Erring out of Ignorance and Erring Despite One’s Knowledge
By Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid
We have to make a distinction between one who errs out of ignorance and one who errs despite his knowledge.
One of the stories that illustrate this clearly is what happened to Mu`awiyah ibn Al-Hakam Al-Salami when he came to Madinah from the desert, and he did not know that it is forbidden to speak during the salah. He said:
“Whilst I was praying behind the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), a man sneezed, so I said (yarhamuka Allah (may Allah have mercy on you).’ The people glared at me, so I said, (May my mother lose me! What is wrong with you that you are looking at me?’ They began to slap their thighs with their hands, and when I saw that they were indicating that I should be quiet, I stopped talking (i.e., I nearly wanted to answer them back, but I controlled myself and kept quiet). When the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) had finished praying – may my father and mother be sacrificed for him, I have never seen a better teacher than him before or since – he did not rebuke me or hit me or put me to shame. He just said, (This prayer should contain nothing of the speech of men; it is only tasbeeh (glorifying and praising Allah) and takbir (saying “Allah is Greatest”) and recitation of the Qur`an.’” (Muslim)
The ignorant person needs to be taught; the one who has doubts needs to have things explained to him; the negligent person needs to be reminded; and the one who willfully persists in error needs to be warned. It is not right to treat one who knows about a ruling and one who is ignorant of it in the same manner when rebuking them.
Treating one who does not know too harshly will only put him off and make him refuse to follow your advice, unlike teaching him with wisdom and gentleness, because an ignorant person simply does not realize that he is making a mistake. It is as if he is saying to the one who is rebuking him: “Why don’t you teach me before you launch an attack on me?”
The one who is making a mistake without realizing it may think that he is right, so we should take this into account and deal with him tactfully.
Imam Ahmad (may Allah have mercy on him) reported in Al-Musnad from Al-Mughirah ibn Shu`bah:
“The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) ate some food, then got up to pray. He had already done wudu’ before that, but I brought some water for him to do wudu’, He rebuffed me and said, (Go away!’ I felt upset, by Allah. He prayed, and I complained to (Umar about what had happened. He said, (O Prophet of Allah, Al-Mughirah feels hurt by your rebuff, and he is worried that you may be angry with him for some reason.’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: (I see only good in him, but he brought me water to do wudu’ after I had eaten some food, and if I had done wudu’ then, the people would have followed suit (i.e., they would have thought that they had to do wudu’ every time they had eaten something).” (Ahmad)
We should note here that when the Prophet (peace Allah be upon him) pointed out the mistakes of these great Sahabah, it did not have a negative impact on them or put them off; rather, it had a positive effect on them, and having been corrected in this manner by the Prophet, they would remain anxious and worried, watching their behaviour and feeling concerned until they could be sure that the Messenger of Allah was pleased with them.
We may also note from this story that when the Prophet (peace be upon him) pointed out Al-Mughirah’s mistake, he was not angry with Al-Mughirah himself; he did this out of mercy to the people and to explain things clearly to them, so that they would not impose something on themselves that was not wajib and that would cause them a great deal of hardship.
The article is an excerpt from the author’s book “The Prophet’s Methods for Correcting People’s Mistakes”.
Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid is a prominent Saudi scholar and lecturer.