The Prophet Muhammad (S) as a Therapist

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The three most fundamental and essential qualities of an effective therapist are: empathy, positive regard, and genuineness. Together, these are also known as Therapeutic Triad. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) employed all three qualities when dealing with others. Therefore, in a very subtle and obscure manner, he was conducting therapy. In this post, I will highlight empathy as portrayed by Prophet Muhammad (S).

Empathic Listening

Psychotherapy is often referred to as “Talk Therapy” due to the most obvious reason: it is a form of therapy where the client talks and therapist listens. But why is it important for the client to talk and the therapist to listen?

When a person is involved in talking without being disrupted or judged, few things can take place:

  1. A person, through their own understanding, can achieve a conclusion that will be beneficial for them. However, the therapist must act as a guide to make sure that the client is not going astray.
  2. The client gets things off of his chest. In other words, talking can relieve a person of their pressures and burdens. This new clarity can be helpful in attaining a beneficial conclusion proposed in the last point.

The therapist must play a vital role of being an effective and supportive listener. The term empathic listening means that the therapist must listen while keeping several things on his mind:

  1. He should not be disruptive to the client and try to answer every single question that may come up in the therapist’s mind.
  2. He should not judge the words of the client and respond accordingly.
  3. He should respond supportively with terms: “I understand”, “that sound terrible”, “How did you feel about that?” etc

This process of empathic listening is very effective in the process change through therapeutic support. Once the person feels supported, is not judged, attains clarity, and comes to an understanding, this person becomes ready for the process of change.

Prophet Muhammad (S) as an Empathic Listener

There is a famous story about a time in the life of Prophet Muhammad when he was living in Makkah. One day, as he was walking outside, he saw an old woman who had packed all her belongings and was trying to carry them out. Due to his moral character, he immediately approached the woman and carried her belongings for her and they began to walk. The woman told Prophet Muhammad that she was leaving Makkah because of a person who has caused a lot of problems for the people. This person has told everyone to not worship their idols causing problems in the families etc. Of course, she was referring to Prophet Muhammad. He kept listening to the woman and carried her belongings for her. As they reached their destination, and he was about to leave, she asked him about his name. When he replied with “Muhammad,” she immediately accepted Islam.

For a minute, let us imagine ourselves in the same scenario. If we were helping someone who was badmouthing us, we would immediately become furious and try to defend ourselves. On the contrary, Prophet Muhammad just listened with patience. He did not try to defend himself or respond in any manner. This allowed for the woman to clear her mind and be relieved of the anxiety clouding her heart. Once she was relieved and found out that it was Muhammad who was helping her, that had a greater impact on her than any form of lecture. Therefore, she immediately accepted Islam.

This nature of Prophet Muhammad has also been discussed in other traditions.

حَدَّثَنَا إِسْحَاقُ بْنُ مُوسَى، قَالَ‏:‏ حَدَّثَنَا يُونُسُ بْنُ بُكَيْرٍ، عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ إِسْحَاقَ، عَنْ زِيَادِ بْنِ أَبِي زِيَادٍ، عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ كَعْبٍ الْقُرَظِيِّ، عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ الْعَاصِ، قَالَ‏:‏ كَانَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم، يُقْبِلُ بِوَجْهِهِ وَحَدِيثِهِ عَلَى أَشَرِّ الْقَوْمِ، يَتَأَلَّفُهُمْ بِذَلِكَ فَكَانَ يُقْبِلُ بِوَجْهِهِ وَحَدِيثِهِ عَلَيَّ، حَتَّى ظَنَنْتُ أَنِّي خَيْرُ الْقَوْمِ، فَقُلْتُ‏:‏ يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ، أَنَا خَيْرٌ أَوْ أَبُو بَكْرٍ‏؟‏ فَقَالَ‏:‏ أَبُو بَكْرٍ، فَقُلْتُ‏:‏ يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ، أَنَا خَيْرٌ أَوْ عُمَرُ‏؟‏ فَقَالَ‏:‏ عُمَرُ، فَقُلْتُ‏:‏ يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ، أَنَا خَيْرٌ أَوْ عُثْمَانُ‏؟‏ فَقَالَ‏:‏ عُثْمَانُ، فَلَمَّا سَأَلْتُ رَسُولَ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم، فَصَدَقَنِي فَلَوَدِدْتُ أَنِّي لَمْ أَكُنْ سَأَلْتُهُ‏.‏

Amr ibnul ‘Aas Radiyallahu ‘Anhu reports:
“(Rasulullah Sallallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam gave attention, spoke and showed love to the worst person of a nation. So that, the person may feel he is being given special attention). He used to give attention, and spoke to me also in a manner, that I began to feel that I was the best among the community. (Therefore one day) I asked: ‘O Messenger of Allah, am I better or is Abubakr better?’ He replied: ‘Abubakr’. I then asked: ‘Am I better, or ‘Umar?’ He replied. “Umar’. I asked: ‘Am I better or ‘Uthmaan?’ He replied: ‘Uthmaan’. When I asked him these questions, Rasulullah Sallallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam told me the truth. (He did not tell me I was better to keep me happy. Afterwards I felt ashamed of myself on this deed). I felt I should not have asked such a question”.
Let us all strive to become better empathic listeners to those around us. This will not only strengthen our interpersonal relationships, but will be therapeutic for those who are being listened to, and we will be following the footsteps of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (S).