The second rule is: Speak not against others in their absence. This is a saying that, like all wise words, has several levels of meaning. On the most literal level it means: do not speak unkindly about people who are not present in the conversation. At a deeper level, one could say that to speak against someone in his or her absence means to speak judgmentally of someone to whom you are not present.
Editor’s note: Continuing our examination of various moral codes, Seven Pillars is pleased to present Pir Zia Inayat-Khan’s talks on the Iron and Copper rules of Hazrat Inayat Khan as an ongoing series. While this material originates from a Sufi context, it can be helpful to anyone who is looking for practical guidance on applying chivalric principles to the conundrums of everyday life. A new rule will be posted monthly until the series is complete.
The second rule is: Speak not against others in their absence. This is a saying that, like all wise words, has several levels of meaning. On the most literal level it means: do not speak unkindly about people who are not present in the conversation. At a deeper level, one could say that to speak against someone in his or her absence means to speak judgmentally of someone to whom you are not present. In this case, being present means being conscious of the soul of the person. To lightly discuss the characteristics of a person without truly being present to that person—without experiencing the person’s soul—is an error.
But again, the literal meaning is: do not to speak about people when they are not around, except in praise. The situation that the rule addresses is a common one, I think, in the experience of all of us. In the social world we inhabit, people are more likely to speak about other people in their absence than in their presence. Gossip has a kind of infectious quality. One might not naturally incline toward it, but one finds oneself in conversations in which the intoxicating atmosphere of casual criticism gets the better of one. In that moment, a feeling of license prevails. But as one steps away from the conversation, the thought suddenly dawns: what have I said?
The ego does not exist in isolation. Rather, it is a construct formed of layers of psychic substance generated in relationships. Our self-image is bound up in other people’s image of us, and vice versa. When we cast negative judgments on others, we may imagine ourselves to be revealing the person’s true nature, but we are in fact concealing it. We are wrapping the person up in veils of darkness, covering over the light of the soul.
From a mystical point of view, the physical presence or absence of a person is incidental. We are interconnected beyond time and space. Nothing goes unheard; every word, and indeed every thought, resounds through the universe. Nothing is hidden; every vibration has its effect.
Murshid says: “It must be remembered that one shows lack of nobleness of character by love of gossiping. It is so natural, and yet it is a great fault in the character to cherish the tendency of talking about others. In the first place, it is a great weakness one shows when one passes remarks about someone behind his back; in the second place, it is against what may be called frankness. Besides it is judging another, which is wrong according to the teaching of Christ, which says Judge ye not, lest ye be judged.”
Judge ye not, lest ye be judged. That is the best touchstone: to ask, how would I feel if that person spoke of me as I am speaking of him or her? If you would feel comfortable, what you are saying is probably fair. Likewise, one might ask, would I speak in this way if the person were present? If so, again, what one is saying is probably fair.
When we have stopped speaking against others, we will have more energy to direct to a nobler and ultimately more satisfying occupation: speaking in favor of others.
Pir Zia Inayat-Khan
Iron Rules 2