In the past, I’ve spent many years debating various issues with a range of people. The petulance of youth meant that I would passionately argue believing I was correct, and over-investing myself in ‘correcting’ my interlocutor. Back and forth for hours with confrontational retorts and a highly opinionated view of one’s own deductions often leads to such behaviour, as I came to realise.
Maturity and experience changes all such foolish ways. But how so?
There are many hadith where the Prophet speaks of the traits of the young, who out of inexperience and haste, make errors and behave in ignorant ways. Patience is no virtue here, and experience has yet to mature their thinking and demonstrate how time itself is a resource – over time realisations take place and views alter. Time allows for variables to reveal themselves leading to more informed conclusions. Furthermore, it is due to immaturity that some have a high opinion of their viewpoints; those who have spent a considerable time in the realm of thinking have been privy to the experience of their staunchest views and assumptions being strongly challenged which is why maturity tends to temper self-certainty.
Upon studying with actual scholars who combine knowledge with upright conduct, I found civilised engagement to be highly beneficial. A polite debate would leave me with more rather than less, and ultimately it would open up various avenues of thinking and completely decimate any sense of parochialism. Now my intent wasn’t to prove my teachers wrong but to gain deeper insight into issues, to fill in the blanks, and cognitively evaluate systems of reasoning, highlighting what I found to be inconsistent but only to identify what I might be missing. I would then go away and think deeply about the entire affair without the need to draw hasty conclusions – thoughts left to simmer for a while resulted in far deeper insights and stronger ideas than those reached hastily. I would still be left with a heavy head, but the type that helps muscles grow and not the one that you leaves you merely fatigued with little to show.
The type of learning I have expectedly benefited from most as a Muslim isn’t the puzzle-solving cerebral type, but where I would witness the cogency and wisdom of an ayah or Hadith through experience. One such was the Prophetic caution against contentiously debating scholars, arguing with the foolish, and seeking knowledge for social capital. (Ibn Majah, al-Tirmidhi)
I also found that if shar’i knowledge didn’t make you a better person in all spheres, then either you were learning the wrong thing, or you weren’t learning much at all.
“But when the righteous are asked, ‘What has your Lord sent down?’ they will say, ‘All that is good.’”Qur’an 16:30
The Prophet (in a mursal Hadith from al-Hasan) spoke of the virtue of a person who offers the obligatory prayers and then sits to teach people goodness over the one who fasts all day and prays all night. It is here also that social media can be a challenging phenomenon – we must accept that people can easily be understood, or fail to articulate themselves accurately, and such cognisance should logically lead to a charitable reading and interpreting things in the best possible light. But what can’t be misinterpreted is acting like a miscreant – demonstrating delinquency on social media cannot be excused by misunderstandings.
Over time I also noticed a pattern in conduct: scholars very rarely engaged idiocy (unless strongly rebuking the type directly leads to public harm) and would literally meet it with a blank expression, often simply walking off. At first I couldn’t make sense of it, it seemed rude; but they were simply safeguarding their own sanity and reputation, as well as denying the foolish any significance. Abu al-Ah’was stated that it used to be said: “If you argue with an idiot then you shall become like him, and if you remain silent then you are saved from him.”
So soon I came to substantially engage with the civilised type, and the benchmark should not be as low as to merely interpret civility here as someone who can communicate without explicit insults, but those who can disagree in a mature fashion without name-calling (which tends to be the method of those who don’t actually have a point), who want to learn something from the engagement open to the idea that there might be opinion-altering variables that they, or I, haven’t yet considered. It’s the Socratic method, ‘a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.’ A cooperative exercise in the spirit of rational enquiry is where one tends to learn the most.
Muhammad b. Sirin said: “they viewed it that good/meaningful questions increase the intellect of a man.”
Now it’s also about engaging with a sense of disinvestment – there is rarely anything as important or game-changing so as to incite zealous fervour. And this realisation is why older people tend to be, and sometimes amusingly, extremely chilled out and nonchalant! There are certain types, especially in the context of scholarly enquiry and problem-solving, that you learn not to spend time engaging or answering at all. The first is the questioner who already feels they have a decisive answer, so what’s the actual point? The second are those who desire a quick fix or binary reasoning – if someone isn’t committed to a holistic or meaningful understanding then I’d rather not participate in dialogue nor is binary reasoning of any value. And thirdly, those who have already decided what you mean: there really is no point in explaining yourself to those who are committed to misinterpreting or misunderstanding everything you have to say – usually due to extremely superficial or absurd reasons.
There are cohorts of wonderful people out there, I meet them everyday. We engage, discuss, agree and disagree, see things in a new light, or are left with food for thought. The experience is edifying, uplifting and positively challenging. If we find that not happening with our current circles, then maybe some change of scenery is in order.