Theology of compassion
“Indeed with Allah [alone] is the knowledge of the hour, he reveals the unknown, and he [alone] knows what is in the wombs.” (Surah Luqman, ayah 43).
For many centuries now – perhaps from the earliest days of Islam - have Muslims interpreted this verse to be mean a) Allah alone knows when the Day of Resurrection will strike and b) Allah alone knows what the sex of the unborn baby will be. The fact that the Qur’an states somewhere in between these two statements that Allah “reveals the unknown”, was never taken to include revelation of “the hour” or of the sex of the unborn baby. Commentators invariably insert the word ‘alone’ after “Allah” and in Muslim dogma (aqidah) the word “alone” has always applied to both statements. Yet, we now know that it can no longer apply to the second statement. Doctors are able to tell parents what the sex of their unborn baby is. How do we as Muslims live in faithfulness to the Qur’an and to this new knowledge? In this case, it is fairly simple, we go against many, many centuries of interpretation and drop the “only” in the second bracket and we interpret the middle part – “he reveals the unknown” – in a different way. Revelation we can say, in this case, means, “to impart” and Allah imparts of his knowledge about the ways of determining the sex of an unborn baby to doctors.
This is called re-interpretation in a way that enables us to hold on to the ayah as the World of Allah and not turning a blind eye to hard realities around us. This is fairly easy and can be swallowed by most Muslims – the `ulama included - when it seemingly involves a matter that is a bit detached and does not affect us very deeply at a psychological or emotional level.
Sex and sexuality is, however, something that gets us hot and bothered very deeply. The sexual impulse is one of the strongest in us and also, for most human beings extremely overwhelming. It evokes feelings of utter shame, deep disgust, intense pleasure, and immense confusion when it first arrives and, for most of us, long after that. It’s the beast that comes in the night – also in the day - and wreaks havoc over an entire village. Yet the next day finds all the villagers going about their business quietly without ever discussing it seriously. This is one beast so powerful that just talking about is enough to unleash it again – getting you all hot and bothered again.
There are permissible (ja’iz) ways of confronting this beast and impermissible (haram) ways. While until now those who have engaged the beast impermissible could keep quite about their encounter other than unmarried women who become pregnant – and then we hurriedly get rid of the signs by a quick marriage – or, for some, by terminating the pregnancy.
Now however, we are sitting with a sign of the beast that refuses to be obliterated: HIV/AIDS. Any indication that this sign has afflicted one means that one has engaged the beast in a haram way or we have engaged someone who has done so. In our ignorance and fear of the sign of the beast we flee from the one who has been touched; we demand clarity on how the person was touched before we can accept him or her; we demand a statement of repentance before deciding that we can reach out to the one who had been afflicted. (A bit like the vaccination certificates that some countries want before they let you in). We pour verse of condemnation upon verse upon all and sundry in order to keep the beast at bay and to add insult to the injury already inflicted upon those who knowingly and unknowingly, directly or indirectly fell prey to its touch.
The problem is that the most pernicious and horrific sign of the beast – HIV/AIDS - is within us. Close the borders to all who have been touched and lock the gates, but know that you are locking the signs in with you; doctors, lawyers, `ulama, workers, rich and poor are HIV+ Positive or are living with AIDS.
As Muslims we must ask how can we can contain the beast and how can we limit the damage that it wreaks upon is. When we come across those who have been touched by it; we need to embody the compassion that we expect from Allah. “And humankind have been created frail” says the Qur’an. This is why everyone of us is utterly, utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of Allah. It is not our deeds that will save us – that may help – it is ultimately the boundless grace of Allah. When each one of us is so equally dependent on that grace – we need to go slowly in our handing out of labels of “innocent” and “guilty”, “worthy of compassion” and “unworthy of compassion.” My bother, son or father who is on umrah can be infected with HIV by the blade that is used to shave his hair. Will we ask him to wear a label – “touched but innocent” around his neck when it comes to light that he is HIV+, will we leave his food at his bedroom door so that we can not be touched; will we say that the word condom must never be used so that he will suffer for the rest of his life the absence of the great joys that the beast also brings?
“Pattern your conduct upon the conduct of Allah,” says a hadith. This is Allah who, when He created the universe, said: “Indeed my mercy overcomes my anger” This is the ‘ila that we must now go in search of in the text of the Qur’an; This is what the search for a theology of compassion is all about. This is going to be much more difficult than the simple re-interpretation done above – not because the Qur’an itself is not open to it – but because nothing gets us as hot and bothered as sex and sexuality. Perhaps if we were less obsessed with it, then we can make a little more space for the Spirit of Allah – Allah as and rahim - blown into everyone at the time of creation to be little more clearer to us. And, then – Allah have mercy upon us – if, perchance, the beast strikes us with this at some point in the future - or if it has already struck but the sign only becomes visible later – someone will look at us as the carriers of the sprit of Compassionate Allah.