Quranic Reflection No. 479. Āyat 4:9 – Empathy for Orphans

وَلْيَخْشَ الَّذِينَ لَوْ تَرَكُوا مِنْ خَلْفِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّةً ضِعَافًا خَافُوا عَلَيْهِمْ
Walyakhshal-ladhīna law tarakū min khalfihim dhurriyatan dhi‘āfan khāfū ‘alayhim
Let those fear [the result of mistreating orphans] who, were they to leave behind weak offspring, would be concerned on their account.
(Sūrat al-Nisā, No 4, Āyat 9)

When Allah ‘azza wajall talks about the importance of treating orphans with justice and good will, He brings out an important principle that would motivate people. He asks them to think about how afraid they would be for their own offspring if they were orphaned. Just as they would be greatly concerned about how their children would be treated, they should be concerned how the children of other people are treated. They should respect the rights of the orphans the way they would like their children’s rights to be respected.

The verse above is part of a passage discussing inheritance. The verse before this one emphasizes that the orphans must be granted their inheritance fairly. Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān gives different interpretations for this verse:
During the time of the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam people would surround a dying person and encourage him to give away his wealth. They would tell him it was good to do that while he was still living, his children would not do anything good with the wealth he left behind. This verse disparages that and tells people to encourage a dying person to leave behind wealth for his children, so they are not left needy and helpless. The people are asked to think about how they would feel if their own children were left like that.

Those who are responsible for orphans are told to deal justly with them and provide them their rightful inheritance. They should act as conscientious trustees and be afraid of how their own orphans may be treated in the future. A hadith of Imam al-Kāzim ‘alayhis-salām says: Allah has placed two forms of punishment in the [mishandling of] the rights of orphans. One is in this world. He then recited the above verse and explained – It means that whoever does that should be wary of the fact that his own children will be treated in a similar manner. (Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān)

Respecting the rights of orphans is an important issue in society. Social issues often come back in circles. What a person does today can come back to haunt him – or those connected to him – on another day. This is the sunnah of Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā. Those who wrong others become a means of their own being wronged. Thus, a person who oppresses orphans not only commits that injustice but is also unknowingly paving the way for the oppression of his descendants.

The principle of empathy allows you to put yourself in another’s position. It makes you step into someone’s else’s shoes for a moment and understand how they feel. This verse teaches us that to motivate others to do the right thing we should help them empathize with them. When they think of how they would feel if that behavior were done to them, it would make them naturally inclined to do the right thing. Using natural emotions is a powerful strategy to prompt good behavior. Amirul Mu’minīn Imam Ali (a) says: Whoever takes care of the orphans, his children will be cared for (Ghurar, H 10975)

Let this verse be a reminder, not only to treat orphans fairly but also to treat others in the way we would want people to treat us and our family.  Much of what is meted out to our own is determined by our behavior with others.

Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr.