بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم و الصلاة والسلام على خير المرسلين
السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته
Criticism Requires Self-Control
Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
To prevent treating others unjustly in criticism, an important rule to follow is to always exercise self-control. Never allow your emotions or ego to dictate what you say.
When we are not arguing with someone or trying to refute their position, it is easy to speak or write about almost any topic in a calm, level-headed and responsible manner. However, when it comes to criticism, our personal feelings towards the other party or towards their opinion can make it a challenge to maintain our composure.
We should bear in mind that certain approaches are not appropriate forms of criticism. For instance, it is wrong to present a catalogue of the other person’s errors. That is clearly just an attack on the other person. Likewise, it is wrong to look for that person’s irregular statements, bad word choices or slips of the tongue, to use them in counter-arguments, when it is clear that person holds different views or means something else. It is wrong to pursue a person’s faults. Again, this just amounts to an attack on their character.
A Muslim never seeks out the faults and embarrassments of others. Once, it was brought to the attention of the Caliph `Uthmān that people had gathered in the street drinking, cavorting, and carrying on. So he went out to confront them and found that they had already dispersed. He praised Allah and did not pursue them.
Muʿāwiyah, a later ruler of the Muslims, mentioned: “Allah’s Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم) advised me never to seek out and expose the shameful deeds of the Muslims, because by doing so, I would almost inevitably corrupt them.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd (4888)]
The Prophet’s (صلى الله عليه و سلم) advice to Muʿāwiyah indicates two important things:
1. When it becomes the norm in society to investigate into people’s lives and expose their faults, it leads to people viciously slandering each other. Some will speak truly and others will speak in ignorance. Some will do so justly and others with iniquity.
2. Exposing people’s faults will just make them worse. Everyone makes mistakes. When these become publicized, those mistakes become connected to the person’s character unfairly, and may lead that person to truly identify with that conduct. When this behaviour becomes prevalent, it simply makes these shameful deeds the brunt of casual banter and everyday talk.
We should take heed of this advice from the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) when we engage in criticism. We should limit ourselves to the mistake we wish to address. We should also refrain from referring to legitimate differences of opinion as gross errors, but focus on the merits and demerits of the various points of view.
This brings us to another important rule of criticism. If we wish to do justice, we should take care to accurately present the opinion we wish to criticize, and give it in its original context. To take it out of its context can make it seem more erroneous than it is. What looks like a gross error when mentioned in isolation might appear far more reasonable if understood as part of the person’s broader argument. It is wrong to take what may be a person’s bad choice of words and present it without correct statements and strong arguments which surround it.
This applies all the more emphatically when matter of religion are being discussed, especially when the other person is very likely trying just as hard as you are to ascertain the truth. Ibn Taymiyah writes:
'A person who makes an interpretation seeking to ascertain the Prophet’s intent, that person should not be accused of disbelief. Nor should he be accused of sinfulness if he exercises his judgment and makes a mistake. This is a well-known principle that most people follow in dealing with matters of practical religious knowledge. When matters of creed are concerned, too many people declare as unbelievers those who make mistakes. Such conduct was never exhibited by the Prophet’s Companions and those who followed them. It was likewise never encountered with the great Muslim scholars of the past. Indeed, in the beginning, only those who themselves were involved in one form of heresy or another would exhibit such behavior'. [Minhāj al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah (5/2390240)]"
When we study the intellectual history of Islam and the books written by the great scholars of the past, we do not ever find one of them compiling in a treatise or book all the mistakes made by another scholar. This does not mean that scholars never made mistakes that needed to be addressed and corrected, and certainly we find many writings in which these mistakes are discussed and debated. What matters is the way this was carried out: with moderation, and without making the other person seem like mistakes are all they are known for.
Consider the writings of the jurist Ibn Hazm al-Zāhirī. We find that at times he is brilliant. He has insights to his credit that truly distinguish him. Al-Dhahabī singles out some of these for special mention in his famous biographical dictionary Siyar A`lām al-Nubalā’. At the same time, we find Ibn Hazm makes some mistakes that are so obvious, it makes us wonder how he could ever have committed them. If someone were to write a book compiling all of Ibn Hazm’s intellectual achievements, it would be a great work representing a giant of Islamic thinking. If someone else, however, were to compile a book of all of his mistakes, it would paint a picture of a man whose intellect could not escape from the most banal literalism.
Similar observations can be made about Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī and many other illustrious Islamic scholars. This is why Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “Overlook the slip-ups of those who have a lot of good to their credit.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd (4375) and Sunan al-Nasā’ī al-Kubrā (7294)]
Fairness is essential for criticism. We should conform to the dictates of justice and fair-dealings that Islam teaches us, and not just follow our own tastes and predilections. We must make sure never to do injustice to anyone or distort the truth. People of integrity who have always conducted themselves in an exemplary manner should be shown the respect they deserve. Certainly, there is a great need in society today for reform and reassessment, but this needs to be carried out with fairness and compassion, not by exposing and magnifying the seriousness of people’s mistakes for the sake of it. We must endeavour, nevertheless, to make it clear when someone says something counter to the essential and incontrovertible teaching of our faith.
