Psychopaths, Altruists & Muslims
We talk a lot about psychopaths - but rarely discuss their polar opposites, super altruists. These are people who go to extreme lengths to help others - even though their acts of kindness might cost them time, money or expose them to physical danger. These folk are also happier than the rest of us.
A super altruist once saved the life of psychology professor Abigail Marsh - so she devoted her career to understanding what drives these amazing and happy people and how we call all learn to be more like them.
Abigail Marsh, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University and one of the country's leading researchers into altruism was the beneficiary of extraordinary altruism when she was 20. She got into a freak highway accident and ended up stalled in the fast lane facing oncoming traffic. A man dodged traffic to come to her aid and help get her car started. He saved her life, she says, then disappeared before she could ask his name.
Marsh wanted to study the characteristics of these sorts of people, so she sought so-called “altruistic kidney donors” who offer up a kidney to anyone who needs it (as opposed to those who donate a kidney to a friend or loved one), figuring they would fit the bill.
Altruistic kidney donors fit into a debate that has long been raging among psychologists and others who study human nature: Does true altruism — good deeds for the sake of good deeds — really exist? And if so, how did it evolve? “
In theory, you’d have a species where nobody wants to help anybody else,” said Marsh. “And the fact that humans do is, I think, really amazing and not well understood … So these kidney donors, they’ve done something I call extraordinary altruism, because it’s extremely unusual — it’s something most people would not do. It’s a pretty major decision to undertake, especially for a stranger.”
On this and a variety of other measures, Marsh indeed found that the brains of donors had opposite reactions to those of psychopaths. And the donors’ brains even looked structurally different from psychopaths’: While psychopaths have a physically smaller amygdala — the brain structure associated with emotion — than the average person, the donors had oversize ones.
Most people think I’m crazy when I tell them I spend my “me time” watching shows about psychopaths desperately trying to understand how their brain works. My interest in studying psychopathy is in part due to my interest in studying the origins of care and compassion. Psychopathy makes a nice clinical case of what a brain that is lacking care and compassion looks like. This approach (studying people who lack some phenomena to understand that phenomena) is common—like studying people with amnesia to understand memory, or studying people with face-blindness to understand face recognition.
What fascinates me the most about this concept is that psychologists & neuroscientists who have worked on this research and other similar ones, mention the same thing over & over again, “whether humans are “wired” to be altruistic.” The concept is so weird to them, almost unbelievable. How is it possible that a person is willing to give without demanding anything in return, not even a simple “thank you”
Psychopathy is defined as a mental disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior, shows a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, expresses extreme egocentricity, and demonstrates a failure to learn from experience and other behaviors associated with the condition while Altruism on the opposite side of the spectrum is acting to help someone else at some cost to oneself. It can include a vast range of behaviors, from sacrificing one’s life to save others, to giving money to charity or volunteering as a kidney donor, to simply waiting a few seconds to hold the door open for a stranger.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I picked this topic. No…..Muslims are not psychopaths. Practically every nation on earth has stories of great kings, brave warriors and noble men and women who sacrificed their material possessions, status or even themselves for some or other common good. Yet, it is without any reservation or hesitation whatsoever that we can point to Islam for the most perfect, sincere and comprehensive expression of altruism
The Prophet Muhammad, S.A.W, said in a narration, known to perhaps every devout Muslim:
“None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)
Another narration also states;
“Whoever relieves a believer’s distress of the distressful aspects of this world, Allah will rescue him from a difficulty of the difficulties of the Hereafter. Whoever alleviates [the situation of] one in dire straits who cannot repay his debt, Allah will alleviate his lot in both this world and in the Hereafter. Whoever conceals [the faults of] a Muslim, Allah will conceal [his faults] in this life and the Hereafter. (Muslim)
During the battle of Yarmuk between the Muslims & the Roman Empire, three great Muslim fighters — Harith bin Hisham, Ayyash bin Abi Rabiah, (cousin of Khalid bin Waleed) and Ikrima bin Abu Jahl were wounded. Harith cried for water. When it was brought to him, he saw Ikrima looking at it. He asked the person to give water first to Ikrima, but when it was brought to Ikrima, he saw Ayyash looking at it. He said, “Give it first to Ayyash.” But when the water was brought to Ayyash, he died before drinking it. Then the person turned toward Ikrima and Harith to give them water, but both had passed away.
