Friday, November 14, 2008

A Little Bit of Knowledge

It's a dangerous thing, as the aphorism goes. But isn't it preferable to total ignorance?

One of my good friends has recently been exposed, I think, to Orientalist criticism of Saheeh al-Bukhari, and unfortunately it's begin to injure her faith. I don't really like to see Muslims trying to meld traditional views of Islam with Western views--especially when they give precedence to the Western side of the equation. In fact, it's something I've had to fight with as a convert--that sometimes my own cultural views have colored the way I saw Islam.

For instance, it's easy sometimes to bash Arabs or Desis for a cultural more than strictly religious understanding of Islam, but Americans have similar problems. We have a cultural lens as well, and sometimes that does us more harm than good when trying to really understand Islam.

And this perspective which could be cultural or Western or just related to the present times presents a person with a particular set of biases. So when he looks at Islam--or specifically, when he looks at the Prophet (saws) who lived in a different time and place, in a different cultural milieu, he might see some violations of our modern/western ideals that would trouble him. Or, I could say they would trouble him because he assumes that modern society is more civilized, more knowledgeable, and more ethical, etc.

So when he begins to start reading hadith--especially but not necessarily from Western critics--without any sort of commentary or explanation, without any background on the biography of Muhammad, without any kind of background knowledge on the culture of the time, it's easy to assume (unfortunately, and inaccurately in my opinion) that the Prophet (saws) acted in the horrible and atrocious ways that Islamophobes prefer to believe.

I'm sad that such criticism even exists, which refers to the Messenger of Allah (saws) as being a pervert, a racist, a misogynist, a pedophile, a rapist, an overall evil man who massacred Jews (or anyone else in his way.) But what really troubles me, more than the existence of such offensive claims, is when a Muslim might be led to actually believe it, due simply to inadequate basic understanding of the subject at all.

Hanging around on boards like the Catholic Answers Forum has shown me plenty of ahadith which are taken to illustrate the Prophet (saws) in a poor light--I doubt that anyone could surprise me with something new. But I suppose for someone seeing these things for the first time. I won't say that I understand them all, or that I could explain them. But what can I do, or what can anyone do, to help prevent Muslims from falling into this trap? When their own sources and pre-existing biases are used against them?


Amber said...


This probably isn't a helpful comment, but: education.

I've seen too many people who, when asked questions about something that Mohammed supposedly did, answer with, essentially, either 'He didn't do that', or 'Mohammed never did anything wrong'. In my opinion, both of these are horrible answers. How do they educate? How do they give anything but the impression that Muslims are blind followers who will simply ignore any arguments against what they believe?

I've also seen the other side, good explanations, giving people an explanation of the culture, history, and common practices of the time period, letting them understand that what, to us, seems a horrendous crime, was common, and not seen as wrong.

Too many people are undereducated, or miseducated about history. We assume, somehow, that everone, everywhere, has always shared our sense and definition of right and wrong.

I can't see any way out of that but education, unfortunately too few people want to educate themselves, and you can't force them to want to learn.

Now, as far as Islam in specific is concerned, I wonder if there isn't some sort of book or something. I've seen it in regards to Catholicism, they have a book titled something like, 'Catholic Answers to Common Questions'. I imagine someone has had a similar idea for Islam.


mom said...

Let me see if I understand what you are saying here.

You are saying that people are using their cultural bias to judge the life of Mohammed and they shouldn't do that because it will cause them to disrespect the religion. They need to try to understand the culture he was living in and undertand from that viewpoint.

The only problem with that is you are also telling the same person that Muslims should try to emulate the prophet in every way and that his message was for all people in all times.

So, which is it? Should we try to erase every bit of knowlege or evolution that we have learned over the centuries and go back to the way it was at the time of the prophet or not?

If knowledge is a dangerous thing, if one's culture can't mesh with the religion, if you are required to adopt a foreigh culture and language in order to follow said religion then I can't help but think that there is a serious flaw in the design. If so much time is wasted having to study an ancient culture and language in order to embrace a religion then I can't help but think that there is a serious flaw in the design. If learning other viewpoints are going to make you lose your religion then there is a serious flaw in the design of that religion.

Knowledge should never, ever in any way be something that is discouraged. Didn't the prophet tell you to seek knowledge wherever you may find it and not to ever stop seeking it? Knowledge is not dangerous except to those that wish to enslave you because knowledge is power.

muslimdude said...

I think what Amy is trying to say is that you need to have a strong understanding of the basics of Islam, before getting into the more complicated issues, such as criticisms of hadith. This would include an understanding of the culture Muhammad (s) was a part of.

Now this doesn't mean that we would have to revert to a millenium old arab life style, but it does allow us to question the socially constructed values that we hold in our own culture. it allows us to question whether the 21st century values we were taught are in fact correct instead of automatically assuming that something which Islam teaches us is barbaric or in error.

Also, not all "knowledge" is good. Some people who seem to have authority in a certain field may twist the truth or outright lie. That's why if you want to learn about criticisms of hadith, learn about the hadith from the Islamic perspective first.

Amy said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree that more education is definitely a step in the right direction.

Amy said...

"Mom," -

I want to thank you for stopping by and leaving this really wonderful and perceptive comment.

Muslimdude below said a lot of what I wanted to point out in return. But allow me to elucidate.

It isn't knowledge exactly that I consider dangerous--but rather, insufficient knowledge. So no, I certainly don't think education should ever be discouraged. In fact, MORE knowledge would solve the problem, rather than less.

I'd also like to say one thing about imitation of the Prophet (saws.) We don't live in the same culture as Muhammad (saws) so there are obviously some differences in how we should act. In many cases, it would not be appropriate to imitate the Prophet (saws) in certain acts or behaviors, in today's society. So anyone who suggests acting exactly like Muhammad (saws) in every single thing he did is being just a little bit excessive.

What I think is important for people to understand is that the culture was different. It's important to know also that some things are limited to culture (that's even a principle in the derivation of Islamic law, by the way.) But also, I think it's unfair for people to judge another culture by their own standards, especially when their own standards are heavily biased.

Mom said...

First off, I believe that Mohammed was tryig to change the culture to what God supposedly wanted so the way that he and the his companions and first and second generation of Muslims would have behaved is as God supposedly wanted people to behave. Is that not right? Muslims are constantly told to study his life and learn how to be more like him. How are we supposed to then say but don't do EVERYthing as he did?

'I think it's unfair for people to judge another culture by their own standards, especially when their own standards are heavily biased'

Yet it is done all the time isn't it? How is the American 'culture' judged by say Saudis or Pakistanis or even Americans that have adopted the 'Islamic' culture?