Religions Hold Mix of Justice and Mercy
Religion did not begin with compassion. The gods of the
ancient Near East were not exactly epitomes of goodness.
In the flood story of the Gilgamesh Epic, the gods destroyed humanity not because they
were reacting to unbridled violence and sin, as in the biblical (and quranic)
versions, but because humans were making too much noise and disturbing them.
The ancient gods were worshipped but not out of love. They
were worshipped out of fear.
In the old polytheistic systems of the ancient Near East,
the gods fought each other and their competitors’ human worshippers. People
made offerings to the gods to placate their anger. They bribed them for their
The gods acted out the birth, maturity, decay and death of
nature in their own cycles of violence. Some exhibited the attribute of stern
justice observed in the Bible, but one hardly observes compassion among the
gods of old.
The idea of a compassionate God is an innovation of monotheism.
Only when the one God of all life became manifest could humanity conceive of a
divinity that combined both justice and mercy. The innovation was the
compassion. But the old attribute of stern justice did not disappear.
That combination of justice and compassion (din and rachamim
in Jewish religious parlance) offers a broad repertoire of divine responses to
human behaviors. While we may resonate with the stories of compassion in the
Bible, we must not ignore the cases in which God brings mass destruction upon
Israelites and non-Israelites for the sins of the few. Not all the children
killed in God’s plagues, fires and wars were guilty.
Like the Bible, the Quran portrays God in terms of justice
and mercy. God is al-Jabbar, “the powerful,” sometimes even understood as “the
oppressor,” whom no one can resist, but God is al-Rachman as well, “the
merciful.” God is also al-Salam.
Islam displays the same broad spectrum between the poles of
harsh justice and compassionate mercy that we observe in Judaism. All the
options are available, and the huge compendium of religious literature in Islam
attests to a long and venerable history of struggle (which is the meaning of
jihad) with applying the Quran and its interpretations to the exigencies of
Different methodologies are used to plumb the depths of the
divine will. As a result, some schools of interpretation tend to be harsher,
some more lenient on a variety of issues.
I know of no criteria by which one can accurately judge a
religion as more just, loving, hateful or compassionate than others. Every one
of these attributes is found abundantly in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Because the range is there, religious interpreters find
themselves attracted to what resonates with their own human experience. There
are cruel Muslims, to be sure. There are also cruel Christians, Hindus and,
yes, cruel Jews.
Particularly since Sept. 11, we hear Muslim spokespersons
stand up and claim that those who engage in certain behaviors or
interpretations of the Quran are not really Muslims. According to this
argument, cruel individuals who consider themselves Muslims are only cruel
individuals. They cannot be Muslims, because Islam teaches reason and
Islam does indeed teach reason and compassion. But Islam can
also express passionate anger and violent aggression. The claim that cruel
Muslims are not Muslims is disingenuous and abdicates responsibility for the
behavior of religious compatriots who are acting immorally against others.
There are indeed religious Muslims who engage in terrorism
in the name of Islam. These are true Muslims.
They may practice expressions of Islam that are neither
normative nor commendable, but “normative” and “commendable” are subjective
terms. Terror in the name of religion fits historically within the broad range
of options that must be considered authentic to Islam, and it must be
acknowledged as such by Muslims.
It is certainly true that the current trend toward militant
and violent radicalism carried out in the name of Islam is a hearkening back to
pagan, pre-Islamic Arabian values. It is also true that these values were not
successfully purged by the softening overlay of religion.
We observe the same tensions playing out in Christianity and
Judaism, of course, but by our generation these religions seem to have been
more successful than Islam in neutralizing the excesses of human nature. At the
very least, it is much more difficult today for cruelty to be acted out through
religious channels within the broadest parameters of Judaism and Christianity
In the final analysis, neither pre-Islamic Arabian standards
nor Islamic or other religious values create human cruelty. The inclination for
cruelty comes from somewhere else in the complex tangle of what is the human
psyche. Cruelty is not Islamic, Jewish or Christian.
On the other hand, in every case I know of human cruelty on
a public and mass level, the perpetrators claim to find justification by
association with some norm or value that is thought to provide legitimacy.
Sometimes the false legitimacy is religious. But this is only an attempt at
justification. Religion or culture is not a cause.
Then again, if pseudo-legitimacy for human cruelty can be
hung easily on a great religious system like Islam, there is a problem. That
problem can be fixed, but only when alternative channels for aggression and
alternative means for resolving disputes are stressed within the system.
And that’s where America comes into the picture. In the
free, open and safe society that is America, I observe American Muslims
engaging in a new jihad. This jihad is an open struggle to stress the Islamic
values of reason, tolerance and nonviolent means of resolving disputes. I see
this jihad being played out every day in the Muslim community of Los Angeles.
There are other voices in the American Muslim community as well –Â some that
are quite problematic, in fact — but this is the way it should be in an open
The struggle of the American Jewish community to integrate
the best of Jewish values with the best of American values can be a model. Here
in America, the voices of reason and compassion can prevail because Americans,
whether Muslim or Christian or Jew, will not allow threats and intimidation to
win the day. Â
Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion