“Who are you to judge?” “Worry about your own sins”…, ”It’s not your business what I choose to do with my life”…, ”You don’t know what’s in my heart”….
Such statements are all too common nowadays but have we ever asked ourselves if they are actually correct? In this article we will very briefly examine some Āyāt of the Qurʾān, Aḥādīth of Rasūlullāh ﷺ and narrations from the Salaf that prove why such sentiments are in fact not in accordance with the teachings of Islām.
Believers as Shāhid (Witnesses)
Allāhﷻ says: “And say: do (as you will), for Allāh will see your deeds, and (so will) his Messenger and the believers. And you will be returned to the knower of the unseen and the witnessed, and he will inform you of what you used to do.” (Q. 9:104)
In this āyah Allāhﷻ warns that just as Allāh and His Prophet ﷺ will see your actions, the believers will also observe your actions. This shows that the judgement of the believers regarding a person is also important. This understanding is further supported by the following three narrations.
Once a funeral procession passed by and the people praised the deceased. The Prophet ﷺ said, “It has been obligatory for him.” Then another funeral procession passed and the people spoke badly of the deceased. The Prophet ﷺ said, “It has become obligatory on him”. ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb RA asked, “What has become obligatory?” He replied, “You praised this person, so Paradise has become obligatory for him; and you spoke badly of this person, so Hell has become obligatory for him. You people are Allāh’s witnesses on earth.”(Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī, Hadith 1367)
Rasūlullāh ﷺ once addressed the ṣahābah saying: “Soon you will be able to tell the people of Paradise from the people of Hell.” They said: “How O Messenger of Allāh?” He said: “By praise and condemnation. You are Allāh’s witnesses over one another.” (Sunan ibn Mājah, Hadith 4221)
A man said to Rasūlullāh ﷺ: “How can I know when I have done well and when I have done something bad?” Nabi ﷺ said: “If you hear your neighbours saying that you have done well, then you have done well, and if you hear them saying that you have done something bad, then you have done something bad.” (Sunan ibn Mājah, hadith 4223)
It should be clear that there is a common message that all three of these traditions quoted above convey.
Judging by the Apparent
While it is true that we are unaware of what is in the hearts of people, this in no way stops us from pointing out to them their mistakes. The fuqahā [jurists] have a generally accepted principle which states that we judge people according to their apparent condition and leave their secrets to Allāh. This principle is supported by numerous aḥādīth as well as āthār [reports].
When Khālid RA expressed doubt in the belief of a particular person and said : “How many observers of prayer are there who profess with their tongue what is not in their heart?” Rasūlullāh ﷺ replied: “I have not been commanded to pierce through the hearts of people.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī, hadith 4351)
In another incident Usāmah bin Zayd RA killed an enemy combatant who had said the shahādah, but Usāmah suspected the person said it insincerely. The Prophet reprimanded Usāmah saying: “Why did you not cut his heart open to find out whether he had done so sincerely or not?” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim Hadith 96a). This shows that since we are unable to ascertain what is in the hearts of people, we are expected to deal with them based on their outward actions. This person’s outward action showed that he had accepted Islām and he was to be dealt with as such.
In another ḥadith Rasūlullāh ﷺ said: “I am only a human being and litigants with cases of disputes come to me, and maybe one of them presents his case eloquently in a more convincing and impressive way than the other, and I give my verdict in his favour thinking he is truthful. So, if I give a Muslim’s right to another (by mistake), then that (property) is a piece of Fire, which is up to him to take it or leave it.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī, hadith 7181)
From the above we can clearly see that even Rasūlullāh ﷺ would judge according to the apparent in situations where he was not given knowledge of the unseen from Allāh ﷻ.
