وَإِمَّا تُعْرِضَنَّ عَنْهُمُ ابْتِغَاءَ رَحْمَةٍ مِنْ رَبِّكَ تَرْجُوهَا فَقُلْ لَهُمْ قَوْلًا مَيْسُورًا
Wa-immā tu‘ridhanna ‘anhumu-bitigā’a rahmatin min rabbika tarjūhā faqul lahum qawlan maysūrā
And if you turn away from them, seeking mercy from your Lord, which you hope for, speak to them a gentle word.
(Sūrat al-Israa, No 17, Āyat 28)
The request of a person who needs something is a Divine blessing for the person being requested. Imam Husayn (a) says: From the blessings of Allah are the needs of people towards you, so do not tire of blessings (Bihār al-Anwār, v.75, p.127). But sometimes a person comes with needs that we cannot meet. The above verse explains the etiquette of declining a request appropriately.
According to Tafsīr al-Mīzān the above verse refers to a financial request. The person requesting needs to satisfy a basic need such as hunger or shelter, etc. The person being requested does not have the means to fulfill it but has hope that he will be able to do it in the future. It is not that he has the means and does not want to give. Nor is it that he thinks he will never give. Rather, he is unable to do it at that moment, but is hopeful to fulfill it in the future. This is the attitude with which the request is declined.
Seeking of mercy mentioned in the verse could be through being kind to the person requesting help. Such kindness is done with the intention of pleasing Allah ‘azza wajall and gaining His mercy. Or it could be that there is hope of receiving an increase in sustenance, due to the mercy of Allah, and declining the request is done with the hope of fulfilling it in future.
The second appropriate response to a request that cannot be fulfilled is to speak a gentle word. The word ‘maysūrā’ comes from the word ‘yusr’, meaning ease. The declining should be done in a manner that is easy to accept for the other person. The word has been interpreted to mean the following:
• do not use harsh and rude language
• do not disrespect or humiliate them
• speak to them with love and respect
• if possible, give them a promise for the future
After the revelation of this verse, whenever anyone came to the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam with a request that he could not fulfill, he would say the following prayer: May the Almighty provide us and yourselves from His grace. When his daughter Fātima al-Zahrā ‘alayhās-salām requested a servant to help her with her household tasks, he declined, saying there were needy people who he had to help first. But he did not turn her away empty handed. He taught her the Tasbīh al-Zahrā instead.
Let this verse remind us that even if we need to decline a request sometimes it must be done with the utmost respect and gentleness. That is what Allah expects from us.
Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Āghā Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr