“Despite the urge, don’t clap for me.”
This one statement alone is so profound, I continue to marvel at its implications, even today. Was Dr. Ramadan merely attempting to pre-emptively stop the audience from drowning out his voice with their applause? Or was it perhaps an articulation of an Islamic opinion regarding the very nature of clapping? No, none of the above. Dr. Ramadan’s reasoning is much more reflective, as evidenced by his explanation: “if you clap for me, it means you’re not thinking critically.” It means the audience’s admiration has clouded their judgement. It means he’s become the shepherd to a herd of sheep. “Challenge me, do your research and use your intellect to illustrate your counter-arguments. Don’t just follow.” (not verbatim) Dr. Ramadan didn’t want sheep - and he was the only scholar to say it. In fact, neither before nor afterwards have I witnessed a living scholar articulate such an invitation for scholarly, critical feedback.
Regardless of where you stand on Dr. Ramadan’s opinions, you can’t help but respect such an attitude.
Unfortunately, blind scholarly veneration continues despite Dr. Ramadan’s insistence. (It should be said that, to his utter dismay, the audience clapped for him many times regardless – every applause inciting a frown more apparent than the last). We must tread carefully to delineate the issue as to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. To do so, let’s examine the words I just used - blind scholarly veneration - and work our way backwards. With regards to veneration, I speak of adoration, love and esteem, which are as natural as they are necessary; indeed, we are advised to veneer the Prophet (salAllah alaihi wa sallim) as a means of seeking nearness to Allah. Thus, there’s nothing wrong with veneration, as long as the object of veneration is deserving of such high regard, which brings me to my second word: ‘scholarly’. This adverb leaves little to contend; indeed, who is more worthy of adoration in today’s world than the very torch-bearers of the Prophet’s legacy? Even as I write this in a café, I can overhear a girl not too far away describing her love for Rihanna; with all due respect to Ms. Rihanna, her existential insights are far less worthy of admiration than a single hair of a scholar’s head.
This bring us then to our final word: blind. Here’s where things get a little tricky, because we’re obviously not referring to any disruptions preventing the optical cortex from helping a person ‘see.’ On the other hand, psychological blindness” comes preloaded with an abundance of connotations; biased, polarized, arrogant, hard-headed, conformist, uncritical, follower and perhaps a dozen other words no one would ever use to describe themselves. To avoid confusion and facilitate discussion, the definition I will use for this article is simply “the unwillingness to self-reflect,” in that one is essentially blind to one’s self, either partially or entirely, in actions, thoughts or affiliations. The origins for this blindness, although personally significant, are too complex to enumerate. Nevertheless, one `purpose of psychological blindness I’m willing to postulate is the following: it’s ultimately self-serving.
Self-serving may sound like a dangerous attribution, as it ascribes certain hypocritical connotations – but I make no such judgements. Indeed, many of our worldviews are ultimately self-serving, and it’s only human that we naturally seek out friends and references which confirm what we already believe to be true. In other words, self-serving blindness may not necessarily be a function of intention, and yet perhaps that’s exactly what makes it all the more dangerous; it serves to picture the truth, indeed the very reality of existence, in the frame of personal convenience. Furthermore, we do this so habitually, it necessarily becomes a part of our personalities to the extent that it’s incredibly difficult to be made aware of it. If you’ve ever argued with someone to the point of shouting “you’re so caught up in your own beliefs, you can’t even begin to understand what I’m trying to tell you!” then you’re already catching my drift.
What does this self-serving blindness ultimately serve in the self? That’s the million dollar question! To this, I’m going to provide a personal observation which I pray briefly illuminates its purpose.
Over the course of several months, I had the opportunity to sit with two brothers (from opposite sides of the globe; they’ve never met nor speak the same language) who profess completely different Islamic worldviews with equally powerful vigour. Although the content of the two perspectives were radically different, their intentions were clear as day: to persuade me that their worldview, ultimately, was the ‘truest.’ Although they both enlisted different methods to do so, and indeed I’ve forgotten many of their arguments, I can’t help but remember how much they had to disparage ‘scholars of other opinions’ to get their point across. Looking back, this scholar-bashing was neither coincidental, nor mere slip-of-the-tongue; it’s systematic in its purpose and necessary to uphold the very reality they perceive to be true. I recalled immediately my clinical supervisor who told me once how some clients, often those suffering from delusions, quickly depict the world in black and white, ‘us vs. them’ – the lines are clear, the intricacies are simple. At that very instant, with both of them, I realized that any further discussion of Islam is fruitless. No, this was no longer a discussion about Islam; we left that realm the moment they voiced their ‘opinions’ (it was ridicule) towards scholars with opposing views. I decided then - out of curiosity more than anything - to probe into their individual histories, and examine how they originally formulated these conclusions. The ensuing discussions were revelatory, but unfortunately only to me.
The first brother, rebellious from a young age, revealed how a group of brothers (belonging to a certain Muslim group popular in Europe) came along and gave his life meaning, friendship and a sense of belonging. This same group of brothers professed the opinion of a particular scholar he was preaching that day, and indeed the group systematically make it a habit to go out and seek young and impressionable teens to ‘guide’ towards that scholar’s perspective –these youth are then to become ‘guides’ themselves, sooner or later. The second brother shared with me certain difficulties he’s been experiencing in his personal life. Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to share the brother’s real issues, so let’s invoke an analogy in its place: his wife leaves him and remarries immediately. Heartbroken, this brother falls upon a scholar online who proclaims women as essentially evil – they must be tamed, lest they lead you astray. The brother’s Islamic worldview transformed; “all women are to be absolutely submissive to men” resonated with him very deeply. Miraculously, his heart-break was relieved; indeed, he even went so far as to say that his wife’s betrayal was designed by Allah to lead him to this conclusion.
With these two examples, we observe how dynamic scholarly attachments really are, driven by emotions as well as reason (often, the former more than the latter). As such, scholarly veneration may ultimately be more self-serving than meets the eye; for the first brother, his opinion was attributed to a sense of belonging, and for the second, it relieved his emotional suffering.
Naturally, the only way to justify an almost entirely emotional attachment to an Islamic opinion is by categorically dismissing the opinions of others – a self-induced blindness - without a moment’s hesitation. Of course, if these brothers were to ever go toe-to-toe with the scholars they readily disparage – and they never would – they’d be crushed by giants (how silly is it to mock a giant from afar when it appears small?).
Dr. Ramadan ended his speech with a plea: “don’t just take everything in without giving it any thought.” And indeed the dismissal of critical thought – a topic I’m personally invested in – may very well impact the intellectual development of millions of Muslims. Nevertheless, there’s no excuse for us to mask our personal – and often implicit – worldview in Islam’s clothing, and with that we must take extra precaution. A little self-reflection may reveal how much we truly blind ourselves under the guise of scholarly attachment.