A Warning against Corrupt Company

Islam wishes to develop a capacity for discernment and bring about an inner
discipline in the human mind by making people reflect on the significance of
social intercourse and selection of one’s companions. It desires to habituate
people to observance of discipline in their activities and decisions. Besides,
in this manner it draws their attention to real human merit so that they come to
have in it a faith arising from the depths of their hearts, perpetually keeping
the higher planes of reality in their view to attain to the utmost human
perfection, a perfection whose worth cannot be measured by any materialistic
criteria. Islam has pointed out to man each of the two paths of human progress and
edification, the outward and the inward, and it is now up to him to utilise that
guidance in choosing his mode of thinking and formulating his approach in
action. The company of pious persons committed to moral and human considerations
provides an appropriate opportunity for the nourishment and growth of man’s
spiritual faculties.

In general there exist two alternatives for man, either to surrender totally
to his corporal and natural faculties and subjugate his soul absolutely to his
instincts and appetites, or to answer the summons of his higher spiritual
aspirations and to cultivate the higher part of his spirit and realise the vital
significance of this precious gift.

Man is constantly under the pull of the two opposite poles of virtue and vice.
Therefore, he should pay undivided attention to the great mission that he has to
fulfil in this inner conflict. He should select for himself a way that is worthy
of man and choose the most reliable means for attaining his high human goal in
order to realise the full significance of life.

This choice is something continuous and perpetual, and it should be made in such
a way that at every moment one makes a forward movement as long as one is alive
without either coming to a standstill or going back. In view of the brevity of
human life, that which is important is to obtain a worthy provision out of this
brief, transitory existence for the life of the next world, which is
everlasting. Without doubt, one would derive the most lasting and precious
benefit by dominating destructive desires and by refraining from submitting to
deviant urges.

Islam wishes to develop a capacity for discernment and bring about an inner
discipline in the human mind by making people reflect on the significance of
social intercourse and selection of one’s companions. It desires to habituate
people to observance of discipline in their activities and decisions. Besides,
in this manner it draws their attention to real human merit so that they come to
have in it a faith arising from the depths of their hearts, perpetually keeping
the higher planes of reality in their view to attain to the utmost human
perfection, a perfection whose worth cannot be measured by any materialistic
criteria.

Islam has pointed out to man each of the two paths of human progress and
edification, the outward and the inward, and it is now up to him to utilise that
guidance in choosing his mode of thinking and formulating his approach in
action.

The company of pious persons committed to moral and human considerations
provides an appropriate opportunity for the nourishment and growth of man’s
spiritual faculties. Minds grow and develop in the radiance of their sublime
thoughts and the inclination to virtue and piety is awakened in one’s mind. As a
result of personal contact with them, one becomes more conscious of one’s
spiritual inadequacies, and that provides one with the chance to judge one’s own
capabilities by comparing them with those of worthy and competent humans.

It is through such a comparison that one can gradually free oneself from the
influence of vicious and undesirable qualities, and derive light from the most
hidden depths of one’s soul. The significance of the moral and spiritual
qualities of one’s associates is not something which has been studied for the
first time by modern psychology. In fact, the necessity of identifying the
qualities of friends and one’s intimates has been recognised for centuries, and
this is dealt with clearly and abundantly in religious texts and traditions.
What modern psychology has done is to reaffirm the value of those profound
prescriptions and to reiterate the beneficial and fruitful guiding principles
that have been recognised since long in this regard.

The Prophet of Islam, may God bless him and his Household, declared in an
eloquent and absorbing statement of his:

Persons follow the ways and conduct of their friends. Hence everybody should be
careful in choosing his friends, and study the character of those with whom he
wishes to develop terms of friendship.

In one of his aphorisms, Imam ‘Ali, may Peace be upon him, points out that one
should avoid associating with degenerate persons, as one tends to pick up their
personal traits:

Avoid the company of the vicious, because your character would pick up their
degenerate and deviant qualities without your knowing it.

Dr. Alexis Carrel, the well-known scholar, writes:

The psychological state of the social group determines, in a large measure, the
number, the quality, and the intensity of the manifestations of individual
consciousness. If the social environment is mediocre intelligence and moral
sense fail to develop. These activities may become thoroughly vitiated by bad
surroundings. We are immersed in the habits of our epoch, like tissue cells in
the organic fluids; like these cells, we are incapable of defending ourselves
against the influence of the community. The body more effectively resists the
cosmic than the psychological world. It is guarded against the incursions of its
physical and chemical enemies by the skin, and the digestive and respiratory
mucosas. On the contrary, the frontiers of the mind are entirely open.
Consciousness is thus exposed to the attacks of its intellectual and spiritual
surroundings. According to the natures of these attacks, it develops in a normal
or defective manner.

The education of the intelligence is relatively easy. But the formation of the
moral, aesthetic, and religious activities is very difficult. The influence of
environment on these aspects of consciousness is much more subtle.

Man is powerless against such psychological attacks. He necessarily yields to
the influence of his group. If one lives in the company of criminals or fools,
one becomes a criminal or a fool.

