People always seek advice to gain from others’ knowledge and experience. Companies, governments, and individuals all engage in various forms of advising to move ahead and progress. Advice is also sought and given in all matters of human values pertaining to right and wrong. In general, advising others is essential for the overall betterment of groups and societies.
Providing advice by enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is an integral part of Islamic teachings. Allah says in the Quran, “You are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind; you enjoin Al-Ma’ruf (the good that Islam has ordained) and forbid Al-Munkar (the bad that Islam has forbidden)” (Quran 3:110). He also tells us that within families, we should actively advise each other to do what’s right and to stay away from the wrong. Allah says, “O you who believe! Ward off yourselves and your families against a Fire (Hell)…” (Quran 66:6).
As promising as the concept may seem, advising people does require a willingness and sincerity on the part of all involved. Advising takes even a different form when it is done to correct others’ faults and mistakes. In personal situations, the issues can become even more delicate and complex. That is because when done incorrectly, advising people can have a reverse effect and can hurt relationships. This usually happens when one crosses the lines of “advising” people and instead “condemns” them. One can sense condemnation when the demeanor of the person seeking to correct the other appears to find fault rather than taking a sincere interest in helping the other person to rectify his faults. Sensing any feelings of condemnation, a person’s ego becomes defensive to ward off any outright attempts at hurting it. We generally find people emerge from such interactions as being hurt, insulted and with soured relationships.
Here we look at issues related to correcting others and how we can make the most of such situations without demeaning each other and souring relationships in the process.
Your role when providing advice
When you take on the role of pointing out other people’s faults and of advising them, you actually stand a very good chance of ensuring a positive outcome – both by ensuring that the recipient attentively listens to your advice and also by making certain that your interaction with the other person doesn’t damage your relationship. You can exercise that influence by adopting the right intentions and actions and thus mitigating the risk of your advice being mistaken negatively. This will help you win the person’s confidence and provide him the assurance that you could be trusted.
We should remember that while “advising” to correct someone’s mistake can be helpful and beneficial to the one being advised, it involves walking a slippery slope because one can cross the lines of mutual respect and get into “condemning” the other person instead. Condemning not only is the antithesis of providing sincere advice, it also constitutes a serious sin. For example, the Prophet (S.A.W.S.) even forbade even the condemnation of an adulteress, though he didn’t abrogate her prescribed punishment. (Based on the report in Al-Bukhaaree (4/350) and Muslim (1704) on the authority of Abu Hurairah. See Sharh-us-Sunnah (10/298) of Imaam Al-Baghawee.)
Tips to consider when correcting others
Consider following some of these tips when correcting others.
Purify Your intentions: Our intentions, whether explicit or hidden, act as the catalyst in determining the final outcome of our actions. The Prophet (S.A.W.S.) said: “Actions are but by intentions and each person will have but that which he intended” (narrated by al-Bukhaari (1) and Muslim (1907)).Therefore, whenever you decide to correct and advise others, pause to ask yourself if your intent is to sincerely help the other person or to rather punish and belittle the person by exposing his defects. Surprisingly, just asking the question can reveal your hidden intentions. That will provide you an opportunity to stop yourself if you are fueled by the wrong intentions that are hidden in your psyche, which in turn can lead you on the path of “condemning” others.
Reflect the sincerity of your intentions in your demeanor: Once you are clear about your intentions, your demeanor should also reflect a sincere wish on your part to provide suggestions for improvement to the other person. It would be difficult for you to convince the other person that your intentions are pure and clean if your action and words are demeaning and punishing to the other person. Any hint of such an attitude will cause the other person to activate his defenses rather than being open and receptive to your advice. This in turn will not only lead to resentment and the weakening of your relationship but will hurt your credibility, thus locking away all future opportunities as well.
Never publicize people’s faults: Unless there are valid reasons, when correcting others it is best to keep the interaction private rather making it public. If you do it, that will make the recipient of the advice feel more humiliated and exposed. Again, if your intention is to sincerely help the other person rather than exposing his defects, the affair should be kept private. Allah (SWT) has warned us in the Quran:“Verily, those who love that the evil and indecent actions of those who believe should be propagated (and spread), they will have a painful torment in this world and in the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you know not. And had it not been for the grace of Allah and His mercy on you, (Allah would have hastened the punishment on you) and that Allah is full of kindness, Most Merciful” (An Noor, 24:19, 20). According to Al-Hasan, and as reported in At-Tirmidhee and other collections in marfoo’ form [i.e. that the Prophet said]: “Whosoever condemns his brother for a sin (he committed) that he repented from, will not die until he has committed it (i.e. the same sin) himself.” Al-Fudail, one of the salaf, said: “The believer conceals (the sin of his brother) and advises (him), while the evildoer disgraces and condemns (him).”
In this context, we should, therefore, also refrain from gossips and other idle talk that can lead us to discuss people’s faults. Let’s remind ourselves of the stern warnings both from Allah and His prophet about those who engage in spreading others’ defects.
