Mercy – Is It The Same As Rahmah?

Gnadenstuhl, in the Blutenburg chapel in Munich from 1491, by Johannes Polonus

In the late 12th century, mercy was used in the approximation of “God’s forgiveness of his creatures’ offenses,” from the Old French “mercit/merci”, a “reward, gift, or kindness”, from Latin, mercedem (nominative merces) a “reward, wages, or hire” (in Vulgar Latin it was thought of as “a favor” or “pity”), continuing to merx (genitive mercis) meaning “wares” or “merchandise.” By the 6th century, in the Latin Church, it had come to be applied as a heavenly reward for those who showed kindness to the poor and misfortunate. The meaning “disposition to forgive or show compassion” is seen in use as early as the 13th century. It also had uses as an interjection, as is corroborated in its use during the mid-13th century. In French, it was largely succeeded by miséricorde, except as a word of thanks (this is still apparent in modern French when one says “thank you” once says, “merci”. The Seat of Mercy, also know as the “golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant” (circa 1530), hails from William Tyndale’s  borrowed translation of Martin Luther’s Gnadenstuhl 1 (gnaden/grace + stuhl/stool), an approximation of the “kapporeth” (an object which rested upon the Ark of the Covenant, and was connected with the rituals of Yom Kippur), perhaps best rendered as “propitiatory.”

When we look at the word rahmah رحمة we can see that there may indeed be some subtle, yet important differences in its root meaning and intentions. For a quick examination, let us look at ar-Rāzī’s definition in his concise book, Mukhtār as-Sihāh:

رحمة هي رقة و تعطف

رقة: من الملك وهو العبودية و رق له قلبه

تعطف: عطف العبدو عطف عليه أشفق

“Rahama/rahmah” is to soften/incline towards and to bend towards.

Raqqah: related to total ownership/responsibility and worship. Also the term, “to soften/incline towards another’s heart”.

Ta’attuf: to commiserate with the slave, to be concerned about with compassion.

We can see here that mercy and rahmah descend from two different paths. Rahmah is a top-down phenomenon, descending from God to the creation, while also highlighting God’s complete ownership over the creation. For a brief example from the Qur’ān, we can see here in surah an-Naba’:

جزاء من ربك عطاء حسابا رب السموت والأرض وما بينهما الرحمن لا يملكون منه خطابا

“A reward from your Lord, a dutiful gift, the Lord of the Heavens and the earth and that which lies between them: ar-Rahmān, they [those who reject God’s message] possess no power to broker any accord.” [Qur’ān, 78: 36-37].

The derivations are even more subtle the closer we look. Ra-ha-ma, the synonym of ta’attuf, can also mean to clothe or envelope. The idea that ar-Rahmān is the one who provides for and cares for the creation, the ultimate expression of rahmah. This helps to give explanation to the Quraysh’s bewilderment at hearing Chapter 55/ar-Rahmān recited to them. It is not that they were unfamiliar with its root: r-h-m, but rather it did not fit within their pantheon of gods, where no single god was responsible for everything. As another quick side note, this also supports one of the linguistic theories for the meaning of Allah/الله in that it comes to mean: اداة التعريف + له [the definite article + the possessive], and combining them to “That to which everything belongs”.

This is by no means meant to be a definitive definition, but rather to help open up the conversation and to encourage Muslims who think and live most of their Islam in the English language to not simply accept word-for-word translations. It is not that one must reject anything coming from the English language—this is the beginning of inquiry, not the end—but rather to think and reflect upon The Book, and to explore and question how it is we think and conceive of our Islam.

  1. The mercy seat is a type of representation of the Trinity in Christian art, often depicted as the representation of three elements: Christ on the cross (crucifix), Holy Spirit (Symbolized by a dove, etc.) and God the Father on the heavenly throne; the crucifix holds with the Crucified. The form of this representation attempts to convey a certain understanding of the Trinity: God presents Christ to the people, who died for their sins on the cross. The Holy Spirit, who stands between God and Christ, mediates between the two. According to Christian doctrine, it is only possible to go directly to the throne of God, so long as you access it through Christ. The  Mercy Seat is found throughout Christian art, particularly in the Middle Ages (also see Romanesque, Gothic) and the Baroque period [please forgive my translation of the footnote here, as the original text was in German, of which I am not wholly fluent].

5 Replies to “Mercy – Is It The Same As Rahmah?”

  1. It’s really a tricky point. Basically all our religious terminology in English is Christian-inflected and so in the end are not the best fit for us. But so many of those words have strong emotional connections – grace, sacrament, redemption – to English-speakers that the Arabic cannot match at first encounter. For me it took many years to develop a richness of associations around the Arabic such that I prefer the Arabic terminology (since I never learned to speak Arabic). Funny enough, now my children are getting the bulk of their religious instruction in Malay and so it has happened where I will use an Arabic term like “barakah” with them and then have to translate it into Malay (pahala, in this case) for them to get the fullness of the meaning. That’s more the exception than the rule though, because Malay has absorbed a lot of arabic vocabulary into Malay such that it is the default word for the concept. Ideally our English-speaking communities will continue to elevate the Arabic/Quranic terminology such that those key words and concepts get brought into the language as permanent loan-words too.

