The Right Has Precedence Over the Left


Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) Second Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community

Translated into English for the first time by Shahzad Ahmad for the Review of Religions Translation Team.

An address delivered by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), the second Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on 30th October 1946 after the Maghrib [the Muslim prayer offered just after sunset] prayers in Qadian [India].

The Review of Religions takes full responsibility for any errors in translation.

In the Name of Allah, the Gracious the Ever-Merciful

There are certain injunctions of the shariah [Islamic law], which may appear to be very minor, but when one ponders over them, they are of such importance that abandoning them can adversely impact the moral character of an entire nation. For example, one of the unique features of Islam is that in every action of his, the Holy Prophet (sa) gave precedence to his right over the left.[1] Whilst drinking water he gave precedence to the right side, while eating he gave precedence to the right, while performing ablution he gave precedence to the right, while bathing he gave precedence to the right. In other words, in all important acts, the Holy Prophet (sa) prioritised the right, except for those actions which have an element of impurity whereby the left was given precedence; for example, one ought to clean themselves with the left hand after having answered the call of nature.

To give precedence to the right is a trait which is not only unique to humans, but is also found in many animals as well. Many animals also use their right limbs for various actions, and although it is not in the same manner as humans, but nonetheless they have a tendency to use their right limbs. For instance, if a horse is standing and one starts to move it, it will step with its right leg first. Similarly, there are many other animals which will use their limbs on the right side first; a lion will always strike with its right paw. Animals may not necessarily act exactly as humans do in this respect, but majority of them use their right side. Likewise, the majority of a population are right-handed, regardless of whichever people they may belong to. From this it is evident that nature gives preference to the right. It is in light of this that the Holy Prophet (sa) has preferred to begin any act with the right hand.

In the Holy Qur’an, Allah the Almighty has used the word yameen and shimal for right and left respectively:

وَ لَوۡ تَقَوَّلَ عَلَیۡنَا بَعۡضَ الۡاَقَاوِیۡلِ- لَاَخَذۡنَا مِنۡہُ بِالۡیَمِیۡنِ[2]

‘And if he had forged and attributed any sayings to Us, We would surely have seized him by the right hand’

The word yameen (right) has been used here as well. Thus, Allah the Almighty and all of His prophets (as) have always prioritised the right.

The Holy Prophet (sa) was extremely mindful of this practice. On one occasion, many companions (ra) were sitting in his company and someone brought milk and said, ‘O Messenger (sa) of Allah! Please take this milk.’ The Holy Prophet (sa) took the milk from him and drank a little from it and then looked to his right and left. In those days, Hazrat Abu Bakr’s (ra) health was quite weak, either because resources were scarce or because he was unwell, therefore the Holy Prophet (sa) wanted to give the milk to him. However, Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) was sitting to the left of the Holy Prophet (sa) and a young boy was sitting to his right. The Holy Prophet (sa) looked at the child and said, ‘Since you are seated on the right, you have a greater right [to be given the milk], but I wish to grant this milk to Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) who is seated to my left. So, if you permit it, may I give this milk to Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra)?’ The young boy replied, ‘If the right belongs to the one sitting on the right, then I will not give away this tabarruk [i.e. something blessed by the Holy Prophet (sa)].'[3]

This was a reflection of the deep love this boy had for the Holy Prophet (sa). At the time, he did not see the milk [as milk], but rather as a blessing [tabarruk] of the Holy Prophet (sa). When this young boy said that he did not wish to give away this blessing, the Holy Prophet (sa) gave him the milk. Generally, children of this very young age would sit further away in such gatherings but by chance that day this boy happened to sit right beside the Holy Prophet (sa). Now consider thats the Holy Prophet (sa) desired to give the milk to Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) but he was so mindful of the importance of the right side and thus did not give the milk to Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra).

From this incident it is evident that the Holy Prophet (sa) had great regard for the right side. However, in this present day and age, these practices are being neglected and overlooked. For example, I have been observing for quite some time that during dinner functions, food is distributed to the left, even though this is completely against the unique characteristics of Islam and the noble practise of the Holy Prophet (sa). Yet people still do not show any regard for this.

For instance, these days, [Maulana Jalal-ul-Din] Shams Sahib is here and there have been dinner functions all around Qadian; I am also invited to these functions. The hosts wish to offer the food or tea first to the Khalifah. This desire of theirs is appropriate, but after presenting me with the food, they begin to serve to the left of me. The reason for this is because they have seated the guests (i.e. Shams Sahib and Syed Munir Al-Husni) to my left. After the Khalifah, these guests are considered to have the greatest right to be served the food, hence the hosts are compelled to start serving to the left. However, one should remember that no one has greater honour than the Holy Prophet (sa). Therefore, if the Holy Prophet (sa) has stated that one should start everything from the right, then who can say that it should start from the left?

