Criticism Requires Courtesy

Happy 2BA Muslim


I wish to address a principle of criticism and dialogue that is essential for interpersonal relations. All human beings are the same in their fundamental makeup. Everyone is influenced by their emotions, biases, worries, and selfish tendencies. Everyone has their strengths and faults. These qualities come into play whenever people engage with each other, whether in dialogue or in conflict.

There are numerous principles that we can discuss regarding how to engage in criticism. However, these can be summed up in two essentials: The first is courtesy, and the second is knowledge. It might seem more appropriate to mention knowledge first, for what value can any criticism have without it? Most people do not realize it, but courtesy is the primary factor. Courtesy, and its role in both criticism and dialogue, must be properly understood.

Whenever criticism and dialogue depart from the dictates of courtesy, it leads to injustice and open conflict. People resort to all manner of unethical behaviour, and they do so in the name of truth, faith, and justice. Indeed, many of the people entrusted with the scriptures of old fell into error for this very reason. This is why Allah commands us in the Qur’an: “Establish the faith and do not become divided on account of it.” [Sūrah al-Shūrā: 13]

Those who can only arrive at the truth through dividing people have scant understanding of Islam. The same can be said for those who know of no other way to bring people together except upon a lie.

We often hear people stressing the imperative of preserving the essential teachings of our faith. Rightly so. However, courtesy and good manners are among these essentials. When we want to speak about protecting the essential teachings of our faith, we should start with speaking about courtesy. The Muslims today face a crisis in knowledge, no doubt, but they face no less of a crisis in their social conduct, in the loss of common courtesy and good manners. The lack of awareness about these basic ethical values should be a primary concern of our religious preachers and social reformers. In truth, the acquisition of sound knowledge and understanding comes as a consequence of proper values and etiquettes, not the other way around.

A society that operates without a proper awareness of common courtesy and ethical conduct is a society in decline. The essential humanity by which Allah elevates us above so much of creation is compromised, and the people sink to the lowest of the low. The rise and fall of civilizations throughout history attests to this fact. These ethical teachings are not just the subjective values of a particular culture, but a common human outlook, as well as a divine mandate. This is why Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “I was only sent to perfect good conduct.” [Musnad Ahmad (8595)] He came to perfect the essential, good human qualities that are latent in everyone. For Muslims, these good manners are seen as a divine message, but they are also something recognized by every person’s natural disposition. In other cultures, these values may be seen in a secular light, but they are present nonetheless.

However, when these values come in the context of divine revelation, their purity is assured, since subjective human motives can bring people to see wrong behaviour as right. This is why we find the Prophet’s wife `Ā’ishah describe her husband by saying: “The good conduct of Allah’s Messenger was the Qur’an.” [Sahīh Muslim (746)]

Let us now return to the topic of criticism, for which courtesy and good conduct form the first essential principle. Reassessment and correction, including the objective critique and rebuttal of various pints of view, is an essential and enduring aspect of life in society. Muslim scholars and thinkers throughout history have always been engaged in these pursuits. In every field of intellectual pursuit that Muslims have engaged in, we can find books of critique, criticism and reassessment. Some books are devoted exclusively to the rebuttal of certain false notions or beliefs. Some of the most eminent Muslim scholars in history, like al-Bukhārī and Ahmad b. Hanbal, have engaged in writing such works.

The founder of the Mālikī school of law, the eminent jurist Mālik b. Anas, summed up the Islamic outlook on reassessment and critique when he said: “The opinions of everyone are subject to being accepted or rejected, except those of the one buried in this grave,” and he pointed towards the grave of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). No one’s opinions are above criticism, except the recipient of revelation from Allah.

Critique on the level of intellectual discourse, based upon evidence, reasoned arguments, and clear methodological considerations, is something desirable. When it is pursued in such a manner, and not in a haphazard and chaotic way, it can realize great benefits for society. All people recognize this. However, this recognition has an important corollary: each and every one of us is subject to this critique when it comes to our opinions. All of our ideas can be brought under scrutiny by others. None of us are always right.

