The heart, the tongue and the hand

[Al-qalb wal-lisan wal-yad]

Sawt Al-Umma, Issue 96
September 30th, 2002

A good word is one that enters peoples’ blood where it begins to reproduce and copy itself. The seed becomes a tree and the tree becomes a forest. A drop of water becomes a river and the river becomes an ocean. Light becomes a star and the star becomes a constellation. A spark becomes light and the light becomes a forest of light poles. However,

the path to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. And while bad can sometimes lead to good it can also be found lurking behind a beautiful picture or a common word whose deep meaning we haven’t had the time or made the effort to fully investigate. And so you should consider carefully what you are about to say before you say it. Consider your actions before they return to hold you to account.

Among the most pervasive matters in our daily lives is ‘al-amr bil-ma’ruf’ which may be translated as ‘ordering what is good’. But we don’t know who has the right to do this. We have gone to excesses in this matter without knowing its proper limits and we have paid an enormous price. Relationships between people have deteriorated. Dealings between them have been corrupted and roads that were once open have been blocked.

One basic principle of ‘ordering what is good’ is that only those whom Allah has told to do so should order what is good. Allah told the prophet [s.a.a.w.s] “And enjoin prayer on your people and be constant therein” [Taha:132] It’s the same in everyday life. A police officer can only give orders to those under his command A military officer has no authority over them. A headmaster can only give orders to the pupils in his school. He cannot give orders to pupils in another school. The head of a household can only give orders to the members of his household. He can’t give orders in the street. Another principle is that if you do have the right to order then ‘ordering what is good.’ should be given in a ‘good’ way. Allah told his prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and friendly persuasion and argue with them with what is better” [Al-Nahl:125]

In fact, al-ma’ruf translated as ‘what is good’ may also be translated as ‘well-known’ – an allusion to the prophet [s.a.a.w.s] about whom a translation of a verse in the Quran says:
“The people of the Book know him as they know their own sons; but some of them conceal the truth which they themselves know” [Al-Baqara:146]. The word al-monkar usually translated as ‘what is bad’ ‘detestable’ or ‘abominable’ alludes to Iblis. A basic principle here is that punishment is not sanctioned as a means of preventing what is bad. The Messenger [s.a.a.w.s.] himself did not use force to prevent wrongdoing. The establishment of punishments in accordance with religious law is aimed at punishing not preventing wrongdoing. At the same time, it is a deterrent or a warning to others. However a warning is not violent. It prevents wrongdoing by defining the limits set by Allah with wisdom and friendly persuasion The prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] said ‘Don’t sit at the sides of the roads’ [People] replied that it was sometimes necessary to do so to which the prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] replied: ‘If it becomes necessary, then give the road its rightful due’. Asked what was its ’rightful due’ he told them to lower their gaze, not do harm to anyone,  return greetings, order what is good and prevent what is bad’. ‘Lower your gaze’ means by inference a woman is not required to appear in public looking like a barrel. If this were a requirement of religion there would be no need for men to lower their gaze. Likewise to ‘return greetings’ is not limited to uttering a few ritual words. It means giving others a feeling of reassurance and well-being.

‘Ordering what is good’ implies advising others to stay clear of “what is bad’. Advising others to stay clear of what is bad is different from changing or putting an end to what is bad. It is like preventive medicine which teaches the importance of cleanliness and sanitation as means of preventing illness. However, once an illness has been diagnosed, preventive medicine is no longer useful or appropriate. Treatment or surgery is required. This leads us to differentiate between two kinds of religious authorities. The first kind is those who offer advice, warnings, clarification and understanding such as clerics and preachers. However, if an ‘illness’ is diagnosed the role of cleric and preachers comes to an end. At this time, a second kind is required. They are those who have the power to treat and cure the illness by purifying the heart. They are those who have been given such powers and were described by the prophet as the ‘successors of the prophets’ [warathat al-anbia]. The Quran says of them; ‘You are the best of peoples, evolved for Mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah’ [Al-I’mran:110].

The prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] said of them: ‘Man raa minkum monkaran  falyoghayarahu biyadehi fa in lam yastatia’ fa bilisanihi fa in lam yastatia’ fa biqalbihi wa thalika ada’f ul-iman’. which may be  translated as ‘If one of you sees something bad, then he should change it with his hand. If he can’t, then with his tongue and, if he can’t, then with his heart and that is the weakest faith’ [Sahih Muslim, Vol. 1, pp. 69] This hadith has been misused by some, albeit with good intentions or as a result of their failure to fully investigate its meaning The result is that we have had to pay an enormous price with the wanton murder slaughter and terror perpetrated by groups of fanatics. It has cost us billions of pounds, held back our economic development and tarnished the reputation of a nation known for its peacefulness and calmness.

