The phrases “think before you speak” and “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” seem clichéd, but hold a lot of weight in the life of Muslims. Think about what you are about to say before you open your mouth. It sounds simple, but we have become so accustomed to speaking without thinking that words just seem to fly out of our mouths before we know it.
Take a couple moments before you speak to evaluate whether what you are about to say is beneficial or necessary. When your thoughts wander to saying something unnecessary or possibly hurtful, turn your focus to doing dhikr or simply contemplating, rather than wasting time on unnecessary speech, which is not beneficial and potentially harmful.
Hard as it may be, if we do happen to say something that is hurtful to someone, simply apologize. Whether it was what you said or how you said it, remind yourself to apologize for your misbehavior if you feel like you stepped out of line (regardless of whether or not the other person shows that they feel hurt or upset). This can have nothing but positive effects. Many of us have trouble apologizing to people and accepting our mistakes so it will both humble us and also ensure that we are more careful next time, because it can be pretty uncomfortable to accept your mistake and verbalize it. Secondly, it can help better your relationship with the other person, because you are showing that you are aware of their feelings and that you care about them.
If you are going to be with people, surround yourself with good company. It takes two to gossip. Most people who engage in backbiting and slandering will not do it all the time and with all people. In fact, they may have a select group of friends who share this habit. If you find that certain people make it easier for you to engage in this, steer clear of this crowd! If you tend to be the person who begins it, find new friends or keep to yourself.
Backbiting and lying are big sins, and forbidden in the Quran and as mentioned in various ahadith. Research and learn the punishment for backbiting – one of the punishments is in the grave, so you can keep away from this sin by trying to visualise and sense how that would feel. If it’s swearing or cursing you want to leave behind, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the angels who write down all that we utter. Do we really want to make the angels record profanity? Do we want such vile words to be our last if the angel of death were to take our soul in that moment?
Lastly, a means of keeping ourselves on track is the old jar trick used by parents in past generations. The idea is essentially to keep a jar in the house in which you are required to drop a certain amount of money per failure to control your tongue, for example every time you swear or gossip. The amount of money should be significant enough to make you feel bad and regret your speech – it costs more in the Hereafter! At the end of each month you can donate the money to charity, but the real purpose is to give you a physical representation of how serious it is and how much you need to improve. It helps to ask someone to hold you to your promise and remind you if you slip up.
6. Evaluate how much time you’ve spent talking
Here’s an experiment to try for one day: equipped with a timer, keep a tab on how many hours/minutes you speak each day, ideally per topic you cover as well. Then at the end of the day, evaluate your results looking at total time spent talking, how many hours/minutes spent on productive talk vs. unproductive talk, etc. The results can be revealing.
7. Sponsored silence
We all know a friend or two who have the ‘gift of the gab’ as they say, or you might be thinking “that’s me!” – try a sponsored silence day! Where you don’t talk to anyone from dawn to sunset (Facebook barred too!). You can rise for a cause and learn a new trick (how not to talk…) which can help you to reflect on exactly how useful silence is. Indeed the prophetic teachings tell us that we should remain silent especially if we do not have anything good to say:
“Anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day, should speak good words or be silent” [An-Nawawi].
8. Check before you send!
With the advent of technology, our conversations have evolved such that we ‘speak’ to people via email conversation, Skype, teleconferences, mobile, video messaging, Facebook, Twitter etc. The speed of it all makes us sometimes hit the send button before we evaluate what we have to say.
Quick tips to avoid this:
1. For e-mails, save the message as a draft and read after one hour before you send it.
2. For instant messaging, switch to something else (a small 2 minute task for example) then switch back and see if you still want to hit the send button. Always check before you send!
9. Replace the bad with good
One way to atone for any slandering/lying/backbiting is identifying who you spoke about wrongly, and either seek their forgiveness (or if this will cause more animosity), mention them well and praise them in the same circles of people you use to slander/lie/backbite them in.
10. Mention the Name of Allah
Make it your habit to make mention of Allah in your conversations. Without this there is little protection from falling into the traps of shaytan and us losing control of our tongues. Every word we say will be held to account, and as Ibn Qayyum Al Jawziyyah
“Every gulp of air that goes out in a cause other than the cause of Allah will turn to sorrow and regret on the Day of Judgment.”
Don’t let your speech be the source of regret in the Hereafter and as the hadith says:
“Make your tongue moist with remembrance of Allah” [At -Tirmidhi].
11. Seek protection from the Hellfire
As mentioned at the beginning of this series, our tongues are the cause of our destruction or our salvation, so prevent yourself from saying that which is wrong. Allah’s Messenger(pbuh) said,
“Do you know the thing which most commonly brings people into Paradise? It is fear of Allah and good character. Do you know what most commonly brings people into Hell? It is the two hollow things: the mouth and the private parts” [Bukhari].