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From Hadith Rejection To COVID-19 Denialism: 10 Critical Thinking Tools For Fighting Back Against Anti-Intellectualism

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(This article was originally posted at ibnabeeomar.com. To follow Omar’s work please subscribe to his email list.)

I was excited, as a teenager, to join the uncles for their Saturday morning tafseer halaqah at my local masjid. I still have vivid memories of going in with expectations of diving into the meaning of the Qur’an, but instead having whatever little I knew about Islam at that point being challenged.

The uncle leading the discussion was, quite emphatically, teaching that the story of Prophet Eesa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) returning was pure fiction. He said that the famous story of the Prophet Muhammed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) taking the miraculous journey and ascending the heavens (Isra wal Mi’raj) was, at best, a dream. At the root of all this, he said, was that the ahadith transmitted to us about the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) were fabrications and could not be relied upon.

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This went against everything I had learned about Islam growing up. It intuitively felt wrong, but I had no idea how to intelligently engage in the discussion with someone who was seemingly much more advanced in their understanding of the issue than I was.

As a result, I was forced to grapple with difficult questions. How do you establish what’s true? Are we really basing our religion on what appeared to be hearsay? These elders I respected were saying something different from what I learned from the masjid imam at Sunday school. It became difficult to know whom to trust.  How do I even begin to learn about a subject that I have zero knowledge of? If what they’re saying is true, how much of the Islam I learned is actually wrong?

It was overwhelming. And the stakes were high – after all, my akhirah was now suddenly in question.

Looking back, this conflict and confusion was not unique. Most problems that feel complex and ambiguous will tend to create the same sentiments. How do we deal with global warming? How do we navigate the debates about racism in the US? Should we vaccinate our kids? How, exactly, are we supposed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

In this article I will present a framework of critical thinking questions that we can use to think through such problems. The goal is for this framework to serve a toolbox to help guide our thinking process, tackle cognitive biases, and make the best decisions possible with the information available and within the time-frame needed.

As we go through the framework, I will present examples from my own experience navigating this hadith issue at my masjid, and also examples from the current pandemic. Although the two issues are unrelated, the thought process needed to analyze the problem and make a decision is similar.

The framework is comprised of the following 10 steps:

Purpose – Are We Solving the Right Problem?

The discussion with the uncles raised a number of questions, such as:

  • Are Islamic scholars telling us things are sunnah based on unverifiable reports?

  • If the stories of Isra wal Mi’raj and Prophet ‘Eesa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) coming back are false, what other stories have I been told that are false?

  • If all we need is the Qur’an, why does everyone else seem to think we also need hadith?

At the core of this is the question: Are ahadith verifiable to be authentic? In other words, when someone attributes a statement to the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), do we have an objective way to determine that he actually said the quote attributed to him?

The pandemic presented complexities far beyond undertaking an intellectual journey. It forced everyone into a position of completely disrupting our lives (from buying toilet paper to where we work), dealing with death at a massive scale, fear of infection, conspiracy theories, conflicting information, and more – all playing out in an emotionally-charged world where every single thing was amplified to the nth degree by social media.

In dealing with the question about how to respond to the pandemic, pay attention to how framing the problem could lead to drastically different outcomes:

  • What does the government need to do to end the pandemic?

  • How do I protect myself and my family from the virus?

  • How can we ensure the healthcare system can handle the overflow of patients?

  • Do masks work?

  • Am I actually harming anyone by eating in a restaurant?

  • How can I keep the government from interfering in my life?

  • How can we implement a vaccine mandate?

  • How can we fight against a vaccine mandate?

  • Can’t I just continue living life as normal?

  • What do we do about the economy?

  • How do we get kids back in school?

  • How can we facilitate safe learning for school children?

  • What are the best decisions we can make for public health?

Each of these resonate differently for people depending on their personal circumstances.

Narrowing down the problem is overwhelming. How do we know we’re solving the right issue? In the right way? Am I relying on the right people? What if I’m wrong?

The complexity of the problem in this case is congruent to the complexity of the solution.

For purposes of this article we’ll take a journey through this framework focusing on two questions (primarily on the latter):

  1. Are the claims made about hadith by those uncles in the halaqah I attended true?

  2. What are my personal responsibilities, as a Muslim, in response to the pandemic?

Our goal in answering these questions is to resolve this problem, as close to the truth or a “right answer” as possible, while preventing pre-existing biases to cause us to fall into extremes.

 

Framing – What are my Guiding Values?

We may be tempted to list off things like pleasing Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), acting with fairness, being honest, and so on. These are important and play a role. In this framework though, the values themselves are guided by the problem we are solving.

Our guiding values are what we will use to set our intention, and ensure that our decision is in alignment with what we identify going in. If the intention is wrong, the outcome will be wrong.

In tackling the hadith question, the intention was verification. Were what those uncles said true? This is different from approaching it with the notion of trying to prove or disprove their claim.

After identifying the problem and setting the intention, we now need to identify guiding values. Good values here would be submitting to the truth or doing what is pleasing to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). A bad guiding value here would be seeking that which feels most personally empowering to me.

Framing

One way of thinking about this is how we are framing the problem. Are we taking a God-first approach, or a me-first approach? Are we taking a revelation-first approach and submitting our intellect and rationality to it? Or are we taking an intellect-first approach and retrofitting the revelation to align with it?

With the idea of ahadith, this is a little easier to approach. We readily accept the Qur’an as revelation along with the need to submit ourselves to it. The revelation-first framing then leads us to questions like – what does the Qur’an say about following the example and teachings of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) – which are derived from hadith literature? If the Qur’an tells us to pray, how do we determine the method of prayer, and the number of rak’at in each prayer? The inability to answer this shows the shortcoming of an intellect-first approach.

One way to validate our framing is to see if we would take the same approach in an analogous situation. If a question arose about how to pay my zakat, or ensure that the conditions of a marriage contract are fulfilled, or learning about what breaks my fast, or determining how many rak’at Isha prayer is – would I start with an approach of seeking the truth and submitting to it? Or validating a pre-existing conclusion that makes my life easiest?  For example, would we accept the proposition that we fix Ramadan to be in December every year so we can have shorter days for fasting because it makes more sense to us to fix the time to coincide with holiday season and have shorter days?

As we shift the question of guiding values to the Covid pandemic, framing becomes more critical.

What are my personal responsibilities, as a Muslim, in response to the pandemic?

This question frames my response in terms of religious obligation and responsible behavior. This should direct me to guiding values like, what can I do to protect myself? What are the recommended ways to protect others? Can I do anything to keep people from getting sick? Do I have a religious obligation to make sacrifices beyond what my government may or may not be mandating?

What is missing from this framing is even more important.

Consider approaching the question with a framing of freedom. What can I do to not be forced into doing anything? How can I find ways to get around local mandates for my business? How can I operate with the least amount of inconvenience?

When it comes to a pandemic, or an issue of public safety, we can extrapolate to other similar examples. Seat belt and drunk driving laws are matters of public safety. A framing of “how do we keep everyone safe” intuitively makes sense here. A framing of “liberty and freedom” would be abhorrent. If a corporation wanted to dump toxic waste in the land behind one of our homes, we would frame it in terms of health and environmental impact. It would be entirely nonsensical to approach such a discussion from the perspective of whether dumping toxic waste near someone’s home is fundamentally limiting the freedom of corporations to do business.

It begs the question then, why would someone insist on applying a different frame to a similar problem? We’ll explore this in more detail in the next section. To give a short answer now, in a complex situation where we do not have control, we tend to find ways of interpreting an event to align with whatever makes us feel good.

Regardless, even if we were to accept the framing of approaching a pandemic through the lens of freedom, it would still be problematic. To what extent should personal liberty be allowed to endanger others?

Some may respond that we have the personal freedom to eat unhealthy foods and make ourselves obese. This is true. However, there is a critical flaw in this logic – obesity is not highly communicable from one person to another. Would we argue on behalf of someone with tuberculosis to have the “personal freedom” to cough and sneeze on others and infect them?

Framing personal responsibility in response to Covid as a violation of freedom has led people to disregard public health recommendations such as masking and social distancing. At the time of this writing, over 700,000 people have died from Covid in the United States. This accounts for over 15% of global Covid deaths, despite the US having only 4% of the world’s population. Countries like Taiwan and New Zealand show what an alternative framing of communal concern did by taking early and consistent precautions.

To put the framing another way – do you consider it your moral imperative to act your sense of individual freedom? Or do you consider your moral imperative the safety of yourself and others? Which of the two do you prioritize over the other?

Are You Advocating That We Act Out of Fear?

One particularly interesting response to the idea of personal responsibility during a pandemic is the idea of not wanting to be “dominated” by fear. The logic here is that making decisions based out of fear is a defeatist mindset that will hold someone back.

I agree wholeheartedly with not being dominated by fear when making any type of decision. Not only is it defeatist, but it reflects a shortcoming in the optimism we should have in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

What then, does acting out of fear look like?

For some, the idea of wearing a mask or getting a vaccine is acting out of fear. Assuming that’s correct, what would bravery look like then? Would we consider it brave to pretend the pandemic doesn’t exist? Or to disregard any and all public health recommendations in a show of bravado to brag to the world we are not scared of catching Covid?

I would characterize it as the opposite. Being dominated by fear means freezing and being unable to adapt to the situation at hand. Fear is clinging on to the status quo afraid of embracing the unknown of the pandemic. On the other hand, making sacrifices to protect yourself and others would be a show of courage. To turn your life upside down, change your manner of schooling, working, eating out, socializing, rescheduling weddings, and the list goes on – all require courage. It is stepping up to the plate to make sacrifices to help yourself and help those around you.

If an airplane starts to lose cabin pressure, the oxygen masks drop. This is naturally a frightening experience. If someone refused to put on the mask and insisted they were showing everyone how strong their lungs were, would we consider it brave? Would we say they are being dominated by fear if they put the oxygen mask on? Or would we consider the one who is able to remain calm, put on their mask, and help those around them, to be the courageous one?

Selecting a frame to apply to your problem is not enough. That framing needs to be tested, and alternatives taken into account.

 

Influences – What Are My Biases?

“People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.” -George Orwell

We obsess sometimes with being objective and unbiased. This is not only impractical, but it’s unrealistic.

A more pragmatic approach is to recognize the existence of our biases, and put systems and structure around them to minimize their effects.

What is Water?

David Foster Wallace shared this story in his famous talk This is Water, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

For our purposes, consider water as analogous to the societal culture of America. There are certain attitudes, values, assumptions, ideals, and norms that are so prevalent, we no longer notice them. Some of us are falsely comforted by the idea that being Muslim will somehow let us filter out the bad parts of societal culture. This is not the case. It is “water” precisely because we do not realize how much it affects us.

There are stories we’ve been told since we were children that have worked their way into our character and identity. One of those stories is the idea of the underdog triumphing over the big bad enemy. This is how we are taught to understand classical stories like David vs. Goliath. It is how we are taught to understand the American Revolution and the fall of the Alamo. We grew up singing songs about Davy Crockett. The number of sports movies produced in the last 50 years that idealize this same narrative are hard to count. The Mighty Ducks is cliche if only because that story is repeated so many times. I remember watching Rudy multiple times in school, with each time the teacher reinforcing the same lesson.

We grow up being taught that the underdog winning is always the better story. It creates a paradox of sorts. Normally, the underdog does not win. It is precisely because it is out of the norm that it creates such a compelling story. Who would watch Mighty Ducks if the stronger team won in each movie? Who would watch Rudy if he, like 99.9% of people in his position, never actually played in the game?

A consequence of this is that we emulate the stories that inspire us. We can see ourselves as the underdog waiting to conquer the big bad enemy.

I found this theme to be true in my discussion with those uncles about hadith. They genuinely saw themselves as a rag-tag group of do-gooders wrestling the “true Islam” back from the big bad mighty establishment of Islamic scholars that were gate-keeping their right to interpret the religion how they wanted. And it is no different when you see the lionization of anyone who stands up to “the government,” or “big Pharma,” or the World Health Organization [WHO], or the Centers for Disease Control [CDC], or the big bad group of epidemiologists who are telling us things we don’t want to hear.

We make ourselves heroes of our own narrative without stopping to assess whether it is even appropriate to play a hero role in this situation.

The myth of the self-made man is a similar narrative.

Americans value the idea of a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sense of industriousness over intellectualism. The American Dream is to come here with nothing, work hard, and become a huge success.  Education was not needed to make yourself.

An ideal of equal opportunity has somehow equated to an equality of qualification.

It always strikes me how other countries perceive American culture. Some see us as a community that values things over people. They see us as a country that would rather have gigantic SUV’s than functioning healthcare, unwilling to consume less in order to invest more in societal good. America is seen as a society of consumption rather than community.

This background helps us to understand why the economy, instead of public health, dominated so much of the discussions in America around Covid.

Economic prowess is ingrained in our psyche. Sacrifice for public health requires convincing. It requires deference to experts on an issue that may be out of our grasp.

The problem is that this deference goes against the anti-intellectualism that we have come to accept as normal.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” –Isaac Asimov

Relying on someone else’s expertise makes us feel excluded when we feel entitled to be included. Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, noted, “We think expertise is this very exclusionary idea, which it is, because it’s supposed to be: Not everybody gets a vote on how to fly the plane.”

The truth is, we have no problem deferring to expertise when it comes to trusting that the bridges we drive on have been built to support the necessary weight of all the cars, or trusting a surgeon to perform an emergency appendectomy.

