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Islam is not a religion in which one purifies one’s own soul while ignoring or not helping others as well along the path of purification. As discussed later in this work, Islam stresses the proper relationship between different individuals of society. One of the most important interactions between individuals is that of ordering or encouraging what is good while prohibiting or preventing that which is evil. It is part of true brotherhood that one wants to assist others to do what is right. It is also definitely part of true brotherhood that when one sees another Muslim doing something displeasing to Allah, that he would want to correct and advise his brother or sister in Islam. Thus, in the Quran, Allah relates the concept of being true brethren, friends and helpers to one another directly to the concept of ordering good and preventing evil.
The believers, men and women, are helpers and supporters of one another, they enjoin what is right and forbid what is evil
Allah also says
Help one another in righteous dealings and in acts of piety. But do not help one another in sins or acts of aggression against others
In fact, Allah makes it clear that encouraging good and preventing evil should be one of the overriding qualities of the Muslim Nation as a whole:
You are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind; you enjoin what is good, forbid what is evil, and you believe in Allah
This is not an “optional way” to behave. It is a necessary part of one’s faith and attitude. This is part and parcel of what it means to belong to a community. An individual has rights upon others as well as obligations towards others. Looking out for one another and assisting one another is essential, especially for those in positions of authority or whose voices are listened to. Thus, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has informed the Muslims,
By the One in whose hand is my soul, you must order good and forbid evil or Allah will soon send upon you a punishment from Himself and then you will supplicate to Him and He will not respond to you
Recorded by Ahmad and al-Tirmidhi. According to al-Albaani, it is hasan. See al-Albaani, Saheeh al-Jaami, vol. 2, p. 1189
In a beautiful parable recorded by al-Bukhari, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) demonstrated the importance of this practice for society as a whole: “The similitude of the one who fulfills Allah’s command [by eradicating evil] and the one who falls into what Allah forbids is like a people who drew lots for places on a boat. Some of them got the upper level of the boat while others were on the lower level. Whenever the people on the lower level wanted water, they had to go to the people on the upper level. Therefore, they said, ‘If we were to make a hole in our portion we would not have to bother the people above us [to get water].’ If they [the people on the upper level] leave them to what they want to do, all of them would be destroyed. If, instead, they take them by their hands [and stop them from what they plan on doing], they will be saved and they will save all of them.”
Many times people would like to stay away from evil but they need help in doing so. They need true friends around them who can act like a support group. Some individuals simply do not have the strength to remain away from activities that they know are wrong or that they themselves do not like, especially if there is peer pressure on them. With the help of others who understand what he is going through and who recognize that he truly wants to do what is right, he is able to muster up the courage to say no to wrong activities. Similarly, others are simply lazy or lack the motivation to do the actions they should perform. Again, with the sincere help or encouragement from those around him, the individual finds the strength to do what is right.
If people were individualistic and only concerned about their own selves, not lending hands to others, it would be disastrous for society. Those who do evil would dominate and harass others. In fact, many neighborhoods in the U.S., for example, have recognized this fact. The neighbors realized that they had to get together to encourage good things and remove evil things, as otherwise their neighborhoods were being destroyed by hoodlums. In the same way, true believers come together and assist one another promoting all good things and blocking all evil things.
Obviously, no one is going to be free from sin and therefore this principle of encouraging good and preventing evil does not mean that one has to be perfect before he can speak to others about their behavior. However, the encouraging of good and preventing of evil, logically, should begin with one’s own self. One should make oneself do what is good and prevent oneself from doing evil. In this way, one sets an example for others and such a person will more likely be listened to when he advises others. At the same time, though, even if a person has some shortcomings, he should still encourage others to do good and try to keep them from evil.
It must be noted that there are some conditions for the practice of encouraging good and preventing evil. One condition, for example, is that one has knowledge of what is good and what is evil according to Quran and Sunnah. It is possible that someone, due to ignorance, may encourage another not to do an act while that act is actually from the Sunnah.
For the new Muslim, in particular, he may find himself repeatedly on the end of being told what to do or what not to do. Many times this advice comes from other Muslims who may seem overzealous or who do not have the proper tack when speaking to a new Muslim. Many times language difficulties magnify the manner in which the new Muslim is being spoken to. It is important for the new Muslim to realize that, in general, his fellow Muslim means him no harm or humiliation. Instead, he may be simply acting on the basis of trying to encourage him to do what is right and teaching others about Islam. If the new Muslim sometimes feels frustrated about such occurrences, he should remind himself that the others are acting out of love and want only what is good for their new brother in Islam.