This is why if the guests have been seated to my left, the food should still be served to the right, even if the guests remain seated to the left. This will serve as a punishment for the host’s mistake since his guests of honour will be served last. If he mistakenly serves the food to the left, he will remember his error next time, hence it is necessary that one who seats his guest to the left should serve the food to the right so that it serves as a means of punishment for his error. Nowadays, many people consider punishment for a wrong a mere punishment alone and not as a means of bringing about a reformation. But in fact, the true purpose of a punishment is to reform. Many of our past scholars and saints would impose hardship and punishment upon themselves as a means of penance. Likewise, as long as the spiritual light remained within the followers of Jesus (as), the saintly individuals among them continued to perform all kinds of penance in order to reform their own selves.

It is mentioned in relation to a saintly individual that he would spend the entire night whipping himself. Thus, he would inflict this punishment on himself. This is a profound principle in regards to reformation. Therefore, one should not evade punishment, but rather should accept it so that one can be reformed. This is a part of tassawuf [Sufism] and undergoing hardships is deemed as an essential principle according to the righteous ones and has always been practised.

Once I decided that until Allah the Almighty accepted a certain prayer of mine, I will not sleep on the bed and will instead sleep on the floor and thereby endure hardship for myself. However, on the very first night, Allah the Almighty, out of His grace, informed me that He had accepted my prayer and instructed me that I should now go and sleep on the bed. Therefore, if people impose these hardships upon themselves as a matter of principle and are free from any element of pretence, it is considered as a part of tassuwuf. Some people punish themselves by remaining hungry and going without food for many days, others do not sleep and continuously remain awake for many days and in this way they expiate for any wrong committed.

Thus, those who host such dinners should seat the guests to my right, so that they can serve the food or tea to the right. If however they seat the guest to the left side, then they should accept as punishment that they serve the food to the right so that their guest is served at the end. In any case, the food must be presented to the right and the right side should always be taken into consideration in all other instances as well.

Allah the Almighty has now also instilled the importance of this habit amongst the non-Muslims as well. The Europeans follow the practise of ‘keep to the left,’ however in the USA, they follow the practise of ‘keep to the right’ and drive on the right side of the road. They believe that by driving on the right, they will be able to observe the road on the left and since there is a wall on the other side [i.e. right side], therefore, there will be less danger of a traffic accident. Hence, they drive their vehicles on the right side of the road and the driver’s seat is on the left- hand side in the vehicle.

When I went on my tour of Europe, the High Commissioner of Palestine invited me for dinner. When we began to eat our meal, I picked the knife and fork with my right hand. Upon seeing that I had picked the knife and fork with my right hand, he also did the same and began eating with his right hand even though he was accustomed to holding the knife and fork in his left hand, as Europeans do. I particularly noticed two qualities of his. Firstly, when he sent me the invitation, I had informed from beforehand that I would not be shaking hands with women. when we arrived at his house, because I had already told him that I would not be shaking hands with women, he thought that perhaps women were not even allowed to be seated nearby. As his private secretary was about to seat his wife at the chair next to me, the commissioner stopped him from doing so. Thus, I observed these two traits of his; firstly, he was considerate of our sentiments, and secondly, out of respect for his guest, he ate with his right hand instead of his left.

Therefore, if a non-Muslim can show so much regard, then will those who consider themselves Muslims not show regard for the Holy Prophet (sa)? He was a Christian and was in the capacity of a ruler of the state, while in contrast, I was a member of the public. Despite this he showed great respect. When he observed that I was eating with my right hand, he also began to eat with his right. Afterwards, we also spoke about this and I informed him that this was an injunction of Islam to eat with one’s right hand, which he commended and also stated that it was in fact in accordance with nature. Thus, a Muslim should instil great respect for the Holy Prophet (sa) in his heart. Those who fail to honour these seemingly minor teachings of the Holy Prophet (sa), consequently will never be able to adhere to the major commandments of the Holy Prophet (sa).

 Published in Al-Fazl, 8th October 1966.  Anwar al-‘Ulum, Vol. 18, pp. 487-493.


[1]The Holy Qur’an, 70:38.

[2]The Holy Qur’an, 69:45-46.

[3]Tirmidhi, Abwaab-ul-Ashribah, Bab Ma Jaa ‘An al-Yameen Ahaqqu bi Shurb.