We push back when that expertise is used to legislate laws that affect our lives, because it goes against the freedom we are taught to value above all else. This is what is meant when something becomes politicized and threatens to undermine society.

This has two consequences. At an individual level, we resist being told we need to do something we do not want to do. At a societal level, anti-intellectualism becomes a tool to appeal to those individuals and thus gain or retain power.

This is why masjid boards rewrite their constitutions to exclude imams from decision making authority. And it is also why the previous president waged such a public battle against Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. Are we really to believe that the person tasked by 7 different presidents to be in charge of things like being prepared for global pandemics suddenly had his credibility and knowledge nullified because we entered into a global pandemic? Or is it more likely that his public health recommendations made people uncomfortable, and there was pushback and politicization?

The scourge of anti-intellectualism in our culture is that it allows us to believe whatever we want regardless of if there is evidence for it or not. There is no difference in logic for the one who says I shouldn’t have to pray because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows what is in my heart, and the one who says I shouldn’t have to wear a mask or get a vaccine because I’m already keeping myself safe.

Motivated Rationality

In approaching a complex problem, how self-aware are we of our own biases? How good are we at the skill of interrogating our own intentions?

The most destructive bias may be that of motivated rationality. This is when we form a conclusion, and then go look for evidence to support it. It’s like thinking you know who is guilty of a crime, and then seeking out evidence to implicate them instead of taking the approach of following the evidence to see where it leads.

Motivated reasoning’ is when your gut tells you what to think, and your brain tries to figure out how to think it. We all have areas of life where we seek to affirm our desires. It may be politics, social issues, health, religion, or even our preference between iPhone and Android.

I remember having a discussion with someone who was adamant that hadith were simply not able to be proven authentic. As proof, he said that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself forbade a companion from writing down what he said. In his mind, he got me. Irrefutable. To spell out the obvious flaw in logic, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) telling someone not to write down what he said is in and of itself a hadith. How do you reject something as a proof, and then use it to try and prove your argument?

This is one example of how motivated rationality causes us to fall prey to logical fallacies and cognitive dissonance. The internet exacerbates this by prioritizing and rewarding “gotcha” statements and hot takes over well thought out research.

One such “gotcha” statement is when people ask – “Why can people with the vaccine still catch Covid? I thought that was the whole point. See? The vaccine doesn’t work!” Responding to claims like these is exhausting if only because the answers are so readily available. The fundamental flaw with this line of reasoning is that essentially says if something is not 100% effective it is considered a 100% failure. Would we apply the same logic to seat belts? Airbags? Wearing a raincoat?

The answer is that the vaccine mitigates. It decreases the amount of people who die from the disease. It decreases the number of people who will be hospitalized. It decreases the burden on our healthcare system and opens up ICU beds for those who need them. It frees up healthcare providers to care for others who have been unable to receive care. It provides protection to those who cannot get vaccinated by decreasing the risk of transmission.

In order for this perspective to sway you, it requires you to approach the issue from a framing of public health and safety – not personal freedom and resistance due to your own inconvenience.

The statement of Imam Shafi’ee comes to mind – “I have never debated with an ignorant person except that I have lost.” How do you establish common ground around the idea of public health with someone who enters the conversation with not only a complete ignorance of public health, epidemiology, medicine, biology, chemistry, and other subjects – but also a deep motivation to be against all of those things because of something someone said that reaffirmed their own internal desires to be against it?

At some point, a person must accept that the preconceived ideas they are unwilling to change are exhibiting a sense of willful ignorance – “intentionally maintaining a firm stance on the topic or issue at hand — often upheld by values, intuition, emotions, or anecdotal evidence — and selectively disregarding any contrary evidence. While implicit and unconscious biases certainly play a role in willful ignorance, it is understood … as a conscious and calculated choice” (Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the US and How it is Literally Killing us).

Ego

Interrogating our intentions and identifying when we are acting out of a sense of motivated rationality requires reckoning with something even more difficult. Our ego.

Why do we willingly submit to the expertise of the random person strapping a harness on us when we go bungee jumping? Or to the person putting on our parachute when going sky-diving? But not to the Islamic scholar who studied hadith in an Islamic university for 10 years to understand how hadith were compiled and collected? And not to the public health expert telling us we need to get vaccinated, wear masks, and socially distance to get past the pandemic?

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” -TS Eliot

When we do our taxes, if an accountant tells us to file them a certain way, we would probably ask some clarifying questions and ultimately trust their expertise and listen. We have no emotional investment in being known as someone who is proficient in filing their taxes [unless, of course, you do this for a living]. Even though we are ultimately responsible for filing our taxes correctly, our ego does not feel hurt if we get something wrong in the process because it is not a part of our identity.

When it comes to religion, it is much different. When someone tells us what to do in the arena of religion, our ego feels bruised. It’s a part of our identity, and we don’t want someone to tell us we are wrong. Even worse, we rebel when it seems someone is taking control away from us. This is what happens with the hadith rejection issue. Accepting that hadith are part of revelation and must be followed takes away our ability to opine about the religion in the way we want.

When it comes to science, we have no issues accepting the methodology of scientific experimentation or qualification of a scientist in regards to marine biology, geology, biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, oncology, thermodynamics, or botany.

When the subject changes to vaccines and epidemiology, then all of a sudden our ego is bruised again. Someone else, with expertise they have and we lack, is taking away our ability to act how we want. So we discredit them as a way of attempting to bring credibility back to ourselves.

Our ego is wounded even more if we have previously made our stance known on an issue, and thus tied a part of our identity to it. If someone decided 10 years ago that they were going to be an anti-vaxxer and started telling people about it, it has now become part of their identity. They are emotionally invested in it. They are probably subscribed to anti-vaccine propaganda Facebook groups, watch their videos online, and are in touch with a community of like-minded individuals who have formed bonds around this singular issue. Fast forward to when we are in a global pandemic and we are told we need to get vaccinated – will such a person do honest research to determine the right course of action? Or are they too invested in being an anti-vaxxer to be objective? Unfortunately, we have seen more of the latter. Before the vaccine was even out, their propaganda efforts had started.

People’s refusal to wear masks had less to do with scientific studies, and more to do with motivated rationality because of how wearing a mask negatively affected their own self-image.

Interrogating our intentions and our ego is an important component of critical thinking. If we are not able to master this, the consequences will carry over to practically any situation like this where we are dealing with unknown complexities.

Am I Susceptible to Falling for Conspiracy Theories?

Hadith rejection is, essentially, a conspiracy theory. It posits that the official account held up by millions upon millions of scholars over 1400+ years is false. Hadith rejectors would have us believe that a small group of people, disconnected from any type of formal or traditional credentialing or expertise, have access to a truth about this issue that somehow passed everyone else by.

