The Lost Art of Giving Advice
Ahhh the familiar scent of the sweaty dungeons of hurtful, unsolicited advice that push people away from the faith. How I loathe thee.
Chances are that you’ve been on the receiving end (and probably giving end – no judgment here) of unsolicited and sometimes hurtful “advice” at some point in your life.
Giving good advice is a beautiful thing, and being receptive to positive change is also an important trait to have. Allah (swt) says in the Quran, “And remind, for indeed, the reminder benefits the believers” (51:55).
Enjoining good and forbidding evil is an important and well-known cornerstone of our faith. In the Quran, Allah (swt) praises the believers who support and promote good actions, and who prevent evil actions.
The Prophet Muhammad (saw) also said, “Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is yet unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of Faith.”
As Muslims, our faith instructs us to be beacons of justice – to change what is negative with our hands, if we are able; to verbally advise with the best advice, if we are able; or to at least feel strongly in our hearts that something is wrong.
The problem is, we don’t know how to give advice anymore. Instead of good, positive speech, we spew negativity in our online (and sometimes offline) comments, we sneer at people who aren’t up to our level of “piety,” who don’t dress as modestly as we do, who struggle with parts of the faith that we find easy. Our “advice” isn’t actually advice – it’s judgment and condemnation, plain and simple.
So before you give advice, take into account these following points:
Rapport is the basis for good advice
In the age of social media, we have access to millions of people at our fingertips. It makes us feel like we have a right to bombard them with our opinions and comments. But if we think about the best advisers, the prophets and messengers of God, they were sent to their own people. The prophets were not foreign missionaries sent into faraway towns and cities to convert the populations – not initially at least! No, they were already a part of the nation to which they preached.
Our beloved messenger Muhammad (saw) was known for decades in his community as a trustworthy individual – he lived with the people, he was one of them, he had real relationships with them. He celebrated with them, and mourned with them! So when he began to preach the message of guidance, he was already familiar with the ways and thought-processes of his people. No doubt it was an uphill battle, but there was a level of trust towards the prophet (saw) present, even amongst the disbelievers.
When we have no rapport with the individuals we’re advising, the advice will often get lost in translation. The truth is, when you don’t really know what a person’s life and circumstances are, it’s difficult to offer beneficial advice.
So many of us want to have the most significant effect on the world possible. So we unwittingly reach farther than we should. We find excuses to occupy ourselves with advising (read: judging) others who are far away from us while believing that we’re somehow attaining piety by doing this. In reality, we should be focused on improving ourselves, our families, and our local communities. When our own families and communities are struggling and have gaping holes and needs that aren’t being fulfilled, what makes us believe that it’s a priority to advise someone half-way around the world?
Enjoining good and forbidding evil involves actually getting your hands dirty doing the work that needs to be done in your families, and in your communities. It is NOT sitting on chair at home typing out rude comments to someone 10,000 km away.
I’m not saying it’s never appropriate to advise someone far away, or someone you do not have a personal relationship with (especially if you’re in a position of influence or authority). What I am saying is that it shouldn’t be a priority while the people closest to you suffer from neglect.
If you want to help someone, actually help him
It’s incredibly easy to speak. Anyone who has a tongue and vocal cords can emit sounds from his or her mouth. But the act of speaking truth and giving beneficial advice isn’t something only done with the tongue. It requires you to be present emotionally, spiritually, (and sometimes physically and financially) with the person you’re trying to help. It requires you to say to him or her, I want to see the best for you, and so I’m here with you for the long haul.
It’s putting your action where your mouth is.
That is how believers are to one another – brothers, sisters – willing to support and uplift one another. The Prophet (saw) said, “The believer is a mirror to his faithful brother. He protects him against loss and defends him behind his back.”
The weakness of your brother is also your weakness. So by helping him, you are also helping yourself. You are not removed from his life. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Advise when it brings benefit
Allah (swt) says in the Quran, “So remind, if the reminder should benefit” (87:9)
Oftentimes we want to be upholders of the truth at any cost, so we may choose the wrong times and the wrong ways to convey our message. In our zeal to spread goodness and truth, we forget that there is a time and place for everything. Sometimes we expose people in a public manner (which makes them defensive and more likely to reject what you’re saying). Sometimes we use harsh words and derogatory language, and we hurt the people we are trying to help.
One of the wisdoms of giving advice is knowing when and how to do so. Think about it, if you know for a fact that your advice is going to turn someone away from the faith, then you need to seriously revaluate your timing and the way in which you express yourself.
Just as Allah (swt) rewards us for bringing people closer to the faith, we will also be held to account for those we push away. Consider this dua found in the Quran: “Our Lord! Do not make us a test for those who disbelieve” (60:5).
When we treat people unjustly or harshly, those people see our actions as a reflection on our faith. We could be unwittingly pushing someone away from the faith because of our arrogance. Yes, we’ll be held to account for that. Undoubtedly.
Advising when it brings benefit means knowing when it’ll bring benefit – which means, actually knowing someone and his/her situation. But if we’re too “busy” to get that involved, or too busy to sit and really contemplate the best way to help someone, then what good are we doing by speaking?
Chances are we are doing more harm than good.
Advice isn’t just words
Aisha (ra) said the Prophet’s (saw) character was the Quran.
People flocked to him, dedicated their wealth and lives and properties to helping spread truth and guidance. The Prophet’s demeanor, character, and mannerisms were beacons of light in a time of harshness and ignorance. May the peace and blessings of God be upon him.
He was loved so fiercely that when he spoke, people listened. When he advised, people heard and obeyed. When he disliked something, people would immediately leave it.
Of course, none of us can have this same status of the Prophet – we cannot expect a response of “we hear and we obey” from those we advise. That only applies to Allah (swt) and His messenger.
But we can take note of how the prophet’s impeccable character made people’s hearts lean towards his words. Allah (swt) says, “So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you…” (3:159).
Our actions and speech, if harsh, will push people away. But if our actions, character, and mannerisms are kind and gentle and wholesome, they will draw people in. Their hearts will become receptive and open to you.
This is by no means a remotely comprehensive “etiquettes of giving advice” piece.
But there are so many ugly things in the world today, and we’re faced with pains and difficulties that can sometimes feel overwhelming. So please, be kind to one another at the very least. Let someone who is hurting and struggling see a welcoming and accepting smile on your face instead of a judgmental smirk.
That kindness and sincere willingness to help may just be what softens hearts in the end, by Allah’s permission.
Our beloved messenger said, “Be gentle, for gentleness adorns everything in which it is found, and its absence leaves everything tainted.”