What’s Missing From Today’s Ethical Mindset?

A Book Review of Prohibitions of the Tongue by Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud

Normative ethics across the political and religious spectrum today often relies on rigid application of absolutes. The one who opposes oppression must fight to eradicate every oppressor and never be kind to one. The one who loves must love everyone as they are, revealing not a smidgen of intolerance. The one who cares for his religion must be harsh and conservative in all aspects of his religion, never exhibiting mercy.

Prohibitions of the Tongue by Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud and its commentaries by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf [1] and Shaykh Muhammad al-Hasan [2] argue that the Islamic approach to ethics is a different one: it is not simply a set of unwavering rules to be imposed upon all situations. Rather, it is a nuanced ethical system based on deep care for oneself and others. The same action, such as speaking to an oppressor, can be deemed either praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on the intention and approach. Here, we will first explore how deep-rooted the standard rigid application of absolute principles is in today’s society. Then, we will contrast this with the proposed Islamic approach of deep care for oneself and others in actions.

Today’s Ethical Mindset

Thomas Kuhn detailed in his 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions how scientists historically explored the world under a prevailing paradigm. These paradigms inform a set of core theories and laws that they apply in their studies. Initially, for more than a thousand years, scientists explored the world under the theories of Greek mathematics and Aristotelean physics. Then there came an age when Newtonian physics was taken as almost unshakable truth. Later, a new paradigm, quantum physics, came to replace it too.

Citizens in a society are not much different. To a large degree, and despite whether we are consciously aware of it, the way in which we explore the world is rooted in the democratic, capitalistic paradigm we live in. The absolute principles which are so commonly applied today are informed by this paradigm’s principles – and, nowhere is the principle of absolutes more obvious than in mainstream economics.

Economists rarely speak of “good” societies. More often, they speak of “developed” ones. They use tangible, outward factors like gross domestic product and income per capita as proxies for goodness. While the everyday person does not use the same indicators, they often approach goodness with the same mindset. Success, or “making it,” in the world is associated with the high-flying, rich celebrity. More attention and respect is given to the rich person than to the poor person; to the educated person than to the illiterate person; to the healthy person than to the sick and weak one. 

One need not look far to realize that this materialistic view of equating goodness with outward factors like wealth, health, or education is at odds with Islam’s view of goodness. Although wealth, health, and education can all be used for good, and although these factors are undoubtedly encouraged at some level by the tradition, they are not indicators of the good or bad state of a person.

And let not those who disbelieve ever think that [because] We extend their time [of enjoyment] it is better for them. We only extend it for them so that they may increase in sin, and for them is a humiliating punishment. [Qur’an 3:178]

The Quranic verse strongly suggests that even the health and long life of a person does not necessarily correlate with their good state. [Al-Kashaf الكشّاف, Al-Zamakhshari 3:178].

Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud also critiques this idea of wellbeing. He points out in Prohibitions of the Tongue that even seeking traditional Islamic education, the most esteemed form of education, can actually be sinful.

[And from the prohibited actions is] learning Islamic law or the science of purification for the sake of wealth or status [Prohibitions, Verse 37]

In fact, because of the sacredness of Islamic knowledge, educating oneself in these sciences for material gain is not proof of wellbeing, but proof of a poor spiritual and mental state. Lacking true fulfillment and pleasure in other parts of their life, the individual seeks it through education. This Islamic principle is at odds with what we are taught: seek education to acquire money and status; acquire money and status to live in happiness and good health; good health and happiness is the end-all, be-all.

This brings us to the nuanced ethical framework proposed in Prohibitions of the Tongue. Unlike the utilitarianism of economists, which relies on the absolute principle of maximizing pleasure, the authors propose a framework more akin to the care ethics articulated by philosophers like Nel Noddings:

To care is not to act by fixed rule but by affection and regard. [3]

Noddings realized that there cannot be one rule that applies universally to everyone. Each person’s context and story is different, so each should be treated differently with due regard. Even in the world of Islamic law (sharia), the intention behind an action is often what can swing it from a status of ‘recommended’ to ‘impermissible.’ This is despite common misconceptions that the sharia is derived from a rigid equation-like calculation. For example, critiquing an oppressive ruler can either be praiseworthy or blameworthy. Is the intention to warn fellow citizens of the ruler or is it simply to laugh and mock him?  Shaykh Muhammad Al-Hasan writes in his commentary on Prohibitions:

Ibn Awn said: I entered upon Ibn Sireen and mentioned an evil of Al-Hajjaj (a governor who killed many companions of the Prophet Muhammadﷺ) which he did not openly display. Ibn Sireen said to me: God will surely take revenge for Al-Hajjaj just as He will take revenge on him. And if you were to meet God tomorrow, the smallest sin you have committed will be more relevant to you than the largest sin that Al-Hajjaj committed.

