By Shabina S. Khatri
We’re going over a book about morals and manners in my Sunday School class, and in a recent lesson we talked about truthfulness. Islam regards this trait so highly that, when asked, the Prophet (SAW) said a Muslim can be a miser and a coward, but not a liar. Never a liar.
So I was quite dismayed when my teenage students announced, very matter-of-factly, that they lie all the time, and think nothing of it. If the cashier handed them extra change at checkout? They’d keep it. If mom asked what they ate for lunch? No problem saying it was something healthy (even if it wasn’t).
At first, I was too taken aback to say anything. I mean, I can’t even choke out a lie to score a student discount at the movies.
But then I thought about it. Really, my students were just being honest about being liars. And I should exercise that honesty, too. Am I a good liar? Yes. But am I comfortable with lying? Not anymore.
The more I’ve read about my deen throughout the years, the more I’ve come to abhor dishonesty. I believe, like the Prophet (SAW), that unity and therefore community cannot exist where distrust runs rampant, because even the simplest of transactions would become impossible.
But telling the truth has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. And in today’s culture, many contend that lying is actually the glue that keeps society together. Which leads to the question, can someone who lies still be a good Muslim? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
According to the Prophet (SAW), there are three instances in which lying is permitted:
1) When a man is talking to his wife (no, of course you don’t look fat!);
2) For strategic purposes during times of war (I don’t know where their camp is)
3) To bring about reconciliation between people (he told me how sorry he is).
If we use this hadith as our guide, we can feel better about some of the most popular types of lies told today. The first are kind-hearted lies, the ones we tell to avoid unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings. Most of us wouldn’t tell a host how terrible dinner tasted, nor would we disclose to a friend that we hate his/her children.
If told in the right spirit, this kind of lie may be deemed permissible – but the trick here is to not delve into abject flattery for the sake of personal gain. The Prophet (SAW) said to one of his admirers, “don’t exaggerate while praising me as the Christians do while praising the son of Mary, because I am only His servant; so call me the slave of Allah and His messenger.”
In other words, being directly asked about someone’s cooking is a far different situation than apple-polishing your boss into a promotion – because the latter is done purely for personal strategic gain.
Clearly, the concept of lying is not as black and white as we would like to believe. We tread through the minefield every day with these issues, but rarely pause to consider them within an Islamic context. In my experience, I think the best rule of thumb is: if it doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it. Of course, as with all sins, the more you lie, the easier it becomes. The New York Times recently ran an in-depth article on lie-detecting and the problems associated with catching veteran phonies:
Unfortunately, most of the devices now available, like the polygraph, detect not the lie but anxiety about the lie. The polygraph measures physiological responses to stress, like increases in blood pressure, respiration rate and electrodermal skin response. So it can miss the most dangerous liars: the ones who don’t care that they’re lying, don’t know that they’re lying or have been trained to lie. It can also miss liars with nothing to lose if they’re detected, the true believers willing to die for the cause.
To avoid getting to that point, then, it’s best to steer clear of lying, unless in the special cases outlined by the Prophet (SAW), who said: “Adopt truthfulness, because truth guides to virtue and virtue leads to Paradise. A man speaks the truth and continues to do so until he is called the truthful. Avoid falsehood because it leads to sin and sin leads to Hell. A man lies and continues to do so until he is recorded as a liar in the sight of Allah (SWT).”