Empathy In Islam: 5 Practical Steps We Can Start Today As A Muslim

The other day as I was returning home from Friday prayers, I was asked a rather interesting question by my eleven-year-old son. “Dad, what is empathy?”

I quickly recalled its classic dictionary definition and responded, “Well son, empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others.”

Without much hesitation, my son followed up with, “So, is Islam an empathetic religion?”

Here I was looking forward to the delicious Biryani awaiting us at home, and this philosophical question was put forth to me. Imagine after a draining work week, I had to rack my overloaded brain for an appropriate answer. There goes my weekend, I thought.

My immediate reaction was “Sure, Islam preaches empathy.”

I was sure that answer wasn’t enough from the look of his face so that prompted me to look into its meaning further. Over that weekend, I’ve learnt plenty more about it and how our beloved Prophet s.a.w. had demonstrated an amazing sense of empathy. As mentioned by Allah s.w.t. in Surah Tawbah, verse 128:

There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; (he is) concerned over you and to the believers is kind and merciful.

For example, our Prophet s.a.w. would hasten the congregational prayer when he would hear a baby crying so as not to cause hardship to its mother. [Ibn Majah]

As I dug deeper into this, I discovered that the definition of it had a more in-depth and diverse meaning and to try to explain all of this to my 11-year-old would be an information overload. So instead, I based my explanation around two main categories: cognitive and affective empathy.

What is Cognitive Empathy?

Cognitive empathy is about understanding another person’s point of view. There is a great example of this in the Hadith collection of Abu Dawud. It explained about how the Prophet s.a.w. showed care and empathy towards animals.

Once, upon entering a garden, the Prophet saw a camel that was just skin and bones. Upon seeing it, the Prophet began crying. He then put his hand on its head until it was comforted. He said to the owner of that camel, “Don’t you fear Allah about this beast that Allah has given in your possession? It has complained to me that you keep it hungry and load it heavily which fatigues it.”

Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. has always showed the greatest compassion, or some called it the universal compassion, and he strongly encouraged his followers to do the same. There is another great example from his life which demonstrated how far his empathy extended.

Awaking from a nap one afternoon, he found a small, sick cat fast asleep on the edge of his cloak. The Holy Prophet cut off his garment so that the cat could sleep undisturbed. Is this a man who would advocate the unnecessary slaughter of harmless beasts? “Show sympathy to others,” the Holy Prophet Muhammad taught, “especially to those who are weaker than you.” (Bilkiz Alladin, The Story of Mohammed The Prophet, Delhi, 1979, pp. 12-13)

What is Affective Empathy?

Affective Empathy, also known as Emotional Empathy or Primitive Empathy, is about actually feeling an emotion that another person is experiencing. A good example of this would be the following hadith:

A dying child was once placed in the lap of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Tears flowed from the Prophet’s eyes. When he was questioned about crying for the child, the Prophet said: “(Tears are a form of) mercy that God has lodged in the hearts of His servants, and God is merciful only to those of His servants who are merciful (to others).” [Sahih Al-Bukhari]

Another relevant example that we as Muslims can relate to about affective empathy would be fasting. Why we fast is because, one of the many purposes, is to experience what hunger feels like for the less fortunate among us.

5 Practical Steps To Increase Empathy As A Muslim

Through my weekend research, here are five things that we can instantly take action on a daily basis.

1. Take the time to understand someone else’s point of view. For example, try instead to understand the person. Put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine their background. If possible, talk to them. Find out their backstory. Everyone has one. If not, try to imagine the circumstances that might have led to the person acting or looking like they do.)

2. Respect other’s rights. We should learn to respect the honour, reputation and privacy of others and the law of the land we live in.

3. Be patient. Consider an area of life you know you’re impatient in – for example, one that impedes your productivity. List the triggers that cause negative results in those situations. Negative results could include procrastination, working slowly, getting angry, or displaying irritation and impatience. The next time you hit that situation, tell yourself that you’ll try to endure it with patience for just five minutes. For those five minutes, you won’t react in those normal, negative ways. You’ll bear it with patience, and will try to get through it in the most productive way.

4. Treat others as we would like to be treated by them. This is self-explanatory. If you dislike rudeness then don’t be rude to others. If you hate liars then don’t lie.

5. Do not be judgmental. If you find yourself being judgmental, stop yourself. This takes a greater awareness than we usually have, so the first step (and an important one) is to observe your thoughts for a few days, trying to notice when you’re being judgmental. This can be a difficult step. Always remind yourself to observe first.

Empathy in Islam
(As Depicted In Mainstream Media Today)

Even though the dominant image of Islam in mainstream media is often depicted as a religion of violence, it’s actually not. Since its inception, Islam called for a system of social justice and responsibility for others. From early on in his life, the Prophet Muhammad was concerned about the state of the less fortunate. In Prophet Muhammad’s s.a.w. time, the Qurayshi society, which once took care of its members, not only neglected the less fortunate but did not even provide basic security in a world that depended on tribal protection.

I wish to conclude with the following Hadith Qudsi:

On the Day of Judgment God will say, “O son of Adam, I fell ill, and you did not visit me.” The person will say,” O Lord, how could I visit you when You are the Lord of the worlds?” He will say, “Did you know that so-and-so fell ill and you did not visit him? If you had visited him, you would have found Me with him.”

I personally feel that this hadith perfectly highlights that connection to God is interconnected with how you treat others in Islam. May Allah s.w.t. provides us His Guidance always.

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