Words Have Power: A Sacred Truth From the Qur’an

The first principle

وَقُولُوا لِلنَّاسِ حُسْناً

“Speak to people good words.”

The Arabic word used for “good” is “ḥusnā”. As a result, the āyah translates as, “Speak to people good words.”[1] What is interesting is that in other recitations of the verse – namely that of Ḥamzah and al-Kisā’ī – this word is recited as “ḥasanā”. Thus, the āyah translates to: “Speak to people with goodness.” When putting the two meanings together, the instruction is to say that which is best in the best manner. Consequently, the first recitation is a description of what should be said, whilst the second is a description of how it should be said.

The idiom of ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never break me’ is quite inaccurate, for words can cause immense pain. According to both the experiences of life and the instructions from revelation, their repercussions can be immense. With a single utterance, one enters the fold of Islam, and with another one may leave it. With one word, two are wed in marriage, whereby intimacy between the two of them becomes permitted, and with another word, the two are separated, thus becoming strangers to one another.

The Prophet ﷺ said:

إنَّ العَبْدَ لَيَتَكَلَّمُ بِالكَلِمَةِ مِنْ رِضْوَانِ الله تَعَالَى مَا يُلْقِي لَهَا بَالاً يَرْفَعُهُ اللهُ بِهَا دَرَجاتٍ ، وإنَّ العَبْدَ لَيَتَكَلَّمُ بِالكَلَمَةِ مِنْ سَخَطِ اللهِ تَعَالَى لا يُلْقِي لَهَا بَالاً يَهْوِي بِهَا في جَهَنَّمَ

“One may utter a word which pleases Allah without giving it much importance, and because of that Allah will raise him to high degrees of reward. Similarly, one may utter a word which displeases Allah without thinking of its significance, and because of it he will plummet into the Hell-fire.”Al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah.[2]

In fact, if the inmates of Hell were surveyed for the primary cause of their suffering within its pits, according to the prophetic tradition the overwhelming majority would trace the cause back to something they had said. When the Prophet ﷺ was asked about the main cause behind people’s entry to Paradise, he replied:

تَقْوَى اللهِ وَحُسْنُ الخُلُقِ

Taqwā (consciousness) of Allah and good manners.”

And when asked about the main cause behind people’s entry to Hell, he replied:

 الفَمُ وَالفَرْجُ

“One’s mouth and private parts.”[3]

The people that we interact with throughout our lives are many: the believer and the non-believer, the pious and the impious, the generous and the stingy, the calm and the irascible, and the humble and the arrogant. Thus, this Qur’anic principle is of the essence and of immense practical benefit tens or hundreds of times a day. So, who is most deserving of having this principle applied in their case?

Number 1: your parents

Allah said,

وَلا تَنْهَرْهُمَا وَقُلْ لَهُمَا قَوْلاً كَرِيماً
“Do not say to them even ‘uff’ and do not disrespect them, but address them in terms of honour.”Al-Qur’an, 17:23.[4]

The mother of ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAwn once called him, to which he responded in a voice that was slightly louder than hers. So, in repentance to Allah, he freed two slaves.[5]

As for Muhammad b. Sīrīn, a man once saw him sitting meekly in the company of his mother and asked, “What is wrong with Muhammad? Is he ill?” They responded:

لا، ولكن هكذا يكون إذا كان عند أمه

“No, but this is how he behaves when he is sitting with his mother.”[6]

Number 2: your spouse

How sad it is to see a person in public depict themselves as being an angel of mercy, the comedian of the community, and the sympathetic counsellor who speaks with tiptoeing caution, lest he offend someone. However, his persona at home is starkly different: he is a penny-pinching miser, harsh hearted, and a foul-mouthed demon. Speaking about this depressing reality, Imam al-Shawkānī said:

