With just one month to go until Ramadan, insha-Allah everyone is gearing up to welcome this blessed annual visitor. If you’ve been with this series so far, insha-Allah you’re well on track to make the most of the coming month. But if not, there’s still time to put in some prep work. You can still make use of past posts in this series – but just amend the exercises to suit your current timeframes. See the list of previous posts at the end for quick access to these exercises.
The organ that will make or break you
If you had to consider which part of the body is most important, which would you choose? The eyes? Ears? Hands? All of these are important, because on the Day of Judgement, each of the will testify as to what we used them for (as laid out very creatively in this poem).
But the one organ which is most critical is the tongue. It’s so small, yet it holds such tremendous power. By uttering a few words, one can enter Islam. But with that same tongue, other words can take one out of Islam. And with that tongue, one can perform such immense good deeds in the world – kindness to others, speaking out against wrongs, and so much more; yet that same tongue can be used for negative purposes – gossip, backbiting, slander, complaints, threats, abusiveness, foul language, and more.
How many times have you said something you later regretted? Something that caused great pain to a loved one? Something that broke a dear friendship, or insulted someone who didn’t deserve your wrath? How often have you complained when things weren’t to your liking, or when someone else got something you believe you should have received?
There are a number of hadith in which the Prophet s.a.w. advised us to be careful of how we use our tongue – telling us the dangers of it (such as how it can take us to Jahannam) and the rewards of being careful of it and using it properly (such as entering Jannah).
The Early Bird way to improving your speech
If we honestly look into our own lives, it should be very easy to realise that one of the very best of qualities we can inculcate is to be cautious of our tongues: using the tongue correctly and protecting it from all kinds of mis-use.
So if you’re committed to improving your use of your tongue, you need more than just good intentions. Often, we hear an inspiring talk or read a motivational article and we feel such passion for implementing the lessons learned – yet not long after, that enthusiasm fades, and we fall back into our usual habits.
If you want to succeed in any area – and of course this most critical area of character – you’ll need to take practical steps. As explained in previous posts, our approach in this series is to follow a five-step process to gradually solve the problem:
- Selection of an area: For this month, the topic is speech / use of the tongue
- Diagnosis: Analyse what your current condition is in the area and list your weaknesses
- Root cause analysis: Get to the root of your weaknesses / problems
- Solutions: Come up with practical methods to overcome those root causes
- Planning and implementation: Set up a realistic plan of action to implement those solutions gradually in the coming months, then at a higher pace in Ramadan
- Has my speech / things I’ve said cause major problems or pain in my life – either for me or other people?
- Am I aware of the Islamic teachings related to speech / use of the tongue?
- Do I speak more than I should? Or too little?
- Am I too curious about the affairs of other people or things that don’t concern me?
- Do I gossip, listen to gossip, or encourage other people to gossip?
- How often do I speak about other people? And when I do, is it really necessary? (This applies to celebrities and public figures too – not just people you know.)
- When talking about others, would they be pleased with what I say about them?
- If I have a habit of backbiting or slandering others, do I have enough good deeds to give away to them on the Day of Judgment? (As a compensation for my harm to them.)
- If I’m guilty of backbiting or slander, do I know how to rectify it Islamically?
- When I’m upset with my children / disciplining them, do I make threats I know I wouldn’t carry out? Do I make statements that I know I don’t mean? Am I conscious of the effect this could have on them?
- When I’m trying to get my children to do something, do I bribe them / make them offers I know I won’t fulfil? Am I conscious of the effect this could have on them?
- When I’m angry, do I know the proper Islamic etiquette of quelling my anger?
- How often do I complain about things?
- How often do I express gratitude for things? (Both to Allah and to people.)
- How often do I encourage or say good words to people?
- How much do I occupy my tongue with the remembrance of Allah? (whether through Quran, dua, or any form of verbal dhikr.)
Using this month’s worksheet, think through each question and record your answers. Be honest with yourself – and do this either completely in private, without sharing it with anyone (if you prefer it that way), or with someone else (if you think that’s more beneficial).
First, consider your answers, then identify and list your weaknesses or problems you feel you need to address.
Next, write down each issue’s outward symptoms that you notice, and try to find the root causes of the issue by interrogating it. Look at the issue or the symptoms and ask yourself “why?” Keep asking “why?” of each answer until you get to the root cause.
