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Da’wa, Diversity and Empathy

Posted October 6, 2009

A thorough reading of the Prophet’s Seerah (biography) teaches us the best model to adopt in order to engender individual and collective repose and harmony in the inward, outward, and also in the physical and spiritual dimensions of human existence. He embodied and exhibited the quintessential characteristics of a successful human being.

One core value or characteristic that always stands out in the demeanour of the Prophet is empathy. The way he carried himself with others was impeccable, and this is why Allah described him as being on an exalted standard of character (68:4).

One of the pitfalls of da’wa, I have observed, is the lack of empathy people express and receive in the ambiance of what we may term as the crucible of ‘Islamic activism’. Some people, due to their over zealousness to convert people to the ‘correct position’ find themselves, regrettably, ignoring other people’s emotional and spiritual state of mind and context.

When we pervade through the Qur’an and the Sunnah and approaches they adopt in conveying the message of tawhid to the people, we will find that their approaches were prudent, contextual and dynamic; they always considered the physical, psychological, social, political and even topographical surroundings and states of people. This is why we see the value of empathy stand out in the da’wa of the Prophet more than in other traits. It is from this state that all other states emerge and flourish. He was even described in the Bible as the ‘Comforter’, in other words, a counsellor and bearer of good news.

One of the impediments of effective da’wa is the lack of awareness of other people’s states and conditions. Another is the lack of knowledge or the lack of appreciation of the multi natured or the diversity of approaches and intellectual foundations people are exposed to daily, as well as, the multicultural and diverse reality they live in. In order to be effective agents of change in the community, Islamic activists (duat) should take into consideration what may be termed as the ‘Diversity- and relationship – oriented empathy’ attitude towards da’wa and the people who are being called (mad’u). This, you may say, is more of a counselling psychologist approach, which was, without a doubt, the method employed by the Prophet when he interacted with other people.

This article will endeavour to illustrate some of the issues the callers should be cognisant of when approaching Muslims and non Muslims alike in calling them to Islam and the tawhid of Allah. Firstly, and as a pre-amble, in view of the fact that duat (Islamic activists) are like counsellors, it behoves us to define from the counselling psychologist perspective what empathy is.

Different theoreticians and researchers have defined it in different ways. Some see it as a personality trait, a disposition to feel what other people feel or to understand others ‘’from the inside’’, as it were. Others see empathy, not as a personality trait, but as a situation-specific state of feeling for understanding of another person’s experiences. Covey (1989), naming emphatic communication one of the ‘’seven habits of highly effective people,’’ said that empathy provides those with whom we are interacting with ‘’psychological air’’ that helps them breathe more freely in their associations and connections. Finally, Goleman (1995, 1998) puts empathy at the heart of emotional intelligence.

It is the individual’s ‘’social radar’’ through which he or she senses others’ feelings and perspectives and takes an active interest in their concerns. These and other academics, although they provide us with different definitions, nevertheless, their language is lyrical in giving us the maqsad (spirit) of what empathy denotes. It is a natural trait (jibillat) which also can be acquired through learning and understanding ones own condition and experiences of others.

The Prophet was fully cognisant of the pivotal role empathy plays in developing astute and diligent human beings and always was keen to educate people from an early age on this important value.

Below are some examples:

1. Anas Ibn Malik narrated that “the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to mix with us (the children) to the extent that he would say to a younger brother of mine, ‘O Abu-‘Umayr! What did the Nughayr (a kind of bird) do?’ “(Narrated by Al-Bukhari). This demonstrated to the children that they were valued. This was the Messenger of Allah, who was a leader of a state, a husband, father – despite these and other heavy duties and obligations, he had time to play with the children. This made them feel that they are loved, cared for and appreciated.

2. Whenever he would enter Medinah he would carry his grandchildren and other children nearby on his mount. Again, given them the important attention children need.

3. In another well known tradition, a young companion related that he spent many years with the Prophet and not once did he complain or rebuke him.

4. He would carry his granddaughter Umamah on his shoulders even while he was praying. Some narrations even say that he hastened to complete the prayer because of them. These and other examples show the great teacher and counsellor the Prophet was (peace be upon him).

Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Children are being neglected and abused. Just recently, it was reported that a carer abused her position as a child minder by exploiting explicit pictures of children with other people.

Researchers inform us that when parents and prime carers of children are unavailable physically and/or emotionally, when they are overindulgent, and when children are exposed to violent media, they are in danger of becoming self-centred, prone to aggressive and cruel behaviour, and unable to feel or express remorse – a quasisociopthatic interpersonal style. The WAVE Trust, an international charity dedicated to raising public awareness of the root causes of violence in the society and the ways to reduce it, commissioned research that came up with some amazing findings: ‘’Empathy is the single greatest inhibitor of the development of propensity to violence. Empathy fails to develop when parents or prime carers fail to attune with their infants’’ (Hosking & Walsh, 2005, p.20). To attune to a child means ‘’attempting to respond to his or her needs, particularly emotionally, resulting in the child’s sense of being understood, cared for, and valued’’. (p. 20)

In many instances you will find that those who carry out acts of violence or cruel behaviour in the society have had issues and problems at their early life which were not dealt with but suppressed, and in their later stage of their life some external agent or incident triggers some of the feelings and they lash out expressing their inner turmoil which results in cruel and sometimes inhumane behaviour.

