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Here’s How the Prophet Muhammad Demonstrated the Importance of Empathy In Activism

Here’s How the Prophet Muhammad Demonstrated the Importance of Empathy In Activism

And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.

[Quran 2:42]

As Muslims, it is our responsibility to listen those who have experienced racism or oppression. Recently, the Muslim community is becoming more aware of the injustices that exist within our society through social media. But we have to be weary of falling into “trend activism” and just doing things because it’s trendy. Activism is not a social media trend, and shouldn’t be performative in nature. People are feeling the pressure to post about Black lives and other global conflicts, but the reality is that true activism goes beyond social media. Allah says in Surah al-Hujarat (49:13): “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” Many times, people quote this ayat, but what does it mean “to know one another”? It doesn’t just mean to know something about someone. It means to communicate with others and empathize with them.

Activism requires empathy. Activism does not only mean posting something on social media. Activism is donating anonymously. Activism is reading books and watching documentaries to educate yourself instead of expecting marginalized people to take on the labor of educating you. More importantly, activism is having active empathy, and being able to put yourself in the other person’s place, imagining and feeling their emotions.

Activism requires empathy. Activism does not only mean posting something on social media. Activism is donating anonymously. Activism is reading books and watching documentaries to educate yourself instead of expecting marginalized people to take on the labor of educating you.

The Prophet 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] The Qur’an describes believers as those who practice compassion, which is a form of empathy that moves one to help others.

The Empathy of the Prophet Muhammad In Action

One account of the Prophet’s 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 became instantly moved upon seeing their condition and the color of his face changed. He had Bilal give the call to prayer and gathered his companions. After praying, they took up a collection for the tribe, generously helping them.

Another account is when Prophet Muhammad gave his cloth as a shroud to the son of Abdullah Ibn Ubayy Ibn Salul, the hypocrite. Though his father humiliated the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and worked very hard in preventing the development of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) recognized the son’s pain at an emotional time, and offered his own garment to wrap the father for the burial. (Source: Tafsir ibn Kathir)

Being anti-racist and speaking against injustices is a core part of being a Muslim.

When ‘Ikirimah Ibn Abu Jahl Came to Meet The Prophet 

As one story about Prophet Muhammad and his empathy goes, one time the son of Abu Jahl came to visit the Prophet Muhammad. For context, Abu Jahl was the man who had declared war against the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims, and Islam. He had killed Muslims just for believing. He is referred to the Fir’awn (Pharaoh) of his Ummah (nation). 

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 was coming to Makkah to meet the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet Muhammad received the news that ‘Ikrimah has entered Makkah and was on his way to see him, the Prophet Muhammad turned to his companions, and advised the father’s name 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 Muhammad turned to the Muslims, and said, “‘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 Muslims, and he recognizes 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.”

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This is how gracious and empathetic Prophet Muhammad was. He was able to imagine how ‘Ikrima would feel upon hearing his father being spoken about in a negative manner.

Being anti-racist and speaking against injustices is a core part of being a Muslim. To ensure we continue helping the oppressed, we must understand what empathy is.

What is Affective Empathy?

Affective empathy, also known as emotional empathy, is about actually feeling an emotion that another person is experiencing. Our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) exhibited this beautiful quality of empathy with everyone that he encountered.

Another good example of this would be the following hadith:

A dying child was once placed in the lap of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Tears flowed from the Prophet’s eyes. When he was questioned about crying for the child, the Prophet said: “(Tears are a form of) mercy that God has lodged in the hearts of His servants, and God is merciful only to those of His servants who are merciful (to others).” [Sahih Al-Bukhari]

May Allah tie our hearts to His words, and the sunnah of His messenger, and help us all become more emotionally intelligent beings.

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