What I would like to briefly discuss is the culture of criticism within the Islamic and religious context. Criticism, in its reality, is a human experience and phenomenon; there is no aspect of life that is free from it. It is because of this phenomenon of critique that a society is able to progress, develop and prosper. Given our belief that religion is a way of life one of the things that concerns us is how we can utilise our Islamic experience to present to the world a model of managing and regulating the dialectic of criticism and the critical interactions that occur around us.
We can all attest to the fact that when it comes to the methods of reasoning and the ways in which a person becomes convinced of a matter our era differs drastically from the past. In the past it would suffice to simply provide evidence for a belief and the person would, on account of the evidence alone, be convinced of the matter. However in today’s age, in addition to considering evidences, the modern man will also take into consideration the tangible practical experiences and whether that idea [which is being proven] has been effectively implemented in society. Therefore in our times no one will be convinced with mere sloganeering that we have the best prescription for life, rather we need to show practical examples of how our ideas have been implemented to convince them of our accomplishments.
From here it is vital for us to think about how we can move (from theory) to a religious experience which we can take pride in and not be embarrassed of. This is an important subject in our contemporary times, that we need to deliberate on how to create a successful model predicated on religious experience which we can present to the world as a model worthy of being implemented. I am not speaking about religion in it’s True metaphysical form, rather I’m referring to our daily life through which we are trying to convince others that our religion has provided us with the best available model. The reason for this is that successful practical examples has become one of the most important ways in which a person is convinced.
On this basis criticism is considered to be the fundamental pillar in any successful experience. So if a religious society respects criticism and manages it respectfully and appropriately, it will become a model society that is infused with religious values worthy of being presented to others. This society would have the ability in creating firm bonds between people, and it would be able to combine critique, general well-being and ethical values to create intellectual progression. As a religious person this is what concerns me and motivates me to work towards creating a system that regulates differences.
There are two things to keep in mind now, firstly that criticism plays a pivotal role in general life, and secondly that there is a pressing need to be able present a practical example of a system that can facilitate and regulate healthy critique. We will now look at this in a bit more detail hoping to gain some insights in developing critique in the Islamic world and our religious environments. I will split this discussion into three parts:
Part One: Legitimacy of criticism and its value
Part Two: Elements of a supportive environment of criticism
Part Three: Fundamental factors to criticism and it’s ethics
Part One: Legitimacy of criticism and its value
In regards to the legitimacy of criticism and the value it brings to society and scientific pursuit, I don’t think there would be anyone who would disagree that criticism is part and parcel of human life and experience. Criticism is to uncover the error in an idea, experience or person, in order to correct it. This takes a number of different forms across society, from criticising academic books and doctorate theses, to discussing individuals and movements. In every spectrum of society it is mandatory there exists some form of dialectic and discussion. We all are acutely aware that without the critique of a critic, or the help of others in correcting our ideas, it’s entirely possible and plausible that we have made mistakes and errors without realising it.
You could also refer to the Prophetic movement to be an example of societal critique, and similarly the reform movements of various scholars and thinkers. In this light no one would disagree that critique has a beneficial value to life, however, there exists two different attitudes when it comes to the extent, jurisdiction and the scope of criticism, I will call the first the maximalist approach and the second, the minimalist approach.
- First attitude: The maximalist approach to criticism takes the view that all areas of society, economy or politics, should be open to criticism. Even those parts of society that are cultural or artistic are to be held to scrutiny and critique. Criticism should become the cornerstone of society and by doing so it will create a reformed society and a systemic cultural and intellectual balance.
- Second attitude: The minimalist approach to criticism takes the view that criticism, despite being a good thing, should be heavily restricted and regulated so that it’s presence isn’t so apparent. It’s jurisdiction should also be heavily limited.
We will now look in more detail at these two views and their justifications, comparing them so we can have a clearer understanding on this subject.