For example, if you talk about other people too much, ask yourself why this is. Ask yourself what needs or desires in you are satisfied by this habit. Or if you lie to your children to get them to do what you want, ask yourself why you have to resort to lies. Don’t focus on the child’s resistance to doing what you ask of them – but focus on your strategy of persuasion, and delve into your reasons for using deceit.
With the problems diagnosed, the symptoms identified, and root causes found, now think of practical ways to solve those problems. Brainstorm and list practical ways to solve the issues from the root – meaning that your solution doesn’t only address the outward symptoms, but the root causes too.
While doing this, remember to apply realistic expectations to yourself. Don’t aim for a solution you know will be impossible. Aim for what’s within your grasp, and know that as you successfully implement one solution, insha-Allah you’ll be better equipped to aim higher and go even further after that.
For example, if you’re too quick to criticise, complain, or threaten others, know that you’ll need to learn to hold your tongue – or have sabr when if comes to issues that trigger you to speak in such a way. To build sabr in your trigger areas, you can use the methodology outlined here. You can also try to implement the old Sufi tradition which advises us to speak only after our words have managed to pass through four gates:
- At the first gate, ask: “Are these words true?” If so, let them pass on; if not, don’t say them.
- At the second gate, ask: “Are they necessary?” (Again, yes means go, no means stop.)
- At the third gate, ask: “Are they beneficial?” (Again, yes means go, no means stop.)
- At the fourth gate, ask: “Are they kind?” (or – to modify slightly – ‘Am I planning to say them in an appropriate way?’ Because sometimes a harsh or firm tone is actually needed – but you need to use it with wisdom – not out of anger). And only if your answer is yes, then go ahead and say it.
Planning and implementation:
With solutions identified, now analyse what your life is like at this moment, and come up with a realistic plan of how you can implement the solutions over a period of time. Remember to plan this in ways that are realistic – achievable – for you, even if it means you’ll be taking tiny steps over a long period of time. Doing things gradually – in small and consistent steps – is the best way to achieve sustainable, permanent solutions.
For example, if you criticise a loved one too often, you can’t expect to go from being overly-critical to nice and complimentary overnight. You’ll need to take it step by step: first find the things that trigger your criticisms or complaints, then learn to have sabr when those triggers arise, then learn to withhold your negative words (or re-phrase them in a positive way), then change your attitude towards them (if that’s a root cause in this issue), and then speak good words rather than reacting negatively.
If, after a while, you find that you’ve incorrectly estimated your ability to follow the plan, simply make adjustments as needed. The goal for this month is to implement steps that are realistic for you – what you can manage, and not what will overburden you.
Because this month’s area can be extremely far-reaching in your life, don’t feel pressure to solve all the issues this month, or even this year. You should take this at whatever pace you know will be best for you – knowing that as long as you’re improving, you’re on the right track.
To help with this month’s exercise, you can download and use the following document: RamadanEarlyBird worksheet (5th edition).
To help you with this month’s focus, check out the following:
- Audio lecture: “Speech” by Mufti Ismail Menk – part of a Ramadan tafseer series in which the speaker expands on specific verses of the Quran relating to the use of the tongue
- Audio lecture: “Guarding the tongue” by Shaykh Hussain Abdul Sattar – on the importance of being careful in our speech
- Document – A printable one-page collection of hadiths, quotes, and the relevant Quranic verse about backbiting.
- Methodology – A 6-step methodology to help you build sabr in any area – including mis-use of the tongue
- E-book: “The many dangers of the tongue” – an in-depth analysis of the harm we can do via the tongue (Contents page here, and a good general chapter to read here)
- Image: A backbiting reminder from Hannibal Lecter
And remember that the most important resources of all are the right intentions, sincere dua asking for success in this venture, and then consistent effort to do your best.
A word of thanks:
Lastly, jazakAllah to you – the reader – for being a part of this series. I hope it’s been beneficial, and I ask that you make dua for me, my family, and everyone who participated in it and promoted this series. I wish you the very best for the coming Ramadan. May Allah accept all your preparations and enable you to enter the month in a high state of spirituality, then help you build to greater and greater levels throughout it, and enable you to maintain your commitment on Eid day and beyond.