Housing Lessons from the Life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): The Importance of Neighbors

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com

If people are social beings who must interact and depend on each other for survival, the houses which serve as the framework for most of people’s life activities are likewise destined to interact and connect with each other, sometimes more and in a more densely populated residential networks and sometimes less and in a less densely populated residential networks. Thus, neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities are essential for the survival of the human race, as well as for the creation and sustaining of human culture and civilization. The ways in which the existence of people has been organized, mirror themselves in the ways in which human settlements, and with them human systems of living, have been organized and managed. The mutual dependency and reliance among humans for mere survival reflects itself in the mutual dependency and reliance among the key components of human settlements and their built environments. Reciprocal reliance, understanding and cooperation bring a community strength, progress and prosperity. The opposite brings weakness, depression and downfall to it.

When the Prophet (pbuh) embarked on building the Muslim community in Madinah, following the migration (Hijrah) from Makkah, the notion of the neighborhood and the sound neighborly relationships preoccupied much of his attention. The lessons of the Prophet (pbuh) had more than a few implications for the ways Muslims planned, built and used their houses, not only during the early days of the Madinah community but also ever after.

Those lessons could be summarized in the following considerations. Although a person enjoys his absolute privacy and freedom inside the parameters of his house, he must remember that he lives in the midst of a neighborhood or a community. He cannot enjoy his rights in such a way that he infringes upon the rights of others, in particular of those next to him, his neighbors who live in adjoining houses. Doing such a thing would denote a form of injustice and human rights violation anchored in one’s selfishness and total disregard for other people and their feelings, for which the perpetrators must be held accountable in both worlds. Establishing healthy and sound neighborly relations is a perfect recipe for the creation of correspondingly healthy and sound total human relations in a community, in that each and every community is made up of such basic units and elements as individuals who make up families or households which, in turn, constitute neighborhoods. Each and every community can be fragmented into, and viewed through the lens of, neighborhoods, families and even individuals. On the other hand, establishing tense, hostile and, at best, indifferent and uncaring neighborly relations spells a perfect recipe for the creation of correspondingly indifferent, uncaring, tense and even hostile total human relations in a community.

The Prophet (pbuh) clearly demonstrated that people’s houses, through the ways they are conceived, planned, constructed and used, are instrumental in forging either strong and brotherly, or upsetting and heartless, neighborly relations. Thus, all the aspects of the morphology, purpose and function of the house must be meticulously studied, observed and put into practice. People can handle their neighborly issues and disputes either on their own or with the help of the appointed authority. Undoubtedly, Muslim neighborhoods are the avenues for the implementation of the core Islamic social values, such as brotherhood, love, care, tolerance, fairness, generosity, modesty, honesty and trust. When one walks through a neighborhood where those values are duly observed, one is bound to be able to feel them in the air, to sense them in the ways both the houses and neighborhoods have been conceived, designed and built, and in the ways they operate satisfying the needs of their people. Finally, one will be able to recognize those values in the ways the members of neighborhoods interact with each other, as well as with others, while striving to fulfill the objectives of their earthly existence.

When adding a house to a neighborhood, the responsible persons, such as planners, architects, engineers and the users, must thoroughly scrutinize and assess the implications of their actions. They must be concerned about how the end result of their efforts will stand out when juxtaposed with the existing setting and overall conditions, in terms of both the function and outward appearance of a neighborhoods and its houses: will it complement or contrast with them; will it go well with them, or will it appear as if something of a misfit, oddity, or even offensiveness? Then, the responsible persons must act accordingly. This principle likewise applies to significantly altering the physical condition of one’s house. The same will be the case whenever a person, and by whatever means, finds himself in a position to make any impact on the existing configuration and backdrop of a neighborhood, especially in an area where his house is located. Newly built houses in a neighborhood must be “partners” and “allies”, as it were, with the existing ones, and not “rivals” and “foes”. They must be in harmony, with reference to the values, principles, purpose and objectives for which they exist, and not in disagreement and conflict.

