The Critical Thinking Muslim

                                                                                                —Image from ModDB 

“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.” – Carl Sagan

The Muslim world possesses a wealth of knowledge, especially in regards devotional literature, theology, and jurisprudence, yet we have not transformed our knowledge into thoughtful and well-executed ways of addressing our most pressing needs. Muslim communities throughout the world face a plethora of problems: poverty, authoritarianism, civil war, neo-colonialism, occupation, sectarianism, sexual exploitation, corruption, social inequality, civil war, natural disasters, etc. Even American Muslims, who are largely shielded from these perils, are challenged. We face a number of issues: cronyism, crime, domestic violence, poverty, ineptly run institutions, sexism, tribalism, infighting, isolationism, Islamophobia, and an inability to address the needs of marginalized members of our community. The American Muslim community is increasingly literate, with unprecedented access to traditional scholarship and information. Islamic institutions of learning are filled to the brim. Although the American Muslim community is predominantly middle class and highly literate, we somehow still seem ill equipped and are stuck in a quagmire (Pew). We are unable to talk to each other, work together, and develop a common vision. That special something is missing and that something is Critical thinking.

As Muslims, the command to “seek knowledge” is almost like a mantra. But how often are we encouraged to think on a higher level, let alone think critically? This is especially important to think about considering how God speaks of comprehension and thinking in the Quran. Tafakkur تفكر is the reflexive form of the root فكر, which means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder, muse, speculate. Tafakkur means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder muse speculate revolve in one’s mind, think over, contemplate, and consider. It is mentioned in the Quran 17 times. In Surah A-Rum verse 8 Allah says:

Do they not contemplate within themselves? Allah has not created the heavens and the earth and what is between them except in truth and for a specified term. And indeed, many of the people, in [the matter of] the meeting with their Lord, are disbelievers. (Sahih International)

The word for “Intellect” is ‘Aql عقل, meaning sense, sentience, reason, understanding, comprehension, discernment, insight, rationality, mind, intellect, intelligence. The verb form that we will see commonly used in Qur’an is عقل to be endowed with (the faculty of) reason, be reasonable, have intelligence, to be in one’s senses, be conscious, to realize, comprehend, and understand. In the 49 references of the word in the Qur’an, God often speaks of the disbelievers who do not comprehend.
In Surah Baqarah verse 276, Allah says:

And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We have believed”; but when they are alone with one another, they say, “Do you talk to them about what Allah has revealed to you so they can argue with you about it before your Lord?” Then will you not reason? (Sahih international)

Another important Arabic word that corresponds to critical thinking is the word for logic, منطق which means the faculty of speech, manner of speech, eloquence, diction, enunciation, logic. All three terms, are important to consider when we think of critical thinking. And, I will discuss later, we will see how Muslim scholars employed critical thinking in their struggle to determine what God intended for us to do when an issue was not explicitly stated in the Quran or Hadith literature. Critical thinking implies:

  •  that there is a reason or purpose to the thinking, some problem to be solved or question to be answered.
  • analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information (CTILAC)

Without these two, we were seriously hamstrung. While having the faculty for critical thinking, our community has either ignored its tradition of critical thinking or underdeveloped due to reactionary thinking. As a result, we are a bit hamstrung by our own intellectual deficiencies. I say this with all respect, because we have many knowledgeable people, but they are not good problem solvers and their analysis and evaluation of information is lacking.
As a result, we hit a number of roadblocks. Many Muslims see Islam as a monolith and try to impose their rigid and authoritarian models on others. Our leaders are unable to come up with solutions to problems that were never imagined by classical or early modern legal and religious scholars. Individuals with little experience in non-profit development or leadership, build institutions with little understanding of how to meet social needs. And lay members of our community lock horns in heated theological and juristic debates that take away from a sense of fellowship and coherent communities. Our communities are fragmented by endless polemics where labels and plastic words substitute for real engagement with our differences and our commonalities. All of these problems come about because critical thinking in Islamic studies and devotional education is not something that is valued within our community. Despite our undervaluing of it, there is a great need for critically thinking Muslims, from your average lay member of the community, leaders, and scholars.

