Question: Could you explain the essential principles to be observed in order to benefit from spiritual advice in the best way, with respect to both the speaker and listener?
Answer: Nasihah (advice) means living with the idea of doing good to others. The manner of doing good and the relation between the speaker and the listener might show differences according to different persons or societies. Some try to do good to others by counseling, authoring books, preparing brochures, and different other ways as their position and means allow, and thus appeal to their spirit. Spiritual advice is a very important need for everybody, no matter their walk of life. The Qur’an draws attention to this important point with the command, “But remind and warn, for reminding and warning are of benefit to the believers” (adh-Dhariyat 51:55). The act of reminding and warning mentioned in the verse has differing degrees of meaning that refer to faith (iman), Islam, and ihsan, deepening in faith, and inviting someone to comprehend Islam as a whole. The inflection of the original Arabic word (as dhakkara) is noteworthy, for it denotes the significance and continuity of reminding. This form (of taf’il) denotes abundance in quantity. Accordingly, the verse commands continually reminding and giving advice. In other words, do not give up giving advice by saying, “I have said what needs to be told two or three times already, but people keep living in obdurate heedlessness;” instead, keep reminding as a continuous responsibility, for it will definitely be beneficial to believers.
The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, pointed out this truth with his invaluable words of wisdom that religion is sincere counselling and good advice. Giving advice is an essential aspect of practicing religion in individual and societal level. If this duty is not fulfilled, then the religion is destined to fall, sooner or later. As a matter of fact, the blessed life of God’s Messenger was centered on advice. He would sit at his mosque in Medina at certain times of day, and the Companions formed circles around him. Some would ask questions about worship, some about his statements they could not understand, and some would ask about the meaning of certain verses in the Qur’an. He never turned down any of them. In his entire lifetime, he only retreated to a corner away from his wives at one occasion; no other such case is reported during his mission. He would stay among his Companions, explain verses of the Qur’an, answer their questions, and settle their problems. This is how most of the verbal statements in hadith sources were made. As for his exemplary behavior, recorded in hadith sources as “af’al an-Nabawi,” or “acts of the noble Prophet,” they constituted the practical aspect of his tradition. In addition, his keeping silent before practices he witnessed was taken as “approval,” which constituted another aspect of his Sunnah. In other words, the silence he presented served as a criterion about states and behaviors acceptable in religion. In accordance with that, the Companions decided whether something was acceptable. These were the three ways in which he continuously conveyed what needed to be taught.
Talking according to the needs of listeners
If both the speakers and the listeners are sincere, a question-answer format can make a religious talk more efficient. Otherwise, a speaker who does not take listeners’ feelings and needs into consideration may think he delivers great speeches, but the matters he tells will not be of any permanent benefit for them. For this reason, like a teacher who follows a school curriculum by distributing subjects to different weeks and months, and teaches them gradually in a way to suit the level of the students, a religious instructor must convey what he or she will tell within a gradual plan that suits the capacity and knowledge of their audience; this will help them digest and internalize the issues being told. However, only those who can behold the issue with an overall view can present the subjects like that. As for the topics to be told by those who try to save the day, they will fail to make up a harmonious whole, and thus not yield the desired benefit for the listeners.
In this respect, what the society needs should be determined well. For example, if the Daily Prayers are not observed as they should be, the program needs to have the truth and essence of the Prayers at its core. If the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, is not properly known in a way that exemplifies his true worth, then he should be introduced with all of his aspects in order to work heartfelt love for him into souls. In the meantime, it will be wise to give the listeners an opportunity to ask the questions in their mind and thus allow deeper comprehension. Thus, like releasing a bucket into a water-well possessing good potential and bringing it into life by drawing out more and more, the questions they ask will help the speaker to expound on the issue better. The listeners gleaming knowledge from the speaker determines whether a talk is nourishing or not.
