Avoiding the Evils of The Tongue

Musa Kâzım GÜLÇÜR

The Qur’an draws our attention to good and bad words with a parable. A good word is likened to “a good tree” which is well-established and lasting with “its roots holding firm (in the ground) and its branches in heaven. It yields its fruit in every season due by its Lord’s leave” (Ibrahim 14:24–25). On the other hand, a corrupt word is likened to “a corrupt tree uprooted from upon the earth, having no constancy” (Ibrahim 14:26).

Honesty and truthfulness in speech are of great importance, since the tongue is the origin of all honesty and righteousness. Therefore, we should fear our tongue more than the other organs of our body. Sufyan ibn ‘Abdullah relates that he asked the Prophet, “Please teach me a practice to follow!” And the Prophet answered, “Say, ‘God is my Creator and Sustainer,’ then be upright!” So Sufyan then asked, “What part of me should I worry about?” and the Prophet took hold of his own tongue and said, “This!” [Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 61, 2412.] Likewise, Abu Hurayra relates a narration in which the Messenger of God commanded, “Let a believer in God and the Last Day either speak good or remain silent.” [Tirmidhi, Qiyama, 51, 2502.]

Someone who is used to empty talk or, in other words, speaking about things that do not concern them, can lose their salvation. Such a person may perform the daily prayers, observe the fast, and live an Islamic lifestyle, but if they indulge in vain talk, they should be prepared to lose their place in Heaven and possibly face Hellfire.

A hadith narrated by Anas tells us, “A man passed away. Someone said where the Prophet could hear, ‘He must be in Heaven!’ The Messenger asked, ‘How do you know? It could be that he engaged in vain talk, or perhaps he was hoarding wealth and was stingy with charity.” [Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 11, 2217.] That empty talk and stinginess are mentioned together here indicates how serious a sin empty talk is. Avoiding the errors of the tongue is more than simply avoiding those things that do not concern one personally. For words that we do not even pay attention to, which we do not think will have any consequences, can bring about very important, lasting effects, either to the good or to the bad.

The Prophet said in a hadith narrated from Abu Hurayra, “Sometimes a person may say something that pleases God and, although the person pays no heed to what he has said, God raises his degree in Heaven. And sometimes a person may say something that displeases God and, although the person gives it no importance, God assigns him seventy years in Hell for it.” [Bukhari, Rikak, 23; Muslim, Zuhd, 49, 2988; Muwatta, 4, 985; Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 10, 2315.] Clearly, it is important to reign in the tongue, as we see in the English proverb, “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” In fact, another two hadith go even farther: According to Umm Habiba, the Prophet said, “Every word uttered except for the promotion of good or the prevention of evil or remembrance of God is not to the speaker’s credit, but against him.” [Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 63, 2414.] And Ibn Umar relates that the Prophet said, “Do not speak too much other than mentioning God. For speaking much except when mentioning God makes the heart hard. Know that those who are farthest from God are those with insensitive, hard hearts.” [Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 62, 3413.]

Another pitfall of the tongue is using rhetoric as a method of persuasion and enticement. Using deceptive words to trick people into doing something they should not do is a serious offense; in a hadith narrated by Abu Hurayra the Prophet states that no amount of worship will be acceptable from someone who does this. A similar tradition is recounted by Ibn Mas’ud: “The Messenger of God said, ‘Those who advance with rhetoric are damned!” [Muslim, Ilm, 7, 2670; Abu Dawud, Sunna, 6, 4609.]

Another of the dangers of the tongue is being quick to argue. The Prophet said, “Do not argue with your brother or sister, do not make jokes they will not like, and do not make promises you cannot fulfil.” [Tirmidhi, Birr, 58.] Instead of an argument which will bring no solution and may damage the relationship between people, one should remember that respect for the viewpoints of others is never in vain. Valuing the opinions of others, being open and willing to listen and share knowledge will prove effective for solving most problems. Therefore, we should ask questions and listen carefully, and be flexible when necessary; this will help us to avoid the dangers of being argumentative.

Those who avoid an argument even when they are in the right, who avoid lies even in jest, and who have good morals are guaranteed a place in Heaven. [Abu Dawud, Adab, 7, 4800.] We must also be careful not to “return evil with evil.” In the Qur’an God says;

God does not like any harsh speech to be uttered save by one who has been wronged (and therefore has the right to express that in appropriate language). God is indeed All-Hearing, All-Knowing. Whether you do some good openly or do it in secret, or pardon an evil (done to you, even though you have the right to legal retaliation, know that) God is All-Pardoning, Ever-Able (to punish or forgive).” (Nisa 4:148–9)

This verse teaches that we must be patient, particularly in our moments of anger. Some people are always ready to react negatively to every little thing that displeases them. Such people can easily be overcome by rage and hatred. God tells us not to be like those who become slaves to their uncontrolled feelings of anger; even if they are in the right, they are unable to get along with others and their hearts are full of storms. We are advised to repay evil with good, or at least avoid repaying evil with evil. After all, God Almighty is so forgiving that He constantly sends sustenance even to the most rebellious of people. Therefore, if we are lenient and gentle and able to forgive, even at critical moments when we are upset, we have modelled ourselves on God’s attributes and allowed His values to penetrate our hearts.

As will be mentioned in detail in the following section that deals with gossiping and spreading rumours, talking about a person who is proud of their shameful acts and who enjoys recounting their sins in front of others is not gossip. Yet it is important to note that, although it is not gossip to say their behaviour is wrong, we still should not be rude to such people if we come face to face with them; we should speak kindly to them and behave nicely toward them. It should also be noted that boasting about the sins you have committed to others is another type of sin. Abu Hurayra explains, “The Messenger of God told us, ‘All of my community will be forgiven, except those who broadcast their sins. When someone sins in the night, God covers his sin. But in the morning, if the person tells others what he did at night, he has uncovered what God has covered. This is a form of broadcasting sins.” [Bukhari, Adab, 60; Muslim, Zuhd, 52, 2990.]

Finally, the last point I want to mention here is this. It is common nowadays to hear people writing others off. In gatherings, or just between friends, spouses or relatives, people speak of the behaviour of others just as naturally as if they were discussing the weather. Almost everyone sees themselves as being right and assumes others who do differently are wrong, and therefore, they say things like, “There’s no good in these people! They’re just frauds. They are good for nothing…” and so on. It must be said that it is one thing to speak of a particular wrong in order to correct that person or to solve the problem when necessary, but it is quite another thing to criticize others for no reason; the latter is displeasing to God. While the former arises from a spiritual desire to better the world, the latter is like a virus, an illness that can blind the spirit or even kill it. Such behaviour is unIslamic. Abu Hurayra tells us that the Prophet said, “If you hear someone say ‘(so-and-so) is damned!’ be sure that that person himself is more damned than anyone.” [Muslim, Birr, 139, 2623; Muwatta, Kalam, 2/2, 989; Abu Dawud, Adab, 85, 4989.]

Translated by Jessica ÖZALP

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