The Quran tells us: ‘Truly, those who love that scandal should be spread concerning those who believe — grievous suffering awaits them in the world and in the hereafter; for Allah knows [the truth] and you know not’ (Q.24.19)’. And again: ‘O Believers! Let not people deride other people, who may be better than themselves … neither defame one another nor insult one another with epithets; evil is the imputation of iniquity after [attainment to] faith . . . O Believers! Shun most suspicion, for indeed suspicion is in some cases a sin. And spy not [upon one another], neither backbite [one another]. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor it! So be conscious of Allah. Truly Allah is Relenting, Merciful’ (Q.49.11/12).
The past sins of men and women are indeed ‘dead flesh’, not to be picked over or discussed with prurient interest, and there are frequent references in the hadith literature to the fact that, if we wish God to overlook our sins, it is for us to conceal the sins of our neighbour, and if we are in a position to reprove him, to do so privately: ‘Never does a believer draw a veil over the nakedness of another believer without Allah drawing a veil over his nakedness on the Day of Resurrection’; and again, ‘Do not hurt those who believe, and do not impute evil to them, and do not try to uncover their nakedness [i.e. their faults); for, truly, if anyone tries to uncover his brother’s nakedness, Allah will uncover his nakedness on the Day of Judgement.’
Such counsels of concealment, discretion and delicacy are quite contrary to the contemporary Western preference for ‘bringing things into the open’ or — to use a current phrase which is expressive in this context — for ‘letting everything hang out’. Even less in tune with contemporary principles is the idea that we ought, if we can, to hide our own sins and weaknesses, in accordance with the saying: ‘Better a hundred sins in the sight of God than one in the sight of men’. In a well-authenticated hadith reported by Abu Huraira the Prophet said: ‘All my people will be kept safe except for those who publish their own wrongdoing. It is a kind of impudence for a man to commit an act of disobedience during the night and then, when Allah has concealed it for him, to tell someone in the morning that he had done this or that during the night. His Lord had concealed it in the night, yet he — in the morning — exposes what Allah had concealed !’
Our contemporaries, at least in the Anglo-Saxon sector of the world, can only see this as an inducement to hypocrisy. The cult of ‘honesty’ has now gone so far that many people believe that nothing we do matters so long as they are honest and open about it and never pretend to be better than they are; moreover, to conceal what one has done suggests that one is ashamed of oneself, and how could this be in an age in which the ‘self’ is a god —possibly the only god there is. The motive —at least on the surface — is a reaction against Victorian ‘hypocrisy’, although what was really blameworthy in the people of the nineteenth century was not their secretiveness but their self-righteousness; but, at a deeper level, however paradoxical this may seem, the passion for self-exposure betrays a desire for reassurance and for social approval. lf I confess my sin quite shamelessly – putting upon it whatever gloss I choose – and my friends do not think less of me, then all is well and I need not feel troubled.
For the Muslim, every infringement of the Law, every sin, has two quite separate aspects, in the first place, it relates to the individual’s situation vis-a-vis his Creator, whom he knows to be ever ready to forgive, provided the sinner repents and resolves to do better, if he can, in the future. Secondly, if this sin is made public, it is an encouragement to others to do likewise; and this, from the point of view of the community —the rightly-guided community — is the more serious aspect of the matter. We all know how ready most people are to copy each other and to justify what they do in terms of what others have done. A bad example held up before the public gaze is therefore a wound inflicted upon the community, undermining the Law and loosening ties of relationship. For this offence forgiveness is less likely.
There are, however, more profound reasons for protecting the ‘nakedness’ of others and for concealing our own. As was suggested earlier, few personalities are unified and all of a piece. For a man to try to cover and inhibit those elements within himself which he would like to overcome and to bring forward those which he would like to see triumphant is not ‘hypocrisy’. If he would like to be better than he is, then he deserves to be encouraged in this aim, and there is something very peculiar about the contemporary tendency to regard a person’s worst qualities as representing his ‘true’ self, although it goes hand in hand with the common belief that ugliness is in some strange way more ‘real’ than beauty and that to discover a shameful secret is to discover the truth. Perhaps a saner point of view is suggested by a story which Muslims tell about Jesus. It is said that he was walking one day with his disciples when they passed the carcass of a dog. ‘How it stinks!’ said the disciples; but Jesus said: ‘How white its teeth are!’
No one was ever damned for thinking too well of people. It is said that his fellow monks once called St Thomas Aquinas to the refectory window, crying: ‘Brother Thomas, come quickly and see a flying ox!’ He heaved his considerable bulk out of the chair and went to the window. Seeing nothing, he returned amidst mocking laughter and sat down again, saying: ‘Better to believe in a flying ox than in a lying monk!’
We are, by nature, poor judges of anyone and anything, and most factual evidence is partial if not conflicting. Ultimately, there is a simple moral choice: to believe the best or to believe the worst, to have faith or to shrink back from this leap in the dark and whimper in a corner until death takes us.
To return, however, to the question of presenting one’s best face to the world, we might consider the case of a man who is without any innate dignity of character or of natural bearing: if he attempts to appear dignified for the sake of impressing the people around him or for material gain, then he is indeed a hypocrite; but if he does so from love of the quality of dignity, its beauty and its honour, and from a desire to be more worthy of his Creator despite his own inadequacies, then what do we call him? If we could foresee the fate of souls when they come to the final Judgement we might be surprised by the verdict upon him, and in any case it is none of our business to pull away his mask and expose the raw and disfigured features in the name of some abstract notion of ‘honesty’.
The quality of personal dignity- not least dignity of deportment — was certainly highly valued in Islam in the past and, in spite of certain appearances today (due to the influence of modern Western manners), is still highly valued among more traditionally minded Muslims. This, together with what is often referred to as the ‘cult of politeness’, does indeed give rise to accusations of ‘hypocrisy’; but in so tight-knit a society good manners are essential to maintain a certain distance between people, a certain privacy.