Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
As the internet revolution and chat groups came around in the 1990s, I was ecstatic that now we will be living in a brand new world of truth and wisdom. My dreams were soon shattered.
We were advised that every one is living in their political and religious bubble. I still remained cautiously optimistic. Then in 2015 the Presidential candidate Donald Trump came on the scene and swept through the Republican party. I as a Democrat was now thoroughly convinced that 45% of the US population, called the Republicans, are definitely living in their political bubble.
To my dismay I discovered in my WhatsApp groups of my family, friends, classmates and community that bubbles come in several sizes, shapes and themes. Each group depending on their composition has their own bubble and sacred cows. Minority in the group are often not allowed to criticize the sacred cows of the majority.
I discovered that in my group of high school classmates the sacred cow for many was the Pakistan army, even though all of them were living in the West. Our group had to splinter as one person wanted to be critical of the Pakistan army and its role in the Pakistan politics and some will not simply have it.
What can I do, how can I maintain my relations and friendships and yet be not completely silent or diplomatic and ineffective?
Part of me continues to believe in the power of free speech guided by a verse of the holy Quran:
فَذَکِّرۡ اِنۡ نَّفَعَتِ الذِّکۡرٰی
“So keep on reminding: surely, reminding is profitable.” (Al Quran 87:9/10)
Lying and deceiving is not an option, for the Quran says: “O ye who believe! why do you say what you do not? Most hateful is it in the sight of Allah that you say what you do not.” (Al Quran, Surah Saff, chapter 61)
In fact, the Quran says in Surah Ahzab, chapter 33, in a verse often recited at the time of ceremonizing the Muslim marriages that if we speak the perfect truth and solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that the evidence we shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, God guarantees that He will put our affairs on the right and peaceful course: “O ye who believe! be God conscious, and say the best straightforward word. He will set right your affairs for you and forgive you your sins. And whoso obeys Allah and His Messenger, shall surely attain a dramatic success.”
What shall I do and say, if I am to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
I need to be guided by a few more verses of the Quran, to find the balance, with which I need to operate in my family and friends groups, with different ideologies, personalities and often different sacred cows.
Actually just yesterday, in one of my favorite groups, a friend subtly advised and possibly he had me in mind, by quoting a verse of Surah Nahl, chapter 16: “Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom and effective exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best. Surely, your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way; and He knows those who are rightly guided.”
The catch is that a slight twist can allow this verse to be used to silence the minority view. The argument goes like this, ‘You are not being reasonable and wise and so simply be quiet and do not ruffle our feathers.’ So how do we get out of this catch and let free speech and dialogue flow so the message can be transmitted and not censored, even when not popular in a certain group?
Is there a way out? The wisdom in communication mentioned in this verse is not prescribed only for the minority opinion but also for the majority opinion.
Is there a way to burst the bubble of the Republicans in USA and keep our own cool and sanity?
If you are a Democrat thinking that the Republicans are stupid and many may be racist or Islamophobes, is not going to make you very effective with them. For this we need to fully understand their psyche and their piety. With that in mind, let me introduce you to Jonathan Haidt, a popular American social psychologist:
So once one understands this polarization fully one can figure out tools to overcome this polarization and dogmatization.
When any debate gets heated in WhatsApp group the opponents choose to vilify each other and otherize the opposite group. Sometimes the greatest zeal is shown by the religious people and they reserve the worst sentiments for those who may to the external eye be closest to their identity.
The Quran has demystified this vilification psychology for all times by suggesting in Surah Mumtahinah that only those are undeserving of our kindness that are trying to kill us or make us homeless, “Allah does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. But God forbids you to take as allies those who have fought against you for your faith, driven you out of your homes, and helped others to drive you out: any of you who take them as allies will truly be wrongdoers.” (Al Quran, Surah Mumtihanah)
So, if I can avoid vilification and otherization then as indicated by the very first verse that I quoted, I can keep on reaping the benefit of free speech and be effective in my WhatsApp groups.
But, the reader may ask, I was being guided by the reading of the Quran, how did I suddenly jump to political psychology?
To me the sacred and the secular are not completely separate. My understanding of the scripture is not only guided by itself and the tradition but also the secular knowledge. They are commentary for each other and feed on and develop each other.
Muhammad Asad, born Leopold Weiss; 12 July 1900 – 20 February 1992, was a Jewish-born Austro-Hungarian journalist, traveler, writer, linguist, thinker, political theorist, diplomat and Islamic scholar. After traveling across the Arab World as a journalist, he converted to Islam in 1926 and chose for himself the Muslim name ‘Muhammad Asad’—Asad being the Arabic rendition of his root name Leo (Lion).
Asad was one of the most influential European Muslims of the 20th century.
Muhammad Asad writes in his introduction to the translation of the holy Quran, regarding commentary from one’s opinion:
If, on occasion, I have found myself constrained to differ from the interpretations offered by the latter (early commentators), let the reader remember that the very uniqueness of the Qur’an consists in the fact that the more our worldly knowledge and historical experience increase, the more meanings, hitherto unsuspected, reveal themselves in its pages.
We believe that this is an information age and human learning is increasing at a dramatic pace. We hope that our commentary serves some of the needs of our contemporary times, with that inspiration we have tried to put forth our additional contributions, while we also try to preserve what we feel has been the best in the most popular commentaries of the last century.
The great thinkers of our past understood this problem fully well. In their commentaries, they approached the Qur’an with their reason: that is to say, they tried to explain the purport of each Qur’anic statement in the light of their superb knowledge of the Arabic language and of the Prophet’s teachings — forthcoming from his sunnah — as well as by the store of general knowledge available to them and by the historical and cultural experiences which had shaped human society until their time. Hence, it was only natural that the way in which one commentator understood a particular Qur’anic statement or expression differed occasionally — and sometimes very incisively — from the meaning attributed to it by this or that of his predecessors. In other words, they often contradicted one another in their interpretations: but they did this without any animosity, being fully aware of the element of relativity inherent in all human reasoning, and of each other’s integrity. And they were fully aware, too, of the Prophet’s profound saying, ‘The differences of opinion (ikhtilaf) among the learned men of my community are [an outcome of] divine grace (rahmah)’ — which clearly implies that such differences of opinion are the basis of all progress in human thinking and, therefore, a most potent factor in man’s acquisition of knowledge. But although none of the truly original, classical Qur’an-commentators ever made any claim to ‘ﬁnality’ concerning his own interpretations, it cannot be often enough stressed that without the work of those incomparably great scholars of past centuries, no modern translation of the Qur’an — my own included — could ever be undertaken with any hope of success; and so, even where I differ from their interpretations, I am immeasurably indebted to their learning for the impetus it has given to my own search after truth.
These psychological principles described by Jonathan Haidt in the above video, remind me of a Quranic verse of Surah Anaam, chapter 6, “And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them of what they used to do.”
Each WhatsApp group has some sacred ideas if not some personalities that are the sacred cows. These are like ‘idols,’ if you will, for the particular group and cannot be reviled.
So extra caution and consideration is required when touching these taboo subjects, if these really need to be addressed.
Sometimes, an insightful moderator who is aware of these sensitivities and also of the minority opinions can help the group navigate difficult waters.