Freedom of thought and belief is an important ideal that deserves to be respected by all communities, especially when it is expressed in the form of the positive, religious virtues of tolerance, forbearance, and patience with the doubts and questions of others. The ideal is less impressive when it is a passive, uncaring and careless, indulgence, which lets anyone think and behave as they please so long as no immediate physical harm is done to anyone else: in this attitude there is no concern for harm to the social-ethical environment that becomes apparent only in the longer term, in the same way as damage to the natural environment becomes apparent only in the longer term.
It is a serious failing on the part of Muslims, of their families and their teachers and their institutions, that they are unable to deal with the doubts and questions from within their own community with tolerance, forbearance and patience. Far from striving to understand these doubts and questions, they seek refuge in assertions of group identity, and directly or indirectly reject those who have doubts and questions. Those who doubt and question are either told that they “do not belong”, or they are made to feel that they “do not belong”. Then, sooner or later, publicly or in secret, the feeling of “not belonging” matures into actively “not believing”.
We cannot be indifferent to this outcome. It is a part of every Muslim’s responsibility to contribute, in the best way, to the protection and defence of the religion, which includes educating the young and new Muslims in such a way that they believe in the rightness and benefits of worshipping God in loving obedience. For sure, we will be questioned in the hereafter as to how conscientiously we discharged this responsibility.
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First and foremost, we should ensure that, in our homes and in our public life, there is a correspondence between what we say and what we do. It is possible for a hospital nurse to do all the tasks and routines that make up looking after the sick but do them coldly, reluctantly, just for the monthly salary, without any effort of warmth for the situation of the patients, without any care for whether they get better or get worse.
Such a nurse does not inspire respect for the nursing profession, even if the individual acts professionally and executes all the routines correctly: all of that is not enough; there has to be the unpaid, unspecifiable “more” of care and concern for the sick. In the same way, a minimal obedience to the outward forms and expressions of being Muslim is not enough. Obedience and dutifulness must be combined with an active willingness, a loving consent, to do them. God has so created human beings that real, lasting consent is not possible for us without love for, and understanding of, our obligations. Both, the love and the understanding, become embedded in us from the words and example of those who teach us what the obligations are. We learn, implicitly, from the general behaviour, temperament and manners of our teachers and elders that they believe in the worth of the obligations they pass on to us. That belief is, without direct speech, communicated to us through its effects in unselfishness, softness of speech, humility, steadfastness, and all the other virtues and graces that dignify human life. By contrast, one who does all his or her formal obligations rigorously and strictly but otherwise behaves horribly, is selfish, self-righteous, arrogant, impatient with the lapses or shortcomings of others, will not inspire respect for the religion that he or she claims to adhere to.
Secondly, we must learn to accept the historical reality that it is a long, long time in the past that Muslim societies, anywhere in the world, were in control of the many different areas of thought and behaviour that make up collective life. In some places, roughly six generations have passed since it was the case that the norms and rules of an Islamic lifestyle pervaded the curriculums of study in schools and colleges, or informed economic and political choices, or international relations, and the like. Accordingly, over this long time, Islamic life-style, and the learning that goes with it, has shrunk to the core areas of the rites of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. It is a mistake with very serious consequences that teachers who have studied these core areas — and not studied all the other matters that used to be an integral part of the education of the ulema – tend to stipulate, for all areas of life, those conditions (norms and rules) that are appropriate for the special, formal occasions of the rites. It is not practical to require that the ways of dress, speech, walking, sitting, standing that need to be observed when (for example) attending prayer in a masjid or in a private place, must also be observed when going about everyday business, like shopping or going to work and the like. To demand, of oneself or others, what is not practically possible, is a form of tyranny. Every Muslim knows that our master and guide, God pray over him and give him peace, repeatedly affirmed that he was not sent to make our lives hard but to make them easy in the long term, and this “long term” must include the hereafter. We can neither preserve what we have from our past, nor build up for the future, without patient attention to the realities of life and steadfast devotion and reliance on God.
Thirdly, we should respect all the questions raised by children in the home or by students in the school or college. Respect means a number of things: (1) accepting that the questioner is sincere; (2) doing our best to understand the full import of the question, what is behind it and what is after it (this is especially important as the questioner usually does not know how to express their concern clearly); (3) ignoring any deliberate or unintentional disrespect for the religion or for the teacher of the religion in the manners of the questioner or in the content of their question; and (4) allowing the question.
The last mentioned is, perhaps, the most important condition. The teacher needs to make the questioner feel that asking a question or having a doubt is a proper, normal part of the human need to know and understand so that one may give one’s consent, willingly and with love, to what the religion commands. It is necessary that the teacher should indicate the limit of his or her knowledge, should not claim certainty where there is none, and agree that disagreement on certain matters is manageable within the community. This is at the heart of allowing the question. Without this allowing, the teacher denies to him or herself the opportunity to develop the virtues of humility and forbearance. Worse, he or she reduces believing to belonging.
Fourthly, it is important to distinguish religious conformity from cultural conformity. The distinction between the two is not always easy to make because religions inform civilisation and culture, but often it is not that hard either. It is much easier to belong than to believe, so for teachers and learners alike, it is easier if people just go along with (i.e., more or less imitate) what they see others in their group doing. But the truth is that the rewards of a life lived with religious seriousness do not come by this easier route. There is no shortcut to avoid the effort of reflecting on what is most or more important, what is less. Of the most important things, the most important is an informed and dedicated conscience, a clear intention, an educated will to do the right thing. This is not achieved by conforming alone, understanding and consent are necessary. In the process, there is trial and error, and so long as individuals and community do not abandon the effort, the end is success. It may help to make an analogy with how we use language: we often mis-speak, mis-hear and mis-understand what is said to us; only if we refuse to listen any longer, only if we refuse to invite the person to try again and say what they think they mean, do we end up with a complete failure of communication. Any parent who has tried to understand their child’s efforts to recount what happened to them during the day knows that it is necessary to give them the time and opportunity to find the right words in which to tell their story.
Finally, it is worth stressing what is so obvious it never gets mentioned: that we distinguish the duty to say clearly and courageously what is right, according to our knowledge and understanding, from the duty to impose that understanding on whoever disagrees with us. The best of Muslims have always said that before we declare someone an unbeliever — the most extreme form of telling someone that they do not belong — we must first exhaust every possible reason, every possible excuse, for not doing so.
Nearly always, disagreements can be managed, they do not need to be annulled. Had God willed it, it is no matter for Him to have made us all uniformly believers, a single homogenous community, alike in tastes and traits and aspirations, but He did not do so. Our differences, within and between confessional communities, are His means of building in us a sense of proportion about our own sense of righteousness and our capacity to accomplish our aims. The only absolute certainty is that we can neither be right nor achieve our aims without acknowledging our dependence on Him and putting our trust in Him, rather than in ourselves. We are absolutely indebted creatures: we need to develop the humility that goes with that.