Our manners are, after our skin, and then our clothes, the point of contact between us and the world, especially other people. It is an interface that should be looked after and kept in good order. Just as we care for our body’s cleanliness and good health, and just as we care that our clothes are clean and do not offend others or leave a bad impression, so also we should regard manners as something requiring regular attention and maintenance. In Islam, manners are not a superficial polish, nor a specialised routine for special occasions, nor a preserve of the upper classes. Rather, the same manners are commended for all Muslims, of high or low status, rich or poor, and for all occasions.
The basic rules are (1) that we strive to do no harm by the way we speak or eat or dress or do any business in the world, and (2) that we strive to do some good by the way we speak or eat or dress or do any business in the world. In both cases, sincerity is a requirement. In fact, since insincerity is a type of doing harm it is safest to avoid it by striving not to be too fussy, too pleasing or too charming, but to keep things at a steady, simple level, which can be sustained and which can be the same for most situations. You may ask: how can we know what this steady level is?
There is no rigid definition; it is relative to time and place and occasion. Nevertheless, we can apply a couple of test questions that, I find, always give a pretty good indication of what the level should be. First, I ask: am I behaving like this – dressing like this or speaking like this, etc. – because that is what the situation requires or just in order to impress? Second, I ask: am I behaving like this because I consider myself to be strong or weak in relation to the other person? Doing things just to impress other people is a tremendous drain on resources – time, energy and wealth – and most of the time it can be avoided. It cannot always be avoided, unfortunately. Under the rule of doing no harm, sometimes we have to go along with the manners of others, in order not to offend – but in these cases, we can keep our involvement to the minimum (I am thinking of elaborate weddings and expensive banquets). More serious is the issue of disparities in power: to behave differently just because someone is weaker or stronger than ourselves implies a weak understanding of our equality of being as creatures of the one-same and only Creator. Any position of superiority in respect of someone else is in reality an added burden of responsibility and should be considered as a moral test. Most of the time, we fail this test. We behave too timidly before social superiors, and fail to correct or challenge them when they are doing wrong – of course there are rules within Islamic manners about how to correct or challenge social superiors. On the other side, we behave too impatiently or unkindly to social inferiors, and fail to take sufficient account of their independent right to have their opinion, or their tastes, or their needs, just as we like to have ours.
Behind these failures in manners is a failure to understand correctly what is due from us to our Creator. I try to imagine myself in the situation of the Prophet Yusuf, `alayhi s-salam, alone in the well, with no-one to rely on except God. How he thinks and speaks then is how we should hope to maintain our good manners in relation to God. I try to imagine myself in his situation of powerlessness among strangers in a strange land, the temptation presented to him, and how he survives that, and how he behaves to his fellow-prisoners and then to the king. Precisely because he has a strong, clear hold on his duty to his Creator, his manners and his decisions are consistently impeccable, consistently wise, and, eventually, lead to the best outcome. Clarity and strength in our manners with respect to God is the only secure means, through the diverse trials of life, of inclining to forgive others and deserving forgiveness ourselves. The being inclined to forgive the mistakes of others, while constantly alert to our own need to be forgiven our mistakes, is the heart of good manners: without that heart, manners degenerate into routines and artifice, surface polish, a burden.