First Attitude: Maximalist Approach
This view takes criticism and the phenomenon of critique to be the cornerstone of human life. It is the key ingredient to development and the catalyst for progression in all spheres of society, scientific, linguistic, religious, cultural, artistic, social and educational. In addition to that they consider the act of critique a noble and virtuous task, something which the righteous pursue in creating a reformed society. This group do not deny that there should be specific rules and regulations that limit criticism in certain areas, but they seek to create general principles that allow for the free flow of criticism whilst maintaining the possibility of exceptions and limitations. They take it as a sociological principle that the door of criticism should always be open as this paves the way in correcting other people’s errors. And while there may be shortcomings in the critique itself, a general framework would help in minimizing these whilst ensuring the development and progress of critique in various areas of life.
Some of the most important evidences presented by this group are the following:
1. History of science and the role of criticism in its progress
2. The role of criticism in balancing power and knowledge
3. Criticism being a noble mission pursued by the righteous
1) History of science and the role of criticism in its progress
Thinkers from the maximalist opinion posit that the development of science is the greatest proof of the positive role that criticism plays and it’s primacy in scientific life. Anyone who has studied the history of science from this angle will find it to be a chain of successive critiques. It is awareness of this cumulative progression and ongoing critique that has led to the progression of science through history. In this respect there is no difference between the Islamic sciences (such as fiqh, usūl, kalām) and the natural sciences (such as physics, chemistry, biology), or even other sciences. The sciences that we see today in all of their glory did not become this way except through the hundreds and thousands of critiques and debates. The first generation laid the foundation, the second generation refined the work of the first generation, the third generation then refined the work of the second generation and so forth until we now have the sciences we have today. Therefore, if we were to reflect for a moment on this we would find around 90% of our intellectual heritage is nothing but the critical attempts of scholars in revising and refining the opinions and views of their predecessors. Just to elucidate this further, three examples that stand out in the history of Islamic thought and highlight the role of criticism in the progression of knowledge are:
First example: The dispute between the theologians and the philosophers. From time immemorial there has existed two conflicting trends when it comes to the Islamic creed (aqā’id), each trend with its own unique methodology. This conflict between the theologians and the philosophers resulted in wave after wave of critique from scholars. This dialectic played a fundamental role in refining and elaborating on the finer details and today has become the most expansive and detailed science within the Islamic world. Our wealth in doctrinal heritage and knowledge is purely a result of the spirited efforts of the intellectual and critical activities that the theologians and philosophers engaged in throughout history.
Second example: The dispute between the akhbāri school and the usūli Putting aside the elements of this dispute that were regrettable, this dispute opened up areas within our sciences that scholars had never discussed before. As a result of this conflict scholars began to write vast literature and research which helped take the various sciences to a whole new level.
Third example: The conflict between the constitutionalists and the monarchists in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. Just over a century ago a violent conflict split the scholars into two groups over how the country should be run and the type of government and authority that should be in charge. Some scholars took the opinion that the government should be run by a constitution while others proposed that the authority should be given absolutely to the monarch. From that time onwards the discussions and research on Islamic Political Philosophy has come leaps and bounds with new sub-topics raised and new ancillary ideas of thought expanded. These two trends, through a dialectic of criticism and countercriticism have expanded this important area of political philosophy to the level we witness it today.
2) The role of criticism in balancing power and knowledge
Those who take the maximalist view argue that criticism is not limited merely to the progression of science, rather it plays a pivotal role in balancing power and knowledge in society. If there is no criticism allowed in society then some in power may usurp all authority for themselves as there will be no one to hold them to account. This could lead to the stagnation of the society, both politically and scientifically, and the mistakes of this group of people (which goes unchallenged) could plunge the entire society into chaos and serious problems.
Whereas if there was a framework for criticism established in the society such that anyone who puts forward an opinion, begins a popular movement or makes a decision on behalf of others, recognises that he will be held to account for his actions and his decisions are open for scrutiny, this will lead to an overall better standard and quality of ideas and actions. With this infrastructure of critique in place it won’t be possible to monopolise a society or to impose one type of idea, as the society will constantly call towards more balanced views given the critique and constant exchange of opinions.
