Religion teaches us to be compassionate because that is the quality of our Lord, to…
[ICYMI: Click here for part 1 of this article series to learn how religion teaches us to embody the qualities of God, such as compassion, generosity and justice, and also, directs us to treat others with kindness.]
The historical lineages of Jews, Christians, and Muslims are intimately connected and trace their foundations back to our common father Ibrahim (p), and because of this, our religious traditions and moral codes share many of the same ethical standards and practices. Despite these commonalities, human beings sometimes tend to focus on what separates us from each other rather than what brings us together. Religious, ethnic, and racial prejudice is not an uncommon phenomenon in the history of humankind, and yet at times we find ourselves sadly apathetic to its ongoing presence in our society. On the other hand, it is almost inevitable that we dismiss it or relegate it to the back of our minds because of its somewhat insidious nature and latent danger. This is because it remains hidden under the surface of our diverse communities until something triggers it to rear its ugly head. Maybe it is just a human shortcoming that we do not pay attention to the deficits within our communities until the circumstances impact our lives or the lives of our loved ones. Moreover, the dehumanizing effect of prejudice is pervasive, and it eventually creates rancor, distrust, and instability for everyone in society, whether it initially impacts us directly or not. Even then, the potential to make a positive change in our society and country through what we all hold sacred is still possible and is critical given the state of the world today.
Understanding ourselves is the first step
God has created us to be quite complex. Human beings are comprised of approximately thirty to forty trillion cells, the combination of which results in a physically unique person. Yet the diversity of our species is not just exemplified by physical appearance. It also includes the inner workings of each body and the complex chemical and cellular interactions that are continuously taking place. Thus, in addition to appearing different, we also process information, respond to stimuli, and carry out tasks differently from each other. Furthermore, it is often likely that the sentiment with which one person carries out an act will differ from the sentiment of another person for the same act. On the other hand, sometimes the sentiments or predilections underlying our actions in a certain circumstance are not dissimilar between two or more individuals but rather differ in the degree or strength of the feeling that drives the act.
The same might be said about motivation, which is a combination of psychological forces that prompt a person to behave or act in a certain manner. Motivation can be explained in a handful of meaningful and practical ways; it is the inclination and movement towards something that is believed to be positive or beneficial, and the avoidance or repulsion of things that are thought to be negative or harmful. It is also thought of as a cyclical process in that our inner sentiments and predilections (i.e., our inner being) shape our behavior, which in turn drives our actions. The result of the action, whatever it may be, feeds back onto our inner sensibilities and either reinforces the behavior or deters it creating pleasure or displeasure.
A believer’s relationship with God
Similar tendencies govern the development of a person’s relationship with God. They determine the sincerity, devotion, and vigor with which a person pursues the fulfillment of God’s obligations. Yet, unlike the achievement of worldly objectives, the goal of reaching God is largely perceived as a spiritual pursuit, which means the results do not always materialize in front of our eyes, nor are they tangible in a way that we sometimes anticipate. Indeed, human beings often seek instant gratification. In that sense, any pursuit of God and for the sake of His Glory reflects the sentiment that the reward may not come to fruition in the life of this world but rather will materialize in the everlasting next kingdom. Therefore, the drive that one needs to reach this goal must be something remarkable and derived from the deepest aspect of a person’s being.
Take for instance the relationship of a child with their parents. If one of the parents asks the child perform a chore and the child does so out of fear of punishment if the task is not completed, is doing it the same as if the child was promised a reward or paid for the chore? Putting it another way, is there a difference between doing something when the motivation is fear versus doing the same thing out of a sense of covetousness? In general, religions often provide a system of reward and punishment, which create feelings of hope and fear in the believers, respectively. The Holy Quran expresses the Islamic philosophy of hope and fear, respectively, by declaring “Do not be discouraged or grieved. You alone will have true dignity if you only are true believers.”1 “However, those who had feared their Lord and restrained their souls from acting according to its desires. Paradise will be their dwelling.”2 and “Can this one be considered equal to one who worships God during the night, prostrating and standing, who has fear of the Day of Judgment, and who has hope in the mercy of his Lord?”3
Like Islam, other religions point to a system that encompasses both hope and fear as well, but why would the Lord of the worlds impose a system based on two seemingly opposite forces? Upon reflection, it becomes plainly evident that were it not for such a combined system of anticipated reward and punishment, humans would become prone to extremes in behavior and actions. For instance, if religion was based solely on the fear of God then humankind would be reduced to worshipping from a position of dread, cowering from the thought of eternal pain and suffering. On the other hand, if religious devotion was stimulated only by an unrestricted promise of reward with no consequences for any transgressions, then people would not feel any obligation or sense of responsibility to preserve the bounds of a Divine code and would engage in excesses. Therefore, the principle of carrot and stick is prudent given the nature of human beings, and it demonstrates the wisdom of the Creator and His perfectly balanced approach to ensuring human felicity and salvation.
