SITTING AROUND IN a circle (it doesn’t have to be a circle) and talking is a universal pastime. Families gather round a meal (and if they don’t, they should) …and talk. Business people meet to review prior actions and present plans…and talk. Friends come together just to “hang out” …and talk.
The point is, people talk—a lot. And a lot of the talk is about other people. And much of it is not nice. You are surely not shocked.
But if, for some reason, your memory fails you, we need only turn to the Quran for a confirmation: “There is nothing good in most of the secret converse [of people]” [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:114]. Note Allah’s emphasis in the words ‘la khayra,’ ‘nothing good.’
Allow yourself a moment of honest thought. How many pieces of information dwell in your mind concerning the (relatively private) issues of others, matters that you technically (read: “morally”) really shouldn’t know about, affairs their owners don’t know you know about—which add, at the close of your day (your life) absolutely “nothing good” to your existence?
Drum roll. And now for the dismal culmination of a sad story of words spoken without thought: How many things have you “known,” only to find in the end that what you took for fact was, in “fact,” false? That’s quite a lot of stuff, isn’t it?
The accumulation of all that wrong “stuff” is the result of not accepting or acknowledging that words are actions. Ah, how when we speak we so change the world!
And the Afterlife! Or at least our condition in it. A single word can take us to Paradise—or, God-forbid, land us in Hellfire.
Speaking: The Unacknowledged Action
On February 5th, 2003 at the UN Security Council, then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more.”
Just a few words said, and the dogs of war were unleashed. With this offensively simple statement (truly, how can anyone “simply” justify unjust killing?) an army charged into Iraq and more than a million people were murdered. But what does it matter? Lives here are held as cheaply as words.
But the problem is words are not so cheap. Words, dear readers, are actions. For while alleged “weapons of mass destruction” killed no one, brutal words of instruction killed off tens of thousands. So with the pronunciation of a few cheaply held words, we became responsible for the uncounted slaughter of cheaply held lives.
What a case for what words can do! But all kinds of words are actions, not only the battle cry. The best among us, our Prophet tells us, is “one from whose tongue and hands other Muslims are secure” (Bukhari and Muslim). Words are the most massively lethal weapon men possess. The destruction our own words wreak—and reap! —when we speak thoughtlessly, even within ourselves, is frightening. With our wayward tongues, we cripple our hearts and unity becomes an increasingly distant possibility. In disregarding the action-value of the word, we ultimately reject responsibility for what we say, and—be it thoughtfully or carelessly uttered—the eternal harvest of our own speech.
In their book, Theory of Language, psychologists Donald Fraser Goodwin and Karl Buhler explain the concept of speech-action at length:
All concrete speech is in vital union with the rest of a person’s meaningful behavior. It is among actions and is itself an action. In a certain situation, we see that a person goes at things with his hands and handles what is graspable, physical things. He manipulates them. Another time we see that he opens his mouth and speaks. In both cases, the event that we can observe proves to be directed towards a goal, towards something that is to be attained. That is exactly what a psychologist calls an action.
The foundations of society tremble beneath our unsteady feet, a result of the constant wagging of our tongues. “Know,” said Imam Al-Ghazali in his monumental book, Ihya’, 900 years ago, “that, indeed, the dangers of the tongue are great, and there is no escaping its danger except in silence.”
The Central Factor of Humanity
Language is the essence of being human, the defining characteristic of the Children of Adam. “Human existence cannot be silent,” says educator Paulo Freire in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “Nor can it be nourished by false words, but only true words, with which men and women transform the world.”
Allah “taught Adam the names of [created beings], all of them.” But only after He imparted this divine knowledge and heavenly connection of the nature of things to man did He command the angels to “bow [their faces] down [to receive] Adam [into life and to honor him]!” [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:33]. The fact is that the names of things express their spirits as Allah made them to be, their sacred reality. This means that every name Allah taught Adam was most certainly a “true word.” And so it is that every successive prophet or messenger after Adam was sent by Allah for the explicit purpose of bringing these original words of truth back into the consciousness of a people that had corrupted their divinely ordained meanings.
