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Emotions in Religion

In response to my article “The Quran-Centred Approach”, I received two strongly worded, emotionally charged messages from two well-meaning, sincere, and practicing Muslims. One of them accused me of intellectual dishonesty while the other one was a little less judgmental: He censured me for not doing justice with the approaches I had criticized in my article. My question to both individuals on their responses is this: If they were confident that my point of view was incorrect, why were they so emotional in their rejoinders and why didn’t they analyze my arguments to prove them wrong? While I concede that everyone has a right to disagree, I believe it is our moral and religious obligation that we be measured in our responses and be fair in our criticism. The trouble with morally charged responses to views different from one’s own is that they are more often than not likely to be unfair. The Almighty desires from us that we be absolutely just in all areas of our lives, in particular when we are dealing with people who have views different from ours: “Believers, be firmly committed to justice in a way that you be witnesses for the Almighty, even though in doing so your decisions may go against your own interests, or those of your parents or relatives.” (4:135) “Believers, be firmly committed to justice in a way that you be witnesses for the Almighty. And let not the enmity of a nation dissuade you from being fair. Be fair; that is closest to God-consciousness.” (5:8)
I will mention below my understanding of why people react sharply to the criticism that is raised against their religious point of view.
Religious message is accepted and espoused by people after it has been internalized. The process can happen in two ways: We either appreciate the message intellectually, knowing its strengths and weaknesses, or we don’t appreciate it properly. In the former case, when we know quite well what we are accepting through critically examining the message, we would never react sharply to any criticism raised against it. My claim is based on this simple logic: If we know the strengths and weaknesses of our message, we will, on hearing or reading a criticism, decide whether it was valid or not. If it was a valid criticism, we would be able to relate to the critic’s views because he would echo our own concerns and thus would feel comfortable that our dissatisfaction was shared by others too. If the critic also goes on to suggest a solution to the problem, we would be further obliged to him for helping us in solving our problem.
If you were wondering how one could internalize a message even while holding some part of it as weak in its arguments, I would suggest that that’s how we normally do in life while dealing with most ideologies. A good, intelligent Communist would accept his ideology as the best one even while acknowledging that it still had flaws. Despite those flaws, he would stick to it because of his conviction that the ideology was the best relative to the available alternatives. Likewise would be the case of a Christian and a Muslim. The only difference between the believers of religion claiming to have divine origins and other ideologies is that a believer in a religion from God would concede that his own understanding of it was somewhat flawed even though the message itself was perfect.
If the criticism to our religious views was weak, instead of entertaining emotions of hatred against the critic, one would either think of ways to help the critic know why he was wrong or else would at least feel comfortable that the criticism had no basis. In case we would feel that the critic was causing people to be misled by his views, we would make an attempt to correct the critic as well as those who were being influenced by him. Of course, no body has the moral and religious right to assume that the other person was deliberately doing something wrong.
In short, criticism of our views by others should never hurt us if our views were based on a process of intellectual internalizing.
However, if the process of internalizing didn’t involve intellect, affiliation with the ideology could only be had through indoctrination: the message is hammered into the mind through an emotional method. Anyone, a few, or all of the following tools could be employed for the purpose of indoctrination of a religious message: charismatic appeal of an individual, fear of the future, an atmosphere of piety in a retreat, condemnation of intellect to prevent the individual from using it for critical purposes, appeal to stick to the traditional belief system, a sense of belonging to a group which espouses the ideology, influence of poetry, oratory, drama, or one-sided presentation of history etc. The end result sought through this process is contentment through an emotional, non-intellectual approach that the point of view being presented was correct. That contentment is reinforced by dissemination of reminders through regular meetings and/or some other ways. When an ideology espoused through adopting such an approach is condemned, the reaction is always emotional. Quite naturally, if what was achieved intellectually was challenged, the reaction would be intellectual; if it was achieved emotionally, the reaction to its criticism would be emotional.
It is quite clear that Qur’an invites the reader to adopt an intellectual approach to internalize its claims. It is only after the concepts have been intellectually internalized that emotions are allowed to play their role. In other words, even though emotions are expected to play an important role in religious beliefs and practices of Islam, that role is only allowed after the religious sentiment passes through the conduit of intellectual scrutiny.
Take a few examples. Qur’an says: “Do they not ponder over Qur’an or is it that their hearts have been twisted?” (47:24) “Do they not ponder over Qur’an; had it been from anyone other than Allah, they would have found therein a lot of discrepancies.” (4:82) “Tell them that I have lived with you for a lifetime before (delivering) this (message); do you then not ponder?” (10:16) “Tell them: then bring forth a book which is straighter than these two (books: Torah and Qur’an), I will be the first to follow them, if you are really truthful (in your claims). But if they don’t respond to you, then know that they are only following their own desires.” (28:49-50)”
Qur’an, moreover, requires its followers to ignore those who oppose and ridicule the message, instead of emotionally charging against them. “And when you see those who engage in a false conversation about our verses by mocking at them, stay away from them till they turn to another topic. And if Satan causes you to forget, then after remembrance sit not in the company of those people who are wrongdoers.” (6:68) When some of the hypocrites adopted a cheap way of ridiculing the prophet surreptitiously by pronouncing the word ra‘ina (the equivalent of ‘may I beg your pardon’) in his gathering in a way that it conveyed an expression of insult, instead of asking Muslims to retaliate, Qur’an asked Muslims to use unzurna another word meaning the same thing. (2:104)
The book of God requires people to listen carefully to the message which is presented to them and follow what is good in it. It says: “(The real servants of God are those) who listen (carefully) to the word and follow (what they find) the best in it.” (39:18) Qur’an condemns those who pounce upon a message like deaf and blind people when it is presented to them for careful consideration. (26:73) The book also condemns the attitude of those who spurn a message without subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny simply because they had not heard it before: “When it is said to them (the disbelievers) ‘Follow what Allah has sent down’, they say ‘Nay! We shall follow what we found our forefathers following.’ (Would they do that) even though their fathers did not understand anything nor were they guided.’” (2:170)
Qur’an condemns those who do otherwise: And when they reminded of God’s verses, they don’t pounce upon it deaf and blind.” When they are asked to follow what Allah has revealed, they say, instead we’ll follow what we have seen our forefathers doing.”
I would summarize the message of this article thus: If you have understood your point of view correctly through your intellect, you would never react sharply to a criticism raised against it. If you haven’t done so, you would always react emotionally while debating with people holding views different from yours. Qur’an desires that the first approach be followed by believers and discourages them from adopting the latter one.