If we understand our own legacy of critical thinking and continue to develop critical thinking at all levels of devotional and Islamic education, Muslims will be better equipped to deal with our most daunting challenges. Before going into our legacy of critical thinking, it is important to understand how the term is currently used. The term “Critical Thinking” encompasses a wide array of ways of thinking and processing information. Scriven and Paul write, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” In my experience of teaching, from a high school to college level classes, the most important tool I have tried to help my students develop has been critical thinking. One of the best ways of seeing critical thinking in action was to have students write research papers with sound arguments. That is because “in essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.)” (Adsit). But I often found that most students lacked not only discipline and curiosity, but also an interest in developing their higher order thinking abilities. Instead, they often focused on trying to get the right answer, rather than learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. When students don’t think well, they don’t write well. Writing is a higher order level of thinking, but anyone can write without thinking, just as someone can speak without thinking on a subject. But eloquent and logical speeches and well written papers reflect disciplined critical thinking. And both can be subject to critique by others who are keen to see logical fallacies, misuse of sources, or failure to include other factors.

Critical thinking is something that develops with practice. It is something we have to train for. Scriven and Paul write that critical thinking is a set of skills that help us “process and generate information and beliefs.” They also a “habit,” or inclination based on intellectual commitment, “of using those skills to guide behavior.” Critical thinking helps an individual recognize the following:

i. patterns and provides a way to use those patterns to solve a problem or answer a question
ii. errors in logic, reasoning, or the thought process
iii. what is irrelevant or extraneous information
iv. preconceptions, bias, values and the way that these affect our thinking. that these preconceptions and values mean that any inferences are within a certain context
v. ambiguity – that there may be more than one solution or more than one way to solve a problem.” (CTILAC)

Critical thinking is not limited to subjects, so religious thinking has also benefited from critical thinking and in fact, our own tradition of scholarship shines due to our classical medieval scholars’ commitment to critical thinking. One very insightful friend of mine reminded me that we go to college and pay for the skills that our classical scholars had developed. While people outside of the academy have natural inclinations towards certain aspects of critical thinking, often those skills are sharpened and refined during the process of learning a discipline. There is a stark difference between the ways someone like Suhaib Webb discusses a topic, drawing on his years of study and a lay member of the community. People recognize disciplines such as astrophysics and medicine, but often experts on subjects involving in the human experience are not as respected. And people will delve into these subjects without the requisite critical skills or mental rigor to truly engage with them. I found this out as I went into graduate school and developed my field of expertise on Islam in Africa and African History. Friends and family members would discuss a subject and if somehow my view did not agree with theirs and I explained my stance, I would experience their resentment. I learned to be quiet for the sake of peace, even if a loved one was speaking on an issue they were largely ignorant about. Our own willful ignorance in our community is especially detrimental to developing critical thinking. This is especially the case in terms of how some groups of Muslims overlook the 1400 year legacy of critical thinking and scholarship that has allowed our tradition to maintain continuity without a central body or leader to guide it.

Before I took my first course on Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudents) at Zaytuna in the late 90s, I had no idea about the rich legacy of critical thinking in Islam. I learned about the skills qualified jurists needed to draw on the Quran, Sunna (Prophetic traditions), scholarly consensus, and qiyas (analogy) to come up with rulings on new issues. That basic class whet my appetite on the study of Usul al-Fiqh (Sources of Islamic Jurisprudence), which I later studied a bit in graduate school. Usul al-Fiqh is concerned with the source of Islamic law and methodology in which legal rules are deduced. Kamali explains that the process by which scholars use to deduce sources to try to understand Shariah, Holy Law, is ijtihad. (1). The rules of fiqh use various methods of reasoning, including “analogy (qiyas), juristic preference (istihsan), presumption of continuity (istishab), and rules of interpretations and deduction.” In essence, Kamali points out that Usul al-Fiqh provides standard criteria for deriving correct rulings from the sources (2). However this standard of criteria is now overlooked by many who use ijtihad to come up with convenient rules that can lead to one of two extremes: ultra-liberal positions based on Western inclinations and not on Quran and Sunnah or ultra-conservative positions that purport to be derived strictly from Quran and Sunnah but violate the spirit of Islam.