Prophet Muhammad represents the culmination and restoration of this knowledge of names, or the true nature of things, to all human beings until the end of time. Quite literally, he was sent with the miracle of the recited Word—the Quran, the very speech of God. And we, as the messengers of the Last Messenger, have most definitely been placed on Earth to transform the world, again and again and again, one generation after the next, by affirming the true names of things, re-linking them to their hallowed existence.
Freire, the educator, has discerned this lesson of Adam. Listen:
To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Men are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection…But while to say the true word, which is work, which is praxis [the practical application of something] is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone—nor can he say it for another in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words.
Knowing the “words” that Allah, Most High, taught our father Adam, separated us human beings from the rest of creation and with that knowledge came our khilafa, viceregency, including our stewardship of the world. The way we use those “words” separates us into two categories: Those who speak in the name of God, by which they traverse the path to Heaven, and those who pervert the names, that is, who do not keep joined what Allah has commanded to keep joined—which they do for the purpose of deliberately disordering creation to bring themselves into undue advantage in the world. The likes of these are headed toward an infinitely hotter, eternal, abode.
Is it not sufficient warning, does it not strike enough fear in our hearts, when Allah tells us: “Not a word does one utter,” meaning every human being, “but that with one is a ready observer (to record it)” meaning an assigned angel [Surat Qaf, 50:18]?
Abuse of language, spoken or written, always brings about the most serious consequences in this life and, more importantly, in the next (except as Allah may forgive). We have already been told that a single good word can elevate us to the heights of Heaven, while a lone thoughtless one can drown us in the depths of Hell. The great Companion and prolific reporter of the Prophet’s words, Abu Hurairah, relates: “The Messenger of Allah said: ‘A man utters a word pleasing to Allah without considering it of any significance, for which Allah exalts his ranks (in Paradise). Another one speaks a word displeasing to Allah without considering it of any importance, and, thereby, he shall sink into Hell.”
And still we talk.
So, if we are going to continue to run our mouths, let’s talk nicely, shall we?
Here are some rules for our lifelong discourse—the things we can’t say, and the things we should.
From the Quran and the Sunnah we learn that there is, indeed, speech etiquette–laws, actually. Speaking is no light matter. Tenor and volume, voice and word choice, time and content of speech—all of this we find addressed extensively by our Lord and His Prophet. Here are some major speech manners for the Muslim:
This is a big one. “Big” because it is so terrible. It is addressed directly and graphically in the Quran and Sunnah, and yet slips so quickly and easily from our mouths. Most of the time, the words are said and done long before we recognize that we are backbiting.
But Allah tells us that such speech is on the level of cannibalism. “Nor shall you backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat his dead brother’s flesh? You would, most surely, abhor it. So fear God. Indeed, God is all-relenting, mercy-giving” [Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:12].
And His Prophet informs us that gheeba is defined, not neutrally and narrowly by dispassionate external authority, but subjectively and broadly by the sensibilities of the ones we are speaking of. Think about the implications of this for a second:
Abu Hurairah said: “The Messenger of Allah said: ‘Do you know what backbiting is?’ The Companions said: ‘Allah and His Messenger know better.’ Then he said: ‘Backbiting is to talk about your brother [in Islam] in any manner he dislikes.’”
“Well, he really is like that. I swear I have no problem telling him to his face.” How many times have you heard that line in defense of gheeba? Or actually have said it yourself? Well, no more insha’Allah. For Allah tells us that such gossip can occasion divine wrath on an entire community when it is taken from a corrupt source without authentication, repeated, and broadcast: “A great torment would, most surely, have afflicted you for the [gossip] in which you have indulged when you relayed [the wicked slander among one another] with your own tongues. Thus with your own mouths you uttered that of which you had no sure knowledge. Yet you think it a light thing, while before God it is enormous” [Surat Al-Nur, 24:14-15]. And His Prophet tells us that “truth” is no defense for hurtful talk. It was said to the Prophet: “What if my brother is as I say?” He said: “If he is as you say, then it is backbiting. And if what [you say] is not of him, it is slander.’”
