Do you have to practice what you preach? Al Ghazali on how to correct others when they are wrong

Do you have to practice what you preach? Al Ghazali on how to correct others when they are wrong

In Imam Ghazali’s Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, The Forty Principles of the Religion, he examines the concept of commanding what is good and reprimanding others from doing what is wrong, amr bil marouf wa al nahil anil munkar.

Condition 1: Gentleness vs the whip

The one who commands good and forbids evil, is called muhtasib. There are conditions on how they can perform this. One of these is being kind and gentle towards everyone, even those you are reprimanding.

You might think that there are people whom a kind and gentle approach will not work for, and that they need the whip. However, the one who can use the whip is not Joe public. It is limited to specific people who have that task, such as traffic wardens, whose role is to ensure people adhere to certain rules and who can issue penalties when they flout them.

Ghazali said be gentle. If it does not work then there are other steps you can take if you are the one responsible for enforcing the rules. You do what you can and then you leave the rest to Allah Almighty.

In all scenarios, you must avoid giving the impression that you know better than others or that you are looking down on anyone. This is haram. It is haram to stop the haram in such a way. Do your best to educate others without humiliating them. Never abuse anyone.

Condition 2: Begin with yourself

Can you reprimand others when you commit the same sin as them in public?

You cannot tell someone not to do something when you do not do it yourself. For instance if a doctor is smoking and telling patients not to smoke, they might turn around and say he should quit smoking first, before telling others. People will not take you seriously if they can see you doing what they are telling you not to do. In an early poem by the famous tabi’in (second generation of the Companions) and great linguist, Abu al Aswad al Du’ali wrote about the importance of practicing what you preach.

O man who is teaching others. Have you taught yourself first? Teach yourself before you teach others what to do. You prescribe the medicine for the one who is ill and sick to cure him when you are ill and sick. Start with yourself and refrain from sins. If it responds to you, you are a wise person. Only then will you have an excuse to remind others. And when you remind them, they will accept your reminder and teaching. Do not reprimand others from having a bad character when you are doing that that is a big shame if you are doing that.

Imam Ghazali is saying the best practice is to fix yourself first. Start with yourself.

When you start by reforming yourself, you model the behaviour to others and it inspires and encourages them to follow suit. As parents do for their children – you cannot ask children to stop eating junk food if you eat it yourself.

Hasan al Basri said that if you command what is good, but do not follow it yourself that it is like hypocrisy. When people find out what you are doing then they will throw your advice back in your face.

Command good even when you are imperfect yourself

If you cannot fix yourself, however, though this is the best practice, it does not mean you cannot advise others. You can still remind them and then Allah Almighty may open the way for goodness to happen through you.

Imam Tabarani in two of his major works, Mu’jam al-Awsat and Muj’am as-Saghir narrated that Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) said:

We said: O Messenger of Allah! Should we not command good until we practice all of it?’

He (peace be on him) said: ‘No. Go ahead and command good even if you do not practice all of it, and forbid evil, even if you do not avoid all of it.’ (At Tabarani)

This hadith might have some weakness but in general it is in line with the command of the Quran and Sunnah. Allah Almighty is the one who opens hearts and facilitates goodness to happen.

Can you reprimand others when you commit the same sin as them in private?

You might see someone doing something wrong, which you also do in wrong, but privately. Deep down you might wonder if you should discourage them or not, when you need to sort yourself out first. You need reminding as much as them. However, you should not let it prevent you from reminding others to do the right thing, even though you feel ashamed that you are doing the same bad thing yourself. The reason is that it is also a reminder for you to stop doing that yourself.

The advice is a dual carriageway, when you tell them you will be benefitted by the reminder yourself. Do not allow shaytan to trap you and tell you that you have to be free of all sins before you stop anyone from sin. It will never happen. The Prophet (peace be on him) said:

“Every son of Adam commits sin, and the best of those who commit sin are those who repent.” (Sunan Ibn Majah)

If you wait for the time you are sin free, it will never happen in dunya. This is why the gates of forgiveness are wide open.  This is why Allah Almighty said in the Holy Hadith:

O My servants, you commit sins by day and by night, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness from Me and I shall forgive you. (Muslim)

Shaytanic trap to prevent you from commanding good

Not commanding good because you do not think you are good enough to do it is a shaytanic trap. Al Ghazali quotes Hasan al Basri who said:

Shaytan wants to get one over on you with this quality – which is that you do not command good until you command all of it.

