Islam’s Critical Thinking: Hurdles & Principles
For what differentiates critical thinking from ordinary thinking? Or what level or depth is needed for thinking to be deemed “critical”? Can the critical thinking of two people on the same issue allow two completely opposite conclusions? And who decides what is or is not “critical thinking”?
We tend to refer to critical thinking as a way of approaching a given question that allows us to thoughtfully analyse and dissect the issue; highlight any nuances; and uncover any bias or faulty assumptions, in order to form a judgement or arrive at the best answer. And whilst everyone thinks; not everybody thinks critically, unbiasedly, calmly or rationally. A lot of our thinking is done haphazardly, emotionally, as a reaction and often by being only partially informed.
Critical thinking isn’t just required in academia, the sciences or the executive workplace. We use levels of critical thinking in our everyday life too. Deciding what are healthy food options that falls within our budget, for instance, requires some scrutiny, skepticism and critical thinking. So does (or should) the act of voting in elections or referendums. It goes without saying that correct facts and sound knowledge are crucial to critical thinking. If the information that the intellect is critically working upon is itself faulty, then even with the best intellect in the world, the conclusion will always be faulty. You simply can’t nail jelly to a wall!
It should also go without saying that not everyone is capable of critical thinking when it comes to the more academic or analytical level. That is not an insult; and nor is it a stain on their character or humanity or – if religion is involved – their piety. People are blessed with varying abilities and talents: If someone is an academic; another is a craftsmen or an artist. If one is a mathematician; the other a poet or author. If one is a doctor or a surgeon; the other is a sportsperson or a designer. If one is an accomplished politician; another is a loving and caring spouse, with a happy and successful marriage. Or if one is intellectually gifted; another is spiritually or emotionally gifted. Human beings are diverse, as are their talents and strengths. Furthermore, while critical thinking has a lot going for it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that such a talent will make one a good person (or – again, if religion of the monotheistic type is involved – a sincere or devout worshipper of God). It would very much depend on how one puts such talent to use.
For the remainder of this post I shall focus on critical thinking as it pertains to religious knowledge and scholarship in Islam, at both the spiritual and intellectual levels. I’ll also touch upon some principles that must be acknowledged – or at least not ignored – whilst discussing the type of critical thought that is reflective of the Islamic textual tradition:
Often, but not always, those who think they are cutting-edge critical thinkers suffer from large bouts of ‘ujb – vanity; conceit; being egotistically impressed, smug and self-satisfied with one’s own opinions or accomplishments. The Prophet ﷺ said: ثَلاثٌ مُهْلِكَاتٌ شُحٌّ مُطَاعٌ ، وَهَوًى مُتَّبَعٌ ، وَإِعْجَابُ الْمَرْءِ بِنَفْسِهِ – ‘Three are [causes of] destruction: greed that is obeyed, whims that are followed, and a person vainly impressed with his ownself.’1 It’s not just a matter of being smug or egotistically impressed with oneself. ‘Ujb is usually accompanied by a failure to be appreciative and respectful of other peoples’ views or accomplishments, or by a need to put others down and deride them. That is, ‘ujb and kibr (pride, arrogance), are very often bedfellows.
When it comes to Islam and Muslim matters in our contemporary age, the need to re-visit our scholarly corpus and textual legacies so that, along with ensuring the Islamic rulings for new issues and circumstances are sound and contextual, we need to evaluate if earlier rulings require any modification or reappraising, in light of the juristic maxim: تَغَيَّرُ الأَحْكامِ بِتَغَيُّرِ الأَزْمَانِ – ‘Rulings change with the changing of time.’ And while this legal maxim isn’t a free for all, certain rulings – the changeable: mutaghayyarat (in contrast to rulings that remain fixed or unchanging: the thawabit) – can or do legally change due to:  Changes in social norms (‘urf, ‘adah);  dire necessity (darurah);  public benefit (maslahah);  deterioration or corruption of the times (fasad al-zaman); and  when afflictions or problems become endemic in society (ma ta‘ummu bihi al-balwah).2 In other words, while the shari‘ah is a firmly-planted rock that can weather the ages, it isn’t entirely immutable or unchangeable. It has built into it the capacity to adapt and to expand, especially in the area of social civil transactions (mu‘amalat).
However, the principle that some fatwas can and must be revisited, due to change in time, place or cultural norms, was sure to be a magnet for the cardinal sin of ‘ujb – given our spiritually crippling, egotistical age. And that’s precisely what we now see!
For it is becoming more and more fashionable (and has been for quite some time now) to flippantly challenge, or readily dismiss, classical juristic formulations of shari‘ah. There is indeed often a fine line between reprehensible innovation and thinking outside the box: but the latter does not always imply the former. Yet whilst the Muslim jurists and legalists have their work cut out for them, the re-evaluation task has unsurprisingly teased out the charlatans, the sellouts and those whose minds have been colonised by the values of the dominant culture. For even when we humans do think or act rationally, our rationality or logic are so often coloured by our assumptions (or what psychologists refer to as ‘confirmation bias’).
Creative or critical Muslim thinking cannot overlook these all-important principles, if it is to truly pass as being Islamically ‘authentic’:
1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational or inductive methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous escape from post-modernity’s many traumas.
