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How Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) highlighted the value of empathy in activism

It is our responsibility, as Muslims, to listen to those who have suffered racism or oppression. The Muslim community has recently become more aware of the injustices that exist within our society through social media, but we need to be cautious of falling into “trend activism” and doing things just because it’s trendy. Activism is not just a phenomenon on social media and should not be of a performative nature. People feel the need to post about the black lives matter movement and other global struggles, but the fact is that true activism goes beyond the social media.

Activism calls for empathy. Activism isn’t just about sharing something on social media. Activism is an anonymous donation. Activism is reading books and watching documentaries in order to educate yourself, rather than expecting marginalised people to take on the educational work. Most specifically, activism requires strong empathy, and the ability to position yourself in place of the other person, imagining and experiencing their emotions.

A tale of empathy of the Prophet in practice is when one morning he was sitting in with his companions and they were confronted by members of a wretched tribe. They didn’t have shoes and due to starvation, their skin was stuck to their bones. After seeing their condition, the Prophet was moved, and his face colour changed. He had Bilal ibn Rabah – one of his most trusted companions, give the call to prayer and gathered his companions. They took up a donation for the tribe after praying, and generously supported them.

Another account is when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) handed the hypocrite Abdullah Ibn Ubayy Ibn Salul’s son his cloth as a shroud. While his father insulted the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and tried very hard to prevent Islam from developing, at an emotional time Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) understood the son’s pain and offered his own garment to cover the father up for the burial.

A key part of becoming a Muslim is being anti-racist and speaking out against injustices.

As one story goes about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his empathy, once Abu Jahl’s son came to visit The Prophet. For background, Abu Jahl was the man who declared war on The Prophet, Muslims, and Islam. 

His son, ‘Ikrimah, who had fought by his father’s side, actually continued the work of his father after his death. And now, he was going to visit the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) at Makkah. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) received the news that ‘Ikrimah entered Makkah and was on his way to see him, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) turned to his companions, and told the father’s name was ‘Amir bin Hisham,’ and they used to call him Abul-Hakam (Father of the Wise) because he was a chief of his people, but the Muslims used to call him Abu Jahl (Father of Ignorance) because of his acts and behaviour.

The Prophet Muhammad turned to the Muslims and said, “Ikrimah is coming, and I am hopeful he will embrace and accept Islam, so in his presence, none of you should refer to his father as Abu Jahl because it would hurt his feelings. Even if he becomes a Muslim and understands that his father was incorrect in his views and ideas, he is still his father and it will hurt his feelings to hear his new brothers and sisters in faith, to refer to his father as the father of ignorance. So, in the presence of ‘Ikrimah, do not refer to his father as Abu Jahl.”

So was the humble and empathic Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He could imagine how ‘Ikrimah would feel when he heard his father being spoken of in a negative way. 

A key part of becoming a Muslim is being anti-racist and speaking out against injustices. We have to understand what empathy is to ensure we continue to help the oppressed.

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