Bismillah ar Rahman ar Raheem
Since I first became Muslim, I have been intrigued by the phrase, “Bismillah ar Rahman ar Raheem.” Particularly, “ar Rahman ar Raheem”. Translated into English, as we know, it means, the Merciful and the Compassionate, that Allah is the Merciful and the Compassionate. Although I do suspect that the English translation does violence to the original Arabic, because the two words are sort of similar. And they juxtapose almost as… they imply almost opposites. And there is also an issue of… a sense of emphasis in the second. Which suggests that Allah SWT is the One of two mercies.
I’d like to explore this evening why that is appropriate. Why our Rabb is the Rabb of two mercies and why those mercies have a paradoxical character.
Allah SWT is outwardly manifest. We understand that He’s outwardly manifest and inwardly hidden. We’re also told that wherever you turn you see the Face of Allah. Which basically means that the Totality of the Other, in any moment that you’re in, is the Face of Allah. This is the expression of Allah towards you.
In the first instance, that expression can be described as Merciful, in so far as there’s nothing that you have, which has come from you. Which you can account for on the basis of your own ingenuity. The water that courses through the blood in your veins, the energy that you metabolize, the minerals that go up to make up your bones – there’s nothing that you have that has not come from other than you.
He’s before the before and He’s after the after – for you.
If you consider your very first experience – taking your imagination back to when you were just born, that very first moment – your first awareness is of other than you. Which means that other than you preceded you. When you die, as your consciousness fades out, your very last impression will again be of other than you. Which means other than you antecedes you. You’ve come from Him and you go back to Him. He’s before the before and He’s after the after – for you.
Not just that.
Every part of you speaks of Design.
He has created the Genius, He has created the Design, which has produced the scaffolding of your being, that your consciousness sits on. Every part of you speaks of Design. The way your hand works, the way your fingers move, the way your lungs operate, the way your heart operates. There’s not a thing about you, which does not indicate Genius and deliberate Design. Deliberate Design which is there in your interest. Unconditionally so, because you don’t have to pay a cent for it. Not one of us pays a cent royalty for having a human body, and a human nervous system and a human set of lungs. All of this incredible Genius is given to us – no charge for the IP. Unconditionally.
Deliberate Design which is there in your interest.
Not just the Genius of the Design comes from Other than you, from Him to produce you, He sustains you. And He will eventually remove you when it’s no longer sustainable for you to be here.
So, in what way can you claim to have an independent existence from Him? It’s inconceivable. There’s nothing about you, which is of you. You could say, “But my thoughts are mine.” And the language from which thoughts are constructed, where does that come from? There’s nothing of you, which is yours. As you sit there, you are constructed by a weaving of mercies that has come from other than you. In that sense, Allah SWT is deeply Generous. His Mercy is, in the first sense, an affirming thing. It’s about giving, it’s a saying, “Yes!” It is granting all of that which has produced you.
The Withholding Mercy
On the other hand, the character of His Face – we say, “Allah is outwardly manifest” – so the character of the outward, of the universe out there, is that it’s very big. It’s vast beyond comprehension. And, you, by contrast, are staggeringly small. Miniscule beyond belief. Surely, it is the nature of that which is overwhelmingly vast to overwhelm and destroy that which is miniscule. So why aren’t you destroyed?
His mercy is also about what He withholds.
So, His mercy isn’t just about what He gives, it’s not just in this affirming way. His mercy is also about what He withholds. He withholds Himself from us, because if He didn’t, we could not be. He withholds the necessary implication of that which is very small in the face of that which is overwhelmingly vast. It is the nature of that which is overwhelmingly vast to overwhelm that which is small, so why hasn’t it? It can only be because He has withheld Himself. He doesn’t just grant judiciously, stupendously, unconditionally, He also withholds, simultaneously.
The Lord of the two mercies: the Lord of the granting mercy and the Lord of the withholding mercy. They are apparently paradoxical, but without both, you couldn’t be. If He didn’t grant, if He didn’t provide you wouldn’t have the stuff to be able to stand out and exist. If He didn’t withhold then you’d be destroyed. Then you wouldn’t be able to stand out either.
One of the implications of vastness is that it’s the realm of what is alien, of what is wild, what is unpredictable, random. Now, surely, if you consider all of the possible implications of wildness, uncontrolled vastness and randomness, with regard to you, from a purely statistical point of view, how many things could go wrong right now that could kill you? It is an incalculable number of variables. You can be taken out by anything from a microbe to a meteor.
So why are you here?
Surely, you are only here because He withholds that from you. He withholds that which is arbitrary, that which is vast, which doesn’t give a smidgen about your smallness. He withholds that so that you can be.
These two qualities of the two mercies: the affirming mercy, that giving mercy and the withholding mercy are not just true in the moment, they are true over time.
As you grow step by step, more gets put into you, quite literally. Otherwise, you couldn’t grow. And step by step, the world makes more space for you. It’s first mediated through our experience of other people. The infant is under greater control than the small child, which is under less control….and the adolescent and so on. As you grow, there is simultaneously more in you and more space gets granted, there’s a commensurate withholding. There are two things together. It’s the incredible eloquence of the balancing of the granting mercy and the withholding mercy that accounts for our growth.
Death – The Supreme Mercy
It also implies that when we die, it is the supremely merciful moment. Because it is the culmination; it is the breaking of the wave on the shore. It is the moment where the inevitability of that which is vast against that which is small, gets realized.
Whether you like it or not, you are creature, you are not Creator. It is inconceivable that a created thing can hold out into perpetuity. There is a time where that which is vast will overwhelm that which is small.
So, it suggests, that contrary to how we experience it, the attribute of His mercy, which we have in the world, is fundamentally Generous. We have His names of Beauty here. When we die, it is as if the reality gets flipped inside out. What is the inside becomes the outside. So, where we have demonstrable mercy and we compute – I mean, just looking at myself, looking at you, it’s clear that what I can touch is what’s come from other than me. So, that’s the obvious thing.
What’s not so obvious is the withholding piece. I’ve got to work that out. I’ve got to look up at the world around me, at how big it is, and wow… So the explicit reality when I’m alive, for any given thing, is that which is given. The implicit thing is that which is withheld.
When you die, it’s exactly the opposite. The explicit thing is that which is withheld, the implicit thing is that which is given.
So, what that implies is that as we are alive, we have the sense of moving through time. It means that I become more and more, I am being constructed, more and more. Events pass me, I go. When I die, the implication is that there’s no more movement. Time moves through me. It’s like I’m just a witnessing screen, timeless screen.
So, may we remember Allah in His two expressions – in His expression of that which is granted and that which is withheld. That they are both attributes of His mercy. Let us understand that both of the attributes of His mercy together give us what is absolutely appropriate in the moment that we’re in. So let us not have any rancor or ill feeling about both what is given and what is withheld.
This discourse was given by Shaykh Ebrahim after a dhikr session on the 20th of August, 2011.