By this, he meant that it leads to shutting the door to practising admonishment, for who is protected from ever committing an act of disobedience?

We all have mistakes, so until we are angels – which we will never be – no one would do amr bil marouf and al nahin anil munkar.

Imam Ghazali elaborated more on this topic in his Ihya ulum ad- Din and gave further conditions on the etiquettes and conditions for exhorting what is good and reprimanding those who are doing wrong.

Condition 3: Do not Spy

It is prohibited to spy on others to check if they are committing haram so that you can stop them. You cannot install cameras in their houses to check what they are up to or climb over the fence to see what they are are doing. Even if they have something under their dress, you cannot pull it off to reveal it.

Condition 4: Do not reprimand someone on an ijtihadi issue

Sometimes you might think what someone is doing is haram but that could well be due to your lack of knowledge of the other Madhabs. Where there are matters that are ijtihadi, i.e. when there are different scholarly opinions on issues, you cannot reprimand others. You may only reprimand them unless the mistake/sin is agreed upon by the schools.

As an example,  the Hanafi School do not vocalise the basmallah in Maghrib, Isha and Fajr salah. This does not mean that if someone vocalises it, they should not correct him as the other madhabs have a different practice. You cannot therefore criticise others for doing something which is permitted by another Madhab, even if your Madhab considers it wrong, as it a disagreed munkar (evil).

Ghazali said that you should do your best to prohibit what is wrong when it is a clear prohibition, but when it is related to an action that is disliked but not prohibited you require knowledge. If you are Hanafi and someone else is Maliki, and you see him praying without putting his hands on his chest, you should not correct him., because it is permitted by his School.

Ironically, those who have less knowledge correct others the most. Whereas, those with more knowledge, make less objections to people’s practices because they know the rulings from other schools of thought.

Remonstrate wisely

First we need to educate ourselves. Then we can correct others.  Otherwise we do not know if what they are doing is in line with the shariah or not.

The way they are performing wudu may be wrong, or they way they recite the Quran. If you notice someone reciting badly, you can tell them politely that it is incumbent on them to learn the rules of tajweed. Then you can suggest that they join a tajweed class as their salah will be nullified by the wrong pronunciation.

If a mu’edhin is giving the adhan in the wrong way, you need to ask him to correct it, if you have the knowledge. For instance, in their recitation they may use a tone that makes the adhan sound like question rather than a statement.

If you don’t have the knowledge don’t talk about what you don’t know.

If your tone is nice the person you correct is more likely to thank you and recognise that they were wrong. However if your tone is wrong and are too harsh they will be annoyed.

When you should intervene

If you see a salesman taking advantage of a customer, for instance if he is overcharging a customer with a disability, then tell the salesman to fear Allah and not cheat the man.

If someone is harming others, then depending on the situation, you may need to be quite stern. This is another way to stop wrongdoing in the community.

Do not be confrontational

Confronting someone when he is wrong is not for everyone. If you shout at someone and he has big muscles, he will crush you, so don’t try to confront him. Use a different style.


Ghazali summarised the three ingredients you need to do ihtisab (command good and avert evil):

  1. Knowledge
  2. Warah (piety)
  3. Husn al khuluq (good character).

Knowledge: You cannot correct people unless you have knowledge of the different schools of thought.  

Warah (piety): This prevents you from abusing your position. For instance, the pious person will not abuse the fact he caught someone red handed by blackmailing them later.

Good character (good character): If you do not have good character, if the wrong doer turns rude or nasty, you might curse them, or retaliate by fighting back.

Situations in Ghazali’s time that required remonstrating  

In Imam Ghazali’s time, he felt that people needed to speak up about certain things which were wrong in the community. They provide a fascinating peek into that era, which was 1000 years ago and yet we can still identify with much of it in our time.

