Mistakes are the consequences of life and being human. They help us repent, learn and grow wiser. Mistakes can be catalysts of self-improvement and reminders of our imperfections. Still, we tend to interpret mistakes more as disaster than opportunity.
Prophet Muhammad sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam approached mistakes not as cause for shame, but as teachable moments. Even though the Prophet taught his companions to strive for excellence and conquer their flaws, mistakes were inevitably made, some minor and some very serious. He corrected people’s missteps with gentleness, empathy, and creativity. He used mistakes as opportunities to empower people, not break them.
Studying Prophet Muhammad’s example gives us insight on how to help people in their moments of error.
1. Address the Mistakes
Because mistakes make us uncomfortable, we may ignore them or think they are not our business. The Prophet sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam did not leave mistakes to stand on their own without guiding people towards a solution. He was sincere toward his companions, and at the center of his attitude toward mistakes was a deep love and compassion. He may have chosen to correct a mistake discreetly, delay his reaction, or withhold a response, but he did so with the individual’s best interest in mind.
Sometimes, the Prophet did not even have to use words to correct a mistake. He once left the company of his companions to express disapproval of an action. A change in his posture would indicate to his companions that something was not right. When a mistake was truly grave, he would emphasize his words and repeat them several times.
The young Usamah ibn Zaid was narrating to the Prophet the events of an armed conflict with their enemy. He described one soldier who had cried out, “There is no God but Allah!” out of hope that he would be spared. Usamah told the Prophet that he then killed the soldier with his sword. When the Prophet heard this, his face changed. He said, “(How could) you kill him when he said, ‘La ilaha illa Allah’? (How could) you kill him when he said, ‘La ilaha illa Allah’?…” The Prophet kept repeating these words, until Usamah wished that he could erase all his deeds. He said that he wished he could embrace Islam all over again that day, so that he could start his life afresh. [Bukhari and Muslim]
2. Be Gentle
The Prophet was extremely perceptive toward the people around him. He knew when someone was sensitive or vulnerable, and he often approached mistakes with utmost gentleness.
Bedouins were known at the time of the Prophet for being gruff and somewhat uncivilized. Once a bedouin entered the Prophet’s mosque for the first time. He raised his voice in supplication, “O Allah, forgive me and Muhammad, but don’t forgive anyone else!” The Prophet smiled at him and remarked gently, “You are limiting something that is vast.” Later, to everyone’s horror, the man urinated on the masjid floor. The Prophet calmed the dismayed onlookers and told them to leave the man alone. He reminded his companions that they were sent to make things easy on people, not difficult. The bedouin later recounted his experience with the Prophet:
May my mother and father be sacrificed for him. He did not scold or insult me. He just said, ‘We do not urinate in these mosques-they were built for prayer and remembrance of Allah.’ Then he called for a bucket of water to be poured on the ground. (Ibn Majah and authenticated by Al-Albani)
So deep was the empathy the Prophet had for his people that he did everything possible to make things easy for them. He removed every obstacle that stood between the people and Allah’s forgiveness, and he searched out solutions to individual’s unique circumstances. A man once confessed he was doomed because he slept with his wife while fasting in Ramadan. The Prophet asked if he was able to free a slave. The man said no.
– “Can you fast two consecutive months?”
– “Can you feed sixty poor people?”
The Prophet stayed quiet. Soon, a basket of dates was presented to him. The Prophet took the dates, and looked for the man.
“Take these dates and give them in charity.”
The man said dejectedly, “No one is poorer than me, Messenger of Allah. By Allah, there is no family in all of Madinah poorer than mine.”
At this, the Prophet’s face broke into a smile.
“Take it and feed your family,” he said. [Bukhari]
3. Connect People with Allah
Sometimes, we are mortified by the social embarrassment mistakes cause when they really may not be so serious in the sight of Allah. Other times, we overlook mistakes because we’ve gotten used to them and have made so many excuses. But it might be that those mistakes turn out to be mountains in the Hereafter. With the remembrance of Allah, we gain a better perspective on our mistakes.
