Thursday, October 10, 2013

The religious value of doubt ("not being so sure")

This is a brief script of the sermon that I delivered at ISGH Main Center on September 20. All the feedback that I received after was positive, so I didn't feel the urgency to type it up.

After the traditional liturgical opening, I summarized the issue that I brought up in the previous sermon at the same place, posted the month before, urging people "not to be so sure," and some of the feedback from people concerned that any doubt would be dangerous.

So, let us begin with some definitions and translations. "Being so sure" indicates certainty that one is correct. The Arabic word for certainty is يقين, which, incidentally, is also a word meaning death, so the order to the Prophet (p): و اعبد ربك حتى يأتيك اليقين (Al-Hijr: 99; and worship your lord until you reach death/certainty) illustrates the meaning of the term beautifully. 

The opposite of certainty (يقين) at the opposite send of the spectrum is an extreme form of doubt called in Arabic شك. But there are many grades of un-certainty (i.e. lack of certainty) in between, so a call for not being so certain is not a call for extreme doubt, let alone a call for extreme doubt of "everything" as some have feared.

Let me illustrate. The Qur'an tells us about Ibrahim (p), the father of prophets, asking Allah for further proof: وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِي الْمَوْتَى قَالَ أَوَلَمْ تُؤْمِنْ قَالَ بَلَى وَلَكِنْ لِيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي (Al-Baqara: 260; and when Ibrahim said: "my Lord, show me how you revive the dead," [the Lord said:] "have you not attained faith?" and [Ibrahim] said: "yes, but so that my heart can find its peace.") In Al-Suyuti's elaboration on the authentic tradition in Muslim, he said that the Prophet (p) denied that Ibrahim (p) had any extreme doubt (شك), by saying (as narrated by Abu Hurayra): "نَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِالشَّكِّ مِنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ" (we would be more likely to have extreme doubt), meaning that given that Muhammad (p) didn't have this extreme doubt, it follows that Ibrahim (p) did not. The explanation given by Al-Suyuti, Al-Nawawi, and others, is that Ibrahim wanted to strengthen his faith further, and that is why he asked for further proof.

The grades of intermediate "doubt" between certainty and extreme doubt are often described by Arabic using the term ظن, which, depending on the context, may be translated as "suspicion" or "belief". Thus, in the positive sense, when the Qur'an indicates that a righteous person on the day of judgment would say " إِنِّي ظَنَنْتُ أَنِّي مُلَاقٍ حِسَابِيَهْ" (Al-Haaqqah: 20; I believed that I will face my accounting), the exegetes say that here the term ظن is used to mean knowledge, but not perfect knowledge, thus belief. In Lisan Al-Arab, the most extensive Arabic dictionary,
 ظنن : الْمُحْكَمُ : الظَّنُّ شَكٌّ وَيَقِينٌ إِلَّا أَنَّهُ لَيْسَ بِيَقِينِ عِيَانٍ ، إِنَّمَا هُوَ يَقِينُ تَدَبُّرٍ ، فَأَمَّا يَقِينُ الْعِيَانِ فَلَا يُقَالُ فِيهِ : إِلَّا عَلِمَ
(the term ".zann" indicates some doubt - shakk - mixed with certainty, except that the certainty therein is not the certainty of one who has observed, but the certainty of one who has inferred; whereas the certainty of one who has observed proof can only be called knowledge - `ilm - rather than belief - .zann).

In this regard, it is useful to contrast this type of positive .zann with negative versions, first by recalling the saying by `Umar ibn Al-Khattab (r), the second Caliph:
"لا تَظُنَّنَ بِكَلِمَةٍ خَرَجَتْ مِنْ فِي امْرِئٍ مُسْلِمٍ سُوءًا وَأَنْتَ تَجِدُ لَهَا فِي الْخَيْرِ مَحْمَلا"(do not suspect anything negative in the speech of a Muslim person if you can interpret it in a way that is positive).
It is in this context that the Qur'an also admonishes those who encourage negative suspicion of others:
(Al-Hujurat: 6; O people of faith, avoid most suspicion, because some suspicion is sinful, and do not spy on one another or backbite one another. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother and thus become most hated? So, be wary of Allah, and Allah is most forgiving most merciful).

So, even when admonished, the verse did not say to avoid all doubt (.zann), but most of it, because some of it (which wrongfully accuses others) is sinful. But doubt in the sense of .zann more generally indicates admission of lack of knowledge, as in the verse quoted above, where the righteous person cannot really say "I knew that I was going to face my accounting" but could only truthfully say "I believed that I was going to face my accounting." This admission of lack of perfect knowledge is necessary for acquiring knowledge, and thus is a requirement for the faithful, explaining the story of Ibrahim (p). It is interesting in this regard that Ibn Al-Mubarak said: 
" لَا يَزَالُ الْمَرْءُ عَالِمًا مَا طَلَبَ الْعِلْمَ ، فَإِذَا ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ قَدْ عَلِمَ ، فَقَدْ جَهِلَ " (a person shall remain knowledgeable for as long as he seeks knowledge; but once he thinks that he is knowledgeable, that is when he can be called ignorant."

In the Islamic tradition, certain knowledge (العلم القطعي) is that which comes directly from Allah, like the knowledge of Al-Khadr, the mystical character in the Cave (Kahf) chapter of the Qur'an, who meets with Moses (p), who thought himself the most knowledgeable man about right and wrong. Al-Khadr is described as having received direct knowledge (علم لدُنِّي), and therefore when Moses (p) accompanies him and makes several inferences about his actions being bad, he eventually explains to him how there were deeper meanings and extenuating circumstances that made what he thought to be wrong right and vice versa.

To bring the issue back to assignment of fault and the need for some doubt (admission of lack of certainty) in order to be able to negotiate peaceful solutions in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, please note that the Prophet (p) gave us an example of the fallibility of human inferences on right and wrong, including his own:
"عَنْ أُمِّ سَلَمَةَ قَالَتْ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّكُمْ تَخْتَصِمُونَ إِلَيَّ وَلَعَلَّ بَعْضَكُمْ أَنْ يَكُونَ أَلْحَنَ بِحُجَّتِهِ مِنْ بَعْضٍ فَأَقْضِيَ لَهُ عَلَى نَحْوٍ مِمَّا أَسْمَعُ مِنْهُ فَمَنْ قَطَعْتُ لَهُ مِنْ حَقِّ أَخِيهِ شَيْئًا فَلَا يَأْخُذْهُ فَإِنَّمَا أَقْطَعُ لَهُ بِهِ قِطْعَةً مِنْ النَّارِ"
(Muslim narrated on the authority of Umm Salamah (r) that the Messenger of Allah (p) said: "You come to me with your disputes, and one of you may be more clever in making his argument than the other, so I may adjudicate in his favor. If, in doing so, I give him what is rightfully his brother's, then he should not take it, because I am thus only giving him a piece of the hellfire.")

Thus, the Prophet (p) indicated that without divine inspiration, when adjudicating right and wrong in worldly affairs, even he "was not so sure" that his decision would be the right one. That is the basis of the famous saying of the Imam Al-Shafi`i: رأيي صواب يحتمل الخطأ، و رأي غيري خطأ يحتمل الصواب ([I believe that] my opinion is right, with a chance of being wrong; and the [different] opinion of others is wrong, with a chance of being right). This is the type of "doubt" that I call for when I ask people "not to be so sure" that they are 100% right and their opponents are 100% wrong. By allowing even for the slightest chance that we may not be fully informed or fully in the right, we allow ourselves to learn, and we allow for the possibility of bringing parties to the negotiating table to reach amicable resolutions of conflicts.