How to find the truth
How to find the truth from a number of Information sources? A critical study with regard to some Islamic contexts.
This essay will critically discuss how to scrutinise information from a variety of Islamic information sources with the objective of finding the truth, which will form the basis of gaining and applying Islamic knowledge.
Islam requires Muslims to spend their lives in a certain way rather than just wake up and act according to whatever comes to your mind. For this purpose, as soon as a Muslim man or woman becomes Baligh, it becomes a duty for them to seek knowledge about Islamic beliefs and practices. As they start growing and come in contact with the world from various aspects, they start facing challenges and a lot of questions come to mind. This is where the real knowledge journey starts. The first information source is parents, teachers and elders but they may, or may not that have the correct religious knowledge based on their education and backgrounds. Then comes friends and the internet (websites, social media, video lectures), which also can’t be classed as reliable as each author explains the subject to the best of their understanding. Then they start connecting to the local mosque and its scholar who is supposed to be the most religious person in proximity. However, if the local imam also has only minimum required knowledge or can’t express himself clearly or there are language issues, the person is not satisfied. He may then start looking at the books himself and come across a range of Islamic information sources and if there is a chance, to meet more experienced religious scholars.
In this essay I have tried to explain what the various Islamic information sources are and categorised them, analysed them for all the challenges they present to the Muslims, looked at how different class of Muslims deal with this issue and finally presented some methods to understand Islamic information properly to be able to follow Islam as Allah wants us.
SECTION 1A: Sources of Islamic Information
The Holy Quran
The Holy Quran contains revelations from Allah, the God Al-Mighty, sent to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period. It contains chapters (surah’s) and verses (ayat). Quranic topics include Islamic beliefs, Islamic practices, historical accounts, events during the time of Prophet Muhammad, moral lessons and how Allah (swt) wants humans in general and Muslims in particular to spend their lives.
Following are hadith written in authentic well-known books by Shia scholars
Hadith from Prophet Muhammad and Imam’s (peace be upon them)
Hadith is a record of words spoken by Prophet Muhammad and Hadith from Imam’s is a record of words spoken by one of the 12 Shia Imam’s after the demise of Prophet Muhammad in either explanation of the verses of the Holy Quran, explanation of Hadith from Prophet Muhammad imparting knowledge to their audience or solving problems.
Hadith from Companions of Prophet Muhammad or Imam’s
Hadith from Companions is a record of words spoken by the Prophet Muhammad or Imam’s after their demise by their companions. Since they existed for generations, the hadith is presented as a series of narrations ultimately connecting to the Prophet or Imam.
The following Islamic information sources contains Quranic translations, Verified or Unverified hadith, Hadith interpretations and Other sources
Muslim writers and speakers
A number of books, papers, articles and lectures has been written by Muslim scholars, thinkers, writers and speakers by quoting Quranic verse or verses or quoting Hadith and explaining their own understanding of it.
Internet, Social Media and Discussion forums
Islamic information is also available on Internet in the form of websites created by individuals and organisations expressing their own point of views sometimes interpreting the Quran and Hadith or just coming up with their own ideas which they think is useful for Islam. Social media is another source where anyone can share any sort of Islamic information. Discussion forums, especially online, scrutinise Islamic information subjects and people come up with their own opinions.
Islamic History has been written and commented upon by a number of people and therefore could have different versions of ‘what happened’. Information that has not appeared apparently in Quran and Hadith is sometimes reasoned from historical events in the life of Prophet Muhammad and the Imams.
Hawza Curriculum and the System of Marjaiyat
I have included this as an Islamic information source as at present our scholars who all study in the Hawza but end their studies at different stages. As and when they end, they move on to preach Islam in their respective geographical locations. The sciences taught in Hawza are from Quran, Hadith and authentic commentaries and explanation from expert scholars. Based on their learnings at Hawza, our scholars become a source of Islamic information. The System of Marjaiyat and its output as the risalah ‘amaliyeh produced by each Marja is also another authentic source of information.
SECTION 1B: General analysis of Islamic Information source categories mentioned above.
The Holy Quran, in its original form, is the word of God and therefore an authentic Islamic information source. Even then I see 2 complexities in understanding the Quran. One as Allah mentioned in Chapter 3 Verse 7 (the muhkamat and mutashabihat) and the other in translations and exegesis by religious and Arabic language experts
Hadith from Prophet Muhammad and the Imams are authentic Islamic information sources as a primary or direct source. However, as we do not live in the age where we have direct access to the Prophet or Imam, all hadith comes to us from secondary or indirect sources. This is where the complexity starts. The first indirect source is the companions and it’s a well-known historical fact that after the demise of Prophet Muhammad, Islam broke into sects and hence companions were divided into groups based on their own understandings of Islamic teachings. Due to limited recording sources available during the time of Prophet and Imam’s a lot of hadith was compiled as it is, without being checked for authenticity. Unfortunately, Islam also saw a few periods of self-appointed rulers of Islamic state who used hadith to their own advantage by distorting them or in some case even creating hadith themselves. Finally, the complexity of translation and meaning applies to hadith as well as the original language was Arabic, and Muslims needs it in all other languages.
