Quintessentially, Islam is a religion of compassion; a religion of love in action. The overwhelming evidence for this is drawn from the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the Sirah, and from the actions of many past and contemporary Muslims, both men and women. For many adherents, compassion for all living things is an everyday lived experience. This is not the case for all, however, and is certainly not the generally held perception in much of the non-Islamic world where Muslims are all too often viewed as extremists, even as potential terrorists, ‘the enemy within’.
I contend in this essay that compassion is one of the essential tenets of our faith, a pillar upon which so much else rests. In spite of its centrality, however, it does not form a significant part of education and upbringing (tarbiyah) for many young Muslims, where so much of the teaching is about rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts, harams and halals. It is as if sometimes we are unable to see the divinely compassionate wood for the prescriptive religious trees.
Compassion in the twenty-first century has gone viral. More and more people of all faiths and none, in all fields and walks of life, are arguing that compassion must become the central organising principle underpinning everything we do. The drivers for this ‘compassion contagion’ range from dark forebodings about climate change and ecological disaster, to moral outrage concerning the growing inequalities of wealth and the treatment of refugees and disadvantaged groups. More positively, massive advances in neuroscience prove that our brains are wired for compassion, advances which scientifically validate many of the ethical and spiritual ‘truths’ contained in Islam and other world religions. Groups like the Charter for Compassion and Action for Happiness are driving the change agenda.