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How Is Faith Acquired and Strengthened?

Faith is the confidence of an individual in the fact that there is a certain reality out there which cannot be seen. That reality could be a living existence, the definiteness of a principle, or an understanding that a certain individual is gifted with supernatural powers etc.
Islamic teachings require an individual to have faith in those teachings. How does an individual acquire faith in the right manner according to Islam? Although the answer to it could be many, for the sake of brevity and clarity, I am dividing the possible answers into two categories: i) Faith is acquired and strengthened through constant exposure to Islamic teachings which process is supported by reassuring experiences; ii) it is acquired and strengthened through critical reflection on the accepted teachings which process is supported by reassuring experiences.
In the case of faith of the first category, the faithful is given to hear Islamic message from his elders and what is generally made available to him by the society, he gets the opportunity to listen to just about the same views over and over again, and he experiences in his life things that further substantiate the veracity of the views that were given to him by his society and elders. In many cases, people acquiring faith through this process are influenced by some individuals who add to their confidence in faith by the influence they exert through their charismatic personalities. Thus a combination of these factors enables an individual to acquire and strengthen his faith: family’s and environment’s influence, confidence-building through listening to just the same views over and over again, influence of charismatic personalities who are idealized, and reassuring experiences in the form of spectacular coincidences that cannot be explained save through the confident answers provided by faith.
The accompanying feeling one gets through acquiring such faith is that of satisfaction and solace as also of confidence in the ultimate success for the individual through what he is doing. However, as a consequence of this feeling, and to safeguard it from all threatening influences, it is felt important that no critical examination of the articles of faith and the accompanying ideas be done. Thus all thoughts challenging the faith are considered devilish, the questioning mind is deemed misleading, and the people possessing religious ideas at odds with one’s own are considered worthy of condemnation. The outward reaction of the individual towards dissenting views can be anywhere from aggressively violent to a seemingly mellowed, tolerant one, depending upon the individual’s own personality and his group’s policy in responding to such situations. However, the basic inner motivation for the response always stems from the same source: the strong feeling that dissenting views are a threat to one’s faith and therefore are condemnable.
Viewed from this angle, adherents to almost all faiths, howsoever diverse they may be in comparison to each other, have a similar approach to acquiring faith, exceptions, of course, are always there to prove the rule. A large number of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and people belonging to other faiths follow the same pattern. Indeed the process is no different in the case non-traditional or anti-religious faiths like atheism etc.
The other way of acquiring faith, which I believe is the truly Islamic one, is the way in which an individual is gifted with faith by the Almighty through a journey which begins with a sincere curiosity to know the truth and that curiosity takes him through the realms of both sincere intellectual reflection and moral and spiritual uprightness to the right path, a path which may not always lead an individual to the absolute truth in this world. It is a journey of a movement from relative darkness of ignorance towards relative light of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. The process involves constant, honest probing. No amount of dissent is ever resented in this path. Dissenting views are not just tolerated. They are respected. The reason is that the individual knows, or assumes, that like him all others are going through the same journey of intellectual and spiritual improvement. It is simply not allowed to an individual to question the sincerity of intentions of anyone else. Reassuring experiences in practical life are an important factor in this journey of faith as well. However, all such experiences are subservient to the intellectual scrutiny undertaken by the individual’s mind. The individual traveling on this path is acutely aware of his limitations. He therefore can never afford to look down upon other fellow humans as inferior or condemnable. He would certainly have clear ideas of what is right and what is wrong. However, those ideas would be accompanied by the awareness expressed here in the words of Imam Shafi’i: “I am convinced about the veracity of my opinions, but I do consider it likely that they may turn out to be incorrect. Likewise, I am convinced about the incorrectness of the views different from mine, but I do concede the possibility that they may turn out to be correct.”
A faith acquired through this process would always be open to debate, because the one adhering to faith through this process would be confident that what he has acquired is either the truth or has been accepted with the assumption that it is one. In case that assumption turns out to be incorrect, the individual would be even better off by accepting a better version of truth. In a debate of dissenting views, he would therefore always be in a win-win situation. His approach would be to politely insist that his understanding is the ultimate version of truth, and in case it is not, he would demand to be shown a better version of it so that he too may benefit from it.
A Muslim who acquires his faith through this second approach is always respectful to people belonging to all other faiths, whether they are the ones who belong to sects different from his own within Muslims or whether they are non-Muslims. He would always look forward to meet people belonging to other faiths to let them know what he thinks is the right path leading to God. While he would do so, he would continue to remain open to ideas coming from the other side. It is this openness of attitude which would enable him to grow in confidence, and faith, in his point of view, because he knows that despite the fact that he has allowed his faith to be challenged, he has always found those challenges wanting in substance.
This approach is thus radically different from the first one where a faith once acquired is jealously safeguarded from external threats through emotional attachment to it. Thus the first approach follows the pattern of constant brainwashing through listening to the same emotional messages over and over again given by people who have already been selected by the faithful as his spiritual leaders. The individual belonging to the second approach acquires and strengthens his faith through a regular process of critical examination of his views through an open-minded exposure to all views different from his.
The following verses of the Qur’an show that God Almighty, the author of it, wants His believers to follow the second approach: “Allah becomes the protecting friend of those who (want to) believe; He brings them out of the darkness of ignorance towards the light of faith.” (Qur’an: 2: 257) “Ask them, (if they claim that they are on the right track): Bring forth a book which is straighter than these two books (i.e. Torah and Qur’an), I (i.e. the prophet) will follow it (in that case), if they are really truthful. However, if they don’t respond to your demand, then be sure that they are after their vain desires.” (Qur’an: 28: 49-50) “Not all these people are alike. From amongst the people of the book are those who stand in the night time, reciting the verses of God while prostrating. They truly believe in God and the Day of Judgment, they encourage goodness, admonish evil and take lead in doing acts of virtue; such are the righteous people. Whatever good they will do is not going to go waste. And God is aware of the pious people” (Qur’an: 3:113-5) “Indeed those who believe (Muslims) and those who are Jews, and the Nasaraa (the rightly guided Christians), and the Sabeans, whoever (amongst them) believes in Allah, the Day of Judgment, and does good deeds, for him there is going to be reward before his Lord: They will neither have any fear of the future nor sorrow of the past.” (Qur’an: 2:62) “How do they (these Jews) make you (O prophet) their judge when they already have the Torah with them which contains the verdict of God, and even then they turn away from it? (When they come to you for judgment despite that) they are indeed not believers.” (Qur’an: 5:43) “Indeed the worst of the beasts in the eyes of God are those (people) who are deaf and dumb, in that they don’t use their intellect.” (Qur’an: 8:22) “And when it is said to them ‘Follow what God has revealed’, they respond by saying: ‘We shall only follow what we have seen our elders doing’. Is it that they would still (follow them) if their elders neither knew anything nor were they rightly guided?” (Qur’an: 2:170) “And the entrants into the Hell would say: Had we been listening or understanding (properly what we were told), we wouldn’t have been amongst the dwellers of Hell. They will admit their faults. Curse would be on the dwellers of Hell.” (Qur’an: 67:10-11)