This article attempts to explain the meaning of the Quranic verse, “we sent you as a mercy to all the worlds” (21: 108). A traditional meaning is presented from a classical commentator; it is suggested that the best way to interpret this epithet, “mercy to the worlds”, is to look at the character of the Messengerﷺ , and the way he presented a sublime and a perfect model of living as a human being.
What is the meaning of mercy to the worlds? Why is he called “Rahmat ul lil aalimeen”, asked Allama Mahmud Alloosi, the famous commentator of the Quran. He used a metaphor to explain the meaning and said, “He is the root and the world is the branch”. This metaphor emphasises the eminent position of the Messenger ﷺ of God. The root not only provides an anchor and stability to the plant but the nourishment needed by the trunk, the branches, leaves, buds, flowers and the fruits. All these need the root. Without the root they would wither and die.
The Prophet ﷺ is “the mercy to the worlds” in the sense that through him, everything derives sustenance and Divine Mercy. “Rahmat” means to do a favour to someone, to give benefits to others, to have pity and show kindness. In this context, the implication is that Muhammad ﷺ has enormously benefited not only the Arabs and Muslims but also the entire world, therefore he is the Benefactor of Mankind. Allah is “the Lord of all worlds” and He has made his Beloved Messenger ﷺ the “mercy to all worlds”.
There is another interesting word, “rahim”, that is derived from “rahma” and means the mother’s womb. The womb nourishes, sustains and protects the unborn and it caters for its needs. This is another wonderful metaphor for Muhammad ﷺ as a Benefactor of Mankind: the one who fulfilled human needs, such as the need for guidance, a model for moral behaviour, a model for a successful lifestyle in the world and the hereafter. His teachings provide a shield against wretchedness and evil.
It is a well-established principle of history according to the Quran that whenever people rejected a Messenger of God and refused to listen to him, they were punished. We therefore have the people of Nuh (A.S) who were drowned; the people of Aad were pelted with stones; the people of Lut (A.S) were destroyed by an earthquake; the people of Salih (A.S) were destroyed by a thunderbolt; the Pharaoh and the Egyptians were visited by nine plagues, etc.
However, when it was the turn of Muhammad ﷺ, the Quran proclaimed, “Allah will not punish them as long as you are amongst them”. The tafseer of Rahul Biyan tells the following story to explain the meaning of “Rahmat al lil aalameen”: The Messenger ﷺ once asked Jibreel, “Tell me how I am rahmat al lil aalameen for you, what have you gained by my rahma?” Jibreel replied, “O beloved, I was unsure about my fate until you arrived, since I had seen how Iblis had been rejected by the Lord and what had happened to the two angels Harut and Marut. But now I am confident about my fate because the Lord has praised me in the Quran: “the strong one who is near the throne, obedient and trustworthy” (84; 20).
Dr Muhammad Iqbal, the illustrious poet and philosopher of the East, expressed eloquently the meaning of this Quranic term as follows in a couplet:
“Both intellect and passion benefited from his teachings. The intellect achieved inquisitiveness and the heart intense passion and love. The grandeur of king Sanjar and Salim is a reflection of your majesty whilst the poverty of Junaid and Bayazid represents the beauty of your character”.
The teachings of the Messenger ﷺ were not like the teachings of a philosopher that just satisfy the intellect, but his message satisfied the yearnings of the heart. Once a terrified and persecuted group of early Muslims living in Makkah came to the Messenger ﷺ and pleaded with him, “Curse the unbelievers we can no longer tolerate their torments; they are cruel to us!” He replied in his characteristic sweet manner by saying, “I have been sent as a mercy and not as a punishment”.
THE TRIP TO TAIF
The intense trials and tribulations of the Prophet’s ﷺ trip to the city of Taif illustrate in abundance the virtues of forgiveness and forbearance, which were the hallmark of his gentle, stoical personality. This trip came soon after the death of his beloved wife and constant companion of 25 years Khadijah, as well as that of his patron uncle Abu Talib, who had been an impenetrable bulwark that stood between his nephew and the brutal Quraish. The Prophet’s ﷺ life was in emotional turmoil at this time with no moral support from Khadija or protection from Abu Talib. With his uncle gone, the Quraish sensed the Prophet’s ﷺ vulnerability and sped up their vicious and relentless campaigns of hatred and hounding.