Before delving further into this discussion, I must admit that I feel woefully ill equipped to engage in any Usuli debate on some religious issue. However, I find that many Muslims will become locked into debates that were never solved by our most gifted jurists. Often lay Muslims, with access to translations of the Quran and volumes of hadith, in addition to treatises and polemics, will derive their own rulings on religious matters based on their understanding of a Quranic verse or a hadith. According to Kamali, historically “the need for methodology became apparent when unqualified persons attempt to carry out ijtihad, and the risk of error and confusion in the development of Shari‘ah became a source of anxiety for the ‘ulama” (4). As a champion of inquiry and free thinking, it is difficult for me to openly admit that I understand their anxiety. But the reality is that our community is struggling with a crisis of authority, and that is mainly who has the authoritative voice in interpreting Islamic law.

The independent, thinking Muslim may feel like he/she is engaging in critical thinking when approaching the highest sources. However, a critical piece is missing. Ebrahim Moosa writes “… untrained in the various exegetical and interpretive traditions, lay people are not aware that a complex methodology is applicable to materials dealing with law, even if these are stated in the revelation” (121). Most lay Muslims are not trained in the language or historical context to know whether a verse was a commandment to a specific group of people at a specific time or to all Muslims of all times. Nor do they always know whether a verse was simply a statement of fact at a historical moment. Similarly, Muslims will use a statement of the Prophet (s.a.w.) without any context or understanding if it was a religious injunction and apply it to their lives. While ignoring aspects of that scholastic tradition, they will draw on it to reject a hadith and say it is da’if (weak). Or they might draw on the polemical writings of a classical author to dismiss the ideas of another tradition. Yet, they often draw on these traditions in sloppy ways that result in more confusion. Sadly, this is because many of the polemical books were written, not for lay people, but for other people who have the requisite skills and training in evaluating and analyzing sources and discipline in reason and logic.

This does not mean that a lay member of the community solely rely upon someone else’s critical thinking, rather that we recognize our own limitations in our knowledge and training and leave open some room for ambiguity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so willing to condemn others if we don’t have the skills to even assess the validity of their stances. This requires humility which many, me included, often lack. Humility is an important part of sincerity, which is an important component of purifying our intentions before going about any endeavor. When I first converted to Islam and read my few dozen books, I felt a lot more sound in my knowledge than I do now. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or my deficiencies in training. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The less arrogant I feel about my own knowledge and the more in awe I feel of those scholars who wrote without laptops and cut and paste. Even as we have unprecedented levels of literacy in our community, we must fight narrow mindedness and gathering up of information without being able to judge and assess or use that information for the greater good. And through developing our critical thinking, that Islam is more expansive, rather than restrictive and reactionary. Our greater comprehension through this intellectual struggle will be a truly enriching and humbling experience.

[Note: In order to keep this article digestible, I will continue to develop the themes in later posts to explore other aspects of critical thinking in our community. So, please consider this a part 1 of a longer series. ]

Adsit, Karen I. “Teaching Critical Thinking Skills”
retrieved August 13, 2011

CTILAC Faculty Critical Thinking & Information Literacy Across the Curriculum Retrieved from Internet August 13, 2011

Foundation for Critical Thinking “Critical Thinking Professional Development for K-12”
retrieved from the internet August 20, 2011

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK, 2003

Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam” Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. One World Publication, 2003

Pew Research. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” May 22, 2007

The Quran: Sahih International Almunatada Alislami; Abul Qasim Publishing House

Scriven, Michael and Paul, Richard. “A Working Definition of critical thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul”
Retrieved August 10, 2010

