In modern society, characterised by the denial of the spirit, the material aspect of existence is seen as the only reality. Evil acts are not seen as transgressions of God’s commands, but only as acts against the outward social order or against nature. Modern man is repulsed by the word “sin” for its religious overtones draw him into the spiritual world he detests; he is more comfortable with words like “crimes”, “offences”, and “atrocities”.
Whatever is considered to be a “crime”, “offence” or “atrocity” in modern society is based upon empirical veriﬁcation of its violation of the public good. Crimes such as, murder, assault, theft or frauds are acts which, by their very nature, inﬂict measurable physical, psychological or social harm upon others and thus can easily be identiﬁed and prosecuted. On the other hand, those sins that only destroy the heart and soul of the perpetrators or of others are much more difﬁcult if not impossible to ascertain by empirical means. The legislators of modern secular societies would be at a loss to understand why it would be a sin to avoid obligatory prayer, to fornicate with mutual consent, to blaspheme, and so on. It is especially by accepting these latter kinds of sins as non criminal or inoffensive and al-lowing their display in public without interference that modern societies are corrupt.
The Messenger of God said, “If a servant was to secretly sin, he would only harm himself, but if he was to commit it openly and he is not made to change, the people would be harmed by it.”
The “harm” mentioned in the words of the Prophet, is the corruption that is a social result of the open or public performance of sins. The public performance of a sin has two corrupting effects; firstly it makes those who witness it accustomed to its performance and anaesthetised to its outrageousness and secondly it becomes an example for others to follow. Thus that sin be-comes normalised and later becomes accommodated among the behaviour patterns of other people.
For a sin to be tolerated or even accepted in public, it must be preceded by a change in the public attitude to that sin and by a lack of vigilance by the authorities responsible for the maintenance of social morals. Islam identifies these authorities as the rulers, and the juridical authorities.
There is an oft quoted narration of the Prophet (s) which says, ‘There are two kinds of people from my community who, if they are sound, my community will be sound and if they are corrupt my community will be corrupt.’ ‘The jurists and the rulers.’
The jurists and the rulers occupy the most powerful positions in society, dictating and influencing public morality. This is because by virtue of their position they are examples for the rest of the community and also because they have the power to allow or forbid actions and behaviours. Thus if their ideology or belief system is accepting or tolerant of corruption they will permit corrupting activities that they do not deem to be problematic. All of the corruption we see in today’s society that is displayed in the media owes its origins to the fact that the rulers and lawmakers of our society either see no problem with such activities, or themselves enjoy behaving in such a manner. Thus, for example, they do not see teenage pregnancies as the result of the sin of non-marital sex among youth but as the result of them not taking the precautionary step of contraception!!
One particularly offensive type of corruption in today’s society is the use of obscene speech in public. The Prophet said: “As soon as obscene language accompanies something it disgraces it, and as soon as modesty accompanies something it adorns it.”
In this tradition modesty is contrasted with obscene language. Obscene language is the open utterance of low and depraved language which, when expressed, immediately devalues the good deeds of the doer regardless of how noble those deeds are. Modesty, on the other hand, indicates the separation of the ego of the doer from the beauty of his action, thus adorning that action by his humility. In short, modesty is humility whilst experiencing one’s own relative perfection.
Today the use of obscene language pervades societal inter-relations. Shielded by the anonymity of mass society, we hear people uttering the vilest expletives in public without any apparent care for their own respect or that of others in their vicinity. This behaviour is normalised by the media itself, in books, films and in contemporary music and they are merely reflections of reality and expressions of the right to free speech.
The use of swear words in response to frustration, and as expressions of emotional states is habit forming and short circuits the ability of the speaker to adequately and properly express him-self. As a habit, it could then cross over into other social situations that would be even more inappropriate such as in normal everyday speech with one’s wife and children, or even with one’s parents. This phenomenon can be seen in the following words of the Prophet (s) :“The most severe of major sins is for a man to use obscene language at his parents…. That man uses obscene language with another, and then he follows by using obscene language with his father and mother.”
The use of language is vitally important in organising our thoughts, and the ability to do so is essential to problem solving. If we automatically revert to obscenities when we are frustrated or confronted by emotional trials we be-come impotent in solving them. Thus the habitual use of obscene language stifles our ability to express ourselves. This opposes the Prophetic saying that God is Beautiful and loves beauty for if our speech is not beautiful it would interfere with our ability to communicate with Him. Many of us save our beautiful words to inﬂuence all those we consider important but when it comes to our Lord we sufﬁce with hurried words and incomplete phrases. So habituation to swearing may even further compromise our ability to address God.
The supplications of the infallible Imams are great examples of such beauty of expression and the depth of feeling in one’s supplications. These supplications teach us how to communicate with God and how we should endeavour to speak to His exaltedness in a beautiful way. Thus with excellent speech, conduct and morals, we could have a positive effect upon our environment simply via our own example. And by exhorting the right and forbidding the wrong in whatever way we can, whether it is by the written or spoken word, or seeking to inﬂuence the institutions of society, we could have a direct and conscious effect upon our environment in ending corruption and creating a healthy environment for ourselves and our children. •
Written by Shaykh Ahmed Haneef
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.