وَكَثِيرًا مَا يَقَعُ النَّاسُ فِي هَذِهِ الْوَرْطَةِ ، فَتَرَى الرَّجُلَ إذَا لَقِيَ أَهْلَهُ كَانَ أَسْوَأَ النَّاسِ أَخْلَاقًا وَأَشْجَعَهُمْ نَفْسًا وَأَقَلَّهُمْ خَيْرًا ، وَإِذَا لَقِيَ غَيْرَ الْأَهْلِ مِنْ الْأَجَانِبِ لَانَتْ عَرِيكَتُهُ وَانْبَسَطَتْ أَخْلَاقُهُ وَجَادَتْ نَفْسُهُ وَكَثُرَ خَيْرُهُ

“Many people fall into this calamity where – when they meet their wives – their manners are the worst, having become the most daring of people and the least in goodness. However, when they meet strangers, they soften up, their mood improves, they become generous, and their goodness amplifies.”Imam al-Shawkānī

Imam al-Shawkānī commented on this phenomenon by stating:

وَلَا شَكَّ أَنَّ مَنْ كَانَ كَذَلِكَ فَهُوَ مَحْرُومُ التَّوْفِيقِ زَائِغٌ عَنْ سَوَاءِ الطَّرِيقِ ، نَسْأَلُ اللَّهَ السَّلَامَةَ

“Without a doubt, this is a person whom Allah has deprived of success, and who has gone astray from the straight path. We ask Allah to protect us from that.”[7]

The Prophet ﷺ said:

 خَيْرُكُمْ خَيْرَكُمْ لأهلِهِ وأنا خَيْرُكُمْ لأهلِي

“The best of you is the one who is best towards his wife, and I am the best of you towards my wives.”[8]

He was also asked:

أي الناس أعظم حقا على المرأة؟ قال: زوجها، قلت: فعلى الرجل؟ قال: أمه
“Who does a woman owe the greatest rights to?” He said, “Her husband.” Then he was asked, “Who does a man owe the greatest rights to?” He said, “His mother.”[9]The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Number 3: those in need

Favours will be asked of you, and at times you may not have the means to help. At this juncture, recall the Qur’anic imperative of “speak to people good words”, as Allah said:

وَأَمَّا السَّائِلَ فَلا تَنْهَرْ
“And as for him who asks, do not repel him.”[10]Al-Qur’an, 93:10

If advice, time, money, or their likes are sought of you when you find yourself unable to help, at least turn them away using the kindest of words.

Number 4: those senior to you

Whether this seniority is by way of age, knowledge, or that which is similar, the words you choose when addressing them matter to Allah. The Prophet ﷺ said:[11]

ليس منَّا مَنْ لم يُجِلَّ كبيرَنا ، ويرحمْ صغيرَنا ويَعْرِفْ لعالِمِنا حقَّهُ
“He who does not honour the elders amongst us, nor shows mercy towards the younger ones, and does not give our scholars their rights is not from amongst us.”The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Now that we have covered some of the most deserving people when it comes to the application of “speak to people good words”, we should also tackle several circumstances where people are most prone to forgetting this Qur’anic principle.

1. When on the receiving end of an insult

When praising the truest worshippers of Allah, the Qur’an describes them by saying:

وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلاماً

“And when the ignorant address them harshly, they say [words of] peace.”[12]

A man insulted Imam al-Shaʿbī, to which he responded by saying:[13]

إن كنتُ كما قلتَ فغفر الله لي ، وإن لم أكن كما قلتَ فغفر الله لك

“If I am as you say, then may Allah pardon me, and if I am not, then may Allah pardon you.”Imam al-Shaʿbī

A man said to Ḍirār b. al-Qaʿqā’:

والله لو قلتَ واحدةً لسمعت عشراً

“By Allah, if you insult me just once, I will respond with ten!”

He responded:

والله لو قلتَ عشراً ما سمعتَ واحدة

“By Allah, if you insult me ten times, I will not even respond with one.”[14]

Indeed, the believer has so much on his mind with regards to his journey to Allah and the eternal abode of the Hereafter that his heart finds no room to store such insults, let alone the time to mull over them. Life, as they see it, is but a fleeting marketplace, where in the end, some walk away having made profits, whilst others end up losing everything. They have no time to waste, and so they “speak to people with good words”.

