What Not to Say! – Mental Health 4 Muslims

What Not to Say!

Taken from: Mental Health 4 Muslims

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” Pat Strachan Hurd

Have you ever been in a situation where someone you’re with (or perhaps even you, yourself) said something completely inappropriate and unintentionally offended someone else? Proverbially, we call this “putting your foot in your mouth,” and unfortunately for some it’s more of a syndrome than a single untimely blunder!

However innocent or unintentional such comments may seem, the truth is they can be very damaging to the one on the receiving end, especially people who are dealing with difficult and very private circumstances in their lives and may not know how to fend off excessive questions or unwelcome comments.  Because of their often vulnerable and fragile emotional states these people end up attracting the very attention they seek to avoid.  Concerned friends and family members may misjudge their silence and physical retreat for desperate cries for help and begin excessively prying for information about ‘what’s wrong’.  This can be a truly awkward, uncomfortable, and in some cases traumatic experience for the one whose life is being pried open like a tin can before their very eyes.

Being sensitive to people’s circumstances, using tact, and knowing when and how far to take a conversation is something that requires a concerted effort to truly pay attention to those around you.  Below are some guidelines to consider to help improve your social sensitivity skills.

Taboo Topics

You should never ask or probe someone about the following issues no matter how curious you are. If, however, during the course of a conversation someone volunteers information or begins to tell you about any of these things (with the exception of #6 & #7 for there is no justified reason other than the rare occasion where someone may need to seek counsel from a scholar, to give ear to such things) then that is entirely different. Just make sure that you’re not the one who initiates the discussion by actually asking about any of these matters.

  1. Age: A lot of people are not comfortable sharing their age, especially women. So, it’s better to have adab (etiquette) and stay clear of asking someone directly about their age. If you need to find out, for example, because you’re considering them for marriage, then you can be subtle about it. Try asking when and where they went to high school and what year they graduated. And if they’re on Facebook or MySpace, chances are they may have a lot of that information displayed on their profile page already.
  2. Weight: This is another topic that is especially private for women and some men, especially those who struggle with their weight.  Unless you are a physician and/or nurse, and need to find out for health reasons, please don’t ask.
  3. Marital Status: You may meet someone who is done with school and has been working for a while but don’t assume that because they are professionally established that they must also be married and possibly have children. And by all means NEVER ask someone who you think should be married but isn’t, “Why aren’t you married yet?” The fact is, there are many professional and highly successful Muslims who are having a real difficult time getting married. Many of them suffer severe depression because of it. So to attend a social event and be reminded by badgering questions from a complete stranger can often make them feel even worse and make them completely withdraw. You may also encounter someone who is married but is unhappy in their marriage or may be in the process of divorce, so to ask questions about their relationship status may make them feel uncomfortable. It’s better to stay clear of the whole topic and not assume anything about someone’s status and just wait for them or a third party to inform you about it instead.
  4. Income: The economy may be in shambles right now but there is no need to ask someone how much their salary is, especially someone you don’t know very well. This is a completely private topic and should only be discussed with trusted people including one’s close family members, lawyer, financial planner, or business partner. As Sidi Ahmad al-Zarruq advised, “Do not trust anyone with matters related to your religion, your family, and your wealth until you have tested him at least a thousand times.”
  5. Pregnancy/Parenting Plans: This is yet another highly sensitive topic that should never be used as a conversation piece.  There are many couples who are dealing with infertility issues and the constant pressure from family, friends and community members to start a family can take a tremendous emotional toll on both the man and the woman.  Asking a newlywed couple is completely different than asking a couple who’ve been married for longer than a year.  Unless the couple is outspoken about not wanting any children or if they are putting off parenting for a later time, it’s best to not bring up the issue, especially if they’ve been married for more than 3 years.  And if you notice a woman who may have put on some extra weight around the mid-section by all means never congratulate her prematurely and ask how far along she is. This can be an unfortunate blunder in which there really is no graceful way to get out of!
  6. Relationship Details: It is unequivocally forbidden in Islam to ask someone for personal or intimate details about their marital relationship. Women are more apt to do this, especially with their sisters or “best friends.” It may be a normal practice in this society, especially with the popularity of movies like “Sex & the City,” where talking about sex is seen as part and parcel of the female bonding experience, but it is completely haram in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) prohibited the man and the woman to talk to others about details that happen in their bedrooms. He said: ‘Do not do this. Do you know the similitude of those who do that? They are like a male and female devil who meet each other in the road and satisfy their desire with the people gazing at them.”
  7. Past Indiscretions: It is equally impermissible to ask someone about their past sins. Converts are especially victim to this type of incessant and unnecessary probing. It may be because it’s exciting to hear the contrast of where a person was before and prior to accepting Islam. Important and inspirational figures like Malcolm X and other notable converts to Islam often have very colorful pasts that make their conversion stories even more compelling.  The problem, however, is that Islam is a religion based on modesty, humility, and a sense of shame and guilt before God. To speak casually about one’s past indiscretions, regardless of how big or small and no matter where one is now, goes against the basic principles of haya` (modesty).  About this, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “O assembly of those who have believed with their tongues, but into whose hearts faith has not yet reached! Do not backbite the Muslims, nor seek out their secrets! For, whoever seeks out the faults of his brother, Allah will seek out his secrets. And, whoever has his secrets sought out by Allah, Allah will disgrace him, even [if he hides] in the depths of his house” (Abu Dawud). Another tradition follows, “My entire nation is safe, except al-Mujahirin (those who boast of their sins). Among the Mujaharah is that a man commits an (evil) act, and wakes up in the morning while Allah has kept his (sin) a secret, he says: “O so-and-so! Last night I did this and that.” He goes to sleep while Allah has kept his (sin) a secret but he wakes up in the morning and uncovers what Allah has kept a secret!” (Bukhari)
  8. Religious Practice (or lack thereof): It’s important to also mind your own business when it comes to another person’s spiritual or religious practice. If you come across someone who is outwardly negligent in a specific matter it is not something that you have a right to interrogate them about, for you have no knowledge of their inward reality–that is knowledge that is God’s alone.  So whether one wears the headscarf or decides to take it off, you do not have the right to judge them, criticize them or speak unfavorably about them to others. If you are sincere in your concern for them then you can advise them with compassion and love, privately, and certainly not in front of others.

It may seem that the list above leaves little to actually talk about, but there are plenty of other perfectly acceptable topics to start a conversation with like books, hobbies, traveling, etc. As we’re reminded in the Quran and hadith time and time again, we should avoid idle talk which is useless conversation with little or no benefit, “The believers are successful, who in their prayer have khushu (awe of God) and those who refrain from vain talk…” (Qur’an 23:1-3)

We should also try to be more original, sincere, and genuine in how we interact with people. If we always default to the same exact one-liners, starters and/or soundbites to engage someone then we’re carrying on very scripted conversations that lack originality and thought. We may not intend to but we’re actually treating people as soundboards rather than individuals. We should pay close and careful attention to each and every single person we interact with, observe them with great consideration and acknowledge what makes them unique. This is the perfect way of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) who treated every single person with the utmost consideration and care.  He honored people and made them feel important. By being more mindful of how we behave socially, knowing our limitations, and making more of an effort to treat people as individuals we honor his perfect way as it deserves to be honored.