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CURSING AND PRAISING:
The Causes and Effects of Good and Bad Speech

by Wael Abdelgawad

INTRODUCTION

About cursing and evil speech in general, Allah says,

O you who believe! Let not a group scoff at another group, it may be that the latter are better than the former; nor let (some) women scoff at other women, it may be that the latter are better than the former, nor defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. How bad is it, to insult one's brother after having Faith. And whoever does not repent, then such are indeed Dhâlimûn (wrong-doers).

O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion; indeed some suspicions are sins. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it (so hate backbiting). And fear Allâh. Verily, Allâh is the One Who accepts repentance, Most Merciful. (Qur'an, 49:11-12)

And,

Woe to every slanderer and backbiter (Qur'an, 104:1)

The worst of all speech is that which ridicules or in any way criticizes Islam or any aspect of Islamic belief. Muslims, if it’s not within their power to put a stop to it, are at least forbidden to remain in such company, as Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta-aala (Glorified and Exalted be He) has said in the Noble Qur'an:

And indeed He has revealed to you in the Book that when you hear Allah's communications disbelieved in and mocked at do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them; surely Allah will gather together the hypocrites and the unbelievers all in hell. (Qur'an, 4:140)

These verses are very clear and need little explanation. How should a Muslim speak? The Muslim has been commanded and encouraged to be kind, gentle and just in his speech. Allah says,

And if you turn away from them and you are awaiting a mercy from your Lord for which you hope, then, speak unto them a soft kind word. (Qur'an, 17:28)

And,

And say to My slaves (i.e. the believers) that they should (only) say those words that are the best. (Because) Shaytân (Satan) verily, sows disagreements among them. Surely, Shaytân is to man a plain enemy. (Qur'an, 17:53)

Among the many ahaadeeth on the subject of speech, is this one: the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said,

"A man speaks what is pleasing to Allah and he does not suspect that it will have the result that it does, and Allah will write for him His good pleasure for it until the day when he meets Him. And a man speaks what excites the anger of Allah and he does not suspect that it will have the result that it does, and Allah will write His anger for him for it until the day when he meets Him." (al-Muwatta)

Words hold power. Words propel armies into battle and topple dictators from their thrones. Words inspire revolutions. Words deliver Truth from the highest heaven to the human heart. Countless men and women have been executed for their words alone. To underestimate the power of words is a dangerous mistake, spiritually and materially. The right word at the right moment can earn a man a permanent entry in history. The wrong word can cost a man his wealth, his career, his wife or his children's respect. A man's words us give us an immediate impression of his background, education, attitudes and spiritual state. This essay will focus on words of passion in particular, and on the powerful ways in which they describe the speaker's worldview.

The difference between a kafir (disbeliever) and a Mu'min (believer) can be seen immediately in the words he speaks, and especially in the expressions that he utters at stressful moments. These are the moments - when one receives important news, or has a potent experience, whether good or bad - when one is most likely to forget himself, to react spontaneously and speak without thinking. In a way, these moments - for example, a car accident, a fight, an argument, receiving the news of the death of someone close, losing money, winning a prize, receiving test scores, getting fired or getting a promotion, and so on - these moments reveal a person's innermost character. What a person says and does at these times is an uncensored expression of his core values, and of that which he holds sacred, because men always call upon their gods in moments of joy or desperation. By analyzing the expressions that the kuffar (disbelivers) utter at these instants of passion, and comparing them with the speech of the mu'mineen, we can gain some insight into the vast difference between the jahiliyy (ignorant, un-Islamic) mentality and the Islamic worldview.

This essay is written for the Muslim, that he might gain a greater appreciation of the importance of praising Allah and avoiding bad language. As for the disbelievers, they are certainly in need of this advice, but there are more pressing issues to discuss with them first, such as the purpose of creation, our relationship with the Creator, the worship of Allah alone, the Messengership of Muhammad (saaws), the revelation of the Qur'an, the reality of the Judgement and the aakhirah (Hereafter), and the establishment of justice on earth based upon the commands of Allah.

