How to Deal with Contemporary Intellectual Misconceptions.
To deal properly with the onslaught of misconceptions we need to address three areas: the provision of protection for those who have not, as yet, been influenced by them; the administration of a cure for those who have fallen victim to them; and a proper debate with those who raise such misconceptions.
I shall address all three areas through methodological rules for each. Thus we will have:
- One: Rules to protect from contemporary intellectual misconceptions;
- Two: Rules to deal with such doubts and misconceptions after they have been taken up;
- Three: Rules for the dialogue and debating skills to argue with those who raise such doubts and misconceptions.
The first rule: the consolidation of belief in the fundamentals of Islam
Having closely followed the questions raised by young people, I am convinced that it is necessary to give particular attention to present the fundamentals of Islam in a logical way that strengthens faith, consolidates certainty and protects hearts from the evil of doubt. Unless a believer is a firm believer in these fundamentals, assured at heart of their truth, and knows their proofs, doubt and uncertainty may easily creep in.
Although the Qur’an gives this issue ample space and despite its great importance, it is not given sufficient care. Hence, it is not surprising that a large number of young people in our Muslim society are affected by those attacks that aim to raise doubts about God, His Book or His Messenger (peace be upon him).
As this protective rule is particularly important, I will discuss some of the practical measures that strengthen it.
Ways to strengthen certainty:
1. Reviving reflection on God’s universal signs as an act of worship.
The Qur’an clarifies the relationship between such reflection and understanding the great truths. God says: ‘They remember God when they stand, sit and lie down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth:“Our Lord, You have not created all this in vain. Limitless are You in Your glory”. (3: 191)
When they reflected, they realised that the way the heavens and the earth have been created provide clear evidence that nothing in the universe is created in vain or haphazardly.
Moreover, contemplation and reflection on man and his soul, as well as the universe at large leads to firm certainty of the truth of the Qur’an: ‘We shall show them Our signs in the wide horizons [of the universe] and within themselves, so that it will become clear to them that this [revelation] is indeed the truth’.(41: 53) .
This verse makes a person who reflects pause to consider it time and again. God censures those who refuse to reflect on His signs, as He says: ‘We have set up the sky as a well-secured canopy. Yet they stubbornly turn away from all its signs’.(21: 32)
I hope that modern civilisation does not prevent us from the act of worship that reflects on the sky, stars, the human soul, animals and other types of God’s creation.
There are several ways of reviving and spreading reflection as an act of worship, such as:
- Publishing relevant visual and written material that encourages reflection. Much of the visual material showing the wonders of the universe, man, animals and the sea helps to reflect on God’s signs. The late Mustafa Mahmood used to show such material on his television programme, and they had good appeal.
- Organising competitions for the best productions and research papers in this area.
- Organising tests of knowledge or competitions for summarising earlier research papers in this area.
2. Encouraging deep thinking about God’s revelation as an act of worship, and strengthening the bond with the Qur’an. God revealed the Qur’an to guide people to the purpose of their creation, give them a clear, true concept of Himself, inform them of resurrection, reckoning and reward, and provide clear evidence of all this.
The Qur’an will continue to be an effective means to remove doubt, confirm certainty, and encourage belief, as it addresses the hearts and minds of those who, with God’s help, choose the way of goodness. At present, efforts are continuing to encourage people to practise this act of worship of deep thinking and reflection on the Qur’an. The Taddabur and Tafsir centres are two bodies that are doing good work in this field. May God bless their efforts.
3. Encouraging reading those books that highlight the evidence proving the truth of the fundamentals of Islam. Scholars of old and recent times wrote in this field. Many early scholars, such as al-Khattabi, al-Rummani, al-Baqillani, al-Jurjani and many others wrote on the inimitability of the Qur’an. A wider field focuses on the proofs of prophethood. On this subject we have numerous books including those written by Abu Nuaym al-Asbahani, Justice Abd al-Jabbar and al-Bayhaqi, etc. I am adding here some books by contemporary authors as they may be included in programmes for group reading, or in competitions to summarise a book, etc.
- Al-Naba’ al-Azim by Muhammad Abdullah Draz, [published in English under the title The Qur’an: an Eternal Challenge]. This is a beautiful book discussing the truth of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is written in fine style and clear expression that affect the reader’s emotion. Another work by the same author is Introduction to the Qur’an.
- Barahin wa Adillah Imaniyyah by Abd al-Rahman Hasan Habannakah al-Maydani.
- Nubuwwat Muhammad min al-Shakk ila al-Yaqin by Fadil al-Samurrai.
- Al-Adillah al-Aqliyyah al-Naqliyyah ala Usool al-I‘tiqad by Saud al-Urayfi. This is a large book of high standard.
- Kamil al-Surah, the second volume.
4. Giving due importance to the discussion of God, His attributes and oneness in our discourse advocating Islam.
The theme of the ‘oneness of the Godhead’ has been given due importance in religious studies in our society. This produced good results in making people well aware of this theme. However, the equally important theme of the ‘oneness of the Lord’, which should take precedence, has not been given the attention it deserves. Yet the Qur’an attaches much importance to the discussion of God’s names, attributes and deeds. The first Qur’anic revelation was: ‘Read in the name of your Lord who created; [He] created man from a clinging cell mass: Read and your Lord is the Most Bountiful One’. (96:1-3)
There is pressing need at present to discuss this theme and include it in all forms of our advocacy address.
