The Power of the Tongue

By: Mustafa Umar

Introduction

Imam An-Nawawī said regarding the tongue: “Whoever wishes to speak should reflect before saying anything. If any benefit is found, then let him speak. Otherwise, let him remain silent.”[1]

In a world where politicians, talk show hosts, entertainers, and gossipers never seem to stop talking, Islam reminds us that the tongue is like a loaded weapon: the safety should always be on. Muslim scholars throughout time have warned us about the dangers of misfiring the tongue, something which almost every human has been guilty of at some point in time. The advice originates in the Prophet’s concise statement: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good or keep quiet.”[2] Speech has been tied to belief in this Prophetic statement in order to drive home the idea that what we say is almost as important as what we believe.

A Double Edged Sword

With advancements in technology, weapons are able to inflict much more harm than anyone previously ever dreamt of. Whether it’s a nuke or a cluster bomb, the effects of modern warfare are a phenomenon that every person of conscience looks at with regret. The tongue is no different. Through means of mass media and satellite, the power of speech has the ability to wreak havoc upon entire communities through deception, propaganda, and instigation.

However, just as nuclear technology can be harnessed for immense good, the power of the tongue can also be amplified for positive things. The Prophet said: “The greatest struggle [jihād] is a word of truth[3] in the presence of a tyrant ruler.”[4] This oral activism is not only praiseworthy because of the danger that the brave speaker places himself in. Rather, it may serve as an effective means for enacting positive change. Such usage of the tongue may even become a requirement when unable to physically correct an injustice, as the Prophet again indicated: “Whoever perceives something wrong must correct with their hand. If unable to do so, then with their tongue. If still unable, then with their heart, and that is the weakest level of faith.”[5]

Reading between the Lines

A detailed analysis of this command reveals a number of lessons. First, the perception that something is wrong must be factually correct and based upon knowledge rather than suspicion or false accusation. Had the command been limited to what every ignorant person perceives to be wrong, correcting it would lead to chaos. Next, rectifying something with the heart means to dislike it. You can only dislike what you are aware of. Therefore, the Prophetic wisdom is commanding people to know what evil is happening around them. Those people who live in an environment surrounded by injustice and oppression but purposely remain ignorant of what is taking place are just as guilty as those who know about it but don’t hate it. Lastly, the sequence that was mentioned by the Prophet deserves special attention. The first step is to acquire the knowledge of what is defined as ‘wrong’. Islam rejects the idea of moral relativism, in its absolute sense. What is right and wrong has been defined by our Creator, not by the creation. The second step is to have the knowledge of what is taking place around you. If you do not know what is taking place, you cannot even attempt to hate it. However, dislike and aversion is not the end goal. It is a means to an end, the way that knowledge is a means towards action, rather than a goal in itself. The awareness and disapproval of ‘wrong’ will manifest itself on the tongue when a person is in a position to do so. In turn, that oral struggle will manifest into action when the opportunity presents itself.

Conclusion

The tongue has so much power because of its ability to lead to action, whether it is the individual speaking, or others who are listening. It is because of this power that the safety on this weapon should remain on, but it is also because of this power that those who are in a position to do so should aim and shoot.



[1] al-Zarqānī, Muḥammad, Sharḥ al-Zarqānī ʿalā Muwaṭṭa’ al-Imām Mālik, 4:517.

[2] Reported by Al-Bukhārī and Muslim

[3] Or in some narrations: “a word of justice”.

[4] Reported by al-Nasā’ī. al-Mundhirī classified it’s chain as authentic in al-Targhīb.

[5] Reported by Muslim.

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