In the Holy Qur’an, Allahorders that kindness be done to “neighbors who are kin and neighbors who are strangers.” (Al-Nisa’, 36)

The Prophet (pbuh) spoke of neighbors and neighborly relations in many contexts. He said, for example: “On the Day of Judgment, the first adversaries will be two neighbors.”[1]

 “He whose neighbor is not safe from his misconduct shall not enter Paradise.”[2]

“He who believes in Allah and the Day of Judgment should not disturb his neighbor.”[3]

“To Allah, the best neighbors are those who are good to each other.”[4]

“By Him in Whose hands is my life, none of you will believe (be a perfect believer) until he wished for his neighbor (or his brother — the narrator is unsure) what he wishes for himself.”[5]

“To commit adultery with ten women, one is in a better position than doing it with the wife of his neighbor; to steal from ten houses, one is again in a better position than doing it from his neighbor’s house.”[6] The Prophet (pbuh) in another hadith (tradition) warned that committing illegal sexual intercourse with the wife of a neighbor is categorized as one of the biggest sins in the sight of Allah.[7]

The Islamic emphasis on respecting the rights and property of neighbors is comprehensively encapsulated in the following Prophet’s words: “The angel Jibril (Gabriel) kept exhorting me about the neighbor, so much so that I thought that one day he would come granting him the right of inheritance.”[8]

In light of the Prophet’s proclamation, according to which there can be neither injury nor return of injury in anything that people may do, including the matters pertaining to the built environment,[9] one is not to usurp unjustly anything from his neighbors; nor is one allowed to deny his neighbors any of their rights; nor is one allowed to depreciate the value of his neighbors’ property by any unauthorized building activity of his. Among the actions which can cause the value of the neighbor’s property to depreciate are: exclusion of air and sun by unscrupulous building higher within one’s own air space; disrupting water supply and drainage system; affecting the access to one’s property; generating intolerable noise and unpleasant smell, especially if their sources are located adjacent to, or near, a wall separating two neighbors, and the like.

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Those people who constrict (people’s) houses (by building excessively and gratuitously for themselves) and encroach on the road, will not be credited with jihad (holy war).”[10] This, the Prophet (pbuh) said during one of his military expeditions. By the words “…will not be credited with jihad”, the Prophet (pbuh) wanted his companions to be aware of the seriousness of such issues as house inviolability, people’s privacy, freedom of movement, and other basic human rights within the realm of the built environment, especially housing.

In order to encourage a better interaction between neighbors, the Prophet (pbuh) has recommended: “A neighbor is not to prevent his neighbor from inserting a wooden beam in his wall.” The narrator of this hadith, Abu Hurayrah, said, after disclosing these Prophet’s words to some residents of Madinah from the second generation of Muslims (tabi’un), who were ignorant of and thus careless towards them, that if they do not start implementing this meritorious advice of the Prophet (pbuh), he would then coerce them to do so.[11] At the time of uttering these words, Abu Hurayrah, in all likelihood, was the governor of Madinah to the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiyah b. Abi Sufyan.

Furthermore, taking into consideration how much emphasis Islam places on the importance of the house and family institutions, the rights of individuals, socialization and mutual understanding and collaboration, as well as the concept of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil) it would not be difficult to comprehend why the nearest neighbors, solely on account of their nearness, enjoy more rights than anyone else, as advocated by the Prophet (pbuh).[12]

The wife of the Prophet (pbuh), A’ishah, asked one day the Prophet (pbuh): “O Allah’s Apostle! I have two neighbors and would like to know to which of them I should give presents.” He replied: “To the one whose door (gate) is nearer to you.”[13]

As regards the neighbor who receives gifts, the Prophet (pbuh) stated: “O Muslim ladies! A (female) neighbor should not look down upon the present of her (female) neighbor even if it were the hooves of a sheep.”[14]

Nearness is a decisive factor in making distinction between neighbors because no matter how sound, functional and healthy a neighborhood — or any form of urban settlement — may be, its worth rests primarily in the worth of its single units and the strength of the bonds that bind them. It follows that if a single unit fails to perform, breaking away from the adjoining units, the coherence and concord of the whole organization will be affected and if not promptly remedied, the problem can only consolidate itself looking for a chance to expand and threaten the other units. Thus the similitude of a neighborhood is like that of a chain whose strength lies not as much in the power and firmness of its individual units as in the strength of their mutual relationships and cooperation.