The first key to a correct understanding of this hadith lies in the words ‘if one of you sees something bad then change it’ which implies the words are not being addressed to everyone but only to those who actually see something they are qualified to judge to be bad and more importantly are actually able to do something about it. An order such as ‘If one of you sees a car exceeding the speed limit then stop it’ can only be directed to a traffic policeman. Likewise ‘If one of you sees someone afflicted with disease, then cure him’ can only be directed to a qualified doctor. A condition of any order is that it can only be directed to those who are able to carry out the order. In this case, the order to change what is bad is directed to those who have been given the power and the authority to change what is bad whether by the hand, the tongue or the heart. The person being ordered to do this should therefore have all three means of changing something bad at his disposal. Practically speaking, who, we may ask, really has all these? Ahad minkum means ‘one of you’ and alludes to such a person not to just anyone.

A second key to a proper understanding of this hadith lies in a correct understanding of the order in which the means of change are listed. Most muslims understand and have been taught the most powerful means of changing what is bad is the hand followed by the tongue and finally the heart the last of which, the hadith appears to say, is the ‘weakest faith’. It is reported in Shaiba’s collection that Al-Hassan said: ”Faith [iman] is ‘what is settled in the heart and evidenced by deeds’. As deeds are carried out either by the hand or by the tongue then the heart by inference is the most powerful. Moreover when speaking about the means of changing what is bad one would normally expect to begin with the least powerful means and end with the most powerful and not the opposite. In other words, if a less powerful means of changing what is bad fails, then you have to use a more powerful means. If that fails, you have to use an even more powerful means. If I don’t have the strength to carry a heavy load on my own and neither does my colleague who is stronger than me, then it will need someone stronger than either of us to carry it.

So what led people to such a basic misunderstanding of this hadith? In Arabic grammar the word thalika alludes to what is most distant not to what is closest in the listing order The words ‘that is the weakest faith’ allude to the hand which is the first to be listed and therefore most distant, not to the heart which is the last to be listed and therefore the closest. If faith is truly settled in the heart and a person’s prayers are answered then the heart will certainly be a more powerful means of changing what is bad than either the hand or the tongue.

When the prophet Ibrahim [a.s.] destroyed idols with his hands, he did not destroy idol worship. The idol worshippers simply replaced their clay idols with stone ones and returned to their traditional practices. On the other hand, when the prophet Mohamed [s.a.a.w.s.] entered the ka’ba on his return to Mecca he didn’t destroy the stone idols, he destroyed idol worship. He changed what was bad in peoples’ hearts with his own heart. The words ‘that is the weakest faith’ allude to the hand not to the heart. The hadith can only be correctly understood if it is understood that whoever is being ordered to change something bad is not being told to do something beyond his means or ability. The Quran says: ‘Allah does not give someone something to do without giving him the means to do it’. [Al-Baqara: 286]. Those being ordered to change something bad have therefore been given the means and the ability to make those changes with the hand, the tongue and the heart. The order is not being given to one group of people to make changes with the hand or a second group to make changes with the tongue or a third group to make changes with the heart. The responsibility for changing what is bad is being given to those who have been given all three means of effecting change.

True wisdom is to put things in their proper place. If the wise teach people who don’t deserve it, they do an injustice to wisdom. If they keep wisdom from people who do deserve it, then they do an injustice to these people. To teach superficial and blatantly wrong explanations of this hadith to others is to destroy them and to destroy what is good. This is what has happened. The wanton and indiscriminate murder and violence perpetrated by extremists are often justified by them and their supporters on the basis of this hadith. And yet, as we have seen, violence has no place in this hadith. Whoever tries to use force to change people has no authority to do so. Such a person’s actions lead only to more division and conflict. Violence has no place in the example and teachings of the prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] to whom Allah says ‘It is part of the Mercy of Allah that you deal gently with them Had you been severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from you So pass over [their faults] and ask Allah’s forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs [of moment] [Al-I’mran 159].

The prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] was the best of all men to order what is good and prevent what is bad. But how can a faithful heart change what is bad?

Only Allah preserves from error and gives strength to do right