Importance of Critical Thinking in Islam?
I am often asked about what qualifies me to write about Islamic finance. Some suggest that I should leave the commentary to those who have a traditional education in the Quran and Sunnah [life and sayings of the prophet Muhammad ﷺ].
This article is an attempt to answer the question:
What is the importance of critical thinking in Islam?
During Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab’s time as ruler of the Muslim nation, many men complained that women were asking for very high dowries, making it difficult for them to marry. As a result, Umar decided to place a limit on how high a dowry could be. He stood on the podium to announce the new limit. When he came down from the podium, a woman in the audience objected, saying, “Didn’t you hear what Allah has revealed in the Qur’an?” Umar responded, “And what has He revealed?” She said, “Didn’t you hear Allah saying:
وَآتَيْتُمْ إِحْدَاهُنَّ قِنْطَارًا
…And you gave one of them [your wife] a great amount in dowry? [4:20]
He responded, “Forgiveness O’ Allah! All the people have more understanding than Umar.” He returned to the podium and removed the limit in dowries. (1)
If a woman with unknown qualifications is allowed to form an argument and correct one of the closest companions to the prophet Muhammad ﷺ, then I contend that no scholar, governing body, or authority has any right to tell any Muslim they aren’t qualified to engage in scholarship.
Further, we must all learn from the humility that Umar exhibited when he said “All the people have more understanding than Umar”, a far cry from the approach of many Muslim scholars who claim the common Muslim is not qualified for critical thinking and then form their own opinion.
Some have attempted to place certain qualifications on who should be allowed to engage in scholarship. Abu’l-Husayn al-Basri provides the earliest and most expansive outline for the qualifications of a scholar, they include things like:
- The scholar must have enough knowledge of Arabic to read and understand both the Qur’an and the Sunnah [life and sayings of the prophet Muhammad](2).
Fundamentally, the problem with these conditions is that they misappropriate emphasis on the source of an opinion rather than the opinion’s merits!
There are many reasons we shouldn’t limit scholarship to those we deem to be “qualified”:
- Limiting scholarship deprives society of benefiting from the ideas of those who do not possess whatever qualifications are specified.
For all we know, the woman in the story of the Caliph Umar may have known of no other verse in the Quran other than the one relating to dowries. Yet she was able to make a coherent argument that saved the Caliph Umar from setting a precedent that would have violated the instruction of the Quran.
- No amount of qualifications can guarantee honesty.
The Arab spring has illuminated this point with each dictator using a gaggle of “scholars” well versed in the Quran and Sunnah to justify their despotism.
- Limiting who can engage in scholarship leads to division, heresy, and extremism.
- If only some Muslims are qualified to engage in scholarship then the rest of the Muslims who are deemed “unqualified” must follow the “qualified”.
- But since the “qualified” scholars are bound to differ from one another, “unqualified” Muslims must choose which scholars to follow.
- Because these “unqualified” Muslims were never allowed to engage in scholarship, their choice of which scholar to follow is not based on scholarship.
- This is why followers of different schools of thought in Islam are geographically concentrated. Suggesting the choice of school is more imitation and identity-driven than anything else.
- If one of the “qualified” scholars comes up with a heretical or extreme idea, this scholar’s followers will likely follow their heresy or extremism without much thought. After all, they have no way of telling heresy from the truth since that would require critical thinking which they are unqualified to do remember!
The Quran attempts to avoid this divisive process by instructing Muslims to always start with the Quran and tradition of the prophet ﷺ when attempting to tackle any matter of jurisprudence:
“…refer to God [through the Quran] and His Messenger [the life and sayings of the prophet] concerning matters in which you differ. This is a better way to settle differences which will lead to better outcomes.”
Unlike the work of scholars, the Quran and the life of the prophet are the only consistently useful sources of arbitration. Only the Quran and Sunnah are relevant for every time and every context, but their interpretations are not.
For this reason, I would highly discourage Muslims from identifying themselves as Hanbali or Shafi’i or Maliki or Hanafi or Wahabi or Ja’fari, or Salafi even. If you’re going to associate yourself with a historical figure, have that person be the prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
I know that some might be wary of allowing just any Muslim uses his critical thinking and engage in scholarship but the prophet ﷺ assures us that the majority of Muslims, when allowed to use their critical thinking, will gather around the truth, saying:
“Allah will never gather my people around falsehood” (3)
All Muslims must be taught and encouraged to use their critical thinking and accept ideas only after subjecting them to aggressive critical interrogation. We must refer first to the Quran and Sunnah rather than rely on scholars to do our critical thinking for us.
We have a duty to use the natural sense for truth which Allah has instilled in us:
“And so, set thy face steadfastly towards the [one ever-true] faith, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the natural disposition which God has instilled into man: [for] not to allow any change to corrupt what God has thus created – this is the [purpose of the one] ever-true faith, but most people don’t know.”(4)
If we want to cause a renaissance in Islamic civilization, let’s agree to the following:
There should be no requisite qualifications to being a scholar (Mujtahid). Only ideas (ijtihad) should be qualified by surviving critical interrogation.
- Mujahid, Abdul Malik. “A Woman Is Right and Umar Is Wrong.” Golden Stories of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (R.A), Published by: Darussalam, Print. From the website: Virtual Mosque, Re-Evaluating Our Iman: A Reflection on the Last Page of Sur[…], Asmaa Elkabti
- Kamali, Mohammad Hashim (1991). Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society. pp. 374–377. From the website: Wikipedia, “Ijtihad”
- http://bayanelislam.net/,إن الله لا يجمع أمتي على ضلال , http://bayanelislam.net/Suspicion.aspx?id=03-02-0061