Who’s afraid of the slippery slope?

Last month I wrote about the need for critical thinking and reasoned reflection. This month I want to continue that thread by looking at two of the objections that are often raised when people try to engage with new ideas. Firstly, that ‘the community isn’t ready’ and secondly, that somehow ideas that push the boundaries of our thought are the start of a slippery slope. Step there, and you never know where it will all end up!

Both of these concerns could have some valid starting point of course. As Revelation unfolded at the time of Prophet Muhammad, there was indeed a pragmatic dimension to it. People were educated and taken step by step through the changes that were occurring. The prohibition of intoxicants famously came in stages to prepare people for a significant social change. The Prophet also remarked to Aisha that if he felt the people would accept it, and he had had the means, he would have rebuilt the Ka’ba on its ancient foundations. However, the question is where the balance of such concerns lie, and do we allow them to create intellectual paralysis. No one can say that the Prophet shied away from providing decisive leadership when it came to a host of different issues—had he stopped to wait for ‘the community’ on all other matters, very little would have happened in those fascinating 23 years.

But today, such arguments are too often used to mask a lack of leadership. The idea that the community can speak with one voice is itself a dubious one. Which section of the community? Furthermore, one often finds that scholars and leaders presume ‘the community’ will resist change, while many people in those very communities presume that the scholars and leaders are more conservative than they actually are—a vicious cycle! Each group is looking to the other to make the first move as neither wants to stick their neck out first. The sad thing is that through this process we are creeping towards a tendency where people may say one thing in public and an entirely different thing in private.

The notion of the slippery slope is a familiar one. In fact, some our fiqh has almost institutionalised this fear in the principle of ‘closing the means (to harm)’ (sadd al-dara’i). By over-using this principle, some scholars have created an ultra-cautious (ultra-orthodox?) fiqh that attempts to control every possible avenue for sin, presuming the worst of the human spirit.

The irony is that a study of Muslim history shows we were at our strongest when we surfed along the slippery slope with confidence, when we were able to be critical, experiment with new ideas, make grand innovations, and have the confidence to get things wrong in the process of getting things right. Making mistakes is a natural consequence of thinking, and the blessed Prophet beautifully underlined that when he said that those performing ijtihad were rewarded even when they made a mistake, and are doubly rewarded if they are correct. In stark contrast, today some feel that Islam itself will somehow begin to unravel because of some critical voices, or ideas that may not fit in with what ‘the community’ thinks. This really raises the question of what we hold as central to our faith. What do we really believe in, and what do we really worship—is it God, or do we actually worship ‘Islam’ as an identity—often manifested in clothing, food, or cultural attitudes, perhaps even political positions?

Even a snapshot of the debates amongst scholars of the past shows the courage with which they embraced scholarship. Whether we look at the views of al-Ghazali or al-Shawkani on music, the views of Ibn Taymiya (who was imprisoned for his ideas) on a range of issues, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd on philosophy, Ibn Khaldun on biological evolution, and the list can go on, we can see the breadth of our tradition. We can also see how some scholars were constantly battling against the so-called ‘consensus’ of their day to the extent that their pursuit generated accusations of heresy at times (even if those same ‘heretical’ ideas were to later become part of the ‘mainstream’).

Sadly, and perhaps due to our acute crisis in confidence today, the ‘mainstream’/‘orthodoxy’—what we deem to be acceptable—in Muslim thought has now become far too narrow. Not only are we critical of so many new ideas, which may be a perfectly reasonable position to adopt, but some try to shut down the debate itself, which is not acceptable. One can get into a ‘chicken and egg’ type discussion about what should come first: intellectual creativity or confidence? But either way we need to learn the skill of surfing the slippery slope again and get ourselves out of the vicious cycle.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 93, June 2012)

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