It is for this reason that differences between two brothers (two neighbors) must be patched up immediately. There should be no delay in settling disputes. The more the delay, the greater is the degree of animosity and ill-will. The longer period that two brothers (neighbors) can stay away from each other is three days. While settling disputes, showing forbearance is of the best things one can do. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “A Muslim who refuses to accept pardon from his brother is equal in sin to a collector of illegal taxes.”[15]

All Muslims have got scores of rights over one another, which nevertheless vary in proportion to kinship, proximity and acquaintance. In other words, the entire Muslim community — in fact, the whole of humankind — is but a big neighborhood (family) with one and the same origin, vision, mission and purpose. People have been divided into nations and tribes only to know each other, learn from each other, and cooperate at various scales in righteousness and piety — not that they may despise each other: “…Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Al-Hujurat, 13)

It is true that all Muslims are brothers to one another and every Muslim must love for his brother (sister) only that which he loves for himself, but the hierarchy of one’s duties towards his brothers and sisters — who are not of his kith and kin — starts with his neighbors as the highest point. It then unfolds downward on the basis of proximity as well as the extent of acquaintance and communication. Of the neighbors that one may have, the most important one will always be the one whose door is nearest, i.e., the one with whom he has most contact, both intentionally and unintentionally.

As for the hadith (tradition) in which the Prophet (pbuh) instructed that forty surrounding houses be proclaimed as the houses of one’s neighbors, it — on condition that it is authentic (sahih) — should not be taken literally. The message of the hadith on no account denotes that no sooner does one buy, build or rent a house than one is required to count the surrounding houses, the first forty of which will receive his unfeigned neighborly treatment. Rather, what should be seen in the said hadith is that it highlights and further buttresses the established Islamic concepts of the neighbor, neighborhood, community and brotherhood — as both unprecedented concepts and actual realities hitherto unknown — albeit somewhat in a different mode, style and language.

Limiting the number of one’s neighbors and their houses to as many as forty — as narrated in the hadith — may well imply that although one’s neighborly (brotherly) treatment should not extend only to his immediate neighbors (brothers) but also to the rest of the community members, yet the prioritization on the basis of proximity and the intensity, as well as frequency, of communication is as pertinent and so must be duly respected. Having said this, even the likelihood that the number forty the Prophet (pbuh) chose in a random fashion appears, to some extent, reasonable and should not be completely ruled out. 

What's more, it could be argued that the content of the said hadith may have been fairly interpolated, at most, or rendered inaccurate and ambiguous by the narrators, at least, on account of more than a few weaknesses found mainly in its chain of narrators. Our thesis can be corroborated by the fact that the ample accounts in which the rights and duties of neighbors are exhibited in a clear and striking fashion — without restricting the amount of one’s neighbors, though — are unanimously authentic, whereas the authenticity of those few accounts which contain the notion of forty houses as a perimeter of one’s neighborhood are frequently seriously questioned, but practically never completely rejected, by many a scholar. Therefore, the latter set of hadiths (traditions) is regularly branded as weak (da’if) or very weak (da’if jiddan) traditions.[16]

This is not all, however. The content of the hadiths which limit neighbors and their houses to forty is not always consistent. It sometimes denotes forty houses (neighbors) from every side, in which case one’s neighbors will amount to 160 or so, and at other times it denotes 40 in total, that is, ten houses (neighbors) from each side. In his concluding remarks on the hadiths which contain the idea of forty houses as the range of one’s neighbors (neighborhood), Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani wrote: “Everything attributed to the Prophet (pbuh) as regards limiting the neighborhood to forty (houses) is weak (da’if) and erroneous. Thus, it is evident that such a limitation is rather on the basis of certain customs (‘urf).”[17]

That the number forty was not meant to lay any de facto restriction to the question of one’s neighbors and their houses could additionally be substantiated by the verity that there exist different views on the same matter held by different people, who by no means were ignorant of the Prophet’s traditions. According to some of such views, all the people who pray the Fajr (dawn) prayer in a mosque are considered neighbors; and according to others, the citizens of a city (madinah) are all neighbors, etc.[18]

All in all, the substance of the hadiths touching on the number of neighbors and their houses should not be taken in literally. It stands to reason that if the same were understood correctly, then it would not be difficult for its implications to be digested and put successfully into operation in some unprecedented and atypical contexts that may be imposed by the volatile space-time factors. Some of such contexts are, for instance, small villages/settlements where the households do not number forty or 160, big but vastly dispersed forms of the urban settlement, modern high-rise residential buildings, poor and highly dense settlements where several households may share a house, etc.

