In the name of God Most Gracious Most Merciful.
The year was 615 CE. Muhammad (pbuh) had been calling people to God for 6 years now. Slowly but surely, he was gaining a small following. His message had been one of salvation, mercy and equality. His call transcended tribal barriers, economic strata and racial divides. Muhammad (pbuh) called for a unity of believers to believe in the unity of God. His early followers were like Jesus’ (pbuh) early followers. The impartiality of his message attracted, in the words of first Corinthians, “many who were not educated, not influential and not of noble birth.” Initially the leaders of Mecca ignored Muhammad (pbuh) and his fledgling group. But as more men and women from the lower rungs of society gathered and prayed alongside men and women from established tribes, the political system of Mecca, the long-established socio-cultural practices and the economic welfare of its leaders were threatened. The leaders of Mecca responded by first harassing, torturing and then murdering the most vulnerable of the early Muslims: the slaves and those with no tribal protection. When these threats became intolerable, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asked a group of believers to do something extraordinary. He asked them to leave Mecca, migrate and seek refuge in Abyssinia, present-day Ethiopia. Abyssinia then was under the rule of a just Christian king who, recognizing the similarities between his own faith and the refugees’ faith, granted the persecuted Muslims protection. The fact that a Christian community was the first to shield Muslims from persecution has meaning for deep reflection in itself. And God honored this act by memorializing the event in the Quran, chapter 16 verse 41: “And as for those who emigrated for the Cause of God, after suffering oppression, We will certainly give them goodly residence in this world, but indeed the reward of the Hereafter will be greater, if they but knew!”
Migration, either on a permanent basis or for a period, is a common theme that runs through the stories of the great Prophets. It is so common that it appears as if God, in His divine wisdom, made it a requirement of the prophetic mission. Abraham (pbuh) left Ur and Babylon traveling to the Promised Land and then to Egypt. It is part of the Muslim faith that Abraham (pbuh) visited and settled Mecca. Moses (pbuh) escaped from Egypt to Midian and later would lead his people across the Red Sea to the Promised Land. Jesus (pbuh) would leave Nazareth and traveled south to Jerusalem visiting many cities in between. And Muhammad (pbuh) would lead the entire Muslim community out of Mecca into Medina in the thirteenth year of his mission. Accounts and stories of travel have captured our collective imagination since time immemorial. Migration is also the story of us, all of us. America is, first and foremost, a nation of immigrants. Other than our Native American communities, we are all here today because somebody in our bloodline immigrated here.
There are many reasons why we travel and migrate. The Prophets migrated to spread their message and to seek security. We migrated for religious or political freedom, security, better education, better job and better future for our kids. And sure the panel will discuss some of these. However, for now, I would like to address one very specific reason for travel and migration; a reason that was perfected by the Prophets themselves. God, The Most Exalted, asks us in the holy Qur’an in the chapter about the Hajj, itself a form of worship requiring travel, verse 46: “Have they not, then, traveled on Earth so that they should have had hearts to understand with, or ears to listen with? The fact is that it is not the eyes that turn blind, but what turns blind is the hearts contained in the chests.” In this verse, God, The All-Knowing, tells us that it is not eyes that become blind but rather hearts. And traveling through the Earth removes that blindness from our hearts and enables us to gain understanding! Traveling through the Earth, interacting with people who are different from us, encountering new experiences enable us to see and understand with our hearts. In other words, travel and migration teach us to empathize. What a beautiful verse!
Empathy is to identify with another party; to experience his or her feelings, thoughts and attitudes. Empathy is seeing the world as someone else would. Empathy is perspective-taking. Empathy is to set aside our own understanding for a minute while striving to understand somebody else from her point of view. Empathy is the essence of the Golden Rule – that celebrated principle that is common across all our faiths: from the Hindu concept of “dharma” or right conduct to the Judeo-Christian concept of “love thy neighbor as yourself”. Empathy is the apogee of all human emotions. Empathy, as the Qur’anic verse suggests, is achieved through social and reciprocal actions. And through Empathy, we are transformed into better persons.
Let me elaborate. We are at a critical juncture in human history where more people are connected through more means than at any time ever before. Yet, there are colossal misunderstandings, deep mistrust and severe apprehension in between people who are different. We suspect one another. We assume the worst of each other. We are quick to judge each other. We have divided ourselves into Us versus Them groups along all kinds of lines: gender, race, religion, ideology, identity, origin, wealth, class, and the list is endless. We pitch staunch stakes in our camps and then argue, fight and sometimes resort to violence against each other. How do we even start a conversation, let alone establish enduring peace, in between such groups? How do we transform ourselves into a society that is united in achieving common good? We can only do so through Empathy.
Imagine the following – wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could:
– empathize with the minority kid growing up in a violence-torn inner-city project?
– empathize with the blue-collar worker in a Midwest state who is struggling because his job went overseas?
– empathize with the immigrant who may have come across the borders illegally to work odd jobs so that he can feed his family?
– empathize with the teenager who is bullied in school because she is different?
– empathize with the young Muslim hijab-wearing girl on a train who suddenly faces slurs and insults from a knife-wielding supremacist?
– empathize with a mother who just lost a beautiful teenage daughter at a concert bombed by a terrorist?
– empathize with the refugee who lost all his family members in a foreign war and barely managed to make it safe into the country?
Can we develop empathy for each other? Can we view the world from each other’s perspectives? Can we let our hearts understand what others are feeling? If we could do so, the world would no doubt be better place for all of us. The walls between Us and Them would start crumbling. Our commonalities would be emphasized and, at the end of the day, we would realize that we are all simply human. Isn’t that the empathy that God intended the Prophets to perfect by taking them from one place to another? Isn’t that the empathy that the Prophets expected us to develop in turn so that we too could transform and transform the world into a better place?
At MAPS, we have built programs to broaden our own perspectives, understand and empathize with others. Our vision is pivoted on four cornerstones, two of which are Inbound Good and Outbound Good. Inbound Good exposes us to all that is good in our broad society. It is an inflow of information from outside into MAPS. It allows us to better understand our co-citizens who are different from us, to interact with them and to empathize with them. Outbound Good exposes others to all that is good in us. Our Outbound Good programs encompass all our social work, which allows others to see Muslims in their true light and thereby empathize with them.
Let me close by recounting to you my own journey. I would not be here today without the empathy of others who are different than me. I was shaped in my early years from KG – 10thgrade by the teachers at a Catholic Missionary School in India. In my college days, I was shaped by many of my near and dear Hindu friends who would sacrifice anything to safeguard me and help me grow. And till today I am indebted to a close Sikh friend who
has always been there for me at times of need. When I was working in the Middle East, I was initially paid less than my counterparts simply because I was of Indian origin. It was a Christian manager who, believing in equality of pay and who could not stand injustice, fought hard to secure a fair compensation for me. Then, it was an individual from the LGBTQ community who assisted me to migrate to the United States. When I look back and reflect, I am thankful to these many men and women, all different from me, who showed great empathy to me. To them I am forever indebted. I am sure that all of you in the audience have similar journeys when somebody stepped up, empathized with you and assisted you forward. Isn’t that what all religion teaches? Isn’t that the way to a peaceful world?