Mistakes are the consequences of life and being human. They help us repent, learn and grow wiser. Mistakes can be catalysts of self-improvement and reminders of our imperfections. Still, we tend to interpret mistakes more as disaster than opportunity.
Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God and the most brilliant educator of humanity, approached mistakes not as cause for shame, but as teachable moments. Even though the Prophet taught his companions to strive for excellence and conquer their flaws, mistakes were inevitably made, some minor and some very serious. Prophet Muhammad corrected people’s missteps with gentleness, empathy, and creativity. He used mistakes as opportunities to empower people, not break them.
Studying Prophet Muhammad’s example gives us insight on how to help people in their moments of error. In this part we discuss four lessons that highlight some aspects of how Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) mended mistakes:
1. Address the mistakes.
Because mistakes make us uncomfortable, we may ignore them or think they are not our business. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not leave mistakes to stand on their own without guiding people towards a solution. He was sincere toward his companions, and at the center of his attitude toward mistakes was a deep love and compassion. He may have chosen to correct a mistake discreetly, delay his reaction, or withhold a response, but he did so with the individual’s best interest in mind.
Sometimes, the Prophet did not even have to use words to correct a mistake. He once left the company of his companions to express disapproval of an action. A change in his posture would indicate to his companions that something was not right. When a mistake was truly grave, he would emphasize his words and repeat them several times.
The young Usamah ibn Zaid was narrating to the Prophet the events of an armed conflict with their enemy. He described one soldier who had cried out, “There is no God but Allah!” out of hope that he would be spared. Usamah told the Prophet that he then killed the soldier with his sword. When the Prophet heard this, his face changed. He said, “(How could) you kill him when he said, ‘La ilaha illa Allah’? (How could) you kill him when he said, ‘La ilaha illa Allah’?...” The Prophet kept repeating these words, until Usamah wished that he could erase all his deeds. He said that he wished he could embrace Islam all over again that day, so that he could start his life afresh. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
2. Be gentle.
The Prophet was extremely perceptive toward the people around him. He knew when someone was sensitive or vulnerable, and he often approached mistakes with utmost gentleness.
Bedouins were known at the time of the Prophet for being gruff and somewhat uncivilized. Once a bedouin entered the Prophet’s mosque for the first time. He raised his voice in supplication, “O Allah, forgive me and Muhammad, but don’t forgive anyone else!” The Prophet smiled at him and remarked gently, “You are limiting something that is vast.”
Later, to everyone’s horror, the man urinated on the masjid floor. The Prophet calmed the dismayed onlookers, and told them to leave the man alone. He reminded his companions that they were sent to make things easy on people, not difficult. The bedouin later recounted his experience with the Prophet:
May my mother and father be sacrificed for him. He did not scold or insult me. He just said, ‘We do not urinate in these mosques-they were built for prayer and remembrance of Allah.’ Then he called for a bucket of water to be poured on the ground. (Ibn Majah and authenticated by Al-Albani)
So deep was the empathy the Prophet had for his people that he did everything possible to make things easy for them. He removed every obstacle that stood between the people and Allah’s forgiveness, and he searched out solutions to individual’s unique circumstances. A man once confessed he was doomed because he slept with his wife while fasting in Ramadan. The Prophet asked if he was able to free a slave. The man said no.
- “Can you fast two consecutive months?”
- “Can you feed sixty poor people?”
The Prophet stayed quiet. Soon, a basket of dates was presented to him. The Prophet took the dates, and looked for the man.
“Take these dates and give them in charity.”
The man said dejectedly, “No one is poorer than me, Messenger of Allah. By Allah, there is no family in all of Madinah poorer than mine.”
At this, the Prophet’s face broke into a smile.
“Take it and feed your family,” he said. (Al-Bukhari)
3. Connect people with Allah.
When Abu Bakr had spoken roughly to Salman Al-Farisi, Bilal ibn Rabah, and Suhaib Ar-Rumi, the Prophet reminded him that his action may have angered Allah: “Perhaps you have made them angry. By the One in whose Hands lies my soul, if you have made them angry you would have angered your Lord.” Abu Bakr rushed to his three brothers, who assured him that they had not been angry. (Muslim)Sometimes, we are mortified by the social embarrassment mistakes cause when they really may not be so serious in the sight of Allah. Other times, we overlook mistakes because we’ve gotten used to them and have made so many excuses. But it might be that those mistakes turn out to be mountains in the hereafter. With the remembrance of Allah, we gain a better perspective on our mistakes.
Once the Prophet came across Abu Mas`ud Al-Ansari beating a slave. The Prophet said only one sentence: “Allah has more power over you than you have over him (the slave).” Abu Mas`ud freed the slave immediately. (Muslim)
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would use the power of supplication to help people overcome their faults. He placed his hands on the chest of his companion, or made a special du`aa’ for them in their absence. A distressed boy came before the Prophet and requested permission to commit adultery. The companions were shocked at this bluntness, but the Prophet beckoned the boy to come closer. Instead of responding harshly, the Prophet asked him if he would like to see someone in an adulterous relationship with his mother, aunt, or daughter. After the boy responded no to each question, the Prophet simply put his hand on the boy’s head and prayed for him, “O Allah, forgive his sins, purify his heart and make him chaste.” (Authenticated by Al-Albani)
4. Don’t go looking for mistakes.
Prophet Muhammad forbade gossip and backbiting, and rejected any broadcast of people’s mistakes. He asked people not to report anything negative about the companions to him. The Prophet accepted people’s words for what they were, and did not probe to uncover hidden flaws. He did not put people under a magnifying glass and guess at their motives. We should avoid searching out people’s mistakes in order to uncover more and greater faults. Prophet Muhammad said (peace and blessings be upon him) “Whoever searches out the shortcomings of a brother, Allah will search out his shortcomings.” (At-tirmizi and authenticated by Al-Albani)The Prophet often used his role as leader and community educator to correct mistakes for the benefit of all listeners, but in a discreet way that hid the identities of involved parties. He would say, “What of people who commit such an action…” This way, he generally warned people of pitfalls while discreetly alerting the people involved in the mistake to repent and rectify their wrongdoing.
Although there were many hypocrites in Madinah—people pretending to be Muslim but secretly undermining the community—the Prophet did not confront or accuse them. On the other hand, when a companion who had fought in the Battle of Badr, Hatib ibn Abi Balta`ah, committed an act of outright treason against the Muslims, the Prophet refused to condemn the man without speaking to him first. Hatib admitted that he made a terrible mistake, but professed a heart full of belief. That was good enough for the Prophet, peace be upon him.