It is quite ironic that people can read the works of a scholar or preacher without having any intention of benefitting from the good things they might learn. However, when their purpose turns to refuting that scholar, they become attentive of every word choice and every turn of phrase in hopes of uncovering a mistake.
When people need to be corrected, it should be done gently. Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) also said: “Gentleness does not enter into something without beautifying it. Its absence from something makes that thing despicable.” [Sahīh Muslim (2594)]
The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) also said: “O Ā`ishah, Allah is Gentle and He loves gentleness. He gives to those who exhibit kindness what He does not give to those who show aggression. He gives us through our kindness what He gives through no other means.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (6927) and Sahīh Muslim (2165)]
Allah exhorts us in the Qur’an: “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good preaching, and argue with them in an even better way.” [Sūrah al-Nahl: 125]
This verse asserts that arguing requires the best possible manners. Preaching just has to be “good”, but arguing has to be “better”. This might be because there is a greater danger in arguing point of letting one’s emotions and ego get in the way. There is a greater chance of anger, and therefore of committing injustice, when people are disputing with each other.
The truth that Allah has given to us is a trust. It is a religious duty to communicate this truth to others and remedy misconceptions. Related to this is the duty of enjoining righteousness, forbidding wrongdoing, and disputing false claims. All of these are religious duties and therefore should be conducted with dignity, decorum, and good conduct. Carrying out these duties not come with a license to abuse others.
It is always a mistake when criticism takes on an abusive or provocative tone, or when it seeks to humble the opponent into acquiescence. Such is not the way of those who seek the truth, but rather of those who disregard it. It is nothing more than succumbing to a base desire for dominance. It is not the way Islam teaches us to behave.
When we look to Prophet Muhammad’s (صلى الله عليه و سلم) life example, we find that he never once exhibited such behaviour. He was always “merciful and sensitive”, his Companion `Imrān b. al-Husāyn described him, “gentle” as another Companion Mālik b. al-Huwayrith described him. Ibn `Abbās tells us “No one was ever assaulted in his presence.”
It is human nature to resent when someone else is domineering or abusive. A person’s natural instinct is to resist. This is why Allah says about Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم): “It is from the mercy of Allah that you are gentle with them. Had you been severe or harsh-hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you. So pardon them and ask (Allah’s) forgiveness for them, and consult them in affairs.” [Sūrah Āl `Imrān: 159]
Likewise, Allah said to Moses (عليه و سلم): “And speak to him a gentle word, that perhaps he may take heed or fear (Allah).” [Sūrah Tāhā: 44] Mercy and kindness bring people together, while severity and harshness drive them apart.
Islam establishes certain indisputable tenets of creed and practice for Muslims to uphold. It equally establishes for us inalienable tenets of human kindness and human rights. It is a message to humanity, and Allah created human beings with all their limitations and affectations. People, by their nature resist those who act harshly towards them. They resist. Even if you are in the right, why behave in such a way that will almost ensure the opposition of the person you are criticizing? This is a question of utmost importance. By being harsh, you do not engage in a discourse of ideas, but rather a struggle between the idea that you are defending (which may be the truth), and the human nature of your opponent – who resists you simply because of your unmannerly way of criticizing.
Look at how the Qur’an establishes its teachings. In many cases, its commandments are given indirectly, for instance by praising and promising great reward to those who engage in the desired behaviour, or by expressing disapproval for those who abandon the practice. The Qur’an engages in encouraging good behaviour and discouraging bad. It takes a very human approach. Allah knows how he created us as human beings, and he knows how we need to be addressed. This is why the essential ethical teachings and good manners that Islam encourages are those which are recognized by all people.
In the absence of good behaviour, criticism can lead those who are criticized to become even more persistent in what they are on, no matter how wrong or misguided it might be.
وعليكم السلام ورحمة الله وبركاته
Note: If anyone finds any errors or faults in the translation of the above please advise so I can make the correction. Please forgive me if anything that I have posted or written has offended anyone.
Thread: Criticism Requires Self-Control
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02-Mar-2012 11:20 PMقُلۡ إِنَّ صَلَاتِى وَنُسُكِى وَمَحۡيَاىَ وَمَمَاتِى لِلَّهِ رَبِّ ٱلۡعَـٰلَمِينَ
Say: "Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds: (Surah Al-Anaam:162)
03-Mar-2012 07:27 AM
tanx I need this one today“I have never debated with a knowledgeable person but beaten him, and I have never debated with an ignorant person but been beaten by him.”
- Imam al-Shafi`i (May Allah have mercy on him)