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Every Word Counts
Dr. Jamal Badawi


The ability to speak and communicate is regarded in the Qur’an as one of the greatest blessings that God has given humanity. In the Qur’an, God details how He created humanity and then taught humans the power of expression or speech and understanding. The complexity and range of communication possibilities distinguishes humans from other living creatures.

The power of speech and expression is both used effectively and at the same time one of the most abused blessings. The Qur’an addresses this issue by emphasizing each individual’s responsibility for their own deeds. One of the major responsibilities is that of the word. The Qur’an contrasts between responsible and irresponsible use of the blessing of speech.

[Seest thou not how Allah coineth a similitude: A goodly saying, as a goodly tree, its root set firm, its branches reaching into heaven,

Giving its fruit at every season by permission of its Lord? Allah coineth the similitudes for mankind in order that they may reflect.

And the similitude of a bad saying is as a bad tree, uprooted from upon the earth, possessing no stability.]
(Ibrahim 14:24-26)

This contrast highlights that the crux of the problem lies not in the power of speech itself or the ability to produce words or communicate messages, but rather, it lies in the use or abuse of this ability according to the responsibility God has assigned along with it.

Preventing Abuse of Speech

The Qur’an outlines a number of recommendations on how to prevent the abuse of speech. Many verses point out that one should avoid vain and idle talk, with an emphasis on the importance of weighing words carefully. Muslims are encouraged to either say something useful and constructive or keep their silence.

In describing the characteristics of true believers, God mentions in the Qur’an that they avoid meaningless speech:

[And (the believers are) those who shun vain conversation.] (Al-Mu’minun 23:3)

In another verse, the Qur’an outlines the proper response believers should have towards those who do indulge in abusive speech:

[And those (worshipers of the Merciful are those) who will not witness vanity, but when they pass near senseless play, pass by with dignity.] (Al-Furqan 25:72)

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), reiterated this same principle. In a hadith, the Prophet said, “He who believes in God and in the Day of Judgment should say good things or keep quiet” (Bukhari).

It follows that there are no restrictions with regards to speech as long as there is a good purpose and intention behind it. There are many verses in the Qur’an which highlight the kind of speech that is recommended.

[…speak fair to the people…] (Al-Baqarah 2:83)

This highlights one of the qualities of good speech: fairness.

In another verse, God says what means:

[O ye who believe! Guard your duty to Allah, and speak words straight to the point and true] (Al-Ahzab 33:70)

The Prophet Muhammad also stressed that the reflection of belief is the purity of the heart. In turn, the reflection of the purity of the heart is the kind of words uttered by the individual.

In another saying, the Prophet points out that “A goodly word is a charity.” So charity in Islam is not just money, and the very least that people can give in charity is a good word.

Slips of the Tongue

The gravity of the responsibility of the word is such that the Qur’an warns against using speech to provoke enmity and conflict. This irresponsible use of words is so abhorrent that the Qur’an attributes it to the speech of the ultimate evil: Satan.

[Say (O Muhammad) to My servants that they should (only) say those things that are best and decent: for Satan tries to sow discord and enmity among them: For Satan is to man an avowed enemy.] (Al-Israa’ 17:53)

The danger of the abuse of the faculty of speech, therefore, is directly related to the doings of Satan.

Slips of the tongue can have dire consequences, and the cost of such slips can be serious in both this world and the next.

Courtesy Applies to All People

In Islam, courtesy of the word is not only prescribed to Muslims with regards to other Muslims. It applies for all people, as the Qur’an points out:

[And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).] (Al-`Ankabut 29:46)

Therefore, Muslims should be courteous in their speech towards all people of all religions or philosophies.

Sticks and Stones… and Words

Speech, as has been mentioned before, can either be used properly and within the limits God has set, or it may be abused, with no regard to any limits.

The question remains: What happens when speech is abused? How does Islam deal with situations in which Muslims find themselves the subject of verbal abuse?

The Qur'an's basic rule with regards to these kinds of situations is: treat abuse with goodness. This, as Islam sees it, is an encouragement for people to strive to win the hearts of their enemies, and to resist hostility. Just as two wrongs do not make a right, the Qur'an points to the transformative and healing powers of kindness:

[Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel (evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy close friend!] (Fussilat 41:34)

This verse makes it clear that Islam does not advocate the concept of "tit for tat". Evil, the verse says, can not be replied to in like. In fact, when a person resists the temptation of retaliation, the power of a good deed is such that it can turn enemies into friends.