Towards Thinking of the New Imam

IMAM noun, often capitalized \i-ˈmäm, ē-ˈ, -ˈmam\ 1: the prayer leader of a mosque 2: a Muslim leader of the line of Ali held by Shiites to be the divinely appointed, sinless, infallible successors of Muhammad : any of various rulers that claim descent from Muhammad and exercise spiritual and temporal leadership over a Muslim region

This definition provides us with the meaning of imam within three contexts. Within the sunni tradition, imam  means a political successor to Muhammad, a synonym to Caliph. But most of us American Muslims use imam to refer to the Muslim who leads congregational prayers. Any man can lead prayer, but it is often preferred that the person who can recite the Quran correctly. Women can lead other women in prayer, so in this sense any woman can become an imam.   It is also the honorific title we give to someone who leads a community and this is the meaning of imam that I am talking about. I’m primarily concerned with the current state and future of American Muslim leadership. While there may be a rare woman led community, most are run by a Muslim man who has either been hired by a masjid board or self-appointed in a break away community. An imam functions much in the same way as a rabbi or a parish priest, however there are no qualifications set for the training of imams. There are many knowledgeable and skilled imams;there are some who have limited or training. Some communities have imported imams from overseas who may have memorized the Quran and studied Islamic sciences but have very little knowledge of American society. And within the Black American community, a number of imams are charismatic leaders who are able to gather a large following and are effective mobilizers. While each has their merits, both models still fail at serving the needs of the Muslim community. And both tend to alienate large sections of their congregations, particularly women.

Several Muslim thinkers have argued that an imam needs to understand the social context of America. They have argued that some formal school in fields such as sociology would help.  I want to move beyond the intellectual understanding to what’s going on and look at the training that would go not into intellectualizing the American Muslim community, but serving the American Muslim community. So as I think about the future of our community leadership, in an ongoing conversation, I wanted to point out some skills or training that would improve our masjid leadership. The following list are skill sets that an American imam should have:

1. Enough religious training to teach the congregation and  maintain authority as an imam.

An imam does not have to be a member of the ulema, but he should have enough skills to be effective. This means that the imam should be able to properly recite Quran and have a firm foundation in devotional education  to teach his congregation and maintain his authority. This means that he should have spent considerable time dedicated to formal and informal religious study. And this does not entail spending years abroad kicking rocks, but rather some time  gaining ijazat (permissions to teach from qualified scholars) or shahadah (certificates testifying to competency). Or some other religious authorities can ascertain the imam’s mastery of certain subjects such as Usul al-Fiqh (roots of Islamic jurisprudence), Tajweed (Quranic phonetics), etc. Perhaps in the future, we can have an imam certification process and basic tests to ascertain whether an imam can functionally lead others. But, as I said, the imam doesn’t have to be a major scholar. He can defer the most challenging questions to specialists. The imam should also be able to quickly find resources or resourceful people who he can turn to whenever he doesn’t know something.

2. Spiritual Guidance and Counseling/ Marriage Counseling training

A good imam should not only understand religious and spiritual issues, but he should be well equipped to deal with people coming to them to help them solve their personal problems.  But many imams do not understand the emotional or psychological states that affect the religious life of many of their congregants. An imam should be concerned with developing the moral and ethical conduct of his congregation and not just lecturing people or making them feel bad. Muslims need action programs, improvement programs, and if the community is unable to provide it the imam should be able to refer an individual to the proper resources to get the help that he/she needs. Also, imams are often bombarded with marriage and family problems, as marriage is one of our biggest challenges. There are some imams who are excellent at dealing with marriage crises, but most communities fail at addressing marital disputes. In many ways, there needs to be ongoing training in couples counseling to help develop communication skills and increase intimacy and happiness in marital life.

3. Critical Thinking skills

Basically, the imam should have enough formal education so that he not only  reads and writes well, but thinks well too.  He should be able to interpret Islamic texts and practices in ways that are meaningful for the congregation. We suffer from imams who are reactionary or do not have the requisite skills to address the needs of the community. The imam should be able to develop positions based on authoritative texts and clear logic, rather than on emotions or the daleel of shame (i.e. “AstaghfurAllah”).  The imam should also be able to take in various positions and understand the nuance of broader issues that face the community. An  imam should be able to deal with contemporary issues and communicate with the broader population in a way that would be effective.

