Islamophobic politicians, activists and media paint the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as violent, cruel and cold-hearted. They will usually point to savage atrocities committed by Muslims as proof. However, those who've studied the teachings of the Prophet quickly come to realize that some Muslims are often very poor representatives of the faith they claim to follow.
The Qur'an refers to the Prophet Muhammad as "a mercy for all creatures". Compassion and mercy are referenced thousands of times within the Qur'an and the Sunnah - the sayings and examples of the Prophet - so it's clear they are central concepts within Islamic philosophy. Here are just four, out of many, examples.
1. COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS
"A good deed done to an animal is like a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as cruelty to a human being." - (Mishkat al-Masabih)
Sadly, in many parts of the Muslim world cockfighting, dog fighting and bear baiting are commonplace. My own native homeland of Pakistan, which proudly proclaims itself an Islamic nation, is a hotbed of animal cruelty.
During the time of the Prophet Muhammad it was common for his community to hunt animals for fun. A practice he condemned repeatedly. Muslims are prohibited from hunting for sport. They may only hunt for food, and even then only as much as they need to survive and not to excess. Cruelty to animals is considered as sinful as cruelty to people.
The Prophet even chastised people who sat purposelessly on their camels and horses: "Do not treat the backs of animals as chairs".
"A group of Companions were once on a journey with the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and he left them for a while. During his absence, they saw a bird with its two young, and they took the young ones from the nest.
The mother bird was circling above in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet came back. He said, 'Who has hurt the feelings of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her.'" (Sahih Muslim)
2. COMPASSION FOR CHILDREN
"I never saw anyone who was more compassionate towards children than Allah's Messenger (pbuh)." (Sahih Muslim)
As children, almost every Muslim comes to know the Madrassah, the religious schools attached to their Mosque, as a place to be feared. Within those walls brutal physical punishments are meted out to students for minor infractions by terrifying bearded men. Struggling to read from a Holy text is considered an insult to the religion by some, and cruel beatings for the dim or dyslexic are commonplace. When I was ten I saw a Qari, a man supposedly well versed in Prophetic teaching, smash a child's face into a bench, breaking his nose. No charges were ever filed, of course, as the Muslim community is as adept at covering up abuse of children as the Catholics and Jews.
Incidents like that convinced me that the faux-pious men charged with teaching us the tenets of Islam were shameless hypocrites, and that being a Mosque teacher was, more often than not, a visa scam for importing charlatans, whose values were at odds with both Western and Islamic values, into the country.
In contrast, the Prophet Muhammad put the welfare of children above religious rituals.
"(It happens that) I start the [communal] prayer intending to prolong it, but on hearing the cries of a child, I shorten the prayer because I know that the cries of the child will incite its mother's passions." (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
3. COMPASSION FOR THE POOR
"Every Muslim has to give in charity." (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
Making charitable donations to the poor and needy has such importance in Islam that it's one of the five central pillars of a Muslim's faith. Once a year, every solvent Muslim adult must give 2.5% of their wealth to charity - a disbursement known as Zakah.
While it is common for most Muslims to make the mandatory payment, it is also common to see the poorest in Muslim society being exploited and abused, especially in wealthier countries where a system known as Kafala is used to trap the most vulnerable of the underclass into indentured servitude.
"A man giving a dirham as charity during his life is better than giving one hundred dirhams as charity at the moment of his death." (Sunan Abu-Dawood)
4. COMPASSION FOR ENEMIES
"Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone." (Prophet Muhammad's Rules of War)
More than fourteen centuries ago, the Prophet Muhammad established a code of conduct for soldiers that mandated respect for civilians and non-combatants, the environment, animals, and prisoners of war, and the usage of fire as a weapon was strictly prohibited. He also condemned those amongst his followers who mistreated or killed adversaries who offered to surrender, even if they suspected deception from their enemy.
The majority opinion amongst Muslims is that the killing of captured soldiers is strictly forbidden. Muslims are commanded to treat prisoners of war with dignity, protected from harm and provided with adequate food and clothing. The Qur'an instructs Muslims to show kindness to POWs and recommends their liberation after hostilities are ended.
"And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of the Lord (saying): We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you." (Qur'an 76: 8-9)