Today, we live in a social mosaic[1] of communities with diverse religious traditions and cultures within the palette of the Environment. In a world with increasing national and global conflict, it is vital that a strong bonding essence is woven in the interstitial spaces of a city’s mosaic — a pattern of diverse communities which includes the Environment — the health of which is critical to avoid a city’s decay. This bonding essence is the ingredient of empathy[2] — and its reinforcing characteristics — which is the thread that can sustain the diversity of a city. This ingredient has never been more needed than today, as we see the rise in systemic racism,[3] in cultural and religious intolerance, and the exponential rise of our carbon footprint because of unsustainable human activity. This rise is inducing climate change, natural habitat loss, and the rise of zoonotic diseases and inevitably threatening humankind’s very existence.[4] Uzma Mirza

Today, most cities reflect a global mosaic which should be an inclusive and heterogenous microcosm in a city — not a homogeneous singularity. Empathy has reinforcing ingredients that can strengthen — and think outside of the box — the bonds amongst diverse communities. Likewise, the notion of moral imagination[5]  —  the culture practices and religion that shape a community in a city — is a form of empathy. It recognizes the complexity and heterogeneity of a community’s spaces, giving value and tapping the capacity of all human beings. In business practice, moral imagination is the ability to be simultaneously ethical and successful by thinking out-of-the-box.[6]   So, can humans look beyond the monetary value of someone in their decision making and see the effect of their decision on personal growth? Likewise, the city must see the value of all its diverse communities.

Furthermore, if cultivated, empathy can stimulate characteristics of generosity, equity, balance of the mean, and inclusivity amongst interstitial spaces amongst different races (and genders) and within a community; dismantle fear of the “other”[7]; dissolve discrimination, racial tensions and bigotry; and contribute to the reduction of our carbon footprint[8] in environmental practice to sustain earth — a city’s home. 

Also, empathy should be integral to city planning and charitable or philanthropic development, by including voices from diverse community traditions on boards or as consultants. This use of empathy can strengthen the interstitial spaces foreseeing potential decay of a community.  If a disease or problem in a city is not addressed — i.e., poverty, systemic racism, inequities — we will see financial stress and a rise in inequity in accessibility of educational and technological skills available to citizens in a city.  Let’s recall how in physics “every action has an opposite and equal reaction” or in theology “do unto others what you would want done unto yourself.” 

Moreover, empathy entails generosity and can enable a city to maintain a balance between extremes of excess and deficiency in exercising human abilities about wealth, in giving and taking. Aristotle has said that a generous person — and by extension the city — can result, because a generous person will give correctly in accord with their means with pleasure and acquire wealth from the right sources.[9]   However, such a condition can derail if markets that erode the health, safety, and morals of a city are supported, markets that are not a public good.

Furthermore, empathy can evoke the awareness of the shared historical interconnectedness amongst diverse traditions, in giving, taking and reciprocating of wealth from market economies to philanthropic action. This use of empathy recognizes a community’s duty of care and inclusivity in the maintenance, justice, and future of their city.  Moreover, the notion of philanthropy being commonality amongst diverse communities — entailing moral action of the mean (balance) - can further enrich a city’s wealth distribution, often called “the social history of the moral imagination.”[10]   In the Muslim tradition, the notion of giving means purification of oneself and one’s wealth entailing constant gratitude to God and empathy for others, since all creation are “gifts” from God.  The three main instruments of giving are Sadaqah (voluntary charity), including a smile, removing a harm in someone’s way, or planting a tree; Zakat (compulsory charity); and Sadaqah Jariah or a Waqf (trust) is a perpetual charity through the development of a sustainable project, sustaining community or raising a virtuous child, where blessings continue after death. Intrinsic to the Muslim tradition, giving is an opportunity rooted in thankfulness and the practice of the receiver’s right that was taken away by a giver’s capacity to give wealth. Hence, an equal transaction ensues and reciprocates in manifold ways — and the social capital of community is reinforced. Similarly — in a way — Marcel Mauss observed reciprocation with tribal communities.[11]    In the Jewish tradition giving is called Tzedakah, which means justice or equity where giving is to the poor fueled by fairness and justice, in order to fix a social imbalance, which is emphasized by the ancient Jewish concept to “repair the world” or tikkun olam.[12] Also, capacity to have empathy for another and be generous is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

