The Value of Words
"Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good or keep quiet." [Bukhari]
Famous companion, Muadh ibn Jabal, Radi-Allahu anhu, once asked the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa sallam, "Tell me about an act that will cause me to enter Paradise and be protected from the Fire." "You have indeed asked something profound," responded the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, "But it will be easy on whom Allah makes it easy. Worship Allah and do not associate any partners with Him. Establish regular Salat, pay Zakat, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj." Then he asked "Shall I not tell you about the doors of good: fast is a shield (against sins and against Hell-fire), charity extinguishes sins like water extinguishes fire; and the midnight Salat (the voluntary Tahajjud Salat)." Then he recited this verse: "Their limbs do forsake their beds of sleep, while they call on their Lord, in Fear and Hope: and they spend (in charity) out of the sustenance which We have bestowed on them." [As-Sajda 32:16]
Then he continued: "Shall I tell you about the beginning, the mainstay and the high point of this? The beginning is (acceptance of) Islam. It's mainstay is Salah. It's highest point is Jihad."
Then the Prophet, salllahu alayhi wa sallam, asked: "Shall I tell you about the thing on which all this depends?" He, then held his tongue and said "Guard this." Muadh ibn Jabal, radiallahu anhu, asked: "Shall we be questioned about our utterances?" On this the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said, "Most people will be thrown into Hell---face down---because of the transgressions of their tongues."
The ability to speak and express themselves separates human beings from animals. The proper use of this great gift---or its absence---separates the good and successful people from the bad and unsuccessful ones.
Muadh's question was about eternal success. In response, the hadith mentions both mandatory and voluntary good deeds that cover a person's entire life. But then we are reminded that the outcome of all these depends upon guarding our tongue. In other words carelessness with the tongue can poke holes in all of our good deeds.
Another hadith highlights the same issue in a different way: "Every morning all the limbs of a person plead with his tongue: 'Fear Allah for our sake, for our fate is tied to yours. If you follow the straight path so shall we. And if you go astray so shall we.'"
Yet another hadith reminds us about the far reaching consequences of the words we utter. "Sometimes a person says something good but he does not realize how far will his words go. Yet it earns him the pleasure of Allah till the day he will meet Him. On the other hand sometimes a person says something bad, although he does not realize how far his words will go. Yet it earns him the wrath of Allah till the day he will meet Him." [Tirmidhi, Ibn Maja, Muwwata Imam Malik].
The pre-Islamic Arab society was a very vocal society. While reading and writing were not that common, people did pride themselves in their facility with words---both prose and poetry. A person commanded respect based on his command over words. Using power of words only, they could sink reputations, start wars, and impact life in a similar fashion as modern media has come to demonstrate on a much larger scale. Then, as now, it was raw power like the power of the beasts of the jungle.
Islam tamed this beast. It reminded us that each and every word we utter is being recorded by the angels and one day we will have to stand accountable for all this record. It reminded that a person's greatness lies not in how powerful he is with words but in how careful is he with them. It reminded that it is better to keep silent than to say something bad. And it is better to say something good than to keep quiet.
The social revolution it engendered was unprecedented. It produced a people who truly understood the value of words and who were as pious with them as they had been powerful. Their silence was the silence of quiet reflection. And they spoke only when they could improve the silence. Is it any wonder that even their extempore statements were pearls of wisdom.
Today, everywhere there are schools that can teach one how to read, write, and speak a language. But their students would never learn how to civilize this raw power; to use it only in promoting truth and spreading virtue; to never use it for promoting falsehood or spreading evil.
There is a lot of unlearning we have to do if we want to get out of this. It is a costly mistake for a believer to think that talk is cheap; that you can say whatever is expedient without any concern for any consequences beyond the immediate ones.
Such attitudes, prevalent today, lead to all kinds of sins: vain pursuits, gossip, dishonesty, insincerity, arrogance, belittling others, backbiting, spreading scandals and corruption, telling lies. Each of these has been clearly defined as a deadly sin by the Qur'an and Hadith. The treatment for each of these sins begins with learning the Islamically responsible use of the tongue. Then there are secondary problems caused in turn by these. In fact most of the problems in the family, in the society, and even between countries are either created or augmented by the irresponsible use of the tongue.
Modern communication technologies have made it possible for messages to be transmitted instantaneously all over the globe. But as the world marvels at these achievements, it continues to confuse the speed of a message with its quality and value. We pride ourselves on the ability to spread trash around the world at the speed of light. Witness the rubbish that continues to dominate the Internet alone. We are amazed by the sophisticated techniques of telling lies in a convincing manner. Witness the modern mainstream media machine and its hold on our thoughts and actions.
The "information age" is begging for the moral guidance of Islam.