When Abu Bakr had spoken roughly to Salman Al-Farisi, Bilal ibn Rabah, and Suhaib Ar-Rumi, the Prophet reminded him that his action may have angered Allah: “Perhaps you have made them angry. By the One in whose Hands lies my soul, if you have made them angry you would have angered your Lord.” Abu Bakr rushed to his three brothers, who assured him that they had not been angry. [Muslim]
Once the Prophet came across Abu Mas`ud Al-Ansari beating a slave. The Prophet said only one sentence: “Allah has more power over you than you have over him (the slave).” Abu Mas`ud freed the slave immediately. [Muslim]
The Prophet sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam would use the power of supplication to help people overcome their faults. He placed his hands on the chest of his companion, or made a special du`a for them in their absence. A distressed boy came before the Prophet and requested permission to commit adultery. The companions were shocked at this bluntness, but the Prophet beckoned the boy to come closer. Instead of responding harshly, the Prophet asked him if he would like to see someone in an adulterous relationship with his mother, aunt, or daughter. After the boy responded no to each question, the Prophet simply put his hand on the boy’s head and prayed for him, “O Allah, forgive his sins, purify his heart and make him chaste.” (Authenticated by Al-Albani)
4. Don’t Go Looking for Mistakes
The Prophet often used his role as leader and community educator to correct mistakes for the benefit of all listeners, but in a discreet way that hid the identities of involved parties. He would say, “What of people who commit such an action…” This way, he generally warned people of pitfalls while discreetly alerting the people involved in the mistake to repent and rectify their wrongdoing.
Prophet Muhammad forbade gossip and backbiting and rejected any broadcast of people’s mistakes. He asked people not to report anything negative about the companions to him. The Prophet accepted people’s words for what they were, and did not probe to uncover hidden flaws. He did not put people under a magnifying glass and guess at their motives. We should avoid searching out people’s mistakes in order to uncover more and greater faults. Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever searches out the shortcomings of a brother, Allah will search out his shortcomings.” (At-tirmizi and authenticated by Al-Albani)
Although there were many hypocrites in Madinah—people pretending to be Muslim but secretly undermining the community—the Prophet did not confront or accuse them. On the other hand, when a companion who had fought in the Battle of Badr, Hatib ibn Abi Balta`ah, committed an act of outright treason against the Muslims, the Prophet refused to condemn the man without speaking to him first. Hatib admitted that he made a terrible mistake, but professed a heart full of belief. That was good enough for the Prophet sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam.
5. Be Strategic
We cannot read about the gentleness and empathy of the Prophet without also noticing his astuteness in helping people move forward. He weighed priorities, prescribed solutions to people’s problems, and knew when to be forceful and when to be soft. He knew when people had the strength to bear the consequences of their mistakes and when there were other priorities to consider.
By following the Prophet’s footsteps, we can discern the best way to treat underlying problems that lead to mistakes.
When a young man behaved insolently during the call to prayer, the Prophet redirected his negative energy to benefit society.
Abu Mahdhurah, a Makkan teenager, and his friends mocked Bilal ibn Rabah while he made the call to prayer after the Muslims had conquered Makkah. When the Prophet saw this, he summoned the boy who trembled in fear at that point. Instead of scolding him, the Prophet asked if the boy had a strong voice. When the boy affirmed, the Prophet spent some time with him reciting the words of the adhan with him until they were memorized. The Prophet rested his hand on the boy’s chest and prayed for him. Abu Mahdhurah, now enamored with the Prophet, asked that he be allowed to call people to prayer. And so, Abu Mahdhurah walked away with the new job title of mu’dhin of Makkah. (Ibn Majah and authenticated by Al-Albani)
6. Use Firmness When Appropriate
Gentleness is beautiful, but firmness can sometimes be more effective in prompting personal reform and purification. The Prophet knew when to be firm, and when to be soft. When two companions had been backbiting, the Prophet responded with formidable words, warning them that they had eaten the flesh of their brother to the point that it could be seen between their teeth. When they asked the Prophet for forgiveness, he ordered them to ask their brother for forgiveness instead.