Don’t go after looking at people’s faults: While advising people of their faults with the sincere intention of correcting them is acceptable, as Muslims we are also advised not to go on a witch hunt looking after other people’s faults. The prophet (S.A.W.S.) said, “O you group of people that believe with your tongues while not with your hearts! Do not abuse the Muslims nor seek after their faults. For indeed, he who seeks after their (other people’s) faults, Allah will seek after his faults. And whomsoever has Allah seek after his faults, He will expose them, even if he may have committed them in the privacy of his own home” (reported by Abu Ya’laa in his Musnad (1675) and with a strong chain of narration in Ahmad (4/421 & 424) and Abu Dawood (4880) and other soruces).
Refer people to the truth of Islam: As Muslims, when correcting someone, we should always refer them to the teachings of Islam and the prophet. This tells the other person that you aren’t forcing your opinions on them but rather simply reminding them about the divine commandments related to those matters. This will make the person more receptive to the advice rather than becoming defensive.
Understand the difference between ‘naseehah’ and ‘fadeehah’: Ibn hajar in his book points out that we should be careful to note the difference between giving advice (naseehah), and disgracing the other (fadeehah) and taking joy in it. The Prophet (S.A.W.S.) cautioned us when he said: “Do not express joy at your brother’s misfortune or else Allah will pardon him for it and test you with it” (reported by multiple sources including by At-Tabaraanee in Al-Kabeer (22/53)).
This hadith therefore warns us not to rejoice at other people’s misfortunes because we could be punished by it as well. Consider that when Ibn Sireen failed to return a debt he owed and was detained because of it, he said: “Indeed, I am aware of the sin (I committed) by which this befell me. I condemned a man forty years ago saying to him: ‘O bankrupt one.’”
Advising in personal situations
As stated earlier, giving advice and correcting others takes a special meaning when done in closer relationships such as being with close friends and family members. Sharing the day to day lives with others is bound to expose our faults to others more than in other situations. Furthermore, in such closer relationships where our lives are interconnected with others, one becomes more inclined to correct and advise others. The following are some of the tips that can make the process easier and less stressful.
- When correcting others, choose words that aim to “advise” rather than condemn, demean, or punish the other.
- Avoid correcting the other person when your emotions are running high. As mentioned earlier, if your intent is to see longer term behavior change in the other person without hurting your relationship, save the advice for future when you are more in control of your emotions. Angrily advising someone is bound to push the other to erect barriers rather than staying open to listen to the advice.
- If you think that you have the right to advise others to correct their mistakes, then you also have the obligation to appreciate the good in the other person. Relationships certainly improve when you take an interest in the other person along with acknowledging and mentioning the other person’s positive traits. Appreciation is the best way to reach out to the other, touch their hearts and improve your relationship. This will also lead them to put their defenses down when you need them to listen to your advice and suggestions.
- You should also be open to advice as well. When you show that you are no exception to the rules, you reveal your rational side, thus appealing to the listener and strengthening your relationship.
- Agree on a mutual protocol about advising and correcting each other. As many times, people in close relationships object to how the other advises them and on other related matters, setting expectations with the other person about the “when”, “what”, and “how” of correcting each other can prevent getting into relationship potholes.
- Even when you know that the other person is at fault, it is important to maintain humility. Consider this story which is an important reminder: The Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam said:“There were two men from Banoo Israa’eel who strove equally. One of them committed sins and the other strove hard in worship. And the one who strove in worship continued to see the other sinner and kept saying to him: ‘Desist’. So one day, he found him committing a sin and said to him: ‘Desist’. He replied: “Leave me to my Lord; have you been sent as a watcher over me?” He said: “By Allah, Allah will not forgive you, nor will Allah admit you to Paradise.” Then their souls were taken and they came together before the Lord of the Worlds. So He (Allah) said to the one who strove in worship: “Did you have knowledge of Me, or did you have any power over what was in my Hands?” And He said to the sinner: “Go and enter Paradise through My Mercy.” And He said to the other: “Take him to the Fire.” Aboo Hurairah said: “By Him is Whose Hand is my soul! He spoke a word which destroyed this world and the Hereafter for him.” (Saheeh – reported by Aboo Hurairah and collected in Aboo Daawood (Eng. trans. vol.3 p.1365 no.4883); authenticated by al-Albaanee in Saheehul-Jaami (4455)).
Let’s remember that in the Quran, Allah the Beneficent regards Muslims as helpers, supporters, friends, and protectors of each other:“The believers, men and women, are Auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another (Quran: At-Taubah, 9:71). Our duty, therefore, is to be genuinely concerned about each other so that we can contribute to making life pleasant in this life and to help ourselves and others to prepare for the life in the Hereafter. And to reach that end, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that Islamic teachings are implemented and followed correctly. This necessitates giving and taking correct advice and constructive criticism wherever required.