5. Giving due attention to heart worship in all fields.
The Prophet Abraham was devout and relied totally on God. He was full of certainty about his belief. Therefore, when his people tried to argue with him about God, Mighty and Exalted, he said to them: ‘Do you argue with me about God, when it is He who has given me guidance?’ (6: 80)
They could not understand what he had felt to so fill his heart with knowledge, certainty and light. He would not exchange the happiness he derived from faith for anything on earth. Would anyone barter away security for fear or reassurance for confusion? Hence, he asks in the next verse: ‘Which of the two parties has a better right to feel secure, if you happen to know?’(6: 81)
A famous statement by one well-known devout of the early Muslim generations said: ‘Had kings and princes known the happiness we experience, they would fight us with swords to take it for themselves’. Would anyone who experiences such feelings be affected by misconceptions?
Heraclius, the Byzantine Emperor, received Prophet Muhammad’s letter calling on him to embrace Islam. Heraclius questioned Abu Sufyan, the Quraysh leader about the Prophet and his status. At the time, Abu Sufyan was hostile to the Prophet. One of the questions Heraclius put to Abu Sufyan was: ‘Does anyone who embraces his faith subsequently turn away from it in disgust?’
Abu Sufyan said: ‘No’. Heraclius commented: ‘Such is faith. When its happiness is felt at heart, no one will reject it’.
Protection from doubt, misconception, unbelief and atheism will not be completely achieved by a heart which has not experienced the happiness of faith, because such a heart will not feel the great loss it incurs by abandoning that faith. By contrast, a person who has experienced faith and its happiness will never barter it away for anything. Therefore, strengthening faith and consolidating the bond with God, relying on Him, and our feelings of love of God and hope in Him are among the most important means of protection from doubts and misconceptions. Hence, we ask: how much importance do we attach to this issue? Do we give it its due value? Is it not clearly stressed in the Qur’an and in the Prophet’s address, as well as scholars’ addresses?
Undoubtedly, many misconceptions originate when faith is weak and when a person has not experienced the feelings of happiness it generates. Therefore, we need to review our faith and ensure that it is firm in our hearts, manifested in our action and our sincere submission to God. All these are elements of effective immunity that help us to resist the intellectual onslaught that is aimed at Islam and its fundamental principles.
Ibn al-Qayyim’s book, Madarij al-Salikin, focuses on this area. Many Sufi and devout people have spoken on this subject and Ibn al-Qayyim includes much of their discourse in this book.
6. Stories of new converts to Islam have a marked effect, giving a feeling of reassurance, particularly when we note that they come from different backgrounds, countries and specialisations. Their stories show that they have embraced Islam on the basis of a conviction leading them to adopt what they realised to be the best way. This despite the persistent efforts that try to distort the image of Islam and Muslims. Nevertheless, an increasing number of people from the East and the West flock towards Islam.
What is particularly interesting in their stories is that they often highlight some meanings that may escape us. They read the Qur’an with an open mind, eager to understand God’s word. They set it against their previous state of unbelief and sense of loss. I clearly felt this as I watched some episodes of Fahd al-Kandari’s television show, The Qur’an is My Guide. It is one of the best programmes in this field. I recommend showing it in family and school programmes to enhance people’s certainty of faith.
The second rule: developing a critical mind
A critical mind is that which examines what is being said. It does not accept a claim that is not accompanied by clear evidence. It rejects invalid evidence and does not overlook logical contradictions.
One of the most important factors that helped spread many of the misconceptions that have affected a wide section of our young people is the absence of an examining mind and critical thinking. Therefore, it is highly important to encourage the adoption of critical thinking that is able to distinguish information that cannot be accepted. This is exceedingly important in enhancing immunity against raised doubts and misconceptions that cannot have firm basis.
Muslim scholars have given due attention to examining information before accepting it. The clearest example is seen in the field of Hadith scholarship, as scholars established a whole discipline of checking every narrator. Appearances counted for little in their approach, as they checked different versions and narrations, dismissing what did not have a continuous and reliable chain of transmission.
They identified lying reporters and those who were unreliable or confused. It is this thorough method of examination of every report attributed to the Prophet that makes the Prophet’s sunnah clear and authentic.
Muslim scholars also paid much attention to the principles of proper and fruitful debate. They set the rules that differentiate acceptable arguments from rejected claims. They set details for what proper examination requires, and wrote books on the rules of debate.
This is totally different from a doubting approach that is always ready to say: ‘Perhaps’, or ‘How do we know’, or ‘May be’. A critical mind is not one that is quick to reject whatever is said; it is rather one that is clear of the basis and evidence that determines whether a particular piece of information should be accepted or rejected.
Undoubtedly we need courses, lectures and training in how to properly use critical thinking. These must distinguish proper critical thinking from the negative way that doubts most, if not all things. We can train our children in critical thinking by applying it to what they hear in school and from friends. Thus, they can analyse such information and reports and evaluate them.
A critical mind is further strengthened by learning the methods and skills of academic research, as it needs to know the sources of information and how to deal with them to check and verify. Therefore, we need to organise courses on research and reference to reliable sources, including checking the authenticity of hadiths on the internet and in relevant books.
The third rule: checking the religious basis
What I mean here is the study of the different disciplines of Islamic studies, including the Islamic creed [i.e. aqeedah], Fiqh, legal theory [i.e. usool al-fiqh], Hadith terminology, Arabic language and Qur’anic disciplines [i.e. uloom al-Qur’an]. This is exceedingly important because it gives a student a firm basis of knowledge to rely upon. Without such a basis, one does not have a clear stand.
