What Is Considered a Lie?
Answered by Shaykh Yusuf Weltch
If I list a few scenarios below, could you please tell me if these count as lying:
- Saying a joke that the other person knows is a joke but is in itself not true in wording, e.g., a chicken crossing the road joke or saying, “No, I won’t give it to you,” while giving something to someone. If the other doesn’t know, but this is corrected quickly, is this also the same?
- Saying phrases like, “for the thousandth time….”
- Saying words that are true technically but imply something false, e.g., saying “I don’t know” when it is partially true, but I have a vague idea.
- Role-plays, acting, and fictional stories
Also, if I say something I later realize isn’t true, is it necessary to correct myself? Even if the mistake is not consequential?
In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate
A lie can be found in one’s statements, promises, actions, or beliefs.
Lies in Statements
Regarding statements lying is defined as the intentional affirmation of something knowingly that is contrary to its reality.
The condition “intentional” excludes unintentional speech, such as a slip of the tongue. For example, if someone says, “Zaid visited yesterday.” But they meant to say ‘Amr visited. This is unintentional and one is not accountable for such a slip of the tongue.
The condition “knowingly” excludes a statement that is merely incorrect unbeknownst to the person.
For example, if someone says, “Zaid is Senegalese.” However, what he didn’t know was that Zaid is actually from Mauritius and merely moved to Senegal later in his life. This is merely an error in speech – this also is excused and not considered a lie.
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Mistakes, forgetfulness, and that which one is forced to do (under threat or dire necessity) is excused for my community (ummah).” [Tabarani]
On that note, if one’s mistaken or errored speech is of little to no consequence, one is not obliged to recant or correct their statement. If it is something of religious or worldly importance, one must clarify the mistake, if possible.
The Legal Cause of Prohibition
Lying is not intrinsically prohibited. Rather, it is prohibited due to the harm that it causes to the listeners and others (and possibly the liar themselves). Such harms can include deception, misinformation, confusion, etc… [Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din]
However, since it is not intrinsically prohibited, there are situations where lying may be permitted and may even be obligatory. [Ibid.]
An example of permission is a small mistruth in order not to hurt someone’s feelings, such as ‘the food was good.’ An example of obligation is if an oppressor is searching for someone to kill them unjustly. If they ask you where that person is, and you know, it is obligatory to lie to protect that person’s life.
Exaggerations are a gray area and to the extent that one can limit them to moments where there is a benefit or necessity.
Customarily exaggerations are not deceiving, such that they may mislead someone to understand an untruth. For example, if someone stated, ‘This sushi is 1,000 times better than that’ it is understood that this is an exaggeration used for additional emphasis.
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said when asked about a possible spouse for a woman, “As for Mu’awiya, he is poor and does not have any wealth. As for Abu Jahm, he doesn’t put his stick down from his shoulder…” [Ahmad, Musnad Ahmad]
The expression about Abu Jahm has been interpreted in a few ways; one of them is that he travels a lot, hence the emphasis.
Excessive exaggeration has been counted amongst the ills of the tongue by many a scholar, such as al-Habib ‘Abdullah bin Husain bin Tahir, in his work Ladder to Success and Imam al-Birgivi (Allah be pleased with them both) in The Muhammadan Path.
The Number 70
Interestingly enough, when the early Arabs would emphasize something, they would use the number 70 or a multiple of it.
Allah Most High says, “It does not matter whether you O Prophet pray for them to be forgiven or not. Even if you pray for their forgiveness seventy times, Allah will never forgive them. That is because they have lost faith in Allah and His Messenger. And Allah does not guide the rebellious people.” [Quran; 9:80]
Role Playing and Acting
Role-playing, in most cases, does not constitute lying. Lying, again, is prohibited for specific reasons, one of them being deception. When someone is watching, role-playing, or acting, they are aware that this is not real.
Likewise, in fictional stories. People are generally aware that the story they are hearing or reading is fictional. For this reason, one must not make it appear that this is a real story.
However, to the extent possible, the person should not claim to be their character. That should merely unfold in the storyline or on the tongues of other actors.
Allah Most High says, “O believers! Be mindful of Allah, and say what is right. He will bless your deeds for you, and forgive your sins. And whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger, has truly achieved a great triumph.” [Quran; 33:70]
- Birigivi’s The Path of Muhammad Explained – Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
- Upright Speech: Birgivi on Holding One’s Tongue
Hope this helps
Allah knows best,
[Shaykh] Yusuf Weltch
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Shaykh Yusuf Weltch is a teacher of Arabic, Islamic law, and spirituality. After accepting Islam in 2008, he then completed four years at the Darul Uloom seminary in New York where he studied Arabic and the traditional sciences. He then traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he stayed for three years studying in Dar Al-Mustafa under some of the greatest scholars of our time, including Habib Umar Bin Hafiz, Habib Kadhim al-Saqqaf, and Shaykh Umar al-Khatib. In Tarim, Shaykh Yusuf completed the memorization of the Qur’an and studied beliefs, legal methodology, hadith methodology, Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic history, and a number of texts on spirituality. He joined the SeekersGuidance faculty in the summer of 2019.