Opinion Editorials, February 2004, www.aljazeerah.info
Good Manners in All Situations
Arab News, 2/8/04
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was keen to instill into the Muslim community a keenness to elevate all occurrences and social interaction so that they may earn reward from God and strengthen relations in Muslim society.
When a Muslim realizes that whatever happens in life occurs by God’s will, then he expresses his gratitude for whatever is good and accepts what may be adverse to him, showing patience and resignation. Both attitudes earn reward from God.
Even in ordinary matters such as sneezing and yawning, which happen as a result of what we feel at a certain point in time, the Prophet has given us guidance of how to behave in order to earn God’s reward and strengthen relations with others.
Abu Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying: “When any of you sneezes, he should say, ‘Praise be to God.’ If he says it, his brother or friend should say to him, ‘May God have mercy on you.’ If his brother says it, he should reply, ‘And may He give you guidance and reassurance.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Abu Dawood).
In this Hadith the Prophet tells us what sort of reaction we should have when one of us sneezes.
It is the best wish that expresses a very friendly and caring attitude, because God’s mercy ensures the best that one may have in this life and in the life to come. The same may be said about the reply.
If one receives God’s guidance in this life, one is sure to avoid error and to feel heart’s contentment and reassurance. When such an exchange is made as a result of a natural and physiological occurrence such as sneezing, it can only enhance good relations within the community.
It is to be noted that the statements recommended by the Prophet in this instance are made in the singular form, which is the more familiar one between people. In other Hadiths, it is made in the plural, which is more formal.
It may be said that when the plural form is used, it could be taken as to include the angels who watch over us.
Thus, when one says to a person who sneezes, “May God have mercy on you”, he would mean that person and the angels around him or her, and the reply would be in the plural involving the angels with the other interlocutor.
Another Hadith is reported by Ibn Abbas, who says: “If any of you sneezes and says ‘Praise be to God,’ the angel would say, ‘the Lord of all worlds.’ If the person adds this phrase, ‘Lord of all worlds,’ to his initial praise, the angel says to him: ‘May God have mercy on you.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Al-Tabarani).
The first statement by the angels is intended to complement the praise the person himself says after sneezing.
It is to prompt the person to make his praise in full, acknowledging God’s Lordship over the whole universe. If he says so, then the angel prays God to grant him mercy.
Sometimes the Prophet gives descriptions that are bound to capture the interest of the listener, but they are not meant literally.
The following Hadith is a case in point: “God likes sneezing and dislikes yawning. If a person sneezes and praises God, every Muslim who hears him is bound to pray God to grant him mercy.
“Yawning, on the other hand, is from Satan, so it should be countered as far as possible. If the person says ‘Hah!’, Satan laughs at him.” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Ahmad and others). What God likes and dislikes are not the actions themselves, but what they lead to.
Sneezing is bound to make the person more alert. It should be followed, as the Prophet recommends, with praising God, and with a prayer by other people. All this is good and merits reward.
Hence God likes it. On the other hand, yawning reflects boredom or tiredness. The yawning person’s image is distorted and this makes Satan laugh at him.
Hence, the Prophet recommends that we try to dispel yawning as far as possible, and when we cannot avoid it, we should cover our mouths with our hands.
The question that arises here is whether the Prophet’s statement about the reaction of other people indicates a duty or a recommendation.
A number of scholars consider this to be a duty, because the Hadith states it in an emphatic way. Other scholars consider it a collective duty, which means that it is sufficient that some of those around, or even one, should do it for this duty to be considered fulfilled. If no one does it, then all are at fault and may have to account to God for their failure.
What the Prophet has taught in such common and everyday occurrences was taken up by Muslims and became part of their tradition.
People who receive religious education or upbringing learn to praise God after they sneeze and to pray Him to grant mercy to other people who do so.
To cite some examples from the early Muslim generations, we may quote the following report which speaks of some Muslims who were on a sea expedition during the reign of Mu’awiyah.
As the boats came to shore at some stage, the people of one boat invited Abu Ayyoob Al-Ansari, a companion of the Prophet, for lunch. He came over and said to them: “You have invited me to lunch, but I am fasting. However, I had to come over because I heard the Prophet saying: ‘A Muslim is duty bound to respond to his brother in six matters. If he omits any of them, he omits a duty that is due to his brother. These are: to greet him when they meet; to respond if he invites him; to pray God to grant him mercy when he sneezes; to visit him if he is ill; to attend his funeral when he dies; and to give him sincere good counsel if he asks his advice.’”
The reporter adds: “Among us was a man with a good sense of humor. He turned to another person who shared our meal and said to him, ‘may God give you a good reward.’ Apparently he said it too many times and the man was angry. So, the humorous man asked Abu Ayyoob what he should do with a man who gets angry if he prays for him to be rewarded well. Abu Ayyoob said: ‘We used to say that a person who does not appreciate a good thing may be better served with its opposite. So, you may try the opposite.’ Apparently the man concerned had gone out for something or another. When he came back, the humorous man said to him, ‘may God give you a foul reward.’ He smiled and said, ‘You will not give up your tricks.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
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