Allah jalla wa ‘alā says:
ثُمَّ كَانَ مِنَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْمَرْحَمَةِ
“And then to be one of those who believe, and urge one another to patience and urge one another to mercy.” (90:17)
Allah ‘azza wa jall in this verse combines the enjoining of one another to be patient, and the enjoining of one another to show mercy.
“Al-Tawāṣi” comes from the word “Waṣiyyah” or “exhortation” and involves one being “specific, sincere and loving to the one you are advising”, such as when a father advises a child or a teacher encourages a students.
It’s also possible to say that from the meanings of “Waṣiyyah” is to benefit someone without receiving any reward, an act which is intrinsically righteous and not wanting to insult the one being advised or lead you to feel superior over them.
“Al-Tawāṣi” appears in the verbal form of “Tafā‘ul” which means that there must be two parties involved, as if to indicate that both people exhort one another. This therefore gives guidance to the scholar to not just teach but to always be ready to learn from those who are lesser than them such as those who are less knowledgeable, and the same applies in the case of the father, or the ruler and so on.
The repetition twice of “Al-Tawāṣi” in the verse indicates the importance of advising and reminding one another, and to keep doing this always and making it a permanent fixture of our lives. Also, this repetition in the Arabic language serves to underline the importance of each of the two subjects, namely patience and mercy. Also, it possibly indicates that one cannot take the place of the other, and also indicates that both can occur separately and independently, and also that it is possible for only one of these two characteristics to occur in different people.
See, patience usually comes to the fore during difficulties and trials, and requires a strong heart. On the other hand, mercy usually comes to the fore from those with softer hearts. So it’s almost as if the combining of these two qualities in the verse is intended to bring balance to the Believers so that they don’t end up too hard-hearted and lose their merciful touch, or too soft-hearted and not able to get things done properly.
The aim is to end up with hearts that are not rock-hard and blocked like those who are ungrateful and refuse guidance, and neither hearts that are too weak or diseased like those of the people of sin. No, they should be strong solid hearts that are delicate at the same time, like glass almost. Don’t you see how in the face of difficulties, they laugh out aloud, but when the verses of Allah are recited upon them, they shed tears?
That is why to combine mercy with strength is complete and perfect from an attribute sense, and that is why Allah described Himself with this perfect combination in His great Book:
وَإِنَّ رَبَّكَ لَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الرَّحِيمُ
“Your Lord alone, is the Almighty, the Merciful.” (26:191)
Thus, Allah jalla wa ‘alā is Merciful despite His Might, and He is Powerful despite His Mercy.
Another observation from this verse is that to urge one another to patience often occurs when one is weak, or poor, or in difficulty or in some kind of need – it is an exhortation generally directed at the “weak”. However, the exhortation to be merciful is usually directed at the strong, the rich, the powerful and their likes.
And so in this verse there is a lesson for those who give advice: make sure you give it to all types of people. Don’t be like those who only critique or give advice to the weak, as many people do, and also avoid admonishing just your own stronger/wealthier/powerful class of people, as a few might do.
So from this great verse, we can divide people into four different categories:
- Those who are patient when they are weak, but do not show mercy when they are strong; for example they may rush to fight, transgressing particularly in violence, punishment and revenge, all the time claiming to be applying the Rule of Allah. Actually, it is for this group of people that His Statement was sent down for, when He said:
وَإِذَا تَوَلَّى سَعَى فِي الأَرْضِ لِيُفْسِدَ فِيِهَا وَيُهْلِكَ الْحَرْثَ وَالنَّسْلَ وَاللّهُ لاَ يُحِبُّ الفَسَادَ
“When he leaves, he sets out to spread corruption in the land, destroying crops and livestock. But Allah does not like corruption.” (2:205)
- Then there are those who are merciful but do not have patience, and so they are often overcome with despair and pessimism. This is symptomatic from those who do not genuinely practice the religion, or do not practice it completely. They try to put on a persona of religiosity but it is nothing more than skin deep. They are the “Mutakhashshi‘īn” or those of fake piety. They will of course be externally nice and generous but they will not survive when put into difficulty because there’s nothing inside to build upon.
- Then you have those who are neither merciful nor patient. They do not fear Allah when they are in a state of weakness and are not patient, and they do not show iḥsān and generosity to the rest of creation when times are good and they are strong and in power.
The final – and best – of the four possible states to be in, is to be patient and to be merciful, and this was the way of the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
He was patient at the times when he was weak and on the back foot. Then when he later became strong and powerful, he was merciful and pardoning to those who harmed him, and fought him, and expelled him. He simply said, “Go, for you are free.”
And Allah knows best.