“He’s a really nice guy”: A guide to making compliments in the 21st century
ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) once asked about a man who had given testimony, wanting to find out whether anyone could vouch for him. A man said to him: “I will vouch for him, O’ Commander of the Faithful’. So the Caliph preceded to ask him a series of questions:
“Are you his neighbor?” The man said, “No.”
“Did you mix with him for a day and come to know his character?” Again, the man replied, “No.”
“Did you travel with him, for traveling and being away from home reveal a man’s true essence?” Yet again, the man responded with, “No.”
“Perhaps you saw him in the-mosque, standing, sitting and praying?” “Yes!” the man said.
To which the Caliph replied, “Go away, for you do not know him.”
“He’s a really nice guy”
Or at least, that is what everyone else said, and I, in turn, believe them. Until I realised that they barely knew “Mr Nice-guy”- some had met him once at an event, others had heard him beautifully recite the Qur’ān and others knew him virtually through Facebook. But no one really knew much about him. For all they knew, “Mr Nice-guy” could in reality be “Mr Not-so Nice-guy” and they would be none the wiser. It is through this that I learned one of my first lessons while at university: Pay little attention to what people say about others. Or at the least take your time to find out more about the man – or woman – before making a complete judgment about them in your mind and promoting or negating them to others.
It is necessary to clarify that we must not completely devalue the opinions of others – however, most people do not realise there is an art, an etiquette and a responsibility required when giving a compliment, or giving bad references about other people.
While there are many articles that tell you how to deal with praise, there are not many that inform you on how to give it in the first place. What follows are points to consider when making a comment about anyone else – particularly when complimenting them. These points are guided by the incident with ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) above and references to the Qur’ān and the Prophetic traditions.
1) Do not feel guilty about “judging” someone else.
As an Ummah, especially in the West, we are told over and over again, by different speakers and the masses alike, that it is un-Islamic to “judge others” or “be judgmental”. People who “judge others” are painted in a negative light, and as a result, we are made to feel guilty if we ever do judge anyone else. Some of us compensate for this feeling by giving compliments and praising others.
As Shaykh AbdelRahman Musa informed us however, there is absolutely nothing wrong with judging others. In fact, it is impossible not to. Every day we make judgments about everything in our life – from the clothes we want to wear to the food we want to eat. The Qur’ān even encourages to think and make judgments for ourselves about different matters:
“Will they go on following their forefathers even though they did not use common sense and did not find the Right Way!”
“Will you still go on following the same old way even if I guide you to a more right way than that you found your forefathers following?” (43:24).
Of course, when making a judgment, one should realise that they have only part of the picture. They should not be arrogant or rude nor should they immediately act upon their judgment. But as the incident above with ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) and the points below will show, in the words of Shaykh AbdelRahman Mussa, Islām “does not teach us to suspend judgment, but to become a more sophisticated judger”.
2) But the ḥadīth say… “What about all the ḥadīth that denounce those who praise others? Such as the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) saying to someone who had praised someone else in their presence: ‘Woe to you! You have cut off the head of your companion!’” Imām Al-Khattabi, the early commentator on Sunan Abi Dawud explained that ḥadīth condemning those who praise others refer to “excessive praisers” – those who make such praise their habit, or seek material benefit from it with the one praised.
As for the one who praised someone for good acts or traits, with a good intention such as others recognising the person’s virtue and benefiting from them or following their good example, such an individual is not an excessive praiser. Otherwise there are many examples where the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) praised his companions, especially those about whom Imām Nawawi said, “perfect faith, certainty, is secure in himself, trains his soul and possesses awareness to the extent that he will not be trialed or deceived by this praise nor will this praise play upon his conscience”. He (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) often praised these companions, like Abū Bakr and ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhumā) in front of others, in order to provide the Ummah with positive examples to follow: “The stars are trust keepers for the heaven, and my Companions are trust keepers for my Community.”
