Mercy in Islam

Impetus for a Dialogical God-Human Relationship

Author: Prof. Dr. Mouhanad Khorchide
Category: Islam/Sufism
Issue No: 85

The God of Islam is a God of mercy and not of law or retribution. We see Islam described here in a touching beauty that understands man as side by side with God and conceives of all creation as a work of mercy. God is not merciful only because of our offenses. Rather, it is his very essence, quite independent of us humans.

In his book Man in Contradiction, the Reformed Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) wrote: “[F]or every culture, for every epoch of history, the sentence is true: ‘Tell me what kind of God you have, and I will tell you how your humanity stands.'” (Brunner 1965, p. 38f.) Thus, for example, man can cling to a God who believes only in himself, who is therefore concerned only with himself, with his own glorification. Such an image of God is welcome to religious and political institutions that are only interested in maintaining and expanding their power, because it makes it possible to establish a mentality of letting oneself be taken care of by authorities and thus of submitting to their power. Such institutions, which think they have to tame the people, will prevent any attempt to put man at the center of interest of religions. However, one can also believe in a God who is not concerned with himself but with man. Such an understanding of God gives man back his maturity; man does not have to fight for his autonomy from God, he can rather free himself together with this God, who believes in him, from any form of religious or non-religious paternalism.

From an Islamic theological perspective, I argue for the concept of a merciful God who believes in man, who wants him and his cooperation, who trusts him and therefore endows him with freedom.

For with the belief in such a humanistic God, the followers of this God can grow out of their faith a basis to dignify man as such and to enable a relationship of love, trust rather than obedience between man and God. The main problem of some religious people, however, is that they start – even if unconsciously – from an image of God that presents God as remote from man. They imagine a God who is concerned with his own glorification by people and who wants to make them his puppets, whose role is merely to receive instructions that they must carry out unquestioningly; otherwise they face the wrath of God, or at worst hellfire.



Based on the Qur’an, Muslims can start from two premises regarding God: first: He is the unconditional. The other: He remains incomprehensible to us humans. If the conditioned (man) makes statements about the unconditioned (God), it can do so only in its own categories. While the unconditioned remains incomprehensible (al-Marʿašī 2011, p. 365), there must be an understanding of what we mean by it when we speak of God. Such an understanding about and-especially for believers-with God is central.

The first main source for Islam, in which God – according to Islamic belief – describes and introduces himself, is the Koran, which is considered by Muslims to be the revelation of God: “And if my servants ask you about me, I am near (to them), and if anyone prays to me, I hear his prayer.” (Qur’an 2: 186) An understanding of the Qur’an, however, requires a high level of hermeneutical problem awareness, insofar as the various Qur’anic descriptions of God must be combined into a coherent understanding of God. The Qur’an warns in several places against an inadequate understanding of God: “And you have not rightly estimated God.” (Qur’an 6: 91)

An Islamic theology of mercy, as outlined in this paper, provides impetus for a dialogical understanding of God and proceeds from the thesis that mercy is an essential characteristic of God. For mercy is the most frequent attribute of God that occurs in the Qur’an.

113 of the 114 Koranic suras begin with the formula “In the name of God, the All-merciful, the All-merciful.”

The only thing God has committed Himself to in the Quran is mercy.



Man, by his free action, is a medium of realization of divine love and mercy.

God and man work side by side to make love and mercy a lived reality. The more man makes himself available, the more God works through him. And the more he is a medium of realization of divine intentions, the more love and mercy he spreads (and vice versa).

God’s intention in creation is to attract fellow lovers who come into His fellowship: “He loves them and they love Him.” (Qur’an 5: 54) In doing so, God does not arbitrarily select who comes into His community and who does not, but invites all. In doing so, God continuously makes offers to each and every person. It is up to man to decide in freedom for or against; God does not take this decision from him.

God does not intervene directly in the world, but acts through man.





If Islam is about relationship, about trust, about love and mercy between God and man, then this presupposes that Islam is not perceived as a religion of law. The relationship between God and man is not a legal one: God is not the commander and man is not the commanded, but it is a love relationship. The way to build this love relationship between man and God is religious spirituality. Man is not only capable of spirituality, but also in need of it. For man’s ability to always be able to relate to himself and to others, that is, to always be able to maintain distance from everyone and everything, points to a principle of boundless openness within himself. In this context, the psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy Viktor Frankl speaks of the fundamental anthropological fact that being human always refers to something beyond oneself. Man is predisposed in his nature to want to open up (Frankl 1987, p. 201). This principle openness in the human being is thus a basic need that wants to be fulfilled, not only on a material, social or mental level, but also on a spiritual one, in the sense of opening oneself to the transcendent that is outside this world (Dorst 2015; Bucher 2014).

The highest to which man can open himself is the Absolute, which in Islam is placed in God. He has breathed into man of his spirit, and so man carries something divine within him. As an expression of this “sacred” in man, the angels had to prostrate themselves before him: “When I [God] created him [man] and breathed into him of my spirit, the angels prostrated themselves before him.” (Quran 15: 29)

About the author: Prof. Dr. Mouhanad Khorchide

Prof. Dr. Mouhanad Khorchide is professor for Islamic religious education and director of the Center for Islamic Theology at the WWU Münster and head of the project “Quran in the Context of Mercy”. His main areas of work are Islamic religious education and didactics, Quranic hermeneutics, and systematic Islamic theology.

This article has also been published on the German Website: Barmherzigkeit im Islam

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *