Empathy – A potent Antidote to Jahiliya

The writer, Hasnain Walji (Houston, USA) is an entrepreneur, investor, technologist, and a community volunteer

This article forms part of the series ‘ Muhammad – A Beacon of Hope, a Shining Star’ – an initiative to recall and appreciate the messages and lessons behind the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, its relevance, and connection to life today, for both Shi’a Muslims and the rest of the global population.

A man stands on a hillock and declared:  Ya ayyuhan-nas qulu la ilaha illallah tuflihu

(“O people! Say, ‘There is no god but Allah’ and you may be delivered”)

Delivered from whom? Delivered from what?

This was none other than Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who declared this, at time people were shackled in inequity, justice was just a forlorn hope and human dignity was nonexistent.  Tribal superiority was the only yardstick of honor. Wars were rampant. Peace was elusive. In short, society in Arabia was deeply engulfed in ‘Jahiliya’ .

How was he able to tilt those ego ridden values? How was he able to give a slave the courage to shout Ahad in the face of whipping by his so-called masters? As Hazrat Bilal did.  How did he transform the thinking of a father that honor lay in respecting a daughter and not burying her alive. How did he imbibe critical thinking in the parents of Ammar – Yasir and Sumayya – that idol that shatters upon falling form the mantlepiece could not be a God?

In a span of just 23 years after the invitation to Falah he changed that society.  The societal transformation meant women gained equality, slaves gained freedom, the average person gained respect and the society as a whole gained equilibrium as justice and equity prevailed in the Madina society.

Of the many dimensions of the visage of the Prophet (SAW), a trait worth studying, from the vantage point of modern psychology, was his emotional intelligence. If we understand this, it will help strive toward a better society today engulfed in neo-jahiliyyah 

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is how you handle yourself and others. It taps into the very essence of human behavior, navigating social complexities to achieve positive results. The fruits of an EQ community are to espouse freedom, justice, equality, and human rights. Therefore, the   invitation towards falah was to deliver people from Jahiliya to a become an emotionally intelligent community.

The components of an emotionally intelligent community are, personal integrity, empathy and compassion. Through his character, he inspired people towards integrity. Through his actions he taught people how to foster empathy. Through his Humility he showed the path to a compassionate society by his own example of emotional intelligence. The combined impact of his personal integrity, empathy and compassion was a potent antedote to the state of jahiliyya.

It is said that once the Blessed Prophet (SAW) came across a camel, the animal sensed his presence and came closer grunting as if complaining to him. Sensing the animal’s plight, he said: ‘Who is the owner of this camel?’ A young man from the Ansaar came and said, ‘It is mine, O Messenger of Allah!’ He said: ‘Do you not fear Allah with regard to this beast which He has placed in your possession? It complained to me that you starve it and put it to toil.’”

If an animal could sense his empathy, how could humans not? Unless you were Abu Jahal or Abu Lahab.

A key component of emotional intelligence is empathy – which has three levels.

  • cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another person’s point of view
  • emotional empathy – the ability to feel what someone else feels
  • empathic concern – the ability to sense what another person needs from you

There can no better example of the practice of these three levels of empathy as displayed by  Blessed Prophet (SAW) at even the simplest of examples

As was the custom in those days, a farmer brought the first harvest of fruit to present to the Prophet. The Prophet (SAW) carefully eyed the fruit and started eating the fruit until he finished eating them all, to the delight of the farmer. The companions were astonished at the action.  They were used to having the Prophet (SAW) always share food with all present. Perceiving the unasked questions, he waited until the happy farmer left. Now he explained “I tasted the fruit, and it was not yet ripe. Had I allowed you to have some of it, someone would have shown his distaste, thus disappointing the poor man who had brought the gift. Rather than make him feel bitter, my palate accepted the bitterness.”

His emotional empathy was perceiving the feelings of the farmer, while his cognitive empathy predicted the actions of his companions and empathetic concern was to prevent anyone from hurting the feelings of the farmer. Cultivating empathy, is important for building social relationships.  A society that empowered its members to foster empathy, can restore human dignity.  Every human being, regardless of color, status or genealogy, has a God given right to live a dignified life.  Unless a society as a whole imbibed the faculties of emotional intelligence, they would not be able to free each other from the shackled of Jahiliya.

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