The ability to communicate with one another is a precious gift God gave humans.

It’s amazing to be able to turn our thoughts, feelings, and ideas into different codes we could transmit to others and receive feedback through our different senses.

This enables us to learn, teach, and interact with others in our communities, as well as with the universe at large.

Through these same codes of communication, God would also communicate His presence and His messages to people -through special envoys- in order to guide them and lead them to safety until the end of their journey of life.

In every era of history, special individuals from among the people alive at that time were chosen to transmit His messages, those were the messengers of God, may peace be upon them all.

Their role as communication mediators, concerned with delivering precise messages from The One God to their nations required exceptional communication skills: they had to be very eloquent in language and knowledgeable in local culture in order to deliver exceptional orations; physically attractive charismatic leaders to command respect and attention during their presentations.

They should be well-mannered to inspire listeners as live examples of their message; skilled at using emotional intelligence to choose their timing, content, and adjust their emotions according to each situation.

In addition to empathywisdom and patience to be able to listen as effectively as they talk, and to see things from their audience’s perspective in order to offer appropriate solutions.

Mission Impossible

From among God’s messengers, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was chosen for a monumental task: to deliver God’s message to all mankind until the end of time.

So, not only was he commanded to inform his own people in his geographical environment during his lifetime, but his mission stretched to include communicating with every human, in every corner of the world, from the day he was chosen as a Prophet to the very last day on this earth.

When I think about this impossible communication situation, I immediately remember one of the first verses of the Quran revealed to him at the start of his mission:

{We shall send down to you a weighty Message} (Al-Muzzammil 73:5)

And indeed it was a weighty message, not just in its great content, but also in the immense communication skills required to deliver it thoroughly to a never-ending line of diverse audience, spanning numerous eras and places, through barriers of time, culture, and whatever unimaginable changes human progress would bring.

Today, Islam is the fastest growing religion on earth, with followers approaching two billion people. It’s astonishing to see Muhammad (peace be upon him) succeed in this mission, despite the colossal hurdles.

We can’t help but wonder: what are the communication skills that this unique man possessed which qualified him for the honor -and agony-of this ‘mission impossible’?

I’d like to explore with you in this series of articles different aspects of his style of communication; perhaps we could improve our daily lives wherever we live in God’s vast world.

We Are Together on This 

As a timeless example for mankind, Prophet Muhammad had six main spheres of communication working in parallel all the time.

The first sphere was his connection with God; then with his family; his companions, the Muslim community; his enemies; and the rest of the world. He managed to handle all of them successfully with astounding skill.

In today’s fast paced material world, we sadly watch those spheres morphing together and rapidly shrinking to include only our immediate needs, worries, and ambitions.

In our race for more possessions and personal success, we feel we don’t have time for others, so we connect with them less, and focus on ourselves more.

The result is a world on the verge of destruction because of an increasing number of selfish humans, who communicate less, care less, and take more than their share of everything, even clean air to breathe.

To regain its balance, the world needs more people who are in touch with humanity and with the universe; whose focus includes the well-being of others, of the environment, and of the future, whose perception of our world as one unit makes them care for humanity as one nation.

Recognizing that if the ice sheet in Greenland melts, the Nile Delta in Egypt drowns, and if the ozone layer is damaged in the US, more people suffer skin cancer in Australia, because although we may live far apart, we’re actually all “in the same boat”.

Yet, to be able to turn the tide, such good people need to communicate their values to the world urgently and effectively.

The Art of Analogies: Our Same Boat

This exact situation was one of Prophet Muhammad’s challenges. Amidst the corruption of the world he was brought into, it wasn’t enough to preach directly, he needed exceptionally effective communication to change paradigms decisively and quickly in order to change the world in one lifetime.

So, sometimes he used analogies to illustrate concepts.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

The example of those abiding by God’s rules in comparison to those who violate them is like people who drew lots for their seats in a ship. Some of them got seats in the upper deck, and the others in the lower.