As for the Muslim who imagines this to be a subject of minor importance, he is not the first to have such a thought. Consider carefully the following narration: The sahabi (companion) Mu'adh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) once asked the Prophet (saaws),

"O Messenger of Allah, tell me of an act which will take me into Paradise and will keep me away from Hell fire." He (the Prophet) said: "You have asked me about a major matter, yet it is easy for him for whom Allah Almighty makes it easy. You should worship Allah, associating nothing with Him, you should perform the prayers, you should pay the zakat, you should fast in Ramadan, and you should make the pilgrimage to the House." Then he said: "Shall I not show you the gates of goodness? Fasting is a shield, charity extinguishes sin as water extinguishes fire; and the praying of a man in the depth of the night." Then he recited: "Who forsake their beds to cry unto their Lord in fear and hope, and spend of that We have bestowed on them. No soul knows what is kept hid for them of joy, as a reward for what they used to do". (Quran) Then he said: " Shall I not tell you of the peak of the matter, its pillar, and its topmost part?" I said: "Yes, O Messenger of Allah." He said: "The peak of the matter is Islam; the pillar is prayer; and its topmost part is jihad." Then he said: "Shall I not tell you of the controlling of all that?" I said: "Yes, O Messenger of Allah", and he took hold of his tongue and said: "Restrain this." I said: "O Prophet of Allah, will what we say be held against us?" He said: "May your mother be bereaved of you, Muadh! Is there anything that topples people on their faces into Hell-fire other than the harvests of their tongues?" (related by Al-Tirmithi, who said it was a fine and true hadith).

This is a highly significant hadith. The Messenger of Allah is describing all these great acts of worship, such as praying in the middle of the night, hajj, charity, and jihad. He describes these acts as the keys to paradise, the gates of goodness, the peak and pillar of Islam, and then he names the one thing that controls all of these great deeds. One might think this one thing would be martyrdom in Allah's cause, speaking truth to a tyrant, or perhaps giving away all of one's worldly possessions. Imagine Muadh's surprise to learn that this one great act, this controller of all other deeds, is one's speech! Words! Why is this? Because words are the daily expression of our spiritual state. Words are the means with which we relate to all other creatures, showing them compassion or harming them. Words, good or evil, are seeds that we plant all through our lives, not realizing that we shall reap the harvests of those seeds in the aakhirah: sweet fruit or bitter fruit, Paradise or Hell. "A man speaks... and he does not suspect that it will have the result that it does."

Not only can our speech drag us down to Jahannam, it can also lift us up to Jannah, as the Messenger of Allah (saaws) said,

"Whoever guarantees me (the chastity of) what is between his legs and what is between his jaws (i.e., his tongue), I guarantee him Paradise."

Guaranteeing the chastity of what is between the legs (i.e., the private parts) does not mean to abstain from sex completely, rather to engage only in lawful sexual relations. Still, it's no small task, and when we add to it the command to speak only what is good, we realize we're facing a tremendous challenge, one that only the righteous believer can achieve. We'll take a closer look later at the habits of good speech, but first let's study the speech habits of the kuffar, so that we can come to a better understanding of how their speech reflects and affects their mindsets, and so that we can see exactly what we must avoid at all costs.

 

CURSING

For the purposes of this essay, when I speak of the kuffar and of the jahiliyy worldview, I am referring specifically to the Western world. Cursing may or may not be a global phenomenon, I don't know. Some linguists have claimed that only Japanese, American Indian and Polynesian languages lack swearwords. I have not lived in any of those places nor studied their cultures, but I have lived in and traveled extensively in both the Western world and the Muslim world, and therefore I am confining my analysis to these two cultures.

Most of us, especially those living in the West, are familiar with the manner in which most kuffar react in moments of stress. Of course, there are those rare Christian souls who are polite and temperate, and who in heated moments respond with a quaint, "Gee!" or "Wow!" (Tellingly, even "gee" is an obfuscation of "Jesus" and should be considered blasphemous by a Muslim). But for the most part, such people are anachronistic oddities. Nowadays, the average kafir is much more likely to respond to stress with outright violence, or at the least with one of the following phrases. I'm sure you can figure out what they are:

  1. "f--k!"
  2. "s--t!"
  3. "d--n" or "godd--nit!"

There are other common curse words, but these three are ubiquitous. Those of you who have a lot of contact with the kuffar, especially in social situations, know that I am not exaggerating. These words roll off the tongue of the disbeliever day and night, like slag from a steel mill. And, sad to say, some Muslims who spend a lot of time with them absorb this stream of vitriol and find themselves, in moments of stress, spitting out some of these ugly words. I once saw a khateeb (Islamic lecturer), while giving a speech in the masjid, utter one of these curse words in a moment of passion. He was horribly embarrassed and apologized profusely, but that's what happens when you work with the kuffar or otherwise spend a lot of time around them. Their values and habits attach themselves to you. But the question I want to ask here is, what do these words say about the mentality of the kafir? What do they say about his worldview, his spirit, and about the things he holds sacred? Let's study these curse words in the order they are listed above.

