Friday, September 19

Reasoning And The Absolute Truth

I don't think I'll ever lay an absolute claim to knowing Islam - I mean on an obvious level at least I hardly act like the best of Muslims on a day to day basis. However some people still ask me my opinion on certain things, mistakenly in the belief that I'll be of some use (it must be the beard), and admittedly it's pretty engaging talking about religion to the lengths we sometimes go to. Amongst other things, the topics in question have been regarding interfaith marriage, the role of a guardian in a marriage contract, the applicability of Zakah, the number of rakats to read in a full tarawih prayer and even what qualifies someone to enter heaven.

Now I'm hardly the best person to come to for a traditional Islamic opinion - you can read many examples of what could be seen as contrary ideas to traditionalism right on this blog. I'm also not an expert on any of the things we talk about but I always declare my opinions to be my own - I'm always well aware of the Black Box Fiqh I'm spewing out all the time.

But just because these opinions happen to be in the minority doesn't mean that they're arbitrary. No, they're based on an personal understanding I have about Islam, something I find to be just as well-founded as the opinion of anyone else. Unless of course they have a vast amount of more knowledge with which to equip their process of reasoning; though I think it's safe to say that most laymen have had the same amount of exposure to formal knowledge over the years, especially with the Internet around.

However in recent conversations of this type I've come across an attitude that seems to stop any deeper discussion from forming. Some just refuse to believe that an understanding other than their own can ever be correct, or more seriously they fail to realise that they've also used subjective reason to reach the opinions that they have. In fact it's almost as if some people don't enter a conversation about religion to find new answers, but more to affirm the ones they already hold to be true. In this sense of pre-concluding it, the conversation becomes less relevant and useful than it could be.

It's not the opinions themselves I find difficult to accept, but more the total assumption that they're not as subjective as others might be. In fact, I think that anyone who believes that they hold the absolute truth and didn't get there via reasoning is sorely mistaken; and if they make an absolute statement while simply declaring it to be an obvious one, then they have either missed the point of what they heard or read or not thought about it deep enough. I've seen many proofs reduced to a truism without it even being realised - and all of a sudden a ruling or opinion has to be true merely because it's what's being stated.

But surely Islam is black and white? Everyone knows what is allowed and what isn't - it's all written down in ink in the Qurans we all keep on our shelves and carry around in our pockets. And this seems to be the best proof of the correctness and universality of an opinion; after all, we all have the same copy of the Quran... Right?

Well yes, of course. But then how many of us can honestly say that we've distilled our opinions from the text itself? Chances are we've had verses presented to us by a third party, one who adds an external context, and possibly, meaning to what they're quoting. For example, if we compare the humanly authored and edited footnotes of a Quran from Pickthall and compared it to one from a "Wahabist Saudi" we would notice vast differences in the meaning and language taken away from the exact same verses (as presented in a recent Dispatches programme anyway). Even learning the language isn't a total answer since subjectivity will be introduced by your own experiences as well as the way you're taught the language.

There are more than enough clear examples of this lack of clarity - the hijab is an obligation for many women yet merely optional for others, while jihad is something mandated by the Quran and Hadith for some, but a metaphor representing personal struggle for the rest of us. Not that there's anything wrong with these differences per se: I think that subjective interpretation, be it directly from scriptural sources or by deciding which scholar to listen to, is an important part of Islam and in fact what makes it great; the onus being on conscious and personal meaning and realisation of right and wrong rather than fixed rules to follow that you might not actually believe in anyway. In fact Islam would be pretty boring and staid if we all believed the same thing. I don't think that contrary opinions come out of laziness or desire either; I'd had long dropped Fajr if that was the case, and I do hold some opinions that could make life more difficult than it could be with a more traditional opinion.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think that there has to be disagreement for Islam to be effective, but more that it's not ineffective it presents many disparate opinions. It's also important to remember, that on the whole, the majority is agreed upon, and that the stuff in dispute may not be all that practically important anyway - well not enough for it to promote an attitude of absolute correctness.

Furthermore in many of these discussions, as things become filtered into hard do and do not buckets, something seems to be lost in reasons why we follow the religion in the first place - as things increasingly turn black and white, the Islamic spirit seems to disappear. Religious integrity can also suffer; sometimes those who have the most vocal opinions find it the most difficult to follow them. It's easy to imagine that even if there was a clear cut Islam that there would be many of us who wouldn't (couldn't?) follow it.

Unfortunately most people have to think they're absolutely right in order to believe totally in something. I don't think this has to necessarily be the case; in fact it's a close-mindedness that doesn't strengthen belief, but, in my opinion, hinders it. This constant need of others to follow your own opinion, this self-vindication, almost seems like a requirement to faith which would otherwise be insecure - on the other hand I reckon someone who is really secure with their faith wouldn't need anyone else to agree with them.

At the end of the day we choose what we want to believe and follow. Even if that eventually means we see things as strictly right or wrong we as individuals ultimately decide what colour something is. There's nothing wrong with having an absolute stance, but a lot with thinking your stance is obviously the only clear cut one. In fact, I'm not even saying that we're all equally right - just that as humans there is only so much we can do to find the truth. Ultimately we have to rely on mystical things like hidayat and faith to affirm our beliefs but since these are all abstract and immeasurable you can't automatically promote your opinion over that of another.

Finally, I'm not saying that we shouldn't discuss and present our own opinions - preaching and dawah can both be good things. It's when we become pushy that it all goes wrong, especially when we don't realise how subjective we're being. I mean, having an informed opinion is one thing; creating a universal truth out of that opinion is something totally different.