To make good use of this protective rule, we need to present the different disciplines of Islamic studies in an easy way that young people can grasp and understand. To this end, we need to run short courses on these disciplines, using easy, modern language and visual aids. Whoever undertakes this task should bear in mind that they are fulfilling important work in protecting young people against contemporary intellectual misconceptions.
One good effort in this regard is made by Dr Amir Bahjat who has prepared excellent courses in Fiqh and its basic principles. These courses are available on YouTube and entitled Tanbeeh al-Faqeeh and al-Tareeq ila Usool al-Fiqh.
An important aspect the present stage requires is that religious studies should pay particular attention to confirming the fundamental principles of Islam.
uch studies should not be limited to discussions and explanations of normal subjects. We should add what confirms the validity of the principles that govern such questions that need to be studied and explained. The assumption that both speaker and audience accept the validity of the explained principles might have been true in the past, but the present time is different. Instead, we are at a time when numerous questions are raised and aimed at the fundamentals. Therefore, students of Islamic studies must not confine themselves to understanding Fiqh terminology, or to the principles and rules set by scholars of legal theory or Hadith. They must combine all this with knowledge of what outlines their basis and confirms their validity and truth.
It may be suggested that a student of Islamic studies is not affected by questions raised about fundamental principles. Hence, there is no need for what we have just said. In answer, we may say that the student himself may not be influenced by the misconceptions and doubts others may raise, but he still needs to know the proofs and to be aware of the truth of the fundamentals so that he can answer whatever questions or objections are put to him. The only situation where he does not need to know all this is when he decides not to interact with people but rather stay away from them.
One way of achieving this goal without problems is to have a proper introduction to each discipline before going deeply into it. Such an introduction should prove the validity of the discipline being studied and the reasons for studying it. It should also outline the negative effects that its absence is bound to produce.
The fourth rule: defining sources of knowledge and the attitude to each of these sources
What are the sources we rely upon to formulate our knowledge? What are the limits of each of these sources? Do they overlap? Which are the sources that are free of error? Which are the sources of legitimate knowledge acquisition that may be right or wrong?
All these questions are important for young people. When proper answers are given to them in a proper way, they set the mind in proper order and define its approaches to what it relies upon in gaining knowledge. Thus, it becomes one of the most important ways of protection in the present time. One of the main reasons for contemporary intellectual confusion is the imperfect attitude to sources of knowledge. Many atheists, particularly in the West, adopt a negative attitude towards the sources of human knowledge, apart from the senses and experiment, considering these the only real bases for gaining knowledge. Thus, they reject the logical evidence that proves God’s existence if it does not rely on the senses or does not fall within the framework of experimental science. They also reject revelation which is transmitted by true information based on prior logical evidence. Many of the debates that take place between believers and unbelievers refer to questions that relate to knowledge. Therefore, it is important to have a clear understanding of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, and its different branches.
Anyone who wishes to have a general idea of knowledge, its nature and sources may refer to a lecture by Abdullah al-Ujayri entitled ‘An introduction to the theory of knowledge’ which is available on YouTube. This lecture is useful for beginners to formulate a general idea of this theory and what relates to it, as well as the nature of knowledge in Islam. One may next refer to Abd al-Rahman ibn Zaid al-Zunaydi’s book Masadir al-Maarifah fi al-al-Fikr al-Dini wal-Falsafi, or ‘Sources of knowledge in religious and philosophical thought’. Next comes Abdullah al-Qarni’s book al-Maarifah fi al-Islam or Epistemology in Islam. It is an excellent book but may be rather difficult for beginners and intermediate students.
We may then refer to Abdullah al-Daajani’s book on Ibn Taymiyyah’s attitude to knowledge, entitled Ibn Taymiyyah’s epistemological method. This is a well written and useful thesis but it may also be rather difficult for beginners and intermediate students.
The answers to these questions enable us to distinguish between what is an infallible religious source and what is liable to error. No error occurs in the Qur’an or the sunnah. Likewise,
when it is confirmed that Muslim scholars unanimously agree upon a certain matter, it admits no error. As for individual scholars, no one’s views on all matters are considered to be immune to error, even though he happens to be Abu Ḥanīfah, Mālik ibn Anas, al-Shafi‘i or Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may God bestow mercy on them all).
This important rule incorporates the question of submission to religious text and its basis. Important works on this subject include: Abdullah al-Ujayri’s Yanboo‘ al-Ghiwayah al-Fikriyyah and Fahd al-Ajlan’s al-Taslim li al-Nass al-Shar‘i.
The fifth rule: non-specialists should not expose themselves to misconceptions
A person who specialises in answering misconceptions should be aware of the details and history of such misconceptions, as well as who spreads them. Such a person may need to read some of their books, or look into their websites and blogs, so as to be able to refute their arguments.
A non-specialist may be taking a serious risk by delving into the realm of misconceptions. I am not referring to learning the answers to the main misconceptions, but to reading their books, or spending time reading their tweets and their pages on social media. Some people may do so in order to ‘know what others have or say’, or simply to waste time or satisfy their curiosity, or even to ‘acquire a general idea’, etc.
I know some people who looked into atheist blogs with a good motive but who were, however, exposed to serious negative impact which they neither expected nor wanted. This reminds us of early scholars’ statements warning against listening to ‘deviant ideas’ because, as al-Dhahabi said: ‘Hearts are weak, and misconceptions have appeal’.