To make that leap in logic, and to fall for a conspiracy theory, means someone has some or all of these personality traits: paranoid and suspicious thinking, eccentricity, low level of trust in others, a strong need to feel special (there’s the ego again), belief in the world as a dangerous place, and seeing meaningful patterns where none exist.

A hadith rejector is forced into a position of arguing that every single Muslim scholar for over a millennium was lying, academically dishonest, or simply too incompetent to understand the truth. They believe Islam is under attack (dangerous world), and that by getting rid of hadith we can make Islam more defendable and palatable.

I remember an Islamic scholar visiting our local masjid for Ramadan one year, and the hadith discussion started up with these uncles. The scholar asked them a simple question – “The Qur’an says to pray. Where did you learn that Maghrib is 3 rak’at and that you have to recite Surah Fatihah in each one other than from the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) telling us how to pray?” Their response was to disparage the scholar and try to cast suspicion – “see, all you guys are the same, of course we accept how to pray, it’s all the other stuff you guys try to say is the sunnah.”

To keep the conspiracy going, you have to treat everyone with suspicion. The irony here is thick. People fall into Covid denialism because they do not want their lives to be dominated by fear. Yet, to justify it, they must be fearful and paranoid of every single person they come across in order to keep the conspiracy alive in their heads.

Is it really possible that hundreds of thousands (if not more) medical doctors, epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts from all over the world are somehow all falling into the same mistake and false information about a Covid vaccine? And moreover, if there was a conspiracy that they were somehow all in on, that there is not a single whistleblower? And the real truth can only be found in Facebook groups and WhatsApp videos? And somehow in the entire world every single person who knows anything about this subject has been duped? Emphasis here on the entire world because we Americans have a unique problem of pretending we are the center of the universe, and thinking knowledge and reason do not exist beyond our borders.

The Qur’an warns us against this type of paranoid thinking: “O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin” (49:12).

Consider the common claim that the side effects of vaccines are not being reported. This assertion is repeated over and over as if it is simply an assumed fact. They say this is because of the puppeteering of Big Pharma behind the scenes in an effort to make us all take the vaccine. Assuming for a quick second this is true, is every single other country in the world also in on this conspiracy and hiding the side effects of the vaccine? As for the initial assertion that the side effects being unreported, this claim is so beyond reason that only a person acting out of willful and stubborn ignorance would deny reality in this way.

The pandemic introduced us to an unparalleled level of ambiguity. We had no idea what was going on, or how this was going to play out. There is no definitive end in sight. It disrupted our lives in unprecedented ways and took control away from us over even the most banal parts of our lives like how we go to the grocery store or get food from a restaurant.

This can create a sense of confusion, powerlessness, distress, and anxiety. A conspiracy theory provides a way to make sense of what is going on. It gives people a narrative to hold on to that provides a sense of clarity and cognitive closure around the situation. In short, it is a way to make sense of a situation that is hard to make sense of.

The more that people are unable to deal with the ambiguity and loss of control, the more they will turn to a conspiracy to feel safe and regain a sense of control. This is one reason for focusing so much on the idea of freedom and ‘personal responsibility’ (as defined by each individual person). It  is a way to rationalize acting the way you want [control] while also rejecting any measure that is dictated by others [loss of control] whether it be public health experts, private companies, or the government. It is a way for an individual to avoid blame for their actions, especially those that may be causing harm to others.

Most viral videos that profess some level of Covid denialism have an element of portraying a persecuted victim. They feel as if everyone is conspiring against them to make them do something they do not want to do – like take a vaccine. Instead of confronting our own fears about the situation, it is easier to project a nefarious intention onto others.

Instead of dealing with our fears of contracting Covid and not yet knowing what the long-term health effects of it are, it is easier to ascribe negative intentions to others and say they are exaggerating the pandemic.

 

Information – What Evidence Do I Need to Move Forward?

When confronted with hadith rejection, I had no idea where to start. I only knew that hadith existed, but I did not yet even know that an entire Islamic science existed that explained how to authenticate them.

Since I did not even know what type of information to seek out, I knew I needed guidance from someone who was at least a little bit further ahead down the path than myself. One of my close friends was always studying Islam in his free time, so I reached out to him. This was someone whose character and knowledge (further ahead than me) I trusted in this area. He then broke down the basic reasons why hadith rejection was incorrect, how we would not have a religion without hadith, and then he directed me to some beginner level books that would help understand the issue in more detail. This provided me with a starting point.

Over the years this helped me progress from unconscious incompetence (not even knowing what I do not know) to being proficient enough to having an idea of what I did not know. I learned about mustalah al-hadith (sciences of hadith) at an introductory level. This meant I knew the science existed, some of the terminology, and a rudimentary understanding of how it worked. It was enough to instill faith that hadith were rigorously analyzed and preserved.

It meant that I knew of the existence of the science of narrators (‘Ilm al-rijaal), but it did not mean that I could take a hadith text and analyze it to determine if it was authentic or not. In fact, it did not even mean I could follow a discussion around hadith authenticity. I knew that some scholars were more lenient in grading hadith than others, and thus criticized by their peers. I was not in a position, however, to make those determinations on my own. I only knew that those conversations existed. Sometimes, knowing the conversation exists is enough. It points you to the existence of a science, of a methodology, and of a body of scholarship and research.

These initial readings gave me a better baseline of understanding (compared to zero). I was now able to spot the differences in what the uncles were saying in comparison to what the books about hadith were saying. Whatever questions remained, I could now formulate more intelligent questions to take to an imam or scholar to gain deeper understanding.

Functionally, I now understood why I was able to trust hadith literature, and the role they played in my day to day life as a Muslim. The functional knowledge did not make me a scholar of hadith, or the sciences of hadith. What it did do was provide me enough of a foundation to take action as I needed to in terms of my personal religious practice.

Had those uncles not challenged my default understanding, I may not have ever had to learn about this ideological issue in any detail.

Most of us have never given much thought to vaccines. We get vaccinated when we are born, we get the shots we need to go to school, and we get some more shots when we go on Hajj. Once a year, a lot of us get the flu shot as well. Virology, epidemiology, and public health are not areas of information we thought about with any kind of regularity.

The main exception, of course, would be anti-vaxxers who make this a part of their identity and affiliate themselves as a part of that tribe. The same way those uncles challenged my understanding of hadith, the same happened to me with vaccines. I remember going to a chiropractor for a pulled muscle, mentioning that we were expecting our first child, and then getting ambushed with stern warnings to not vaccinate the baby. He told me that vaccines are really scary, that I should do some research on them, and then he printed out a few articles off the internet and handed them to me. I promptly threw them out because it sounded crazy to me. I had no idea “vaccine hesitancy” was even a thing. Everyone I knew got the same vaccines, and none of us had any crazy side effects.

Fast forward to now, and Covid has put things like vaccines front and center of our daily discourse. Where do we start? What information do we need? What is my ability to parse and evaluate the information I come across?

