Sparing People Any Embarrassment
The Prophet (Pbuh) never spoke directly to anyone about what he disliked if what he wanted to say could embarrass the person concerned. Examples abound showing that the Prophet was very sensitive to other people’s feelings.
Commentary by Adil Salahi
There are two important characteristics of the Prophet (peace be upon him): His generosity and his forbearance. These are not limited to what is material or physical. He was generous at heart, willing to give what he can, and overlook any fault or offense.
In the period leading to the advent of Islam, poetry was highly valued by the Arabs, who were very eloquent and expressive. Hence, their poets were often of high caliber. Many would sum up a clear aspect of universal wisdom in a beautiful line that is easy to memorize. Such wise poetry was often learned and quoted or sung at every opportunity. One such poet who lived shortly before Islam was Labeed. Asma bint Abu Bakr reports that her father once quoted a line of Labeed’s poetry which says: “I have a friend who, whatever I ask he is certain to grant, and whatever slip I make he is sure to overlook.” Abu Bakr then commented: “Such was God’s Messenger (peace be upon him).”
This report is not a Hadith, since it is a comment by Abu Bakr on a line of poetry by Labeed. Hence we do not find it in the main anthologies of Hadith, but it is mentioned in books that speak of the Prophet’s character, manners and personal attributes. Hence, it is included in Al-Anwar by Al-Baghawi, which is dedicated to highlighting the Prophet’s personal character. What is stressed here is the Prophet’s willingness to overlook every mistake, provided that it is not a willful act of disobedience to God, and his readiness to grant every request. This is the attitude that earns genuine love.
In his care for others, the Prophet never spoke directly to anyone about what he disliked if what he wanted to say could embarrass the person concerned. Examples abound showing that the Prophet was very sensitive to other people’s feelings. Anas ibn Malik reports: “The Prophet was visited by a man who had used yellow makeup. The Prophet never confronted anyone with something he disliked. Hence, when the man left, the Prophet said to the people present: ‘You may wish to advise this man not to use such yellow make up.’” (Related by Ahmad, Abu Dawood, and Al-Tirmidhi).
It should be explained here that yellow makeup was normally worn by women. This means that the man had used feminine makeup, which is clearly discouraged by Islam. His action is like that of a man using mascara or lipstick these days. What is recommended for men is makeup that gives good smell, but does not show, such as perfumes. Women may wear at home any makeup, but when they go out, they are recommended not to wear perfume, while they are allowed visible makeup such as kohl. Given such standards, the Prophet felt that it would be embarrassing to the man if he pointed this out to him in front of the people present. But the Prophet needed to make it clear to all that such practice is discouraged. Had he not commented, his silence would have been interpreted as approval. Therefore, he made his comment in the most gentle manner, clearly indicating disapproval and suggesting that someone should tell the man privately that he should not use such makeup.
In another example, Aishah reports that “a man sought admission to see the Prophet. The Prophet said: “Admit him. He is such a disliked person.” When the man came in, the Prophet spoke to him gently. After he left, I said to the Prophet: ‘Messenger of God! You said about the man whatever you said. Nevertheless, you spoke gently to him.’ He said: ‘Aishah! The worst position is given on the Day of Judgment to one whom others leave alone in order to avoid his abusive language.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Malik, Ahmad and others)
Needless to say, the Prophet did not publicize his feelings about the man. He was speaking only to his wife. Nor did he speak ill of him, other than to say that the man did not command respect even among his own people. Nevertheless, Aishah wondered how the Prophet could speak gently to a man whom he knew to be undeserving of such kindness. Hence, her question. The Prophet explained that people normally avoid dealing with those who are ill mannered. Such a person will rue his conduct on the Day of Judgment when he discovers that it lands him in a bad position.
That the Prophet did not confront people with what they disliked is confirmed in several Hadiths. Aishah reports: “If the Prophet was informed that anyone said or did something wrong, he would not confront the man saying: ‘You said this or that.’ Rather, he would say: ‘Why is it that some people say this or that.’” (Related by Abu Dawood).
This Hadith tells us about a practice the Prophet always resorted to in order to spare people embarrassment. He did not even tell them privately what was communicated to him, because he did not wish to create an atmosphere of apprehension with people feeling that whatever they did would be reported. Therefore, he made his comments as general as possible, saying that some people might have done this or that which Islam does not approve. In this way, not only the person concerned would understand, but also anyone else who might do something similar. The advice was to all.
Another Hadith gives us an example of how this worked out in practice. Al-Nu’man ibn Basheer says: “The Prophet used to make the rows (in congregational prayer) very straight, so as to look like an arrow ready for release. Once he saw a man with his chest protruding. He said: ‘Servants of God! Straighten your lines, or else God will let disunity creep to you.’” (Related in all six authentic anthologies).
Although the action that needed correction was done by one person, the admonition was general, and it was certain to make everyone look at his own position to ensure that the row was straight at his own point. Thus, no one would feel that the criticism was directed at him, and the result would remove the fault. There can hardly be a better way of correcting mistakes.