The sixth rule: reading books that answer misconceptions, provided that the following conditions are observed:
1. The misconceptions should be contemporary and wide-spread; or, in other words, they are serious.
2. One should choose a book that mentions the misconception in general terms and answers it in detail. The opposite approach is unsuitable. Some writers portray the misconception in great detail, adding its basis and how it arose. This is useful for specialists. As we are speaking here about protection for non-specialists, we say that it is not useful for them to read the detailed reasons and evidence leading to a particular misconception.
3. The answer should be valid and well argued. This is known through specialist scholars.
Books that are useful in refuting current misconceptions and may be read for protection include Mustafa al-Sibaie’s al-Sunnah wa Makanatuha fi al-Tashri‘ al-Islami, and the two volumes of the book entitled Kamil al-Surah.
The seventh rule: setting the order of the ultimate objectives according to God
Many contemporary questions about Islam have come about because those who raise such questions set the ultimate objectives in the wrong order. Under ‘ultimate objectives’ I set the great human issues such as: worship, stability, freedom, civilisation, self-fulfilment, satisfaction of desire, earnings, etc.
We may mention in particular two of these ultimate objectives, each of which is given top priority according to certain groups of people. These are ‘the worship of God as He wishes to be worshipped’, i.e. God is at the centre, and ‘ensuring affluence and absolute freedom for man as he wishes’, i.e. man is at the centre.
Those who put man at the top of their priorities will still give this sphere preference when it is in conflict with God’s rules and commandments. Such people assign the highest importance to what contributes to man’s wellbeing, freedom, choice and desires, even though they may be bad and in conflict with sound human nature or with God’s orders. A holder of this view may consider Islamic rules odd because they give highest priority to the implementation of God’s rules and laws, as also to worshipping Him. Hence they make the criteria for distinction between people their piety and obedience of God and decide that they are wrong because such is inconsistent with man’s central position. Therefore, the problem here is the wrong order of the ultimate objectives.
Thus, we see that many of the questions raised against some Islamic rulings relating to unbelievers, such as the payment of jizyah, i.e. tribute, and the punishment for apostasy are due to this wrong order of priorities, even though they may be given a different colour. Let me be frank: the issues that I find hardest to answer are those which are due to the wrong order of priorities given by those who raise them. Most of them are unaware of the origin of the problem in their minds. They cling to some aspects of the argument, thinking it to be the origin of the problem when it is not. Hence, the answer to their questions requires a good deal of preparation that involves the adjustment of the order of ultimate objectives.
Ibraheem al-Sakran’s book, Ma’alat al-Khitab al-Madani, is of special importance in this regard.
The eighth rule: strengthening group programmes that are intellectually and emotionally useful
Joining group programmes of interest, at family or friends’ level, will give a young person useful enrichment, both intellectually and emotionally. It will stop many types of negativity from taking up position among his priorities. Such programmes will give individuals a chance to discover their abilities, and provide a feeling of assurance and identity. This will act as a psychological check against embracing false ideas.
It is particularly important to organise some useful family programmes that include a measure of debate and discussion, such as a programme of group readings, and discussion of what has been read. The same may be said about educational clubs run by reliable teachers who are committed to strengthening the Islamic identity. All such programmes are very useful in shaping intellectual immunity and protection against current misconceptions.
It is very interesting to remember, as we mention the effect of good company in experiencing the happiness of faith, the hadith that says: ‘Three qualities: whoever combines them will experience the happiness of faith… and that he loves a person only for God’s sake…’.[ Related by al-Bukhari, 16.] Whoever experiences happiness of faith will never abandon it to sink into the misery of unbelief and doubt.
The ninth rule: supplication
We usually pray that a person who travels is protected by God from danger and evil, and that He ensures their safe return. In actuality, though, we are all travellers in this journey of life, and all the time we draw closer to our end. Dangers that attend this journey of life are numerous. We need God’s care and protection. The most precious thing we have in this journey is our faith that helps us to earn God’s pleasure. Prophet Abraham said: ‘My Lord, preserve me and my children from ever worshipping idols’. (14: 35)
In his supplication, Prophet Muhammad said: ‘My Lord, I submit myself to You; I believe in You and rely on You; to You I return and I base my dispute on You. I seek refuge with Your might against leaving me to go astray. There is no deity other than You, and You are the ever-living who never dies while humans and jinn will all die’.
In the midst of misconceptions and the danger they represent, and the numerous people who fall for them, we are in great need of supplicating to God to protect us and our families and children from the evil of these misconceptions. May He help us and preserve our faith in His oneness.
Rules for Dealing with Entertained Misconceptions
The previous rules sought to protect against misconception before such set in. Should, however, someone be facing a misconception, then more methodical rules that help in dealing with it properly are needed.
Rule One: The use of critical thinking and verification in dealing with information and ideas
No piece of information deserves even the slightest consideration unless it meets the minimum degree of academic verification. If it is just floated with no identified source, then the correct attitude is to dismiss it outright. On the other hand, a piece of information may be correct, but citing it in evidence in a particular case is incorrect. Therefore, one must check what is said and look at it carefully. Certainly one must not feel uneasy because someone said something that cannot withstand proper examination. Here are some real examples:
- The hadiths narrated by Mu‘awiyah are rejected because he is maligned on the basis of the claim that the Prophet cursed him. This claim is false, and as a result the claim and the ruling based on it are false.