He decided to try the nearby city of Taif, hoping that his call to Islam would find more willing recipients there than he was having at that time in Makkah. However, the tribe of Thaqif, who ruled the city, not only declined to listen to him but mocked and ridiculed him mercilessly and expelled him from the city. In the face of such a fierce opposition, the Beloved Prophet ﷺ had no choice but to retreat hastily. They ran after him, pelting him with stones which caused him severe injuries. In excruciating mental, physical and emotional pain, bleeding and exhausted, he took refuge in a vineyard. Feeling dejected, forlorn, helpless and humiliated he raised his hands and prayed a prayer which has become an iconic symbol of utter submission to the will of God in the face of complete and total despair.
I could write a whole thesis on the depth, the intensity, the beauty and the very moving humility of this magnificent supplication, and still it would not do an iota of justice to its unique splendour.
“O God, please consider my weakness, my shortage of means, and the little esteem that people have of me. Oh, most Merciful God, You are the Lord of the oppressed and you are my Lord. To whom would you leave my fate? To a stranger who insults me? Or to an enemy who dominates me? Would I that you have no wrath against me! Your pleasure alone is my objective.”
RAISING HUMAN DIGNITY
Amongst the Prophet’s ﷺ contribution to the welfare of humanity are his teachings about the dignity and the respect of mankind. Before him, people had sunk very low, and were slaves not only to their own passions but to the whims of feudal lords, kings and masters. Legendary idols were worthier than the human blood. Hence men were sacrificed to please these idols. Muhammad ﷺ, the benefactor of humanity, gave back to mankind his lost dignity and proclaimed that man is the most valuable gem on this earth. He taught that man is the vicegerent of God, and is the crown of his creation for which the entire universe was created. “He is the one who created for you whatever is on the earth” (Baqarah: 29).
Again God says, “We honoured the children of Adam and gave them control on land and sea and gave him sustenance from pure things and distinguished him above our other creation” (Isra: 70).
“Can anything better be said about the dignity of mankind than this: “The whole creation is God’s family and God’s most beloved creature is the one who is the most kind to others” (Sunan Bayhaqi).
The following beautiful saying of the Prophet ﷺ emphasises the worth and preciousness of man: The Blessed Prophet ﷺ said, “On the Day of Judgement God will ask ‘O son of Adam! I was ill but you never visited me’. Man will say ‘you are the Lord of the worlds how could I have visited you? God will then say ‘Don’t you know that my so and so devotee was ill but you didn’t visit him; had you visited him you would have found me there. O son of Adam! I asked for food but you didn’t feed me’. Man will answer ‘O lord you are the cherisher of the world how could I feed you? ‘God will say ‘don’t you know that my so and so servant asked for food but you refused him. Had you fed him you would have fed me. God will say o son of Adam! I asked you for water …” (Muslim).
EXAMPLES OF THE MESSENGER’S FORGIVENESS
The following three powerful examples clearly demonstrate the kindness and the caring nature of the blessed Messenger (peace be upon him), they show that he loved people and that this was his outward expression of Divine love.
1) The Muslims had been attacked three times by the Makkans, at Badr, Uhud and third time when they gathered all their allies to wipe out the Muslims. However, look at the goodness of the Messenger of God (peace be upon him), when he heard that people in Makkah were facing a famine, he immediately sent them a supply of food and 500 gold coins as charity from the Muslims of Madinah.
2) When the prisoners of Badr complained about the ropes being too tight on their wrists, at once he ordered them to be loosened, and told everyone to take care of the prisoners as if they were members of their families.