The Islamic notion of neighbor applies to non-Muslim neighbors as well. The Prophet (pbuh) has said that there are three kinds of neighbors. The first kind has got one right, the second two, and the third three rights. The one who has got one right is a non-Muslim neighbor. His right is the right of being a neighbor. The second one with two rights is a Muslim neighbor. His rights are the right of being a neighbor, as well as a Muslim. And the third kind of neighbors enjoying three rights is a family member Muslim neighbor. His has got three rights because he is a neighbor, a Muslim and a family member.[19] This and other similar hadiths have had some significant implications for the life in Madinah since all of its Arab citizens did not immediately enter the fold of Islam, and its Jewish community was not entirely driven out until the fifth year following the migration (Hijrah).

Because of both the regularity and intensity of people’s interaction in them, neighborhoods could be rightly portrayed as a ground in whose domain either happiness or desolation in this world and in the Hereafter can be achieved. The Prophet (pbuh) once was informed of a man who fasts all day and prays all night, but he gives trouble to his neighbor. The Prophet (pbuh) replied: “He is in Hell.”[20] According to yet another hadith, the house is one of the things where both fortune and misfortune lie. Fortune occurs when it is spacious and its neighbor is good, and misfortune comes when it is narrow and its neighbor is bad.[21]

In one hadith (tradition) reported by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the Prophet (pbuh) summarized the rights and duties of neighbors: “Do you know about your duties towards your neighbor? Help him if he seeks your help, give him loan if he wants it, remove his wants if he is in wants, follow his bier if he is dead, join him in joy if he gets good news, show him sympathy and express sorrow if he is in danger, don’t raise up your building so high without his permission so as to obstruct his air, don’t give him trouble. If you purchase some fruits, give him something. If you do not do it, take them secretly to your house. Don’t allow your children to come out with them as it may cause displeasure of his children. Don’t give him trouble by the smoke of your cook-shed. There is no harm in sending food cooked in your cook-shed to your neighbor’s house.”[22]

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali recapitulated on the rights of neighbors: “In short, the rights of a neighbor on you are the following: salute him first, don’t talk with him for long, don’t ask about his condition long. Call on him when he is ill, show sympathy in his distress, be sorry in his sorrows, be happy in his happiness, share enjoyment in his happiness, pardon his faults, don’t look at the inner side of his house from the top of your roof, don’t trouble him by replacing your rafters on his wall, don’t let water flow down his courtyard, don’t shut up the outflow of water of his house through your boundary, don’t make the path to his house narrow, cover his fault if it is out, try to remove his distress as soon as possible, take care of his house in his absence, don’t hear his backbiting, talk with his sons and daughters with affection and read out to him what he is ignorant about of the worldly and religious matters.”[23]



[1]Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b, Hanbal, Kitab Musnad al-Shamiyyin, Hadith No. 16732.

[2]Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith No. 66.

[3]Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Nikah, Hadith No. 4787.

[4]Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Birr wa al-Silah, Hadith No. 1867.

[5] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith No. 65.

[6]Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Kitab Baqi Musnad al-Ansar, Hadith No. 22734.

[7] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Tafsir al-Qur’an, Hadith No. 284.

[8]Ibid., Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 5555.

[9]Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Ahkam, Hadith No. 2331.

[10] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Jihad, Hadith No. 2260.

[11]Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Mazalim wa al-Ghasb, Hadith No. 2283.

[12]Ibid., vol. 3, Book 35, Hadith No. 459.

[13] Ibid., vol. 3, Book 35, Hadith No. 460.

[14] Ibid., Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 46.

[15] S.M. Madni Abbasi, Islamic Manners, (Karachi: International Islamic Publishers, 1987), p. 154-155.

[16]Nasb al-Rayah fi Takhrij Ahadith al-Hidayah, Kitab al-Wasaya, http://feqh.al-islam.com.

[17] Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Silsilah al-Ahadith al-Da’ifah wa al-Mawdu’ah, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), vol. 1 p. 296.

[18] Nasb al-Rayah fi Takhrij Ahadith al-Hidayah, Kitab al-Wasaya, http://feqh.al-islam.com.

[19] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 1 p. 388.

[20]Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, translated into English by Fazlul Karim, (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1982), vol. 2 p. 164.

[21] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 164.

[22] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 165.

[23] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 164.

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