When speaking of–not just an average dictator, but one who killed the esteemed companions of the Prophet (ﷺ), the renowned scholar Ibn Sireen warned Ibn Awn that one should speak of the evils of a tyrant only if there is some benefit to people, or if it is something the tyrant has displayed in public. Moreover, he warned Ibn Awn to be mindful of his gossip now, before the day comes in which he will be forced to be mindful of it (i.e. the Day of Judgement). Contrast this with the extremely inconsiderate way people joke about unpopular politicians, and it is clear that deep care – both for the oppressed and the oppressor – is lacking from the common ethical mindset.

Deep Care for the Self

Deep care, as presented by Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud and the commentators of Prohibitions, is multi-dimensional. It has facets of self-care, emotional intelligence, and spiritual awareness.

Deep care begins with the self before extending to others. Despite the constant encouragement for students to “go out and change the world” and “to be the change you want to see,” the change-society mindset has a hidden flaw. Psychologists have increasingly realized that this kind of discourse disregards self-care: focusing on the wellbeing and stability of the self before helping others. Muslims are not immune from this cart-before-horse fallacy. Many believe that they alone can help change the Muslim ummah (global community) for the better, without first contemplating if they can help change themselves for the better. Shaykh Al-Hasan in the opening of his commentary on Prohibitions of the Tongue narrates:

And some of the scholars said: from that which does not concern a Muslim […] is to study the ruling to fix other people without studying the rules to fix himself. And when asked why he does so, he says ‘why, for the benefit of society!’ Now, if he were truly righteous, he would start by studying what heals his own soul and heart.

A key part of this deep self-care is in being able to reflect on one’s own intentions in doing an action. Discerning one’s own intention is not as easy as it seems. The soul desires to be easy on itself and harsh on others. When reflecting on one’s own intention, we are inclined to assume the best in ourselves. When reading other’s intention, we are inclined to assume the worst. Shaykh Al-Hasan brings a hadith which exemplifies this concept: 

If you hear of a man who says the people are ruined, know he is the most ruined.  [2]

Today, “the people are ruined” manifests in a number of different expressions: “Muslims today are so ignorant,” or “people are so corrupt!” are just some examples of raging against the state of society. On the surface, it may seem that these expressions indicate great concern for piety and religiosity. However, the Prophet (ﷺ) points out that one should be careful of saying such things out of pride and vanity, as is often the case. More likely than not, the complainer subconsciously sees himself above others; he believes that corruption and misguidance are only afflicting others; he forgets that any guidance he has is only from God. In contrast, the one who genuinely cares for his own well-being is the first to recognize his shortcomings and fears that he is among the most corrupt. The eminent Imam Al-Shafi’i, despite being known as an individual of immense piety and upright character, alludes to this attitude in his heartfelt poem

I love the righteous, but I am not amongst them. 

Perhaps they will grant me their intercession (between me and God). [4]


Deep Care for Others

Emotional intelligence is not always in making others feel short term pleasure, but also in securing their long term spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

In one of the best selling self-help books of all time, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states that a surefire way of earning friendship and persuading others to your side is to pepper them with praise [5].

On the surface, this may seem like deep care. “You do you,” or “you can do anything you put your mind to,” are common motivational expressions. In every level of our society, from little league soccer games where everyone is deemed a winner, to the white-collar workplace where managers are encouraged to laude their workers’ efforts before critiquing them, praise is given quickly and cheaply.

Shaykhs Mawlud and Al-Hasan demonstrate that this kind of caring, upon deeper reflection, often stems from selfish desires. The one who praises is often seeking something from the praised one: their acceptance, a share in their status, or the continued endless toil they provide to the corporation. In doing so, they may exaggerate in their praise to the point of dishonesty. “You are the best group of employees I’ve ever had,” the manager says. Both he and the managed know this to be untrue, yet neither bats an eye, each one’s soul indulging in the falsehood.

