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Samt (Silence)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-3

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Literally meaning avoiding speech and keeping silent, samt is used by the Sufis to describe keeping silent or preferring silence in self-possession to avoid the useless or harmful utterances that one can make while speaking. Aware of the Divine warning, Not a word does he utter but there is a watcher by him, ever-present (50:18), the term samt also means that one should speak when necessary and only for the good pleasure of God, uttering words that are pleasing to God. The saying of the glorious nightingale of creation, the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, "Either speak of good or keep silent,"[1] is a most concise, decisive definition of samt, and provides the frame of reference that one should remain within when speaking and keeping silent. We should also remind ourselves of another saying attributed to him: "Let your speech be wisdom, and your silence reflection."[2]

Speaking too much, in particular speaking empty words, is something that has always been condemned and regarded as one of the sinful acts which lead people to perdition. Those who have been initiated into spiritual journeying to God have continuously been warned against speaking too much and against useless words as this is a sinful act of the tongue. It has been emphasized that eating too much, sleeping too much, and speaking too much are each a collar around the necks of the travelers to God, chains on their feet, and handcuffs around their wrists—for they lead one to make frequent mistakes and commit frequent sins. The saying attributed to Caliph 'Umar, may God be pleased with him, "Whoever speaks much errs much,"[3] corroborates this point.

Both the books of good morals and the epistles of Sufism have studied and explained the idea of keeping silent, each from their own perspective, attaching great importance to this virtue by regarding it as important wealth for an initiate, a secret treasure for those who have reached the final point of journeying, and a sign of good manners for every believer.

This does not mean that a believer should keep silent in every case. A believer should speak to advise and promote good or prevent evil, to teach and guide, to remove what is harmful, and to encourage and introduce what is useful. Our religion orders us to utter what should be said to support and establish truth and justice so that everyone can receive their rightful due, and forbids us from keeping silent in such cases. It can be said that however harmful and condemnable it is for one to speak without seeking God's approval or good pleasure and thereby pursuing a lawful purpose, it is equally harmful and condemnable for one to keep silent when and where one should speak. For this reason, although keeping silent is generally approved and advisable, speaking is sometimes more approved than silence. Silence, in other words, while it is not always golden, is sometimes silver. It is of great importance to know where and when one should keep silent, and where and when one should speak. In a Prophetic Tradition, the person who keeps silent where right and justice are violated and truth is desecrated is regarded as a "mute devil"; those who speak false and useless words are considered to be the friends and translators of Satan.

It is both an ethical behavior and indicative of their knowing their place in the "market of thought and speech" that those who should speak are given the opportunity to speak, while others whose speech is not useful should remain silent. In this respect, it has been said:

If your merchandise is copper, O brother,
Do not offer it for sale in the market.
Leave the market to those who sell jewelry.

Keeping silent in the presence of people with profound spiritual states and wisdom shows that one has good manners and that one respects such profound spiritual states and wisdom. Concerning this, the Shaykhu'l-Islam Yahya Efendi[4] says:

Give ear to the speech of the people of profound spiritual states.
Do not compare their speech to other speeches.
You know, O preacher, that every speech is different from others.

Silence accompanied by self-supervision in the presence of those who have reached the final point of journeying and who have been favored with God's company is also emphasized. This silence of the people of heart, who can recognize people of true merit and worth, means respect for both the hearts where Divine inspirations descend and for the One Who has favored these hearts with satisfaction. They remain silent where they should and prepare the ground for the breezes of inspirations to blow, setting their tables not for the worldly bounties, but for the ever-fresh fruits of Paradise.

It sometimes occurs that the matter to be discussed is so profound that it transcends our horizon of perception to the extent that we should keep silent and invite others around us to silence. Sayings such as, "No need to present our need, for the state we are in is expressive of everything," and the silent prayer, "Consider what a wretched state we are in, and do not leave us alone!" are the voices of such silence. Jalalu'd-Din ar-Rumi makes the following invitation to it:

Look at my pale face, but do not say anything to me!
See my countless pains, but for God's love, do not say anything to me!
Look at my heart in profuse blood, and my tears flowing like a stream!
But ignore whatever you see, and do not ask how and why!

Common people hold their tongues and only keep silent physically, while those who have certain knowledge of God keep control of both their tongue and heart, and so experience self-supervision in silence. As for the lovers of God, they keep their love and yearning within themselves and so represent the silence of faithfulness. The first of these three groups are saved from blunders of speech and protect themselves from censure and reproach. Those of the second group receive, in addition to what silence itself may bring, the spiritual gifts which come through reflection and self-supervision. As for those of the third group, it is stated in the following couplet:

You say that you are a lover, then do not sigh with the ordeal of love!
Do not make others aware of your ordeal by sighing!

Thus, they are able to keep their secrets in silence and display an example of deep faithfulness.

O God, include us among Your servants, sincere in faith and in the practice of Islam, and those whom You have particularly favored with sincerity; bestow Your blessings and peace upon our master, Muhammad, the leader of those whom You have favored with sincerity, and on his Family and Companions, who both love You and are loved by You.

[1]al-Bukhari, "Adab" 31; Muslim, "Iman" 74. (Tr.)

[2] al-Ghazzali, Ihya' 'Ulum ad-Din, 1:3; 2:228. (Tr.)

[3] at-Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Awsat, 2:370; al-Bayhaqi, Shu'ab al-Iman, 4:257. (Tr.)

[4] Shaykhu'l-Islam Yahya Efendi (1553–1644) was one of the most famous Shaykhu'l-Islams of the Ottoman State. The office of Shaykhu'l-Islam was the highest Office of religious affairs. Yahya Efendi was also a well-known poet. (Tr.)