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Empathy: A Forgotten Sunnah and the Steps To Achieve It

Being empathetic too much can be disadvantageous sometimes. Hence the Prophet (peace be upon him) has instructed us to please God before pleasing people; therefore we can stay in a healthy confinement.

Being empathetic too much can be disadvantageous sometimes. Hence the Prophet (peace be upon him) has instructed us to please God before pleasing people; therefore we can stay in a healthy confinement.

At-Taubah 9:128: 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. 

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their emotions. It is thinking about others in their perspective to identify and feel their distress. A crucial first step to compassion, empathy is a powerful psychological tool that can bring about tranquillity and goodwill to this world that is filled with so much hatred and animosity.  

Sympathy and empathy, although often mistaken as similar emotions, have widely different meanings. Sympathy is being concerned about others. It is the temperament of feeling sorry for others. Empathy on the other hand, is stronger than sympathy – it goes a step further to actually feel others’ feelings about something. 

Types of Empathy

Cognitive empathy 

This is the ability to place oneself in others’ situation and think about what they are going through. It is also called “perspective thinking”. 

An example of this is when a teacher sees her student struggling to find answers during a test, and thinks about how difficult the question paper is (by putting herself in the student’s place). 

Emotional/Affective empathy 

Affective empathy is to ‘feel’ what others are feeling. Be it sadness, anger, guilt, fear, happiness, when one is emotionally empathetic, he/she feels it themselves and recognises it.

An example of this is when a mother watches her child falling down and getting hurt: she not only thinks about it, but she also feels her child’s suffering and the intensity of pain her child had experienced. 

The Prophetic Empathy 

No one has ever exhibited the crux of empathy more than the Messenger of God (pbuh). God Himself says in Qur’an on how merciful His prophet is, and how the Prophet (pbuh) worries about his people, even the disbelievers. 

For example, the Prophet (pbuh) would shorten his congregational prayer when he hears the wails of child, just because a lengthy one would distress the mother (Source: Sahih al Bukhari 678). 

There are also numerous authentic narrations in the Seerah (history) of the Messenger of God that chronicles his empathy (peace be upon him): 

  • Ikrimah Ibn Abu Jahal meets Rasoolullah (pbuh): 

Abu Jahal, a notorious enemy of Islam, was killed at the Battle of Badr. His son Ikrimah ibn Abu Jahal on hearing this news that his father was killed in the battle by Muslims, becomes so heartbroken. He then wanted to meet the Prophet of Allah (pbuh) in Makkah. Upon hearing the news that Ikrimah has enterted Makkah, the Prophet of God (pbuh) advises Muslims not to call Ikrimah as the son of ‘Abu Jahal’ (meaning: father of ignorance) as it would hurt his feelings, even if he embraced Islam. He (pbuh) stopped people from calling Ikrimah’s father as ‘Abu Jahal’, as that would affect him. 

This is the compassion of Rasoolullah (pbuh). He knew that even though Abu Jahal was a steadfast enemy to Islam, he is still a father to his son, Ikrimah. That behaviour is what we know as ‘empathy’ now, which resonates throughout history books and beyond. 

  • Graciousness towards the son of Basheer (RA): 

Once in a military expedition, Basheer (ra), an Ansari (Supporter from Madinah), gets martyred along with few other Muslims while the rest of the people were returning home to Madinah. The Prophet (pbuh) did not go on this particular expedition; he goes to receive his companions outside Madinah. The son of Basheer (ra), who was waiting eagerly for his dad to return home, was looking at the people entering the city. As everyone arrived, they were reunited with their loved ones, but Basheer was no where to be seen. As soon as the boy sees the Prophet (pbuh) arriving at the end, being the ‘shepherd’, he realises his father had died. 

He cries upon losing his father. When the messenger (pbuh) sees him, he stops his animal, gets down and hugs this little boy. He keeps hugging him as he cries. Then he says something which is so pure: “Don’t cry. Don’t worry. If you want, I will be your father and A’isha will be your mother”. 

The Prophet (pbuh) puts himself in the child’s shoes and feels his pain. He offers the boy what he needed the most at that time: empathy. 

Some more gems from Hadith about the Prophet Muhammad and his empathy: 

  • The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) forbade two people talking secretly while ignoring a third person present with them, because that would hurt him (Source Sahih al Bukhari, Sahih Muslim).
  • When a Bedouin urinated inside a masjid, he didn’t beat him, rather he explained in a calm and beautiful manner (Source Sahih Muslim 285).
  • He gave his cloth as a shroud to the son of Abdullah Ibn Ubayy Ibn salul, the hypocrite. Though his father humiliated the Prophet (pbuh) and worked very hard in preventing the development of Islam, he (pbuh) recognises the other’s pain during the time and offers his own garment to wrap his father during his burial (Source Tafsir ibn Kathir).
  • The Prophet (pbuh) would listen to children attentively and hear their stories. 
  • He (pbuh) would treat his wives with utmost respect and participates in their daily chores.

Practice empathy with these 5 steps 

Listen – listen attentively when someone is expressing something. 

Be nonjudgmental – judging is the opposite of listening. Don’t listen to judge, rather listen to help. 

Understand – Be discerning.

Imagine – this requires you to put yourself in other person’s place, imagining and feeling their emotions. 

Respond – ‘Empathetic responding’ is actually something that psychology counsellors implement. It is responding appropriately to other people’s problems even though you can’t provide a solution. 

Conclusion: Being empathetic too much can be disadvantageous sometimes. Hence the Prophet (peace be upon him) has instructed us to please God before pleasing people; therefore we can stay in a healthy confinement.

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