‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’ is as much applicable to learning about religion as it is about anything else in life. Yet, too often, whether it’s relating to tradition, traditionalism, ethno-cultural idioms or other parochial discourses, there is generally a lack of a questioning ethic. For one reason or another if we’re not already conforming to it, we succumb to unquestioningly accepting what we’re told, not necessarily because things are self-evident but because we assume that the person speaking knows it, or that this is how they’ve always been or ought to be. Unfortunately, this engenders a perception of familiarity, whose very lenses often veils our senses from the deep wondrous nature of any phenomena through which God’s attributes reveal. Yet the Qur’an encourages us to cast aside the veil of familiarity to see the mundane or ordinary, inasmuch as the extraordinary, things anew, as signs of God.
There is also a presumed fear that if we ask too many questions we risk opening up Pandora’s box (containing all the evils of the world). One question leading to another, and before you know it, a juggernaut is seemingly unleashed challenging and unpicking hitherto well-established assumptions of profound meaning from which we can’t seem to land softly, nor prepared spiritually and intellectually to deal with its implications. Understandably, a prophylactic defence develops in the name of protecting us from asking questions, locking us into a widespread culture of learning without testing the integrity of what we’ve learnt.
Yet, everything we know about the Qur’an would suggest that it teaches us how to think and to ask questions. I’d even argue that asking questions is a path to being guided and being able to discriminate truth from falsehood, virtue from corruption, justice from injustice, ethics from hypocrisy, and so on. A profound example of this is that God opened even the Angels to question Him as to why He, the Supreme, was placing on earth someone who would spread mischief and bloodshed. It was to make God’s intention known to us.
We must of course keep in mind when reading the Qur’an that it is God Who is Divine, and is talking to us on the level we can understand. Hence, God uses words like hal (‘is/has there’…) and afala (‘do they not’…) to question the reader. After all, human beings have a profound psychology when it comes to questions. For a start, questions compel us to answer. They also engage us, and in God conversing with the reader, we are also building rapport with Him through these questions. Above all, through questions in the Qur’an, God also invites us to self-discover, and to help us manage or overcome pre-conceived filters through which we see the world or process information.
This of course also means that as Muslims reading the Qur’an, that the Qur’an doesn’t signify only those meanings that we happen to be familiar with, or have been handed down from early Qur’an authorities, in which there can be quite diverse opinions in any case, keeping to their actual reality. A good example of this is our understanding of the word dukhaan (41:11) which is typically translated as ‘smoke’ – something which earlier Muslims would have been able to relate to. But unlike then, today we associate it to scientific theories about the explosion that set the universe up – a conceptualisation which was not possible in earlier times. Evidently, we can only appreciate this if we ask the right questions.
Though questioning in itself is only part of the story. To gain something out of it, normally, we’d need someone capable to help answer it in such manner that satisfies the question as holistically as possible. In this regard, as many scholars have said, we shouldn’t take our religion uncritically from anybody who we just happen to come across. After all, this is an age of ‘dawah men,’ ‘televangelists’ and social media activists who have amassed thousands of followers and keen to publicise their opinions on just about any matter current in the wider media. In turn, consumers of this see their global stage or volume of followers as a marker of credibility. All of which can often be a recipe for confusion and democratisation of religion for the sincere believer. One scholar advised, you should not learn religion from someone whose intelligence you have not tested. Another advised that you should seek out the knowledgeable and wise with authority to teach you in person. Or, it could be that there are multiple perspectives which in their own way go somewhere towards answering the question, but has a tendency to leave the questioner seeking to reconcile for themselves. No doubt such reconciliation will be attempted by a certain kind of enquiring mind. Mostly though, people will settle for the answer with the least path of resistance where the bar of acceptability can often be set very low, which can be problematic in its own ways, too.
Similarly, the Prophets also questioned. Abraham, for example, asked: ‘My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead?’ to which God replied, “Do you not then believe?” to which Abraham replied with, ‘Yes, but [I ask] in order that my heart may be at ease.’ It’s an engaging discussion that God intends for us to learn from. The Companions of the Prophet also asked the Prophet probing questions to clarify matters. And the Prophet in return sometimes answered by asking the Companions a question, as if to entice them to think deeper. One example which I find incredibly meaningful is when seeing the Prophet pray at night until his feet swelled up, Lady A’isha asked the Prophet, ‘Why do you do this…’, [especially], ‘…when God has forgiven your past and future sins?’ The Prophet replied by questioning: ‘Should I not to be a grateful believer?’ recognising the genuine nature of the question and the need to open up Lady A’isha’s mind so that she could self-discover the link between gratitude (shukr) and prayer (salat).
It isn’t at all surprising that the question and investigative approach is hammered into us as we go through academia and later in our professional settings. I seem to recall in high school that the question of ‘how Pythagoras’ theorem (a2+b2=h2) can be true?’ led us to cut out squares to count their area. We didn’t just take our maths teachers’ word. Similarly, in our professional life, it isn’t enough to simply accept new proposals or direction about an issue without critically evaluating them through evidence, standards and alignment to strategy. This isn’t scepticism for its own sake, but, as we gleam from Quranic lessons, it’s about asking the right questions to make sense for ourselves. Asking questions allows us to create greater order and to prioritise effectively; in fact in itself does great service to filter out the dearth of weak or nefarious ideas, too.
Some argue against asking tricky questions on the basis that God mentions, ‘O you who have believed, ask not about things which, if they are shown to you, may cause you trouble.’ Yet, this verse of the Qur’an is referring to the futility of unnecessary questioning, which serves the purpose of prying into things, to split hairs or to make things unnecessarily particular and restrictive. In the background to this revelation (asbab al-nuzul) it is quite clear that the Prophet didn’t wish to obligate Hajj every year and that it was sufficient to leave it as the Prophet had spoken of. Just look at some of the hair-splitting, minutest questions of aqidah or fiqh that we often come across – something which many scholars throughout the ages have spoken against. In the grand scheme of things not only do they have little significance, we’ll never be able prove them one way or the other even in Islamic academia, nor remove them of their intrinsic neuro-linguistic variation.
It seems as the world around us changes we engage religion in ways that can be disconnected to our wider lived experience. I am wondering how much of this is because we don’t ask the right questions? Have we created a culture where we shut down people who ask questions, as ‘challenging,’ ‘deconstructive,’ ‘modernist’ or ‘unorthodox’ they may seem? Not that those who often advance such shorthand labels to problems of truth, enquiry and meaning have themselves asked the right questions to gain a holistically operating and nuanced understanding of these terms. And why is it that we prefer to tread on paths that are least taxing to our minds? Does it really have to be like this? Is this really the legacy of Islamic scholarship?