I. CURSING AS AN EXPRESSION OF CHRISTIAN HATRED OF THE BODY

By far the most common curse word in the English speaking countries is the word "f--k". The “F word" is spoken incessantly, and has dozens of ugly variations. It’s used as a noun, a verb, an adjective and of course an exclamation. But what is it really? What does it mean? Does it simply describe the sex act? No, the English language has other words that do that better. "Copulate", "coitus" or "intercourse" describe the sex act in a straightforward, acceptable manner. "Lovemaking" is a good word to describe what happens between a husband and wife. "F--k", on the other hand, is a word which is rooted in two attitudes: hatred of the body, and misogynistic violence. Merriam-Webster defines the word thus: "To engage in coitus with… Sometimes used interjectionally with an object (as a personal or reflexive pronoun) to express anger, contempt, or disgust (emphasis is mine)."

The first factor that comes into play here is the Christian hatred of the body. The body, in Christian theology, was always considered suspect. The body was the bearer of original sin and the source of all corruption. Piety lay in vanquishing the body and the senses through celibacy, austerity and masochism. The Bible says, "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other." The Christians embraced this idea with a perverse vengeance. Bathing was discouraged because it was a glorification of the body. Monks wore horsehair robes, took vows of celibacy, bound their genitals and flagellated themselves. Among the common folk, sex was a necessary evil, allowed only for the purpose of procreation and performed with as little enjoyment as possible. Couples were to remain clothed even during intercourse. In this environment, the sexual act was the dirtiest thing imaginable, so naturally when a man wanted to  "express anger, contempt, or disgust", as Merriam-Webster said, he would exclaim, "f--k!" (or some local equivalent).

The influence of Christianity is slowly waning in the Western world, but the behaviors and linguistic habits engendered by the Christian fear of sex are still with us. Sex is still considered to be fundamentally dirty and perverted, and the more it is enjoyed the "nastier" it is. In the U.S., an actively sexual young person is labeled a “freak", a "slut" or a "whore". Descriptors of the sexual act are (except for the most clinical terms) dirty words. An insult currently popular in the U.S. is "scumbag", a word which has been dissociated from its meaning through common use, but which describes a used condom. Since the sexual act is seen as dirty, naturally the sexual fluid is the dirtiest thing imaginable.

This conception of sexuality as dirty and perverted is a basic element of the Western worldview, which they imagine to be the same everywhere. Of course it is not the same everywhere, as we will see later.

II. CURSING AS AN EXPRESSION OF MISOGYNISTIC VIOLENCE

While the Christian hatred of the body plays a role in defining the vulgarity of the word "f--k", it's not enough to account for either its universality in jahiliyy culture, or the vehemence with which it is often used. There is a second and more important factor at work here, and that is the violent and misogynistic character of this word.

According to Origins: an Etymological Dictionary, the word "f--k" is most likely a combination of the Latin word "futuere" and the German word "ficken", to strike. The English word is a cognate. I quote now from Origins (emphasis is mine): "Now, Latin futuere is formed similarly to Latin battuere, to strike, hence to copulate with a woman... battuere, says Malvezin, is borrowed from Celtic and stands for bactuere; and futuere recalls the Celtic root *buc-, a point, hence to pierce (malvezin); compare also Gaelic *batair, a cudgeller, and Gaelic buail, English/Irish bualaim, I strike. Both Latin battuere and Latin futuere (compare Latin fustis, a staff, a cudgel:? for *futsis) could have got into Latin from Celtic, which, it is perhaps worth adding, had originally no "f": basic idea. 'to strike', hence `to copulate with'." Another source mentions the dialectical Swedish focka meaning to strike, push, copulate.

So there's a lot of speculation regarding the precise origin, but virtually all of it revolves around a collection of words that describe either implements of violence (cudgel, staff), or actual violence (strike, pierce). This juxtaposition of coitus (sex) with violence throws all of Western culture into stark relief. The fact is that sex and violence are inextricably linked in Western societies. Remember that for most of Europe's history women were considered property, with no more rights than a horse or a sword. A man does not make love to his sword. He owns it and uses it. The sexual act, therefore, was not an expression of love between equals, but of aggression and dominance of the man over the woman. This attitude is still a fundamental part of the Western psyche. A man is valued for his wealth, a woman for her beauty. A man who is rich enough can "own" any woman he desires. This is not a relationship between equals, but of power to powerlessness. Such a relationship naturally begets violence. These attitudes are deeply embedded in the Western consciousness, and one of the ways they are expressed is through this ever-present word, "f--k". Look at some of the synonyms to this word: screw, bang, nail. Visualizing what a screw or nail does to wood is enough to demonstrate the violence of sexual imagery in the West. A culture that is obsessed with such imagery is a culture obsessed with the sex act as an act of violence.

Is it any wonder, then, that the West is plagued with crimes such as rape, wife-battering, and child molestation? The greatest killer of men in the United States workplace is work-related accidents, but the greatest killer of women in the workplace is murder. These are all acts which either combine sexual elements with violence, or which enforce the violent dominance of a man over a woman or child. Is it any wonder that one of the most common Hollywood movie plots is that of the serial killer who murders women? Hollywood churns these out by the dozens, and they get sicker and more violent every year. Movies like "Silence of the Lambs", "Copycat" and "Seven" win awards and make millions of dollars. And the amazing thing is that women love these movies! I saw "Copycat" in the theater, and what I remember most is sitting in front of a row of young women who gasped in horror or fear at the appropriate moments, and then twittered at themselves in embarrassment. Their fascination with extreme misogynistic violence was palpable. After that I quit watching movies of that kind. But I realized that American men and women are enthralled with this dynamic of sexual violence. It is such a basic part of Western culture. And of course, women too use the word "f--k."

Somewhat related is the use of the word "c--t" as an insult. When a man wants to express the utmost contempt for a woman he calls her a "c--t." The female sexual organ here represents the female gender itself. By using the coarsest descriptor of the female sex organ, and by using it as an insult, the man makes it clear that whatever is despicable about her is the result of her gender, i.e. that to be female is in itself a despicable and contemptible thing.

III. CURSING AS A SYMPTOM OF SPIRITUAL DECAY

The second contender for most common curse word in the jahiliyy culture is the word "s--t." In fact, calling it a curse word doesn't do it justice, since, like the word "f--k" it is also uttered at moments of great joy or excitement. It can also be used as a noun, as in, "This is good s--t", or "I keep all my s--t locked up." It can be used as an interrogatory, as in, "No s--t?" It is even used as a verb, as in, "You must be s-tting me." Men, women and children use it, with very little social stigma attached. Variations are the milder "crap", and "poppycock", which may sound frightfully British and nonsensical, but is actually an adaptation of pappekak, a Dutch word for dung.

In fact, it's not uncommon for the kafir, when expressing very strong emotion, to say, "Holy s--t!" This disgusting expression brings the issue into sharp focus, because the fact that the exclamation is an expression of what is sacred or sanctified is being declared openly. Why this obsession with excrement? Why preface it with the word "holy"? It is because western culture is diseased and cancerous; it sanctifies and glorifies that which is dirty and foul. In the seventies Pink Floyd sang, "I need a dirty woman; I need a dirty girl." A decade later Michael Jackson boasted, "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it." The word "bad" has, in fact, become a descriptor of that which is cool, admirable, or impressive. Gangsters and mass murderers are folk heroes. What American doesn't know the names Charles Manson, Sam Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer? Video games such as Mortal Kombat feature decapitation and disembowelment. Perverted sexuality is risqué, violence is hip, sorcery and black magic are popular entertainment, and murder is a badge of honor. In this kind of upside-down moral zoo, goodness and purity are hopelessly old-fashioned, while evil, filth and moral decay are the apotheosis of modernity. Minds that are rotted and fouled in this way will naturally favor language that calls forth foul images. This reality finds its expression, among other ways, in Western culture's obsession with the word "s--t".

The Prophet Muhammad (saaws) said, "When a man curses something, the curse goes up to heaven and finds the gates of the heaven closed against it. Then it comes down to the earth and finds its gates closed against it. Then it goes right and left and if it finds no place of entrance, it goes to the one who was cursed and attaches itself to him if he deserves it. Otherwise, it returns upon the one who uttered it."

The Hindus, Buddhists and Jains would call this karma, or moral energy. A biologist or electrician might call it a feedback loop. The attitudes that produce the word "s--t" combine with the actual use of the word to form a vicious mental circle. When a man responds to moments of excitement or passion by exclaiming "s--t!" he is plunging his mind into the toilet. He is sullying his soul and degrading himself by constantly calling forth the image of that which is putrid. Because all of his curses have nowhere to go, because "the gates are closed", they return upon him, degrading and demeaning him. The end result is that not only does he prevent himself from achieving a higher spiritual state; he plummets in the opposite direction and debases his thinking, furthering the venality and corruption of society as a whole. This isn’t spiritual mumbo-jumbo, it’s a simple reality: you are shaped by what you ingest, and you are defined by what you put out into the world.

IV. CURSING AS A BLASPHEMY AGAINST ALLAH

Imran bin Husain reported: 'We were with the Holy Prophet (saaws) on a journey and there was a woman from the Ansaar riding a she-camel. She abused and invoked a curse upon it. The Holy Prophet heard it and said, "Unload the she-camel and set it free because it has been cursed."

The Messenger of Allah (saaws) was doing more than just teaching the Ansaari woman a lesson about bad language. He was describing a reality: that a curse is a real thing which calls genuine misfortune upon the thing that is cursed, if it deserves it, and which returns upon the curser if it does not, as we know from the hadith in the section above. Once again we have our self-degrading feedback loop. So when a person goes around saying "Damn this" and "g-ddamn that", cursing his car, computer, job, the fact that he stubbed his toe, etc., he is in reality cursing himself again and again. He is in effect asking Allah to damn him, to make his life miserable and to prepare for him a place in Hell. And why should Allah not do so, when one is using His name as a trifle and a curse word?

