Gentleness and elegance in interpersonal relations

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Endeavor for Renewal

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Gentleness and elegance in interpersonal relations

Question: In our time, many people are devoid of mannerliness in the way they behave or talk. Can mannerliness be learned from books? What are your recommendations for making good manners an ingrained quality of our personality?

Answer: Mannerliness requires being chaste, decent, kind, and respectful in interpersonal relations; it requires avoiding attitudes that might break others’ hearts even in the face of bad treatment or sorrowful events, and also keeping their words and behaviors in line with the essential traits of elegance, gentleness, and sincerity.

The Islamic world, which once built a civilization of mannerliness and elegance that would have made angels envious, unfortunately lost this quality after a certain period, and instead virtually entered a new age of ignorance, like the pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance. Referring to this truth, “The Ignorance of the Twentieth Century” was even used as a book name in Egypt. As a Turkish poet puts it, all the values Muslims possessed came crashing down, one by one. The Twentieth century is a time period that witnessed a total destruction of values within the system of belief, a system upon which an entire spiritual heritage took root to Muslims practices of worship and understanding of mannerliness. As Muslims lost practical contact with their religion, they also lost the importance of values, discipline, and terminology about good manners; in interpersonal relations, they became alienated to their own world of thought and culture, including their manners and courtesy. For example, in the Ottoman times, when a man was to refer to the son of another person he addressed, he would rather choose the courteous word makhdum (a master being served). If it was a daughter then he would courteously refer to her as karima (honored and treasured one). When the speaker had to refer to himself, he would humbly say “your slave.” And when two people addressed one another, they would use phrases of respect like “your high person” or “my master.” Such a style was not at all artificial. On the contrary, it was a natural outcome of people’s cultivated manners. Today, we sometimes witness people using these courteous words mistakenly by referring not to others’ but their own children. One thing I never forget is that, a university professor referred to himself by saying, “My high person thinks thus at this issue...” When I heard this, I did not know what to say. How did these phrases, which were an outward reflection of humbleness and spiritual refinement, come to be misused? It happened because we had not practiced courteous manners for a few centuries and failed to have them as an indispensable dimension of our lives. If you drive these cultivated manners, together with the morality and values they are based upon, out of practical life, then the words become dry forms devoid of meaning, condemned to oblivion. When you try to use these words abandoned of meaning and content as fanciful expressions, it will be inevitable for you to make such mistakes.

The core of the issue is respect for the human

Then what is it that needs to be done? First of all, we need to show the due respect the human essence merits, for God reveals that He created humanity as an honorable being of transcendent value: “Surely We have created the human of the best stature as the perfect pattern of creation” (at-Tin 95:4). This is the scale of human potential value. As it is known, the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, stood up out of respect when he saw a Jewish funeral passing. When others reminded him that it was a Jewish funeral, without talking long, he reminded them that it was a human being.[1] Therefore, even if somebody shows disrespect toward you, you should never give up your respect for the Divinely honored human essence. If others scorn your values and present disrespect against God and His Messenger, then you should respond to them within the frame of your cultivated manners, which you should consider as your honor. You should not forget that you are Muslims and are equipped with the manners of the noble Prophet and the morals of the Qur’an. Then how can you possibly act like some others? Some might use ugly expressions, some might litter the places they pass and—if you excuse me—bare their teeth toward everyone. But you can never act like that. Even in the worst situations, you have to present your special and positive difference.

As a matter of fact, if somebody is a believer in the true sense of the word, their heart should miss a beat in the face of profanity against God and His Messenger. But an exemplary believer responds with careful manners and gentleness, saying “As a requirement of the cultivated behavior I learned from the blessed Prophet, I had better respond to them within such and such a frame,” and they put up with negativities solely for the sake of God and His Messenger. On the other hand, they do not neglect to explain the truth of the matter to them in a soft and gentle style that conveys love and compassion. Thus, it is necessary to take “respect for humanity” as the basic idea and show respect toward all people in accordance with their degree. For example, you can show respect toward a person who does not share the same beliefs with you for being a servant of God, or toward another for being a believing servant. You may show respect toward another as for being a servant who accepts God in the right way, or toward another for being a servant who shares the same destiny with you and runs toward the same ideal. This way, the respect you show toward others grows into an immeasurable value by multiplying many times over. But first, this respect needs to emerge inside us.

