Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,
In the Islamic tradition, justice and compassion go hand in hand. Raḥmah, the word for compassion, understood interchangeably with mercy, stands out as one of the key attributes of God. Muslims begin their daily prayers with the phrase: “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful (bismillāh ar-raḥmān ar-raḥīm).”
The word for compassion derives from the Arabic root r-ḥ-m, which has the connotation of a womb (ar-raḥm), a place of nurturance and safety. What does compassion have to do with politics and governance? The Dalai Lama teaches: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
“What does compassion have to do with politics and governance?”
Compassion is needed to fulfill the vision of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”
How can we establish justice without compassion for those who have been wronged, but also for those whose wrong-doing is rooted in the trauma of poverty, racism, and discrimination?
How can we insure domestic tranquility if we fail to see with the eyes of compassion that hunger, homelessness, illness, and unemployment result from our vast inequities of wealth, which also drive migrants to our borders?
How can we provide for the common defense with compassion for those who bear the costs of war, while refocusing some defense spending to foster peace and resolve conflicts before they escalate into war?
How can we promote the general welfare given the global threat posed by climate change? How might compassion for climate refugees, sinking nations, and mounting species loss intensify our investment in renewable forms of energy and actively engage us in global protocols for environmental sustainability?
How can we secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity without compassion for one another and an embrace of the differences of race, ethnicity, religion, ability, gender, and economic station that make up the rich American tapestry and enrich us as members of the larger human family?
Let us take our cue from God, who says in the Qur’ān: “My compassion (raḥmah) embraces all things” (7:156).
Zayn Kassam, Ph.D.
John Knox McLean Professor of Religious Studies