I’m sure this would have driven the psychologists & neuroscientists nuts trying to understand how or why a person would do that despite being on the brink of death.
Truly these three paragons of self-sacrifice as observed in the above example made manifest the words of their Prophet when he said:
“The best charity is that given when one is in need and struggling.” (Ibn Katheer)
“…And they give others preference over themselves even though they were themselves in need….” (Quran 59:9)
Another example is seen in the following Hadith.
Abu Huraira reported: A man from the Ansar was hosting a guest and he had nothing with him but just enough food for himself and his children. The man said to his wife, “Put the children to sleep, put out the lamp, and serve our guest with what we have.” Then, Allah revealed the verse, “They prefer others over their own selves, despite themselves being in need.” (59:9)
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3587, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2054
The altruism of the Medinan Muslims was so great in its scope and impact that the Meccan recipients of their brothers’ selflessness were worried there would be no grace left for them! Subhanallah! 🤯
The Companion, Anas b. Malik, said:
“When the Prophet came to Madina, the Muhajiroon came to him and said: ‘O Messenger of God, we have never seen any people more generous when they have the means and more helpful when they have little, than the people among whom we have settled. They have looked after us and they have let us join them and share in all their happy occasions, to such an extent that we are afraid that they will take all the reward (from God in the Hereafter).’ The Prophet said: ‘Not so long as you pray for them and praise them.’” (Al-Tirmidhi)
Another interesting finding based on her research is that these ultra-altruists don’t see themselves as anything special. The researchers asked the donors to rate themselves on how empathetic they believed they were, and most gave themselves low scores.
In fact, one of our participants who was most sensitive to the fearful expressions gave himself a very low self-reported empathy score, Marsh said.
The world’s nicest people, in other words, don’t even grasp how nice they really are. Which, if you think about it, makes them even nicer.
This concept is also deeply rooted in the teachings of Islam, humility. The Prophet would give and not fear poverty and would give without pride, rather he would give as if he was one of them. He would have more joy in giving to others than receiving something from them.
Forgiveness, humility, compassion and tenderness were established deeply in the soul of the Prophet (peace be upon him), which instilled the love of him (peace be upon him) in the hearts of all those around him. It has been reported that he (peace be upon him) never refused the invitation from anyone no matter how poor or lowly the person may have been, and he never refused any gift that was given to him no matter how small it was.
What a time to be Muslim! Subhanallah!
As a lens into the social brain, the extremes of the Selfish–Selfless Spectrum defined by callous, unemotional psychopaths and dynamic, zealous altruists reveal the importance of both genetic and for us, strong belief in Our Creator in strongly influencing actions toward others and cooperative behavior. We can carve out an idyllic and utopian society, if we all start practising altruism devotedly.
Do you have altruistic or psychopathic traits? Would you like the Medinan Muslims, sacrifice yourself to save others and/or go out of your way to perform acts of kindness solely for His sake or would you rather unapologetically manipulate, hurt, disregard and/or violate the rights of others while earning His displeasure? Would you rather express concern, care, love and kindness to people around you or would you rather be labelled toxic and emotionally manipulative?
O Allah Al-Lateef, we know You are the most subtle and Most Kind. Aid us to always be thankful for Your kindness and patient in hardships, make us of those who are kind and gentle to others, inspire us to contemplate your beautiful names and attributes by reflecting on the universe and all that’s in it instead of merely using it to satisfy our needs. Ameen!