Jazib Mehmood, Jamia Ahmadiyya International Ghana
Whether you use social media or not, you must have heard that the conflict in Palestine has recently escalated. According to live reports, more than 4,000 people have died since Hamas launched an attack against Israel. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/live-updates-whats-happening-on-day-10-of-the-israel-hamas-war)
Thousands more have been injured. Over a million people have been displaced. Children have become a painful part of these statistics. Plenty of disinformation has only served to fuel the hatred on both sides. Worryingly, there is quite a bit of evidence to show that the language being used to describe Palestinians right now is genocidal. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/16/the-language-being-used-to-describe-palestinians-is-genocidal)
At the same time, four earthquakes have struck Afghanistan in recent weeks, with the first one hitting Afghanistan on the same day Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1,300 people and injuring about 1,700 more in the country’s deadliest natural disaster in decades. (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/15/world/asia/afghanistan-earthquakes-again.html)
The total death toll there is said to be over 2,000, with women and children making up a large part of these numbers. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/earthquake-afghanistan-1.6996712)
As a result of all these disasters, the world’s economy is feeling the pressure. Oil prices have risen since the Israel-Gaza conflict escalated, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that the global economy, which is already pretty fragile, could tip into a recession. (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-10-12/israel-hamas-war-impact-could-tip-global-economy-into-recession)
All this is going on, and if you use one social media platform or even just check the mainstream news, you’ve likely been bombarded with news headlines giving you all the latest, terrifying details. You’ve probably even seen sickening videos of people holding the dead bodies of their children. Thus, you can probably relate to this:
“At times it seems as if the media careen from one trauma to another, in a breathless tour of poverty, disease and death. The troubles blur. Crises become one crisis.” (Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death by Susan D Moeller, p. 1)
If that is the case, then you might have what is termed as “compassion fatigue”. It is the sinking, despairing feeling you get when you see all the horrible things happening around the world, and wonder if you have any care left to give.
The term has been around for a while but was quite common during the height of Covid. As such, when 2022 began, Time describes the feeling in this way: “Call it apathy, call it indifference, call it the Great Whatever.” (https://time.com/6160337/hard-to-care-about-anything/)
Statistics show that people now actively avoid the news more than ever, and the numbers are only rising. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/media/2023/08/01/news-avoid-depressing/) As a Muslim, I decided to find out what Islam says about compassion, and if it offers any guidance on caring for humanity when it seems that we have run out of empathy.
Islamic principles of compassion
Islam asks a lot from its adherents. Muslims must have a very large scope of compassion and ideally must try their best to alleviate the suffering of all those around them.
Many may have already heard the beautiful yet cautionary tale narrated by the Holy Prophetsa of the believer who stands before his Lord and is asked why he did not feed or clothe Allah nor visit Him when He was sick. On asking how that was possible, Allah informed his believer that so-and-so person was hungry, bare, and sick; visiting such a person was akin to visiting Allah or attaining His pleasure. (Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Birr Wa As-Silah Wa Al-Adaab, Hadith 2569)
Similarly, the Holy Prophetsa was once seated with his companions when he asked them if any one of them had visited the sick that day, served food to the needy and attended a funeral procession. Hazrat Abu Bakrra replied that he had done so. The Holy Prophetsa stated that anyone who does such good humanitarian deeds consistently would surely enter paradise. (Sahih Muslim, Kitab Fazail As-Sahabah, Hadith 1028)
Thus, Islam puts forth incredibly high standards of doing good and showing kindness and compassion to those around us. In one place, to describe how Muslims ought to advance in spiritual and material gains, the Holy Quran asks that they free slaves, feed the hungry, take care of the orphan and the poor man lying in the dust. Allah states that Muslims should also exhort others to show such mercy and compassion to all. (Surah Al-Balad, Ch.90: V. 12-19)
As a guiding principle, Allah the Almighty states in no ambiguous terms:
وَاعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَلَا تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا وَبِذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَالْجَارِ ذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْجَارِ الْجُنُبِ وَالصَّاحِبِ بِالْجَنْبِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ مَنْ كَانَ مُخْتَالًا فَخُورًا
“And worship Allah and associate naught with Him, and [show] kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by [your] side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud [and] the boastful.” (Surah an-Nisa’, Ch.4: V.37)
As such, the early Muslims showed incredibly high standards of compassion and kindness to the people around them. Describing the high status of true believers, the Holy Quran states that they are those who give others preference over themselves even though they themselves might be in need. (Surah Al-Hashr, Ch.59: V.10)
The outstanding example of the Holy Prophetsa
The personal model of the Holy Prophetsa is exemplary in this regard, as in all other regards. His compassion was not limited to any one group of people. Rather, he cared for the suffering of all people. Thus, the Holy Quran elucidates the condition of the Holy Prophetsa in these words:
لَقَدْ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مِنْ أَنْفُسِكُمْ عَزِيزٌ عَلَيْهِ مَا عَنِتُّمْ حَرِيصٌ عَلَيْكُمْ
“Grievous to him is that you should fall into trouble; [he is] ardently desirous of your [welfare].” (Surah At-Taubah, Ch.9: V.128)
His grief for the world was such that Allah the Almighty asked him not to grieve so intensely for the plight of humanity in multiple instances in the Holy Quran. (For example, see Ch.16: V.128, Ch.27: V.71, Ch.35: V.9, Ch.36: V.77) He once stated:
إِنَّمَا يَرْحَمُ اللَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الرُّحَمَاءَ
“God shows compassion only to those of His servants who are compassionate.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Janaiz, Hadith 923)
In another instance, he is reported to have stated:
“Whoever has been given his portion of compassion has been given his portion of good. Whoever is denied given his portion of compassion has been denied his portion of good. Good character will be the weightiest thing in the believer’s balance on the Day of Judgement.” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Kitab Ar-Rifq, Hadith 464)
His Holiness, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa put it beautifully:
“From every organ, every pore and every fibre of the Holy Prophet’ssa being gushed forth a spring of eternal mercy and compassion for humanity.” (https://www.reviewofreligions.org/12773/mosques-building-blocks-for-peace/)
Hence, it must be understood that the Holy Prophetsa never despaired when he witnessed injustice or the suffering of the oppressed. Rather, he would always seek to correct injustices. If he could not do so, he would always pray to Allah the Almighty – his natural recourse was prayer.
We see this when he approached the people of Taif, who lived near Mecca. They rejected his message and had people stone him till he was injured and bled. At that time, even when Mecca had already rejected his message; when he sat exhausted and injured, he never despaired. Rather, he prayed to Allah the Almighty:
“O My Lord, I complain to you of my helplessness, and my inability, and my helplessness before the people. O My God, You are the most merciful, for You are the guardian and protector of the feeble and helpless – You are my Lord. I seek refuge in the light of Your countenance. It is You who dispels all darkness and it is You who bestows the inheritance of favour in this world and in the next.” (The Life & Character of the Seal of Prophets, Vol.1, p. 253)
This heartfelt prayer, offered with great emotion can be offered today too by all those who feel helpless in the face of an ever-worsening world.
Our responsibility today
Thus, in our world today, what can we do to alleviate the suffering of humanity if we have no means to do so? In following the perfect model of the Holy Prophetsa, we must adhere to the recent words of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa, when he stated:
“In any case, all we have is the weapon of prayer, which every Ahmadi should use now, more than ever before.” (https://www.reviewofreligions.org/43947/a-call-for-justice-by-the-ahmadiyya-muslim-khalifa-in-the-wake-of-innocent-lives-lost-in-palestine-and-israel/)
As a result, one’s heart is always comforted by Allah. (Surah Ar-Rad Ch.13:V.29) The Promised Messiahas also assures us:
“A person who prays to God at a time of difficulty and suffering, and seeks Him to solve his problems, on the condition that he prays to perfection, always finds comfort and true peace from God Almighty. And if it so happens that his purpose is not achieved, he is still granted comfort and forbearance. And by no means whatsoever is he left disappointed.” (Ayyamus-Suluh, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 14, p. 237)
Of course, if you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of bad news you’re listening to, it might be worth considering taking a break, enjoying a hobby or seeking support and therapy in some more extreme cases. It is also worth considering that we naturally give priority to negative news on an evolutionary basis, as it serves as a warning system about imminent threats, according to a 2019 study of “negativity” bias.
Perhaps that is why some people suggest that in caregiving jobs, having too much compassion might not be such a good idea. For example, it is argued that in the aftermath of the nuclear detonation at Hiroshima, rescue workers were able to function only because they succeeded in “turning off” their feelings of compassion, calling the process “psychic numbing.” (Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima by Robert Jay Lifton, p. 32)
In any case, the Promised Messiahas, making our responsibilities clear in principle, writes:
“The principle to which we adhere is that we have kindness at heart for the whole of mankind. If anyone sees the house of a Hindu neighbour on fire and does not come forward to help extinguish the fire, most truly I declare that he does not belong to me. If any one of my followers, having seen someone attempting to murder a Christian does not endeavour to save him, I most truly declare that he does not belong to us.” (Siraj-e-Muneer, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 12, p. 28)
In conclusion, compassion is something which Islam asks us to practice passionately and consistently. Perhaps whenever we feel drained, we may remind ourselves of the poetic words of the Promised Messiahas where he states:
مرا مقصود و مطلوب و تمنا خدمتِ خلق است
ہمیں کارم ہمیں بارم ہمیں رسمم ہمیں راہم
“My purpose, yearning and heartfelt desire is to serve humanity; this is my job, this is my faith, this is my habit and this is my way of life.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya Part II [English] p. 88)