Quranic Reflection No. 494. Āyat 9:61 – The Prophet’s active listening

وَمِنْهُمُ الَّذِينَ يُؤْذُونَ النَّبِيَّ وَيَقُولُونَ هُوَ أُذُنٌ ۚ قُلْ أُذُنُ خَيْرٍ لَّكُمْ
Waminhumul-ladhīna yu’dhan-nabiyya wayaqūlūna huwa udhunu khayrin lakum
Among them are those who torment the Prophet, and say, ‘He is (all) ear.’ Say, ‘An ear that is good for you.
(Sūrat al-Tawba, No 9, Āyat 61)

In this verse Allah ‘azza wajall talks about how the hypocrites troubled the Prophet (s). Hurting others can be through actions sometimes, or it can be through speech. Here the verse refers to words that were said to distress the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam. They declared he was all ears and listened to whatever people told him, that he listened to whoever came to talk to him. This quality which was an asset was distorted to seem a flaw in the Prophet. That is because of the blindness of the hypocrites or it was a deliberate attempt to disregard a good quality in the Prophet.

The word ‘udhun’ means ear but is used for a person who listens a lot. The hypocrites said it derogatorily, aiming to ridicule the Prophet and distress him by labelling him thus. Their point was that he listened too much to people.

Allah tells him to answer them by saying that his active listening is good for them. The words udhunu khayrin lakum can be interpreted in two ways:
1. An ear that is good – he listens to all that is good for you. This refers to revelation from Allah and whatever words that are good and virtuous. He then conveys it to you.
2. Being an ear, or listening well, is a quality of the Prophet that is good for you. He will listen to you, understand your difficulties, accept your excuses. His active listening skills allow him to have a better relationship with you. So, it is good for you that he is all ears.

According to ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī, the difference between these two interpretations is that the first requires him to listen to all that is good, while the second requires that he listen discerningly. He listens to everything respectfully but does not act on that which is not right. The ‘Allāmah believes that the second interpretation is more correct and in line with the entire verse.

Listening to people is a necessary quality for a good leader. It acknowledges and attempts to understand them. It increases the bond and affection between the speaker and the listener. The listener does not have to agree with everything said, but the act of listening tells the speaker he is worth the time. That is an important message of affirmation. Reacting quickly to the words of someone without listening them out increases the possibility of humiliating the speaker and decreases the possibility of them accepting the truth. A wise and compassionate leader listens to the people and tries to help them accordingly, rather than ignoring their thoughts and opinions. Those who have the potential of being trained and guided are then able to achieve it under his guidance.

Good listening is not just for leaders. When we listen to those around us, we open our minds and hearts to them. Not everything should be listened to, but it is an important skill in improving relationships. What made the Prophet so beloved to his people was his genuine interactions with them and listening to them was a big part of it. People are drawn to those who listen to them sincerely. Imam Ali (a) said: Whoever listens effectively reaps its benefits immediately (Ghurar, H. 9243).

As we commemorate the death of the Prophet of Islam (s), let us learn from his impeccable manners. We can try to follow his example in our lives. Let this verse also remind us that people who wish to disparage someone may focus on a good quality and turn it into a negative one. We should not be deceived by those who wish to create mischief on earth. They troubled the Prophet and continue to trouble his followers.

Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.