2 – That we as believers can’t be mere armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or forever be angry; always raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of being in a state of tumaninah; of being calm (yet also concerned), then in all likelihood we are animated by ego, not God. True religion begets tranquility, even in the midst of turmoil: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28]
3 – As we begin to see the goodness and potential in people, as opposed to always fault-finding and criticising, then we should know that what counts in these labours of healing and renewal (tajdid) is method, more than end rulings. One hadith informs us: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, then even if he is right, let him take his seat in the Hellfire.’3 So it’s not just about getting the interpretation right, as critical as it is. But about using the right method of interpretation, rather than a layman’s guess or an unqualified opinion. The same is true in Islamic law or theology, as it is for Quranic exegesis or tafsir. So we needn’t take issue with whether a shaykh’s opinion has a liberal slant or conservative one; but issue we must take if the shaykh isn’t qualified to espouse this ruling, yet arrogates to himself the right to speak on behalf of Allah in the matter! If unqualified, the above hadith speaks to that scenario. As for the qualified, they get two rewards if they are correct in what they rule, or one if they err; but never are they sinful because of it. Of course, when determining what the divine intent is likely to be in any given situation (rather than conforming to the zeitgeists of the age), ikhlas is key.
4 – The correct method for an interpretation or view to be valid in Islam entails: [i] The opinion must stem from a jurist qualified to undertake ijtihad in the matter. [ii] That the view must not oppose a text that is qat‘i al-thubut and qat‘i al-dalalah – “unquestionably established in its authenticity” and “unambiguous in its meaning”. [iii] It not contradict an established ijma‘ or scholarly “consensus”. [iv] That it not oppose a sound analogy; or qiyas jali. [v] It must not violate a confirmed principle of the religion; and [vi] That it not be shadhdh, or “aberrant,” as per the canons of Islamic law.4 All this requires serious fiqh schooling: the more complex the issue (the issues modernity throws up are usually highly complex), the deeper or profounder the fiqh skills need to be.
5 – That a more thoughtful and spiritually-infused fiqh is required for our times, one that rejects a puritanical mentality and the tunnelled-vision fiqh that it has given birth to. This blinkered vision is unable to see Islam as anything but a purely legalistic religion, fixated on outward religiosity, devoid of deeply nuanced spiritual or literary possibilities.
6 – That said, our discourse can’t all (or even primarily) be about fiqh issues, despite their centrality to orthopraxy. We certainly do need sound fiqh solutions to raging issues like modern finance, bit coint currencies, environmental crisis, genetic engineering, modern weapons of mass destruction, and other pressing concerns which the modern mufti must grapple with today. But an over focus on the fiqh level, on micro management, instead of engaging the macro issues, will only delay Muslims from meaningfully coming to grips with modernity on our own indigenous religious terms.
7 – That we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is now expected to pay homage. Currently, American Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without much critical assessment. The Anglo-Saxon Muslim narrative isn’t that far behind. So we now talk of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; or “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff
Perhaps we need less critical thinking and more criticism of our own thinking. So much of what’s currently alleged to be critical thinking is little more than a pale shadow of the real McCoy. Instead, it seems to be more the voice of the ego, self-promotion, half-truths, shoddy scholarship, or poor intellectualisation, than it does religious truth, intellectual beauty, or sincerely seeking the welfare of Allah’s servants.
Some of this ‘critical thinking’ is merely a veneer to mask the promotion of reprehensible innovations or religious heresies. Undermining ijma‘-theology, the well-attested hallmark of mainstream Sunni orthodoxy, is now the in-thing. While much of this opposition stems from egotism and from false desires, some comes from hastiness with sacred knowledge; youngness; inexperience; not allowing ideas to mature enough before letting them loose in the public domain; or not being spiritually rooted. Indeed, sin, committing haram and following false and forbidden desires, can seriously compromise the heart’s intellect and blur its vision! Ibn al-Qayyim reminds us:
فَإنَّ إتِّبَاعَ الهَوَى يُعمِي عَيْنَ القَلْبِ ، فَلا يُمِيزِ بَينَ السُّنَّةِ والبِدْعَةِ ؛ أَو يُنَكِّسُهُ ، فَيَرَى البِدْعَةَ سُنَّةً والسُّنَّةَ بِدعَةً
‘Following false desire can blind the heart’s [in]sight, so that it can no longer distinguish Sunnah from bid‘ah; or it can invert it, so that it sees bid‘ah as the Sunnah and Sunnah as bid‘ah.’5
Thus while the rational or intellectual faculty of a person is still under the domination of its desires, and while one hasn’t taken any serious steps to tame or train the nafs through the heart’s purification, one cannot be sure if the intellect is primarily or significantly being driven by baser motives, or the ego’s deceptions and cunning. And when that is so, in what measure can that ever be called intellectualism, let alone critical thinking? And yet, as the prophetic warning states: ‘If you have no shame, then do as you wish.’6
We ask Allah for safety from the heart’s blindness or inversion; and we beseech Him for well-being in terms of faith, practice and right attitude.
1. Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.80. After analysis of its various chains, it was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1802.
2. This has been discussed in an earlier blog piece, called: ‘Concerning Functional Fatwas & Dysfunctional Muftis.’
3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2951, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan.’
4. Consult: al-Zarkashi, al-Manthur fi’l-Qawa’id (Kuwait: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un al-Islamiyyah, 1985), 2:140; al-Shanqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddeh: Dar al-Manarah, 1999), 636-38.
5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 224.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.3296.