By Sheima Salam Sumer
Empathy is a transformative character trait that positively enhances all areas of your life, including your personal well-being, family life and work relationships. Not many people know the power of empathy in enhancing their own personal well-being, as well as in changing the way they interact and feel about the world around them. In this article, we will discuss what empathy is, how it is encouraged in Islam and how you can use it to bring transformative change to your life.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share the feelings of others, like walking in someone else’s shoes.
Many times, without realising, our brains can interpret the emotions or feelings that we detect in others and copy them automatically. For example, if you see or hear of someone who hurt their finger, the areas of your brain associated with that pain gets activated, as if you can feel their pain.
Humans are naturally tuned to show empathy; however, we can still actively try to develop this trait and use it in our day-to-day lives.
A general example of empathy is if your friend is looking for a job but keeps receiving rejections, you might say to them: “Perhaps you feel disappointed and discouraged right now, is that right?” If you are right, your friend will feel relieved to hear someone understand his or her feelings accurately. It is essential as well as effective to empathize with a person before offering any sort of advice.
Empathy in Islam
Is empathy encouraged in Islam? Absolutely! Consider this Qur’anic verse about our beloved Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon 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.” [Qur’an: Chapter 9, Verse 128]
Our Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) would always feel our suffering and is praised by Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) for his empathetic nature.
The Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself also encouraged us to feel empathy for each other, he was reported to have 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.” [Bukhari]
This Qur’an describes believers as those who practice compassion, which is a form of empathy that moves one to help others.
“And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? It is the freeing of a slave, or feeding on a day of severe hunger, an orphan of near relationship, or a needy person in misery. And then being among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to compassion.” [Qur’an: Chapter 90, Verses 12-17]
One account of the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) empathy in action is when he was sitting in with his companions one morning, and members of a miserable tribe approached them. They had no shoes and their skin was stuck to their bones because of hunger. The Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) became instantly moved upon seeing their condition and the color of his face changed. He had Bilal raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) give the call to prayer and gathered his companions. After praying, they took up a collection for the tribe, generously helping them. [Muslim]
The Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) even had care and empathy for animals. Once, upon entering a garden, the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) saw a camel that was just skin and bones. Upon seeing it, the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) began crying, then he 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.” [Abu Dawud]
There is also the famous hadith about the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) empathy for mothers in the masjid, that was narrated by Anas bin Malik:
“The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: ‘I start prayer and I want to make it long, but then I hear an infant crying, so I make my prayer short, because I know the distress caused to the mother by his crying.’” [Ibn Majah]
How Showing Empathy Can Transform Your Life
Showing empathy will improve your relationships and develop your character as a Muslim, because you will become a more compassionate and helpful person. When you show someone that you understand them, either by reflecting their feelings or summarizing what they’ve said, you bring instant comforting relief and peace to that person.
In the field of counselling, showing empathetic understanding is usually more helpful to a person in distress than giving them advice. Dr. Carl Rogers, the founder of the Person-Centered Counselling Theory, did extensive research on using empathy in counselling. His research showed that empathy is a counsellor’s most powerful skill in bringing about growth in clients, and lack of empathy actually makes clients feel worse! Therefore, it is very effective to show empathy before thinking of offering advice.
Action Tip: The next time people you care about are feeling upset about a situation, rather than give advice, simply listen, and then try to reflect their feelings back to them to show you understand them accurately. Then notice how they respond.
Empathy transforms your social relationships because it gives you a more accurate and deeper understanding of issues and conflicts. Empathy is a key trait to becoming a better spouse, parent, teacher and friend.
Showing empathy at work enhances your professional relationships because you will begin to deal with your co-workers and clients by trying to first understand what they want, think and feel.
We often think we understand ourselves well enough, but when you take the time to name your feelings and really clarify how you feel, you will be amazed at the relief and inner peace you feel within yourself!
Action Tip: The next time you are feeling a negative emotion of some kind, try being empathetic to yourself. Name the feelings that you are experiencing. Notice how just clarifying your inner thoughts and feelings helps you feel better! Similarly, daily journaling is a great habit to do regularly as a way of long-term self-reflection and emotional wellness.
How To Develop Your Empathy
Empathy is a trait that improves with time, and the more you develop this trait, the more it will benefit your life. Basically, when you make the intention to be empathetic with other people, your practice will in turn improve your empathic abilities. Dr. Carl Rogers describes being empathetic as an almost “mystical” experience, because it is as if you almost become the other person.
The first step is to make the intention to try to “walk in the shoes” of others.
The next step is to understand yourself and your own feelings better. The better you understand your inner world, the better you will understand the inner world of others. Realize that your life experiences help you to develop your empathy, so make a point to use your life experiences to improve this trait.
Action Tip: The next time you have an experience that arouses strong emotions of some kind, tell yourself to use this experience to become more empathetic. For example, the next time you are very sick, notice your feelings of perhaps hopelessness or negativity (or any other feeling). Make a mental note of this experience and use it to feel empathy for other ill people in the future!
The purpose of showing empathy is to improve your life along with the lives of others, by spreading compassion, care and comfort. Being empathetic does not mean that we put the needs of others above our own needs. Empathy is a tool that we use to make more effective decisions and to show that we care.
In future articles, I will discuss how empathy can be used to improve specific situations and relationships, such as marriage, parenting, and work. I hope that you will choose today to make this golden trait a part of you to become a more compassionate, productive Muslim just like our beloved Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) In sha Allah!
Let us know in the comments below if you have any other tips for developing empathy or how it has helped you in your life.