Love of God: the highest form of worship
All of this leads us to one conclusion and points to the highest form of devotion and servitude to God, love. Why? Because the only means to achieving balance between two seemingly contradictory sentiments like fear and hope is through love. It is the force that allows one to reconcile God’s omnipotence with His unlimited compassion reassuring the believer that although He has the might to punish us for our wrongdoings, He is simultaneously gentle in His clemency towards us. Love is also the sincerest and highest form of worship because it is devoid of an ulterior motive and as such it should be the prime reason behind any of our acts. The Holy Quran states, “Some people consider certain things equal to God and love them just as one should love God. However, the strongest of the believers´ love is their love of God.”4
Even though love is an emotional state felt by every human being towards another, what distinguishes the love one has for God is the realization of perfection and limitlessness. Therefore, unlike what we feel for each other, it is felt with every drop of our being and every sensation in our bodies. It supersedes every other feeling because it is directed towards the One who needs nothing from us and wants only our salvation. Yet, the struggle of a believer is to constantly scrutinize their actions, those driven by the love of one’s possessions, family, and indeed, their own self, with those emanating from the love of God. As one strives to act for the love of God, it becomes clear that making the act pure and unadulterated is more difficult than doing it in the first place. Did I feed the poor hungry man for the bliss that comes from God’s love or because of the positive affirmation it provided me? Moreover, did I credit Him as the giver, both in terms of the charity given and the opportunity to help a fellow human being in need, or did I bask in the glow of my generosity and kindness? Thus, this process of refinement is unending for the believer, just like a person might constantly polish a precious gem and soon find out that its discovery was the easy part. Most religions emphasize that human beings cannot successfully combine the love of wealth and the world with the love of God in their hearts because they are opposing forces, and quite clearly when one exists the other ceases to exist. The Holy Quran says, “God has not created two hearts inside any one human being.”5
Love of God spreads
In human terms, the beauty and positive impact of love is fully appreciated when it is reciprocated. As might be expected, we anticipate love from the people we care deeply about and cherish in our lives. In this sense, a true believer might often wonder how much God loves them and the conditions that determine that love. Clearly, the love between the believer and God is not reciprocal because God is infinitely loving, and moreover, He needs nothing from us. Therefore, it is narrated from Imam Sadiq (p) that, “Whoever wants to know their position with God should [first look within] and determine God’s position with themselves. Certainly, God places the servant [in a position] based on how much they [position] Him within themselves.”6 Furthermore, to be increasingly loved by God requires that we engender those qualities that He has required, not only out of obedience to Him but in recognition that it will make the world more equitable and compassionate. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) once said, “The most beloved of God’s servants to Him are those that are the most useful to His servants, and the most persistent and adamant of them in upholding His right, those who endear virtue and its practices.”7 The love of God, and wanting to be loved by Him, should drive us to spread goodness and seek betterment for every person. This is so innately ingrained within us that just viewing the majesty of God’s creation can foster feelings of altruism and concern for others. Researchers have shown that awe, or “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world”, decreases emphasis on the individual self and creates a feeling of social welfare by curbing the sentiment that we should be the center of attention.[i] Thus, it is imperative that we as believers must actively implement the love we feel for our Lord by working hard to eradicate mistrust and create bridges of understanding upon people. Moreover, we must struggle against apathy and blindness towards the plights of others and live in a way that shows that we are in this life together. Only then can this world reject hatred, bigotry and violence, and become a place of bliss for all.
1. The Holy Quran 3:139. Quotations from the Quran in this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.
2. The Holy Quran 79:40-41.
3. The Holy Quran 39:9.4. The Holy Quran 2:165.
4.The Holy Quran 2:165.
5. The Holy Quran 33:4.
6. Shaykh al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 65, p. 156.
7. Al-harrani, Tuhuf al-uqul, 49.
Piff PK, Feinberg M, Dietze P, Stancato DM and Keltner D. Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 108(6):883-899 (2015).
1. قال تعالى ((وَلَا تَهِنُوا وَلَا تَحْزَنُوا وَأَنتُمُ الْأَعْلَوْنَ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ))
2. قال تعالى ((وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَىٰ ﴿٤٠﴾ فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَىٰ ))
3. قال تعالى (( أَمَّنْ هُوَ قَانِتٌ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ سَاجِدًا وَقَائِمًا يَحْذَرُ الْآخِرَةَ وَيَرْجُو رَحْمَةَ رَبِّهِ))
4. قال تعالى ((وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَتَّخِذُ مِن دُونِ اللَّـهِ أَندَادًا يُحِبُّونَهُمْ كَحُبِّ اللَّـهِ ۖ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَشَدُّ حُبًّا لِّلَّـهِ))
5. قال تعالى ((مَّا جَعَلَ اللَّـهُ لِرَجُلٍ مِّن قَلْبَيْنِ فِي جَوْفِهِ))
6. روي عن الإمام الصادق عليه السلام “من أراد أن يعرف كيف منزلته عند الله فليعرف كيف منزلة الله عنده، فان الله ينزل العبد مثل ما ينزل العبد الله من نفسه”
7. روي عن النبي صلى الله عليه وآلة “أحب عباد الله إلى الله أنفعهم لعباده وأقومهم بحقه الذين يحبب إليهم المعروف وفعاله”