People compliment others for various reasons:
(1) Because everyone else is doing so
(2) They feel good about themselves when they compliment other people – that they are not like those “bad people who only say bad things about other people”
(3) To flatter others and build connections – if I compliment you, you will assist me at a later time. Typical of this type of person is that they never offer constructive criticism to anyone.
(4) They have no reason – they are just making small talk. These individuals automatically compliment someone, even if they have known someone for two seconds.
All these four categories revolve around insincerity – and most of them are the basis of the manyḥadīth where the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said a certain person has “broken their friend’s neck” by praising them in front of others or should have sand thrown in their face. Compliments given for any reasons other than for the sake of God are explicitly forbidden and are severely warned against. Rather than being beneficial for the recipient, they become a trial for them. And people know an insincere compliment when they hear one. Inject sincerity into your compliments in order to be successful!
As the Arab saying goes: “What comes from the lips reaches the ears. What comes from the heart reaches the heart.”
4) Make it evidence based.
ʿUmar Al Farūq (Criterion) lived up to the title he was given because he used criteria for everything in his life – including making judgments about others! And sadly, this is where many go wrong because they generally do not have a criteria for judging others – they simply feel a person is good and they say “he’s good” or they judge someone only on their interactions with themselves and not on their interactions with others.
Secondly, ʿUmar used the right criteria – it is not good enough that someone prays, but they must display good character and adherence to God’s commands in other aspects of their lives. ʿUmar highlighted a few of them, but there are many more areas in which someone’s character should be assessed, as evidenced by ʿUmar himself: “do not depend upon the morality of a person until you have seen him behave while in anger”, “when a man puts a question to me, I [can therefore] judge his intelligence”.
The right criteria can be found in the qualities of the believer that are highlighted in the Qur’ān, the Prophetic traditions and the sayings of our scholars, as well as our own experiences. It is important to take time to discover these qualities as a compliment is a judgment of what is good and bad. We cannot give praise and say something is good if we do not know what is good in the first place. On basing our compliments on the right evidence, we also realise that it will take time for us to witness these qualities in other people. Compliments, especially heavy ones, should therefore not be made with haste. With time our opinion about someone can change. It is not uncommon for people to initially love someone only for them to hate them after a few months of getting to know them, the opposite being true as well!
5) Forget generic compliments, be specific.
After severely reprimanding one of the companions for praising someone else in their presence, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “If one of you must praise someone, he should say, ‘I consider that so-and-so is such-and-such.’ Allāh is the One who will take account of him if he thinks that he is indeed like that, no one can appropriate Allāh’s right to attest to someone’s character.”
Commenting on this ḥadīth, Imām Al Ghazali said “So it is dangerous to say that someone is a pious man or is God-fearing..”. You can’t say someone is “trustworthy” or “he is good” when you have not observed that specific trait in every situation and are, unlike God, unaware of their true character.
Traits and qualities are situation specific – ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) asked the man whether he traveled with the person he was praising, was his neighbour, was close friends with him (and in another narration – did business with him). It is evident that ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) is highlighting relatively mutually exclusive situations – we all know people we can trust with our money but that does not necessarily mean we would trust them with our children, or our car and so on.
Being specific makes someone much more likely to accept your compliment and that compliment is more likely to have a beneficial impact on them, whilst at the same time, reducing the likelihood of them jumping from your “I liked the way you handled that conversation” to “I am the most awesome person ever”.
By being specific respect is built for your words, because it shows others that you are actuallypresent with them (and not on your phone) and are being sincere, as you genuinely did notice something good about them, as opposed to vague compliments which are more akin to small talk and which render your words (and future compliments) meaningless and more likely to be dismissed by others, as ʿUmar did with the man in the incident above.
6) Keep it simple – do not exaggerate.
