Compassion and Religious Belief

Compassion and Religious Belief January 13, 2019


One of my favorite Qur’an verses
Qur’an 5:48


“And We have sent the Book down to you in truth, confirming what you already have of the Book and as a criterion for it. So judge between them by what God has sent down and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had God willed, He would have made you one faith-community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to the good. Your return, all together, is to God, and He will [then] inform you regarding that over which you used to differ.” (Qur’an 5:48)


About four years ago, a cartoon in the Economist showed two people speaking amid the smoking ruins of their respective cities, surrounded by dead and wounded.  They explain that they were fighting over whose version of God is the most kind and compassionate.


The basmallah bi'l Arabi
A highly stylized rendering of the Arabic for “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”


“A prostitute was forgiven by Allah, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and, tying it with her head-cover, drew out some water for it.  So Allah forgave her because of that.”

Cited in the Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:538


It has to be recalled, in this context, that, in the Middle East, dogs are often wild, and often scavengers.  In fact, sometimes they travel in packs and can be somewhat frightening.  They’re not always highly thought of.  In reading this tradition from the Prophet, don’t be thinking of an adorable little puppy.




However, it’s not only Islam that teaches compassion.  Christianity does, as well:


A little more than three years ago, with another couple, my wife and I visited the small but beautiful Spanish town of Ávila, where they were celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of their famous and beloved saint, Teresa (generally known as either St. Teresa of Jesus or St. Teresa of Ávila), who lived from 1515 to 1582.


One of the great mystics of the Catholic tradition, she was the author of such works as El Castillo Interior (“The Interior Castle”), El Camino de Perfección (“The Way of Perfection”), and an autobiography, which are considered not only masterpieces of Catholic devotional writing but classics of Spanish Renaissance literature altogether.  She was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, forty years after her death.  In 1970, Pope Paul VI named her a “Doctor of the Church” — i.e., an officially recognized teacher of doctrine and practice.


Rubens's Teresa
“Teresa of Ávila,” by Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1615); Wikimedia CC public domain


The following beautiful lines are attributed to her:


Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.




And let’s not forget Buddhism.  Many years ago, probably while still a teenager, I read through an anthology by E. A. Burtt called The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha.  I’m not sure that I really understood much of the book, but, unexpectedly, its title has lingered as a beautiful thing in my memory ever since.



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