07 Jul Can you believe something is right, without others being wrong?
Can you believe something is right, without others being wrong?
Can you believe that something is right, without others being wrong? Can the two co-exist?
This is one of the most interesting questions I’ve received.
I’d like to begin my answer with commentary on our society:
This question assumes something central about our society, about our society’s very basis. Our society is based upon the idea that everyone has the freedom of thought, and that our society, by enshrining this freedom, can serve as an example of human flourishing. Yet, while we espouse our openness, we also discriminate against societies that feature certain elements of prejudice, while recognizing none in ourselves. By prejudice, it must be noted, I do not mean racism or other forms of ignorance, rather I mean the process of making distinctions in values. This can be as complex as the injunctions of the Catholic Church to something as mundane as what constitutes proper “courtship” etiquette between men and women.
Now, when I say that our society does not recognize our own prejudices, I’m not going after the easy stuff like slavery, segregation, or the like. Let’s take it a step further, towards the Western perception of non-Western societal structures. For example, the West will say, “women should be free to do what they want,” yet they can also justify banning certain things that women want to do, to protect their freedom.
In fact, the example I just gave, is also a rather “easy” and lazy example. Let’s look at the Arab revolutions. Many of those who supported these movements chanted “Irhal!” in offices, and grew weak at the knees at the supposedly “secular” (they were neither secular nor religious) nature of the protests. Yet, now that “Islamists” (for lack of a better term) have won elections in both Tunisia and Morocco, and look on course to win in Egypt, with Libya seemingly following suit, those same supporters are now facing the paradox of their ideology. They believe in freedom and democracy, yet, they cannot bring themselves to support what has occurred. The only way they are able to rectify this, is by claiming that those who have won these elections “do not respect freedom or democracy” without any proof.
We like to believe that we live in a society that enshrines the idea that we can all “be right” about our ideas. However, in the pursuit and promulgation of the idea that “we can all be right” we have found it necessary to de-legitimize and undermine those who do not agree with that statement. We have made “our idea” the romantic concept from which we draw justification to forcibly change other people’s “idea.”
We live in a society that enshrines peace as the ultimate virtue. We believe that those who utilize peace in the face of violence are the highest practitioners of this virtue. Yet, when someone responds to our violence, with violence, we ostracize them. Think about it, we go into other countries, and utilize violence, as a means towards enforcing peace.
This is a paradox.
Our society attempts to deny this paradox’s existence. We have come up with convenient phrases: “let’s agree to disagree,” or “live and let live” which has simply allowed people to avoid questioning their beliefs, let alone understand others. Thus, the most damaging aspect of a society that believes it is universally open, without acknowledging and encouraging healthy difference, is that it will be one that will justify the most terrible persecution and oppression.
Religiously speaking, groups have attempted to react two ways to this normative value (of absolute universalism). Either they have diluted their respective messages to the point that they are spiritual mush, or they have advocated untenable standards which alienate the majority of people.
Thus, in order to have a successful society, we must believe that we are right, rationally, while also acknowledging that others are not wrong for their beliefs. This natural diversity is a very central tenant to the message of The Qur’an. In Surah Al-Hujurat  this is dealt with in considerable detail.
The sixth ayah, for instance, mentions that “O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.” [49:6] Thus, we are commanded to listen to others and attempt to rationally evaluate their statements, and on a larger scale, to respect the values of others. The Surah goes further, “And know that God’s Apostle is among you: were he to comply with your inclinations in each and every case, you would be bound to come to harm.” [49:7] This highlights that people, when faced with opposing values, even when they are literally with The Prophet of God what they will choose to do to those “others” will most probably be wrong.
This Surah is so appropriate, that reading ayah 11 and 12, has astonished me having re-read this Surah in answering this question. Yet, it is the power of ayah 13 that to me cements the true universal sense of The Qur’an. “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” [49:13]
This specific injunction is so powerful and so dense with ideas that it would necessitate an entire book to explicate it all. However, it is within this ayah that we get one of the most profound statements of The Qur’an. Nations and tribes are not just, well, nations or tribes, but something much larger than that. Today, we think of our religion as separate from our national identities, however, back in the day, your national or tribal identity was inherently defined by a shared religion, and thus, separating the two would be impossible. Thus, when The Qur’an explicitly states that our national and tribal identities being different are a design by God, the diversity that is being created goes beyond ethnic, racial, or national, it goes to the ideological.
This statement is corroborated by The Qur’an, in which God says that He “sent forth apostles before thy [Muhammad’s] time; some of them We have mentioned to thee, and some of them We have not mentioned to thee.” [40:78]
The Qur’an thus directs the Muslim to not only be steadfast in their beliefs, but by acknowledging other viewpoints as those created and sustained by God, that either there must be some value to them or if one cannot find value, one must simply respect God’s will. Thus, the attempt to understand others is the first injunction of the Muslim, and if unable to understand, to respect and protect.
So, I answer your question with all of the above in mind; yes, it is not only possible, but a necessarycondition for human flourishing. While it may seem that my position is similar to that of the “humanist” (for lack of a better term) perspective I described as paradoxical at the start, I answer like so: the difference between the humanist and myself, is that the humanist’s ultimate arbiter is ideaS, while my ultimate arbiter is God, as the ultimate “idea.” The humanist’s perspective is paradoxical because the ideas in question must be given equal weight in relation to each other, yet must, at the same time, be in absolute agreement and subject to a supreme idea. The utility of God, is that as the ultimate “idea,” all subsequent ideas exist through His will alone, which creates a very different context in which ideas can be exchanged and shared.
So, if I believe x, y, and z and see Person A’s ideas of a, b, c as terrible, there is only so much I can do, because his abc and my xyz come from the same source, and it is through our interaction that we will determine whose works better for us, as a community.
So, not only does the humanist have a paradox, but the humanist’s perspective creates a society that segregates itself and robs itself from the power of diversity, because it seeks the total agreement of all aspects of its society.
I will close this lengthy answer with a general maxim I believe: your best friends are usually your adversaries. They will challenge your beliefs and will point out the weaknesses of your positions, thus forcing you to justify your beliefs better and improving and refining your previous positions.
Therefore, even when we are right, and others are wrong, we understand ourselves better and the relative validity of our positions through comparison. In sum, we must believe that when we are right, that others could possibly be not wrong, and that not only can the two coexist, but that they must.
Insha Allah, I hope I have answered your question, and invite you or anyone else to ask questions related to this or any other topic.