Question: While sayings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, counsel against condemning believers to shame, despising them, and disclosing their faults, they also enjoin not remaining silent and unresponsive before oppression and evil. How is a believer supposed to achieve this balance?
In our previous issue we commented on not subjecting people to shame or scorn, as well as the importance of forgiving their faults. It is important to stress that we do not believe that it is acceptable to remain silent and passive when confronted with mistakes and wrongdoing, and to not take any action against them. “Commending good and preventing evil” is an important responsibility for believers if we take into account the following verse “You are the best community ever brought forth for (the good of) mankind, enjoining and promoting what is right and good and forbidding and trying to prevent evil, and (this you do because) you believe in God” (Al Imran 3/110), it is seen that being a part of the best community, or the one with the most goodness, is dependent upon this fact. Additionally, the noble Prophet ordered a present evil to be eliminated by direct intervention, and if this was not possible then by making verbal warnings, and if this was not possible either then by taking an attitude against it in one’s heart at least (Muslim, Iman 78; Tirmidhi, Fitan 11).
Trying to stop people from committing evil and enjoining them to engage in good behavior is one of the essential attributes of a believer. However, the method, style, and system to be followed in this respect are very important. Such an act cannot be done by embarrassing people and making them turn their faces away in shame. This will make matters worse, particularly so when certain matters rejected in religion such as lying, slander, and libel are also involved in the issue. What really matters here is making hearts genuinely feel the goodness of what is stated as good, and the darkness of what is stated as bad; namely, convincing people that the acts in question are good or bad (respectively), and making them re-orient themselves accordingly. Otherwise, without taking the other person’s condition into consideration, determining the correct manner, or thinking about which method to follow, an unwise approach such as “I say and tell what I believe and do not care about any other factors” has nothing to do with the religious teaching of “commending good and preventing evil.”
If we view the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), we find many examples of the points mentioned. For example, he counseled repentance to his companion Maiz who had committed fornication when he came to him and confessed his sin, saying that there is no sin God will not forgive. Although he turned Maiz down four times, the noble Prophet had to enforce the legal ruling upon the insistence of Maiz. However, he told people to ask for forgiveness for Maiz and pointed out that he had repented in such a way that if his repentance were to be distributed to the all people throughout the earth then it would suffice to purify everyone (Muslim, Hudud 22; Abu Dawud, Hudud, 24, 25). Thus, the Pride of Humanity prevented his community from continuing to hold a negative opinion about Maiz, for he wished Maiz to be remembered not as a sinner but as a person who was absolved from his sin and who had passed onto God’s divine presence in a purified state.
The noble Prophet neither put anybody to shame nor embarrassed anybody by mentioning their fault to them throughout his exemplary life. It is not possible to find examples in his life where he revealed people’s faults, treating fallen ones with contempt, or responded to evil with evil. On the contrary, he urged believers not to spy into others’ private issues. He always counseled covering faults and his entire life was permeated with forgiveness and tolerance. He made the following address to the people of Mecca, who had inflicted every kind of torment and suffering onto him, after him and his community peacefully took over the city: “No reproach this day shall be on you. Go now, all of you are free.” This mildness and magnanimity of his was one of the most important factors that conquered hearts and got people to enter Islam in droves.
If he had noticed a shortcoming of one of his Companions, he would never reveal it in an embarrassing way. He addressed such shortcomings during his public sermons without pointing the finger at that person, and he ensured that the person concerned also received a share from the teaching. Even in situations of meeting serious opposition where some were in a mood of disobedience, he would gather his Companions to make a general sermon that would not incriminate any one person. Hence, problems were solved without hurting and breaking the heart of anyone, without disgracing them, and without letting any grudge and rage be involved in the issue.
In this regard, it is very important, particularly for people who are at the forefront of dialogue and discourse with others, to undertake certain responsibilities. It is critical to know the people in your company and to not remain indifferent to their mistakes. A teacher must know the general situation of their students; in fact, it is an important aspect of their duty and responsibility. Their goals should be to treat everybody humanely, not to break anyone’s heart, and to try to eliminate evil in the most appropriate way. In other words, while eliminating evils as well, a believer is supposed to act in a way that reflects this character while remaining loyal to the path of the Prophet.
