Alhamdulillahi rabb il-'alamin, over the past few months, I have had the wonderful opportunity of studying the work of al-imām ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (rahimahullah), entitled Kitab al-Akhlaq wa as-Siyar fi Mudawat an-Nufus (The Book of Morals and Right Conduct in the Healing of the Souls), under Sh. Isam Rajab of Arees Institute. As the book's title implies, al-imām ibn Hazm wrote this book as a treatise on Akhlaq. I have always held al-imām ibn Hazm in high regard (especially due to the love for him that our dear Sh. Yaser Birjas instilled in us through his various AlMaghrib classes), however, after having studied just part of one of his works, I'm really beginning to appreciate the true genius that was ibn Hazm (rahimahullah). inshā'Allāh ta'ala, I wish to, over the course of a few posts, share some of the amazing gems that we covered in his book.
On the concept of praise and criticism, from the section Al-'Aql wa al-Rahah (Rationality and Peace of Mind)
Al-imām ibn Hazm writes:
Whoever believes he can totally avoid people's scorn and criticism is mad. Whoever examines matters carefully and disciplines himself to rely on the facts would enjoy people's criticizing him more than praising him. This is because if they praise him justly and he becomes aware of their praise, it might make him vainglorious, and this would devalue his virtues. If they praise him unjustly and he becomes aware of their praise, he would attain happiness from that which is false, and this would be a grave fault.
On the other hand, if people criticize him justly and he becomes aware of their criticism, it might help him to avoid that for which he is criticized; and this would be a great fortune, which only the faulty would forsake. If they criticize him unjustly and he becomes aware of their criticism and perseveres, he would become more virtuous by his perseverance and forbearance.
Here, ibn Hazm mentions the virtues of being criticized and the vices of being praised. Before mentioning this, he cautions the reader that it is impossible to completely avoid the criticism of others. Indeed, it is true that no matter what you do, no matter how noble and virtuous the act or effort, you are bound to be criticized by others for it. Therefore, it is fitting for the believer not to concern himself with pleasing the creation or avoiding its criticism, but to focus solely on earning the pleasure of Allāh subḥānahu wa ta'āla.
Praise or criticism can each be classified into just and unjust praise or criticism, and al-imām ibn Hazm treats each of the four cases separately. As for praise, whether just or unjust, its effects on an individual can be detrimental. And the worse of these two is unjust praise, because it gives the individual a false sense of virtue, pride, and happiness. It would cause him to believe that he is upright and noble when this is not at all the case; the end result would be that he only delves further in his error, having mistaken it for virtue. As for just praise, it does contain benefit (as will be seen later), but al-imām rightly concludes that, if the individual becomes aware of it, this runs the risk of causing him to lose the value of whatever virtues rightly earned him that praise in the first place! The very worst case would be if this happened in one's 'ibadah, in which case the individual may fall into the minor shirk of riya' (may Allāh protect myself and all others from falling into riya'. āmīn!). I can't help but recall a joke related to us by Sh. Yaser Birjas about a man who was praying in the masjid while some bystanders were observing. They began to comment aloud about the beauty of his ṣalāh: how excellent his khushu' was, how perfectly still he stood, how moving his recitation was. Upon hearing these adulations, the man turned around (mid-prayer) and commented, “By the way, I'm fasting too.”
As for criticism, al-imām opines that, whether just or unjust, the outcome of it is, inshā'Allāh, only good for the individual. If the criticism is just, then, after all, what more would the believer hope for than to be corrected by his fellow believer. As RasulAllah, sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam, is reported to have said, “The believer is a mirror for the believer.” When we receive just criticism, it will allow us, inshā'Allāh, only to improve in our character and deeds, so that we become aware of whatever error has rightly spurred such criticism and, inshā'Allāh, strive to remove it from our persona. If the criticism is unjust and undeserved, this is when many of us may get upset, however, al-imām reminds us that this too is blessing. First of all, it is a confirmation for you that you are indeed upon good, that your enemies had to lie and slander against you in order to criticize you. And secondly, if we take this unjust criticism to be only a test from Allāh, and we strive and persevere through that test, then it will only serve to increase us in virtue by means of our striving and perseverance. So either way, the effects will be good for the believer inshā'Allāh. One may think that this is the end of the benefits of unjust criticism, but even more than that awaits the believer inshā'Allāh.
Al-imām ibn Hazm continues:
Moreover, he gains reward, because he receives some of the good deeds of those who criticize him unjustly. These deeds will count for him on the Day of Judgment, when he will be in most need to be saved; let it be by deeds of which he did not labor and by which he was not burdened. This is a great fortune, which only a fool would belittle.
If he is not aware of people's praise of him, then whether they talked about him or were silent makes no difference for him. But that is not the case with their criticism of him; for he will be rewarded either way: whether he becomes aware of their criticism or not.
So, beyond the virtue that one would gain from persevering through the trial of unjust criticism, the believer will also receive the good deeds of the one who has slandered him, and if the slanderer has no good deeds left to give, then his victim will be able to unload some of his bad deeds on him on the Day of Judgment, inshā'Allāh. It is reported in Sahih Muslim that RasulAllah, sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam, asked his companions, “Do you know who the bankrupt is?” His Companions replied, “The bankrupt among us is one who has neither money with him nor any property.” The Prophet (sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said, “The real bankrupt of my Ummah would be he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with much of prayer, of fasting, and sadaqah, but he will find himself bankrupt on that Day as he will have exhausted the funds of virtues–because he reviled others, brought calumny against others, unlawfully devoured the wealth of others, shed the blood of others, and beat others; so his virtues would be credited to the account of those who suffered at his hand. If his good deeds fall short to clear the account, their sins would be entered in his account and he would be thrown in the Hellfire.”
There is a narration about al-imām al-Hasan al-Basri, rahimahullah, who was told that a certain individual was speaking against him behind his back. The following day, al-Hasan al-Basri sent that individual a basket of fruit saying that he was recently informed that the individual had given him some of his good deeds, so he sent him this fruit as a token of his gratitude. Indeed, al-imām ibn Hazm spoke rightly when he said that the believer will be in most need of these extra deeds on the Day of Judgment. And what better way to earn such deeds than without exerting any effort on our part?
Furthermore, as al-imām explains, these good deeds will come to the victim of unjust criticism whether or not he becomes aware of the criticism, so he is benefited either way. But praise will only have an effect on an individual in the case that he becomes aware of the praise.
Al-imām ibn Hazm continues:
If it were not for the saying of the Messenger (sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) about praise: “This [the praise] is the worldly good tiding for the believer,” then it would have been incumbent upon the rational individual to desire to be criticized unjustly more than to be praised justly. But given this saying [of the Prophet (sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam)], it is clear that the good tiding is obtained from just deeds, not from unjust deeds.
So, walhamdulillah, there is indeed benefit in just praise, as RasulAllah, sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam, who only speaks the truth, has informed us that praise is the glad tidings of this world for the believer. May Allāh make us of those who give the just praise its haqq, treating it as an incentive for Jannah, and not allowing it to nullify our virtues. May Allāh make us among those who only seek to earn His Pleasure, not seeking the praises of man nor seeking to avoid man's criticism at the cost of displeasing our Rabb.