Empathy – A Lost Sunnah

The Prophet ﷺ said,

“None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.”

– Bukhari

In Surah Al Qalam, Allah mentions our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ saying that He is of a great moral character, and so simply put, this then means there must be something very special that we can learn from him and His character.

Indeed truthfulness, honesty, integrity and good behaviour were of the most important aspects of the character of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. However, in today’s khutbah, we will be going through a certain element of the Prophet ﷺ’s character that has been left behind. We will be talking in depth about empathy, which can be easily said as a lost sunnah.

Unfortunately, we are so distant from the idea of empathy let alone the practice of it – that we don’t sometimes even know what the word means. We know it sounds something kind of like sympathy. But sympathy is to understand where somebody else is coming from, to acknowledge somebody else’s pain. Empathy is to feel their pain.

The Prophet ﷺ exhibited this beautiful unbelievable quality of empathy and so we will share 3 short stories to demonstrate this. These examples of his empathy are in regard to different people, how he would practice his empathy with different people emphasising on the fact that it didn’t matter who it was.

When ‘Ikirimah Ibn Abu Jahl Came to Meet The Prophet 

  • One time the son of Abu Jahl came to visit the Prophet ﷺ. For context, Abu Jahl was the man who had declared war against the Prophet ﷺ, the Muslims and Islam. He had killed Muslims just for believing, he had tortured Muslims just for believing. And he was the head of multiple plots to assassinate the Prophet ﷺ. It is then no surprise as to why the Prophet ﷺ referred to him as the Fir’awn (Pharaoh) of his Ummah (nation). He eventually led an army into the battlefield with the intent of killing the Prophet ﷺ and as many Muslims as possible. This man made it very clear what his position was in regard to the Prophet ﷺ and Islam. And eventually he died with those same convictions.
  • His son, ‘Ikrimah, who had fought by the side of his father in fact continued his father’s work after his father’s death. And now, he is coming to Makkah to meet the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ received the news that ‘Ikrimah has entered Makkah and he is on his way to see you, the Prophet ﷺ turned to his companions and says his father names was ‘Amir bin Hisham, and they used to call him Abul-Hakam (Father of the Wise) because he was a leader of his people, but the Muslims used to call him Abu Jahal (Father of Ignorance) because of his actions and his conduct.
  • The Prophet ﷺ turns to the Muslims, the believers and he says, ‘Ikrimah is coming and I’m hopeful that he will embrace and accept Islam, so in his presence, none of you should refer to his father as Abu Jahal because it would hurt his feelings. Even if he becomes Muslim and he recognises that his father was wrong in his beliefs and his ideas and in what he did, it is still his father and it would hurt his feelings to hear people, that his new brothers and sisters in faith to refer to his father as the father of ignorance. So, do not refer to him as Abu Jahal in the presence of his son ‘Ikrima.

    This is the graciousness of the Prophet
    ﷺ, this is his empathy. He was able to put himself into ‘Ikrima’s shoes and understand how he would feel in that situation.

The Death of the Chief Hypocrite

  • One of the main conspirators against the Prophet ﷺ, the head of the the munafiqoon (the hypocrites) in Madina, was Abdallah Ibn Ubayy Ibn Salool. He worked very hard throughout his life in order to humiliate the Messenger of God ﷺ, to prevent the development of Islam and to set Muslims against one another. He cast many grave aspersions on many people in order to realize his evil aim, such as the famous story of the Ifk (the slander of ‘Aishah RA).
  • He committed horrific deeds in order to destroy the solidarity among Muslims when they needed solidarity the most. However, all of his attempts failed due to the help of God Almighty and the precautions of the Messenger of God.
  • So when his son, who was a believer, came to the Prophet ﷺ, saying that my father has died and though I know he was completely opposed to you and he said terrible, reprehensible things about you and your family, he was my dad and I worry about him. 
  • The Prophet ﷺ, on the spot removed his shirt, took off his own shirt and he gives it to him and he says wrap him in this, use this as his shroud and bury him in that.
  • What would we do to have the shirt of the Prophet ﷺ? Can you imagine being buried in the clothing of the Prophet ﷺ. What an honour, what a blessing. And Even though Allah SWT had made it clear that this would not forgive his [Abdullah ibn Ubayy’s] sins and what he had done wrong, we can still see here that the Prophet ﷺ at that time is thinking of the son and putting himself in the son’s shoes, imagining what the son feels losing his father. That’s empathy.