A manner appropriate for each person in question needs to be determined for the sake of not breaking anyone’s heart and not letting any problems escalate further, and each case should be taken into consideration separately as no two people are ever truly identical. Instead of giving an immediate reaction when faced with problems, and talking about them here and there, we must definitely mull over the subject and try to find the most appropriate solution. If you deal with matters in a crude and careless fashion and are as blunt as a kick in the shins, then you may risk hurting people and pushing them away from you. It should not be forgotten that the task of spiritual counsel and guidance requires expertise and sensibility. In a way, we can view it as a task that is best carried out by qualified and learned people.
It should also be known that problems may not always be sorted out by talking. In some situations, speaking over some problems might cause the crisis to get worse. As the saying goes, “a believer’s speaking should be wisdom and their silence should be reflection.” We should speak if we are to say words of wisdom. If this is not the case then we should keep silent and wait for the appropriate time. There are certain conditions where one needs to stop and think, for wisdom develops in the seedbed of deliberation. Otherwise, the blurting out of casual remarks will only produce noise. Just as we know the appropriate time to talk, we similarly need to know when to show patience and wait.
In one of his sayings, the noble Prophet stated that every child of Adam errs but the best of those who err are those who repent (Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 49; Ibn Majah, Zuhd 30) and thus pointed out that human nature is prone to mistakes and sins. Accordingly, some give their willpower its due and narrow down this gap or totally eliminate it, whereas some do not succeed sufficiently in this respect. What matters here is that after experiencing a spiritual stumble, or perhaps even a fall, we work to straighten ourselves up right away and be purified in the washbasin of repentance.
Yes, everyone can fall. However, immediately walking out on, speaking negatively about, and putting to shame a person who is undergoing a spiritual relapse never comply with the virtuous conduct expected in religion nor with the path of the noble Prophet. Instead of busying ourselves with others’ faults we should be concerned with noticing our own faults and busying ourselves with setting those aright because those who cannot see their own mistakes keep looking for faults in others. A person who is fully concentrated on perfecting themself will be much less focused with the faults of others.
Before throwing a stone at someone, we need to take a look at ourselves first. And if we also have similar faults, then we should fear that such a stone may recoil and hit our own head. It is narrated that our master Messiah said the following in an address to a crowd preparing to stone someone to death for punishment: “Let one who is without sin among you throw the first stone...” Naturally, everybody gently lowered the stones in their hands to the ground.
The fact that people do not care about such matters at all and speak about others’ faults and sins in public does not serve as an excuse for us to behave in a similar manner. Even if the entire world engages in such sinful behavior it still does not justify joining them. As it is expressed in a Turkish proverb, “every sheep is hung from its own leg.” Asserting excuses such as “everybody was talking in this manner and I just followed their way” has no validity whatsoever on the Day of Judgment. As it is stated in the verse meaning, “And no soul, as bearer of burden, bears (and is made to bear) the burden of another” (Fatir 35:18) everybody remains alone with the burden of his or her own sins. And if someone defame others with spoken or written statements, that person will also be burdened with the sins caused by those statements, along with other personal sins.
Rather than being crushed under the weight of such sins in the Afterlife, taking our tongue under control while we can in this world and thus not giving way to such very hard to repair problems from the beginning is the wisest way. A person needs to also be careful about the feelings and thoughts that they may hold about other believers in the first place and should work to keep them pure, for what pours from the tongue are simply our thoughts. A person who is focused on the mistakes of others and continually mulls over them in their mind will firstly speak within about these with the inner voice, and then spill them out to others.
A person who is continually busy with others’ faults and speaks about these will definitely deserve punishment in the Hereafter on account of sins such as spying into others’ private affairs, holding negative assumptions, backbiting, and lashing out with insults. It is not possible for such a person to find comfort in this world as well. For a person who pollutes his or her brain neurons with what others did and who keeps talking about these filthy issues all the time, all of those things will turn into a torment.