وَقُولُواْ لِلنَّاسِ حُسْناً
“And speak good words to people” (2:83)
The importance of speech
Humans are social creatures who cannot live in isolation. They naturally incline towards living together and communicating with one another. The main form of communication between humans in their social life is speech. In fact, it is the ability to speak which sets humans apart from other creatures. While most other abilities that a human possesses can also be found in other creatures, intelligent speech is something unique to mankind.
“On that day no intercession shall avail, except the one for whom the Most Beneficent (Allah) has given permission and whose speech is acceptable to Him.” (Surah 20, Ayah 109)
Even though living socially comes naturally to humans, it is often very difficult to live well in society. One of the major challenges in fact is how we use our tongue. Our words can be very hurtful if they are not well considered, and words which are not weighed up can cause many problems. Therefore, in order to live well in society, we need to mind our tongue.
In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (SWT) mentions that He has given us eyes and a tongue and lips, and showed us two paths, and left it up to us to choose whether we use these blessings in the positive or negative way:
“Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and two lips, and pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways?” (Balad, 8-10)
When considering the tongue, we obviously acknowledge that the physical tongue is a blessing which allows us to speak, eat, taste etc. However, in this article we are discussing the ability of speech. The ability of speech is what sets humans apart from animals. Historically, humans have been defined in philosophy as: ‘speaking animals’. In fact, Imam Ali (as): says: ‘what is man without a tongue except either a drawn image or a mute animal’. (Ghorarul-Hekam, P.483)
A man is concealed under his Speech
It is a person’s speech that introduces him/her and gives us the best insight into what kind of person he or she is. We know little about a person until we listen to them speak. Once they speak, we then either see the ugliness or the beauty of their personality through their speech. This is why Imam Ali (as) has said:
“Beauty is in the tongue, and perfection is in the intellect” [Beharul-Anwaar Vol. 1 p.96]
Imam Ali (as) also says: “Man is concealed under his tongue.” (Nahjul-Balagha, Words 148)
That means when people speak their intelligence will be demonstrated. The phrase ‘under his tongue’ can also be a metaphor for ‘silence’, as if your tongue is like a blanket beneath which you are hidden. Thus, the less the blanket (i.e tongue) is moved the less you’ll be noticed! Therefore, the holy Imam apparently means a man’s intellect depends on how silent he is when he is supposed to be silent!
The above Hadith is part of a brilliant Hadith from Imam Ali (a.s) that I have mentioned it in my Forty Hadith. Here is the full Hadith:
حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو مُحَمَّدٍ الْحَسَنُ بْنُ حَمْزَةَ الْعَلَوِيُّ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ حَدَّثَنِي يُوسُفُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ الطَّبَرِيِّ عَنْ سَهْلٍ أَبِي عُمَرَ قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا وَكِيعٌ عَنْ زَكَرِيَّا بْنِ أَبِي زَائِدَةَ عَنْ عَامِرٍ الشَّعْبِيِّ قَالَ تَكَلَّمَ أَمِيرُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ع بِتِسْعِ كَلِمَاتٍ ارْتَجَلَهُنَّ ارْتِجَالًا فَقَأْنَ عُيُونَ الْبَلَاغَةِ وَ أَيْتَمْنَ جَوَاهِرَ الْحِكْمَةِ وَ قَطَعْنَ جَمِيعَ الْأَنَامِ عَنِ اللِّحَاقِ بِوَاحِدَةٍ مِنْهُنَّ ثَلَاثٌ مِنْهَا فِي الْمُنَاجَاةِ وَ ثَلَاثٌ مِنْهَا فِي الْحِكْمَةِ وَ ثَلَاثٌ مِنْهَا فِي الْأَدَبِ فَأَمَّا اللَّاتِي فِي الْمُنَاجَاةِ فَقَالَ إِلَهِي كَفَى لِي عِزّاً أَنْ أَكُونَ لَكَ عَبْداً وَ كَفَى بِي فَخْراً أَنْ تَكُونَ لِي رَبّاً أَنْتَ كَمَا أُحِبُّ فَاجْعَلْنِي كَمَا تُحِبُّ وَ أَمَّا اللَّاتِي فِي الْحِكْمَةِ فَقَالَ قِيمَةُ كُلِّ امْرِئٍ مَا يُحْسِنُهُ وَ مَا هَلَكَ امْرُؤٌ عَرَفَ قَدْرَهُ وَ الْمَرْءُ مَخْبُوءٌ تَحْتَ لِسَانِهِ وَ أَمَّا اللَّاتِي فِي الْأَدَبِ فَقَالَ امْنُنْ عَلَى مَنْ شِئْتَ تَكُنْ أَمِيرَهُ وَ احْتَجْ إِلَى مَنْ شِئْتَ تَكُنْ أَسِيرَهُ وَ اسْتَغْنِ عَمَّنْ شِئْتَ تَكُنْ نَظِيرَه. (الخصال للصدوق ج 2 ص 420)
Abu Muhammad al-Hassan ibn Hamzih al-Alavi – may God be pleased with him – narrated that Yusuf ibn Muhammad al-Tabary quoted Sahl abi Umar, on the authority of Vaki’a, on the authority of Zakariya ibn Abi Za’edeh, on the authority of Amer al-Sha’abi, “The Commander of the Faithful Imam Ali (MGB) has said nine sayings which have amazed many eloquent ones. You wonder what jewels of wisdom are included in these pearls which none of the masters of eloquence could not even say anything similar. Three of these are in the form of supplications; three are words of wisdom and the other three are about culture. The three words of wisdom are as follows: ‘The value of each person is based on what he has learned. Whoever recognizes himself shall not be destroyed. Man is known by what he says.’ The three sayings which are about culture are: ‘Whoever treats someone well will become his master. You become a slave of whoever who you ask to fulfil your needs. You are equal to whoever you are not needy of.’ And the three which are in the form of supplications are as follows: ‘O My God! It is enough of an honour for me to worship Thee. It is enough of a source of pride for me to be nourished by You. You are just as I wish. Thus, make me just as perfect as you wish.”