On another occasion, the mistake was a simple one hardly needing words, only a gentle nudge. The young Al-Fadl ibn Al-`Abbas was riding with the Prophet when a beautiful woman came to ask a question. Al-Fadl could not stop himself from staring. The Prophet took the boy’s chin in his hand and turned his face in another direction.
The companions were willing to bear the difficult ramifications of their mistakes. The Prophet held to a high standard those who held themselves to a high standard of accountability. Abu Lubabah was sent by the Prophet as an emissary to the besieged Banu Quraydha, and while negotiating he made a gesture that disclosed what the plans of the Muslims might be. It immediately occurred to Abu Lubabah that he had betrayed the Prophet’s trust by the gesture. He went straight to the Prophet’s Mosque, tied himself to a tree, and vowed not to move until Allah forgave him. Abu Lubabah remained tied to the tree for many days. His wife untied him for prayers, and then bound him up when he was finished. Finally, this verse was revealed,
And [there are] others who have acknowledged their sins. They had mixed a righteous deed with another that was bad. Perhaps Allah will turn to them in forgiveness. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. [At-Tawbah 9: 102]
Abu Lubabah insisted that the Prophet untie him with his own hands.
Perhaps one of the greatest stories of accountability is the truthful confession of the three companions who failed to accompany the Prophet during the Battle of Tabuk. Unlike the hypocrites who made up excuses for their absences and were pardoned by the Prophet, the three companions confessed they had no good excuse. The three companions were shunned by everyone for more than a month, an anguishing ordeal. Those three companions may have endured the painful ramifications of their wrongdoing, but they also went through a purifying process that was rewarded with revelation confirming that Allah had forgiven them.
7. Spare People’s Dignity
When correcting mistakes, we must be respectful and sensitive to people’s sense of dignity. There is no room for mocking or belittling. The Prophet criticized mistakes without condemning the person. On one occasion, people cursed a man who failed to overcome his alcoholism. The Prophet said, “Do not curse him…what I know of him is that he loves Allah and His messenger.” [Bukhari]
The Prophet acknowledged good intentions, even if they led to improper results. Once a man entered the mosque and since he was about to miss the first rak`ah, he bent down in ruku` while he was still walking and had not yet reached the line. When the man told the Prophet what he had done, the Prophet said, “May Allah increase your enthusiasm–but don’t do it again.” [Bukhari]
In order to help a young man who was neglecting his night prayers, the Prophet mixed some encouragement in with the correction. He said, “What an excellent man `Abdullah is! If only he would pray at night…” `Abdullah never neglected the night prayer after that. [Muslim]
The Prophet never reminded people of their lapses in the past, but was quick to recall their previous good actions. When Hatib ibn Abi Balta`ah sent a letter to the enemy detailing the movements of the Prophet’s army before the conquest of Makkah, `Umar was prepared to execute him as a traitor. The Prophet warned him to desist, reminding `Umar that Allah had forgiven all sins of those who attended the Battle of Badr, among whom had been Hatib. Tears fell from `Umar’s eyes upon hearing this reminder.
Prophet Muhammad once said,
“All human beings make mistakes often. The best of those who make mistakes often are those who repent [to Allah].” [At-Tirmidhi]
Can you imagine what it would be like to have your mistakes and shortcomings corrected and shaped with the guiding hand of the Prophet? Would he be gentle, or firm, and what priorities would he consider? What would it feel like to have his attention, and to be looked upon with eyes overwhelmed with mercy? If we adopt just some of his amazing techniques in mending the mistakes of people, we will become better teachers and better callers to Allah.
Originally published at onislam.net