By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam
The opening verse of Surah Rahman declares: “The Most Merciful, It is He Who taught the Qur'an” (Surah Rahman: ayah 1.). In reading this short verse, we can observe that there is a great relationship between “mercy” and teaching the Holy Qur’an. In this verse, the Holy Qur-an directly connects teaching the Holy Book of Guidance to humankind, with Allah Almighty’s essential divine attribute, the Most Merciful (Ar-Rahman). Allah Almighty’s Noble Name “Ar-Rahman” (The Most Merciful) shows us the compassionate nature of our Creator Who continually treats all His creatures with clemency, tenderness, care, love, concern and benevolence and Who at all times and in all places continually manifests compassion to all His creatures and to the whole ongoing universe.
Our Almighty Allah unconditionally declares in His Holy Book: “My mercy encompasses everything.” (Surah A’raaf: ayah 156.). When Allah Almighty declares that His mercy encompasses everything, this means that His mercy covers all of His creation and of the whole cosmos. His Mercy is unlimited and continuously descends upon His Creation to renew and refresh it moment by moment and day by day. When Allah says that His mercy is for all His creatures, then His promise of continual mercy is true because one of Almighty Allah’s divine attribute is Al-Haqq or the Truthful One.
In the first ayah of Surah Rahman, the loftiest bounty of Allah in His Holy Name of “Ar-Rahman" is His endowing us with the truthful teaching of the Holy Qur’an, because it is through its pages that man is guided, instructed and directed to righteousness, and ultimately man gains eternal bliss by attending to and following the prescriptions found in its sacred pages. Therefore, teachers and mentors who are occupied in the service of teaching the Holy Qur’an or of any Islamic teachings which are all derived from the Holy Qur’an should take special care that in teaching the Holy Qur’an, they themselves must manifest the qualities of mercy, clemency and compassion upon their students. The qualities of mercy, love and kindness must be duly manifested in the teaching of spiritual knowledge coming from the Holy Qur’an which is itself a Book of Mercy. Mercy, kindness, care and concern are the proper methodologies of teaching the Holy Qur’an so that pure love of Allah Almighty will be ultimately cultivated and will eventually develop within the hearts of the students.
The hadith-e-sharif (holy sayings of the Prophet) categorically narrates that Allah Almighty has inscribed above His Mighty Throne (Arsh-al-Azeem), these words: “My Mercy overcomes My anger.” (Sahih Imam Bukhari, Al Hadith ul-Qudsi.). The Holy Prophet of Islam, our beloved Nabi Muhammad Mustafa (peace be upon him) declares: “The merciful ones will be given mercy by the All-Merciful. Be merciful to those who are on this earth, and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Rahmah, chapter 7: section 13.).
The Holy Qur’an connects our hearts to Allah’s mercy the moment we read its sacred verses. We start our recitation with the Holy Basmalah. In the Holy Basmalah, which is the beginning invocation in all our Islamic supplications, Allah Almighty specifically chose His qualities of Mercy and Compassion as the Divine Names by which we constantly invoke His Divine Presence: Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim. Through the dhikr (remembrance) of the Holy Basmalah, the Muslim is taught that Mercy and Compassion are inseparable attributes of Allah Almighty and that Mercy and Compassion are His eternal essence. Through constant recitation (dhikr) of the Holy Basmalah, be it in reading the Holy Qur’an or during the commencing of any duties we have in our worldly existence, our tongue and heart immediately connects to the everlasting attributes of Allahu Ta’ala as the Most Merciful (Ar-Rahman) and the Most Compassionate (Ar-Rahim). If Allah Ta’ala perpetually relates with His Creation through Mercy, Compassion and Love (Wadud), then a true Muslim must likewise be merciful, compassionate and loving in his relationship with all of Allah’s creatures.
It is indeed very sad to hear news of teachers, even teachers (ustadhz) of religion and shaykhs (mentors) of Islamic spirituality who are cruel and unkind in their dealings with their students. Those teachers of religion who cannot control their anger and abuse student physically and verbally must reflect that ruthlessness, harshness, cruelty and being physically or verbally unkind are sure ways to break-off one’s relationship with one’s students and can cause Allah’s displeasure on such merciless teachers. Hazrat Maulana Baqi Billah Naqshbandi, the teacher of Hazrat Imam Rabbani Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi Naqshbandi even considered it haraam (forbidden) to hit children and physically hurt them when teaching them Qur-anic tajweed (proper pronunciation). According to Hazrat Baqi Billah, cruelty inflicted by teachers on the students whether by physical blows or by verbal abuse earns Allah Ta’ala’s anger in this world and invites severe punishment in the Hereafter (See Malfoozat-e-Awliyaullah-i-Naqshbandiyyah-e-Hind [Table Talks of Naqshbandi Saints of India], Volume 2; pp. 328-330.). May our Almighty Allah protect us from His just punishment!
