In my Semantics class this morning, I wanted to discuss the relationship between words and meanings in human languages. It is a very important issue for those who want to do linguistics in general and semantics and discourse analysis in particular. Sammy Hagar once said, “Words have power. They work. That’s why poetry can affect people. That’s why music and lyrics and songs affect people…”
Anyway, during my regular discussion with my students, I displayed to them a short video clip titled, The Power of Words, in which an old blind beggar is seen as he was sitting stretching his hands to passerbyers in a way to ask them for help.
The old man had a sign beside him and thereon the following expression was written, “I Am Blind; Please Help”. Very few people were encouraged to help him and he only collected very few coins. As time passed by, a young woman who seemed very practical passed by him. Noticing his sign and what is written on it, she took a marker out of her purse and wrote on the other side of the sign something and she left without giving the man any money.
What happened next was amazing, as people started to throw coins, many coins, to the man and they were encouraged to help him.
Recognizing her through touching her shoes, the young woman came back after a while and the old man asked her, “What did you do? What did you write on my sign?”
She replied, “I wrote the same but with different words.”
She wrote, “IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN’T SEE IT.”
Amazingly, if you change your words, you may change your world and make it even better.
When I watched this video clip with my students, it reminded me of another old story that I once came across. The story runs as follows.
Once upon a time, a king who was aggressively ruling his people decided to prevent all women from wearing their gold, jewelry and precious ornaments.
The women’s reaction was unexpected as they decided to disobey the royal orders. Massive complaints, resentment, and protests prevailed. To add insult to injury, the women started to wear their jewels and golden ornaments excessively and exceedingly as a way of showing disobedience to the king’s tyrannical orders.
The king was so much troubled and did not know what to do to overcome these adversities and unexpected social turmoil.
Thereupon, he called for an emergency meeting to be held and called upon all his consultants to be present. The discussions began and one of the attendees proposed that the king should withdraw his orders for the sake of public interest.
A second consultant objected to that suggestion claiming that the withdrawal of the king’s verdict would be taken as an indication of weakness and fear. Whilst the king should project his authority and power and make it visible to all of his subjects. The subjects must realize who is governing whom!
The king’s consultants were divided into two parties: cons and pros.
As no one of the consultants could convince the king with his opinion, the king ordered that the wise man of the city should be summoned and the latter presented himself to the king shortly. All details of the issue were related to the wise man’s ears and he listened carefully until he started to speak addressing the king.
The wise man told the king, “People will never obey you if you think of what you want and not what they themselves want!”
The king asked, “What should I do, then? Should I retreat and withdraw my orders?!”
The wise man answered, “No! But, you should issue complementary orders that wearing gold, jewels and ornaments should be illegal for pretty women as they are in no need of such ornaments. Only the ugly ones and those who are old should wear such ornaments and golden jewels to make up for their shortcomings and defects as they need to cover their facial wrinkles and ugliness.”
The verdict was issued and the news was aired everywhere.
In few hours, all women took off their golden ornaments and jewels and each one of them started to look at herself as being so pretty and young that she does not need any of these “artificial” ornaments!
Upon that, the wise man said to the king, “When you started to think as people do, and realized their interests and appreciated their feelings, only then they obeyed your orders!”
The moral of this story is that forming expressions and using words is an art which needs to be mastered by all and a science which we need to learn and be proficient at.
Let us call upon others to do whatever we want through finding the link between what we require them to do and what they actually like to do. In a similar vein, let us consider what they do not like before we give them verdicts, decisions or instructions.
The addressee should feel and recognize the personal fruit he is going to reap if he conforms to the instructions and obey the orders you give. Nothing can penetrate and/or conquer the human heart more than a nice phrase, a warm smile, a lenient expression, or a faithful intention.
Allah the Almighty says in His Ever-Glorious Qur’an what means,
“So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].” (Al ‘Imran 3: 159)
Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) said in one of his hadiths, “It is also charity (sadaqah) to utter a good word.”
The noble companion, Abu Hurairah, narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Verily a person utters a word, that he deems harmless, but it results in his falling into the depths of the Hellfire.” [Al-Tirmidhi; Ibn Majah]
This means that this person does not think about what he says and, furthermore, does not fear the consequences which may arise because of it. Concisely, he is a reckless person who cannot calculate or anticipate the consequences of neither his actions nor words. To me, this is an encouragement to hold one’s tongue and to only speak when there is some benefit in doing so; otherwise, one should keep silent.
This can be understood from the saying of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) who said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say the good or remain silent.” [Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim]
Finally, do not forget to occasionally put yourself in the shoes of others. This will help a lot! Believe me!
Dr. Ali Al-Halawani is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Translation, Kulliyyah of Languages and Management (KLM), International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was Assistant Professor and worked for a number of international universities in Malaysia and Egypt such as Al-Madinah International University, Shah Alam, Malaysia (Mediu) and Misr University for Science & Technology (MUST), Egypt; Former Editor-in-Chief of the Electronic Da`wah Committee (EDC), Kuwait; Former Deputy Chief Editor and Managing Editor of the Living Shari`ah Department, www.islamOnline.net; Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS); and member of the World Association of Arab Translators & Linguists (Wata). He is a published writer, translator, and researcher. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.