The Practice of the Salaf
The Companions RA had inherited a similar understanding from Rasūlullāh ﷺ. ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb RA said: “Verily, people were (sometimes) judged by revelation in the time of Rasūlullāh ﷺ, and the revelation has ceased. We only judge now what is manifested outwardly of your deeds. Whoever shows us good, we will trust him and bring him close. It is not for us to judge anything of his inner secrets; Allāh will hold him accountable for his inner secrets. Whoever shows us evil, we will never trust him or believe him even if it is said his intentions are good.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī, hadith 2641)
This statement clearly mentions that regardless what the intentions of a person may be, it is his outward actions by which we judge him. If those outward actions are bad then it is the duty of his fellow Muslims to point that out to him and rectify his ways.
ʿAbdullāh ibn ʿUmar RA also shared a similar understanding. He is reported to have said: “We would think badly of a person if we did not see him for ʿIshā and Fajr ṣalāh.” (Muṣannaf ibn AbĪ Shaybah, hadith 3353)
This judgment is based on the clear actions of people. We have been warned in the Qur’ān as well as aḥādīth against judging people based on mere suspicion and speculation as well as scrutinising them to find their faults
The Correct Understanding of Surah al-Ḥujurāt
Allāh ﷻ says in the Qurʾān : “O you who have believed, avoid much ẓan (negative assumption) Indeed, some ẓan (assumption) is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other.” (Q. 49:12)
Rasūlullāhﷺ said, “Beware of ẓan (suspicion), for ẓan is the worst of false tales.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī, hadith 6724)
Mujāhid said: “The meaning of this āyah is take what is apparent and leave what Allāh has concealed.”
Zajjāj said: “it refers to having bad thoughts regarding people of goodness. As for people of evil and sin, then we are allowed to have thoughts in accordance with what is manifest from them.”
Qāḍī Abū Yaʿlā said: “This ayah indicates to the fact that all Ẓan has not been prohibited.”
In his commentary the famous Mufassir Imām al-Qurṭubī says: “Ẓan in this āyah means accusation. The caution and prohibition in the āyah is regarding that accusation which is baseless. For example, a person accused of lewdness or drinking wine who did nothing to warrant such an accusation.”
It is clear from the explanation of the above āyah provided by the mufassirūn that there is no contradiction between these āyāt and the principle of judging people based on the apparent. Likewise, there is no contradiction between the principle of judging people by the apparent and the aḥādīth where Rasūlullāh ﷺ reprimanded the ṣaḥābah RA for speaking about certain individuals.
To Whom Does the Prohibition Apply
One such incident is the incident of Māʿiz al-Aslamī who had confessed to committing adultery and insisted that the punishment be carried out on him so that he may be purified. After he had been stoned Rasūlullāh ﷺ heard one of his companions saying to another: “Look at this man whose fault was concealed by Allāh but who would not leave the matter alone, so that he was stoned like a dog.” He said nothing to them but walked on for a time till he came to the corpse of a donkey with its legs in the air. He then asked: “Where are so and so?” They said: “Here we are Oh Messenger of Allāh!” He said: “Go down and eat some of this donkey’s corpse.” They replied: “Messenger of Allāh! Who can eat this? He said: “The dishonour you have just shown to your brother is more serious than eating some of it. By Him in Whose hand my soul is, he is now among the rivers of Paradise and plunging into them.” (Sunan Abī Dāwūd, hadith 4428)
Another such incident is the incident of the Ghāmidiyyah woman who had also confessed to adultery and asked that she be punished. While the stoning was being carried out Khālid bin Walīd RA flung a stone at her head causing blood to spurt onto his face so he cursed her. Rasulullah ﷺ heard his curse and responded: “Be gentle Oh Khālid. By Him in Whose Hand is my life, she has made such a repentance that even if a wrongful tax-collector were to repent, he would have been forgiven.” Then he commanded that her body be brought and he prayed over her and she was buried. (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, hadith 1695b)
A third such incident is that of the woman from Juhayna who was also stoned for committing adultery. After the stoning Rasūlullāh ﷺ performed her Janāzah ṣalāh. ʿUmar RA found this strange and asked: “you offer prayer for her, whereas she had committed adultery Oh Messenger of Allāh!” Rasūlullāh ﷺ said: “She has made such a repentance that if it were to be divided among seventy men of Madinah, it would be enough for them. Have you found any repentance better than this that she sacrificed her life for Allāh, the Majestic?”(Ṣāḥīḥ Muslim, hadith 1696a)
These incidents and others like them are regarding people of piety and righteousness who had committed a sin in a moment of weakness and then showed great remorse and repented for their mistakes.