- Defaming Abu Hurayrah on the basis of Umar accusing him of theft. The story of this accusation is untrue.
- Doubting the sunnah because of the story that Umar burnt some scrolls containing hadiths. This is often cited but it is untrue.
- Detracting from Abu Hurayrah’s position because of the hadith that says: ‘Make your visits infrequent to increase your love’. The whole story is an unconfirmed claim.
All four are examples of claims made on the basis of untrue reports. The falsehood of all these reports is well established in the relevant books of hadith. They do not meet the even the minimum conditions of acceptability. Therefore, they fall. A different type of claim is based on true texts, but when we examine the claims based on them we realise that they are wrongly used. Here are some examples:
God says in the Qur’an: ‘No single thing have We left out of the Book’.(6: 38)
This statement is cited in support of rejecting the sunnah. The error is that the ‘book’ the verse refers to is the Imperishable Tablet which is with God, not the Qur’an. As such, the correct Qur’anic statement cannot lead to the claimed conclusion. Another Qur’anic statement is cited in this connection: ‘We have bestowed from on high upon you the Book to make everything clear’.(16: 89)
We will discuss how these people use this statement when we discuss the misconceptions raised about the sunnah.
Citing the hadith whereby the Prophet ordered that his statements not be written down to prove that the sunnah does not constitute valid evidence. The information is correct according to many scholars, but it does not lead to the alleged conclusion, because an order not to write does not mean a negation of the validity of evidence. There are certain ways to make clear that reports may not be taken as evidence, and these ways do not include refraining from writing them.
[Scholars make clear that the order not to write the Prophet’s hadiths was valid only in the initial period, so that there was no chance of his statements might be mixed with the Qur’an which was written down as it was revealed. When his companions learnt the Qur’an and were clear about it, he made no objection to writing the hadiths. Indeed, there were cases when he order its writing. On the other hand, the validity of the hadith as evidence for Islamic rulings is confirmed in the Qur’an]
Other flaws that may be identified through critical thinking include the contradictions involved in citing a misconception as evidence. An example is given by the very hadith that orders that nothing other than the Qur’an should be written down. The flaw is different from that cited in the previous paragraph. Those who cite this hadith in support of their argument are actually relying on something they themselves deny having evidence status.
Rule Two: Ask specialists
It is observed that some young men and women who are influenced by atheistic or irreligious misconceptions are unwilling to ask scholars about the misconceptions that occur to them. We mentioned earlier that concealment is one of the main features of the contemporary onslaught seeking to raise doubts and misconceptions about Islam.
Some may be justified in their reluctance to ask, fearing that they will be rebuked, rather than listened to and met with understanding. Their reluctance may be confirmed by the attitude of some scholars, but generalisation may actually be an exaggeration. There are many scholars who will listen with an open mind and heart and deal with questions in an enlightened way.[ www.almohawer.com is one of the best resources for the discussion of misconceptions. ] There is certainly need to nurture mutual trust between parents and children, teachers and students. Scholars and advocates of Islam must show real willingness to receive young people’s questions. They must make them feel welcome to ask any question, because a feeling of trust is the key for intercommunication. When trust is lost, the questions will be put to the wrong people.
We must not forget that when we mention specialists we are talking about people with knowledge and the ability to answer doubts and misconceptions. We are not talking about amateurs and writers who are not well versed in the relevant disciplines. God says in the Qur’an: ‘If you are unaware, ask those who are endowed with knowledge’. (16: 43)
Rule Three: Revision of earlier efforts to respond to the same problem
There is hardly any question or problem relating to Islam and its fundamentals that has not previously been raised and answered. This applies in particular to certain areas, such as God’s will, the validity of the sunnah as evidence, etc. Young people often ask this question, which is one of the most frequently raised in relation to the Islamic creed: ‘How to reconcile God’s perfect knowledge with the punishment of unbelievers?’ The question has been dealt with by many scholars. Other frequently asked questions include: the purpose of the existence of evil, and the creation of Satan. Some raise questions about the hadith mentioning that the Prophet was for some time under the influence of a magic spell. Furthermore, some mention what they consider to be contradictory reports of the False Messiah. Similar questions are frequently raised in contemporary circles.
Therefore, it is important when one encounters a misconception relating to a particular area to refer to earlier efforts that treat the same misconception. Very often, they will find the right answer. Specialists may be asked for guidance on the best books that treat questions relating to a particular field. There are also works that deal with questions on a variety of subjects, such as the Bayan al-Islam Encyclopaedia.
Rule Four: Looking at what is equivocal in the light of what is precise and clear
The question of what is equivocal and what is clear and precise is one of the important issues in understanding the Qur’an. It marks the difference between those who are firm in knowledge and those who have doubts. God says: ‘He it is who has sent down to you the Book, containing verses which are clear and precise – and these are the essence of the Book – and others are equivocal. Those whose hearts have swerved from the truth pursue that part of it which is equivocal, seeking to create dissension and trying to give it an arbitrary meaning’. (3:7)
Ibn Kathir summarises the meaning of this verse very clearly. He says: ‘God mentions that the Qur’an contains some verses that are clear and precise which form its essence. These verses are clear and no one may misunderstand them. There are other verses in the Qur’an which may be equivocal to most or some people. When we look at the equivocal in the light of what is clear and precise, we are well guided. Taking it in the opposite way, we find ourselves at the wrong end.