In our religion, there are a few universally accepted, essential truths that as believers, we do not question, like the basic tenets of faith and other matters upon which all Muslims are agreed. We must be aware, however, that some people, in their passionate advocacy for their own ideas, mistakenly elevate their own religious points of view to the level of these essential beliefs, seeking to prevent any chance of critique.

This was not the case with the greatest scholars of Islam. They critiqued one another’s views as well as their own. They were open to the criticism they received. Mālik, for instance, was criticized by his fellow jurists Layth b. Sa`d and Muhammad al-Shaybānī, both of whom wrote critical treatises regarding his legal methodology. Al-Shāfī`ī spoke critically of many of Abū Hanīfah’s legal verdicts. They all maintained the highest level of respect for each other. They argued their points respectfully and courteously, maintaining the most rigorous standards of scholarship. We must be like them and accept the fact that whatever we say or write is subject to the criticism of others. It is easy to profess on our tongues our willingness to be criticized. It is more difficult for us to be truly prepared for it in our hearts.

Muslims today have easy access to the opinions of a great number of scholars, preachers, and social reformers through the various media available to them. It is necessary for them to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to sift through all this information. It is not enough to quote opinions and statements, especially when disagreements inevitably arise. It is common under these circumstances to hear people lamenting how there is so much disagreement around. Some people have begun calling for a unified Islamic vision or agenda that everyone can embrace. This reveals a more insidious problem, for it assumes that Muslim society cannot develop amicably in the presence of a plurality of opinion, that fraternity, justice, and social cohesion can only exist in the absence of divergent points of view.

For the majority of Islamic issues, differences in opinion fall within the realm of human judgment (ijtihād). Such differences are not a problem in the first place. In most cases, this plurality of opinion enriches society and provides much-needed flexibility. It allows for a multiplicity of responses suited for different environments, cultures, and even individual temperaments. The diversity of the challenges that we face today demands from us this broad scope within we can operate while upholding the essential values of our faith.

If we wish to cultivate a value that will bring the Muslims together, it should be the ability to embrace a multiplicity of opinion and accept that others have a right to criticize and reassess our own points of view. We should cultivate this value in our own hearts and teach it to our children. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Every descendant of Adam is prone to err.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi (2499) and Sunan Ibn Majah (4251)]

We must understand as Muslims that our faith is not under the authority of any one of us, and that everyone is susceptible to error. The illustrious Companion, `Umar b. al-Khattāb, who later became the second Caliph of Islam related the following about himself:
I was preoccupied with a matter, when my wife said to me: “If you only did such-and-such…”

I turned and said to her: “What does this have to do with you? What makes you so insistent about a matter I am resolved about?”

She replied to me: “How strange this is, O Ibn al-Khattāb! You do not want me to second-guess your opinion, but your daughter second-guesses the Prophet!”
[Sahīh al-Bukhāri (4913) and Sahīh Muslim (1479)]

Indeed, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was open to the criticism of others. His Companions frequently gave their feedback on his views in matters unrelated to questions of faith. His religious teachings, of course, were revelation from Allah. As Allah says: “It is not fitting for a believing man or woman to entertain any other option in a matter after Allah and His Messenger have decided something.” [Sūrah al-Ahzāb: 36]

His personal opinions and wishes were another matter entirely, even when the other person was a child. For instance, Anas relates the following about when he was a young boy:

Once, Allah’s Messenger told me to go somewhere and do something for him. I said “No.” I had promised a local boy from Madinah that I would play with him that day. So I went off.

Later, while I was still playing with a couple of boys, the Prophet came up and said: “Little Anas, now go and do what I asked you.”
[Sahīh Muslim (2310) and Sunan Abī Dāwūd (4773)]

This is the kind of gentle, courteous behavior that Islam requires from us.



Assalaam walaikum,

And that is just what the Prophet taught us. We have to be gentler and kinder.