The same applies to pious upright people who, in their attempt to do good, unknowingly do something wrong. In the battles of riddah [apostasy], fought during the caliphate of Abū Bakr RA, for example, Khālid ibn Walīd RA did certain things which infuriated ʿUmar RA, and he complained of this to Abū Bakr RA and demanded that he take action. Abū Bakr RA responded saying: “He interpreted (the situation according to his understanding) and erred.”
These incidents should not be exploited to give free reign to people to openly sin and promote evil without fear of being called to account by their fellow Muslims.
Sayings of the Salaf that Provide the Context
Ḥassan al Baṣrī RA says : “Do you people abstain from mentioning the sinner? Mention him as he is, so that people may be weary of him.”
ʿUmar RA says: “Assume the best of your brother unless you learn something about him which you cannot reconcile, and do not think badly of any statement your brother makes as long as there is a good interpretation of it, and the one who exposes himself to suspicion should not blame anyone who has a bad opinion of him”(Rawḍah al-ʿUqalāʾ page 90.)
Zayd ibn Wahb said: “A man was brought to Ibn Masʿūd. He was told: This is so and so, and wine was dropping from his beard. ʿAbdullāh ibn Masʿūd thereupon said: We have been prohibited from seeking out faults, however, when something becomes manifest to us, we shall seize it.” (Sunan Abū Dāwūd, hadith 4890)
Exercising Personal Judgement
When people say, “Don’t judge others,” what they are effectively saying is that nobody has the right to pass judgment on the action of someone else as being correct or incorrect. This belief stems from the acceptance of the modern idea of moral relativity, something totally foreign to Islām. Right and wrong are not personal judgments or relative to personal beliefs, but rather they are dictated by Allāh ﷻ. Waḥī is the absolute truth. The Qurʾān and Sunnah are clear regarding what is wrong and right. We as believers are the vicegerents of Allāh ﷻ on this earth. We are tasked with implementing and enforcing the laws of Allāh ﷻ. Part of this mandate is enjoining good and forbidding evil.
Allāh ﷻ says in the Qurʾān: “You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allāh” (Q. 3:110).
Enjoining good and forbidding evil necessitates that we judge the actions of people as either good or evil. This judgement is not made at our own discretion, rather it is made with the Sharīʿah as our standard. Only after we judge a person’s action as wrong is it possible to advise him regarding it or warn others against following him in it. In other words, if we are not allowed to judge, the entire concept of enjoining good and forbidding evil dissolves.
When others transgress the boundary of Sharīʿah, it is our business. As believers we should want the best for others. It is our responsibility towards them, as well as those who may be following them, to stop them from evil.
Jarīr RA says: “I gave my pledge of allegiance to the Messenger of Allāh to be sincere and well-wishing to every Muslim.” (Sunan al Nasāʾī, hadith 4156)
Rasūlullāh ﷺ said: “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “Oh Allāh’s Messenger ﷺ! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.”(Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī, hadith 6952)
Abū Hurayrah RA says: “A Muslim is the mirror of his brother, when he sees a fault in it, he corrects it” (al-Adab al-Mufrad, hadith 238)
Rasūlullāh ﷺ said : “I swear by Allāh, you must enjoin what is good and prohibit what is evil, prevent the wrongdoer, bend him into conformity with what is right, and restrict him to what is right”(Sunan Abū Dāwūd, hadith 4336)
Furthermore, the harmful effects of sin, if left unchecked, affect not just the sinner but the community at large. Therefore, not enjoining good and forbidding evil comes with severe consequences which Allāh and His Messenger teach us.