When the ones below needed water, they had to go up to bring it (which troubled the others), so they said, ‘Let us make a hole in our share of the ship to get water and save those above us from trouble’.

If the people in the upper deck left the others do what they had suggested, all the people of the ship would be destroyed, but if they prevented them, both parties would be safe.” (Al-Bukhari, 851)

This simple analogy gives us a vivid mental picture to remember and reflect on. It drives in a deep lesson with minimal effort yet with lasting effects.

It even gives us a creative idea for communicating an important concept visually to children in order to raise awareness for the future of our environment.

One of my Muslim friends in a Western country complained that kids in her neighborhood are constantly misbehaving, to the extent of spray-painting obscenities on walls.

She was wondering if it’s worth it to try to improve the situation, or is it enough to protect her own kids from mixing with their peers and focus on her own home rather than trying to improve the community.

Reflecting on the boat parable, I suggested she involves the parents and the local Imam in her area to get all the kids (both innocent and guilty) to clean and repaint the wall together, then invite everyone to attend a fun sketch derived from the hadith.

We need to explain how we’re all passengers on the same ship, and that if each of us thinks of their local community as this ship, with some people on the ‘top deck’ (i.e. with more knowledge and faith, and consequently better manners and social responsibility) and some people on the ‘lower deck’, then we would proactively join hands to gently educate the less fortunate, and try persistently to ‘save the boat’.

With yet simple communication, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent us a timeless, universal, multi-cultural message, for young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate, urging us to look outside ourselves, combat our indifference, stretch our attention outside our doorsteps, and get up and make a difference, recognizing that we must not let the wrong-doers take advantage of our beautiful world.

(This article is from Reading Islam archives, and was originally published at an earlier date)

In ancient Arabia, eloquence meant status. Arabic is a language rich in shades and shadows; and people competed to weave words with exquisite elegance and beautiful rhythm, skillfully shaping words into works of verbal art.

This is when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born. Although he was never taught to read and write, he had more linguistic skills than anyone. These skills enabled him to transmit difficult concepts clearly, to all levels of audience, and in just a few words.

His wise sayings are ‘Hadith‘ (literally means ‘speech’ in Arabic); they teach timeless guidance to people around the world.

Yet when learning Hadith today, we pay more attention to the study of the exact words of the Prophet Muhammad, while overlooking an important fact which has to do with his use of many non-verbal communication skills to enhance the meanings of the words.

He had an exceptional ability to engage more of our senses than just our ears.

Painting Mental Pictures with Words

When we read Hadith, we will notice that the words draw vivid pictures in our minds, with sights, sounds, smells, and feelings. At the same time, the narrators used descriptive words to give us a complete three-dimensional snapshot of each event.

In this way we could actually ‘see’ in our minds-eye the complete surrounding context; in addition to exactly what the Prophet did with the rest of his body while he spoke.

Instinctively, narrators used their special skill with words to share with us what they saw, heard, felt, imagined and understood – which is how they had actually learned and changed.

There is a precious lesson for us here: When learning from a unique teacher with exceptional communication skills, his audience have to use all their senses to receive meanings and learn lessons.

That is why their behavior was transformed in just a few years to build a brilliant civilization. Perhaps we too need to do the same today, it’s not enough to mechanically memorize and recite the Hadith. What’s more important is to open up to the positive change the words of Prophet Muhammad cause in hearts and minds, and to follow through with practice.

Non-Verbal Cues Blow Your Cover

Communication is about delivering a message to the audience, with maximum accuracy and minimum confusion. Taking into account the correct interpretation of their response, which reflects their perception of the meaning. These basics are essential for exchanging ideas and feelings with others effectively.

Modern research states that successful communicators possess the ability to engage all the senses of their audiences, through using two types of skills in accurate measure.

The first type is the verbal skills, or the spoken language in writing and speech. The second type is the non-verbal skills, which express the ‘unspoken’ context of the words to give them their true meaning, including facial expressions, body language, and vocal qualities such as volume, pitch and speed.

