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IslamQA: How to be compassionate, and on acting compassionate without feeling it

Assallamualeykum! Could you please explain how the human compassion works? How does a person gain it and how he loses it? What could be the factors? How to recognize it? Thanx in advance! I trust your point of view which is always interesting and wise.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

Part of human compassion is built-in genetically. We are naturally predisposed to be kind toward those who belong to our family and tribe. There is also compassion that is not built-in but that comes from the soul. For example when we see someone who has wronged us in the past suffer and ask us for help, our human psyche can take pleasure in their suffering (we think they deserve it) and we may dislike to help them. But a person with a good soul can override all of these human instincts and act kindly and compassionately toward them even though the person does not deserve it.

The soul of a very spiritual person tries to embody the attributes that God teaches us to embody, the attributes of mercy, compassion, generosity and selflessness. These attributes come from God and the soul can mirror them. In this way it harmonizes itself with God regardless of worldly desires and impulses. What is called a saint is someone who reaches a stage of near-perfect harmony with God, so that their actions and manners come from a different world, the world of the soul, rather than material world. When others are cruel, he or she can be kind even if they feel the impulse of cruelty. When others are selfish they remain generous. Their actions come from a soul that is in harmony with God, rather than coming from their instincts and desires.

Reply from the questioner:

Regarding the question I asked before (about the compassion) , is a person considered compassionate, if the person tries to act with a mercy towards people even if the person doesn't feel so? I'm asking this because I think that actions should always be sincere and from heart. But then, I don't feel any compassion neither to my family nor to people. But force myself to act so. Does this make a person compassionate?

Being compassionate when you feel like it is good, being compassionate when you don’t feel like it is even better, because it means your soul is transcending your instincts out of a sense of duty toward God and humanity. ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (the “fifth” Rashidun caliph) says:

The best good deeds are the ones that one has to force the ego to perform.

If you are choosing to be compassionate, then that is sincere even if you do not feel compassionate. It is only insincere if you act compassionate in order to appear compassionate to others. If you are compassionate out of a sense of duty then that is perfectly sincere whether you feel it or not.

As for feeling more compassionate, part of it has to do with your brain chemistry. A person who is severely depressed will feel emotionally numb and unable to feel compassionate emotions toward others without any fault of their own. Another part may have to do with having an open heart, which can be achieved through having a close connection with God (such as by performing an extra hour of worship every day as I explain here).

And God knows best.
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