Moral Teachings of Islam- Responsibility of Words

Host:’ What does the Quran have to say about the use or abuse of speech?

Jamal Badawi:

The ability to speak, human communication, is regarded in the Quran as one of the greatest bounties of God.’ In chapter fifty-five it talks about how He created mankind and taught him the power of expression and speech.’ In itself this is a great bounty of God which makes humans distinct from other levels of creators.’ The main problem however is whether the power of expression is used effectively and whether it is also abused by the individual.’ In the Quran we find that the individual’s responsibility is emphasized.’ Part of the responsibility is the kind of words we utter; if they are useful and meaningful or not.’ In Quran makes a contrast in (14:24) God says ‘Seest Thou not how Allah sets forth a parable? A goodly word like a goodly tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the heavens,-of its Lord.’ So, Allah sets forth parables for men, in order that they may receive admonition.” In (14:26) the opposite is presented ‘And the parable of an evil Word is that of an evil tree: It is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth: it has no stability.” The main problem is not in the power of speech itself but rather if the person properly uses that faculty given by God responsibly or while abusing it.

Host:’ Are there any specific measures prescribed by Islam to prevent an individual from abusing speech?

Jamal Badawi:

We find that is always recommended that one that one should avoid idle talk which is not beneficial.’ It doesn’t say ‘don’t talk’ but that if there is no reason for a person to speak then it is better for that person not to say anything.’ For example the Quran describes the believers in (23:3) ‘Who avoid vain talk’ and in (25:72) ‘If they pass by futility, they pass by it with honorable (avoidance).’ Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasized the same principle in one of his sayings, narrated in both Bukhari and Muslim, he says ‘He who believes in God and in the hereafter should say a good thing or stay quite.” Of course there are no restrictions on speech so long as there is good behind it.’ The Quran shows in various places the kinds of words one should use.’ For example in’ (2:83) ‘speak fair to the people.” Once fairness is added to the quality of speech then it becomes something that is welcome.’ In (33:32) ‘speak ye a speech (that is) just.” In a narration by Ahmad the Prophet says that ‘the faith of a believer is not right till his heart is right; no heart is right until his words are also right.” So the reflection of faith is purity of heart and purity of heart is reflected in the kind of worlds that are uttered by the individual.’ In another saying he says that ‘a goodly word is like a charity.” If someone doesn’t have enough for charity then a good world is regarded as the equivalent to charity.’ Third, one has to be particularly careful about uttering words that could get one into trouble in this life and or in the hereafter.’ An example of this would be if someone uses words to arouse animosity and conflict.’ This is beautifully expressed in the Quran in (17:53) ‘Say to my servants that they should (only) say those things that are best: for Satan doth sow dissensions among them: For Satan is to man an avowed enemy.” Once a person says the wrong thing Satan will keep whispering to both sides which will keep escalating the conflict.’ We find this to be emphasized in the sayings of the Prophet narrated by Albyhaki where he says that the slip of the tongue is worse than the slip of the foot because the slip of the tongue could have consequences in this life and the hereafter.

Host:’ Is this responsibility of Muslims only towards other Muslims or is it more universal?’ Does it apply to speech with none Muslims?

It is more universal than that.’ So long as there is no reason for aggression or hostility shown by people who do not believe in Islam they should be treated the same way.’ We find in the Quran in (29:46) ‘And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means beter (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” The basic rule is that everyone receives the same treatment so long as there is no aggression or hostility.

Host:’ How do we respond to people who adopt a hostile manner?

It is quite possible to reduce the amount of enmity not by responding to evil with evil but by trying to win the heart of the person who committed that wrong.’ The Quran alludes to this in a beautiful verse in (41:34) ‘Nor can goodness and Evil be equal.’ Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!” This happens, where someone who shows aggression and antagonism to you and through your kindness they may realize that that you are not as bad as they may have thought and they may be ashamed of themselves.’ It works as it has happened in may situations that I am familiar with.’ The same thing has been expressed by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when he said that one can not embrace all people with property or money but you can embrace them all with a cheerful face and decent conduct.’ This is one way of winning people’s love an effecting which works better than material things.’ However, if the nature of the discussion is futile it is better to avoid the situation all together.’ In the Quran in (25:63) it describes the true servants of God ‘And the servants of ((Allah)) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace!”‘ Ignorant here means those who are ignorant and those who can not control aggression or emotions.’ The same thing is confirmed in chapter (28:55) ‘And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: ‘To us our deeds, and to you yours; peace be to you: we seek not the ignorant.” So even in a situation like that it is better to get out of it in a graceful way.

Host: Should one infer from that that it is better to accept humiliation or not to have a response when confronted with hostility?

All of the moral virtues in Islam connect with one another without conflict and we might recall that in one of the programs we discussed dignity in addition to humility.’ Dignity is a moral virtue; Islam does not ask people to be humiliated but to have humility and humbleness.’ There are times when one feels that the other person is so ignorant or very angry and if they respond to each of this person’s words or comments they may actually begin to loose their dignity and it may be more graceful not to engage in this type of exchange.’ A person should try to asses every situation and then decide what approach would deal with it in a more graceful way.’ An example of a very real situation faced by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was when a man asked permission to see the Prophet and while he was waiting he said bad things about the Prophet.’ The man said something to the effect of what a bad relative he (the Prophet) is!’ When he entered the prophet met him with cheerful face and talked to him kindly and softly even though he had heard what the man had said.’ After the man left Aishah (the wife of the Prophet) asked him if he had heard what the man said.’ The Prophet said ‘Yes, but when did you know me as an obscene person?” In other-words he said ‘do you expect me to respond with obscenities with obscenities?” In fact, what he did was simply to apply in his own life what he preached.’ We find in some sayings of the Prophet that a believer is not a person who injures others, a person who curses others or a person who is obscene.

