People often associate certain things, or events, or signs with good or bad omen. These differ from one culture to another.
In old Arabian culture, when a person went out on some business, he tried to determine whether his task would be successful. He usually looked for any bird he might see. If the bird flew to the right, he considered this to be a good omen and he continued with his task.
If the bird flew left, he thought that was a bad omen and he would not continue with whatever he had embarked upon. In fact, this was so entrenched in their culture that the Arabic name for sensing bad omen is derived from the word Tair, which means bird. It is used even when the object, action or event that causes bad omen has nothing to do with birds.
Apparently this was not limited to Arabs. Even in other cultures, people looked to birds for sensing what may come about. The English word “auspice” is defined in an Oxford Dictionary as “an observation of birds for omens”.
Needless to say, all this is forbidden in Islam. It is contrary to the very concept that knowledge of the future is the preserve of God alone. It is also against the principle of putting our trust in God. Therefore the Prophet denounces the very idea of bad omen, describing it as a form of associating partners with God. He says:
“(Believing in) bad omen is a form of idolatry. It may occur to anyone of us, but God clears it away when we rely totally on Him.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud).
This Hadith is very clear in its import. It describes bad omen as a form of idolatry, or polytheism, but it recognizes that thoughts of such nature may be quick to our minds, and points out the way to get rid of them.
The first sentence is very definitive. That it was associated in old Arabian society with the direction a bird flies is indicative of its absurdity. How could a bird know future events? What does the direction of its flight signify in human language? How could it relate its knowledge to the actions of human beings, or to the people around? If the bird were to know all that, it would be much superior to man in knowledge, when not even the people who attached their omen to its direction of flight could have credited it with that.
A report by Ikrimah, a learned scholar of the generation that followed the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) companions, mentions that Ikrimah was attending to his teacher, Abdullah ibn Abbas, the Prophet’s cousin and learned companion, when a bird passed by and made some sound. A man in attendance said, “Good! Good!”
Ibn Abbas said to him:
“This bird has neither good nor evil to offer.”
Yet people often experience some thoughts of bad omen when they hear something or see an event or an action taking place. Should this happen, a believer must not entertain such thoughts for long. He should be quick to place his trust in God and rely on Him in all situations.
When a believer does so, all thoughts of bad omen are dispelled because a believer knows that whatever befalls us comes from God.
When we place our trust in Him, He is sure to enable us to overcome difficulties and to reward us for our patience when we meet adversity. In this respect, we may recall the Hadith in which the Prophet wonders at a believer’s lot:
“I wonder at a believer’s affairs, as they all end up into what is good. This applies to none other than believers. If something good comes his way, he expresses his gratitude to God, and it will be good for him; and if he experiences an adversity, he remains patient, and that will again be good for him.”
So, we have to differentiate between a temporary thought which we try to dispel by placing our trust in God, and giving in to bad omen. In the latter case, people change their plans, restrict their movement and do different things to avoid what they think bodes ill for them. This is the sort of things the Prophet warns against. The first type is often unavoidable. A man called Muawiyah ibn Hakam said to the Prophet:
“I have only recently abandoned ignorant beliefs, and now God has favored us with Islam. Some of our people visit fortune-tellers.”
The Prophet said:
“Do not visit them.”
The man added: “And some of us associate bad omen with certain things.”
The Prophet replied:
“This is something that people may occasionally entertain. Let them not be deterred from their purpose.” (Related by Muslim)
This Hadith clearly distinguishes temporary pessimistic thoughts from giving in to bad omen. The distinction is at its clearest when one goes ahead with whatever one is planning or what one is about to do, disregarding all negative thoughts and relying totally on God, and, on the other hand, giving in to such thoughts, changing one’s plans and purpose.
All this concerns bad omen; but what about good omen? There is a clear distinction between the two, as appears in the following Hadith in which Abu Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying:
“Do not entertain bad omen. The best of it is the good one.”
Asked which is the good one, the Prophet answered:
“A good word any of you may hear.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Ahmad).
In this Hadith, Prophet Muhammad gives a clear order that finding bad omen in any sign is unacceptable in Islam. In fact it is forbidden, unless one tries to dispel its effects by placing his trust in God.
Next the Prophet speaks about good omen as being the best. The comparative here is not between two good things with one being better than the other, because there is nothing good in allowing bad omen to dictate our course of action. The comparative is merely in what we feel when something causes us to be optimistic or pessimistic about something we are embarking upon.
Besides, the Prophet explains that people normally find good omen in a good word they hear. It is not a sign by a bird or some other animal or an inanimate object. A good word may affect a person because it expresses some favorable feeling, or describes a positive situation.
It is in human nature that we like fine expressions, beautiful scenes, peaceful surroundings, even when nothing of it belongs to us. Similarly, words that speak of a good thing happening to us soon are bound to have a good effect on us. We note here that such words may be without foundation, but the fact that they give us a sense of optimism is beneficial, provided that we attribute all future events to God’s will.
To give an example, a mother says to her daughter on the morning she is taking her exams, “I feel in my heart that you will do well.” The daughter feels optimistic and approaches her exam in good spirits. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the daughter does not attribute her fine results to her mother’s words or feeling.
Another Hadith that illustrates the meaning further is reported by Anas who quotes the Prophet as saying:
“Do not cause disease transmission, and do not entertain bad omen. But I like hopeful optimism based on a good word.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)