The Value of Words
"Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good or keep
Famous companion, Sayyidna Muaz ibn Jabal, Radi-Allahu anhu, once asked the Prophet
Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, "Tell me about an act that will cause me to enter
Paradise and be protected from the Fire." "You have indeed asked something
profound," responded the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, "But it will be
easy on whom Allah makes it easy. Worship Allah and do not associate any partners with
Him. Establish regular Salat, pay Zakat, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj." Then
he asked "Shall I not tell you about the doors of good: fast is a shield (against
sins and against Hell-fire), charity extinguishes sins like water extinguishes fire; and
the midnight Salat (the voluntary Tahajjud Salat)." Then he recited this verse:
"Their limbs do forsake their beds of sleep, while they call on their Lord, in Fear
and Hope: and they spend (in charity) out of the sustenance which We have bestowed on
them." [As-Sajda 32:16]
Then he continued: "Shall I tell you about the beginning, the mainstay and the
high point of this? The beginning is (acceptance of) Islam; It's mainstay is Salat; it's
highest point is Jihad."
Then the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, asked: "Shall I tell you about the
thing on which all this depends?" He, then held his tongue and said "Guard
this." Sayyidna Muaz ibn Jabal, Radi-Allahu anhu, asked: "Shall we be questioned
about our utterances?" On this the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said,
"Most people will be thrown into Hell---face down---because of the transgressions of
The ability to speak and express themselves separates human beings from animals. The
proper use of this great gift---or its absence---separates the good and successful people
from the bad and unsuccessful ones.
Sayyidna Mu'adh's question was about eternal success. In response, the hadith mentions
both mandatory and voluntary good deeds that cover a person's entire life. But then we are
reminded that the outcome of all these depends upon guarding our tongue. In other words
carelessness with the tongue can poke holes in all of our good deeds.
Another hadith highlights the same issue in a different way: "Every morning all
the limbs of a person plead with his tongue: 'Fear Allah for our sake, for our fate is
tied to yours. If you follow the straight path so shall we. And if you go astray so shall
Yet another hadith reminds us about the far reaching consequences of the words we
utter. "Sometimes a person says something good but he does not realize how far will
his words go. Yet it earns him the pleasure of Allah till the day he will meet Him. On the
other hand sometimes a person says something bad, although he does not realize how far his
words will go. Yet it earns him the wrath of Allah till the day he will meet Him."
[Tirmizi, Ibn Maja, Muwwata Imam Malik].
The pre-Islamic Arab society was a very vocal society. While reading and writing were
not that common, people did pride themselves in their facility with words---both prose and
poetry. A person commanded respect based on his command over words. Using power of words
only, they could sink reputations, start wars, and impact life in a similar fashion as
modern media has come to demonstrate on a much larger scale. Then, as now, it was raw
power like the power of the beasts of the Jungle.
Islam tamed this beast. It reminded us that each and every word we utter is being
recorded by the angels and one day we will have to stand accountable for all this record.
It reminded that a person's greatness lies not in how powerful he is with words but in how
careful is he with them. It reminded that it is better to keep silent than to say
something bad. And it is better to say something good than to keep quiet.
The social revolution it engendered was unprecedented. It produced a people who truly
understood the value of words and who were as pious with them as they had been powerful.
Their silence was the silence of quiet reflection. And they spoke only when they could
improve the silence. Is it any wonder that even their extempore statements were pearls of
Today, everywhere there are schools that can teach one how to read, write, and speak a
language. But their students would never learn how to civilize this raw power; to use it
only in promoting truth and spreading virtue; to never use it for promoting falsehood or
There is a lot of unlearning we have to do if we want to get out of this. It is a
costly mistake for a believer to think that talk is cheap; that you can say whatever is
expedient without any concern for any consequences beyond the immediate ones.
Such attitudes, prevalent today, lead to all kinds of sins: vain pursuits, gossip,
dishonesty, insincerity, arrogance, belittling others, backbiting, spreading scandals and
corruption, telling lies. Each of these has been clearly defined as a deadly sin by the
Qur'an and Hadith. The treatment for each of these sins begins with learning the
Islamically responsible use of the tongue. Then there are secondary problems caused in
turn by these. In fact most of the problems in the family, in the society, and even
between countries are either created or augmented by the irresponsible use of the tongue.
Modern communication technologies have made it possible for messages to be transmitted
instantaneously all over the globe. But as the world marvels at these achievements, it
continues to confuse the speed of a message with its quality and value. We pride ourselves
on the ability to spread trash around the world at the speed of light. Witness the rubbish
that continues to dominate the Internet alone. We are amazed by the sophisticated
techniques of telling lies in a convincing manner. Witness the modern mainstream media
machine and its hold on our thoughts and actions.
The "information age" is begging for the moral guidance of Islam.