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Ramadan Reflection Day 18: Being Mindful of Our Words

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Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.

My niece Mariam paid me a surprise visit yesterday. She is one of my favorite people in the world and someone I respect greatly.

There is so much that is remarkable about Mariam. One of things that I admire the most is her demeanor and personality. I've never seen her get angry to a point where she yells or screams, I've never seen her talk back to anyone, or gossip or lie. She definitely knows how to control her tongue and in turn is someone who can be trusted. I don't know many people who are like that.

It seems like so many of us aren't mindful of how we speak to others. We say whatever is on our mind, not conscious of what it will do to the person on the receiving end of our words. Words can be very powerful. They have the ability to uplift as well as debilitate. The number of people that I've sat with who, many years later, carry with them the impact of words, both good and bad, bestowed upon them at an earlier point in their life is innumerable. People have been inspired to do amazing things just by hearing someone tell them they are good while others have lost hope entirely just because someone said something harsh to them.

Have you not considered how Allah sets forth a parable of a good word being like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are in heaven, yielding its fruit in every season by the permission of its Lord? And Allah sets forth parables for men that they may be mindful. And the parable of an evil Word is that of an evil tree: It is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth: it has no stability. ~ The Holy Qur'an, 14:24-26

A psychologist by the name of Martin Seligman ran a two part social experiment to test learned helplessness some years ago. In it, he takes three dogs and puts them through similar situations, changing slightly a couple of variables to demonstrate his theory. In part 1, Dog A is tied up in a harness and then released. Dog B is tied up in the harness, and then shocked with painful, electric current, which he can end by pressing a button. Dog C is tied up in a harness and shocked with painful, electric current but given no way out from it. Already Dog C begins to show symptoms of depression.

In the second part, all three dogs were placed separately into a box that was divided into two parts with a small partition. The first part of the box was injected with current similar to that which was used in part 1 of the experiment. To escape the current, the dog would just have to jump over the the partition into the second part of the box. Dog A, who had not been shocked in Part 1 of the experiment, finds his way out. Dog B, remembering when it feels this kind of pain has a means of escape, looks for his way out and finds it. Dog C, having full opportunity to jump over as the earlier two did, does not. When it is shocked, it remembers the pain that it felt from Part 1 of the experiment and that there was no way out from it. So rather than jumping over the partition like the first two, he just lays down and whimpers until someone comes and helps him -- completely helpless because of how he was treated. We learn in a similar way and, unfortunately, when we are not mindful of our words, we teach in a similar way too. They really can make someone feel helpless.

A few years ago, a group of my students from NYU attended a Muslim Students' conference. Amongst the group, there was a young girl who was attending a program like this for the first time in her life. At one point she had left the main lecture hall to use the bathroom when she was stopped by a young man on the way. As she answered his questions, she recalls feeling the stares of a few young hijabi women on her and discomfort that followed it. She excused herself from the conversation and continued on to the bathroom. On her way out, the group of girls that she thought were staring at her now started to ask her questions about the boy and if she knew him. She didn't and she was then asked what he wanted from her and she told the group he needed directions. They asked her if she thought he liked her and she was somewhat confused by the question. They then told her to not think that he would ever like someone like her because she did not wear a headscarf and since she didn't, the boy probably just assumed she was easy to talk to and was getting a kick out of flirting with her. They then left the girl alone and she proceeded to call her mother and cry, wondering why anyone would speak to her in such a way.

When I found out, I sat with her a week or so later and talked to her about it. It was disheartening to say the least that someone would speak like that to another person, especially one they do not know. What was most disheartening though was the fact that the girl actually believed she had done something wrong and was in turn a bad person for it. The thought stayed with her for some time just from simple words that were uttered to her by someone who wasn't thinking. This is not to say that all women who wear hijab are condescending to those who don't. Anyone has the ability to be hurtful with their words. The roles could easily be reversed and unfortunately are just as often.

Fasting is about a lot more than not eating or drinking. It serves as an opportunity to become conscious of other habits and character flaws that we as individuals have and sets up an opportunity for us to try our best to overcome them. Try fasting from condescension, from anger, from gossiping and backbiting, and from lying for the rest of Ramadan. Set a goal to not hurt anyone with your words for the next couple of weeks at least. It's not that hard -- it just requires some patience.

Fasting also serves as an opportunity for one to deconstruct emotional habits that are built up from being on the receiving end of harsh words and treatment. I can't control my emotions, but I can control the actions and decisions that yield those emotions. Why is it that I get upset every time someone says something to me in a certain way? How come I have an issue trusting new people or giving people the benefit of the doubt? Thinking about it deeply and critically so that the emotion habit can be deconstructed. At these times, it can help to talk to someone who has your best interest in mind and knows how to give good advice and counsel. It's OK to talk your emotions and experiences tied to them out -- it's very different from gossiping.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said:

"Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent."

Our words are powerful and so many of us are not mindful of how we use them. When I was 6 years old I learned in kindergarten that if I don't have anything nice to say, I shouldn't say anything at all. I need the reminder at 28 and will probably need it every year for the rest of my life in this world. I am lucky that I have my 9 year old niece to look up to and set a good example for me.