Don’t Use Bad Language
Here’s another hard one (actually, they’re all hard. Our tongues are far too loose by any godly standard). But never fear. Our Prophet gently guides us: “It does not befit a righteous Muslim to habitually curse others,” and warns us: “Those who habitually resort to cursing [people] will neither be accepted as witnesses nor as intercessors on the Day of Resurrection” (Muslim).
Don’t Talk into the Night about the Frivolous
“Let’s pray ‘Isha’ and then watch this movie.” No go. And don’t tell me it’s a clean movie. Those don’t exist—unless maybe you want to watch Adam’s World. Abu Barzah said: “The Messenger of Allah disliked going to bed before the ‘Isha’ salah and indulging in conversation after it” (Bukhari and Muslim). Keep in mind that talk that is disliked or forbidden at other times becomes even more so at night.
Don’t Talk Too Much
It’s phenomenal the amount of talking we do, isn’t it? But, the Prophet according to Ibn ‘Umar, said: “Do not indulge in excessive talk—except when remembering Allah. Excessive talking without the remembrance of Allah hardens the heart; and those who are the farthest from Allah are those whose hearts are hard” (Tirmidhi).
Silence Should be the Default
If you don’t have something good to talk about, then, don’t (talk). Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet said: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him say a good word or remain silent” [Muslim].
Talk if you have something good to say—and, remember, Allah commanded us, to speak much and openly of His endless blessings: “And as for the grace of your Lord, you shall [gratefully] proclaim it!” [Surat Al-Duha, 93:11].
Think the Best of your Brother
We should search for ways to think well of one another even—especially—when it is difficult. ‘Umar narrated that the Prophet said: “Do not think badly of a word uttered by your brother when you can find a good interpretation for it.”
Keep Your Voice Lowered
For some reason, we seem to think the louder the communication the more effective it is. The Quran does not agree. Luqman, the Wise, admonishes his son to “lower somewhat your voice” when you speak” [Surat Luqman, 31:19]. And the Prophet was widely known for being soft-spoken.
Glorify Your Lord When You Are Alone, and When You Are in Company–even after ‘Isha’
Imam Al-Nawawi said:
The kind of speech that is makrooh after ‘Isha’ is that which serves no interest. As for speech which serves a good interest—such as studying, telling stories of the righteous; speaking to a guest or to a bride to put them at their ease; a man speaking kindly to his wife and children or for a reason, speaking to travelers; speaking to reconcile people, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is evil, guiding people to do good—it is commendable.
Remove Yourself from Unseemly Talk
If you don’t want to get wet, stay out of the rain. And if you don’t want to be pulled into bad talk (backbiting, slandering, arguing), then leave the conversation. It is difficult not to be dragged into bad talk when you are in the middle of bad conversation, probably as difficult as choosing the raindrops you want to shower you in the middle of a rain-storm.
The Quran says: “Moreover, when they hear vile talk, they turn away from it” [Surat Al-Qasas, 28:55]. Also, “Moreover, when the pass by [those uttering] vile talk, they pass by honorably,” [Surat Al-Furqan, 25:72] meaning not acknowledging it.
Bad speech has an antidote: Good speech. “A good word is like a good tree: Its root is set firm. And its branches are in heaven” [Surat Ibrahim, 14:24]. This “good word” is widely affirmed by the knowledgeable to be a reference to bearing witness to One God, that is, La ilaha illa Allah, the universal response of faith. For as its parable in the Quran indicates, it leads to Paradise.
There, amid endless delicacies, chalices of gold, running rivers, there is another blessing of Heaven so precious we can hardly imagine it, for it is so wildly beyond anything our minds can comprehend: “Therein will they hear neither vile talk nor belying [word]–a recompense from your Lord–a gift well-sufficing [from the] Lord of the heavens and the earth” [Surat Al-Naba, 78:35-37]. And, oh, what a gift! And, oh, how we will feel the blessing of speech then, on that Day when we stand “not speaking—except whomever the All-Merciful permits, and who says what is right” [Surat Al-Naba, 78:38].
Shall we not honor this gift of speech, from which comes forth our stewardship of the Earth, rather our very humanity, and which shall unlock for us the Gates of Heaven, by the permission of our Lord—if, that is, we use our speech-actions wisely, after this small portion of our worldly day?