Critical Eyes in a Critical Time

“All of the strife in this world is due to three people: a newscaster, a news seeker, and a news listener.” This is quoted by Imam al-Ghazali, may God have mercy on his soul and sanctify his secret, in his book Tibr al-Masbuk, which is only partially his work. He quotes this statement from Ibn al-Qasim al-Hakim. When I first read this, I was deeply struck by the statement. The more I reflected on it, the more profound it seemed to me.

Recently, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah pointed out a mistake in Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa, a printing error made a hundred years ago that ended up in almost every printed edition since then. One exception was a quotation of it in a book by Ibn Muflih, a direct student of the Imam. Upon hearing about this occurrence, Imam Raisuni, the Moroccan usuli scholar, said, “After this, we must be skeptical of any edition that is not critical and from a sound source.”

This is sound advice, especially given that we live in an age of too much information that moves too fast across the Dromosphere. Unfortunately, the standards of journalism fail to provide any assurance that the news will report the truth. Similar standards now pass muster far too often in academia with fudged citations, plagiarism, and even doctored experiments, giving a new meaning to the academic title, “Doctor” i.e. “one who doctors,” or tampers with something. So we need to question what we hear and read and see, and we need to scrutinize the sources.

One of the fundamental teachings of Islam is to be extremely vigilant about one’s sources. Our scholars developed the most sophisticated process of authenticating statements and formulated a basic rule: The onus of the source is upon the one stating the quote, and the onus of proof is upon the one making the claim. In other words, any statement that attributes words to another person must have sound proof that the words are indeed from that person; secondly, any claim made must be substantiated with a sound argument or, in the case of Islam, with a clear text from revelation that supports the claim. A person must always be ready and able to back up his quotes with sources and support his claims with sound arguments. If one is unable to do either, the quote must be withdrawn, and the claim should be abandoned. It is not acceptable to make public a quote or claim if one cannot authenticate it.

Even love has its proofs. A poet said,

You claim to love God, and yet you disobey God
This is a bizarre way of reasoning
Surely, the lover, if his love is true,
Is most obedient to the one he loves.

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The proof of love is wanting to please the beloved. In the age of the Internet, news and information posted online or broadcast globally reaches the far corners of the globe instantaneously. And if the information is incorrect, it’s almost impossible to correct it everywhere it reached. Early last year, when Hosni Mubarak’s regime was falling in Egypt, most major news organizations, including CNN, BBC, major British and American newspapers, all reported that he had stolen $70 billion from his country. This figure spread like wildfire in cyberspace and was amplified across the Muslim world. As it turns out, later reports put that figure closer to a few million or hundreds of millions. A billion is a thousand million. Hundreds of millions, undeniably substantial, is far from 70 thousand million. So what is the truth? Who knows, and that is the point. Muslims are sometimes quick to abandon our teachings and principles, especially when faced with “information” we find to our liking. On the one hand, many do not trust the news, claim it’s biased and conspiratorial, and so on. On the other hand, many quote BBC or CNN as if it was a Sahih hadith, especially if it substantiates a point we want to make.

In December, we heard that car bombs in Damascus killed 44 civilians. The news reports said it was done most likely by opponents of the Syrian government, which is arguably among the most vicious and unethical in the world. The government said it was done by Islamists. The great bogeyman of the West has gone East. While Bin Laden is dead, it seems his vast international network of shoe and underwear bombers are still capable of pulling off an extremely sophisticated scheme in the most controlled city in the world. I don’t know who masterminded the suicide bomb attacks, but I find it difficult to trust any official statements from the Syrian government. It is not a credible source. And as for the fact that the perpetrators were Muslims, it behooves us to keep in mind that Islam’s sacred law condemns suicide as well as murder, most likely with eternal damnation.

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Our challenge in this age of information overload is how to be informed without abandoning the principles and teachings of Islam, which require strict rules for authentication. We need to learn to question and examine what we hear or read, and not pass along anything unless we know the sources to be sound. I think we need news fasts just like we have food fasts. “If you are not careful,” Malcolm X said, “the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressing.”  Henry David Thoreau, the inspirational mind behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, said, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” The Qur’an says, “What are they asking about? The great news! About which they are in great difference” (78:1-3).

Mutannabi, the 10th Century Arab poet, whose name is derived from the word for “news” and can mean “the forecaster,” wrote in a poem,

People differ to such a degree they agree on nothing,
Except death that is, and even on that they disagree.
Some say the soul goes on after the death of the body
While others claim the soul, with the body, dies too.

I believe that everything we hear, see, and read, even from our own tradition, with the exception of the actual text of the Qur’an and rigorously authenticated hadith, must be looked at with a critical eye. But the real crisis is that too few of us have done the work or been afforded the education to develop a sound critical eye. To quote Mutanabbi again:

How many a fault-finder in words
Only reveals his faulty understanding.

Learning to read is much more difficult than what is taught or naturally acquired in early education. Reading involves coming to terms with the writer, i.e. understanding his words. It involves a familiarity with what is referred to in logic as material fallacies; they crop up in modern thought more abundantly than weeds in a wasteland. Critical eyes need refined minds, and the place to refine them is at school. But our schools have failed most of us, and the rapid decline and fallen state of our popular culture is proof perfect. More refined minds would demand more refined pleasures to entertain them when pleasure and repose is called for, but more refined minds would want to spend what precious time they have concerned with matters more elevated than constant entertainment. (For the thirsty, I would recommend reading Tolstoy’s masterful essay, “What is Art.”)