V. RATIONALIZATIONS

1. Rationalization: Cursing is natural, powerful language:

Some notable Western authors, such as Norman Mailer, have made the claim that the word "f--k" is simply an earthy, more natural way to describe the sex act, as opposed to stuffy Latin words like "copulate." Rhetoric aside, the fact that the word "f--k" is an expression of violence is hardly debatable. Picture this: a man is driving along in his car, when suddenly another vehicle runs a stop sign and smashes into him. What does he say? Most likely something like, "f--k! g--------d m----r f----r!" Is he referring to the sexual act? Of course not. He is angry and is uttering an expression of violence. When a man is insulted and he responds, "f--k you!" is he saying, "I want to make love to you?" No, he's shouting an expression of hate and violence, an expression that also happens to be tied to the sexual act. As for the argument that cursing is powerful, emotive language and is therefore inherently better than the boring Latin equivalents, this is a non sequitur. Yes, these words are powerful - powerfully ugly, that its. Yes, they carry an emotional punch - because they are violent and base.

Anna Wierzbicka in her English Speech Act Verbs: A Semantic Dictionary, offered a definition and description of the act of swearing:

  1. I'm thinking about X
  2. I feel something bad because of that
  3. I want to say something bad because of that
  4. I want to say some words because of that that people think one should not say
  5. I say: [#@!?*!]
  6. I imagine that by saying these words I could cause something bad to happen to something
  7. I imagine that by saying these words I could cause myself to feel better
  8. I say this because I want to show what I feel

(Wierzbicka 1987:252-253)

This definition recognizes that swearing is a deliberately "bad" act, designed for emotional expression. That doesn't make these words acceptable, it makes them repugnant and worthy of excision from an Allah-conscious person's vocabulary.

2. Rationalization: Cursing is just habit:

One might say, "You're making too much out of this. These are just words that are spoken out of habit. They don't mean anything." If this were the case, however, one might as well exclaim, "Peanut butter!" or "Bazoom!" After all, the word is meaningless, right? It's the tone of voice that expresses the emotion, right? Wrong. Words such as "f--k", s--t" and "g-d----n" are used to express strong emotion because they possess inherent shock value. Why do they shock? Because they are violent, dirty or blasphemous. They're certainly not meaningless. Everyone knows exactly what they mean, or thinks they do. It may be true that cursing for many people is a habit - but so is drug addiction, wife-beating or shoplifting. "Just a habit" doesn't excuse an action that's vile and repugnant. We are responsible for every element of our behavior. Speech, one of the most powerful of behaviors, is certainly no exception.

3. Rationalization: Cursing is cultural:

Some cultural anthropologists have said, "What you call cursing is a part of our culture and our dialect. These words are accepted and are used to carry many different meanings." Somehow this idea has arisen in certain circles that simply calling a habit or a practice "cultural" is enough to justify it and indemnify it from criticism, as if it's somehow racist or narrow-minded to criticize a cultural practice. This is ridiculous. Foot-binding was a Chinese cultural practice for thousands of years; it is now recognized as oppressive and controlling. In traditional Hindu culture a woman's existence had no purpose after the death of her husband. She was expected to throw herself upon his funeral pyre. Even today it is not uncommon for widows to be doused in kerosene and lit. This is a cultural habit with a long history. Does that make it acceptable? To consider another example, there are many organizations in the West dedicated to the eradication of so-called "female circumcision" in Africa. These organizations argue, rightly, that this practice is a cruel mutilation and must be stopped. But what about the fact that it is also most certainly cultural? The reality is that all cultures embody some practices that are admirable, others that are clearly barbaric (or at least detestable), and a large gray area in between. We must embrace the good, condemn the bad, and avoid the gray. The epidemic use of filthy, violent and misogynistic language is an abominable Western cultural habit. It both reflects and feeds back into the jahiliyy worldview. It is a mental and spiritual trap that the Muslim must avoid at all costs. Run from it as if it were flesh-eating bacteria. Even better, wash it away with the elevated language and vocabulary of Islam.

