The word ‘grace’ refers to God’s favour and mercy, it also refers to man’s generosity and benevolence. We deal with both meanings below. God’s grace is expressed in al-Rahman, which implies that he has granted the creation favours (ni‘ma), irrespective of whether they believe in him or not, but he has granted special favours to those servants who have submitted to him with sincerity and love. The ninety-nine attributes of God mentioned in the Quran are repeated daily by Muslims, which means they make a deep impression on their consciousness.
Among the frequent attributes mentioned are: al-Rahman (the Merciful;170 times), al-Rahim (the Compassionate;227 times), al-Ghaffar and al- Ghafur (the Forgiving; 97 times) and al- Latif (the Kind; 7 times). Thus God is not only just, but also merciful. He is God, other than whom there is no god. He knows the unseen and the seen. He is the Merciful, the Compassionate . . . To Him belong the most beautiful names. Whatever is in the heavens and on earth glorifies Him and He is the exalted in Might, the Wise. (59.23–4)
It is interesting that the Quran does not refer to God’s love as much as it refers to his mercy. God’s grace and mercy include the whole of creation, even the worst of sinners (7.156; 30.33; 30.36; 30.46; 40.7; 42.28). But when God speaks of love, it is pointing to a special relationship, willfully entered into by God and man, a relationship that the Quran says most of humanity will reject (17.89; 25.50; 27.73).
The special favour of God Man’s nature is such that he must live a life that is self-conscious, and not one that is blissful in its abstraction from the social reality in which he finds himself. Human grace comes to us from other people. We have all experienced some kinds of grace from our mother, father, nurse or teacher. Later in life we experience the grace of friends, the grace of moral men and women, and the grace of a spiritual mentor. There is the grace we experience from religious institutions, a grace that has helped even the most timid individuals, and then there is the grace that comes from our ideals, from our faith. Such grace comes either from a transcendental supreme being or from a personality that is the embodiment of grace.
Although God’s grace shines through all mankind and he bestows his favours on all people, including sinners, his love is reserved only for those among the saints and prophets who surrender themselves totally to him. These are the ones who will experience a special bond of love with God. Since this category belongs only to the spiritually elite, we should not be surprised that the term ‘love’ (al-wadud) is used so little in the Quran. God’s love is available to all, but not all people will enter into this relationship of love. We sometimes turn to saintly personalities for grace or favours. Many saints have become the recipients of divine grace because they have denied their own individuality, as in the case of al-Hallaj who acknowledged God as the only reality and even saw the divine within himself. Authentic spiritual masters become the instrument of divine grace, and guide their disciples to a level of consciousness that even transcends the self, preparing them also to become recipients of divine grace. The disciple in turn becomes a master, and an instrument of God’s grace.
Divine grace is the source of all good, even of our ultimate destiny in the hereafter. In Christianity, salvation is wholly dependent on divine grace because our corrupted nature cannot do anything to save us: we have a perverted will that, if corrected, could direct us towards good, yet salvation depends wholly on God’s grace. In Islam, man is born good (fitra) and so he does not need a saviour to deliver him from innate evil; he does, however, require faith and must do good deeds to gain his salvation. This does not undermine divine grace, but it does allow for greater freedom and moral responsibility.
Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani felt that he was the recipient of divine grace, and that he was granted a special talent to judge character. In the Utterances (Malfuzat), he states: ‘I know your best from your worst as a result of God’s preparing me and by His grace.’ He warns those who are proud on account of divine grace bestowed on them, whether it be wealth, noble descent or whatever.