There are hadith available in Non-Shia sources of which Sunni books are the largest in number. Wikipedia lists 36 Sunni books of hadith collections. Some of the writers are not well known in Shia or Sunni Muslims. Whilst some of the hadith in these books are also present in Shia books, majority of them are from Narrators which aren’t considered reliable by Shia scholars due to them being biased against Ahlulbayt, having spent very little time in Prophet’s lifetime, or them compiling hundreds of hadith after the Prophet.
The sources of Islamic information that I will now discuss are those which are essentially interpretations only. In some cases, Quran and Hadith translations would also be done by the author. For the purpose of clarification, I am defining translation as a word to word language conversion and interpretation as explanation of its meaning in writers’ own words. Muslim academics, scholars, speakers and writers in trying to explain Islamic text to people, use their own intellect to describe a verse, hadith or anything ‘good’ with no reference to Quran or Hadith. The most common of these methods are Shia majalis where during the month of Muharram, hours and hours of lectures are given to large audiences who gather to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain a.s. This medium of propagating Islamic information and sometimes misleading information has also got into wrong hands and new ideologies are being introduced from the pulpit.
Internet is the place where authentic information can be shared but at the same time new information or distorted versions of existing information can be created and shared on websites that looks very academic. Social media is another fast-paced medium of information sharing but unlike websites which require skills and costs to setup, on social media the general person can share authentic or misleading content quite easily. One example is posters of hadith being circulated in large numbers on Whatsapp without any references or references from unknown sources. Then there are online discussion forums where people discuss their own questions among themselves for hours and draw conclusions of ‘what feels good’ rather then study sources.
Islamic History properly started from the birth of Prophet Muhammad however it did exist in limited capacity before his time too. Since then several books have been written that include facts with evidence. Some historical accounts and biographies were written as per instructions of the head of states and influential people. Some historical books were lost or became unreadable due to poor preservation or destruction of their storage places. Complexity increased when the gaps in history were ‘made up’ by narrators, writers and speakers to the ‘best of their knowledge’.
I will divide our scholars who are speakers and/or writers into 4 types. Those who are very good speakers but have done foundation level Hawza study or self-study only, these people attract large audiences as they say what their audience like to listen. Most of our scholars who have done the minimum level of Hawza education and now spend their time in propagation Islam primarily in their home countries, these people do their own research and explain what they understand from the Quran and Hadith as best as they can. The scholars who continue to study and research at the Hawza, these people have more knowledge then the prior two and hence pass on information which is as authentic as possible. Finally, our expert scholars who have become Marja Taqleed with followers, their word is the last on Islamic information unless obviously someone become a Marja themselves. The point to highlight is that all these scholars can present a same topic in a different way depending on the conclusion they have arrived on after reading and reflecting.
SECTION 2: Using some sciences related to Islamic studies to find the truth
Science is a systematic way to organise knowledge. Fortunately, as part of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Islamic Studies has developed over time and its disciplines offers structured approaches and methods to dissect Islamic information. Some of them are defined below
Islamic Theology (Kalam) is a science that involves study of Islamic beliefs through various approaches based on intellect or hadith. It can be used for defending Islamic beliefs against any uncertainties.
Philosophy is a science that discusses the notion of being, and its descriptions using rational and analogical methods as well as self-evident assertions. Studying and understanding philosophy can help the inquirer raise questions which helps expand the topics and get closer to the truth
Mysticism involves finding the spiritual truth of existence through subconscious quality and an internal-knowing process. Through Mysticism one can gain deeper knowledge of self and with God’s help can compare various Islamic sources of information to understand truth or sometimes create their own version of it.
Hadith Studies (Rijal) is a science that reviews the reliability of transmitters in the chain of the narration. In The criteria, which include their capability in recording hadiths, and their commitment to religious laws, to accept the transmitters’ reports are also studied. This science is a real blessing as when we look into introduction of even Shia Hadith books, the author clearly states that all they have done is to collect a number of hadith and categorise them into topics. The hadith can be authentic or false/fake. Rijal helps scholar’s expert in this science to compare hadith against strict criteria and when they quote it in their works or lectures, we can safely assume the authenticity of hadith.
Quranic sciences are used to understand the Quran and the misinterpretations regarding its legitimacy and divine origin. Islamic jurisprudence relates to everyday and social issues in the life of Muslims. They can all help us dealing with confusions in a logical way, build up the argument using evidences and get closer to reality.