3) Criticism being a noble mission pursued by the righteous
More than all of the above, one of the ideas that gives impetus to the maximalist school of thought is that criticism is a task undertaken only by those who seek to act righteously. Criticism is considered to be an instance of calling one another to good and refraining from bad, for in reality criticism is nothing but presenting your brother a gift through which he can correct his own actions and thoughts. Contrary to what some suggest that criticism is in fact provocative and insidious in nature, rather the act of criticism helps one another reach perfection.
Criticism is the most important tool in correcting a society, and it is the best means of supporting your brother to improve and correct his situation, and similarly it is means for us to be corrected also. By being the instrument through which we have the ability to better ourselves criticism gains an ethical and religious component, as we can see in the tradition attributed to Imām Sādiq where he says: “My most beloved brother is he who makes me aware of my faults”. From this we can see that the Imām is saying that the most beloved brother is the one who criticises me, and through this criticism I become aware of my shortcomings, so we should take the critic to be the most beloved person to us. This also reminds us of the story of Prophet Yūsuf who had reached the station in which he spoke about his love for the prison, as it was through this prison that he attainted the pleasure of God. This position is a lofty ethical one indeed, that a person can love the one who criticises him. That we love it when a person brings awareness to our errors, and this love isn’t just an empty platitude but an actual real one, it brings about an attitude that one appreciates the critic, and that the critic isn’t a person to be feared or refuted outright, rather the critic plays a pivotal role in the progression of both the individual and the society.
With all these points in mind, those who adopt the maximalist approach propose the lifting and removing of as many restrictions and barriers to criticism as possible regardless of some of the problems that may arise from doing so. As the positives in this far outweigh the negatives that arise from restricting criticism.
Second Attitude: Minimalist Approach
The minimalist school is similar to the maximalist school in that it accepts the phenomenon of criticism yet it differs in the approach it takes. Proponents of this view deal with criticism with a great amount of concern and cautiousness. The minimalist approach constantly finds itself in a state of worry and stress as a result of criticism, paying more attention to it’s risk and problems than on it’s positive aspects. For this reason we find little eagerness from the proponents of this attitude in speaking about or encouraging criticism, in stark contrast to the first attitude of maximalism who emphasise the need of criticism in societies’ intellectual progression.
Minimalists consider the concept of criticism to be intertwined with destruction and carnage. According to this understanding when a person is described as a ‘critic’ it means that this person merely wishes to destroy [and has no good intentions]. There is a notion that critique can only be motivated by feelings of animosity or driven by a personal agenda. This approach considers criticism to be on par with enmity and hostility, and just how there is no value to what the enemy says it follows therefore that there is no value to what a critic should say.
Although minimalists in principle accept criticism, this acceptance is constrained by a concern of destruction and is laden with suspicions of enmity. There is this perception that a person who critiques me deep down really wants to ruin and destroy me. When a person fears criticism he then would treat the critic aggressively with the two of them on a collision course, like two electrical wires that spark when brought together.
Comparison of the Two Views
There is a big difference between the two views. One view openly welcomes criticism without any reservations whereas the other view, while accepting criticism, takes a heavily precautious approach and seeks to ensure criticism is heavily regulated and supressed. This distinction is essential as our opinion on criticism will shape the way we react and engage with differing opinions. If our opinion is maximalist and we adopt a positive attitude to critique, our reaction will differ from someone who takes a more reserved and hostile minimalist one. So it is imperative to make clear where we stand, and two steps that could help us in this process are:
First step: Genuine acknowledgement of fallibility
Second step: Separating the criticism from the motives of the critic
First step: Genuine acknowledgement of fallibility
The first step in determining the default position towards criticism is to genuinely acknowledge our fallibility. This recognition is the key ingredient that shapes the way we deal with criticism. This recognition should be one that comes from deep within our being and not just be superficial. It doesn’t suffice to merely accept verbally or theoretically that we are fallible creatures, capable of making mistakes. Rather there needs to be an acceptance of this fact at the subconscious level, for there is a big difference between acknowledging superficially that we are fallible [and continuing to act as if everything we believe and say is absolutely correct] and sincerely recognising it to be our inescapable reality. The reality of the matter is that we are not infallibles, neither are our societies nor are our schools of thoughts. The true infallible is God and those He has decided to protect. Therefore it is possible we make errors, and this isn’t just a hypothetical possibility but rather a concrete realistic possibility which we can testify to from our day to day experience.