Human response to God’s favour
God in the Quran is ethical: he responds to his servants with justice and goodness. His justice is not merely mechanical, following certain laws, but is balanced with mercy. Man is answerable for his free actions on the Day of Judgement, but, if he is remorseful for his sins and turns to God in repentance, God will be gracious towards him. There are some sixty-nine verses in the Quran that refer to God’s favours, including the following: ‘For Allah is He who gives all sustenance’ (51.58), ‘There is no moving creature on earth but its sustenance depends on Allah’ (11.6) and ‘If you are grateful, I will add [more favours] unto you’ (14.7). These verses affirm that God wants man to enjoy his bounty, and also to acknowledge him as the source of this bounty. We have already indicated that grace implies divine favours (ni’ma) being granted to God’s creatures, and we observe these favours in the form of ayat (signs) that reflect God’s grace. Besides ni’ma, the Quran also uses fadl (bounty), rahma (mercy) and maghfira (forgiveness) to express divine grace. Man is expected to ponder over these signs and, if he is perceptive, he will know the real source of these signs and respond with gratitude to God. As for the ungrateful ones, God considers them to be guilty of kufr (unbelief): ‘Verily man is ungrateful to his lord’ (100.6; 43.14–15). Thus man responds to God’s grace in the form of either gratitude or ingratitude: the believer is grateful and the unbeliever ungrateful (Izutsu, 1987: 230–3). Sin is carried out through free will, but although the unrepentant person faces divine punishment, the repentant sinner is redeemed by God’s grace. All people, whether they are sinful or sinless, have to display gratitude to God for his grace. The man of piety also cannot afford to be proud of his own good deeds, but must be humble and grateful before God, who is the real power behind all actions. The good that man does also depends on God’s grace, and so the good man should always be repentant and pray for paradise.
The divine attributes al-Rahman and al- Rahim may be translated, respectively, as the Beneficent and the Merciful. The former includes believers and nonbelievers, and signifies the conferring of God’s favours on his creation. The latter (al-Rahim) is more specific to believers, and may not include the general meaning of divine beneficence (al-Rahman) (Lane, 1984). Its application to believers is contained in the verse: ‘They are graceful [and compassionate] towards each other.’ The grace of kindness is greater than justice. Where justice means that one must demand one’s due according to the law, grace requires one to forgo this right and give to another person more than his due. We noted above that God’s beneficence is universal and he bestows his blessings to all people, irrespective of their beliefs, through natural phenomena. Furthermore, God is merciful to the believers who are recipients of his special favours, especially the Friends of God (awliya’).
Human beings act with grace by sharing their bounty, but grace is not only understood as sharing, it has another dimension. The possessor of grace is also benevolent. He does not take what is due to him: that is, he forgoes his right. Al-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 1060) uses the term fadl or tafaddul (benevolence) and compares it with justice (adl). Justice is a legal quality because it implies the implementation of the law, but benevolence is a spiritual quality because it implies a voluntary action of the soul. Benevolence does not constitute justice because benevolence implies excess, whereas justice implies equality. Yet one cannot have benevolence without justice, for it is benevolence that moves a person to justice, not merely as an act of deference to the law, but as a condition of a balanced soul, an upright character. Isfahani regards benevolence as nobler than justice because it transcends the law, the judgement of the courts. A benevolent person will not turn to the court for justice, but will act from the dictates of his soul. The court has to implement legal justice, but the individual can forgive and forgo his rights (Isfahani, 1987: 355). This is not a defiance of justice, but a free act of the soul.
A man who seeks justice for a wrong done to him is a restless soul until he achieves his purpose, but, if he acts with a benevolent, forgiving spirit, he will overcome his restlessness and his soul will be in a state of quiet repose. One way of developing a benevolent temperament is by being fully alive to the fact that no man is perfect, that we have all wronged someone in our lives. So instead of being judgemental and seeking vengeance, we should act with grace and forgiveness. Isfahani supports justice fully when he cites these verses: ‘But if you judge, judge between them justly’ (5.42) and ‘God commands you to deliver back what you have been entrusted with to their owners and, if you judge between people, to judge justly’ (4.58). But he also supports benevolence and human grace when he cites this verse: ‘To forgo it is more righteous. And do not forget to be bountiful to each other. Allah sees what you do’ (2.237). Furthermore, he says, friendship is founded on grace (fadl), not on justice; grace leads to intimacy and justice to separation. God elevates those who act with grace: ‘To those who do the good is the best reward and more’ (10.26) (Isfahani, 1987: 356).
EXCERPTED FROM “THE QURAN: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA”