Fasting in Ramadan: An Islamic lesson in empathy

Jazib Mehmood, Jamia Ahmadiyya International Ghana
dates 6638825
pictavio| Pixabay

Every year during the lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from drinking water or eating from dawn to dusk. And although there are many deep philosophies that underscore the importance of this form of worship in Islam, one major significance lies in understanding the pain and suffering of others.

This is basically described as empathy – the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand what they go through. Empathy is important because, without it, we cannot truly comprehend what other people go through in life, and we cannot truly help them without this understanding.

The man who first coined the word “empathy”, Edward B. Titchener, believed that empathy stemmed from a sort of physical imitation of the distress of another, which then evokes the same feelings in oneself. (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 1995, p. 98)

Building on this fundamental point, Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist and author, writes in the preface of his book Emotional Intelligence that, “the root of altruism lies in empathy, the ability to read emotions in others; lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring. And if there are any two moral stances that our times call for, they are precisely these, self-restraint and compassion.”

Hunger around the world

This rings true now more than ever. The world is currently in the throes of a moral struggle to understand how humans could be the cause of a famine in embattled city of Gaza. How we help the situation, and how much we care can be determined by our empathy and our compassion for our fellow humans.

Of course, Gaza is not the only place facing famine. Many places around the world, particularly in Africa, regularly face hunger and starvation. (“The world’s hungriest countries”,

In fact, a few days ago, CNN reported that, according to the UN, nearly 800 million people go hungry around the world every day. At the same time, the report said that nearly 1 billion meals are wasted across the world each day. (“The world wastes more than 1 billion meals every day as hundreds of millions go hungry, UN report finds”,

Ramadan, empathy and altruism

This heart-breaking report tells us that although the world has the power to end the hunger crisis, it has so far been unable to do so. Muslims around the world that fast during the month of Ramadan know something of the suffering of such people who regularly feel the pangs of hunger. Explaining one of the purposes of fasting during Ramadan, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IVrh says:

“The institution of fasting is extremely important because it cultivates the believer in almost every area of his spiritual life. Among other things, he learns through personal experience about what hunger, poverty, loneliness and discomforts mean to the less fortunate sections of society. Abstention from even such practices during the month of Ramadhan as are permissible in everyday life plays a constructive role in refining the human character.” (An Elementary Study of Islam, pp. 45-46)

Learning about the suffering of others drives us to help them (or at least it should). So although Islam emphatically teaches us to help the less fortunate, altruism is especially emphasised during Ramadan.

In this regard, the remarkable example of the Holy Prophetsa is before us; spending in the cause of the poor was a daily practice with him which has been likened unto a breeze, never ceasing to bring comfort and solace to the needy. However, during Ramadhan, the Holy Prophet’ssa altruism seemed to pick up speed and blow like strong winds. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-manaqib, Bab sifati n-nabiyyisa, Hadith 3554)

In this regard, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh writes:

“In Islam, alms-giving and care for the destitute is so highly emphasised that it becomes part of a Muslim’s daily life. However, when it comes to Ramadhan, the month of fasting, Muslims are required to redouble their efforts in this field. […]

“Alms-giving and care for the destitute are so highly emphasised that in no period during the year do Muslims engage in such philanthropic purposes as they do during the month of Ramadhan.” (An Elementary Study of Islam, p. 44)

During Ramadan, it is pertinent to remind ourselves of these teachings, so that we may be in the best position to fulfil our responsibilities to the world and to our Creator. May Allah enable us all to do so. Amin.

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