There are many people who claim, theoretically, to be fallibles however when it comes to how they act it’s clear that they don’t accept what they claim. They act as if they are infallibles and free from critique even when the critique is done ethically and appropriately. Even though these individuals have theoretically accepted they are not infallibles this hasn’t really permeated into their psyche as they still see themselves unable to err and above making mistakes. On this basis what is important is to ensure we instil the understanding that we are not infallibles, and this is something that can only come about with self-refinement, be it on an individual level or societal. This refinement is essential in allowing us to avoid thinking of ourselves as the centre of the world, and that anyone who disagrees with us is a heretic or a misguided person that needs to be shunned. Additionally, when we acknowledge our fallibility we also acknowledge that we are in need of critique, of help in correcting areas where we might have erred, and that critique should be welcomed and not fought against. It is possible that I may be certain in what I believe but the possibility of being incorrect is still plausible, so there should be no issue with a person trying to correct and criticise me.
Second step: Separating criticism from the negative actions of some critics
The second step which would help us come to a clearer picture of what type of approach we should have towards criticism would be distinguishing between criticism (in and of itself) and some of the negativity adopted by critics. In this light, do we not call people to distinguish between Islam and the actions of some Muslims? In that they should not judge Islam by looking at the actions of Muslims? This idea can be applied here, and we shouldn’t allow our idea of criticism to be tainted by the questionable actions of some critics, the two are separate and should not be conflated.
Keeping this in mind, we could posit that criticism is a real need in human life, yet at times it has been misused by those not worthy of performing it. So it is upon us to ensure we do not allow it to be misused by those unworthy of it. This distinction will help us get a clearer understanding on how we should approach criticism and deal with differences of opinion in society. As we know, sociological principles are not absolute, they have many exceptions that all people accept. So while criticism should be allowed there will be certain exemptions that override this general rule, this is how life operates. Just like we see in the science of fiqh, you have plenty of secondary rulings that override the main ruling given the differing circumstances and situations that arise. Even those countries which purport to support absolute freedom of speech have exceptions and areas where they will prohibit that said freedom. There is no place in the world where you can ever have absolute freedom of speech as you will always have areas where this freedom is restricted. Similarly we cannot allow criticism to be given an absolute free reign but rather there should be areas where this is restricted.
Another thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to ethical values it is natural for people to exploit and misuse them. Take worship for example, while it is the fundamental pillar of every religious person it has historically been misused by sanctimonious ascetics. Knowledge also is another example of something valuable that has been exploited over and over again. Criticism is just like this, there is no reason why criticism would be an exception to misuse as we have seen it happen in history for other things. We need to welcome criticism with the hope that it can help us all improve while simultaneously taking a stance towards those who wish to exploit criticism for negative reasons. We shouldn’t sacrifice the principle of criticism for the sake of those who exploit it, and neither should we turn a blind eye to those who exploit and advocate unrestricted criticism, rather we need to adopt a balanced position between these two extremes.
Conclusion of our first part
In regards to the position that should be taken from the two approaches explained above, a person may conclude that it would be more befitting to take the maximalist position and consider the act of criticism a noble task which works towards the betterment of society and growth of knowledge. And where there are exceptions to this they should be dealt with accordingly and considered to be just that, exceptions.
Part Two: Elements of a Supportive Environment of criticism
Now we will look at the idea of a supportive environment for criticism and the different elements it requires to be able to fulfil it’s role. The role of the environment cannot be understated, as without it all the theories of criticism and growth of knowledge will be futile since they lack a framework and arena in which they can be applied. There are many people who believe an idea yet they do not consider the necessary groundwork required to allow that idea to flourish. Take the example of a father who wishes his child to be social and friendly, yet out of fear of being negatively influenced by troublesome people the father prevents the child from socialising with anyone. After a while this child will end up anti-social and with no friends since the father never thought of creating an environment that would help manifest what he wanted his child to achieve. Similarly, simply believing in an idea isn’t enough, we need to take the next step and think about how we can produce a supportive environment that would allow our ideals to prosper.
The important question we need to now ask is what is the ideal supportive environment that would give birth to a healthy movement of critique and criticism? It isn’t important to simply believe in the value and efficacy in criticism, but rather we need to create an environment that will allow researchers, critics and scholars to express themselves freely and be of benefit to society. With this in mind, we can look at some of the elements that would help foster such an environment.
First element: Legal and social support of the critic
One of the most pivotal elements of this environment would be the critics sense of legal and social support. It would be counterproductive to on the one hand support the critic in his activities whilst on the other not providing him with some form of social and legal protection. For if he does not feel he has backing and protection than he would not engage in critique, and if he does engage in critique he will do so scornfully and with a vengeance [against those who he feels have silenced him].
There are two aspects to this support:
– Legal aspect: that the critic will not be held accountable by the authorities or government for his activities, and that the law will encourage and help in what he does
– Social aspect: support isn’t limited to the legal remit but should also incorporate society too, in that the critic should not be stigmatised for what he has done, rather his work should be appreciated and recognised as contributing towards a better and healthier society. The critic should not be made to feel like a criminal, even while his critique is constructive and done in an ethical and academic fashion.
Criminalizing and stigmatising a person who engages in critique is possibly the worst thing that a society can do. This will kill off any inclination and talent of critique that he might have had. A person who upholds the relevant ethical considerations and presents his critique in a fair and academic manner will be demoralised from engaging in this work if by doing so he faces social persecution and stigmatisation. If such a person does decide to critique he will do so scornfully. Having said that it would be smart to differentiate between two different concepts that often get confused and mixed together, criticism and insult. It is imperative that on both a legal and societal level we establish clear criteria that separate these two from each other, and that we do not allow emotions or ulterior motives to mix these two. For there is a stark and clear difference between criticism and insult, or even criticism and disbelief.
Unfortunately this is an area in which we have failed to make the distinction clear, as it can be easily seen in our societies and cultures how easily critique gets conflated with insult. Failing to do this would severely incapacitate any attempt to create a healthy critique movement, as the critics will fear that their work may lead them to being labelled as disbelievers. In the absence of social and legal protection we will get to a situation where, for example, a person who writes an article criticising some of the ideas commonly held on the companions of the Prophet, while upholding academic and ethical standards, will fear being labelled and being prosecuted. Or on the flipside, a person critiquing the concept of Imāmate would fear negative repercussions similarly. In this circumstance where the concepts of criticism, insult and mockery are not clearly defined, differentiated and clarified, we will be unable to provide the foundations of any healthy and efficient critical movement. Therefore one of the fundamental requirements to create this movement is for the critic to feel that he is safe and secure from both negative legal and social repercussions.
Second element: Securing protection from punishment in the Hereafter
At times, some ideas and opinions that are common within the Islamic world create a feeling of next worldly punishment and doom. This feeling then prevents and dissuades a believing critic to criticise those ideas, or even makes him do away with any type of critical thinking. A believer who feels he will end up in Hell as a result of critique, or feels that his critical thoughts (which he doesn’t even disclose to anyone) could land him in eternal trouble, will not engage in any type of critique, or if he does, he will do so in a state of fear and anxiety. It would be far-fetched to hope for a healthy movement of critique to emerge from such an environment that is petrified of free thinking.