 

PRAISING

Islam is a deen - a way of life - which, when practiced sincerely, suffuses the heart of a man and brings him into a state of constant consciousness of Allah. He prays at least five times a day and he says "In the Name of Allah" before he performs any significant action. After all, the very first Qur'anic revelation was, "Read in the name of your Guardian-Lord who created..." So from the very beginning Allah was telling us to begin in His name, to remember His name, to glorify His name. Even the weakest of Muslims often has Allah's name on his tongue, though perhaps without contemplation. For the mu'min the remembrance of Allah goes much further. The believer remembers, praises or seeks refuge with Allah upon going to bed, waking up, leaving the house, getting in the car, entering the masjid, meeting another Muslim, returning home, going to the bathroom, taking a shower, and on and on. Allah's name is on his tongue all day long. The effective result is that in his day-to-day life he practices justice, compassion and kindness, because the knowledge and awareness of Allah has permeated his very being and he will not violate that knowledge by being unjust or cruel.

I. THE ABSENCE OF VULGARITIES IN THE MU'MIN'S VOCABULARY

Words like the curse words mentioned above don't find a place on the tongue of the Mu'min, not because he is dainty or a prude, but because his relationship with Allah is such that they would never even occur to him. If they did occur to him he would dismiss them as meaningless and pointless, because the primitive cultural attitudes that give rise to these curse words do not exist in Islamic societies. In other words, the concepts that produce them are not Islamic concepts. Those jahiliyy concepts are, once again:

1. The dirtiness of sex:

Muslims in no way consider sex to be dirty. Allah the Exalted has has placed boundaries around the expression of human sexuality, not because it is dirty, but because unrestricted sexual activity is harmful to individuals and society. Within the bonds of Islamic marriage, however, the sexual act is considered to be worshipful and good. It is an act of love and a healthy expression of human needs. Nakedness and non-missionary sexual positions carry no stigma. The Prophet Muhammad (saaws) encouraged young people (today's "teenagers") to marry in order to achieve a lawful outlet for their sexual impulses, among other reasons. Young people who marry will not need to sneak around or engage in promiscuity in order to satisfy their sexual urges, as is common in the West.

Consequently, all the historical and social factors that in the West have attached stigmas to human sexuality do not exist in Islamic cultures. Therefore, curse words related to sexuality have no impact or relevance.

2. The connection between sex and violence:

Islam respects and honors women as spiritual beings and as partners in this life of trials and tests, and therefore neither misogynistic imagery nor violence against women of any kind have any place in the Islamic mindset. The sexual act is in no way tied to violent concepts, rather when performed lawfully between a husband and a wife it is, once again, a gift from Allah and an 'ibaadah (act of worship). Mu'mineen do not make horror movies, murder women, commit rape, molest their children, or commit any of the horrifying crimes so common in the Western world. Even in today's Westernized and diluted Muslim societies such crimes are highly uncommon; in a truly Islamic society they are virtually non-existent.

3. The obsession with excrement:

Curse words relating to excrement also do not appear in the Muslim vocabulary because Islamic society is not dirty and does not value, honor or glorify dirt. The mind of the Mu'min is not diseased and rotted, but is clean and healthy. To be sure, a Mu'min is not an angel; he experiences negative thoughts and bad impulses, but he is vigilant and self-aware. He is constantly examining himself, constantly striving to purify himself and acheive a higher state of Allah-consciousness. Bad ideas or words might drift into his mind like fungus spores on the wind, but they are wiped away and can't take root. The soil of the Mu'min's mind is clean and nothing evil will grow there. Five times a day the Muslim bathes in a spiritual stream, washing away whatever dust has gathered. Rather than being obsessed with dirty ideas and words, the Mu'min's mind is preoccupied with the struggle for compassion, kindness, love, brotherhood, and justice. That such a lofty-minded person could exist might seem unlikely to a disbeliever or to someone whose mind is used to more venal things. Of course, such spiritual warriors do exist, and they are committed to a never-ending internal and external jihad.

4. Blasphemy against God:

Blasphemous words, i.e. words which take the name of Allah, the Prophet (saaws) or any sacred thing in vain, also have no place in the Muslim vocabulary and are, in my experience, entirely unknown, since the concept of everyday blasphemy is entirely foreign to the Muslim mind. The Muslim recognizes that he owes his health, sustenance, and very existence to Allah the Most High. Even the non-practicing Muslim harbors in the depths of his heart an unquenchable respect for his Creator. Expressions such as "May Allah curse such-and-such" are used only in a serious manner to inveigh against the enemies of Allah and those who make war against Islam. The phrases "damnit" and "g--damnit", used as everyday expressions of frustration and so common in the West, have no equivalent in the Islamic world, and do not belong in the Muslim's vocabulary. The Salman Rushdie phenomenon is enough to illustrate the contempt that the masses of Muslims hold for one who mocks Allah or the Messenger of Allah (saaws).