Practical Tips

Before we begin speaking about a few practical tips, we must understand that the reason we spoke about empathy is because most of us are falling short in this area and the reason we are falling short in empathy is because our hearts have become a little hard. No doubt, to sustain a high level of empathy isn’t easy and to reach such a high level of it like the Prophet ﷺ is an even greater challenge – but insha’Allah, with these practical tips we can at least strive to become more empathetic.

  • Charity  Giving charity softens the heart. And softening our hearts is what we all have to work on to reach this level of empathy. Hence why the first tip is to do with Charity. I’m confident most of us do give to charity, Alhamdulillah’s we know that we are privileged ourselves. However, there is a connection between empathy and charity that I want us to reach. And there is a practical way to grow it within us. Now the challenge is, you have to take out a £10 note from the cash machine. Once you get the £10, break into change and carry it with you all in a small plastic bag that stays within your actual bag itself like your rucksack or hand bag. Then for the following week, distribute that £10 in change across as many avenues as possible. This task would mean that you would come across many different causes to give charity. When you see a homeless person outside the station then you can give 50p. When you see your friend is studying hard in the computer room, buy him a water bottle for a £1. This is how we will establish empathy – this task gets you in the habit of consistently giving – that’s when we will break that barrier in our hearts. Because the truth is most of us give a sum on one occasion then we don’t give for a while and if we do that – it won’t have much effect on us. So let us remember the hadith: “Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few.”
  • Spread the Salaams  We need to work on our Salaams! Saying the whole phrase – Assalamualaykum warahmatullah wa barakatuh – and we we need to say it with a big smile. To show the person who we are greeting that we actually mean it. Imagine every conversation started with your biggest salaam, we would be surprised on the impact it has on the feelings of people. The salam sows seeds of love and friendship in the hearts of the people. Our beloved Prophet ﷺ said “When two Muslims meet (give salam), and shake hands, they are forgiven of their sins before they part with each other” Have you ever wondered why Salam is so powerful? I will share with you the meaning of Salam. Now the quite simple translation of Salam, which we are all familiar with is May Peace be with you or upon you. But there is actually a deeper meaning to it. The Arabic language has such a deeper meaning that translating it to English will never do it justice. So the Salam signifies 3 elements: 1) When you say it, the first meaning comes to as ‘May Allah be with you’, 2) the next, ‘May Allah protect you from any evil or harm’, and 3) ‘I’m not going to harm you, I am a Muslim’. And that isn’t just physically harm, but being safe from one another tongue and only speaking words of goodness. And the rest of the salaams – rahmatullah wa barakatuh – is just as beautiful, as you are ultimately asking Allah to have mercy and shower His blessings upon your fellow Muslim. When we internalise this, and actually mean it, imagine how far more compassionate we would feel towards one another!
  • Make Your Dua’a Special This tip is that I’m going to share is that we need to make dua’a. But not just any dua’a. Make a beautiful dua’a. And not just for yourself, but for others. Therefore the lesson we need to take away from this tip is, is that the next time we make dua’a, make it for someone else before you make it for yourself. Or at least, everyday, make one dua’a for another person, whether it be your parents, your family or your friends. Wish good for them and love them as much as you love yourself. After all, as our Prophet SAW said, “There is no Muslim servant who supplicates for his brother behind his back but that the angel says: And for you the same.” [Muslim]

I pray that with these simple practical tips – ones you’ve probably heard of before – we can begin to cause a change within ourselves so that we can witness a change around us in our environment.

The Prophet ﷺ said,

“The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”

– Sahih Bukhari

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