Ironically, successful delivery of a message relies more on non-verbal skills which transmit at least 70% of the meaning, while only 30% is transmitted through words.

Moreover, when the spoken and the unspoken messages contradict, the human brain is programmed to believe the non-verbal cues. For example: If someone says to us: “how nice to see you” but says so with sarcasm, we subconsciously receive the sarcasm and not the seemingly courteous greeting.

The Art of Eloquent Silence

There are training courses to teach us how to interpret people’s unconscious gestures; and at the same time consciously send positive non-verbal signals to others to enhance mutual understanding and encourage effective communication.

Being the exceptional communicator he was, the Prophet Muhammad paid special attention to sending clear and consistent non-verbal messages all the time, even while he was completely silent.

He knew that most of his tradition will be transmitted verbally, so he spoke concisely and clearly; he repeated every important idea 3 times. But in parallel, he used very strong vocal and gesture cues consistent with his words to enhance people’s memorization of what he said to be able to repeat it to others.

His posture was always straight and alert to reflect confidence and strength; he walked briskly to reflect purposefulness, yet his face was always relaxed and peaceful with a poised smile inviting contact and trust.

He gave people his full attention by turning towards them with his whole torso not just his head, which made them feel important and appreciated.

When he got angry, he simply looked away from the person or the event to indicate his disapproval without saying a word.

In a gathering, he sat anywhere not in the center indicating equality; and he always allowed direct contact indicating approachability.

He never looked anyone too long in the face; he used his full palm to point at people instead of pointing his finger to avoid embarrassing them.

Nonetheless, we find the Quran gently rectifying his non-verbal communication in a special situation, sending us a precious lesson:

Even Gestures Count

The Prophet Muhammad was talking to a group of notable tribal leaders attempting to win them over; at that time, a blind man, named Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoum, came to him with some questions.

Trying to focus all his attention on the potential allies, the Prophet frowned in concentration and looked away from Abdullah and towards his audience. The blind man couldn’t see his frowning face or his annoyed body language, yet God blamed His Messenger for transmitting a negative non-verbal message.

He frowned and turned away, Because there came to him the blind man. (80:1-2)

We can’t transmit an emotion sincerely unless our body language is consistent with the words.

Try it yourself: face a mirror and try to sound cheerful saying ‘good morning’ while your face is frowning. You can’t. If you don’t want to hear a frown in your voice, you must actually smile so that your voice would sound friendly.

Now, can you imagine how the voice of the Prophet would have sounded while he was frowning? The blind man would have certainly heard the annoyance, which would generate negative feelings, and create a barrier to effective communication with a sincere friend.

Because of the deep insights gained from this incident, the Prophet always smiled at that blind man saying,

Welcome to whom my Lord has blamed me. (Al-Qurtubi)

Later, Aisha while talking about another woman, pointed with her hand to indicate that she was too short. The Prophet told her:

You have said a word that if mixed with the water of the sea it would spoil it! (Abu Dawud)

He called her simple gesture a ‘word’ and warned her it was so destructive that it could spoil a sea.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

How often do we use facial expressions or gestures publicly in a sarcastic or mocking way, mindless of their destructive effects on our image and on our communication with others?

These stories teach us to mind our body language as much as our verbal language; above all because God is watching, also because others may evaluate us, and even our entire nations or cultures, based on our public conduct.

At any given moment, imagine that someone may be evaluating how you talk to your spouse in a shopping mall; imagine how you treat an elderly on the train, or what you do with your friends in the street.

If you want to be perceived as a nice person, do it all the time; do it with all your being, even when you think no one is looking.

A smile and an open posture are well understood ‘words’ in a universal code.

So even if you don’t speak a word of someone’s language, remember that is only 30 percent of your tools; you still have much more to make sure they ‘listen’ to your friendly thoughts with their eyes.

The Prophet Muhammad was sent to a nation of brilliant orators, people whose main interest was words; yet he added a deeper dimension to eloquent words, which is eloquent silence, where refined actions do the talking.

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