The Onion summarized this perfectly with the following headline: Vaccine Skeptic Does Own Research By Enrolling 45,000 Friends In Double-Blind Clinical Trial. The satirical article pokes at the common claim made by many about doing their own research first before deciding to take the vaccine – “Determined to gather all the facts before drawing any conclusions, local vaccine skeptic Joel Edwards was reportedly doing his own research Wednesday by enrolling 45,000 friends in a double-blind clinical trial. “It’s important to always think for yourself, which is why I’m conducting a 5-year, 3-phase, placebo-controlled study with tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country,” said the 32-year-old car wash attendant, who explained that he had divided the trial participants into two randomized groups, one which he would inject with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, and the other whom he would administer an injection of saline solution.

We can only start gathering information by first recognizing our own limitations. Unless we have a formal background in medicine or scientific research, we most likely will not be able to read and process a scientific study around vaccines or masks. We will need to rely on someone to guide us.

We all have people we can go to. For example, when the vaccines were announced, we began consulting people. We spoke to healthcare professionals in our family. We spoke to ER doctors who had spent months treating Covid patients on the frontline. We read what Muslim infection disease physicians were saying, and we consulted our own primary care physicians that knew our personal medical histories. In other words, we consulted people who had the ability to parse and analyze those scientific studies, and had on the ground experience with the virus.

From there we were able to get more resources, learn about how vaccines worked, what the mRNA technology was, and so on. Functionally, we had enough information to make a confident decision for our family. We learned terms like “spike protein” (the same way we learned terms like ‘ilal al-hadith), but it did not mean we understood them with any scientific proficiency. If we were to research it on our own, we would get flooded with information we were not qualified to parse. Without having people we trust to filter it, we could have easily fallen into the trap of misinformation.

It is also important to note that the information here has a timing element to it. With hadith, I had the luxury of time to go down the journey of learning hadith sciences at my own pace. With a pandemic, the same luxury does not exist. There are real life and death ramifications to the decisions we make playing out in real time. This means a person must find the information they need to be able to make a decision as quickly as possible. You must accept that premise in order to be more comfortable with the idea that you will not be able to do all the research you need, or find assurances for every concern that you have. Of course it is not ideal, but expecting otherwise in the middle of a pandemic would be naive and disconnected from reality.

I have access to tons of information. But what makes me credibly believe that the conclusions I reach will somehow be more accurate than those of the people with access to the same information that have spent their lives building their expertise in the areas of virology, epidemiology, and public health?

 

Experts – Who Do I Trust to Give Me This Information?

This can turn into a complicated discussion, so let’s simplify it.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) commands us in the Qur’an – “ask those who have knowledge if you do not know” (16:43).

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) does not burden us with a task we cannot bear. Taking it a step further, this means we would not be commanded to ask those who know if we were not able to identify who those experts are.

A heuristic we can employ to help us with this is looking for someone who fulfills all three of the following criteria:

  1. You trust their character and integrity

  2. You trust their level of knowledge pertinent to the issue at hand

  3. Peers and colleagues of the person also testify to their proficiency

To practice dentistry, a dentist must attain certain academic qualifications and fulfill certain requirements to keep their license to practice. This is why, when seeking out a dentist, we do not really ask about where they went to college. We know that their level of knowledge has been verified elsewhere and there is an ongoing process in place to ensure their license stays valid.

Instead, we seek out questions in regards to the opinions of their peers, or about their character. We want to know if a dentist recommends unnecessary procedures just to make money. We want to know if others in the field (orthodontists, oral surgeons, other dentists) find our dentist to be reputable.

With the hadith issue, I had to navigate it exactly the same way. Who can I trust? The uncles who told me that hadith were not reliable were people of good character. They were well-respected members of the community, trustworthy, and had good reputations. They did not, however, have any credentials in the field of Islamic studies. There were apparent reasons to doubt their credibility, even in the eyes of someone starting at a zero in terms of knowledge level – they did not know Arabic, nor were they able to recite Qur’an with proper tajweed. These would be things that someone who had a solid grasp of Islamic studies would have mastered. Even if you know nothing about orthodontics, you most likely would not let an orthodontist with crooked teeth treat you.

This led me to eventually speaking with the local imam of my masjid. He had formally studied, was well-regarded by other imams in the area, and the community entrusted him with leading them.

It would not make sense for community members to say we went through a process to hire the most qualified Islamic scholar we could find, we trust him to lead our prayers, teach our classes, create the curriculum for Sunday School, lead the janaza prayers, perform counseling, deliver the khutbah, answer all our fatwa questions — BUT he’s too much of a dufus to understand that ahadith are actually not reliable, and so he really doesn’t have any understanding of the religion.

We trust a doctor with complex aspects of health and sickness – cancer, brain surgery, heart disease, and so on. Does it make any sense that these doctors would suddenly be clueless when it comes to vaccines? That they are somehow rendered incapable of reading a scientific study and interpreting its results? Or that what they see with their own eyes while treating Covid patients is somehow false?

When our car breaks down, we seek out a mechanic. If we have cancer, we go to an oncologist. If your AC breaks down, you call an HVAC company. Just like you wouldn’t ask your personal trainer at the gym for crypto advice, you should not seek out Facebook groups with anonymous and uncredentialed individuals for their analysis of a pandemic.

As the Qur’an commands us – ask those who know if you do not. The onset of a pandemic means finding out who the people are that have expertise in this area – infectious disease experts, public health experts, virology experts, epidemiology experts, and ER physicians who are treating it on the front lines every day. Practically speaking, the vast majority of us probably have an ER physician in our masjid circles we could speak to. There are plenty of experts online who have verifiable credentials that can be reached out to. At the least, it provides a starting point.

The challenge here is the same challenge with “research” – we trust people and their expertise, only until it goes against the conclusion we are motivated to reach.

When it comes to Islamic rulings, scholars themselves differ on quite a bit. You’ll come across scholars who are very qualified, but hold an odd or eccentric opinion here and there. In some cases, you may find an overwhelming amount of scholars writing to back up one opinion, only to have a somewhat prominent scholar be in the minority and advocate something out of the norm. Islamic scholars have pointed out that the person who is constantly seeking out these odd and minority opinions to follow (because they align with that person’s internal desires) will be left with no religion. Not because the opinions themselves were necessarily all illegitimate, but because the methodology itself was flawed.

If someone comes out and says that they flat out do not trust any public health experts or doctors on the topic of vaccines, or even on Covid itself, then this is a flawed methodology. Or, that they are only seeking out doctors who are saying what fits their preconceived ideas. This is also a flawed approach. It’s also worth a quick mention, that most of these doctors are discredited (a quick Google search of their name will usually prove that).

If we were to identify an “Islamic” approach to something like this, it would be similar:

The science of medicine has its own uṣūl as well, which is why Islamic fiqh councils across the world have involved medical experts to create opinions on modern bioethical issues such as cloning and organ donation. We need to respect the domain of each science. We have to trust and follow (taqlīd) the experts who are qualified to deal with these subjects (Qur’an 21:7). But like Muslim scholars, members of the scientific community also differ with one another, so it is strongly recommended in the same spirit to follow the majority (jamhūr) and consensus (ijmāʿ) opinions, and avoid outlying (shādhdh) ones. We have both the right and obligation to be informed, to understand what is going on, and to know how to act in the best fashion so we can avoid harm. This requires a critical engagement with information as has been taught by our intellectual tradition for centuries” (Yaqeen Institute).  

This doesn’t mean everyone always gets it right or even that the majority is always right. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) told us, “If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning and he is correct, he will have two rewards. If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning and he is mistaken, he will have one reward” (Bukhari and Muslim).

It does mean that we have a starting point. We find the right people, consult them, and learn. As we do that, our baseline level of knowledge increases. Our ability to discern information from misinformation increases. As that happens, we are able to better identify which experts we can trust to be thorough. It’s a process, but it still has to start somewhere.

 

Assumptions – What Am I Taking For Granted With My Thinking?

When I purchase software to file my taxes, I make a countless number of assumptions. Among them:

  • The software company has experts who understand the detailed intricacies of tax law

  • The software itself is coded to reflect the tax law

  • The prompts in the software are the correct ones that will help me maximize my refund

  • Using this software means I will be able to successfully submit my taxes and will not face further liability

  • The reputation of the company is strong enough that I am not worried about fraud, or incorrect tax information

  • When the software shows me a confirmation screen that my taxes were submitted to the IRS, it actually means that, and I do not need to call the IRS to confirm receipt.

We cannot reinvent the wheel and start from zero on every single thing in our lives. When we go paddle boating in a pond, we trust that the manufacturers built the paddle boat correctly. We trust that the manufacturer of the life jacket put the correct material inside it to make us float if we fall into the water. We are not extracting material out of the vest to run lab tests on it, and we are not taking a wrench to the paddles on the boat to ensure they are tightened to spec. We assume that it is the case.

When we read a translation of an Islamic text, we are assuming that the translator has proficiency in Arabic, English, and an understanding of the requisite Islamic sciences to accurately convey the meaning. Further, we are trusting that the publisher or institution behind the translation has some sort of error-checking and validation process.

If someone forwards us a video on WhatsApp, and the source is not discernible, we see that as a red flag and assume the information is false until we can verify it.

With news sources, we generally look for reputable sources. If we see something quoted on a major national news website, we at least assume that some basic journalistic integrity is in place. We do not expect to see falsified quotes, and we can generally rely on a basic level of truth when it comes to what is reported. When such a site does get something wrong, they will publish a retraction.

We have a blind spot when it comes to social media. If something is shared with us by a friend, or in a group that represents a ‘tribe’ we belong to (such as anti-vaxx Facebook groups) we tend to assume that those we know have verified something before sharing. This feeling of being on the ‘same team’ as someone can cause us to extend a certain amount of moral leniency to what they share.

Once we engage content shared within our social media circles, the more that we will start seeing similar viewpoints given to us by algorithms. This filter bubble makes us feel as if we are researching something while only getting multiple pieces of content showing only one view.

This is particularly dangerous when we are engaging with misinformation. One study found that between August 2020 and January 2021, news publishers known for putting out misinformation received significantly more engagement on social media than reputable websites.

What is the Root of My Tree?

Interrogating our assumptions includes looking at where the opinions we hold originated from.

Over the years, I started to hear the same arguments around hadith repeated in various ways. Some were more extreme than others, but it seemed like they all had the same source. All of them had an underlying theme of “reclaiming” Islam from the control of the scholars. Where did it all originate from? And why was it always desi uncles who said this stuff?

Ghulam Ahmad Parvez was a prominent scholar in Pakistan who popularized these ideas. He was introduced to Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) by the famous poet Muhammad Iqbal. Jinnah appointed Parvez to edit an Islamic magazine to help in the creation of the new Muslim country. Eventually, Parvez continued to contribute to Islamic magazines even after the creation of Pakistan, and his writings were widely spread in institutions of higher learning. Fast forward to the 70’s and 80’s – the educated class of Pakistan was the demographic given student visas to come to the US.

So what did Parvez believe? He was someone who felt that for Islam to progress in the modern world, the laws as explained by scholars could not be applied. He insisted on a Qur’an only view that afforded far more flexibility to his interpretations. He said scholars were pawns of the government and held back progress. He saw poverty as a punishment from God for ignoring science and progress.

Discrediting hadith was necessary for him to propagate his ideology, and his platform gave him a sense of legitimacy. It would be fair to say even if people did not adopt his views, they may still have been influenced by them.

The same is true with anti-vaccine information. Vaccine hesitancy is a commonly accepted phenomenon, but we rarely dig into the details to see where it originated.

In 1998, discredited physician-researcher Andrew Wakefield published a (retracted) study suggesting that there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism. The study was discredited (Wakefield’s data was found to be manipulated) and Wakefield lost his license. Multiple follow-up studies have been done to conclusively demonstrate autism is not connected to the MMR vaccine.

The most interesting part of Wakefield’s story to me is that he was not actually against vaccines. He wanted to discredit the MMR vaccine and instead push people to use single shot vaccines over a longer period of time instead. He was, of course, filing patents for those single disease vaccine shots so he could make money from them.

Regardless, the novelty of his claim spread and was amplified by British media. This is an important concept to understand with news reporting. Something must be out of the ordinary for it to be newsworthy. In this case, the idea of vaccines being linked to autism was new, and therefore noteworthy. So it spreads, and people hear it.

We would not expect to see headlines on a weekly basis about smallpox. The smallpox vaccine helped to eradicate the disease which killed more than 300 million people. But because it is a thing of the past, we do not need to keep covering it in the news. This is the same as when we see stories go viral when a physician gets a medical diagnosis incorrect. It is only newsworthy because we do not report the thousands of diagnoses that are correctly made on a daily basis.

Wakefield eventually found support from other fringe members of the medical community (birds of a feather…) and celebrities – like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. Much of what is today termed vaccine-hesitancy, especially in more privileged communities, can be traced back to this.

In fact, the CCDH (Center for Countering Digital Hate – a US/UK non-profit and non-governmental organization) found that misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine could be traced back to only twelve sources who have a following of 59 million people on social media. This personifies the filter bubble effect. For someone going down the rabbit hole of anti-vaccines, it may seem like there is an overwhelming amount of evidence on their side, when in reality it is the fruit of a poisonous tree.

