Monday, September 16, 2013

My next post: Sermon on the Moral Value of Doubt

My August 30 sermon (see previous post on this blog) apparently prompted discussion on facebook and then another sermon in Houston that attacked the idea of having any doubt.

The preacher there spent most of his sermon on the notion of `aqida (creed), about which he claimed that we should have full certainty, denouncing scholarly or even casual discussion of the differences of opinion among the various theological schools in Islamic history (the Mu`tazila, the Ash`ari, the Maturidi, etc.) as somewhat dangerous. Then, he clearly turned to my own sermon and the documented history therein about violent conflicts between Muslims in the early days of the Muslim state after the death of the Prophet (p). He imputed that I meant "they did this in the past so we can do it now," when I was merely pointing out that people of the same faith have often disagreed and fought over matters of state, and that statesmanship cannot be reduced to piety.

The preacher did not deny any of this historical evidence that I presented, but claimed - without any evidence - that there was a hidden agenda to undermine the faith: discredit the messenger and you discredit the message, he suggested, albeit using stronger and less accurate language. Without any evidence that I or anyone else had done this, he said that "they" will first discredit the sahaba (companions of the Prophet, p), then discredit the scripture, etc.

This is, of course, a classical example of the slippery slope fallacy. I shared the forwarded material with my British-Egyptian Economist friend mentioned in the previous post, and we commiserated on how predictable and yet how disappointing this response was. The Houstonian friend who forwarded the material had indicated that he wished Muslims would talk to each other, rather than at each other,. However, I think that the problem is not inherent in the mode of speech, but rather in the method of discourse: Do we use logic and scholarship or fallacy and insinuation?

My British-Egyptian Economist friend suggested that my next sermon should be on certainty: what we must and do accept as ideals, especially during these times of bloody trials, focusing on the verse

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُونُواْ قَوَّامِينَ لِلّهِ شُهَدَاء بِالْقِسْطِ وَلاَ يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَآنُ قَوْمٍ عَلَى أَلاَّ تَعْدِلُواْ اعْدِلُواْ هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَى وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ إِنَّ اللّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ
(O, people of faith, be steadfast for Allah, witnesses for justice; and let not the hatred of others toward you make you unjust; be just for that is closer to God-consciousness; and be God-wary, for Allah knows deeply all that you do).

I agree that this would be a very good way to avoid getting into a virtual debate, and indeed this is a theme that I have used often to denounce illegal violence in all its forms: we have to live up to our own standards of justice, not down to the lowest standards of our potential competitors and interlocutors.

In the event, however, I feel that it is more important to use the opportunity to drive home a more important lesson on the value of doubt, not only for the acquisition of knowledge, but also for development of faith. After all, those who do injustice rarely recognize that they are: Their moral compasses are very poorly calibrated, so they do injustice in the name of justice and morality. 

Without "doubt," we cannot recognize our tendencies to rationalize vindictive and immoral acts, or learn how to counter these base tendencies in order to improve ourselves.

Let me here list two quotations that inspire my planned sermon for this Friday. The first is from Amartya Sen, and the second is from Ronald Dworkin:

"In a letter to Paul Engelmann, written in 1917, Wittgenstein made the wonderfully enigmatic remark: ‘I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same.’ Really? One and the same thing - being a smarter human being and a better person?"
Sen, Amartya (2009-09-30). The Idea of Justice (p. 31). Harvard University Press - A. Kindle Edition. 
"Whether people have lived well is not affected by what happens after they have ceased to live; nothing can affect that, any more than whether a painter has painted well depends on how his painting fares in the market. But whether someone has had a good life can be influenced after his death by anything that adds to or takes away from its achievements or hopes. How good a life you have had waxes and wanes after you are no more.
John Rawls made popular among philosophers ... that the value of living well is lexically prior to the value of a good life."
Dworkin, Ronald (2011-05-03). Justice for Hedgehogs (p. 201-2). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.  


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