Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:148

Overview (Verses 148 - 149)

No Foul Language
Part of this conscience purification process on individual and social levels is represented by the two opening verses in the present passage: “God does not love evil to be spoken openly unless it be by someone who has been truly wronged. God hears all and knows all. Whether you do good openly or in private, or pardon others for evil (done against you), God indeed absolves sin and He is Powerful.” (Verses 148-149)
By virtue of its sensitivity, society needs to establish a proper standard of social morality. A word said unwittingly and a rumour intended against only one person may have highly detrimental effects on society as a whole, its traditions, and values. Unless checked by conscience and by the quality common to believers, namely, fear of God, it is very easy to use evil language, which inevitably leaves profoundly harmful effects on society. It often destroys mutual confidence among people, giving a general impression that evil has become commonplace. It also encourages those with evil tendencies to bring them out into the open. Since they are not the first to start evil, it already being widespread, they need not worry about any reaction. Moreover, familiarity removes the initial shock effect of evil. People tend not to express their disgust at hearing evil words, or indeed, seeing evil acts, when these become widespread. No one will try to change an evil when it becomes commonplace.
Additionally, those who are accused of evil and around whom false rumours are spread actually suffer injustice. This is a direct result of the evil language being used. Innocent people are grouped together with those who are guilty, accusations fly around, psychological and social considerations, which restrain people from using foul language and prevent evil action, become ineffective.
The fact is that the use of evil words starts in the form of individual accusations, but it leads to social corruption and moral chaos. No individual or group of people are given their due credit and people have no confidence in each other, when baseless accusations circulate and scruples are totally disregarded. For these reasons, God does not like the Muslim community to allow evil words to become common parlance. The only exemption in this regard is given to the one who suffers injustice. He is allowed to repel this with a foul word with which he describes the person who has wronged him, within the context of what he has suffered: “God does not love evil to be spoken openly unless it be by someone who has been truly wronged.” (Verse 148)
In this case, speaking ill of someone, including using language which may be libellous, is no more than an attempt to remove the injustice and retaliation against some wrong that has been done to a particular person. It is no more than a denunciation of injustice and the wrongdoer, which allows the community to punish the latter and restore justice. This works as a deterrent against this sort of action so that it is not repeated either by the same person or others. It should be pointed out here, that those evil words which are allowed to be spoken openly originate with a particular person, who has been wronged, for a particular reason, and are levelled at one person in particular, the wrongdoer. The end purpose justifies the exemption given in this verse, namely, to restore justice to a person who has been wronged. To be sure, Islam does not allow libel in any form. It protects people’s reputation and integrity as long as they do not wrong others. If they do so, however, they relinquish their rights of protection.
By enabling this exemption, Islam maintains a balance between its two desires, to maintain a high standard of justice which admits no breach and a standard of morality which allows no violation of personal or social propriety. Commenting on the prohibition and the exemption, the Qur’ān states: “God hears all and knows all.” (Verse 148) The conclusion relates the whole matter to God’s law, after it has been given at the outset within the context of what God loves and what He dislikes: “God does not love evil to be spoken openly.” The comment at the end of the verse emphasises that judgement of motive and intention, as well as the truth of the words uttered and the accusation so expressed is made by God who hears whatever is said and knows what is in people’s hearts.
The sūrah does not stop at giving an order not to speak evil openly; it encourages the positive aspect of doing good generally and pardoning others for any error. It reminds people that God Himself is Much- Forgiving, Most Lenient, when He is able to punish offenders. This reminder also serves as an incentive to believers to follow, within the limits of their ability, God’s example in dealing with people: “Whether you do good openly or in private, or pardon others for evil (done against you), God indeed absolves sin and He is Powerful.” (Verse 149)
Here, Islam takes its followers, individuals and communities, up through another stage of their educational process, all the while refining their characters. In the first stage, it spoke to them about God’s dislike of evil being spoken openly. It provided a concession to someone subjected to injustice to speak against the person who had wronged him, this so as to remove that wrong. In this second stage, it raises them all to the level of doing good. As for the individual who has been wronged, he is encouraged to freely pardon and forgive, even though he is legitimately able to retaliate in order to remove the injustice.
Needless to say, such forgiveness is higher and more becoming of believers than retaliation. All this helps the spread of good in the Muslim community if it is done openly. If it is done in secret, it helps keep hearts and souls pure. Good is beneficial when done in public or in private. When forgiveness becomes commonplace, little room is left for evil words said in public. The only condition is that forgiveness be granted even when one feels able to retaliate. We forgive because we like to be forgiven by God who, though, able to punish us, pardons us: “God indeed absolves sin and He is Powerful.” (Verse 149)