The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.
A wise Arab proverb says, “Every war begins with words.”
This proverb holds true not just between nations, but even between family members and friends. How many a war have we engaged in which the tongue was our sharpest and most brutal weapon?
In the teachings of Islamic spirituality there is much that is written about the importance of restraining the tongue. The tongue is called “the mirror of the heart.” In other words, what appears on our tongue is a chief indicator of what is in our hearts. And, this becomes even truer in those unguarded moments when anger, frustration, or stress gets the best of us and our tongues lose any sense of discipline.
This is, perhaps, why the Prophet Muhammad said that one of the ways of knowing if there is hypocrisy in our hearts is to examine what we say with our tongues when we become angry. If it is foul and vile words, then that is a measure of how much purification of the heart remains.
The masters of Islamic spirituality teach that the heart and the tongue have a two-way relationship. Even though the tongue is the mirror whereas the heart is the reality, if we work on polishing the mirror the reality also becomes polished with time and effort.
So, what does it mean to work on the tongue? It means struggling within ourselves to restrain the tongue from all that is corrupt and ugly, like one would pull back a wild horse, and to train the tongue in the speech of goodness and beauty.
The sages and scholars of Islamic spirituality warn that the tongue should be guarded from the following 8 types of speech: lying; breaking promises or oaths; speaking ill of others or slandering; wrangling, arguing and disputing with others without any clear benefit or when you fear it will get out of hand; self-justification or self-praise in a way that leads to arrogance; cursing or using foul language; invoking evil on creatures even if they are your worst enemies; jesting, ridiculing, and scoffing at people in a way that hurts people’s feelings or gives them a bad reputation – this is even worse when this type of speech is directed toward an entire community of people.
Each one of these has their specific descriptions and treatments, but in summary there are five steps that we can take to become more aware of our speech and to polish our tongues, according to the spiritual teachers:
1) Knowledge: Just be aware of the 8 types of speech that you should avoid. Knowledge leads to introspection and introspection leads to reform. When you notice any of these ailments on your tongue, take yourself to task and work to change you condition.
2) Silence: The Prophet Muhammad said that “anyone who believes in God and the Last Day should either speak well or remain silent.” Silence is golden, so goes the saying. Thinking before you speak is the key. One of the great sages of Islam and Caliph after the Prophet Muhammad would place a small stone underneath his tongue and move it to speak only after considering whether what he had to say was truly beneficial. This might be too difficult of a practice for many of us, but it goes to show how seriously silence was taken among the spiritual elite.
3) Fasting: Increase your days of fasting, for fasting by its nature teaches restraint.
4) Change your surrounding: Keeping good company and keeping yourself busy with good things so that your tongue finds very little opportunity to engage in baseless conversations.
5) Remembering the Divine: Cloaking your tongue with the beautiful names of God and the praise of those names will make your tongue to incline toward that which is beautiful and wholesome. Eventually, ugly speech will be completely antithetical and unnatural to a tongue that is used to beauty.
The remaining days of Ramadan are perfect days to intensify our practice of cultivating a disciplined tongue. These are not only the days of peak restraint but also of increasingly remembering God, seeking forgiveness and longing for salvation.
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