“But mama, if every religion thinks they’re the right one, then how do we know that Islam is really the right one?”
As people streamed out of the lecture hall at an Islamic conference, I remember hearing an innocent-sounding voice ask this question with great hesitation. As I looked over my shoulder through the crowds of people, I managed to catch sight of a mother scolding her older child for “asking such questions”, which was something that “you just don’t do.” The question likely caught her off guard, as it would many of us, but is the discouraging reaction doing more harm than good?
Innocence and ignorance; questioning and challenging; discussions and debates; often two sides of the same coin that we try to reconcile in our everyday lives. Questions are the foundation of any two-way conversation. They can either propel it to discovery, understanding, and enlightenment or they shut it down, hurt feelings, or put people on the defensive. Attempting to understand which side a conversation, question, or comment lies on is often just chalked up to a matter of opinion, but it can also be more than just that.
Though not explicitly labelled as such, the principle of Socratic questioning is often encouraged within discourses, especially concerning religion. This Socratic principle is essentially disciplined questioning that is used to pursue thought in multiple directions. These directions can encompass exploring complex ideas, uncovering truths, and opening up issues and problems, among other things.
Contrary to popular belief, this is in no way at odds with Islamic tenets; our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “The cure for confusion is but to ask.” However, even within our subconsciously Socratic methods, the element of discipline is key – especially when concerning one’s personal faith, and attempting to tread that fine line between questioning and challenging.
There is no need to avoid asking questions altogether, as is the tendency concerning religion, because it shrouds principles and values of the deen in unnecessary secrecy. Questions should, however, be asked with the proper etiquette and manners. Unfortunately, this key factor is sometimes lost in our discourses and implementing this discipline is often as simple as asking yourself questions before posing one to others.
In trying to condense the various qualifiers of a well-intentioned question, there arise three common areas of differentiation:
Intention and Goals
This applies to both the specific question and the reason for seeking the knowledge in the first place. Have a clear sense of what you are seeking, and define what your goals are for seeking knowledge. Is it to seek the pleasure of Allah (SWT)? Do you intend to apply the knowledge in your life? Are you questioning only while seeking a certain answer? Are you willing to accept that this may be a question that has no definite, simple explanation?
Many interactions within Islam have appropriate mannerisms in which they are conducted, and the manner in which you ask questions is no exception. Are you asking relevant questions appropriately, taking into consideration time, situation and content? Are you trying to match your level of questioning to the level of knowledge currently being discussed? Are you asking repetitive or unnecessary questions?
Humility and Respect
Before questioning, a student should have a deep respect for scholars (even when we disagree), scholarly writings, books, and even knowledge itself. Are you willing to understand the answers you receive, or are you merely waiting to provide a refutation? Is the question intended to challenge or try to trap someone into an answer?
“How could you possibly follow a religion like that? Islam allows men to beat their wives. Women inherit less than men. I can’t follow a religion that treats women like that. Don’t tell me to read or seek more information and knowledge, I’ve read the Quran multiple times – I used to be a Muslim actually.” This unfortunately true scenario is the antithesis of the situation featured at the beginning of this piece; when genuine questioning and seeking knowledge becomes a challenge with no real intentions or goals, no manners of questioning, and no respect for the second party. The ‘question’ at the beginning merely a rhetorical prefacing of a closed minded rant; not a question at all.
Religious knowledge is the legacy of the Prophets, and scholars are their inheritors. When a person acquires religious knowledge, they come into a share of that inheritance. This is why seeking Islamic knowledge is one of the greatest acts of worship a person can engage in. A seeker of this knowledge should then carry themselves with the best of conduct, and exhibit the best of manners.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.