Furthermore, another great waliullah (saint of God), Hazrat Maulana Nuri Muhammad Badayuni Naqshbandi, reminded teachers that parents hand over their children to the teacher’s care for the purpose of their children gaining knowledge whether in secular or spiritual matters. Parents entrust their children to a teacher for the teacher to educate the student with kindness and love. It is therefore breaking the trust (amanat) that the parents gave to the teacher if he inflicts cruelty on his students in the guise of strictness and harsh discipline. Breaking of trust or amanat, according to Hazrat Muhammad Badayuni is a grievous sin in the sight of Allah which exposes the sinner to Allah’s punishment and rectificatory justice in the Hereafter (See Malfoozat-e-Awliyaullah-i-Naqshbandiyyah-e-Hind [Table Talks of the Naqshbandi Saints of India], Volume 2; p. 411.). Therefore teachers, specifically teachers of Islam, must be very careful not to infringe on the amanat given by parents to them, namely the proper education of their children by teaching their students with genuine concern, mercy and compassion.
In the Holy Qur’an, Almighty Allah gave our Beloved Prophet the exalted epithet “Rahmatal-lil-Alamin” which means “Sent as Mercy to the World” (See, Surah Al-Anbiyah: ayah 107.). Furthermore, the Holy Prophet is likewise described by Almighty Allah in this manner: “Surely you possess an excellent standard of character (Surah Al-Qalam: ayah 4.). The Holy Prophet as spiritual educator is the perfect model of gentleness and mercy, yet he is also a firm and decisive teacher of the entire humankind. One of the duties of our Blessed Prophet, who is Mercy to the Worlds, is in the aspect of spiritual education: this is primarily teaching the precious words of Allah Almighty as found in the Holy Qur-an. Almighty Allah Himself declares regarding the teaching function of our Holy Prophet: “He it is Who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow, and to teach them the Scripture and Wisdom, though heretofore they were indeed in error manifest” (Surah Al-Jumu’ah: ayah 2.).
In another Qur’anic text, our Beloved Allah Almighty describes our Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in this manner: “It is solely through the mercy from Allah that you deal with them gently. And had you been rough and hard-hearted with them, they would certainly have dispersed from around you.” (Surah Ahl-Imraan: ayah 159.). Allahu Ta’ala says that if our Holy Prophet had been harsh, rough and unkind to his Companions (may Allah be pleased be with them all), they would have abandoned him. However our Beloved Prophet Muhammad had never acted roughly against his Holy Companions. He treated all of them lovingly and compassionately. In turn, it is because of the Holy Prophet’s just and merciful dealings with his Holy Companions that made them genuinely committed and fiercely loyal to the Holy Prophet on account of his God-given virtues of mercy, compassion and love to all creatures: humans, animals and plants alike. In the above verses from the Holy Qur’an, our Almighty Allah has pointed to us the blessed personality of the Holy Prophet Muhammad as the real role model of a true educator whose attribute is mercy and love coupled with firmness towards the truth. By tempering firmness of religion with mercy and kindness, all the Sahaba-e-Kiraam’s (may Allah be pleased with them all) love for the Holy Prophet likewise increased day by day; and since they genuinely love the Holy Prophet, they cheerfully obeyed his commands with love, devotion and consistency.
If one reflectively reads the hadiths (prophetic narrations) and seerah (sacred biography) of the Holy Prophet, who is the model of an authentic Islamic educator, there are so many different ways, that we are being taught that mercy is the topmost criteria of being a genuine educator—more so for those persons who are teaching spiritual or religious subjects. When we study the sacred biography of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we can observe his balanced and just approach to spiritual teaching. No matter what types and classes of people the Holy Prophet encountered in his spiritual teaching and in his preaching, he would respond to everyone with kindness coupled with firm discipline and loving concern to them. It is reported by Hazrat Imam Bukhari, that during the week of our Holy Prophet’s illness before he finally left to his heavenly abode, he addressed his Blessed Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) in his mosque at Madinah Munawwarah (Medina, the Illumined City). He told them: “If I have ever hit any of you on his back, let him come and avenge himself by hitting me on my back. If I ever cursed anyone, then let him come and let me ask forgiveness from you. Through this, I have released myself from my debts on the right of such a person, and I will then be able to meet my Allah with no debts accrued upon me from anyone.” (See Imam al-Bukhari, Book of Meeting Allah, chapter 64, section 8.).