In the course of their experiments, social psychologists have made interesting
findings on the tendency to imitate others.

In the spring of 1953, a group of hundred male candidates applying for
managerial jobs involving leadership qualities ere subjected to a three-day test
in order to evaluate their mental abilities in the psychology lab of the
University of California.

On the third day, it was the turn to precisely measure their personal
susceptibility to the influence of others. First, these hundred men were divided
into two groups of fifty, the group under test and the group of spectators. The
purpose was that when those in the test group were subjected to the influence of
the opinion of the group, each of the individuals in the group of spectators was
individually and independently tested in relation to the opinion of their group.
Then arrangements were made to divide the test group into ten subgroups of five.
There was a device in front of each individual so that when a question was put
to him he could know the result of the answers given by others in his group by
the means of special lamps.

However, the secret of the experiment lay in the point that the answer that
appeared on the board was one manipulated by the experimenter, not one that
reflected the group’s response. In fact, in every case, by creating an
artificial and arbitrary majority the experimenter duped those who were under
test, and they, unaware of this secret, thought what they saw on the board to be
the opinion of the majority, and mostly followed it blindly.

To the astonishment of the experimenters, in a case involving the solution of a
mathematical problem, seventy-nine per cent of men thoughtlessly followed the
incorrect and illogical answer of the hoax majority.

Helping the Victims of Vicious Company

One should know that if one associates with corrupt persons for the sake of
rescuing them from their wretched condition, it is something very commendable
and praiseworthy. Islam approves of the method of associating with persons who
have violated moral norms for the purpose of helping them through beneficial
guidance. However, such a task requires a sophisticated approach, since mere
reproach and censure will not give the desired results. In many cases, it would
not be effective. However, a careful approach will not only be effective in most
cases, it might bring about a positive change. For the awareness that is created
in the victim may lead him to strive towards the path of real humanity, piety,
and salvation. That might lead him to discover his real worth and dignity as a
human being, and the one who keeps him company for the sake of helping him would
have fulfilled the rights of companionship in the worthiest manner.

Imam Sadiq, may Peace be upon him, has said in this regard:

When someone observes a friend taking a wrong and sinful course and, while
possessing the capacity restrain him, does not so out of indifference, he has
actually betrayed his friend.

It is has been said since ancient times that it is unpleasant to be told about
one’s faults. This is a fact. However, sympathetic advice should be given in a
soft and gentle tone, and someone’s weak point or moral inadequacy should be
pointed out in an effective manner, suggesting in a friendly way that the path
selected is one that would result in misfortune and ruin. At the same time one
should try to secure the companion s confidence in one’s objective attitude,
while being careful to deliver one s counsels privately in a manner unnoticed
others.

A friend may point out someone’s shortcomings in an unwise manner and his
exhortations may produce the very opposite result, whereas an advice given in a
wise and skilful manner, even by someone himself suffering from some moral
infirmity, can prove to be fruitful.

Imam ‘Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, may Peace be upon him, makes this
points in the following manner:

Pointing out someone’s shortcomings publicly is censure, not advice.

At times one is betrayed by the advice of a trusted friend, and the advice of
someone of whose betrayal one is wary may prove to be effective.

Dale Carnegie says:

If you want to prove a point, act cleverly and skilfully so that no one guesses
what you have in mind. Use the advice of the poet who said, "Preach without
being anyone knowing that you are preaching." The people who have a power of
clear judgement are a rarity. Most of us are stubborn and prejudiced, and envy,
suspicion, fear, greed, and pride cloud our reason Study your own character; if
you see that most of the time you are after picking others’ faults, you must
start thinking of a remedy.

When we make a mistake, we would easily admit it to ourselves. Others, too, if
they have the ability and skill, can, with the sweetness of their speech, grace,
and charm induce us to confess our errors. In such cases, we might even
congratulate ourselves for our candour and courage in confessing to our
shortcomings. But if the other person were to attempt to compel us to make this
unpleasant admission, he would never succeed.

The Eleventh Imam, may Peace be upon him, said:

One who exhorts his brother privately in fact helps him to appear in a good
light, whereas one who exhorts him publicly and indiscreetly spoils his image.

On the other hand, when someone suffering from an infirmity is exhorted by a
far-sighted friend who seeks to rescue him from moral degeneration, it is
essential for him accept the well-meaning advice of his friend and to make an
effort to reform himself. Imam ‘Ali, may Peace be upon him, said:

Someone who exhorts you is your well-wisher and benefactor. He foresees the
consequences of your conduct, and seeks to restore what you have lost.
Therefore, your welfare lies in obeying his counsel, and any disobedience or
indifference to his fruitful guidance will be ruinous for you.

On noticing the traces of moral corruption, the sooner one can correct oneself,
the better it is for him, and any kind of delay and negligence in this regard
will lead to regret and, ultimately, might be ruinous for his repute and
personal dignity.

Imam ‘Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, has said in this regard:

One who does not get rid of his infirmities while he is still held in good
repute will be forced to remove them after falling into disrepute.