Furthermore, all Abrahamic prophets and philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato and others, emphasized the strength of empathy in mercy, compassion, and generosity as quintessential ingredients that unites people. I am reminded of the Covenants or peace treaties made by the Prophet Muhammad (pubh) for peaceful co-existence with Christian[13]  and Jewish communities in the world, over 1,400 years ago.[14]    Moreover, is not the Constitution of America like a covenant between a nation and its people — for the people — under God We Trust?

The Environment is an integral part of the interstitial spaces of a city’s mosaic, financial growth, stability, and a city’s home palette and is deserving of empathy for its ecosystems and wildlife, as stewards not as conquerors. This use of empathy will evoke the wisdom to recognize the duty of care required in order to reduce our giant carbon footprint and use natural resources with balance, preserve natural habitats and share the Environment as wealth and a gift with future generations, see renewable energies as viable sources of power, and discern the dangers and benefits in the proximity to wildlife habitats to prevent the rise in zoonotic diseases, i.e. COVID-19.  However, a city that continues in unsustainable human activity that exploits and destroys its natural habitat and its biodiversity for wealth accumulation  becomes vulnerable to decay and abuse and will embrace any market that will give it financial stability; it is a city whose duty of care is value in profit — not the value of a city’s people, diverse traditions, and its Environment.  If a city does not resound a duty of care, why should others?  In Japanese tradition, Mottainai (“do not waste”) applies to objects, resources, and time, and means gratitude for the blessing of what has been given by God and the responsibility of using resources wisely.[15]   In the Muslim tradition, “And do not waste, for God does not love the wasteful.”[16]  

Likewise, for me as a Muslim woman, two Names of God resound the essence of empathy. They are the Merciful (al Rahman) and the Compassionate (al Rahim),[17] where both words have the same root word ‘to be merciful’ and a common root stem R-H-M, which is the triconsonantal root word indicating mercy. In addition, the origin of the root word for mercy and compassion is the Arabic word for womb (Rahme), implicitly and explicitly expressing that love of the Creator for humankind and all creation is greater than the unconditional love of a mother for her child and a source of protection like a womb protects the child.  Hence, the essence of empathy can foster growth in people and will be the water to the fires we make. Empathy, this essential ingredient that is common to diverse traditions, can strengthen the bonds amongst diverse communities and remind us of our duty of care to the natural world of the environment.

Finally, the survival of the city should not be a Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” but the maintenance of its mosaics’ strength with the essence of empathy amongst its diverse communities and their traditions, which includes the Environment. The ingredients of empathy have always been components of the democratic process and American society. This fact was noticed by the sociologist, historian, and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830’s in his Democracy in America.[18]   Essentially, if the interstitial spaces of a city espouse the essence of empathy in all its interstitial relationships and transactions, it can become a beacon of light and hope[19]  upon a permeable hill that resplendently shines bright for the nation — to be, or not to be, is the question.

This essay is part of a citizen-led book project in Fort Wayne called FORTHCOMING: Considering the Future State of Our City. To learn more and read additional essays, visit the Foreword and Preface.

