Idul Fitri: On mercy and compassion

Idul Fitri is the annual biggest celebration that drives the largest movement of people in Indonesia. Preceded by the mudik tradition, an exodus to people’s hometowns in the last week of Ramadan, Idul Fitri prayers and sermons will have the largest number of attendees, much bigger than the weekly Friday prayers. Also, there will be many Idul Fitri gatherings, locally called halal bihalal, a phrase derived from Arabic that, despite grammatically incorrect, refers to an event where people exchange apologies and forgiveness, usually followed by a sermon (pengajian).

These many sermons with big audiences, therefore, have relatively significant power to shape Muslim discourse. We hope there will be no preachers who, like in the previous year, talk about inappropriate topics such as electoral politics during Idul Fitri sermon. This oportunity, given the Muslim recent condition, should be filled with messages of peace. I personally suggest preachers who are scheduled to deliver sermon but have no idea what to talk about yet to seize this momentum to reflect on the current Indonesian Islamic discourse. This essay may thus serve as a sermon topic.

From the way Islam has been talked about in public spaces, it is hard to refuse the impression that Islam is mainly about creed (‘aqidah) and law (sharia), although only 5 percent out of around 6000 Quranic verses deal with rulings. Many, if not most, questions posed to preachers or ustadz, both offline and on TV, have been about what is the Islamic ruling on this and that; what is the Islamic stance on this and that particular group; whether this and that is halal or haram; whether or not this and that is a heretical (bid’ah) practice and a deviant sect, and so on.

This state of popular Islamic discourse results in the impression that Islam is a hard, harsh, and judgmental religion; it tends to punish rather than to be merciful and forgiving.

Idul Fitri reminds us about this virtue of forgiving. That tradition of exchanging apologies and forgiveness is uniquely practiced across Nusantara, of which we should be proud. It calls to mind that Islam is not only about enforcing law and rulings but there is a place for mercy and compassion.

In fact, if we look at the big picture of Islamic teachings, we can argue that being merciful is at the very core of Islamic teachings. The most recited verse, which every committed Muslim reads in each of their daily prayers, is “in the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful”.

As mentioned in the Islamic tradition, God has 99 names/attributes (al-asma’ al-husna). Among those 99, there are such attributes as the Compeller, the Subduer, the Judge. But the two chosen for the most recited verse that is read before every faithful Muslim starts doing positive things is God’s attributes of being beneficent (rahman) and merciful (rahim), which symbolize the attitudes that God wants for his worshippers to internalize in themselves.

There are many scriptural premises to back up that notion. God says in the Quran: “My mercy encompasses everything” (Q. 7: 156). A hadith quotes God saying, “My compassion subjugates my anger.” Another hadith also reported that the latest sentence is written in God’s throne (‘arsh). Contrary to the common perception that throne symbolizes power, this last hadith suggest that God’s throne symbolizes compassion instead. Another hadith says, “Be merciful to the people of the earth and the One above the heavens will have mercy upon you.” There are still many other similar hadith.

Knowing all these and given the current Muslim condition, preachers should minimize their glorifying Islamic stories of war. Yes, there were wars during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. But, first, we cannot forget the context of the seventh-century Arabia, in which the early Muslims lived in a tribal milieu with no single authority, while Arab tribes held the notorious vendetta law.

Second, if we count those wars, there were only around two years in total out of his 23-year prophetic ministry in which the Prophet was engaged in war. If we don’t count the military expeditions sent be the Prophet, the wars in which the Prophet directly joined were only around 80 days in total. And those wars were conducted either for self-defense or because a group had betrayed a peace treaty previously signed by them and the Muslims.

In Prophet Muhammad’s last years, during the conquest of Mecca by the Muslim army, it was a time when Muslims wanted to enforce justice on Meccans who had bullied and persecuted them because of their belief, making them have to migrate to Medina. When Mecca had been conquered and some of the Prophet’s companions wanted to take revenge against those who committed crime against the early Muslims, the Prophet said, “No, today is a day of mercy”. The vast majority of Meccans gained the Prophet’s amnesty.

The Prophet himself, as the Quran says, was sent as a “mercy for all creatures”—a statement that might sound cliché, but still many tend to forget what it actually means.

If, like what God says about Himself, mercy and compassion had subjugated the Muslims’ tendency to punish and wreak anger, I believe what has happened during the last years in Indonesia, in which we have been suffering from a severe political polarization along religious identities, shouldn’t have needed to happen.

If the lectures delivered by preachers in public were not glorifying wars and instead emphasizing more on ethics of how Muslims should deal with diversity in the 21st-century in which we face a rapid globalization and consequently inevitable encounters between people of different faiths, the Muslim discourse we have today would have been significantly different.

Eid Mubarak! May mercy and compassion always be within us.


This essay was originally published at the Jakarta Post, June 13, 2018




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