Do Muslims curse? Yes, of course, many do. This is why, throughout this essay, I have emphasized the behavior of the mu'min - that is, the believing Muslim whose heart has been filled with faith and whose behavior has been shaped accordingly. Among Muslims in general, I would say (based upon my twenty years of associating with Muslims in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the West) that cursing is not uncommon, but nevertheless not prevalent. However, a distinction must be made between the detestable language common in the West and what passes for cursing in the Muslim world. I have known several Muslims whose language was generally quite clean until they got behind the wheel of a car, at which point they would begin hurling at other drivers such insults as, "you donkey!" "you son of a dog!" "you stupid (person)!" or "you dirty (person)!" These are certainly rude and improper things to say, and it is haram (religiously prohibited) for a Muslim to behave in such a manner. The Prophet Muhammad (saaws) said, "The Muslim is one from whose hands and tongue the Muslims are safe." Still, these insults are relatively mild, even quaint, compared to those common in the West. And they are certainly not acceptable in everyday conversation. The worst insult I've ever heard a Muslim use (in the Arab world, anyway) is "a bane on your mother!" or "a bane on your father!" Only an extremely rude person would say such a thing, and then he had better be ready for a fight. From a religious standpoint, these expressions are strictly prohibited, as the Messenger of Allah (saaws) specifically forbade the people to curse their own parents. When his listeners expressed wonder that anyone would curse his own parents, the Messenger (saaws) explained that a man curses someone else's parents, then that person curses his parents in return, the result being that his actions bring curses upon his own parents.

The mu'min does not utter even mild insults such as "donkey" or "dog". In fact, a muttaqi, one who is truly conscious of Allah, does not even call a pig a pig, if it is meant as an insult! There is a report in the Muwatta of Imam Malik that Isa ibn Maryam (Jesus, peace be upon him) once was walking and encountered a pig in the road.

He said to it, "Go in peace." Somebody asked, "Do you say this to a pig?" Isa said, "I fear lest I accustom my tongue to evil speech."

Pigs, of course, were considered unclean by the Jews; someone else, upon encountering a pig blocking his way in the road, might have said, "Get away, you filthy beast!" and perhaps kicked it for good measure. So imagine the people's surprise to hear Isa (saaws) greeting the pig kindly, and saying to it "Go in peace." He did not want to speak harshly even to a pig, because he did not want his tongue to begin to know the sensation of harsh speech, whether to a man, pig or anything else. That is what the mu'min strives for. Musa (saaws) was commanded to speak gently even to the tyrant Pharaoh: "And speak unto him a gentle word, that peradventure he may heed or fear." (Quran, 20:44)

It's tempting to dismiss sort of behavior as Prophetic saintliness that we mere mortals can't expect to emulate. But the Prophets were nothing more or less than examples to us. We are commanded to love our Messenger (saaws) more than our own selves, and the expression of that love is imitation, "the sincerest form of flattery" as they say.

II. PRAISING ALLAH IN MOMENTS OF STRESS

What about in moments of stress or passion? What comes to the mu'min's tongue at those moments? He doesn’t curse, kick, or speak against Allah. When the believer receives news of death, or when he is injured, he says, "To Allah we belong, and to Him we will return." At times of difficulty he says, "There is no strength and no striving except in Allah's cause." When he makes an error he pleads Allah's forgiveness. When he attempts a difficult task, he begins in Allah's name. He keeps on responding in this until it becomes a part of his nature, and his first impulse in any difficult situation is to call upon Allah.

III. SELF-CONTROL IN TIMES OF ANGER

On the authority of Abu Hurairah, who said: a man said to the prophet: "Counsel me". He said: " Do not become angry". The man repeated [his request] several times, and he said: "Do not become angry." Narrated by Bukhari

Everyone becomes angry from time to time, and the Messenge of Allah (saas) was no exception. When he became angry his face would turn red. That was the only sign. He often expressed disapproval, but he never cursed, abused or harmed anyone or anything in anger, and that’s the key. Anger is a natural emotion, as much as happiness, grief, or anxiety. The mu’min acknowledges this but does not act in a state of anger. He says, “I seek refuge with Allah from Shaytan the accursed,” then he waits, or prays two rak’aat, or goes for a walk, or goes to the masjid, or visits his brother, or occupies himself with any peaceful pursuit until the anger passes and he can think  rationally. If he’s in a situation that requires his continuing presence, he simply controls his anger and deals with it. A mu’min who trains himself in this manner will eventually master his anger, rather than anger mastering him.

IV. REMEDIES

The first step in repenting any sin or bad action is tawbah (turning to Allah in repentance), the principles of which are:

  • Ceasing to commit the sin.
  • Feeling sorry that one committed the sin.
  • Asking Allah for forgiveness.
  • Sincerely intending not to commit the sin again.
  • Attempting to make amends for any harm done.

