21 January 2000
You who have iman! no people should ridicule others who may be better than themselves; nor should any women ridicule other women who may be better than themselves. And do not find fault with one another or insult each other with derogatory nicknames. How evil it is to have a name for evil conduct after coming to iman! Those people who do not turn from it are wrongdoers. You who have iman! avoid most suspicion. Indeed some suspicion is a crime. And do not spy and do not backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat his brother's dead flesh? No, you would hate it. And have taqwa of Allah. Allah is Ever-Returning, Most Merciful. (49:11-12)
These ayats from Surat al-Hujurat are about certain specific ways in which people harm one another with their tongues and when you examine it you find that the whole sura is in fact devoted to that theme just how harmful the injudicious use our tongues can be to ourselves and others in so many different situations. In a well known hadith reported by at-Tirmidhi, Mu'adh, radiya'Llahu 'anhu, asked the Messenger of Allah, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, what would take him to the Garden and remove him from the Fire. After listing the five pillars and outlining other actions he should do, the Prophet asked Mu'adh, "Shall I tell you what is the foundation of all of that." Mu'adh replied, "Yes indeed, Messenger of Allah!" The Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, took hold of his tongue then said, "Restrain this." Mu'adh asked, "Messenger of Allah will we be taken to task for what we say?" and the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, replied, "May your mother be bereaved! Are people thrown into the Fire for anything other than the harvest of their tongues?"
Language lies at the very heart of existence. We know that it is Allah's spoken command, "Be!" which brings things into existence out of non-existence. We know that the underlying genetic structure of living beings can only be satisfactorily described in linguistic terms. We know that the gift of speech and language was what distinguished our primal ancestor, Sayyidina Adam, 'alayhi as-salam, from every other creature on our planet. Yet we take our capacity for language, our ability to articulate words and give meaning to existence, for granted and forget what a powerful instrument for good or evil it is. The importance of what comes out of our mouths is made abundantly clear for us in many ayats of the Book of Allah and in many hadiths of the Messenger of Allah, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam. The point is that the words we speak matter; what we say has an effect, both on ourselves and those who hear it. Speech is a kind of action. It is often the first physical manifestation of what is in our hearts and it is something for which we are held to account.
There is no doubt that we tend to forget this and treat what we say far too lightly. Part of the reason for this is the general linguistic climate in which we now live. Language has become debased and coarsened and this process is happening at an ever accelerating pace. I have heard conversations between four-year-olds which would have shocked a seasoned trooper a few decades ago. This kind of language pervades the media and inevitably seeps into all our lives in a way that makes it very difficult to avoid its influence. Words are cheap and daily becoming cheaper. But we, as Muslims, cannot permit ourselves to be part of this process; we must protect ourselves from it; we cannot allow our hearts to become polluted by it. If there is one thing we cannot afford, it is to put our hearts at risk. As we know from the Qur'an and hadith all good is dependent on having sound hearts and nothing but evil emerges from hearts which have become corrupted. So our success in both the worlds may depend on our ability to swim against the linguistic current which threatens to overwhelm us.
Another very pernicious effect of the linguistic cesspool which surrounds us is that it deadens our sensibility to certain bad characteristics which are endemic in society at large, the worst of which is the tendency to speak badly of other people. Jabir ibn 'Abdullah al-Ansari, radiya'Llahu 'anhu, said, "The stench of slander used to be easy to distinguish in the time of the Messenger of Allah, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam. That was because it was rare. In these times slander is frequent and people's noses are full of its stink so it is much more difficult to detect. It is like a man who enters a tannery and is unable to stay there because of the intensity and foulness of the stench whereas for the people who work there the foul smell is scarcely noticeable because they are so used to it. That is how slander is with us. May Allah protect us and you from it." That was in the time of the Companions so imagine what the smell is like now!