God says of the precise verses that they are ‘the essence of the Book’, which means that they are the source of clarity when there is any doubt. The other verses are ‘equivocal’ which means that they may be consistent with the precise ones, or they may be taken, from the point of view of wording and construction, but not from the point of view of their message, to have a different meaning’
This leads us to a very important matter, which is the need to review all the relevant texts that apply to a certain issue, and not to be selective. A text may be equivocal and its meaning can only be clarified by reference to clear and precise texts on the same point. A Christian may tell us that the Qur’an indicates the multiplicity of deities. He may cite in support of his allegation the verse that says: ‘It is We Ourselves who have bestowed this reminder from on high, and it is We who shall preserve it intact’. (15: 9)
He says that the verse uses the plural form in several words: We, Ourselves, etc. In response we explain that although these pronouns are plural in form, they also signify a glorification of an individual, and we know that monarchs use what is termed as ‘the royal we’, stressing the importance of their positions. When we look at this question as it is clearly and precisely expressed in the Qur’an, we realise that God’s oneness is emphatically stressed, as God says: ‘He is the One and only God’. (112: 1)
‘So believe in God and His messengers and do not say, “[God is] a trinity!” Desist, for that will be better for you. God is only One God’. (4: 171)
claims of such a person are thus seen to be false.
Rule Five: Standing firm when a misconception is not answered
Sometimes I meet people who have questions and are entertaining doubts. When I ask their reasons, they state something that should not have created any doubt. It is merely that they could not find the right answers to the questions they had in mind. It makes one wonder: is a Muslim’s faith so weak that it is shaken when it cannot find an answer to a question? There is certainly a different attitude that should be applied in such a scenario: an attitude of critical thinking, searching for an answer, and asking scholars. Or, do we move straightaway to a state of doubt? To be unaware of something is not equivalent to the knowledge that it does not exist. In other words, if we do not know the answer to a question, this does not mean that this question cannot be answered. When we look at some of these questions that have left some people in doubt, we find that they have been fully discussed and answered. Those who felt such doubts could have found ready answers by searching reliable websites.
Rule Six: Studying the negatives of the ideas that are contrary to the Qur’an and the sunnah
A person who has faced some problems in a state of belief will be grossly mistaken if he imagines that he will find satisfactory answers in a state of atheism. If, as a believer, such a person could not find satisfactory answers to ten questions, his unanswerable questions will be multiplied manifold when he moves to a state of unbelief. The difference is that answers remain strong and convincing under faith, but they are much weaker in the opposite condition, if answers are given at all.
The question about evil is a good example. Some people like to call it ‘the evil problem’. It is indeed a problem, but only for unbelievers. For religious people, belief in the Day of Judgement, reckoning, reward and punishment means that everyone who is unfairly killed or deprived of their rights will have justice and that wrongdoers will be punished. What answer is given by a person who does not believe in the Day of Judgement to the questions: What is the ultimate end of oppressors throughout history? Are the rights of those they treated unjustly buried with them in their graves?
Another relevant question is: Who created the universe? And for what purpose? Without faith, the answers to these questions appears haphazard, without basis. Indeed, an atheist will cling to any flimsy assumption in trying to give an answer. There are many other questions, such as: how do we interpret the fine system of the universe? Why does it appear to be run according to very accurate rules? How could a chance put together fine and accurate hereditary information into a microscopic container, the nucleus? And how does such information become active and translate itself into the true characteristics of a real person?
The same applies to those who deny the sunnah because they find some problems with it. They will say that they confine themselves to the Qur’an. The first thing they will have to encounter is the Qur’an itself which commands that they obey God’s Messenger and warns against disobeying him. These people will confront real problems when they read these texts. They will also find that many rulings that have been unanimously accepted and implemented by Muslims are not stated in the Qur’an. This leads them to ask further questions and face more problems. In reality they do not get rid of problems by denying the sunnah. They simply move from lesser to greater and more complex problems.
Rule Seven: Negative thoughts must not be treated as misconceptions
It is natural that a believer may entertain negative thoughts or obsessions that disturb his belief. These may even bring about something that disturbs the believer’s mind regarding God, His will or some other religious aspect. These negative thoughts or obsessions are not, however, evidence of weak faith or hypocrisy. Even God’s Messenger’s companions, scholars and devout people have not been immune to them. Believers should simply pray to God to spare them such thoughts and to give them refuge against Satan. They should try to shut their minds to them.
When believers deal with such negative thoughts and obsessions in this way, they do not constitute a problem; indeed, they may bring them reward from God. The real problem is that some of us do not know how to deal with them. We respond to every irritating thought and this may lead us to a situation of misery and worry that spoils everything in life. What is worse, is that some who experience obsessions may have a negative reaction which makes them feel averse to purification and prayer, abandoning both, or makes them feel averse to religion as a whole.
Obsessions are different from misconceptions. The latter are dealt with by giving the relevant answers. If the answer is good, clear and to the point, the misconception is cleared. Obsessions do not have answers to dispel them. An answer may be repeated a hundred times, but the obsession remains. It will only disappear if ignored or countered.
A misconception normally has a definite source: a video, a book, some friends, etc. Obsessions, on the other hand, are the result of thoughts that are entertained within oneself. Very often, they are felt at the time of worship.
Even after following these rules, a misconception may leave an effect that is hard to eradicate. Or, a misconception may be too hard for one to answer. The solution in this situation is a sincere and persistent supplication to God for help and removal of doubts and their replacement with what clears worry and gives certainty.
