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My apologies in advance for limited knowledge of Islam. I am writing about the topic of mercy, mostly from a Christian perspective, and trying to understand the similarities and differences in the way the two religions use the term 'mercy'.

My specific question is whether showing mercy to other people is considered ethically obligatory or optional.

I understand the answer may be more complex than just one or the other. Different forms of mercy may fall into different categories. Offering your kidney to save someone's life might not be treated the same ethically as bailing someone out of financial problems or forgiving someone for hurting you. All of those might be considered merciful, but some might be farḍ and others only mustahabb. It might depend on who the person is or on your relationship to them. But in Islamic thinking, what principles are used to decide?

If possible, please include some authoritative sources for the answer.

Thanks.

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Mercy is inclusive of a range of actions such as forgiveness, compassion for people's suffering, kind treatment etc. In general it is prescribed in Islam as the Quran counts it among the attributes of the true believers:

رحماء بينهم

Merciful among themselves

Quran 48:29

وتواصوا بالمرحمة

Advised one another to compassion.

Quran 90:17

However the exact ruling depends on the details:

Some acts are either obligatory or a communal obligation. This means that they are commanded and abstaining from them is condemned and punishable. For example saving an innocent person or animal who is in distress is obligatory on whoever is near and able to help. (5:32 , Muslim 2199) Similarly showing some levels of compassion towards parents, relatives, neighbors, slaves, orphans etc. is considered obligatory (4:36).

Some acts are mustahab. This means that they are virtuous but one will not be sinful if he or she abstains from them. An example of this might be forgiving a debt when the debtor has difficulty in repaying (2:280). Similarly giving away any supererogatory charity is recommended but not obligatory. Similarly forgiving Qisas is virtuous, but not obligatory (5:45 , Nasai 4783).

Some acts are forbidden. This means that one is reproached for doing them. For example leniency or pity on a person in the matters of Hudood (24:2) and showing softness towards those who are hostile to Islam (9:73 , 60:1-4).

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  • This is a very helpful answer for me. Thank you.
    – MattClarke
    Jun 13 at 8:17
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It is obligatory to be merciful towards others.

Jarir ibn Abdullah reported: The Messenger of Allah(ﷺ), said, “Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to people.” Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 7376, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2319

Allah says in Surah al-Anbiya

“And We have sent you (O Muhammad) not but as a mercy for the Alameen (mankind, jinns and all that exists)” [al-Anbiya’ 21:107]

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