  2. Wa alaykum salam, Marc. I’m good! Baby turns one year old tomorrow 🙂

    One does not need to be a master of the Arabic language in order to be a pious Muslim.

    I agree with this wholeheartedly.

    There are a number of Arabic loan-words in Malay whose meaning in the Malay language have changed over time from their exact Arabic sense. It’s a little too early in the morning and I’m not recalling them readily. But I think that supports the point you’re making.

    It is commonly repeated over here that Arabic is the language of paradise, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as a pious saying to motivate people to learn the language of the Quran, but it may contribute to the sentiment, among some, especially educated professional types, of looking down on the old kitabs of the Malay ulama, who wrote volumes of religious knowledge in Malay, as being somehow second-rate.

    After “garb”, my next least favorite English term about muslims is “brand of Islam”, which the New York Times uses to describe different muslim groups. Gross! But I suspect they use “brand” because “denomination” is felt to be to Christian-centric, and in a way, the claim by muslims to not be separated into denominations in the Christian sense is a powerful one and a true one for da’wah. Which is easier, to “reclaim” denomination or introduce mazhab? I don’t have an answer and I suspect it’s the kind of thing that will just play out on it’s own over the next few decades. But yeah, interesting subject and thanks for posting about it.

    [There was a rambling post recently on AltMuslim about the utility of the term Islamophobia ( – not exactly on topic but you might find it interesting.]

  3. as-Salaamu ‘alaykum, Zayn. Good to hear from you. How is you GROWING family?

    It’s true that religious terminology in the English language is mostly “Christian-inflected”, as you said, but I do not believe this has anything to do with some intrinsic quality of English, but rather reflects the lack of English-speaking Muslims and their engagement with the language. There are numerous non-Arabic languages [Urdu, Turkish, Persian, Malay] that have developed a Muslim “feel” and means of expressing their Muslim thoughts and sentiments in the language. I feel that part of this has been the mental barried Muslims themselves have errected between themselves and English, not allowing themselves to attempt full expression out of some prejudice against English, fearing it isn’t quintissentially “Muslim/Islamic” enough. There is even plenty of evidence of the Islamization of Arabic, where Allah reassigned meanings to words, old words given new contexts, allowing Arabic to express the message of Islam. Studies in Jahiliyyah Arabic reveal that Arabic did not possess some primodial element of Islam, but rather was injected with that Message by Allah, by the Prophet, and by the subsequent generations of Muslims. My hope is that English speaking Muslims will try and do the same with English, as it is unlikely that English speaking Muslims will, en masse, master the Arabic language to be verbally and literally proficient in it.

    That the Arabic language should be elevated and reveared is an acceptable hope for Muslims. My only concern is that it may be held aloft so far that it becomes distant and remote, and in the absense of an intimate relationship with the language, [English speaking] Muslims will become alienated from their religion. One does not need to be a master of the Arabic language in order to be a pious Muslim. In fact, I believe most people do not have the requisite skills, personality traints, time, resources, or opportunities to do so. Perhaps a middle ground can be aimed at, where people will have a base familiarity with the language, but not without making it also speak to their vulgar [everyday] language and sensibilities as well. Perhaps then, we’ll see, as you have said, some “loan-words” making their way into the English vocabulary.

  4. Baby turns one year old tomorrow

    One year already? Ya Latif!! Well, mabruk to you, your wife, and the little one.

    I hope that in time we’ll as a group be able to ease and systematize the process of folks who wish to learn the language. One of the issues facing Muslims is not just learning the language, but how and for what purpose to learn the language. In fact, I have a post in the wings waiting to address this issue, or at least talk about it.

  5. Salaams Marc (I hope I spelled that right)

    Language is often a very powerful tool to convey messages to the masses. If I am not mistaken, Latin came about as a means to convey the Christian text to the mainstream population because Greek was too localized. I imagine that the purpose to elevating the importance of Arabic was the fact that it too had the same purpose as Latin. It was more universal and probably the most effective medium to convey the Quran. In my study of Arabic (still very elementary I’m ashamed to say) I have found that my mind is expanded in trying to translate the meaning into my own consciousness, which is of course bias towards an English language medium. However, I do believe that even though languages fall short of translating each other, there is a way to humbly find a discription in one’s own language to describe the other. I often times enjoy trying to translate one Arabic word into a sentence or two of rich meaning in my own English language. Thus, instead of limiting an Arabic word to one word of my own language, I try to apply the same concept as a dictionary for each word. One word in English has multiple meanings and it depends on the context it is being used. It is because of this that I think that languages actually enhance each other, rather than hinder.

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