Rule the First (prior to the debate): Review of the attitude of the other party and their available visual and written material
One important factor of success in debating with people who raise misconceptions is to have prior knowledge of their views, the fundamentals they rely on and the most important evidence they cite. All this will help in preparing our answers and ensure that we are not surprised by something we find difficult to address on the spot. Putting oneself in such a situation may make one appear in a weak position despite being right. None appreciates the importance of this rule better than those who have argued with such people.
Rule the Second: Agreement on a common basis for the debate
One party may cite a true piece of evidence, but the other party rejects it because he does not recognise this sort of evidence. This leads to a conflict and wastes time. Had the debate started with an agreement on the sources of evidence that are admitted in the debate, it would facilitate matters. However, such an agreement may not be necessary in every debate, and it may be difficult to achieve in some cases. Generally speaking, it is useful and it saves time and effort. For example, you may be in debate with an atheist and you cite some initial logical evidence, such as the law of causality. However, he immediately replies that he only believes in material evidence and does not accept logical arguments.
Rule the Third: Establishing the issue of contention
Sometimes, the two parties to a running debate realise that they are on the same side, but they had misunderstood each other. This frequently happens on social media where debates are often characterised by tension and very quick response. Therefore, it is useful for the debaters to understand each other at the beginning, establishing the issue of contention and proceed towards a clear goal.
Unfortunately, some scholars may speak about a certain misconception or problem without being clear about the issue of contention, or the objection raised by the other party. Hence, their response does not clear the problem. This reflects poor appreciation and narrow vision. It is very important to be clear about what is in contention and the issues of discussion, so that they can be treated in a direct and useful way.
Rule the Fourth: Make a careful check of what the other party says and identify the problems it involves
Anyone who does not base his argument on a solid methodological basis is bound to reflect some problems and contradictions. When these are pointed out to him and those who follow him, his error will be clear and his position becomes weaker.
Therefore, a careful examination of the other party in a debate and trying to identify his starting point and method of finding proof and evidence will assist in finding out his contradictions and poor evidence, as well as where he may contradict his own principles, let alone other principles.
Rule the Fifth: Do not take a merely defensive attitude
A defensive attitude is weaker than being on the attack. It is particularly so when the response of the one who defends the truth is not particularly solid. Moreover, those who raise doubts and misconceptions, whatever line they follow, adopt some creeds that are seriously questionable. It is important that such problems as they have should be pointed out and explained to people. This can be done through asking questions about these problems and asking their advocates for satisfactory answers.
Atheists and unbelievers generally often try to raise questions about Islam, but do not give us a balanced presentation of the basis of their thoughts and concepts. This gives the audience an impression that their stand is strong, while the one who defends the truth appears weaker, unless he is endowed with a fine style and solid argument like the late Ahmad Deedat showed.
Rule the Sixth: Refuse invalid premises
If we accept invalid premises, our opponents will impose on us wrong conclusions which we may not accept. Therefore, we must not accept such premises in the first place. For example, some atheists may put this question: ‘Do you agree that whatever exists is brought into existence by someone or something?’ If you say: ‘I agree’, they will say: ‘God exists: who brought Him into existence?’ The point here is that the premise should not be accepted, because it is erroneous. The correct premise is: Whatever happens is the result of something that makes it happen. God, Mighty and Exalted, does not happen. Hence, we cannot put questions about Him like: who created Him, or who brought Him into existence.
Rule the Seventh: When you claim, provide your evidence, and when you quote, be accurate
Adud al-Din al-Igi said in Adab al-Bahth: ‘If you say something that transmits information, then be accurate if you are quoting someone else, and provide your evidence when you say something of your own accord’. This rule sums up an important aspect of the area of debate. It means that a claim cannot be accepted unless it is accompanied by evidence. On the other hand, when one quotes a scholar, a writer, a group or any source, one must prove the accuracy of one’s quotation. Otherwise, one’s statement has no value. A proper application of this rule will provide young men and women with solid immunity to current misconceptions.
In this context, we must differentiate between ‘correct quotation’ and ‘reference’. For example, some people cite certain historical events to criticise and even abuse some of the Prophet’s companions. If you ask them for proof, they would say that it is included in al-Tabari’s book on history. They may even mention the volume and page where the information is to be found. In fact, this is no proof of accuracy. It is merely a reference to a certain source.
We need to refer to al-Tabari’s book to make sure of the basis of his reporting the story. This means checking the chain of transmission of the story: is it an authentic one or not, or does the story have a chain of transmission in the first place? The point here is that al-Tabari did not require any authentication of what he included in his history book. Therefore, reference to al-Tabari’s history is not a proof of accuracy, but a mere reference to a source that is subject to examination to prove accuracy.
Rule the Eighth: Refuse selective citing of text evidence and insist on reviewing all relevant texts
This is one of the most important rules. Selective evidence is always preferred by those who raise doubts, atheists and missionaries. To give a few examples, some try to prove that Christianity is a true faith citing the verse that says: ‘Say: Bring the Torah and recite it’. (3: 93). (Note: would it not be better to say Judaism and Jews given the reference to the Torah as opposed the OT?)
They ignore all the other verses that show Christians as unbelievers. Another example is that some people quote the verse that says: ‘You cannot guide aright everyone whom you love. It is God who guides whom He wills’. (28: 56)
They cite this in support of the claim that man has no choice in life, but rather is subject to a superior will. They do not look at other verses that clearly state that man exercises his own will and makes his choices, such as the verse that says: ‘The truth [has now come] from your Lord. Let him who wills, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it.’ (18: 29)
On the other hand, those who reject the sunnah cite in support of their claims the verse that says: ‘We have bestowed from on high upon you the Book to make everything clear’. (16: 89)
They ignore all the Qur’anic verses that order us to obey the Prophet (peace be upon him).
