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.
- 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].