From The Book “When You Hear Hoofbeats, Think of a Zebra”
I think one of the most detrimental parts of man, which keeps him separated from Allah, is gossip and his tongue and words that are misused. This tongue that we use to pronounce the Name of Allah and then to say to somebody, ‘you are stupid’ or ‘I hate you,’ is absurd.
Sheikh Muzaffer used to tell the story about a sheikh who had a beautiful daughter. This daughter was coming to the age of marriage, and she had many suitors. She was so beautiful that handsome princes and rich men of position all wanted to win her hand in marriage. Finally the sheikh said, ‘I’ll ask three questions and give you three tasks. After you have completed these tasks, you will come back here. And the one who can succeed in all of them will be worthy of having my daughter’s hand in marriage.’ The next day they all returned. Some brought honey, others the sweetest smelling flowers, or just anything that had the sweetest taste or aroma, anything sweet you could dream of that was on the planet, they brought. At the end of this long line was a poor, meek student of the sheikh. The sheikh finally said to him, ‘What is it? Why are you here?’ He said, ‘Well, your daughter is very beautiful, and I am in love with her. And I would like also to attempt to answer these questions so that I may win her hand in marriage.’ The sheikh said, ‘Well, all right.’ He could not stop what he had started. The student was holding a box. ‘What’s in that box?’ asked the sheikh. He opened the box. Inside was the huge tongue of an ox. The sheikh stepped back and said, ‘Is this some kind of a joke or a game you’re playing with me, son? I asked for the sweetest thing in the world, and you bring me this tongue!’ The student said, ‘But, my sheikh, humbly I tell you that the tongue is the sweetest thing in the world, because the words that come from this tongue, if they are sweet words, they can make a sick person well. They can make an unhappy person happy. They can make someone who is sad and despondent feel that his life is worth living, and have joy. Surely, the tongue is the sweetest of all things.’ The sheikh said, ‘All right, you win this one.’ Then, addressing the others, he said, ‘The next thing you are to bring me is the most bitter thing in the world.’ The next day, the suitors all came and lined up. They brought bitter herbs and all kinds of bitter-tasting foods, plants, and whatever it was that tasted really bitter and terrible. And there was Mehmet the student at the end of the line holding a box. The sheikh said, ‘What is it now? What do you have to show us this time?’ Mehmet opened the box, and there was the same tongue. Astonished, the sheikh said, ‘Surely you’re playing a joke on us again. Yesterday you said that this was the sweetest of all things. Today you say it is the most bitter.’ ‘My sheikh,’ Mehmet offered humbly and quietly, ‘if the tongue says bitter words, it can make a happy person sad. If the tongue says bitter things to someone, it can hurt his very heart. This tongue is so bitter it can even break a heart.’ The sheikh reluctantly said, ‘All right, Mehmet, alright.’ He paused and then said, ‘And now, you come with me to the masjid.’ They went into the kitchen in the rear, and the sheikh said, ‘Make me a coffee.’ There was a metal container with tripod metal legs that stood on the floor. In it you placed coals from thewood that was burning in the stove. It was very hot and you could make coffee. The sheikh said, ‘Make me a coffee here.’ Mehmet took some hot coals from the wood stove, and placed them in the container, and began to put coffee and sugar and water in the coffee pot. he moved the coffee pot back and forth over the hot coals, and soon the water began to boil. As it was bubbling the sheikh said, ‘Now, Mehmet, tell me, what sound is this water making? What is it saying?’ Mehmet was at a loss. He really didn’t know. He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ The sheikh said, ‘Think about it, come back tomorrow, and tell me the meaning of the sound the water is making. And if you tell me this secret, you can have my daughter in marriage.’ The student returned to his room upset, because he thought for sure there was no way he was going to know what this boiling water was saying as it bubbled in the coffee pot. It seems that a friend of the daughter of the sheikh was cleaning up in the kitchen of the masjid and had overheard this conversation. She went to the sheikh’s daughter and told her what had happened, word for word. That night, when the sheikh returned to his quarters and sat in his chair, his daughter asked, ‘Dear Father, would you like a coffee before you go to bed?’ He said, ‘That’s very nice of you. Thank you. And so he began to make a coffee, and as she moved the pot back and forth over the hot coals, the water started to bubble. She glanced at her father casually and aasked, ‘Oh, Father, tell me- it’s an interesting sound this water makes when it’s bubbling and making your coffee.’ She went on, ‘What can that mean? What does that sound say?’ He thought for a second and said, ‘All right,’ and he explained; ‘The water is saying that I was a drop in a cloud. There was condensation and the cloud opened, and I came down to the earth as a drop of rain. As this drop of rain I landed on a seed. That seed grew into a tree. A woodsman came, and he cut part of that tree, and chopped it up for firewood. And then this firewood was placed in the stove, and the hot coals were taken and put into this container, and then this coffee was made, and so the water was saying – ‘What is burning me is from me.’ The daughter didn’t show any emotion. She said good night to her father, went directly to her room, and wrote down everything he had said, sealed it in an envelope, and gave it to a friend to deliver to the student Mehmet. Because, as he was in love with her, she was in love with him. He received the letter, opened it, and was amazed to see that the sheikh’s daughter herself had sent a note with the answer to the sheikh’s question. The next day, he went to the masjid as he had been instructed to do the day before. The sheikh greeted him, ‘As-salaam aleykum. Make me a coffee.’ His student answered, ‘Wa-aleykum as-salaam, my sheikh,’and began to prepare the coffee. He moved the pot over the hot coals. The sheikh looked at him and said,’Mehmet, can you answer the question, what is this bubbling water saying?’ Mehmet reflected within himself very deeply, as if he was thinking hard, then he said, ‘Ah, my sheikh, Bismillah, my sheikh, this water is saying…’ and he repeated exactly what was in the letter, exactly what the sheikh had said the night before. In conclusion, Mehmet added, ‘And the water is saying, what is burning me is from me.’ The sheikh’s face turned red. He looked at him and said, ‘Ah Mehmet, and what is burning me is from me.’
One should watch one’s tongue. Especially in daily life. Because the tongue can truly be the sweetest or the most bitter thing in the world. How often have we had the experience of feeling fine, and then we look at somebody and say, ‘You are beautiful today,’ or ‘How kind it was of you to do that for that person,’ or ‘My heart really goes out to you.’ Observe how that person is affected. We’ve also had the experience of being grumpy, and we just look at someone and say, ‘Look, get out of here,’ or ‘I dislike you,’ and we know the effect that has without even taking it to a point of gossip. Within gossip, the soul of the speaker as well as that of the listener can be lost.
The tongue is tied to the heart. It is said that a man’s character is hidden beneath his tongue, because the tongue says what is in the heart. So when we speak, we’re expressing what is in our hearts. And though Allah says He cannot fit in the entire universe but can fit into the heart of a believer, He doesn’t say that He will fit in that heart if it’s cluttered with bad thoughts, deeds, and questions. Such a heart must first be clean.