On the other hand, the speaker needs to be sincere, and the listeners need to be willing to benefit from what is told, so that the advice can be helpful. Since religion is a Divine system decreed by God, it definitely needs to be told with a consciousness of a dynamic relation with Him. Besides, instructors must enter the subject through utter self-effacement, virtually becoming one of the characters being depicted. While telling about a hero such as Hamza or Anas ibn Nadr, they must virtually become that person and leave oneself to the flow of the subject. You can compare this to the Sufi way of becoming totally oriented to, or annihilated (fana) within, a given ideal, and refer to it as becoming “annihilated” in the religious talk. If the instructor tells the subject so deeply he merges with it, his or her crying, smiles, or speaking emotionally depend on the unfolding of the subject. Acquiring this state depends on a person’s believing with heartfelt sincerity in what he or she tells. As for those who listen to this interaction, they should be able to enter into the subject together with the teller. For example, if a battlefield or ascension to spiritual realms is being depicted, the audience must be right there with the teller of the story, insofar as their imagination and conception allow.
Every Prejudice Is a Barrier
It is essential for listeners not to hold negative opinions about the instructor. They must be ready to welcome what is being told. If the words being uttered are not only to reach the ears but also the hearts of listeners, and be successfully processed in different mechanisms of consideration, the listeners have to be free from prejudices.
In addition, in order for a person to properly benefit from a talk, he or she similarly needs to be free from feelings like jealousy and covetousness; they must not make egocentric emphases, and avoid showing off their knowledge about the subjects being told. Even if some of the points being made do not sound totally agreeable, the listener should say, “We can discuss and settle this point after the session,” and listen attentively in spite of all, keeping one’s mind and heart constantly receptive to the message.
If there is a flaw about any of the points we have mentioned, it is inevitable there will be a breakdown of communication between the teller and listener. While listening, if we are including our own grudges, biases, egotism, arrogance, or boastful knowledge, then the emphasis we try to lay on our own person becomes a barrier against benefiting from the other person. Even if individuals in such a mood listened to the great masters such as Imam al-Ghazali, Imam Rabbani, or Bediüzzaman, and even if they had the honor to listen to the blessed Prophet himself, they still could not benefit from the talk. As a matter of fact, so many people like Abu Lahab and Abu Jahl did listen to him without benefiting. Today as well, many of their counterparts listen to the Qur’an and Sunnah, or hear the talks of truthful guides, but they do not benefit from these at all.
Let me express as a final point that just as achievement or authority are elements of being tested, knowledge is also a means of testing, and it causes most people to lose. The thought of “I already know” becomes such a screen that it prevents people from benefiting from a religious instructor. It might also be a factor in distancing that person from the Divine’s teaching completely. God Almighty makes a warning in this respect: “When an affliction befalls human, he calls upon Us (to save him). Then, when We (from sheer grace) have bestowed a favor upon him from Us, he says: ‘I have been given this only by virtue of a certain knowledge that I have.’ No, indeed… Rather, this (favor bestowed on a human) is a trial, but most of them do not know” (az-Zumar 39:49). In fact, any blessing that distances a person from God is nothing but a “misfortune in disguise.” Blessings that arrive as different positions and titles at different universities or administrative units stand for nothing but a curse as far as they cause people to become oblivious of God. The way to be protected from such danger is that, both the listener and the teller must approach the issue solely for the sake of God’s good pleasure and the compass of the heart must always be oriented accordingly. Both the speaker and the audience need to go through a personal process of internal orientation at the very beginning. Fifty times at least, they need to slam a hammer on their carnal soul by not siding with it, by not holding themselves pure to be purified of evil attitudes. If there is such essential preparation and initiation to the issue with sincere intention and inner purity, by God’s grace, spiritual advice and talks will be much more efficient, fruitful, and beneficial.
 Ihsan: consciousness of omnipresence of God, or perfect goodness.
 Sahih al-Bukhari, Iman, 42; Sahih Muslim, Iman, 95
 At-Tahrim 66:1–5; Sahih al-Bukhari, Ilim, 27; Sawm, 11; Mazalim, 25; Nikah, 83, 91, 92; Talaq, 21; Ayman, 20; Sahih Muslim, Talaq, 30
 Nursi, The Words, p. 495