3) The conquest of Makkah is perhaps the most striking example of the Messenger’s (peace be upon him) kindness and moral character. After twenty years of hostility and persecution he returns to Makkah with a mighty army the likes of which the Quraish had never seen. However, he entered with utmost humility, with a bowed head, no swagger, no trappings of an all-mighty conquering hero, no revenge or retaliation. Not a single person was killed in this phenomenal conquest. Haykal describes the general amnesty as follows:
‘Oh, the beauty of pardon and forgiveness on the part of the mighty and powerful! How great is the soul of Muhammad which rose above hatred and above revenge, which denied every human feeling and ascended to heights of nobility man had never reached before! There were the Quraysh among whom were people whom Muhammad knew had plotted to kill him, had persecuted him and inflicted upon him and his companions all kind of injury and harm, who fought him at Badr and at Uhud, who blockaded him in the campaign of al Khandaq, who incited the Arab tribes to rise against him and who would even then tear him apart if only they had the power. There, the whole of Quraish stood totally under Muhammad’s hand, indeed under his feet, totally subject to his command. His heart was absolutely free of injustice, of malice, of tyranny or false pride. In the most decisive moment, God gave him power over his enemy. But Muhammad chose to forgive, thereby giving to all mankind and all the generations the most perfect example of goodness, of truthfulness, of nobility and magnanimity’(The life of Muhammad).
The Prophet ﷺtaught kindness towards fellow humans: “The most gracious Lord is kind to those who are kind to others. So be kind to those on earth and the one who’s in the heavens will be kind to you.”
THE IMPACT OF MUHAMMAD’S CHARACTER ON HIS FOLLOWERS:
The most sublime and beautiful character of the Messenger ﷺ had a transforming impact on all around him. After all how could it be that his loving, charming and almost enchanting personality fails to influence the companions? The sweetness of his character, kindness, generosity, gentleness and forgiveness were infectious, those who came in contact could not escape their impact. Here I have just selected two examples of his companions who were transformed by the Messengerﷺ.
The teachings of Muhammad ﷺ about the dignity of mankind were practised in real life. The transformation brought about by the Messenger ﷺ in people’s character was amazing as the following incident illustrates. This took place during the caliphate of Umar and is perhaps a unique one in annals of human history.
Anas reports that we were in the company of Umar when a young Coptic came up to him. He complained that he had been mistreated by the son of the Egyptian governor Amr bin al As. He said ‘in a horse race my horse was winning and I jumped with excitement ‘my horse is winning’ but Muhammad bin Amr remarked it’s my horse not yours. I insisted it was mine, the governors son wouldn’t listen, when the race ended I said look it’s mine. He began to whip me saying ‘don’t you know I am the son of the most eminent’.
Upon hearing this cruelty, Umar told his scribe to write to Amr and summon him and his son to Madinah. The governor came with his son. Umar invited the Coptic to come forward and gave him his whip and told him to whip the governor, but the Coptic refused saying that he was satisfied with this justice. Umar told him if you had whipped the governor I would not have intervened.
During the rule of caliph Umar, there was severe famine in Madina. Umar was very concerned about the shortage of grain and food, he was worried about people’s sufferings. One day he heard that a large caravan was bringing grains to Madina, it belonged to Usman. Umar was excited and happy that at last he could feed his people, so he rushed to Usman, proposing to buy his entire load of grain for the treasury so that it could be sold at a subsidised price to the needy. He offered Usman a good profit. But Usman refused the generous offer and said today I can get far greater profit than what you are offering. Umar was devastated and shocked to hear this from a man who was honoured by the Messenger ﷺ with the grand title of ‘ghani’, the generous, and the charitable. As Umar walked back to the treasury he was wondering what had happened to this most generous of the companions, how the world had made him greedy. All kinds of criticisms came to his mind. He lied down in a state of shock, thinking what to do next.
He then heard a caller making an announcement, he asked the treasury staff to go and find out what was happening. They came back and told him that it was Usman distributing his grain amongst the people. Umar was very surprised and amazed, he hurried to Usman, who had nearly finished distributing his entire stock of grains. Umar enquired of Usman what this was all about. Tell me why you did this? I had offered to buy your grain for a reasonable profit but you refused saying you could make a far greater profit today. Where is your profit? Usman said I bargained with my Lord who has promised me a minimum profit of seven hundred times. This was the character transformation the Prophet ﷺ had brought about.