4. Leadership training

There is more to leadership than being able to captivate an audience. Instead, leadership is a complex set of skills, including but not limited to the list below:

  • Language and ability to inspire
  • Teamwork building
  • Goal Setting and Project management
  • Communication skills (not just speaking but listening)
  • Problem solving and decision making skills
  • Conflict Resolution and Conflict Management
  • Task Delegation
  • Ethics
  • Financial planning
  • Organizational development
  • Group psychology/dynamics
  • Self discipline and awareness of leadership principles

With these four points, we can find possible areas to develop an effective Muslim American leadership. When I was in New Haven in January, I spoke with some brothers and sisters who were interested in developing a Muslim seminary. Right now we have a problem with funding, so a brick and mortar operation may be costly. But there are alternative programs that we can consider that may include summer intensive classes and online and distance study. What we need are people who are experts in their field to contribute to a joint project to develop our leadership with the highest of standards. And we need more institutions of learning that will help raise the overall Islamic literacy of Muslims. So, let us be creative and think of moving towards a new model of Muslim leadership. Our focus should not be on  creating a rock star imams or reproducing drones who have memorized traditional texts, but creating leaders who will guide have the skills to deal with the daily problems we face today and lead us into a productive and blessed future.

Self Inventory- al-Muhasabah

I sat on a conference panel a few months back where we talked about the current state and future of the American Muslim community. As one of the speakers offered commentary focusing on institutions, my mind sparked. There was so much focus on institutions, but yet people weren’t instituting Islam. People were focused on edifices, but there was little edifying Islam in our daily lives. When my time came to speak, I focused on character building. Our communities seem to lack not only ethos, but ethics. There is too much dissension within our leadership, and many of them are not trained in basic leadership skills. Everybody wants to be a leader, but few people want to be good followers.  And people within the community don’t know how to work well with others to support our mutual goals.  This includes within our families, because our interpersonal skills are so lacking that we are destructive. Combined, the instability of our families and constant political fighting, have created an environment where Muslims are not getting the guidance and resources they need to be successful. Many Muslim leaders have good intentions and I have seen some great strides in institutional building,  but at the same time I see recurrent problems that are not adequately addressed.

As Muslims, we are taught to focus on two aspects of our devotional lives: 1. the laundry list approach to developing practices and habits or 2. increasing our intellectual knowledge through both exoteric and esoteric books, lectures, and articles. We assume that using both approaches we can better ourselves. Often, we are puzzled by why things go wrong.  How can we, as outwardly devout people, end up falling so short of our lofty goals? The truth is that we are missing pieces of the puzzle.  There is a strong disconnect between our own spiritual aspirations and  how we move about in the world for many of us. And that is what jams  up so many of us. Imam Ghazali writes:

O disciple, how many nights have you spent rehearsing your learning, reading books, and depriving yourself of sleep? I do not know what the motive was in this–if it was winning the goods of the world, the allure of its vanities, getting its honours, and vainglory to the debit of your associates and peers, woe to you and woe again! But if your objective in it was the revival of the Prophet’s Law (God bless him and give him peace), the cultivation of our character and breaking  the ‘soul that inciteth to evil,’ blessing upon  you and blessing again!”  (14) [1]

Because many of us are not self-aware, but reactionary, we don’t truly cultivate our character or battle our inner demons. Instead, we look to others for our affirmation, hence the cycle of expectations, entitlement, and ego.  Many of us do not reflect at the end of the day, thinking about why something made us angry or sad. Nor do we question why we do things that are hurtful to either ourselves or someone around us. Rarely do we look at our motivations for certain actions, therefore we hardly ever check our intentions. And that is a dangerous thing because actions are but by intention. This is why we need to constantly assess ourselves.