What Islamic ethics advocates is, as always, balance. While well-timed praise can help a person realize their talents and nurture them further whereas non-stop and endless praise can kill their drive to grow and their dedication to God in using it. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Be wary of praise, for it is like slaughter.” [6]

Deep Care in Religion

Though more than a century old, Prohibitions of the Tongue also brings a refreshing perspective to a current, controversial discussion. The ban on the niqab in several countries, violence against identifiably Muslim women across the world, and the general rise in Islamaphobia has some Muslims questioning the validitiy of niqab in the sharia. Others go further, harboring resentment towards their fellow Muslim women who choose to wear niqab, believing it to be extreme. “Why should we support Muslim women who choose to wear it?” they ask. “They are bringing that situation upon themselves,” they say. The question of validity is clearly answered: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf points out that the obligation of the niqab is a strong position in all the mainstream Sunni schools of thought. Rulings aside, a more interesting point to note is the legal reason to wear niqab according to Shaykh Mawlud and the Maliki school of law:

And is covering her face obligatory, when she fears her beauty will cause his tribulation or he will look at her unashamedly? [7]

A woman may wear niqab for many reasons, some deeply spiritual and others cultural. But even from a shari’a perspective, a woman’s decision to wear the niqab does not stem from “internalized misogyny,” but rather from a concern for the spiritual and mental well-being of others in society. She recognizes that her immense beauty can be a distraction and lead to others sinning as they prolong their gaze (or “check her out” in everyday slang) and so, wears a niqab to protect them. Her act demonstrates an incredible level of care for others, a level almost alien to today’s individualistic society. From this, we derive that the deeply caring Muslim, woman or man, asks not “why should I care what others think?” but “how can I help and care for the well-being of those around me?” [8]

[footnote: This is not a fatwa on the obligation of niqab. For a complete discussion read Prohibitions and listen to the commentary by Sh Hamza Yusuf and Sh Rami Nsour]

Conclusion

Thousands of years ago, Confucius wrote in his Ta Hio of a wise approach in establishing a moral and just society:

The men of old […] wanting good governments in their state, first established order in their families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline they first rectified their own hearts; wanting to rectify their hearts, they rectified their tongues. [9]

This focus on improving the heart and tongue of the individual has all but evaporated. Instead, we focus on broad brush stroke attempts to fix society. To be clear, Islam does not promote isolation of oneself and abandonment of those around us. This much is clear from the constant command to do: amr bil ma’roof and nahiyy anil munkar (commanding the good and forbidding the evil) – but even in our fixing of others, what the Islamic ethical framework demands is care. Sidi Al-Mawwaq, the last chief Qadi of Granada, writes in Sunan al Muhtadeen, that to forbid the evil for one who is drinking alcohol, encourage him to learn a musical instrument instead. While all scholars unanimously agree on the prohibition of drinking alcohol, at least a few permit the playing of an instrument. So even if not ideal, with one step at a time and with care, he helps his fellow brother improve.

Speech, and the tongue, which symbolically represents speech, are core parts of this deep care as they are the medium of its exchange between people. When Muadh Ibn Jabal (ra) asked the Prophet (ﷺ) what he could do to bring him closer to Paradise and further from Hellfire, the Prophet (ﷺ) gave an in-depth explanation of the methods to achieve Paradise and then asked Muadh, “Would you like to know how you can achieve all of this?” Muadh answered “Of course Prophet of God.” The Prophet (ﷺ) paused. Then, he grabbed his own tongue and said, “Restrain this.” [10]

Works Cited:

  1. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Prohibitions of the Tongue (Lecture Series). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3WshgZeAsg&list=PLx9h2M7YP4RJkUTwU_0iwQPkodFq9ruci
  2. Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Hasan. The Excellent Pearls on Prohibitions of the Tongue.
  3. Nel Noddings. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, 2nd edition, pg 24.
  4. Diwan al-Imam al-Shafi’i, poem 88 “Love of the Righteous”.
  5. Dale Carnegie, 1888-1955. How To Win Friends and Influence People. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  6. Musnad Ahmad, 16460.
  7. Maliki scholars like Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud typically use this question format to indicate that there are multiple positions on the issue and that this is one of them. In this case, the aforementioned positioned is the mashhur (preponderant) opinion of the Maliki madhab.
  8. Confucius, Ta Hio: The Great Learning Of Confucius.
  9. 40 Hadith Nawawi, Hadith 29

About the author: Tariq Patanam is a guest contributor with an ijazah (license to teach) in Prohibitions of the Tongue from Sh Rami Nsour (who himself has an ijazah from Sh Muhammad Al-Hasan). He graduated from Stanford University with a major in computer science and a minor in philosophy. His interests include Islamic jurisprudence, tech innovation, and cookies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s