The shaykh with whom I studied ethics would speak nearly perfect Arabic throughout the day and address everyone in his path with great respect, even in the grammar of his speech. I asked him why he put such care into his choice of words, he would say, “Ya Najeeba, most importantly, in the form of our words, we should pursue beauty and elevate discourse.”
His words and monumental effort in expressing himself in a way that was sublime has always stayed with me. In essence, he was establishing a confluence between the choice of words he used, their elegant arrangement, his affect and the cognitive functions of communicating. He rounded these together in every utterance so that each sound he made was calibrated to increase beauty in the world and create a relational quality in the way he spoke with others.
As I reflect on why Dr. King so profoundly affected my journey as a peacemaker, it is because he also exemplified that capacity to elevate discourse by harnessing the resources of language to move the level of discourse deeper and higher. In this process, his prose and speeches resonated particularly with those who knew his context. At the same time, they echo in ways that are illuminating with a universal radiance because they appeal to the heart, mind and soul at the very same time.
For me as a Muslim, I have been taught the Qur’anic principles of engagement: To speak with the best words and with words of goodness when I am in a state of difference with another. Often in the past, I thought of this injunction as emphasizing the idea of persuasiveness. I have since found that there are other important aspects to these teachings that emphasize generosity and respect for the other in exchanges.
In thinking about the language of my teachers and Dr. King, I have come to recognize that one major element of constructing conversations that are beautiful in both form and process is this encompassing eloquence that can integrate emotional and cognitive approaches to social change.
It is easy to separate thought and emotion, to parse out the heart from the head. What makes Dr. King’s words drum in our hearts and minds far after we’ve first read them or heard them is the genius of his understanding that social justice is not merely an externally focused pursuit of rights;it is a rearrangement of the interior human landscape in how we see and feel about ourselves, the world and one another.
There is an element of slowing down, appreciating his text and speeches because of their sheer beauty. It causes me to listen both to the content and the orchestration of his language. I am engaged with the ideas and the emotional quality. He speaks of the greatest ugliness manifested by humanity in ways that push me to see that internally, I too, may be capable of such monstrosity if not for the vigilance necessary to keep my heart, mind and actions intertwined to actualize dignity and peace. He behooves us to respond with an ethical approach not just in action, but also in insuring that even (or especially) an enemy is never demonized nor dehumanized in our depiction of them.
So perhaps one lesson to glean from our celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is how we can move beyond competitive modes of talking, into a state of communal conversation that solemnizes an oath to speak with such careful thoughtfulness, so that the very act of forming a word is a sacred exertion of our highest sense of self.