Avoiding a Situation That Is Embarrassing

Adil Salahi, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Fri, 2006-06-09 03:00

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.

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. This meaning is most likely to be untrue, but the statement itself is correct. This is achieved by making the wrong meaning more obvious, so that the listener will be diverted from the true situation. Thus, a person who is told that a visitor is waiting for him at the reception in his place of work may tell his secretary that he wants to see her immediately, then he asks her to inform the reception that he is in a meeting. When the visitor is told that, he most probably will go away, feeling that the meeting could take long.

When this happens, the secretary is telling the truth when she says that her boss is in a meeting, because he is meeting her. But the fact is that this could be only momentary, when the impression she has given is that of her boss being unable to meet his visitor. Now, if this is done for a legitimate reason, such as the boss being very busy with urgent business and the visitor does not have any real or important business to discuss, or his visit may be social, then this is permissible. On the other hand, if there is nothing to prevent the boss from receiving his visitor, then resorting to such ambiguity is reprehensible, but not forbidden.

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. 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 is 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.

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 every thing we hear.

Numerous are the Hadiths that advise us to watch what we say. Indeed, the Prophet has warned against every type of unacceptable behavior, 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. Aishah is reported to have said: “A person suffering from an illness passed by some women, and they made fun of him. Some of them contracted that same illness.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).

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 behavior 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 some of our 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.

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