Like a lot of Arabic words, adab requires a bit of study rather than a simple definition in the English language. If we are among the 90% of Muslims whose native tongue is not Arabic, we must face this bottom-line need to study this language of the Arabs, word-by-word if not as a communication skill. The Qur’an itself extols Arabic as the language of Revelation par excellence, and so there is no avoiding its study.
Even neuroscience is looking at the differing effects of the use of different languages on brain activity. With the new technologies of fMRI and f-tomography (f = functional), we can photograph the human brain in the midst of its various activities, rather than how it responds to wires connected to the scalp. In general, languages are all processed mainly in the left brain, although the nature of its use shows some variation.
Sheikh Zamdani from the Yemen espouses an ideology that terrifies westerners as a form of terrorism, which is what you see when you browse for his name on Internet. However, according to Sheikh Al Waleed Al Thani, of Qatar, who knows Zamdani, his real contribution to knowledge may lie in the brain scans he has done showing how the brain responds to reading and hearing Al Qur’an read in proper Arabic. Even more fascinating, a tendency to spread brain activity to the right hemisphere is also evident when non-Arabic speakers listen to the Qur’an being recited, although they do not understand the literal meaning of what they hear.
Perhaps Sheikh Zamdani cannot be recognized for his neurological research precisely because he is unafraid to take it to its necessary theological conclusions, those conclusions which the western world cannot as yet accept without panic and consternation, those conclusions the western mind still fears as revolutionary (which they are) to his entire culture and way-of-life. To them, such research and the conclusions that follow close upon it are terrorist by definition, since they threaten to overturn those fundamental convictions that have underlain western civilization for two thousand years. It appears, then, that only the braver souls will be able to do the research and draw the conclusions that neuroscience has now stumbled upon, in investigating brain dominance as related to spiritual issues and teachings.
The Bible produces no such right-brain spread when read to or by subjects in the brain-scan studies. There is nothing of neurological interest occurring when people read the Bible, except perhaps indications of an increased emotionality. Such emotionality might just as well accompany love of a beautiful statue or a beautiful portrait of Nabi Isa (a.s.), such as the Americans love to hang in their homes (showing him as a white man, of course). Even Buddhist meditation in Tibet shows more influence on brain activity than the Bible.
Left brain is still primary in the mediation of language, yet right brain seems to be involved in processing aesthetic qualities that can affect listeners in profound ways, quite independent of meaning comprehension. Even with such comprehension, brain activity depends on the topic or application to which language is put. Idris Shah was a popularizer of Sufi doctrine and stories in the English language. Even in English, reading his stories (as related by the buffoon Mulla Nasruddin) or listening to them being read in English increases right-brain involvement in brain activity, as reported by Robert Ornstein in his entertaining “The Right Mind”.
So the secular-based people are approaching the goal. Our young people, who are being brought up in a secular-based reality, can be guided toward this goal if we teach them ADAB. ADAB means a comprehensive attention to comportment, body language along with inner attitude, by which young people may approach their elders with the respect which they are due. The moment of asking forgiveness of elders after Ramadhan is one example of adab, yet the concept must be cultivated and applied year-round in order to bear its fruit.
What are the fruits of adab? Hamza Yusuf has written a classic of devotional literature, “Purification of the Heart”, which gives precise, chapter-by-chapter discussion of impurities of the heart and how they may be treated and healed Islamically. His list of impurities applies to everyone, and his list of Islamic treatments can be considered the sum and substance of adab. Before reading this work, however, young people must be persuaded to stop contaminating their own hearts by words and actions of kasar (gross) nature, which not only hurt the feelings of others but also damage the hearts of those who resort to such words and actions.
Here is the principle. Whose heart is damaged by the lack of adab involved in a strange man’s looking at your wife with sexual interest or passion? Certainly, the one who casts such a glance will be damaging himself. He may well be damaging the heart and soul of your wife as well, particularly if she returns the stranger’s glance. That this is a very real danger is evidenced by Arab culture, in which a male visitor to a Muslim family’s home never even meets or sees the wife.