Then our manners should reflect this feeling, and then by working through this issue continuously, it should become an ingrained part of our nature. As a part of established manners in a certain family, I knew some brothers who addressed one another by adding the respectable title “effendi” to their names. Be it the elder or younger brother, human essence actually deserves such respect. So you should accept this truth first, so that you can reflect it.

To give an example, the staff of a certain TV channel adopted a different attitude than the common one and started addressing one another with titles as “Mr…” In time, this became an established form of address and nobody found it unusual. It may have sounded a bit artificial at the beginning, but this consideration disappeared over time. In this respect, we had better try to revive all of our values that convey respect, one by one, and transfer them into practical life. Then we will be able to feel our identity as it is, and express ourselves comfortably in that atmosphere of respect. Therefore, nobody will encounter unpleasant expressions that will hurt them.

It is high time for making a new start, be it with a few people only

Acceptance and internalization of such a code of manners takes a certain period of time; we are talking about a society exposed to a severe storm of disrespect for a long time. People usually talk without observing a certain measure or code in our time. It can be said that a kind of slang pervades the entire society. As for the language used in media, it is even worse than the society’s. If you refer to dictionaries for the meanings of certain words used in media, you find notes stating that they are rude and slang expressions. In this respect, we should make a new start and undertake an effort to revive feelings of respect. At the beginning, only a few people will observe this code sensitively. Even if it remains limited to a certain circle at the beginning, they will make a positive difference with their manners and attitudes, and thus present a good example for others to follow.

As a matter of fact, volumes of works were written on good manners in Islamic culture. They can naturally be referred to. But it needs to be remembered that acceptance of matters only mentioned in books depends on their being practiced in specific circles. At a certain period in the past, people learned so much from the attitudes and behaviors of imams and muezzins while they preached in mosques. The society gained various beauties from the mosque. On the other hand, people in Sufi lodges gave a separate lesson on manners. Their relations were always centered on respect and reverence. Since life always continued with respect, it became an ingrained quality of people’s nature. Therefore, people behaved in a respectful and mannerly way very spontaneously and without any artificial efforts. In the past, you would come across fifty of those blessed places. You would see fifty different sages teaching the beauties of this spiritual heritage. The people who visited those places would definitely receive their shares from these lessons. Now the streets are going through a dreadful shortage in this respect. Some establishments have lost their fruitful characters and some do not exist at all. In addition, there are no persons to teach the high moral code of Islam to others. This is why I pointed out the necessity of reviving these manners among a limited number of people in certain circles. A group of friends staying in an apartment can say “Bismillah” (In the Name of God) and start reviving such respect and manners with a resolution to attain this character. Although the issue of manners seems secondary in comparison to crucial issues such as faith in God, the Prophets, resurrection, and offering the Prayers seriously, these disciplines should not be neglected. The Pride of Humanity, peace and blessings be upon him, stated that faith consists of more than seventy subdivisions, and that the foremost one is faith in God whereas the pettiest one is to remove things on the way that will bother people.[2] This pettiest subdivision of faith is a kind of good manner as well. In the same way, smiling at a believer one meets,[3] or giving the water one pulls out of a well to another person,[4] are also included among the subdivisions of faith and they should never be seen as unimportant.

As a final point, let me state that all subdivisions of faith and deeds related to them are complementary components. If you practice certain manners for seeking the good pleasure of God, they also serve as reminders of God, His Messenger, and Judgment Day to you. A single moment of remembering God and togetherness with Him for a split second is worth thousands of years spent without Him. Then, even though they seem to be petty, such matters are so great with respect to the meaning they stand for. For this reason, no matter what others do, we need to revive our own understanding of refinement, by referring to the manners of Islam and the Qur’an.

[1] Sahih al-Bukhari, Janaiz, 50; Sahih Muslim, Janaiz, 81
[2] Sahih Muslim, Iman, 58; Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Iman, 6; Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunnah, 14
[3] Sahih Muslim, Birr, 144; Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Birr, 36, 45
[4] Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Birr, 36; Al-Bazzar, Al-Musnad, 9/457–458