Empathy – The Mark of a True Believer

Part 1

We all want it from others, and yet we are stingy in giving it.

We want others to understand us, relate to our opinions and feel our pain. We want others to listen to us and relate with us. We want others to put themselves in our shoes and view the world from our perspective.

That is empathy – putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. We feel close to the person who is empathetic to us, find it easy to share our thoughts with them, go to him or her when we’re in problem and seek solace.

Each of us has a natural sense of empathy through which we connect to others. When you feel tears streaming down your cheeks while reading a tragic news report or an emotional book, or watching a really good movie, you’re experiencing strong empathy.

There are two aspects of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is about understanding another person’s point of view, their emotions and needs at the intellectual level. Affective empathy is about actually feeling an emotion that another person is experiencing.

Let’s take the (hypothetical) example of John and his wife Sarah. John doesn’t like cats, and he refuses to allow Sarah to have any in their home. Now, instead of getting angry, Sarah tries empathy.

She first tries to understand where he’s coming from. So she investigates a little and finds out something interesting – when John was a little boy, he got badly bitten by a wild cat. Sarah now knows why John doesn’t want cats in the home. She wouldn’t want it either, if she were in his place. This is cognitive empathy.

Next, Sarah tries to feel how it must have hurt John when the wild cat bit him, and how he remembers it every time a cat comes near him. This is affective empathy.

In order to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you need both.

Two Hadiths on Empathy

“None of you will have faith till he wishes for his (Muslim) brother what he likes for himself.” (Al-Bukhari)

This hadith necessitates cognitive empathy. You have to firstly imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and think from their perspective in order to understand what you would do in his situation.

Prophet Muhammad said:

“You see the believers as regards their being merciful among themselves and showing love among themselves and being kind, resembling one body, so that, if any part of the body is not well then the whole body shares the sleeplessness (insomnia) and fever with it.” (Al-Bukhari)

A believer who has achieved excellence of faith will feel this special love for other believers. This is affective empathy.

Point to ponder: Why do we find it easy to cry for a fictional child character who’s lost his parents, and so difficult to cry for the real orphan children in war-ravaged regions of the world?

Prophetic Examples of Empathy

Prophet Muhammad had an amazing sense of empathy. Allah said about him:

{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.} (9:128)

He would understand other people’s problems before they even verbalized it, deal with different kinds of people differently according to their nature, and use tact when giving advice. The seerah is packed with examples of his empathy. Here are a few:

  • He would hasten the congregational prayer when he would hear a baby crying. “I stand in prayer, then I hear a child crying, so I make my prayer brief, because I do not want to cause hardship for his mother.” (Nasa’i)
  • He didn’t scold or beat the Bedouin who urinated in his masjid. Rather he explained in a calm and beautiful manner. (Ibn Majah 529)
  • Once a young man came to him and asked permission to commit zina (fornication). The people around were about to rebuke him when the Prophet told them to leave him alone. Then he asked him to apply empathy in order to understand the gravity of what he wanted to do:

“Would you like that for your mother?”

The man said: “No, by Allah, may Allah make me your ransom.”

The Prophet said:

“No, and the people do not like it for their mothers either.”

Then he said: “Would you like it for your daughter?”

“No, by Allah, may Allah make me your ransom.”

“No, and the people do not like it for their daughters either. Would you like it for your sister?”

“No, by Allah, may Allah make me your ransom.”

“No, and the people do not like it for their sisters either. Would you like it for your paternal aunt?”

“No, by Allah, may Allah make me your ransom.”

“No, and the people do not like it for their paternal aunts either. Would you like it for your maternal aunt?”

“No, by Allah, may Allah make me your ransom.”

“No, and the people do not like it for their maternal aunts either.”

Then the Prophet placed his hand on him and said:

“O Allah, forgive his sins and cleanse his heart, and protect his chastity.” (Ahmad)

Read part 2