Praying without khushoo

The things that bothered him include those in the mosques who prayed with no tranquility in their salah. I myself issued a fatwa against the supersonic salah a few years ago, as this is something which is still happening today during Tarawihs when the imams and congregations are performing salah at breakneck speed, without completing their sujjud or ruku or reciting properly. This is dishonouring Allah Almighty and is completely unacceptable and haram. The Prophet (peace be on him) taught to pray as he showed us his Companions how to pray.

Malik ibn al-Huwayrith reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

“Pray as you have seen me praying. (Muslim and Bukhari)


Imam Ghazali also touched on the story tellers who used to provide entertainment in the mosques. In those days, mosques were akin to universities and were a place of learning as well as entertainment. They used to have dedicated pillars in the mosque where different shuyukh used to teach, such as Imam Qurtubi, and others. One pillar would be where fiqh was taught, another would be for hadith, and yet another for language. For those people who wanted to hear stories, there would be a pillar where story tellers would narrate stories (al qusaas). They were know as people of wuadh.

The idea was that if they told stories from the Quran and Sunnah, it would bring people closer to Allah, but if they were spreading tales which were filled with airy fairy nonsense this had to be stopped. We still have story tellers who have plenty of mureeds. Some of the stories they tell are factually incorrect, if not downright ludicrous. One such story is that a great Shaykh once deliberately recited the Quran incorrectly in his salah, so that the worshippers behind him would correct him. This can’t happen. It means that the Shaykh was committing a deliberate sin, and changing the words of the Quran so that others could correct him, to teach them a lesson. The great imam would never have done such a thing.

Another practice that should be objected to is selling in the mosque as the Prophet (peace be on him) said the mosque is not like a market, particularly if the sales are for taweedh as these are prohibited.

Market cheating

When you see something wrong try to change it.  If you see cheating and lies being told in the market, you should stop them, as well as unhygienic practices or fake and dodgy products.

If you stay somewhere and there are faults, first advise the landlord before leaving bad reviews, so that they have a chance to rectify their property, and you do not harm their business. Tell them nicely and kindly to sort out what is lacking.

Makruh on the streets

In those days, as today, people sometimes blocked the road with their donkey or animal as we do with our cars. We should not park insuch a way that is blocks other people’s access to the road.

Moreover it was hazardous to overload the camel as it is to overload a vehicle. Throwing litter in the street was a problem, especially the peels of water melons which were slippery and could cause someone to slip.

It is everyone’s responsibility to keep our roads safe. If you have a wild dog, you should not let it loose. It might harm pedestrians.  

At that time, there were baths, known as hamams where you could have a bath and get a massage. Ghazali mentions the importance of keeping them safe by not have slippery slate or wet tiles. And also not serving alcohol or allowing the masseuses to massage your private parts, as they should not be touched by anyone.

We see that health and safety and hygiene were important concerns in the 5th Century AH.

Ghazali also mentions that hospitality does not mean you can furnish your guests with silk, or serve them haram food, or in gold and silver dishes, or play music (though this is a topic which is not black and white).

He also mentioned that if you bring an entertainer such as a comedian he should tell the truth and not tell lies or use foul language or mention haram things. In those days being a comedian was not recommended at all. Now it is a profession. There are differences between the urf (customs) of that time and now.

I have come across Muslim comedians and advised them to stick to Islamic etiquettes – not to use foul language, tell lies or cover haram topics. Some of them mock the Quran. You are not allowed to dishonour the Quran by reciting it in a funny way. The Quran is off limits. You can poke fun at culture, but do not mock your deen. Glorify it.

Start with yourself, then your family

In every community we need to spread knowledge. Start with your house and then your neighbours, then community, then other communities. Correcting what is wrong in society and minimising harm is a communal obligation.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class

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Command good and forbid evil

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How to deal with difficult neighbours

The first 6 rules of how to deal with people

Dealing with gossip (7-8)

How to deal with people according to their status (9-11)

Cover the faults of others (12-13)

Shake hands (15 continued)

Defend others in their absence, be tactful, be cautious of the company of the rich (16-18)

Avoid the people of ghaflah

Be good to your relatives

Love they neighbour

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Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.