The great scholar of Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence and well-loved Sufi spiritual master in the Indian Subcontinent, Hazrat Shah Waliullah Dehlawi Naqshbandi said that harshness in both conduct or in words are detrimental in the spiritual lives of both the teacher engaged in religious education who is entrusted with the duty of conveying the message of Allah Ta’ala to his students as well as to his students who received the teacher’s spiritual teachings. Being harsh, severe, rough or even cruel will certainly erase any educative endeavours on the part of the teacher and turns one’s effort of spiritual education into failure since the student will have the tendency to harden his heart to the spiritual instructions of his mentor if the training is done in unkindness and unconcern. (Shah Waliullah Dehlawi ka Naseehat [Shah Waliullah’s Spiritual Advice]; pp. 77-79.). This important point should be sufficient source of reflection for any teacher to understand that he would lose his students, or they would become distant from him if his approach in teaching is severe, rough, cruel and harsh. In the final analysis, harshness would be detrimental to the teacher himself because his knowledge will then not benefit others since his students will be repelled away from him, then he will not be able to convey the knowledge he knows to his students. Where there is love and concern on the part of the ustadhz (spiritual teacher) to his mureed (students), one’s knowledge can benefit the latter. Where there is dislike, resentment and hatred of students to their teacher, the teacher’s knowledge does not reach the students nor will the students be able to benefit from it. It is therefore extremely relevant for the teacher to cultivate the virtues of mercy, kindness, patience and love for his students so that he will be able to teach them effectively.
Teachers, specifically religious teachers (ustadhz) and teachers of Sufi spirituality (mashaykh), are referred to in the hadith as wasiyy-ul-anbiyaa (heirs of the prophets). Therefore teachers must contemplate very well if they have manifested the exemplary lives of the prophets as to how they relate with their students. Islamic teachers of religion and spirituality who tend to be harsh and rough to their students to the point of being cruel must fear Allah and the severe chastisements in the Hereafter for failing to follow the merciful and compassionate ways of the prophets in teaching their fellow human beings. If Muslim teachers who are spiritual heirs of the Holy Prophet really follow him as their exemplar in their lives as spiritual educators, then they must refrain from being harsh, unmerciful, cruel and inconsiderate to their students.
Sayyidina Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) had narrated what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said about the respective effects of kindness and harshness in one’s spiritual life. The Holy Prophet is reported to have said: “Gentleness beautifies while harshness disfigures. Truly, Allah is gentle and loves gentleness, and Allah gives to gentleness that which He does not give to harshness and he who is deprived of gentleness is deprived of the good from Allah.” (See Sharh-ul-Sunnan Tirmidhi, pp. 269.). We cannot deny that there is a need for teachers to discipline and correct their students. There is likewise a need to establish regulative principles with respect to students’ rapport and deportment. There are really times when a teacher has to be firm and institute sanctions against unruly students. However, an Islamic teacher must reflect many times over before inflicting disciplinary measures on his students. He or she should exercise prudence and caution in his dealing with his or her students and must not punish students on the spot without proper reflection. In fact, when angry against a student, the best recourse for the teacher is to remain silent for a moment. When anger has subsided, then the teacher’s sincere talk with the student concerned is beneficial; otherwise an unjust reprimand, or a cruel punishment, or unkind words will only bring harm to the spiritual well-being of the student.
In line with the Sunnah (Sacred Traditions) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), an Islamic teacher ought to be gentle in his temperament, yet firm and decisive in his stand with respect to the divine laws (shari’ah) of Allahu Ta’ala. A Muslim teacher should be genial, accommodating, approachable and kind to his students so that they may feel comfortable to ask him questions concerning the faith and that they will be enabled to establish beautiful relationship with him. However, a genuine Muslim teacher should not compromise with what is contained in the real teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet. There will not be any leniency on the part of the teacher when it comes to enforcing the holy commands of Allahu Ta’ala. There will not be compromise with respect to wrongdoings committed by the student and there will not be any acceptance of wrong teachings that is against the true creed of Islam. But let it be properly noted that a real Muslim teacher ought to seriously reflect if his anger is due to his lower nafs (ego) or due to a sincere desire (ikhlas) for the student’s spiritual development. Sometimes, it is due to the lower nafs that teachers discipline their students. If the disciplining of students is due to our lower self and prideful ego, then the results of this kind of disciplining are cruelty and oppression. If this be the case, then we will not receive any reward from Almighty Allah from our teaching because Allah Almighty extremely hates oppression (zulmat) against our fellow humans.
May our Beloved Allahu Ta’ala, Who in His mercy and compassion has sent to humanity various prophets for our spiritual instruction, have mercy and grace upon us and grant us spiritual understanding to realize what constitutes His divine principle of educating students with gentleness and teaching them through mercifulness. May our Beloved Allah bless all our teachers with the noble character and model conduct of His Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and may it be that through the perfect example of His Beloved Messenger, we will receive Allah’s hidayah (guidance) and taufeeq (resolution) to follow our Holy Prophet’s virtuous footsteps of mercy, compassion and love in our dealings with our fellow human beings. Ameen, a thousand times Ameen!
About The Author
Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. He is presently the Coordinator of Gender and Development (GAD) Office at UP Cebu. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, Classical Sunni Islamic pedagogy, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.