As the people of Allah have reminded us continually down through the ages there is nothing so destructive to any Muslim community as backbiting and slander. And the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, made it clear to us that it is wrong to speak badly of others even if what we say is true. He said, "If he is as you say, you have been backbiting him. If he is not as you say, you have slandered him." As every one of us knows, it is extremely easy to slip into such talk, especially, as we have said, in the environment in which we are forced to live, and, when it is allowed to spread, in no time at all factions emerge, the community is split and our attempts to establish Allah's deen brought to an abrupt halt. It is one of the main avenues which Shaytan uses to work his mischief among us and it is something which all of us must be constantly on our guard against. A few unthinking words can wreak untold damage. And remember that listening makes you just as culpable as the perpetrator. I cannot stress sufficiently how dangerous and destructive it is. We know to our cost how the work of years can be undone within days by malicious and unguarded tongues and ears that are receptive to them.
So we ask Allah tabaraka wa ta'ala to protect us inwardly and outwardly from the effects of bad language and harmful words, to preserve us from uttering them ourselves, and to give us success in recognising them when we hear them and shielding ourselves and others from their damaging consequences.
Do you do not see how Allah makes a metaphor of a good word: a good tree whose roots are firm and whose branches are in heaven? It bears fruit regularly by its Lord's permission. Allah makes metaphors for people so that hopefully they will pay heed. (14:26-27)
Who could say anything better than someone who summons to Allah and acts rightly and says, 'I am one of the Muslims’? (41:32)
Notwithstanding the negative possibilities we have been discussing, we must not forget that language and the power of speech are the crown of the human creature, an immensely ennobling characteristic which incorporates the very secret of what it is to be a human being, our capacity to recognise and worship our Lord.
The highest possible manifestation of speech is found in the Qur'an which is, of course, Allah's own words cloaked in human language and beyond the power of any human being to emulate. In the Messenger of Allah, however, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, we have a model of human perfection in the use of language in practically every situation it is possible to face during the course of a human life. By studying the hadith literature we can discover what it is best to say in every aspect of our lives. How to speak in public and in private; how to address Allah and other human beings; how to speak to family and to friends; how to speak to strangers and to enemies; how to speak when angry and when pleased; how to admonish and how to praise; how to joke and how to commiserate; how to teach and how to learn; how to command the right and forbid the wrong; how and when it is best to hold our tongues altogether; the examples are endless but they are all there if we look and learn and digest what we discover. This is an immensely important and somewhat neglected aspect of the prophetic Sunna but it is there for us and it is up to us to take it on, not word for word, of course, but in its tone and its general mode of expression. We can be sure that if we do manage to do this we will be speaking in the way which is most pleasing to our Lord.
We must also remember that speech is a two way affair and that just as bad words emerging from our mouths have a sullying and corrupting impact on our hearts, so good words have a purifying and enlightening impact. And this process has a snowball effect so that the more we remember Allah, and speak of things which are pleasing to Allah, and remind other people of Allah and His Messenger in whatever way we can, the brighter our hearts will become and the brighter our hearts are, the better and more efficacious the words which come out of our mouths will be. The ayat tells us that the best possible use of speech is to call other people to Allah but we must always bear in mind that it what is important is not just the words we use when doing this, however learned and wise they may be, but rather what is behind them as well, the state of the heart from which they issue. There is a saying often quoted by the people of Allah which goes: "A thousand words from a corrupted heart will never do anything but one word from a purified heart will do a thousand things."
Finally, it is through our capacity of speech that the highest fulfilment of our potential as human beings can be achieved. Allah ta'ala has instructed us to remember Him and call on Him in many ayats of the Book He sent to guide us, and in it He has told us how to do this and has given us various formulae and many Divine Names we should use when doing it which have in turn been passed down to us through the generations by those men of Allah who have been given knowledge of these matters. It is by using our tongues to invoke our Lord in the way which has been transmitted to us that we are able to realise the ultimate meaning of what it is to be a human being, the secret which Allah imbued us with when He breathed His Ruh into our first ancestor, Sayyidina Adam, 'alayhi as-salam it is possible for us to discover within the depths of our being in a direct and unambiguous way the immediate and absolute truth of Allah's words:
Everyone on it will pass away; but the Face of your Lord will remain, Master of Majesty and Generosity. (55:24-25)
We ask Allah ta'ala to make us people who imitate His Messenger in both word and deed, people whose speech is silver and whose silence is gold, people whose words bring light and purity to our own hearts and enlighten and uplift the hearts of others, people whose speech draws us ever closer to His presence and makes us pleasing to Him and earn us His forgiveness and mercy.
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