It is important to note that this is not the case for all. The African-American community has a much different history with vaccines and public health. The Tuskeegee Experiment must be highlighted here. A group of African-American men were told they were being treated for ailments and instead injected with Syphilis in order to study the disease. Although that tragedy was in 1932, systemic racism continues to negatively impact public health and individual healthcare. Countering this legacy will take much more than critical thinking tools and access to information.

Interpretation – What Are The Connections I Am Making, Or Conclusions I Am Coming To?

This builds on the idea of motivated rationality, and is closely tied to it. Motivated rationality impacts what we seek out. In this section, we are now tackling what we do with the information once we’ve got it.

What is the information I am consuming leading me to do? What conclusions am I reaching? What am I communicating to others, and how?

The changes you have to make as a result of the information affects your interpretation of it.

With hadith rejection, the conclusions were more ideological in nature. If I accepted what they said, it would mean that I would have to go back and challenge much of what I had learned about Islam growing up. The information I took in helped me conclude that what they were saying was incorrect. It also gave me confidence to be able to defend why hadith rejection was absolutely incorrect.

But what if we don’t like what we find?

In regards to Covid, we have to revisit our goal in solving this problem. Is it to avoid contracting Covid? Is it to help others avoid getting it? Our original problem statement was: What are my personal responsibilities, as a Muslim, in response to the pandemic?

At the time of this writing, over 700,000 Americans have died from Covid. How are we interpreting this information?

For some, they may have had Covid and recovered fully. This may cause them to no longer see it as a risky disease.  They will then interpret the 700,000 deaths as an exaggeration. Or they will attempt to contextualize it by offering alternative explanations like focusing on comorbidities. Therefore, they conclude, we should not have to alter our lives for something that’s really not that dangerous.

We need to pause for a second here, because I have had this conversation now more times than I can count. Whenever someone dies due to Covid, or the death rate is mentioned, people will respond by saying “they probably had other comorbidities.”

It is absolutely abhorrent and repulsive to interpret death in this manner. Asking this question presupposes that people somehow deserved to die of a disease because they had underlying health conditions (whether it be obesity or a genetic condition leaving them immune-compromised). It is the pinnacle of selfishness to say I should not have to change my behavior to help mitigate a communicable disease because it inconveniences me, and I am free of these comorbidities. We are so motivated to cling to the way our lives were that we lose any sense of compassion toward others in the midst of a literal pandemic that has killed millions.

Other factors impact our interpretation of information. With Covid in particular, how we have behaved since the onset of the pandemic impacts our thought process. Those who never took any precautions and continued to live life normally may be less inclined to believe any scientific information. Covid didn’t affect them, they made no changes, so they have no real reason to take what others are saying seriously. The logical fallacy here is quite obvious.

On the other hand, you have people who wore masks, stopped eating indoors at restaurants, socially distanced, did not meet with family for months – all in an effort to keep themselves and others safe. Their interpretation of information, particularly information coming from people who never took Covid seriously, will be much different.

For some, their interpretation of information comes back to their tribal affiliations. They see the information about the virus being deadly, but everyone they look to for cues is not acting as if it is deadly. This could be your circle of friends, your local religious community, or – particularly in the case of America – the leaders of your chosen political party.

Some people will raise the objection that since the pandemic began, we have received too much conflicting messaging. This is true. Do you interpret conflicting messaging as a reason to say we cannot trust anything, and therefore we should not do anything? Or do you interpret it as seeing science unfold in real time with recommendations adjusting as we continue to learn?

Follow the Money?

A consequence of discourse playing out online is that we are less inclined to critically analyze information. Instead, we are seeking out ‘gotcha’ statements and hot takes that can let us win an internet argument.

One such gotcha statement is insinuating that the Covid vaccines are a conspiracy of big bad Pharma to make money. Don’t follow the science, follow the money!

Most reasonable people would probably agree the pharmaceutical industry in America has major issues, of which financial structure and motives are a big part. But that doesn’t make this assertion correct.

The uncles made this same claim about imams and scholars – that they’re invested in falsely defending hadith because it gives them job security.

To claim that a financial incentive discredits something is a bold statement. Every single one of us is driven by some type of financial incentive. Yet, we would never hold ourselves to such an impossible standard.

If you analyze it just a bit further, you can easily respond to such claims. For example, it could be argued that drug companies would rather people not take the vaccine, because the drugs used to treat Covid are more expensive. Therefore, they would actually make more money by opposing a vaccine.

Bill Gates often comes under fire in these discussions as well. He is viewed as someone who stands to make a lot of money from the proliferation of vaccines, therefore the vaccines cannot be trusted.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is correct – Bill Gates is a villain who will do anything to make more money. Will he really make money by developing a vaccine that prevents a deadly disease? Or is it possible that the vaccine works, and he is actually incentivized to protect the intellectual property and keep it from being distributed freely?

Critical thinking requires us to move past the gotcha statement and look deeper at an issue.

 

Implications – What Are The Consequences of My Thinking?

After the uncles challenged my thinking, I had to determine how important it was to dedicate the energy to reaching a conclusion. Does it make a difference whether or not I believe in the prophecy of Eesa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) coming back before the end of time? Or is this just an academic debate that will have no bearing on my life?

Given that hadith formed such an integral part of our religion such as how to pray, and narrating to us the entire seerah of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), I knew that I had to put in whatever work was needed to understand this. A deviant belief regarding such a foundational element of our religion could potentially jeopardize my akhirah.

Not every complex issue has as much riding on it. Everything is relative. What are the implications of denying global warming? In our lifetimes, maybe not much. And this is why people are willing to ignore the science on the subject. The more drastic consequences will come much later.

What would be the implications of believing a conspiracy theory? Let’s take the moon landing as an example. If I were to say the moon landing was faked, what are the consequences? In reality, not a whole lot. I would be diverging from some common societal narratives about American exceptionalism, and I might be seen as a bit of an eccentric character amongst my friends, but that would really be about it.

The implications of believing Qanon conspiracies might make someone storm the Capitol, or alienate their family.

What are the implications of Covid denialism?

For starters, death.

The governor of South Dakota, Krisi Noem, provides a good case study. She took the position of not having any public health interventions, and then allowed an annual motorcycle event to continue with over 350,000 in attendance. After the event, cases quadrupled, hospitals were overloaded, and deaths skyrocketed. And that does not even include the spread of Covid after people traveled back home.

Coronavirus surgical mask with the words ‘Fake News, Covid -19’ inscribed on the mask.

This is beyond not taking the vaccine. With Covid denialism, people oppose any public health recommendations. The same ones refusing to be vaccinated are usually the same ones refusing to wear a mask, refusing to social distance, and continuing to attend crowded indoor events even when the rate of transmission is high.

While that individual may be able to beat Covid if they get it, the people they spread it to may not.

The more that Covid spreads, the more that hospitals are overloaded. What will be the long-term effects on healthcare workers who have been pushed beyond the limits these past 2 years? What will be the long-term health effects of people who caught Covid and developed health issues as a result?

