What Is the Context of Harsh Words Used by Some Companions (Allah Be Pleased with Them)?

Answered by Mawlana Ilyas Patel

Question

According to Ustadh Tabraze Azam’s answer, vulgar language is forbidden in Islam. The misunderstanding stems from one of my teachers informing the class that the Sahaba (may Allah be pleased with them) would use vulgar language in certain circumstances.

I came across a Hadith concerning the language used by Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) to a Qurayshi polytheist before the conquest of Makkah, as well as a Hadith centered on Ubayy bin Ka’ab (may Allah be pleased with him) with a prescription to use a specific phrase when dealing with someone who boasts about his lineage.

Could you please explain the authenticity of these Hadith and, if they are reliable, how we should apply them in our daily lives?

Answer

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate

I pray you are well.

Thank you for your important question—Allah (Most High) reward you in this world and the Hereafter, amin.

Context of Abu Bakr’s (Allah Be Pleased with Him) Use of Harsh Words

Abu Bakr’s (Allah be pleased with him) use of a harsh sentence against an idolater in the midst of a confrontation was during the defensive period with the Makkans. During this period, the Muslims wanted to utilize the sanctity of Arab customs and perform the Umrah.

In this tense negotiation – which led up to the Treaty of Hudaibiyya – Urwa ibn Masud (who later became a Muslim) mocked the Muslims saying they were undignified and would end up deserting the Prophet if he was in danger.

Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) was understandably upset by this, and he responded with a well-known Arabic expression, Suck the genitals of al-Lat! Would we flee from him and leave? [Bukhari]

Ibn Hajar (Allah have mercy on him) comments on this incident, saying:

It was the custom of Arabs to revile each other that way, but by using the word “mother” instead. Abu Bakr intended to use exaggerated rhetoric in his condemnation of ‘Urwah, so he put the idol he worshiped in place of his mother. He was compelled to do that because he was angered by the cowardice attributed to the Muslims. [Ibn Hajr, Fatḥ al-Bari]

At most, it was permissible for Abu Bakr to use this, or at least his frustration was understandable enough not to be publicly criticized. ‘Urwah was upset too, of course, but that did not stop him from accepting Islam later.

On other occasions, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) publicly rebuked Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) for using insulting language as the general rule prohibits using such words.

Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported: A man reviled Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with) while the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was sitting. Then Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) reviled the man with the same words, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) became angry, and he stood to leave. Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) went to the Prophet and said, “O Messenger of Allah, the man reviled me, and you were sitting, but when I responded, you became angry and stood up.” The Prophet said:

“Verily, there was an angel with you responding on your behalf, but Shaytan appeared when you responded with the same words as him, and I will not sit in the presence of Shaytan.” [Aḥmad]

When examining the totality of Abu Bakr’s biography, conduct, and character, and the same with the other companions, like you mention that of Ubay ibn Kab (Allah be pleased with him), we can see that he would learn from his mistakes as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) corrected him and those lessons in humility and conduct is a lesson for Muslims until the end of time; also his behavior resulted in his honorable and distinguished service as the first Caliph of Islam.

Ubay Ibn Kab’s (Allah be pleased with him) Use of Harsh Words

Ubay Ibn Kab (Allah be pleased with him), when he used a similar sentence, rebuking the person, narrated from Ubay (Allah be pleased with him) that a man boasted of his tribal lineage. Ubay told him to bite his father’s male member, and they said: You were never given to obscene speech! He said: We were instructed to do that. [Ahmad]

This narration refers to tribal lineage showing off status, as was done during the period of pre-Islamic ignorance and which was the cause of so much bloodshed. The sentence “bite it” implies his father’s private part, which was a common way of humiliating a tribalist by reminding him of his unimpressive origin, reminding him of the role of his father from which he emerged, namely his father’s penis, so he should not go beyond the bounds in pride and arrogance. Similarly, in the other example, mentioning the mother is more effective in rebuking him, suggesting that he is still as illiterate or ignorant as the day his mother bore him. In other words, this is a play on words in Arabic, as the word ummiyyah (illiteracy) is similar to the word umm (mother).

Tribalism at the time was a type of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia, with often violent implications, and therefore it should be rightly shunned by Muslim society. Muslims used these specific harsh words to place a social taboo on tribalism.

Ibn al-Qayyim comments on these traditions, saying it is evidence for the permission of explicitly naming the private part if it is in the best interest, for every situation has an appropriate speech. [Ibn Qayyim, Zad al-Mad]

Indeed, situations might call for different reactions for a variety of reasons. Gentleness in the face of abject tyranny is weakness, but harshness in the face of ordinary disagreements is oppressive. It requires the wisdom of scholarship and life experience to recognize exceptional circumstances when harsh words are justified. We cannot generalize the permission of harshness when most texts counsel otherwise.

In most everyday situations, Muslims should be kind, gentle, and measured in how they talk to others. This is even more critical in the age of social media when text-based communication lacks the context of tone, emotions, and other non-verbal situations. Miscommunication using this medium is an ever-present danger that can be easily reduced by toning it down.

At the same time, lay Muslims should look to the example of recognized scholars for guidance on when harshness is appropriate. We should look up to our pious Scholars who have the wisdom of experience and follow their lead. If one is unsure that harshness is called for, staying silent is better and safer.

Anas ibn Malik (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “May Allah have mercy on a person who spoke rightly and was rewarded, or who was silent and remained safe.” [Bayhaqi, Shu’ab al-Iman]

I pray this helps with your question.
Wassalam,
[Mawlana] Ilyas Patel
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Mawlana Ilyas Patel is a traditionally-trained scholar who has studied in the UK, India, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. He started his early education in the UK. He went on to complete the hifz of the Quran in India, then enrolled in an Islamic seminary in the UK, where he studied the secular and ‘Aalimiyya sciences. He then traveled to Karachi, Pakistan. He has been an Imam in Rep of Ireland for several years. He has taught hifz of the Quran, Tajwid, Fiqh, and many other Islamic sciences to children and adults onsite and online extensively in the UK and Ireland. He taught at a local Islamic seminary for 12 years in the UK, where he was a librarian and a teacher of Islamic sciences. He currently resides in the UK with his wife. His interest is a love of books and gardening.