2. When “only joking”

The purpose of mizāḥ (joking) is to lighten the atmosphere and bring joy to those involved. However, if it ends up causing sadness, embarrassment, or friction, then by definition this is now beyond the parameters of mizāḥ. Instead, this conduct falls under the general heading of sukhriyyah (mockery), which Allah has prohibited.

The Companions said to the Prophet ﷺ:

 يا رسولَ اللَّهِ ! إنَّكَ تداعِبُنا ؟

“O Messenger of Allah, you joke with us?”

He responded,

 إنِّي لا أقولُ إلَّا حقًّا

“But I only speak the truth.”[15]

His jokes were, therefore, free from mockery, lying, scaring of others, or excessiveness. In sum, all of his jokes honoured the principle of “speak to people good words”.

3. When disagreeing over a matter, be it Islamic or otherwise.

Yūnus al-Ṣadafī said:

ما رايتُ أعقل من الشافعي ، ناظرتُه يوماً في مسألة ، ثم افترقنا ، ولقيني ، فأخذ بيدي ، ثم قال : يا أبا موسى ، ألا يستقيم أن نكون إخواناً وإن لم نتفق في مسألة .

“I have never seen a wiser man than al-Shāfiʿī. I once debated with him on a matter and then we separated. Soon after, we met again, where he held my hand and said, ‘O father of Mūsā, can we not remain as brothers, even if we disagree over a matter?’”

Commenting on this, Imam al-Dhahabī said,

 هذا يدل على كمال عقل هذا الإمام ، وفقه نفسه ، فما زال النُّظراءُ يختلفون

“This indicates just how complete the mind of this Imam is and his deep knowledge, for it is well known that peers will continue to differ.”[16]

The Prophet ﷺ said:[17]

إِنَّ فِي الجَنَّةِ غُرَفًا تُرَى ظُهُورُهَا مِنْ بُطُونِهَا وَبُطُونُهَا مِنْ ظُهُورِهَا، فَقَامَ أَعْرَابِيٌّ فَقَالَ: لِمَنْ هِيَ يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ؟ قَالَ: لِمَنْ أَطَابَ الكَلاَمَ، وَأَطْعَمَ الطَّعَامَ، وَأَدَامَ الصِّيَامَ، وَصَلَّى بِاللَّيْلِ وَالنَّاسُ نِيَامٌ

“In Paradise there are rooms whose outside area is visible from their inside sections and their inside sections are visible from the outside.” An Arab Bedouin man stood up and said, “Who do they belong to, O Messenger of Allah?” He said, “They are for those who utter the best of speech (other narrations state here, “are most gentle in speech”), distribute food, fast regularly, and pray at night when people are asleep.”The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

The vast majority of the differences that take place between us are rarely due to deep issues that are difficult to resolve, but simply occur as a result of the manner in which one expresses themselves. In other words, the problem lies in poor choice of wording, tone, or both. Indeed, most disasters of life and the afterlife can be evaded by simply evoking this Qur’anic principle before formulating every expression.

Source: Islam21c

Shaykh Hammuda


[1] al-Qur’an, 2:83.

[2] al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah.

[3] al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah.

[4] al-Qur’an, 17:23.

[5] Ḥilyah al-Awliyā’.

[6] Ḥilyah al-Awliyā’.

[7] Nayl al-Awṭār.

[8] al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of ʿĀ’ishah.

[9] Aḥmad, on the authority of ʿĀ’ishah.

[10] al-Qur’an, 93:10.

[11] Majmaʿ al-Zawā’id, on the authority of ʿUbādah b. al-Ṣāmit.

[12] al-Qur’an, 25:63.

[13] Adab al-Dunyā wa al-Dīn.

[14] Ansāb al-Ashrāf.

[15] al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah.

[16] Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalā’.

[17] Ibn Ḥibbān, on the authority of Abū Mālik al-Ashʿarī.

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