What will the impact of our decisions be within our own circles? Take the example of someone that does their best to follow all public health guidelines and also tragically loses a family member to Covid. Now imagine that this person has a close friend who has flagrantly disregarded all precautions during the pandemic, and flaunted their behavior on social media. Will this friendship go back to normal once we are past the pandemic?

The implications of my decision in a pandemic do not affect only me. To ignore the implications of my actions on others is irresponsible to say the least.

The discredited doctor mentioned earlier, Andrew Wakefield, visited the Somali community in Minnesota to spread anti-vaccine propaganda. After his visit, the vaccination rate in the community dropped from over 90% to just over 40%. This contributed to an outbreak of measles in which 79 people (most under the age of 10) were infected.

Our actions have consequences, and in the case of public health issues, the consequences are often felt by others.

Am I Being Principled?

If I want to advocate that ahadith should be rejected, then how do I determine the correct method of prayer? What becomes my criteria for accepting some hadith and not others? There must be some type of methodology (which is what is found in mustalah al-hadith) employed that brings consistency.

If we reject a vaccine because it is produced by evil drug companies for profit, and has unknown side effects, do we apply that same logic consistently? Would people who believe this advocate that someone in critical condition due to Covid reject drugs that are offered as treatment because they are also new and the side effects may be unknown? Do we reject all drugs developed as a result of research by big Pharma? Or only some? How do we know which ones?

If my goal is to avoid potential negative side effects of a vaccine, how am I weighing the side effects of the vaccine against the side effects of catching Covid?

 

Decision – What Action Am I Taking?

We began by posting these two problem statements:

  1. Are the claims made about hadith by those uncles in the halaqah I attended true?

  2. What are my personal responsibilities, as a Muslim, in response to the pandemic?

By this point, the answer to the first is clear. Concluding that their claims were false means I must now act accordingly. This means recognizing that hadith are a part of the revelation (alongside the Qur’an), and thus submitting myself to them whether it agrees with my intellect or not.

To answer the second question, I need to go one step further to see what the implications of my Islam are in regards to my response to Covid. Fatwas from AMJA and Darul Qasim provide good starting points, especially as it pertains to taking the vaccine.

Further, we find Islam providing an imperative to not enter a place with a plague, or to leave it if you are in one. This gives us the guidance that we are to act in such a manner that does not contribute to the spread of such a disease.

Al-Azhar issued a fatwa that included the following directive, “The statement begins with an acknowledgement of the contagious nature of the disease and its transmission even through asymptomatic carriers. With its transformation into a global pandemic, on the basis of confirmed medical reports, the statement indicates, the disease constitutes a significant risk against people’s lives. Since one of the main objectives of Sharīʿa is to protect life, the fatwā emphasizes that all necessary precautions to achieve this objective should be taken.” It goes on to emphasize that all measures to prevent the loss of life should be prioritized. This comes back to following the guidelines established by public health experts regarding vaccines, distancing, masking, and so on.

The International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) issued a fatwa stating that, “[N]egligent behavior that causes the transmission of the infection to others, and subsequently their death, can serve as grounds for the penalty of unintentional killing. On the other hand, an infected person should not be liable to this penalty if he ends up infecting others inadvertently, despite taking all necessary precautions. In order to limit chances for the spread of the virus, and in line with the precautions that public health officials recommended…”

If someone chooses to act differently, what action are they taking? If they want to oppose vaccines and public health recommendations, what alternative course of action do they provide to mitigate the spread and prevent further deaths?

For those who have embraced any level of Covid denialism, they will ignore these questions and their responsibility toward anyone else. They continually recenter the conversation on themselves and play victim by stoking fear of vaccine mandates. They will belittle or disregard the impact of Covid on those families who have lost loved ones to this disease.

If someone feels they have a legitimate reason to not take the vaccine, are they still following other public health recommendations? Are they adjusting behavior based on the available data regarding spread, positivity rate, and local hospital capacity?

Inaction is a decision, and the urgency of the pandemic leaves no room for it, especially when that inaction is shown to make the situation progressively worse.

The sad reality of our time is that these decisions have been forced upon us due to institutional failures. Governments and localities did not respond appropriately. Measures meant to mitigate the virus were met with fierce resistance. This has unfortunately put us in a position of having to do our best individually.

Regardless, the Qur’an provides us reassurance. Even if it seems like we are in the minority when action with caution regarding Covid, it is important to remember,

Whoever takes a life—unless as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land—it will be as if they killed all of humanity; and whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity” (5:32).

And regardless of what action we take, it must be accompanied with Istikharah and constant dua’ to be guided to the truth in such matters.

 

Feedback – Did I Get it Right?

We are never going to know everything. The best we can do is make the best decision we can, with the information available, and within the time it needs to be made.

Learning is an ongoing process. By employing a critical thinking approach, we posit ourselves as students and give ourselves the freedom to change our minds later if circumstances change. To do this requires fighting back against the biases we covered above. It means doing the work required to have an opinion. And it means taking continuous feedback to assess whether you are on the right track. In practice, this looks like flexibility in knowing you might be wrong, and adaptability to change your behavior based on the situation at hand (e.g. we may need to wear masks now, but at some point the numbers will change and we might not need to later).

I picked on those masjid uncles a lot throughout this article, but there is a happy ending to the story. One imam who later served at this masjid and had a relationship with them, took on this challenge. He saw that they had a love for the Qur’an, but did not know much about the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Instead of debating the technicalities of hadith science, he gave them seerah books. Learning to love the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), instead of treating it as an academic issue that held Islam back from modern society, had a transformative effect. As one of those uncles told the imam after reading a couple of Seerah books – “Problem solved.”

In the case of the community in Minnesota, one of the imams in the community worked to fight back against the misinformation spread by Wakefield by appealing to the community to follow both science and religion.

“Islam is a religion of expertise,” he said. “Verses in the [Qur’an] say … if you don’t a know subject ask the advice of people who know the subject very well. I say to the community, take the advice of people who know the subject very well and don’t get information from someone who doesn’t know anything.”

Fact Checking Resources

Resources and References

Practically Implementing Prophetic Optimism — ibnabeeomar

The Sunnah of Optimism | ibn abee omar

How Invisible Filter Bubbles Shape Your Social, Political, and Religious Views #FiqhOfSocialMedia — ibnabeeomar

A Crisis of Compassion — ibnabeeomar

Is It True That Islam Rejects the Idea of Contagious Disease? | ibn abee omar

Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols

Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality by Hector Macdonald

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age by Daniel Levitin

Critical Thinking In A Nutshell: How To Become An Independent Thinker And Make Intelligent Decisions (Critical Thinking & Logic Mastery)

The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think by Eli Pariser

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace

The Involuntary Manslaugher of Islamic Scholarship

Decisive – Deep Dive

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

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