ultimate Book of guidance, the Qur’an, under whose protective moral shield we can grow and develop spiritually. And He has made Mosques—“And the places of worship are for Allah (alone)” (72:18)—centers for this spiritual growth and development.
Truly, He is Al-Rahim and Al-Rahman, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful.
If we emulate these attributes of mercy (within human limitation) in our daily lives we become agents of God on earth. If we relinquish our compassion and mercy to ideologies of hate and revenge, we become only agents of destruction.