The Qur’ān frequently mentions the prohibition of excess: “…do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits” (5:87) and how we should “speak in a direct fashion and to good purpose”, and this style of speech was perfectly exemplified in the speech of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) who avoided verbose and flowery language. Overflowing praise may sound nice, but as anyone will tell you, nothing sounds better than the truth. Avoiding any exaggeration in our compliments is also more moderate, and as Ali (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) informs us – moderation is pivotal when dealing with others: “When you love someone you should love him moderately for he may be your enemy someday, and when you hate someone you should hate him moderately for he may be your friend someday.”
7) If you cannot say anything good, do not say anything at all – except when you need to.
In a famous narration, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “Whoever believes in Allāh and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent…” If you cannot give a compliment because either the person’s character or actions are not worthy of giving a compliment or because you actually do not know them that well to give a compliment in the first place, then say nothing at all – hence why ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) told the man to go away. The exception to this rule however is when you are required to say something, in which case make sure you speak up.
As Bishr Al Hafi said, “When it would please you to speak, be silent, and when it would please you to be silent, speak!” Whether it is a reference for marriage, a flat-mate or a position within an organisation, speak up but stick to the truth and say only what is relevant to the situation – no need to tell their family secrets.
8) Pay attention to what you say.
The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said: “A man might speak a word without thinking about its implications, but because of it, he will plunge into the Hellfire further than the distance between the east and west”. Complimenting someone else, especially in front of others, is anamānah (trust) in Islām. You are actually giving a reference to someone else.
And that someone else could make major life decisions based on your compliment. And any sin they accrue from your reference, will be squarely placed on your shoulders. Also saying someone is “a good person” when it is clear that from a moral, ethical and religious perspective that there is room for a lot of improvement, changes the definition of what it means to be a “good person”.
People will start aspiring to be like that person, and taking him or her as their example. The consequences are even greater to our hereafter, as Imām Al Ghazali informs us in his Ihya: “The praised man may be an oppressor or a great sinner. To praise him in such circumstances is unlawful. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said that when a great sinner is praised, God becomes displeased..” The dangers of praising someone excessively, lying or exaggerating when complimenting others or flattering them for self-serving purposes have been outlined explicitly in the ḥadīth – one of them, as explained by the commentators, being that it inflates the ego of the person whom you’re praising and takes them further away from God.
Compliments can however be used as a tool, when used in moderation, and given using the etiquette above, to draw others closer to God. When linking the specific thing they have done to a specific quality you give them, as someone rightly said, “a glimpse of their best self through your eyes”. For example, when someone is worried about their exams, we can remind them of how they have succeeded in the past or how much they know already using specific examples, not to build their ego but to build their confidence, to draw them nearer to God and to upgrade their own image of themselves – the image that God placed man in: “We have honoured the children of Adam and carried them by land and sea; We have provided good sustenance for them and favoured them specially above many of those We have created.”
By complimenting the right qualities, when expressed around you, you also help champion those qualities and reinforce them in society.
9) Make duʿā’ for that person either way
Finally, the more you compliment them, the more you should make duʿā’ for them. Making duʿā’ for someone is even better than complimenting them as you are helping protect what is praiseworthy about them at the moment, help ensure their nourishment and continual growth, with the permission and power of God, and God willing, help ensure their acceptance in their hereafter.
The duʿā’ of someone for the brother or sister in their absence is held in high status in Islām. After mentioning the “five duʿā’ that are answered” – one who has been wronged, a pilgrim’s duʿā’, the duʿā’ of a sick person etc. – he (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said that, “of these, the one that gets the quickest answer is that for a brother in his absence”.
Indirectly God will place an even greater love in the heart of the one you are make duʿā’ for, then the love you could have attained had you just complimented them. To paraphrase the duʿā’ of Abū Bakr (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) ask God to make them better than what others think of them, to forgive them of what others do not know about them and to not take them to account for what others say about them. Also, when you make duʿā’ for someone else, an angel will make duʿā’ for you, and as one of the commentators mentioned, as the angel is absent from you, “we hope the angel’s duʿā’ will also be responded to”.