Of the 99 beautiful names of Allah, it is Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim that we use most frequently in our prayers and du`aa’. Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim are both derived from the same Arabic root word, rahma, meaning “mercy, compassion.” Pickthall translates Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim as “the Beneficent, the Merciful,” and Yusuf Ali says “the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”
Most of us, unfortunately, take Allah’s mercy and compassion for granted. But if we stop for a moment and just reflect on the depth and extent of Allah’s mercy, we will be astonished beyond words.
The Qur’an frequently draws our attention to the world of nature. So let us consider for a moment the fragile world in which we live. We hear about the depletion of the ozone layer, the dangers of pollution, the need to preserve a sustainable environment for our children, and so on. Numerous books and TV programs about nature and the universe arouse our curiosity, our sense of wonder. We live in the center of a violent universe, ever changing, constantly in motion. We are surrounded by forces that are so precariously balanced that the smallest shift could kill us all. A few years ago, the comet Schumacher-Levy plunged into Jupiter and exploded with the energy of several million atom bombs. In astronomical terms, a difference of just a few degrees would have set it on a collision course with our planet earth.
Indeed, the scientists say that human life is possible only on the very narrowest of margins. To illustrate just how narrow is that margin, let’s take this example. Here, I have an orange, wrapped in plastic Clingfilm. If you can imagine that this orange is our planet earth, then the thickness of the Clingfilm is the atmosphere, the air we breathe. Most people think that the earth is solid. But below us, much thinner than the skin of this orange, is the thin crust on which our continents are placed. Under that crust are thousands of miles of boiling molten rock, oozing like a thick porridge around a solid iron core. In size, all living creatures are like the specks of dust and bacteria that cover the surface of this orange. You can’t even see it without a microscope, just as astronauts in space cannot actually see any life on earth without special equipment.
Just imagine! A few miles below our feet, like under the skin of this orange, we have thousands of miles of boiling liquid, oceans of molten lava. Above us, a thin skin of breathable air, only a few miles deep. Above that, nothing; a complete vacuum. And the sun, without which life would not be possible, is 93 million miles away. But what does that mean — 93 million miles? We cannot even make sense of such a distance. It’s just 93 followed by six zeros. But let’s make it easier. If this orange was our planet earth, then the sun would be a ball the height of this room, and that ball would be about 55 miles away, let’s say, the distance from here to Brighton or Bournemouth. Just imagine that! The slightest tilt of the earth towards the sun in summer and we complain that we’re unpleasantly hot. Then a slight tilt away from the sun in winter and we’re freezing cold. Measure the distance of that tilt, a mere 4,000 miles, compared with 93 million miles to the sun, and you will see that we boil or freeze within a range of just 0.005 percent. That is, not one percent, not one hundredth of a percent, but a mere one five thousandth of a percent!
Now, I am not a scientist and I am not an astronomer. But if we reflect on this simple fact, we are left astonished. All life on this planet earth is suspended precariously on the thin crust of a huge ball of boiling lava, covered by a thin membrane of oxygen, floating through space, passing deadly showers of meteors and comets and all kinds of deadly radiation. The mind just boggles. Any rock larger than about 1 or 2 miles thick, striking the earth head-on, like the comet Schumaker-Levy that struck Jupiter, would wipe out all life on this planet. The scientists and astronomers they tell us that we living creatures survive on this planet only by the narrowest of margins. Statistically, the dangers are so great, they say, and the mathematical probabilities of our survival are so small, that we should really not have been here at all! We Muslims as believers would say that our creation and continued existence on this planet are due entirely to the mercy of Allah, glorified and exalted is He. The Qur’an clarifies this point in many beautiful verses, for example:
[See they not what is before them and behind them, of the sky and the earth? If We wished, We could cause the earth to swallow them up, or cause a piece of the sky to fall upon them. Verily in this is a Sign for every devotee that turns to Allah (in repentance).] (Saba’ 34:9)
[Verily! Allah grasps the heavens and the earth lest they should move away from their places, and if they were to move away from their places, there is not one that could grasp them after Him. Truly, He is Ever Most Forbearing, Oft-Forgiving.] (Fatir 35:41)
And further in the same surah we read
[Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them, though they were superior to them in strength? Nor is Allah to be frustrated by anything whatever in the heavens or on earth: for He is All-Knowing All-Powerful. If Allah were to punish men according to what they deserve He would not leave on the back of the (earth) a single living creature: but He gives them respite for a stated Term.] (Fatir 35:44-45)
Brothers and sisters, next time we look up to the starry skies, let us think about those powerful forces that surround us. Forces that keep our very existence poised on a knife-edge, and let us thank Allah for His grace and mercy.
By Arshad Gamiet**
* Based on a Friday sermon delivered at the Royal Holloway, University of London, UK, on January 29, 1999. Courtesy of http://www.khutbahbank.org.uk.