On the contrary we have numerous concepts that encourage and promote critique such as ijtihad, whereby it has been said that even if the mujtahid is wrong he will still get a reward. Or the concept of freedom of expression which existed extensively in different period of Islamic history. On this basis we need to focus on these ideas that allow us to create a sense of next worldly safety and security for the critic. That being said, why do we treat critics like we are judges in a court? We should consider the work of a critic as a type of ijtihad which is pivotal in the progression and reformation of knowledge. We need to create a culture and feeling whereby the critic recognises he will be recipient of divine reward for his efforts.
Third element: Spreading the culture of fallibility
One of the things that obstructs critical movement within a society is the feeling and culture of infallibility. This feeling has it’s effects on us in ways we do not recognise. This culture assumes that it is far from error, and that everything it does is based on some form of Aristotelian intellection in which there can be no chance of there being a mistake. If we want a healthy society open to criticism, we should promote the culture of fallibility and that it is entirely plausible that our ideas are wrong. We are not infallibles and we are therefore in need of one another to help correct mistakes.
Fourth element: No need in presenting an alternative
One of the elements that contributes to the environment is that it is not required that the critic also presents an alternative to what he is criticising. It is popularly understood within our circles that a critique which does not provide an alternative is invalid and worthless. However not all issues are like this, and it isn’t the case that the validity or usefulness of a critique is bound to there being offered an alternative. Perhaps the critic is unable to come up with an alternative but he is able to take the first step and illustrate why an alternative is needed, and by doing so, the critic opens the way for someone else to come and build on his work.
We find that many literary critics cannot compose a poem or write a novel, and many sport critics cannot play sports themselves, yet that does not stop them from becoming accomplished and well known for their critiques, neither does it stop people from benefiting from their input and analysis. Therefore there is no correlation between the worthiness of criticism and the worthiness of providing an alternative. There is no issue in benefiting from the critique and benefiting from someone else when it comes to the alternative. With this in mind, the three individuals, being (1) the person who made the error and is being critiqued, (2) the critic, and (3) the person coming up with the alternative can all work together and cooperate in the process at hand. We have to be more open for a variety of roles and it is unreasonable to expect that the critic to perform the function of critique and laying out the blueprint of an alternative.
We see this idea being implemented in business by successful companies for example, where they benefit directly from consumer feedback and criticism even when the consumer isn’t an expert in those fields. For example companies that manufacture cars rely heavily on consumer feedback and experience, it’s common practice for consumers to criticise the product when they sense or experience a problem or fault with it. That is why companies utilise questionnaires and surveys to try and gage with the consumer on areas that can be improved, even though the consumer has no expertise in the automotive industry. We should not restrict ourselves to the idea that “a critique should be accompanied with an alternative”, and it is important that we revisit this statement.
Fifth element: Avoiding the perfect solution fallacy
Being idealistic in matters can help at times, but at others it can hinder and stunt progression. Sometimes we think that critique should be perfect and impeccable, free from any blemish, and if the persons criticism isn’t 90% likely to be successful, for example, he shouldn’t be allowed to critique. However this attitude [of idealisation and only accepting the perfect instances] only ends up in reducing the likelihood of any successful critical movement. In addition, this is fanciful thinking, as no one is going to be free of mistakes. It is not appropriate to expect the critic to provide an impeccable and flawless critique.
Secondly, when we increase the requirements and conditions involved we reduce the number of people willing to participate. So we need to deal with this issue realistically and not in an idealistic way that can never be replicated in real life. We should encourage and motivate all those who are able and competent to get involved in critique, and in the process we can guide them and train them, and we shouldn’t restrict the involvement with burdensome and idealistic requirements which will do nothing but curtail and limit the critical movement.
Third part: Fundamentals and Ethics of Critique
In this part we will look at some of the fundamentals that are part of the dialectic of criticism and counter criticism.