SECTION 3: Using Technology to find the truth
The purpose of this section is to highlight the point that Islamic information should not be considered accurate as soon as its first seen or heard. It needs to be researched a bit to find more about it. This is where technology can help. Use of Search Engines like Google can help in finding similar pieces of information from multiple sources. Language translators can help convert text into your desired language. Although software level translations are mostly by word rather than by sentence, they still give a good idea what the text in its original language means. Electronic communications like Email and Instant Messaging provide a fast turnaround of responses. They can help in sharing written text and your understanding of it with a more knowledgeable person to ask questions or have their views on it. Artificial Intelligence is a technology where output is broken down into all possible inputs. This method can be used to analyse lots of text into meaningful information insights.
SECTION 4: People’s views on how they find the truth using the following interview questions:
- How do you think information from various sources should be evaluated to find the truth?
- What do you practically do to find the truth? If it is, why is it different from answer in 1.?
- Can truth ever be found?
- Some things are fundamental. They are divided into belief and some practice. They are absolute so information is truth as it is. Then we look if the information is intellectual or written text. Intellectual topics will be reviewed according to logic. They are also always absolute (non-changeable) and can be proven or denied. Written text can be Quran or Non-Quranic. Quranic is always valid, we only need to understand the meaning.
- Check the source of Non-Quranic text. Research the text. See if its common between scholars and found in authentic books. Non-Quranic text needs to be checked if it’s against Quran or Intellect.
- Research on truth will always continue as various amounts of truth will be exposed in different times.
Primary School Teacher:
- Whilst evaluating the information we need to see If it fits with Quranic narrative. Anything against this should be questioned. Within Quranic tafasir I would use the tafseer written by the person I trust.
- There is hadith in al-kafi that talks about intellect being most beloved….and that we have outer messenger and inner messenger…the inner one is our intellect and that’s what I use.
- To find the truth, you need to work out epistemology. For a Shia, my knowledge has 3 sources – Quran, Prophet and aql. To prove something to me, it must be from my epistemological sources. If there is a contradiction in my own sources, I use aql. We can never know truth. Faith is to believe in something without evidence, which is why we use the phrase “leap of faith”.
- If we define truth as the objective reality, we need a common standard which corresponds to this definition, and then apply this common standard as a test to each source. This standard should include; authenticity, rationality and historical context.
- The agent must also be evaluated, in addition to the sources. This depends on the type of knowledge and their relative expertise and personal grasp of the standard for obtaining truth applied.
- Yes, through the means of rationality and, in some circumstance’s personal engagement with the source.
- Evaluation should be based on reason as well as internal response. What seems most logical.
- I look at who has been quoted- E.g. Imam Ali (a.s) is described as the truthful so quotations from him become instructions for life. Islam is a religion that is a way of life so when reading different sources, I think how they can be applied.
- It follows on from the belief in God. We see the truth of God in his creations, these are proof, and so further narrations sources etc can stem from this, in this sense truth can be found and it is known through a feeling of being content. So truth ultimately is that which is logical and put the heart at peace.
SECTION 5: What are the implications of not finding the truth
After all the discussion above the question can be asked; What if we don’t try to find the truth, will it impact anything? The answer is Yes. If we don’t spend some time thinking and reflecting to find the most authentic information possible, we will be dependent on other people’s ideas which is only useful if we don’t have the same capacity as them. We may act on false information leading to a disaster. We may pass on incorrect information. We may fulfil Satan’s objective to create disbelief. If we act on wrong information this may lead to creating unhealthy/unislamic habits creating confusion in our lives.
We looked into a number of Islamic information sources and critically evaluated information gathered and presented in each of them. All sources have their own complexities for the reader ranging from language issues, multiple interpretations, fabrication and distortion, unreliable origins or chain of transmission to knowledge limitation of the author or speaker, uneducated people deriving conclusions and sharing with others and Non-Muslims trying to challenge Islamic concepts.
We reviewed scientific solutions to this subject and found that thankfully Islamic studies provides a structured way to find, organise, question and review information in order to form principles and clarify misconceptions. We checked how technology can help with this question and found that it can help process data faster and produce results for us to maintain focus and understand information comprehensively.
We examined various point of views on this topic from individuals in different circumstances and the results showed the varying nature of understanding people have and the techniques they use to find reliable information.
Something I really felt missing during the writing of this essay was a direct contact with the Imam of our time (may Allah hasten his reappearance). I compared myself to other Muslims who lived during the time of the Prophet and the 11 Imams and how they were able to benefit from them directly and how Allah wants the Muslims in the 12th Imam time to work hard and understand Islam from the resources available.
I think truth is being continuously discovered as the research in Islamic texts continue. Having the Holy Quran is the greatest blessing from Allah. All the Hadith from Prophet and Imams that has got to us is a great treasure. The job of Muslim now is to find those more knowledgeable and seek knowledge themselves.
March 2019 – London