Ramadan is a perfect time for assessing our relationship with our Creator. In order to be truly honest with ourselves, we have to lift certain veils that block us from being able to look in the mirror. Unfortunately, many of us are busy blaming others, remaining trapped in resentment, or feeling entitled, which causes us not to take an unflinching look at ourselves. One of the first steps entails forgiving others, or at least not letting the pain rule us, and taking ownership for how we have wronged ourselves, others, and our Creator. We need to be able to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and develop real strategies  that draw on our strengths for overcoming our personal blockages. And since that is difficult, and many of us don’t have mentors, guides, and sheikhs who really know us, we have to sort of muddle through. Despite our lack of resources, I think that it is possible to draw on an Islamic tradition of al-Muhasabah or self-inventory, modern psychology, and a bit of self-help to begin that process. I will use self-inventory and self-assessment interchangeably.  First let us look at the definition of self-assessment

self-assessment n

1. an evaluation of one’s own abilities and failings

2. (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) Finance a system to enable taxpayers to assess their own tax liabilities [3]

In an article, Al-Muhasabah on being honest with oneself, the author states:

Self-criticism seems like a fairly straightforward concept. The activity that makes it possible, however-namely, honesty with oneself-is exceedingly hard to come by, for it requires admission of our wrongdoings whenever such actions escape us.  It means acknowledgement within ourselves that we have committed a sin, whether against our own souls or others, be it our Creator or anyone or anything in creation. For most of us, such a confession is an incredibly tough thing to do. [2]

I think this is really helpful, but only focusing on our wrongs can be demoralizing. I have used self-assessments in the classroom and often they focus on finding strengths. In fact, there are many kinds of self assessments and personal inventories. The most common ones we will find are career and personal interest inventories and the second most common are those we find in motivation literature. There are two aspects of self-inventory, taking an assessment of our character flaws and acknowledging our wrongs and mistakes. A few readers might be familiar with the rigorous self inventory process of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous [4]. I do suggest looking at the moral inventory list because it is a useful tool. Only through acknowledgement of our wrongs, can we perform true tauba (repentance) and make changes. But, in many ways our sins are merely symptoms of an illness. And since most of us don’t have a guide, we have to do some serious self diagnosis. This is where we can use tools to do a real self inventory. The most powerful tool a believer has in the path to Ihsan (Perfecting Faith) is self inventory.  It is important to remember a few principles when it comes to self inventory:

1. Honesty- we must be fully honest and not delude ourselves when we are taking self inventory. We cannot make excuses for our actions or try to sugar coat things.

2. Faith- while acknowledging our flaws, we should have faith that our Lord will forgive our sins and shortcomings. .

3. Hope- We have to accept that we are human and these shortcomings are part of our nature, yet we can overcome them with help from God

One of the reasons why a personal inventory is important, even if you have a spiritual guide, is that only the individual has access to his or her own heart, memories, and thoughts. Confession is not part of Islam, as each person is accountable for his or her actions and no one else can expiate sins. In addition, exposing one’s sins can cause greater harm than good. Finally, the self reckoning is a personal journey and it is dangerous for our souls to take pride in the steps we are making towards improvement. Many people put on an act for others, especially if we admire them and want to impress them. Would I want to tell someone I admire that deep inside I am a fickle person, easily flattered and easily hurt by criticism? Imam Ghazali writes, “travel on this path should be by way of self-exertion, severing the ego’s appetite and killings its passions with the sword of discipline, and not by way of  and useless statements” (24) [1]While someone can observe from the outside and see certain character defects and strengths, they are unlikely to know the full contours. The guide can be just that, a guide on our journey. Each individual must exert themselves, with determination, to walk that path.

I believe that our development will become apparent to those around us, especially those we love. It will improve the quality of our lives, help us adjust to challenges, and allow us to come closer to our Creator. I do think it is worth it to look for means to honestly assess ourselves, come up with strategies to deal with our weaknesses, implement them, and assess our progress constantly. If we do that in a continual cycle, with honesty, faith, and hope, we can be more successful in both this life and the hereafter.

But don’t just take my word for it, I included a really nice video that deals with this subject below:


[1] Al-Ghazali Letter to a Disciple. Islamic TExts Society, Cambridge UK, 2005