A Hadith (related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad) quotes the Prophet (peace be upon him) as saying: “Ambiguity provides a way out of telling lies.”
This is a clear sanction to resort to ambiguity in order to avoid telling a lie. It is well known that telling lies is totally unacceptable in Islam. No matter what the situation is, and how one stands to be adversely affected by telling the truth, one must not tell a falsehood. This is the standard attitude of Islam. Exceptions are permitted in three situations: In war, when one may tell a lie to protect himself and his colleagues; to achieve reconciliation between two persons who had fallen out; and between man and wife in the interest of good family life. However, no lies are permitted in order to gain unfair advantage, or to cover up deception.
Stating the Truth
But if these are the only exceptions, and telling lies is a grave sin, how can one avoid an embarrassing situation? A person may need to tell a lie in a very innocent situation, simply because stating the truth could cause some difficulty or put a person in an untenable position. In such circumstances, we may resort to ambiguity in what we say. An ambiguous statement carries more than one meaning, and the listener may very well take the meaning the speaker wants him to understand.
A Hadith (related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad) quotes the Prophet as saying: “Ambiguity provides a way out of telling lies.” This is a clear sanction to resort to ambiguity in order to avoid telling a lie. Scholars have resorted to this sort of ambiguous statements in order to attend to their business and not to turn people away. Al-Nukha’ie, a scholar of the generation that succeeded the Prophet’s companions, told his servant that if someone called on him when he was busy, she should not say that he was not in, but should only say to the caller: “Try to meet him at the mosque.” The caller was likely to think that the man had already gone to the mosque when the servant did not tell him anything of the kind. She only suggested that he should seek him there, where he would certainly be at the time for the next prayer. There are a variety of ways by which this could be achieved, and they all depend on common sense. What is important to know is that if the benefit achieved from such use of ambiguity is greater than the loss incurred, then it is permissible. If it is not, using it is not forbidden, but may in some situations be reprehensible.
Warning Against Reporting Everything We Hear
Another Hadith quotes Umar ibn Al-Khattab as saying: “It is sufficient lying that one should report everything one hears.” He is also reported to have said: “Does not ambiguity provide a Muslim with a way out of lying.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, , Abu Dawood and Al-Hakim)
The first part of this Hadith draws our attention to a fact of life that shows that if we were to report everything we hear, we will be telling lies. This is due to the fact that some people do lie, and if we were to take their words and relay them to others without checking whether they are true or not, we will be sharing their guilt. Moreover, sometimes people do not deliberately tell lies, but they may be confused about something, or unaware of the full facts. They may be only stating what they heard without checking its truth. It is well known that when people do that, they are likely to miss a point here or there, or to misunderstand something and report it wrongly. If we relay what we hear, we may, in turn, do the same. This will mean that what we report will be even further from the truth, and we may inadvertently tell a lie. Therefore the Hadith gives us a warning against reporting everything we hear.
To Watch What We Say
Numerous are the Hadiths that advise us to watch what we say. Indeed, the Prophet has warned against every type of unacceptable behaviour, even when it is limited to words. One type is to make fun of others, particularly if the person being made fun of has some defect or illness or an unsightly appearance. Some Hadiths warn that God may inflict immediate punishment on people who are guilty of such unacceptable practice. This Hadith does not state what our attitude should be when we see someone suffering an illness or having a defect, deformity or handicap. The right behaviour is detailed in some other Hadiths which make clear that a Muslim must always be ready with help and must look at anyone with such a disorder or handicap with respect and kindness. We must in no way impart to such a person an impression that he loses his or her esteem because of his handicap or illness. This Hadith simply warns that God’s punishment may be near at hand. It could be that we will become subject to the same ridicule we leveled at that person by contracting the same illness or suffering the same physical defect. We do well to heed the Prophet’s warning.