The idea of a brotherhood in Islam entails more than just calling each other “brother” and “sister”. One of the essential elements of a stable Islamic brotherhood is to fulfill the rights of others. For most of us “fulfilling the rights of others” makes us think about feeding the poor, helping the orphans, and other such charitable endeavors. But there’s another group of rights owed a little closer to home which we often neglect.
According to the Noble Qur’an and our beloved Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), it is possible to transgress against others by mocking and insulting them as well as picking at their faults. In fact, this spiritual disease of hurting other believers is widespread amongst our communities, a grave sin we must not commit under any circumstance.
Making Fun of Others
In verse 11 of Sura Al-Hujaraat of the Holy Qur’an, Allah says: “O you who have true faith, do not let men make fun of other men – perhaps they may be better than the other (group of men). Also, do not let women make fun of other women, as it may be that they are better than the other (group of) women…” According to Tafsir Majma al-Bayan the following incidents occurred at the time of revelation of this verse:
1. Thabit Ibne Qais suffered from a hearing difficulty, so when he entered the mosque, he attempted to move through the crowd to sit closer to the Prophet. A person blocked Thabit from moving any closer to the Prophet and made him sit down where he was. Thabit was angered by this man, and upon completion of the sermon, sought revenge by ridiculing the man because his mother was named after a woman who was notorious during the pre-Islamic period. The person became extremely embarrassed and lowered his head in shame.
2. Aisha binte Abu Bakr and Hafsah binte Umar made fun of the Prophet’s chaste wife Umme Salamah when a piece of cloth remained awkwardly hanging from the cloth she wore around her waist. They said “Umme Salamah has a piece of fabric hanging out which resembles the tongue of a dog when he is chasing himself!”
Just like Thabit, how many times have we joked about those aspects of others which cannot be changed, such as their ethnicity, family lineage, height, weight, and outward appearance? And like the abovementioned ladies, how many times have we laughed or gossiped about the way someone dressed or their mismatched/out-of-fashion clothing?
The verse continues: “…and do not defame one another by using bad names.”
So guess what? That means it is against the teachings of the Qur’an to say things like: “That guy looks like such-and-such animal”, “That lady’s hair looks like a birds nest”, “He is such a [insert rude nickname]”.
Finding Faults in Others
The verse also states: “do not find faults in yourselves.” Tafsir Majma al-Bayan explains these words of the Almighty as: “There are a group of people who incessantly try to pick faults in people and due to the lack of insight of the (negative) traits within their own selves and being unaware of the (spiritual) status of others are constantly looking to find faults in people and constantly strive to lift the curtains that cover the defects and shortcomings of others.”
Remember the last time you heard someone say, “she cooks terrible food”, “I have never seen that man pray”, “their house is so small”, “her wedding dress was so cheap”, “that jewelry set is totally fake”, “that guy has a low salary”, “their kids are not intelligent”, “her scarf looks so bad, she looks like she’s mourning”, “he doesn’t have a good voice”, “his Qur’an recitation was too long and boring”, “his wife isn’t good looking”, “they never host dinner parties, cheapos!”. The list of faults we find in others seems never ending.
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (peace be upon him) has said: “Sufficient is a person’s own defect (in himself) that he tries to pick and look for faults in other people, when he himself has those same faults in himself (and does not recognize them)!”
Finding faults in others is a doubly disturbing characteristic because besides the fact that we are committing a sin by doing so, we fail to recognize our own shortcomings and continue living the illusion that everything about us is perfect and without fault or flaws.
To emphasize the gravity of this issue, Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has forbidden us from even spending time with such people if they persist with such ill behavior: “I warn you of keeping relations from people who look for faults in others, since surely there is not a single person who will be safe from such people.”
Pointing Out Someone’s Defects with Sincerity
On the other hand, it is important to realize that pointing out one’s defects with sincerity is not the same as faultfinding. In his commentary of this verse, Ayatollah Ja’far Subhani states: “Picking the faults of others is one of the negative ethical traits, whereas guiding people and informing them of their own shortcomings by advising and giving them good council is one of the religious and humanistic responsibilities. Therefore, it is incumbent upon every spiritually conscious person to save his fellow human beings from a terrible end and that dark day ‘when everyone will have to answer for their actions’.”
Imam Ali has said, “Let the best person in your estimation be the one who points out to you your faults and shortcomings and presents them to you as a gift.”
Similaryl, in regards to people who partake in Amr Bil Maroof and Nahi Anil Munkar in a God-conscious manner, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) says: “May Allah’s mercy be upon that person who offers a gift to me by pointing out my own mistakes and shortcomings.”
Often when we receive these “gifts” of our faults being brought to our attention, even in a most appropriate and polite way, we have a tendency of lashing out at the giftgivers. Ayatollah Subhani explains such behavior: “The person who is scared of straight talk finds the truth being brought out into the open as being something bitter to accept. He finds it hard to acknowledge and accept any sort of open dialogue about the problems in the society. Such a person wants the societal shortcomings of a community to be swept under the rug and kept quiet and desires that people should speak about such things. These people are never content that the writers and speakers of the community bring up the problems of the people and anytime these things are brought up, then those who do not like this done try to destroy and refute what has been written or said. Therefore we must say to such a person: ‘May you be destroyed! Not bringing up these issues (The problems of a community) is an error itself!'”
Psychological Motives Behind Hurting Others
Now that we have explored insulting, name calling, and faultfinding, let us know why such people intentionally hurt others. Ayatollah Subhani states: “When we look at the psychological reasons that lead a person to make fun of other people, we see that there is a defect or shortcoming that the person himself possesses, and by making other people feel inferior, he wants to try and compensate for his own shortcomings, and thus he tries to instill in himself his supposed greatness.”
The verse concludes, “How bad it is after having true faith that a person (does these acts) but does not turn in repentance (to Allah), so then surely it is these people who are the transgressors.” If we have ever intentionally hurt someone, the Almighty is commanding us to repent and ask for His mercy and forgiveness. It is also vital to directly apologize to the person we have hurt, even if it was a long time ago, especially if it entailed backbiting.
How Can I Help Prevent This in My Community?
- First and foremost, let us analyze ourselves and make sure we are not one of those people who hurt others. If we have done so, we must sincerely repent and seek forgiveness. In the future, be able to draw the line between a friendly joke and the prohibited act of hurting other. When in doubt, hold yourself back!
- Gently approach those we associate with who intentionally hurt others and explain the gravity of such actions. Insha’Allah they will stop hurting others. If they continue to intentionally hurt others, disassociate with such people.
- If someone is being intentionally hurt and insulted in front of you, step in and defend them like our Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them) would. Not only does it fit the mannerism of a believer to do so, but we will also be rewarded! Imam Ali said: “May Allah have mercy upon the person who services a right and removes a wrong, or refutes an injustice and establishes justice.”
Editor’s Note: For a detailed analysis of Sura Al-Hujaraat, see the book The Islamic Moral System by Ayatollah Ja’far Subhani, available online.