1. Perspective of the critique
One of the important elements of critique is ensuring that both the negative and positive perspectives are paid attention to. It isn’t correct to simply focus on the negative issues. It is unfortunate that many critics seem to only dwell on picking out faults and problems of a matter as if God has created them with one eye, only able to be pessimistic and pick issues. This is a big problem that we face in our societies, where people cannot get themselves to view things in a positive light, and if he was to see anything, be it a book, an article, a discussion, whatever it may be, the person will only see it’s flaws and problems and ignore all the positive elements it may have. This is a disease which some call hypercriticism whereby a person is unable to see any positive elements and is addicted to criticising. We see this happening with people who are criticising Islam, where they constantly fault find and fail to look at Islam holistically and recognise there are many positive aspects to it too. Because the critic is only looking with one eye we are forced to put extra effort in drawing attention to the positive aspects of Islam. These hypercritics have a moral and a psychological illness.
Just as God made for us two physical eyes He created for us two eyes within our mind, so when we want to analyse something we should do so fairly, using both of our eyes, we shouldn’t just focus on the positives and act as if there are no negatives, and neither should we focus squarely on the negatives as if nothing positive has ever arisen. If we wish to aspire to become righteous critics we should ensure our critique is objective as possible, upholding balance and moderation in what we do.
2. Being sincere
One of the core issues we face is to do with our intentions and motives. The intention that we have behind an action governs everything we do, and it determines whether or not we will reach the Truth or not. If we want to criticise we should firstly question our own motives and agendas as to what is truly driving us to do this. We should constantly hold ourselves to account, ensuring that we are not being driven or motivated by a personal agenda. Is the reason why I am criticising this idea based on pure and sincere motives of establishing the truth and refuting falsehood? Or is it down to personal issues with the idea or a grudge I have with someone? We should endeavour that our motives are sincere and not tainted with ulterior motives, as one of the reasons that leads to inefficient and unobjective criticism is where a person’s own personal agendas are involved.
I am reminded of the remarks by Shahid Sadr who used to say “are we really confronting the wave of Marxism because we wish to defend Islam or are we worried about losing our positions?”. Here the element of self-purification becomes more apparent, we need to sit with ourselves and inspect the reasons why we are criticising. Are we criticising for revenge, out of anger, of spite, or is it for God? This requires constant reflection and introspection.
3. Ethics of Language
The language used by critics is extremely problematic and unfortunately in many areas we are quite distant from the appropriate ethical language and decorum. We frequently see phrases and expressions used purely for mockery or to incite hatred, such as “so and so does not know anything of ijtihad”, or “such and such isn’t said by a student let alone a scholar”, or “such and such is backwards”, or “such and such is just fables and superstition”, or “so and so knows nothing”, and many more similar expressions that we see commonly within works of critique. This is ignoring the more obscene and immoral language that has become popular online and in web forums. It is vital that we use non-provocative and ethical language when critiquing. Additionally we should be aware of the varying factors that lead to the use of unethical language, a few of which we will look at briefly.
3.1 Negative motives
One of the main factors that lead to the use of unethical language is the domination of vices in the heart of an individual. When a person is consumed with anger, hatred and jealousy he will be subconsciously drawn towards using immoral language. If we want to witness the use of ethical language we should firstly work on our selves and purify our heart, once we begin this inner refinement we will pay more attention to the words we use. We need to keep in the front of our minds that we cannot build our legacy on the bones of others, neither can we build our legacy through mocking and hatred, rather we should do so using good deeds.
In addition to the vices a person may have, the problem of unethical language may also be a result of a person’s negative experience with Islam or religion in general, and as a result of that experience he is mistaken in thinking that what he is doing is ethical and moral, when in reality it isn’t. In this circumstance we need to make such people aware of the ramifications of their actions [and how they are creating a toxic environment with their negativity and immoral use of language].