It is because of the above that a person’s tongue can be the best or the worst part of a person. Luqman- the wise man introduced in the Qur’an- was asked to bring the most expensive and valuable part of an animal. He went to the market and bought a tongue (of a sheep). The next day, he was asked to bring the cheapest and least worthy part. Again, he brought the tongue. When questioned, he said that the tongue may be the least or the most valuable part of the body, depending on how it is used. (Behar, Vol. 13, P. 424)
One unique characteristic of the tongue is that most other body parts require a third party for a sin to occur (for instance a lustful look at a scantily dressed woman, hearing unlawful things etc.). However, the sins of speech require no third party, it can generate the sin on its own accord! On the other hand, this unique characteristic also applies to good deeds. For instance it is with the action of the tongue that one becomes a Muslim when they recite the two testimonies.
Minding the Tongue
We need to ensure that we pay attention to what words come out of our mouth.
A man asked the Holy Prophet (P) to advise him. The Messenger of Allah (P) said: “Mind your tongue.” The man asked for more. The messenger of Allah (SWT) gave the same advice. When the man insisted for the third time, the Prophet said: “Woe to you! Does anything other than the harvest of their tongues drop people on face into the Hell-Fire?!” [al-Kaafi 2:94]
Imam Kadhem (a.s) also advised a man: “Mind your tongue and you will be honoured.” [al-Kaafi 2:93]
In another narration Abuthar (may God be pleased with him) is narrated to have said: “Seal your tongue as you seal your gold and silver.” (al-Kaafi, 2: 113). It means as you keep your valuable in a safe do the same for your tongue. This is especially the case with parents and older siblings, who may influence their children and younger siblings by swearing in front of them.
In a Hadith Qudsi, Allah (swt) says: “O son of Adam, if your tongue is urging you to say things I have made impermissible for you to say, I have provided you with two shutters- your teeth and your lips- so shut them”. Note that when the Almighty Allah reminds man of his obligations towards his parents the main emphasis is given to the action of tongue: “فلاتقل لهما اف ولاتنهرهما و قل لهما قولا كريما:” : “say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honour.” (Surah 17, Ayah 23)
Minding the Tongue: a path to Spirituality
Controlling one’s words and being more considerate of what one is saying is one of the best ways of gaining spirituality and ascending on the path of the journey towards Allah, the Exalted. The Almighty Allah has given the right of intercession to those with whose speech He is pleased. “يومئذ لاتنفع الشفاعة الاّ من اذن له الرحمن و رضي له قولا” : “On that day no intercession shall avail, except the one for whom the Most Beneficent (Allah) has given permission and whose speech is acceptable to Him.” (Surah 20, Ayah 109)
The Tongue: the Representative of Ten Characteristics
Imam Ali (as) delivered a sermon seven days after the demise of the Holy Prophet (P). A part of his sermon reads:
“O people! There are ten characters in a person that are manifested through the tongue: the tongue is a witness, that informs of what is in the conscience, a judge which can judge between truth and falsehood, a speaker which answers questions, an intercessor through which a need can be realised, a describer through which things can be known, a commander which can command to good deeds, an advisor that can prohibit evil deeds, a consoler through which grief can be consoled, a tool of praise through which spite can be removed, and a persuader that can bring pleasure to the ears”. (al-Kaafi, vol.8 p. 20)
Imperative social rules related to tongue
- Avoid all the plagues of tongue: These are numerous and will be discussed in this series more. These include, lying, breaking promises, backbiting, false testimony, slander and more.
- Don’t be the sole speaker: This is especially important in gatherings, meetings etc. The skill of listening is more important than the skill of talking. Allowing others to voice their opinions, thoughts and ideas can lead to much smoother relationships. Indeed, ‘no-one hates a listener’!
- Don’t prolong your stories. The more you speak the more you slip, the more you bore people, and above all the more you harden your heart. It is narrated from the Holy Prophet (P): “ان كثرة الكلام بغير ذكر الله يقسو القلب”: “Indeed long conversations in other than ‘remembrance of God’ harden the heart.” (Tousi, Al-Amaali, p.3)
It is worth mentioning that Haraam conversation hardens the heart no matter how short the conversation would be. Therefore, a ‘long conversation’ in this Hadith is meant for permissible matters such as normal daily conversations without any Haraam involved. Spending a lot of time on such conversations distract the speaker and the audience from more important issues; especially ‘remembrance of God’ and therefore, leads to hardening the heart.
- Don’t say but what you know, nay don’t say all what you know: One should only speak of things they know well in general. This means avoiding speculative, hypothetical, dicey, imaginary and fictitious talk in general conversations or socialisations. Equally important is not to share everything one knows as that can create its own problems often seen in young married couples where too much is shared leading to mistrust and malice.
Additional reading and listening