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 latch should always be on. Muslim scholars throughout time have warned us about the dangers of misfiring the tongue, something that almost everyone has been guilty of. The Prophet’s ﷺ concise statement should serve as sufficient evidence that the above is true: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good, or keep quiet.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim] Speech has been tied to belief in this Prophetic statement in order to drive home the idea that what we speak is almost as important as what we believe.
With advancements in technology, weapons are able to inflict much more harm that anyone previously ever dreamt of. Whether it’s a nuke or a cluster bomb, the effects of modern assault is a phenomenon that every person of conscious looks at with regret. The tongue is no different: by 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 ﷺ said: “The greatest struggle [Jihād] is a word of truth2 in front of a tyrant ruler.” [An-Nasā’ī] This statement should not fool anyone to think that the effect of prohibiting someone from doing wrong is confined only to the next world. One of the ways that ‘wrong’ is made ‘right’ is through the tongue. In fact, according to the Messenger ﷺ, this oral activism becomes a necessity when unable to physically correct something: “Whoever perceives something wrong must correct with their hand. If unable to, then with their tongue. If still unable, then with their heart, and that is the weakest level of faith.” [Muslim]
A detailed analysis of this command reveals a number of things:
- First, the perception that something is wrong must be 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, it would lead to chaos.
- Next, correcting something with the heart means to hate it in your heart. You can only hate what you know. 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 are 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 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, hatred is not the end goal. It is a means to an end, the same way that knowledge is a means towards action, rather than a goal in itself. The awareness and hatred for ‘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.
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 with it, and shoot.