This transformation, however, depends largely on the sincerity of the person who initiates this kindness. Sincere kindness turns the tables on the cycle of enmity by presenting a situation where the hostility is not mutual, and therefore, has nothing to feed upon.

The same meaning is also given by the Prophet Muhammad who said that although people may not be able to win the hearts of everyone through money (whether it is presented in the form of gifts or charity), but they can through two things: cheerfulness of the face, and decency of conduct.

When All Else Fails

However, there are cases where argument and discussions are, by their very nature, futile. These situations, Islam teaches, are best dealt with by avoidance. For example, the Qur'an, in describing the characteristics of true believers, says what means:

[And the (true) worshippers of (Allah) the Most Merciful are those who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say, "Peace!"] (Al-Furqan 25:63)

It is important to note that the word "ignorant" used in the translation given above is not precise. In Arabic, "jahiloon" can mean either "ignorance" or "people who can not control their emotions and aggression".

The reply "Peace" signifies both an end to the situation through a refusal to take part in it, and a kindness. Another verse builds on this:

[And when they (true believers) hear vain talk, they turn away from it and say: "To us our deeds and to you yours; peace be to you: we seek not the ignorant."] (Al-Qasas 28:55)

Although some people may think that not responding is an acceptance of the abuse or a humiliation, but in fact, this reaction is in keeping with the general Islamic manners of humbleness, gentleness, and dignity.

Islamic virtues connect and support each other without conflict. Therefore, humbleness is not contradictory to dignity, and vice versa. In addition, the Qur'an does not ask people to humiliate themselves, but encourages them to be humble.

Responding to anger with anger and to abuse with abuse causes an escalation of the situation and also leads to pettiness and indignity. Therefore, Islam calls for a realistic assessment of each situation on its own and suggests two different types of reactions: kindness, and not responding to abuse.

An example of this theory in practice can be seen in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Once, a man who was the Prophet's relative, but had a disreputable character met the Prophet. The Prophet sat with him and greeted him with a cheerful face and was courteous and kind.

After the man left, the Prophet's wife `A'ishah asked him about his gracious behavior towards the man with the bad character. The Prophet then asked his wife, "`A'ishah, when did you know me as an obscene person? The worst person in the sight of God on the Day of Judgment is he whom people avoid because of his bad manners." (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet also once pointed out that a believer is not one who injures others unduly, or one who curses others, or who is obscene.

Arguing with Decency

However, it is important to point out that these Qur'anic injunctions and this prophetic example does not mean that Muslims are not supposed to defend themselves if attacked unfairly.

Defending oneself can only be constructive, however, if it is carefully handled and does not increase enmity. It can not be undertaken in a spirit of revenge.

Islam distinguishes between different types of argumentation. Arguing for the sake of arguing is called laghw. Laghw is a term that appears in the Qur'an that refers to "vain talk". Jadal, on the other hand, is the Qur'anic term for the broader concept of argumentation.

Unlike the term laghw, which is consistently negative, the Qur’an refers to jadal in both positive and negative contexts. For example, God addresses the Prophet saying what means:

[Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way. Lo! Thy Lord is Best Aware of him who strayeth from His way, and He is Best Aware of those who go aright.] (An-Nahl 16:125)

In this context, arguing is a more positive “reasoning”, as it is governed by decency and courteousness.

Elsewhere, the same term is used in the sense of arguing for the sake of arguing. Those who engage in this kind of arguing are usually close-minded and are not interested in communication. They argue and debate insincerely, in that they do not listen to the other. This is discouraged in Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad said that no one would be misguided after having received guidance, or stray off the path, except for those who engage in vain or senseless argumentation (At-Tirmidhi). The Prophet also said that people who leave vain argumentation even when they are right will be rewarded in Paradise (Abu Dawud).

Therefore, whether an argument or discussion is vain or not, does not depend on the rightness and validity of the argument or its lack thereof. Instead, the intention behind communication is what determines its quality and acceptability.

Don’t Bite Back

As mentioned before, Islam creates clear-cut parameters for the use of speech. In addition, Islam specifically points out certain abuses and prohibits them. An example of the abuse of speech is backbiting.

