Question: What points should we consider to avoid doing more harm than good while carrying out the duty of “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil”?
Answer: The Qur’an outlines that “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil” is a distinctive characteristic of being the best community (Al Imran 3:110). The Qur’an addresses believers that they are a community brought forth for the good of all mankind. You are responsible for teaching human values to humanity. Actually, this feeling in you does not arise from your own will. God, may His glory be exalted, has opened your hearts to the rest of humanity, put you on the stage, and assigned you a role in the scene He set.
The good, or ma’ruf, is what the religion commands, what sound reason gladly accepts, what sound feelings approve of, and what the conscience opens its doors to and welcomes. Therefore, the syntactic priority given to “enjoining the good” bears significance. Accordingly, a believer must first of all speak of goodness, rather than referring to what is evil or ugly; he must give priority to what is good and beautiful. However, while doing this, it is necessary to consider both whom to address and the manner of address very well.
As for the evil, or munkar, it is what the religion forbids, what sound reason accepts as harmful, what sound feelings dislike, and what the conscience closes its doors to and rejects. As well as enjoining the good, by forbidding the evil believers must try to save others from being condemned to a mistake, swept away by some current, and from drowning in deep waters. They must dissuade oppressors from oppression by exposing its ugly face, transgressors from transgression by exposing its hideous face, and unbelievers from unbelief by exposing its horrible face. Naturally, this should not be accomplished merely through words but, first of all, through the language of their state and attitudes they should evoke disgust against evil, indecency and ugliness in the hearts of those they address and try to deter them from such errors and sins.
On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid giving an alluring account of what is sinful while trying to expose the ugly face of evil. Unintentionally, we might evoke an inclination toward and interest in the sinful in the minds of those we address. Bediüzzaman warns us in this regard by stating that a fanciful, elaborate account of something bad can cause immature minds to stray. Although the purpose is to present the ugliness of the sins to consciences, we can unintentionally cause those with weak willpower to feel tempted toward sins.
On the other hand, if you depict negative things and reflect evil and ugliness in a way that demoralizes people and breaks their spirit, you will similarly have acted contrary to the command of forbidding the evil.
For example, on the one hand, you might say in a sorrowful mood: “Humane tears have disappeared in our time. Such hardheartedness is unparalleled in history. The Islamic world is being incinerated. Its dignity, honor and pride is trampled underfoot. It has become an object of derision. However, believers are still not sorrowful in the face of such a bitter picture. They are so miserly, even with regards to sparing a few minutes and shedding a few tears.” On the other hand, you are concerned about whether you are making a mistake by voicing these ideas. This bears the risk of creating a gloomy atmosphere that will unintentionally break the spirits of those addressed.
As Bediüzzaman puts it, every word a person speaks must be true. But it is not right to express every truth at any time. Sometimes you voice a certain truth you believe. However, if those addressed lack the level of cognition and expansive heart required for bearing this truth, your words and statements might push them toward hopelessness and to form the wrong opinion that those good things can never happen again.
Words spoken without taking into consideration what those addressed will welcome or react against are likely to result in the opposite of what is intended. In summary, enjoining the good and forbidding the evil requires much caution. There should neither be exaggeration in depicting the wrong, nor miserliness in expressing the truth.
While trying to convey good and positive things, sometimes we might step out of the frame of enjoining the good. For example, we might exaggerate about the good works carried out. In fact, exaggeration is an implicit lie. It is not possible to serve faith even with an atom of a lie. In addition, exaggeration is an important reason for grace and abundance to cease.
Sometimes, while talking about good things, we assume a role in them as if we were their real source. Actually, 99.9% of the matter we talk about belongs to God Almighty. The share that belongs to human willpower is just one thousandth. We should acknowledge this much.
For the sake of its significance, I would like to state an oft-repeated fact as the final point: If we wish our words to have a positive influence on those we address, we must personally live in accordance with our words. Some Islamic sources relate that God made the following address to Jesus: “O Jesus! You first give counsel to your own soul; after it has followed the counsel, then try to guide others to goodness, otherwise feel ashamed of Me.” This teaches that it is disrespectful to God for a person to tell others what he has not been able to make his own soul accept. Given that God warns even such a blessed personage like the Messiah, whose personal example is ten times ahead of what he counsels, then it is understood how scrupulous other people must be about this issue.
 Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Az-Zuhd, 1/54; Abu Nuaym, Hilyat al-Awliya, 2/382.