There may be some situations where one feels that they have been attacked unfairly and their human inclination is to defend one’s self.’ This is not necessarily bad so long as it is done in a proper way and does not increase the reaction or degree of enmity.’ This also should not be for revenge.

Host: What should one do in a situation one is not hostile but is argumentative for the sake of argument: should a Muslim engage in this type of situation?

The attitude of argument for the sake of argument is called lagho or jadal in the Quran.’ The use of the term jadal in the Quran is used positively and negatively.’ For example in the Quran in (16:125) ‘and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” Jadal or argument in the positive sense where it has a good purpose and where both sides have open minds and hearts and are willing to accept the truth is not forbidden.’ The same term is also used to describe argument for the sake of argument, when people close their minds, no pathway to communication, they don’t think about what is said and they stick with one position without opening their hears and minds to discuss other things.’ In this case it is not recommended for the Muslim.’ The Prophet (PBUH) said as is narrated in Altirmithi that there would be no people who are misguided after they have already been guided except for those who start vain and senseless, futile argumentation.’ In Altabarani he said that he would be in charge of a house in the middle of Paradise for those who leave vein arguments even if they are right.’ One could be right and is tempted to correct errors, but when it is not productive it is much better to leave it and avoid engaging in it.

Host:’ Is there any mention of backbiting in the Quran?

It is mentioned in the Quran because it is part of our responsibility with words and how God holds us responsible on the Day of Judgment not only for what we do but for what we say too!’ The equivalent Arabic term for backbiting is khaibah.’ We find in the Quran in (49:12) ‘And spy not or backbite on each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, ye would abhor it. But fear Allah. For Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.” So to speak ill of ones brother in their absence is like eating their flesh, which is a terrible depiction of this common attitude of backbiting.’ This applies as backbiting even if what one says about the individual is true.’ The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was sitting with his companions as narrated in Muslim and he asked ‘Do you know what is backbiting?” They replied ‘God and his messenger know best.” They wanted him to answer.’ He said ‘backbiting is to mention something about his brother which he hates for you to say.” And they asked him ‘what if the thing that is being said is true?’ His answer was exemplary he said ‘if what you say about him is true then you are backbiting if it is not true then you are not only backbiting but you are even lying.” This would cause a great deal of injustice and lies to be made against the other person.’ These kinds of restrictions and discouragement of backbiting are intended to prevent a number of social elms which include publicizing evil.’ In the Quran in (24:19) ‘Those who love (to see) scandal published broadcast among the Believers, will have a grievous Penalty in this life and in the Hereafter: Allah knows, and ye know not.” This says that God does not like the spreading of evil things about others which may have an exception when the person is oppressed and they have to explain their grievance.

Second, it is also based on the realization of the weakness of the human being.’ As humans we are weak and none of us are free of them.’ If I know of the weakness of another and I start talking about it; I would be putting them in a situation where it would be very difficult to correct them selves and they may keep on insisting on the wrong.’ It is more graceful to realize that I am as weak as others are and to give them a chance to try to correct themselves without publicly embracing them by using courteous advise.’ The resistance of human weakness have certain motives that may include their attitude of revenge, wanting to please their friends or just sheer curiosity and idleness which are all related to social elms which can be reduced by avoiding backbiting.

Host:’ Are there any exceptions to the rule of not speaking about people’s deficiencies?

There are certain exemptions which are not arbitrary.’ A person can not just justify it whenever he likes, one should clearly make sure if the case is really an acceptation for them to say something about someone else’s weakness.

Imam Al Nawawi one of the great Muslim scholars who lived in the 13th century gave an example of these cases: one case is when a person is oppressed and injustice has been done to someone and the only way to try to undo it is to speak up about the unjust person.’ In this case one would have to talk about the weaknesses of the other person but many times one has to tell in order to lift the injustice.’ In the Quran in (4:148) ‘Allah loveth not that evil should be noised abroad in public speech, except where injustice hath been done.” This is not only true at an individual level but on a social and national level.’ For example, when there is a ruler who is dictatorial in his approach and is oppressing people, murdering people, torturing people or expropriating properties people can not say don’t backbite because this is something which has been done to hurt others and is an injustice and must be revealed in order to be corrected.

A second case is when it is necessary to fight evil and indecency in order to expose certain things.’ In order to stop these things one must talk about them and even then it is better to advise first in private.

A third case would be if a person is seeking a verdict in a religious matter.’ One would go to a scholar with a particular matter in order to find out what the rule of Islam with respect to a particular problem.’ One may have to disclose information about what another person has done to them in order to get this verdict.’ It is better to not use names in this case.

Another case would be to get legitimate advise.’ For example a person who is asking for advise before he gives his daughter in marriage or before getting into a business partnership.

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