There is a mention of this within the Qur'an because, as Muslims believe, God will hold people responsible on the Day of Judgment for their actions, which include their speech (whether oral or written).

The Arabic term for backbiting is "gheebah" and we find a derivative of that term appearing in the Qur'an:

[O you who believe! Shun much suspicion; for some suspicion is a crime. And spy not on each other, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You abhor that (so abhor the other)! And keep your duty (to Allah), for Allah is Relenting, Merciful.] (Al-Hujurat 49:12)

The Qur'an, as can be seen in the verse above, gives a terrible metaphor of people who speak ill of others in their absence. The actual speech involved in backbiting is described as eating the flesh, and the condition of the absence of the person being talked about is likened to death.

Furthermore, this applies even if what is being said about an individual is true. This means that even an expression of truth has its limitations.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once asked his Companions, “Do you know what backbiting is?” They said, “God and His Messenger know best.” He said, “Backbiting is to mention something about your brother that he hates for you to say about him.” So some people asked him, “What if what you are saying is true?” The Prophet answered, “If the ill that you talk about him is true, then you are backbiting him, and if what you say about him is not true, then not only are you backbiting, but you are also lying, which is an even greater injustice.” (Muslim)

Restrictions, Restrictions

These restrictions that Islam places are intended to prevent a number of social ills. These include the publicizing of evil. In the Qur'an, God says what means:

[Those who love that slander should be spread among those who believe, theirs will be a painful punishment in the world and the Hereafter. Allah knows and you know not.] (An-Nur 24:19)

In addition, the responsibility placed with regards to the words they say and write is based on the realization of the innate weaknesses of human beings. Therefore, if someone comments publicly and without wisdom and tact on someone else's behavior, this action puts the one being commented on in a difficult and embarrassing situation. This embarrassment and a possible stubbornness will make it almost impossible for him or her to correct themselves, creating a situation in which there is an insistence on continuing doing something wrong or behaving inappropriately.

The more graceful and Islamic way to deal with this situation is for each person to realize that everyone has a weakness and that drawing someone's attention to a certain weakness has its own etiquette and manners. Public embarrassment would only lead to an aggravation of any given situation. Therefore, in Islam, advice should be given in person, in private, and courteously.

Another important factor is that the prohibition of malicious slander and of backbiting controls other weaknesses people may have, such as vengefulness, boredom, or a sense of curiosity in peoples’ private lives, which are negative attitudes and motives.

People also backbite at times in order to make fun of others, a concept that is rejected and frowned upon in Islam. As God created every human being with his or her dignity, therefore, this dignity must be preserved and people should respect it.

The Exceptions to the Rule

As with many rules, talking about other people is not absolutely discouraged and there are exceptions. However, as with Islamic exceptions to rules set down, these are not arbitrary and can not be misused.

Muslims believe that God holds people responsible for their words and every person should use their conscience and make sure of the intention behind every word spoken or written. Some Muslim scholars have been so meticulous as to actually list the exceptions to this rule and specify them.

Some examples are: speaking out against oppression and tyranny. In fact, this is an obligation in Islam. It is imperative for a Muslim who has either experienced oppression or has witnessed it to speak out. The Qur’an tells us that any oppression should be exposed, even if it is the oppression of a Muslim or a close family member. However, speaking out against this should be done with the clear intention of establishing justice on an individual, social, national or international level.

The Qur’an says what means:

[Allah does not like evil to be voiced publicly, except for those who have suffered injustice.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:148)

Another situation in which talking about people is allowed and in fact encouraged is in the case of a clear social ill. This would include speaking out against crime organizations, or industries or individuals who are harming the community in some way. However, when possible, Islamic etiquette recommends that when possible, personal advice should first given to those who are causing the harm before the matter is publicized.

A third example would be if a person is seeking a religious ruling or social counseling that would require him or her to explain the context of certain situations that may include the words and actions of another person to a religious scholar or counselor. Again, as with all actions in Islam, this should be done with a pure intention to solve a genuine problem. In addition, Islam recommends to avoid naming names if it is unnecessary for the person solving the problem to know it.

There are other situations that Muslim scholars have specified as being exceptions, but the key to all speech, whether written or spoken, is the intention. Islam stresses that the person speaking or writing should genuinely intend something noble or good and conscientiously observe proper etiquette and manners, as every person will be held accountable for every word they said or wrote.





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