Allāh Ta’ālā very emphatically provides us with a reminder from those nations who have gone before when He states: “Those among the Children of Israel who disbelieved were cursed by the tongue of Dāwūd and ʿIsā, son of Maryam. That was because they disobeyed and were ever transgressing beyond bounds. They used not to forbid one another from wrong which they committed. Vile indeed was what they used to do.” (Q. 5:78 ,79)
Rasūlullāh ﷺ said: “By Him in whose hand my life is, you either enjoin good and forbid evil, or Allāh will certainly soon send His punishment to you. Then you will make supplication and it will not be accepted”. (Jāmiʿ al-Tirmidhi, hadith 2169)
Abū Bakr RA narrates that he heard Rasūlullāh ﷺ say” “When people see an oppressor but do not prevent him (from doing evil), it is likely that Allāh will punish them all.” (Jāmiʿ al-Tirmidhi, hadith 2168)
The Salaf’s Appreciation of Good Advice
The way of the Salaf in this regard is also proof that the commonplace understanding nowadays of “Don’t judge,” is incorrect.
The Ṣaḥābah RA understood the importance of correcting each other’s mistakes and advising each other.ʿUmar RA would ask Salmān RA to point out to him his faults. He would also ask Ḥudhaifah RA saying: “You were the secret keeper of Rasūlullāh ﷺ who informed you about the names of the Munāfiqīn. Do you see any signs of nifāq in me?”
ʿUmar RA would also say: “There is no good in people who do not give advice, and there is no good in people who do not like to be advised”.
When Dāwūd al-Ṭāʾī was asked regarding why he isolated himself from people, he replied: “What should I do with people who hide my faults from me?”
This was the way of the Salaf. They appreciated that their faults be brought to their attention so that they could better themselves. On the other hand, Allāh ﷻ says regarding the munāfiqīn: “And when it is said to him, ‘Fear Allāh’, pride in the sin takes hold of him. Sufficient for him is Hellfire, and how wretched is the resting place.” (Q. 2:206)
Rasūlullāh ﷺ also warns us of having such an attitude saying: “The most hated speech to Allāh is when a man says to another man, ‘Fear Allāh!’ and he replies, ‘Worry about your own self!’” (Shuʿab al- Īmān, hadith 621)
A Muslim’s life revolves around two interrelated sets of relationships. The first is the relationship with his Creator, the ultimate Lawmaker, Allah Ta’ālā. In addition, the affairs of a believer are bound by the Sharīʿah to that of every other human being. Both these dimensions and the nature of our interactions that arise out of them are, as we can expect, guided by clear teachings of Dīn based on the Qur’ān, our ultimate guide, the blessed sunnah, the continuous practice of the pious predecessors and the interpretative tradition of Islamic heritage.
An unbiased reading of these sources all point to the fact that it is our bounden duty as believers and members of a common Ummah to, whenever the need arises and in accordance with the guidance of the Sharīʿah, point out the faults and shortcomings in the actions of others. Anyone who thinks otherwise and allows all actions to be relativized is in grave error and as a result of this mindset has in fact undermined the birr [good] as considered by the Qur’ān and Sunnah. The Sharīʿah provides the Ummah with the mechanisms to keep one another in check and provides a corrective to our actions. This is dependent on nusḥ li kulli Muslim (well wishing for all believers) and ʿamr bi al-maʿrūf wa al-nahi ʿan al-munkar (enforcing the right and forbidding the evil). Failure to frame this aspect of our relationship with our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters correctly would not only be a failure to practice on an important aspect of Dīn with clarity but also will reveal two more weaknesses and fissures. The first is a weakness in the correct understanding of the faith and the second is, sadly, the extent to which foreign ideas and notions have crept into our own beliefs.
As Muslims our salvation in the ākhirah depends on sound thinking. Good deeds are dependent on a sound set of beliefs and convictions. We pray that Allāh Ta’ālā grants us all correct belief and good actions. Āmin.