Observations for Whoever Defends Islam
One: The importance of refuting misconceptions.
God says in the Qur’an: ‘Do not obey the unbelievers, but strive most vigorously against them with this Qur'an’(25: 52) .
Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The one who refutes the claims of deviant people is engaged in jihad. Yahya ibn Yahya used to say that the defence of the sunnah is of greater value than jihad’[ Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo‘ al-Fatawa, Vol. 4, p. 14.].
Moreover, to state the truth in all clarity and refute all false concepts are the tasks assigned to all prophets. Furthermore, God Himself answers those who denied Him and criticised His faith, legislation and messenger. He says: ‘They say: “The Lord of Grace has taken to Himself a son!” Indeed you have said a most monstrous falsehood, at which the heavens might be rent into fragments, and the earth be split asunder, and the mountains fall down in ruins! That people should ascribe a son to the Lord of Grace, although it is inconceivable that the Lord of Grace should take to Himself a son.(19: 88-92)
God also says: ‘The unbelievers ask: “Why has not the Qur'an been revealed to him all at once?” Thus [it has been revealed] so that We might strengthen your heart with it, and We have imparted it to you by gradual revelation. Whenever they come to you with an argument, We shall reveal to you the truth and the best explanation’.(25: 32-3)
Two: It is important to remember that in any debate, we are defending Islam, not putting our own ideas forward. This means that Islam should be presented as it is, observing the way Islamic advocacy should be conducted and presenting the most important and essential principles.
Three: An advocate of Islam should conduct his efforts well, but must remember that he is not responsible for people’s reactions. He simply exerts his efforts knowing that some people will not respond to the truth, as God makes clear in the Qur’an.
Four: An advocate of Islam should take care to reflect Islamic manners and values, so that he himself presents a good example. This is useful in reducing the effects of misconceptions. A fine moral example by a religious person is an exercise in silent advocacy, which can be very effective. God says to the Prophet: ‘Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have broken away from you’.(3: 159)
A General Map of Current Misconceptions
Contemporary misconceptions and doubts raised by atheists, unbelievers and rejectors of the sunnah against Islam and its fundamentals are of two main types, and each type includes several classes of misconception. [The following is a general classification of misconceptions and a brief discussion of each will follow].
The First Type: Misconceptions levelled at the very essence of Islam.
These are of four classes:
Misconceptions about God: His existence, perfect attributes and the purpose of His actions. These misconceptions fall under two headings. The first includes misconceptions about proving God’s existence. The main misconceptions under this heading are:
- The question: who created God?
- Objections to the evidence confirming God’s existence, such as the rejection of the principle of causality.
- The claim that the laws of nature show that there is no need to suppose that God exists.
- Citing some recent scientific theories, such as those theories about evolution or a multiverse and some aspects of quantum physics as an alternative to belief in God’s existence.
Under the second heading we find misconceptions about God’s perfect attributes and about the purpose of His actions. The main misconceptions under this heading include:
- Why have we been created; and why are we ordered to worship God?
- Why does evil exist in the world?
- Are prayers really answered by God?
- Why are unbelievers punished in hell forever?
- How to reconcile divine justice with God’s will and the concept that people’s actions are already written?
Misconceptions about the Qur’an. These fall under two headings. Under the first heading doubts are raised about its source and its being revealed by God. The second heading includes claims that the Qur’an contains errors. Such alleged errors are of three kinds: linguistic, scientific and the presence of contradictions between different verses.
Misconceptions about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and these fall under two headings: raising doubts about his prophethood, and misconceptions about certain events during his lifetime. The main things that come under criticism in his life are his marriages to Aishah and to Safiyyah, as well as his multiple marriages. Also, the situations involving the Qurayzah Jews and the Urani people are severely criticised.
Misconceptions about Islamic legislation. The most important ones in this class are:
- Legislation concerning women and the claim that Islam is unfair to women.
- Legislation concerning jihad and the claim that Islam practises violence.
- Slavery and the punishment for apostasy, and the claim that Islam denies freedom.
- Punishments for adultery and theft, and the claim that Islam is cruel.
This does not mean that some Muslims reject any of these rulings, but there are people who use them to attack Islam and its basis.
The Second Type: Misconceptions aiming to criticise the essential principles of Islamic law, but not the essence of Islam. They are divided into five classes:
Misconceptions about the Prophet’s sunnah. These come under several headings. Under the first heading we encounter misconceptions about the validity of the sunnah and that the Qur’an is sufficient with no need for the sunnah. The second heading raises misconceptions about the validity of hadiths narrated by single reporters, while the third heading covers misconceptions about the narrators of the hadiths. Misconceptions concerning the history of the sunnah and its writing and documentation come under the fourth heading while the fifth heading covers misconceptions about the hadith discipline and the methodologies of scholars of Hadith. Heading number six includes misconceptions about particular hadiths, alleging that they are contrary to reason, the physical world, the Qur’an, modern science or to other hadiths.
Misconceptions about the methodology of understanding religious texts.
Misconceptions about the Prophet’s companions.
Misconceptions about unanimity as a source of rulings.
Misconceptions about mandatory punishments, i.e. hudud.