Editor's note: Akbar Ahmed is professor and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington and the former high commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. He is author of "Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam" (Brookings Press). The following is based on a letter he delivered to the senior most Iranian diplomat in Washington to be sent to Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Washington (CNN) -- When the month of Ramadan began, I received a letter from Laura Fattal, the mother of one of the three young American hikers detained in Iran. In it, Fattal appealed to me, the first Muslim scholar she had contacted, to intervene on behalf of her son and his two friends.
The Iranian government has stated that Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd crossed the Iranian border while on a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan on the last day of July 2009, and they may have.
All former top students at the University of California, Berkeley, these are the best and the brightest of America, much like the American students I have had the pleasure of having in my classes. But sometimes young people do things that land them in trouble and travel to places they should not go.
These young people did not set out to cause any problems or tension between the U.S. and Muslim world or the U.S. and Iran, but had the opposite intent. They were committed to dialogue, understanding and making the world a better place.
The day after 9/11, Bauer, who would major in peace and conflict studies at Berkeley, decided he would do all he could to improve relations with the Muslim world. He moved to Damascus, Syria, both to write stories that promoted justice and empathy for those of cultures different from his own and to take photographs to convey personal stories.
The woman with whom he is engaged to be married, Shourd, lived in Damascus and worked with Iraqi refugees, teaching them English and helping them enroll in American universities, while at the same time she was enrolled at the University of Damascus learning Arabic. Shourd also wrote many articles, which often focused on the plight of women and the many souls affected by war and upheaval in the region.
Their friend Josh Fattal, concerned about the environment and public health, worked as a teaching fellow with the International Honors Program in Boston, Massachusetts, officially traveling to countries in Asia and Africa as part of a group of faculty and students.
He lived with families to learn more about the challenges they face in attaining health services and was planning to begin graduate studies.
Though not Muslim, all three were living the directive of God in the Holy Quran: "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other)."
As someone dedicated to helping alleviate the suffering of all humanity, whatever their cultural or religious background, I am concerned about the mental and physical well-being of these young people. All are at risk for permanent psychological damage due to their isolation in solitary confinement. They cannot speak Farsi, apart from requesting to be led to the bathroom blindfolded.
For more than a year Shourd has lived alone in a prison cell for 23 hours a day. She has a precancerous cervix, which requires treatment every three months. In addition, Shourd has discovered a lump in her breast, which demands immediate attention. Besides being potentially afflicted with cancer at such a young age, she is also clinically depressed. Bauer has severe stomach problems, which could include hemorrhaging.
This ordeal also has greatly affected the families of those involved, all of whose lives have fallen apart. All three mothers have stopped working. Bauer's mother has shut down the business she had for 18 years and is worried that if Shourd does not get urgent medical care her future daughter-in-law and son will be unable to have children, in addition to Shourd's life being in danger.
Shourd's mother, who lives alone on disability insurance and is in a great deal of financial hardship, is in desperate need of major abdominal surgery and has had to be rushed to the emergency room numerous times over the last year. Yet she feels that she cannot bear to undergo the surgery without her daughter present.
Aside from one short meeting and one brief phone call in the case of Fattal and Bauer and two for Shourd, the mothers have had no contact with their children. They write them letters every day but have received none back. All the mothers have trouble sleeping, and when they do, they have nightmares -- and the aging grandparents of all three have been hit particularly hard.
I am a father and a grandfather so I know how parents love and feel for their children, and what the parents of these three young Americans would be going through. Therefore I wrote the letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging him to show compassion and mercy to these young people and their families.
For the past three decades, and especially since 9/11, I have been heavily involved in promoting dialogue and understanding between the Muslim world and the West. One of my challenges has always been to convey the Islam that I know, consistently and publicly telling non-Muslims that compassion and mercy lie at the heart of the Islamic vision.
I reminded the supreme leader of Iran that God's two greatest attributes in the Quran are Rahman and Rahim -- compassion and mercy. As Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, which is of special religious significance for Muslims, approaches in this blessed month of Ramadan, the gates of heaven are open and God blesses us with his mercy and requires us to show mercy to others.
I therefore appealed to Iran's supreme leader to reflect the very compassion and mercy that God has demanded of his followers, especially during the last, holiest days of the month of Ramadan.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Akbar Ahmed.