Not only the admonishment of one’s associates but also the criticism of one’s
enemies can be effective in making one mend his ways. Imam ‘Ali, may Peace be
upon him, said:

At times one’s enemy is more helpful than one’s friends, because he makes one
aware of his shortcomings, leading one to overcome them.

An American philosopher writes:

A great man is always willing to be little. Whilst he sits on the cushion of
advantages, he goes to sleep. When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a
chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has
gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got
moderation and real skill. The wise man throws himself on the side of his
assailants. It is more his interest than it is theirs to find his weak point.
The wound cicatrises and falls off from him like a dead skin, and when they
would triumph, Lo! he has passed on invulnerable. Blame is safer than praise. I
hate to be defended in a newspaper. As long as all that is said is said against
me, I feel a certain assurance of success. But as soon as honeyed words of
praise are spoken for me I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies.
In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor. As the
Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valour of the enemy he kills
passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptation we resist.

Of the most injurious is the company of stupid persons, which might bring about
a setback in one’s life and land one in misfortune. At times, the dangers and
harms arising from a foolish friend are greater than what an enemy might
inflict. That is because one is seldom on his guard against a friend on account
of one’s confidence and goodwill and might be easily taken by surprise, and when
he wakes up there might be no way of retreat, whereas one is on his guard
against the possible dangers of an enemy.

His wrong judgements which lead his friend into trouble might be due to goodwill
and a desire to be useful, but often his counsels land his friends in trouble
and bring loss of face.

There is an ancient tale that once an intelligent and wise person went on a
journey with a fool. While travelling they reached a place where the road
branched out into two directions. One way was smooth and level and the other was
rough and uneven. The foolish companion insisted that they take the better road.
The wise man knew that the rugged road was shorter and safer, and he suggested
to his companion that they take it. However, he submitted to the insistence of
the fool and both of them went along on the good road.

Shortly afterwards, they encountered a band of robbers and were taken captive.
Later on, the two friends were captured along with the robbers and taken before
the judge. The wise man told the judge what had happened, putting the blame on
his foolish companion for misleading him and forcing him to take the dangerous
road.

When it was the fool’s turn to defend himself, he admitted that he was merely a
fool. But, he said, his friend who was intelligent should not have yielded to a
fool’s suggestions and abandon a decision made wisely. After hearing them the
judge condemned each of them to a similar punishment.

Hence mere attachment and loyalty in mutual relations are not sufficient grounds
for the selection of a friend. Rather, the quality and degree of his wisdom
should be given the foremost importance. Undoubtedly, those who refrain from
cultivating the intimacy of fools should be ranked with wise men of foresight.

Imam ‘Ali, may Peace be upon him, said:

Never make someone who is brainless your friend.

Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, may Peace be upon him, speaks in these words of the
harms that result from improper associates and unworthy company:

Never associate with four kinds of persons and don’t make them your friends: the
fool, the niggardly, the coward, and the liar. As to the fool, he will bring you
harm despite his good intentions to do something for your benefit. As to the
niggardly man, he will only grab from you without giving you anything in return.
As to the coward, he will flee at the smallest danger abandoning not only you
but even his own parents to their fate. As to the liar, you cannot trust him
even if he tells the truth.

Mental immaturity and inattention to consequences lead one into bad company and
ultimately into a catastrophe. It is frequently observed that those who give in
to the temptations of their vicious friends and compromise their honour and
well-being by attending their sinful gatherings and parties fall into ruin.

They might be aware that they are treading a dangerous path, but they are afraid
lest they be considered timid or prude. In order to avoid this charge they
surrender without resisting to the insistence and demands of their vicious
friends and ultimately bring disgrace upon themselves and fall headlong into the
ravine of moral corruption and abasement. However, one day they would realise
their irreparable mistake and their thoughtlessness, which was merely a product
of their mimicking others and without foresight. But unfortunately this
realisation comes when they have already spent a considerable part of their
lives and after a precious lifetime has been ruined by vicious conduct. At
times, their state of negligence and inattention continues to the end of their
lives and they are left with an everlasting regret.

The Noble Qur’an mentions the wails of regret as uttered by a lost and sinful
person on the Day of Resurrection. He would say:

Woe to me! Had I never taken so and so for my intimate friend. (25:28)

Imam ‘Ali, The Commander of Faithful, may Peace be upon him, warns in these
words against associating with a certain group of people who are unfit for
company and whose friendship is to be avoided:

Avoid making friends with worldly people, who will start looking down upon you
once your wealth and means are diminished and who will be jealous of you if you
become wealthier.

Do not keep company with someone who remembers your vices and forgets your
merits and excellences.

Do not befriend someone who conceals your merits and publicises your faults.

Do not take a flatterer for you friend, who will make even your erroneous acts
appear in a good light and who wants you to be like him.

Should you know it, the company of someone who is of no avail to you in
acquiring spiritual and human merits is an encumbrance.


Source: Selected excerpt from
Ethics and Spiritual Growth
by Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari

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