Mirza Uzma is a registered and licensed Architect, owner of a (MWBE) small Minority-Woman-owned architectural consultancy and carries over two decades of experience in various genres of built-environments, in the profit and nonprofit sectors.  She is LEED AP certified (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) with the USGBC and initiates green building, and a co-founder of the Green Initiatives with ISNA. She is a board member of the nonprofit Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light. She is a founder of the nonprofit, Pen and Inkpot Foundation, which focus is the stewardship of the environment, arts and education.  She speaks and writes on the environment, faith, bridge building, and her spiritual art. She has been selected for Museum solo & group exhibits nationally and locally - as the Museum of Art in Fort Wayne and WomanMade gallery in Chicago.  She is the architect of a Mosque recently completed in Cleveland, with the inclusivity of women, the environment and the disabled, in mind. She is an artist, author and a published artist featured in various publications, and books. She received a five-year bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Carleton University, Ottawa, CA with high distinction, and a Masters in Philanthropy from Indiana University. She is an avid gardener, bird observer and cyclist. She resides and globally practices in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
[1] The New Oxford American Dictionary, ed. Angus, Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg, 3rd edition. (Oxford University Press, 2018), s.v. “Mosaic” – (n) “A combination of diverse elements forming a more or less whole…a variegated pattern; (v) combine (distinct or disparate elements) to form a picture or pattern.”  (A metaphor to exemplify a social construct of communities in a city through observation and notions of multi-culturalism as seen in the fabric of cities).
[2] The New Oxford American Dictionary, ed. Angus, Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg, 3rd edition. (Oxford University Press, 2018), s.v. “Empathy” - (n) the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  ‘Empathy’ as compassion and mercy practiced under all Prophetic traditions of the Abrahamic faiths. In the author’s Muslim tradition, empathy is a common thread in the 99 attributes of God particularly the six Divine attributes: AlRahman (The Compassionate), ArRahim (The Merciful), AlLatif (The Gentle), ash Shakur (The Thankful), AlHalim (The Mild) and AsSabur(The Patient). Complimented by the notions of empathy by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Wikipedia: Empathy is the capacity to place oneself in another's position and feel what they are feeling. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.
[3] Heather, McGhee, interview on her book The Sum of Us, by CBS This Morning (Black History Month), The Economics of Racism, February 15, 2021.
[4] Catherine, Hayhoe, interview by CNN/Fareed Zakaria, “Climate Weirding” (She is the co-director of Texas Tech University Climate Center and has been named a UN champion of the Earth), February 21, 2021.
[5] “Empathy” - a form of moral imagination and the fifth element of “Emotional Intelligence” as defined by Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist who defined five elements critical for a good leader.
[6] Drumwright, Minette E., and Patrick E. Murphy. 2004. “How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics: Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination.” Journal of Advertising 33 (2): 7-24.
[7] Edward W. Said,  Orientalism, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)
[8] According to WHO, a carbon footprint is a measure of the impact your activities have on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced through the burning of fossil fuels and is expressed as a weight of CO2 emissions produced in tonnes. Carbon footprint calculators from WWF, TerraPass (includes calculator for companies and events) or the UN. The carbon footprint is a critical way to understand the impact of a human behavior on global warming.
[9] ARISTOTLE: NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS, Book IV Generosity, Trans. 2nd edition, Terence Irwin (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999)
[10] Robert L Payton and Michael P Moody. Understanding Philanthropy. Its Meaning and Mission. (Indiana University Press, 2008)
[11] Marcel, Mauss, The Gift, (London/New York: Routledge Classics, 2002)
[12] Wangari, Maathai. Replenishing the Earth. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2010)
[13] John A. Morrow, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World for peaceful existence. (USA: Angelico Press/Sophia Perinnis, 2013).
[14] “Covenants of Co-existence.” International Museum of Muslim Cultures. 201 E Pascagoula Street, Jackson, MS 39201 USA. June 28, 2019-April 2021 (On-line: https://muslimmuseum.org/covenants-coexistence).
[15] Wangari, Maathai, Replenishing the Earth (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2010)
[16] Quran, trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 6:141 (Maryland: Amana Publications, 2002)
[17] Ibid.
[18] Robert L Payton and Michael P Moody. Understanding Philanthropy. Its Meaning and Mission. (Indiana University Press, 2008)
[19] The New Testament. Trans. out of original Greek, by His Majesty’s Special Command. (London, UK: Printed by G.E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode, Printer’s to the Queen’s most excellent Majesty, M.DCCC.LII.    1853). Mathew 5:14
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