After that, the Muslim should substitute the bad action with good deeds, as in the following narration:

On the authority of Abu Dhar Jundub bin Junadah, and Muadh bin Jabal that the Messenger of Allah said: "Fear Allah wherever you are, and follow up a bad deed with a good one and it will wipe it out, and behave well towards people." (At-Tirmidhi)

Following up a bad deed with a good one wipes out the bad deed in more than one way. First, the sayyi’aat, or “bad marks” which would stain the Muslim’s record on Yawm al-Qiyaamah (the Day of Resurrection) are replaced with hassanaat, or “good marks.” Second, the actual physical effects of the bad deed are mitigated. Third, the Muslim’s own bad thoughts and thought patterns are replaced with good ones.

Tawbah, therefore, is not only about salvation in the aakhirah (hereafter), it is also the most effective tool the Muslim has for changing his behavior in this life. Do you have difficulty keeping your speech clean at times of stress? Try this simple act of substitution. Every time you find yourself saying something improper, stop, ask Allah’s forgiveness, and then replace with something better, such as “SubhanAllah!” or “Ma-sha’Allah!” Just keep on doing this, however long it takes. Gradually the good expressions will supplant the bad ones in your vocabulary. Of course, for this to work you must also associate yourself with good Muslims and people who remember Allah, and avoid people of evil speech and thought.

 

CONCLUSION: STRIVING FOR A HIGHER STATE

The believers are those who, when they hear the command of Allah, say, "We hear and obey" (Quran, 2:285). A mu'min does not curse, insult, backbite or slander, even in response to someone else. He definitely does not poison his speech with misogynistic, scatological and blasphemous abominations. He is as far on the opposite end of the behavioral scale as he can be. He seeks to purify his speech, as a part of the process of purifying his soul. His speech becomes an act of constant worship by which he hopes to draw nearer to Allah. If he has nothing good to say, at the very least he keeps his mouth shut:

Abu Hurairah narrated that the messenger of Allah said: "Let him who believes in Allah and the Last Day either speak good or keep silent..." related by Bukhari and Muslim

A simple command but a mighty challenge! I've met Muslims who speak enthusiastically about Jihad but can't keep from backbiting, telling rude jokes and speaking out of turn. I'm all for Jihad; in these terrible times we need as many mujahideen as we can get. Certainly a mujahid needs tremendous self-control and discipline. The outer struggle must be matched with an inner struggle. Controlling the tongue is the most basic form of this inner struggle.

"Allah will admit those who believe and work righteous deeds, to Gardens beneath which rivers flow: they shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk. For they have been guided (in this life) to the purest of speeches; they have been guided to the Path of Him Who is Worthy of (all) Praise." (Quran, 22:23-24)

The people of Al-Jannah (Paradise, the garden) are people of pure speech. The mu'min is in a state of existence in which he is striving for spiritual purity. His mind and soul are constantly reaching higher, seeking out sincerity, truth, and yearning to please Allah. This is reflected in and reinforced by his manner of speech, and this is why the Messenger of Allah used to supplicate,

"O Allah place light in my heart, light in my tongue, place light in my hearing, place light in my eyesight, place light behind me, and light in front of me, and place light above me, and light below me. O Allah! grant me light."

"Light in my tongue" means, "O Allah, let me say only that which is good." And what is the best speech of all? This is answered in the following hadith:

Abu Malik Al-Harith bin Asim Al-Ashari said that the messenger of Allah said: "Purity is half of faith. Alhamdu-lillah [Praise be to Allah] fills the scales, and subhana-Allah [How far is Allah from every imperfection] wal- hamdu-lillah fill that which is between heaven and earth…" (related by Muslim)

This is a famous and potent hadith. We grow accustomed to such expressions as Alhamdu-lillah and Subhan-Allah, and we forget the tremendous power and light contained within them. It's almost beyond our ability to comprehend: a single sincere utterance of Subhan-Allah Wal-hamdu-lillah fills "that which is between heaven and earth" with blessings. It fills the sky with barakaat (blessings); it overcomes the clouds with its might, it mounts to the very stars, and energizes the vast emptiness of space with Allah's glory. The power of all the world's atom bombs is less than the force of a single Subhan-Allah. Knowing this, the mu'min's tongue is constantly occupied with the praise and remembrance of Allah, until it becomes a part of his nature, and the praises of Allah roll from his tongue with sincerity and awe.

May Allah guide us to the purest of speech and guide us on His path. And to Allah belongs all praise: to Him belong the best Names, and all things in the heavens and earth glorify Him.

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Note: all of the ahadeeth used in this essay are collected from Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawud or the Muwatta of Imam Malik.

First published on Zawaj.com. Author is Wael Abdelgawad, administrator@zawaj.com. Reprints are acceptable with notification, acknowledgement and a link back to Zawaj.com.

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