I recall a colleague who related to me a personal experience when he first learned this lesson. He was standing in line to greet a newly-married Pakistani couple in an American city. Of course, the bride kept her glance downcast throughout – until he got there. At that moment, in spite of knowing it was not right, he spontaneously glanced over at the bride – whereupon she lifted her head and returned his glance. He will never forget the hurt in her eyes, or that of her new husband. It was not anything anyone intended, and yet the devil stepped in an caused this pain merely from their exchanged glance.
Adab is a training that might well have prevented this little moral breakdown. Or perhaps Allah swt was teaching my friend WHY, exactly, men as well as women are ordered to cast their glance to the ground when passing each other in public. For it may not always be so easy for the woman to keep her eyes on the ground when she feels the look of the man, like a radar signal “painting” her soul.
Your own “second glance” at a passing beauty may also hurt or damage the soul of your own wife, who will always feel any speck of spiritual “dirt” that enters your soul, even when you are apart. She may not “know” what you have done when you are out, yet she will always “feel” it. So will your children.
And so will you, in the reverse instance, hence the Muslim law prohibiting any man outside the family from entering your home when you are gone. Any interface of your wife with another man carries danger, and this danger becomes intolerable to the Muslim soul when the husband is not present. Hence the bottom-line need for sufficient “halal” economic results for Muslim men, so that his wife does not NEED to work to support the family.
I like to remember Prophet Muhammad’s advice to Abu Bakar (r.a.) when asked what he should do when he finds himself spontaneously looking upon a non-mahram woman with sexual interest, and the Prophet replied, “The first look is free”. This is an incredibly humane and wise answer, since no man will ever be able to give up looking at beautiful women completely and forever. The real test, however, is if upon self-scrutiny he can then turn his glance downward and then refuse to look again.
Of such moments the personal jihad al-akbar is made. The success of such self-discipline is the task of adab, and we must convince our children with every good and clever argument, as well as with unrelenting good adab of our own, that good adab purifies the soul, whereas bad adab soils it. Here is the Qur’anic motivation: “Every being who is grateful, is grateful to the good of his own soul, and every being who is ungrateful only damages his own soul.” The essence of adab is therefore gratitude.
Another way of understanding adab is through aesthetics. A recent best-seller entitled “A Whole New Mind – Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future”, argues that the utility of objects and behavior is no longer in itself “beautiful”. Right brain must participate by contributing clever design and other aesthetic characteristics before objects or behavior become truly useful and effective for human beings.
When our young people ask WHY we must be sincerely polite and respectful (i.e., mannerly) with other people, we can point to this book for the answer. We all wish for our actions to be EFFECTIVE with other people, and adab is the beauty given by right brain that makes others WANT to hear and agree. It is therefore a major contributor to HARMONY among Muslims, and especially between the young and the old, so that all may proceed on their life’s way with success and good results.
As Sheikh Zamdani and other Muslims are coming to realize, there are very good arguments from scientific research supporting the principles of adab in Muslim behavior. Nevertheless, our own Islamic sources provide the best arguments, such as the Qur’anic verse that is translated: “On the Day of Judgment, no one is safe, save the one who returns to God with a pure heart.” Or: “You will not attain to righteousness until you spend of what you love.”
A Hadith of our Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) states: “Surely in the breasts of humanity is a lump of flesh, if sound then the whole body is sound, and if corrupt then the whole body is corrupt. Is it not the heart?” Our argument here, and with our young people, is that displaying our own behavior, or criticizing that of others, with anything other than loving-kindness immediately contributes to the corruption of our own heart. We cannot always control the feelings we actually have for others or their behavior, but we can interface with them in a kindly way by means of adab. Thus we are protected from creating rancor in our own hearts.
The Prophet (s.a.w.) once said to his companions, “Do you want to see a man of Paradise?” A man then passed by and the Prophet said, “That man is one of the people of Paradise.” One companion wanted to learn what it was about this man that earned him such a commendation from the Messenger of God, so he spent time with this man and observed him closely. He noticed that the man did not perform the night vigil (Tahajjud) or anything extraordinary. The man appeared to be an average man of Madinah. The companion finally told the man what the Prophet had said about him and asked if he did anything special. And the man replied, “The only thing I can think of, other than what everybody else does, is that I make sure that I never sleep with any rancor in my heart towards another.”