Core Principles of Islamic Leadership: Empathy and Compassion Towards All

Posted on June 5, 2011


Rafik Beekun, Louay Safi and Iqbal Unus,

Now has come to you a Messenger from among yourselves: it grieves him that you should experience hardship: ardently anxious is he over you: to the Believers is he most kind and merciful. (Tawbah 9:128)

We sent you merely  as a Mercy for all humanity. (Anbiya 21:107)

When we look at some of the key verses in the Qur’an describing our beloved Prophet (s), we notice that Allah describes him as empathetic (Surah Tawbah, 9:128) and compassionate (Anbiya, 21:107).  These two attributes are often missing in the hard and at times heartless world of the workplace.   Three examples come to mind.  First, In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gecko states that “greed is good”, and then proceeds to split up companies to fill up his own pockets on the back of thousands of low wage workers.  Second, Jack Welch, CEO of GE, used to rank his employees in “A”, “B” and “C” categories.  He would reward A employees abundantly, be less generous towards his B employees and fire or encourage the C employees to leave.  This was done on a yearly basis and so every year, 10% of his employees could expect to get the boot no matter what was happening to the industrial sector they were in, economic downturns or personal crises.   Third, Ford Motor Company introduced the Pinto when it knew that the gas tank could burst into flames in slow speed rear end accidents, but decided to introduce the car without buffering the gas tank with a cheap $5 piece of plastic.  Ford figured that they could still make a huge profit by not safeguarding the tank because  even if  some consumers died, they could withstand the cost of settling lawsuits at their estimated value of $200,000 per human life lost.

In contrast to Gordon Gecko, Jack Welch, and Ford  Prophet Muhammad (s) was ordered by Allah to be empathetic and compassionate to his followers after the debacle at Uhud though it was their disobedience of his orders that led to the near rout of the Muslim Army (Surah 3: 159):

By an act of mercy from God, you [Prophet] were gentle in your dealings with them–had you been harsh, or hard-hearted, they would have dispersed and left you–so pardon them and ask forgiveness for them. Consult with them about matters; then, when you have decided on a course of action, put your trust in God: God loves those who put their trust in Him.

In Islam, compassionate leaders enact three attributes:

  1. Are willing to overlook mistakes and failures, and view them as learning opportunities,
  2. Don’t beat their followers over their head with their mishaps, but rather ask for Allah to forgive them,
  3. Do not exclude them from shura, but rather will consult them again in the future while putting their trust in Allah (tawakkul), and
  4. Persevere with sabr (patience) in the path of Allah without any decrement in their own iman and level of taqwa (Surah 32:24)
And We made of them leaders giving guidance under Our command when they patiently persevered, and had conviction in Our signs.

Examples of Compassionate Behavior from the Seerah of the Prophet (s):

Example #1: The man who sinned while fasting.  Source: Zabrina Abu Bakar

An incident occurred during the Prophet’s time that  provides Muslims with guidance regarding empathetic and compassionate leadership. A man came to the Prophet (s)  in distress and crying.  As one of the Prophet’s companions, Abu Hurairah narrates what happened, “While we were sitting with the Prophet a man came and said, ‘O God’s Apostle! I have been ruined.’  ”

The Prophet asked what was the matter with him. He replied “I had sexual intercourse with my wife while I was fasting.”

The Prophet asked him, “Can you afford to manumit a slave?”

He replied in the negative. The Prophet asked him, “Can you fast for two successive months?” He replied in the negative.

The Prophet asked him, “Can you afford to feed sixty poor persons?” He replied in the negative.

The Prophet kept silent and while we were in that state, a big basket full of dates was brought to the Prophet.

He asked, “Where is the questioner?” He replied, “I am here.” The Prophet said to him, “Take this basket of dates and give it in charity.”

The man said, “Should I give it to a person poorer than I? By God; there is no family between its two mountains (i.e. Madinah) who are poorer than I.”

The Prophet smiled till his pre-molar teeth became visible and then said, “Feed your family with it.” (Bukhari)

In the above anecdote, we learn how to exhibit empathy and compassion:

  • The  Prophet (s) did not lambast or humiliate the man during his admission of guilt.
  • He understood that this man was deeply faithful, genuinely felt devastated for having sinned, and was repentant.
  • He gently suggested various ways by which the man could make amends.
  • He offered the man a way out of his dilemma, but proceeded incrementally in doing so trying to gauge the extent of the person’s ability to make reparations for what he had done.
  • His manner of dealing with this man was likely to encourage others not to hold back should they have sinned or made any kind of mistake.

Example #2: Don’t talk to me about Muhammad (Nasheed by Dawud Wharmsby)

This beautiful nasheed recounts the true story from the Seerah about an old woman who is upset about Muhammad (s) and his message. It demonstrates Muhammad’s (s) silent empathy and compassion in action:

Let us examine the anecdote described in the above youtube video:

  • Although The Prophet (s) offered to help this woman, she pours insult and mockery on him and his message while they are walking.
  • Muhammad (s) neither reacts negatively nor  says anything, but  continues to help her with her load.
  • He does not drop  her stuff  in the middle of the road and walk away.
  • He has made a commitment to help her, and he will continue to do so through thick and and thin.
  • The fact that she became a Muslim is wonderful by the Grace of Allah, but it is the character of the Prophet (s), the ouswatun hasana, that shines through this incident.

Example #3: The old lady who used to throw trash on the Prophet (s).  Source: Islam Awareness

One old woman made a habit of throwing rubbish on Prophet Muhammad (s) whenever he passed from her house! Muhammad (s) had to pass that house daily on the way to the mosque. Even when the old woman threw rubbish on him, he would pass silently without showing any anger or annoyance. This was a regular, daily event.

One day when the Prophet was passing by, the woman was not there to throw the rubbish. He stopped, and asked the neighbor about her well-being, and wondering why she wasn’t dropping any rubbish on him.

The neighbor informed the Prophet that the woman was sick on bed. The Prophet politely asked permission to visit the woman. When allowed he entered the house, the woman thought that he had come there to take his revenge when she was unable to defend herself because of sickness.

But the Prophet (s) assured her that he had come to her, not to take any revenge, but to see her and to look after her needs, as it was the command of Allah that if any one is sick, a Muslim should visit him and should help him if his help is needed.

The old woman was greatly moved by this kindness and love of the Prophet. By the example of greatness of Muhammad, she understood that he was truly the Prophet of God and Islam was the true religion. She accepted Islam at once, Alhamdulilah.

Questions for each of us to reflect upon: How many of us deal compassionately with Islamophobes who keep pouring insult on us at work or elsewhere? How many of us would deal with empathy with a co-worker who insults us and demeans our religion or our Prophet (s)?