3.3 Being concerned with the person instead of the idea – ad hominem attacks
Another key issue that leads to the use of unethical language is where a person focuses on criticising the thinker instead of the idea and it’s evidence. It is with great regret how often we see people criticising other individuals instead of the ideas in front of them. So when a person is criticising a book, instead of saying ‘this book has such and such weakness’ they will say ‘the writer of this book isn’t an expert or qualified’. This type of criticism isn’t accurate neither is it commendable as the validity of an idea isn’t dependant on the person who thinks it. In addition, ideas that are popular are not effected by ad hominem attacks. If the person has put forward an idea that has spread and become popular, simply attacking the thinker won’t do much in reversing the spread of that idea, you need to focus on the idea itself irrespective of who put it forward. In this light we see the tradition from Imām Alī “look at what is being said, not at who is saying it”. We see this approach echoed within the Qur’an where the words of the Quraysh polytheists on Monotheism are mentioned and responded to, and this is when we know fully well they are not experts or specialists in this subject to speak about it. Despite this God addresses them and speaks to them, and the same treatment is afforded to the people of the book, even though they distorted the revelation that was sent to them [and therefore are technically not worthy of being discussed with]. We should therefore ensure we do not entangle ourselves with individuals and instead focus squarely on the ideas.
Worse and more dangerous than this is when we try to assume peoples intentions when in reality we should have nothing to do with this type of speculation. It is only God who is aware of the inner secrets of every person and in the Qur’ān He has prohibited us from spying on one another. As far as we are concerned we have no knowledge of what people are hiding or what their intentions are, and it is not appropriate for us to pass judgement on what people are doing or speculating on what their motives and agendas may be. Sometimes you hear people accuse others of merely trying to seek fame and popularity, or trying to gain some financial advantage, or trying to seek power and influence. These accusations are made by people who have no evidence for their claims neither do they have certain knowledge of it. Our concern should be purely on whether the idea is correct or wrong.
It may be the case that if I was a judge presiding over a court case then it would befit me to investigate the intentions and motives, however not every instance is like this nor is it the case that the first thing we should try to do when dealing with critique is jump straight to intentions by speculatively appealing to ulterior motives. Often it’s the case that the person is unable and incompetent when it comes to actually criticising ideas and evidences, and therefore to make up for this shortcoming and save face he resorts to ad-hominem attacks. These sort of attacks provide no benefit to the discussion as there is no correlation between a person’s ideas and his intentions. It may be the case that a person has ulterior motives or his methodology is faulty but his idea may be correct, and on the flipside a person may have sound intentions and methodology but his conclusion is incorrect. So instead of playing detective and trying to criticise a person by attacking his credentials and motives we should focus instead on the idea itself, the methodology adopted, the evidence it has and the supporting intellectual framework it is predicated on.
3.4 Superficial Criticism
Another cause in the failure of criticism is the phenomenon of superficial and weak criticism. What I mean by superficial criticism is criticism which targets secondary and insignificant parts of ideas that the thinker intended to get across. This type of criticism ignores the crux of the matter and focuses pedantically on marginal passages that are, in the bigger picture of things, irrelevant to the idea. It’s quite common to see this within books written in critique, where the author spends a disproportionate amount of effort in this type of superficial criticism. This type of criticism is weak and fruitless as it often takes the discourse into pointless tangents that have no bearing on the overall subject. If you want to discuss an idea or a theory it is imperative that you focus on the main hypothesis and points being made, and that instead of taking a sentence here or there out of proportion we look at the evidences that has been presented.
Criticism plays a fundamental role in society, science is nothing but the cumulation of knowledge through a historical dialectic of criticism. If we wish to progress [as a society] then we need to open the doors to criticism and work towards providing a supporting environment for critique to take place. We need to ensure we support this critical movement from an ethical perspective as well as scientific and developmental ones. Our failure to do so will give rise to many problems further down the line.
Sadiq Meghjee is a frequent contributor to Iqra Online and has been studying in the seminary of Qom for 6 years. Prior to entering the seminary he pursued an accounting qualification and worked in London. His field of interest is intellectual history.