Returning to the point raised earlier regarding ‘Diversity- and relationship – oriented empathy’ attitude towards da’wa and the people who are being called (mad’u). This is an area Islamic activists should consider developing their understanding and inculcating in their da’wa strategies and work plans. Living in the west, duat are presented with myriad of challenges and diverse tests. Although the people they are calling have in common their basic humanity, they will differ from one another in a whole host of ways – ability, age, economic status, education, ethnicity, group culture, national origin, occupation, personal culture, politics, religion – to name a few. These diverse target groups and multicultural categories require multicultural competencies from the perspective of the Islamic worker. What this entails is that the Islamic worker must open his or her horizons and vision. If we are to bring about a change in the community, a change that is vibrant and effective, not just for the Muslim community but for the wider non Muslim community as well, we must spread our wings and develop new and innovative skills and networks and not be content with the walls we have built around us.

The Prophet, in addition to the different psychological and emotionally aspects he observed when calling individuals and groups to Islam, also employed the multicultural and diverse competency skills. Below are some examples:

1. While the prophet was once returning to his house after talking to his companions in the mosque, a Bedouin pulled him by the collar and said rudely: ‘O Muhammad! Give me my due! Load up these two camels of mine. For you will load them up with neither your own wealth nor the wealth of your father.’ To this impertinence the prophet responded without expressing any sign of offence: Give that man what he wants! (Abu Dawud, Adab1). The Prophet understood the nature, cultural difference, economic status and psychological state of that Bedouin and did not resort to rebuke him for his rudeness and impudence towards him.

2. Zayd ibn San’an narrates: Once, Allah’s Messenger borrowed some money from me. I was not yet Muslim then. I went to him to collect my debt before its due time, and insulted him, saying; ‘You the children of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, are very reluctant to pay your debts!’ ‘Umar became very angry with this insult of mine and shouted; ‘O enemy of God! Were it not for the treaty between us and the Jewish community, I would cut off your head! Speak to God’s Messenger politely!’ However, Allah’s Messenger smiled at me and, turning to Umar, said; ‘Umar, pay the man his debt! And add to it the amount of twenty gallons because you have frightened him!’ Umar relates the rest of the story: ‘We went together. On the way, Zayd spoke to me unexpectedly; O Umar! You got angry with me. But I have found in him all the features of the Last Prophet recorded in the Torah, the Old Testament. However, there is this verse in it: ‘His mildness surpasses his anger. The severity of impudence to him increases him only in mildness and forbearance.’ In order to test his forbearance, I uttered what I uttered. Now I am convinced that he is the Prophet whose coming the Torah predicted, so, I believe and bear witness that he is the Last Prophet.’ (Suyuti, al-Khasais). The mildness and empathy of Allah’s Messenger sufficed for the conversion of Zayd, who was on another religion and culture.

3. Even in the realm of worship, the Prophet was diligent and understood the different abilities and circumstances of the people. When a complaint was circulated about an imam because he prolonged the prayer, the Prophet climbed the pulpit and said: O you people! You cause aversion in people from prayer. Whoever among you leads a prescribed prayer should not prolong it, for there are among you people who are sick or old or who are in urgent need.’ (al Bukhari). He even reproached his beloved companion, Muadh ibn Jabal when he prolonged the night prayer, saying, ‘Are you a trouble-maker? Are you a trouble-maker? Are you a trouble-maker? (Muslim)

4. The Prophet said, ‘No Arab is superior over a non Arab, and no white is superior over black (Musnad Ahmad), and superiority is by righteousness and God-fearing alone (Sura Hujurat, 49, 13). He also declared that even if an Abyssinian Black Muslim were to rule over Muslims, he should be obeyed. (Muslim). During the time of the Messenger of Allah, the same kind of racism we encounter today, under the name of tribalism, was prevalent in Makkah. He understood the biases and prejudice people had and eradicated it from the outset.

These are few examples out of many where the Prophet showed and articulated diverse and multicultural competencies. The more duat (Islamic activists) understand the broad characteristics, needs, and behaviours of the population they are calling, the better positioned they are to adapt these broad features in the domain of da’wa to effectively become beacons of change in the community. Below is a basic list of competencies adapted from different books, articles and experiences of individuals:

1. Beware of your own personal culture, including your cultural heritage, and how you might come across to people who differ from you culturally and in a host of other ways.

2. Beware of the personal-cultural biases you may have toward individuals and groups other than your own.

3. As an Islamic worker, be aware of both ways in which you are like any given individual you are targeting and ways in which you differ. Both can aid or stand in the way of the da’wa process.

4. Come to understand the values, beliefs, and worldviews of groups and individuals with you want to call or work with. In other words, to feel what other people feel or to understand others ‘’from the inside’’, as indicated above.

5. Come to understand how all kinds of diversity, group, cultural, ethnical or otherwise, contribute to each person’s dynamic make up.

6. Be aware of how socio-political influences such as poverty, oppression, stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice, and marginalisation might have affected people with whom you are working with or with those you are trying to have a dialogue.

7. Establish rapport with and convey empathy to people. Both in the individual and collective capacity.

8. Initiate and explore issues of difference between yourself and the people you are working with or giving da’wa to. Always bearing in mind that Islam does not place any barriers between people (between Muslims). In the end your interactions (and the barriers between us and them) with people are personal.

9. Design non bias strategies and plans for people that factor in the diversity, education and upbringing they received.

10. Finally, asses you own level of competence and strive to improve in all areas outlines above.

In other words, work with people the way they are, both Muslims and non Muslims alike (to guide them and improve them), but do not feel the need to apologise for who you are.

Abdullah Hasan



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