[Asma Ahmad is a Muslim American Social Worker who has been pursuing graduate studies in clinical Social Work and working with a state-certified batterer intervention program where she has had the opportunity to provide treatment and psycho-education to domestic violence offenders. Asma is also the Project Manager for Project Sakinah’s Northern Virginia chapter.]
Tears rolled down his face and drenched his beard as he cried. He cried in public and in private, setting an example for the men and women of his Ummah that the emotional manifestation of our internal states is a true sign of a connected soul. He cried from the fear of Allah, out of compassion for his followers, and in empathetic exchanges between his blessed companions. In studying the life of our Messenger (salallahu ‘alayhi wasallam), we see countless examples of times when he cried without hesitation, and yet today, the perception of crying in our communities and societies has turned into one of weakness and inferiority.
For men and boys in particular, our collective culture views crying as something incompatible with the idea of masculinity. The effects of this mindset are not only contrary to the practice of our Messenger (salallahu ‘alayhi wasallam), but they can have drastically negative impacts when it comes to the issue of family relationships, empathy, and anger. For Muslim parents, there is a need now more than ever to think critically about the values and perceptions children are developing in regards to what masculinity entails and what it means.
“Crying is for girls,” and “Real men don’t cry” are not uncommon messages we hear through today’s media outlets. Our children hear these messages in schools and from friends, but these skewed perceptions can be corrected if we take it upon ourselves to show them a different example, a real and humanistic example of our Messenger (salallahu ‘alayhi wasallam). Among the negative ramifications of these ideas is that children do not develop proper emotion regulation skills and instead find other, often destructive means of expressing any pain or hurt they experience. They may feel that bottling their emotions and presenting an invincible image of themselves is a way to truly feel that they are worthy, valuable, and powerful. Over time, this can cripple any ability to relate to others compassionately, because all they have seen and heard has convinced them that hiding emotions is a sign of being masculine. Here, we must ask ourselves and our children to ponder deeply on the example of the man who was the strongest on the battlefield, the strongest in his iman, and highest in ranks before Allah, yet demonstrated compassion through his tears, his actions, and his words. We need to remind ourselves of the examples of our Messenger’s empathy towards people and his openness in expressing what he felt.
Building the muscles for compassion and emotional sensitivity should be at the forefront of any goals a parent has for teaching interpersonal skills to their children. When asked about the definition of compassion, most people say something along the lines of caring for another person and feeling what they are feeling. Teaching this concept to children can start at a very basic level where parents can help to instill in them a value of open communication and understanding their own emotions as they experience them, whether it’s joy, sadness, anger, irritation, etc. For younger children, this is a critical time when parents must decide between encouraging appropriate expression or limiting it depending on their response to the child’s emotions. The next level of developing compassion could include helping children to think about how and why the other person felt the way they did in the same situation, otherwise known as perspective-taking. In heated moments, children and adults alike can be blinded to the idea of what another person is feeling. Developing this skill is always going to be a work in progress, but at the earliest stage possible, children should be encouraged to consider what others are going through before following through with any reaction. One of reasons our Messenger (salallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) was incredibly effective in problem-solving and conflict resolution is because he had an incredible capacity to think about others’ with respect to their situations and circumstances. Teaching children the next stage of problem-solving in difficult situations can be made easy by constantly reminding them to empathize with others before speaking and acting.
With the unfortunately increasing rates of bullying, violence, and abuse of all kinds in our society, there is no better option for parents seeking to raise compassionate children, than to return to the example of our Messenger (salallahu ‘alayhi wasallam). He was the strongest in his faith and his actions for this deen, but this strength was coupled with humility. We cannot study the seerah without reading and learning about the Prophet’s crying, yet this sunnah is in constant need of revival, and it is upon the parents to be the primary educators and trainers in this regard.