The Intellectual Thoroughness of Three-Year-Olds: The Crisis of Critical Inquiry

Note: This Is A Guest Post By Pamela Taylor

You may remember the email I shared with you last week, the one describing the rewards pious women were to receive for such deeds as nursing their infants, or consoling their husbands after a hard day at work, and so on. (If not, you can see the glorious details in the first of this series, The Moral Maturity of Two-Year-Olds.) This document declared in its headline that it bore “Glad tidings of Heaven for pious women in the light of hadith.”

This claim that the information in the email was derived from hadith, a reported saying of the Prophet Muhammad, was backed up by no references. No allusion to famed scholars such as Bukhari or Muslim, Abu Dawud or Ibn Majah, or even to scholars who had quoted from these works. No mention of narrators. No Aisha said, or Abu Hurayra reported. The supposed hadiths were not even in the form of “Prophet Muhammad said.” It was simply a list of good deeds (or at least what the author of the list considered to be good deeds) and the rewards we are supposed to receive for them. If you are a Muslim, I imagine you have been sent this sort of email too. Or perhaps you have come across mimeographed sheets left in the front corner of your mosque or been handed one by youngsters after the annual Eid prayers.

Unfortunately, it seems as though many Muslims approach these kinds of documents with the intellectual thoroughness of a three-year-old.

If you have ever taken a three-year-old for a walk, you know that she or he will pepper you with questions along the way. Why is the sky blue? Why does the concrete have cracks? Why is that flower all brown and floppy? You will also know that when you reply, “Because there is water in the air, because in the winter concrete freezes and breaks, because the flower’s stem broke,” he or she will nod sagely as though your answer solved all problems and answered all questions. An older child will ask, “How does the water make the sky blue? Why does concrete crack when it freezes? Ice doesn’t crack when it freezes. Why does breaking the stem make the flower wilt?” And a few years later that kid will challenge your answer — “Are you sure? How do you know?” But a three-year-old simply absorbs what you say as fact, incorporates it into his or her world-view, and moves on.

Confronted with a laundry list of good deeds and commensurate rewards (or supplicatory prayers to say at various occasions, or the evils of jinn, or the benefits of marriage, etc, etc, etc) far too many Muslims react in the manner of a three-year-old. We hungrily scan the page, seeking the reward for this good deed, the punishment for that bad deed, soaking up the answers as though they were indubitable fact and as though they could solve all individual and global ills. Put something on a sheet of paper, dress it up in a robe and turban and we think it represents God’s own Word! Let it drop from the lips of a scholar, whether it makes sense or not, whether it has an authentic source or not, and we would stake our very life on it.

Who says so? Where did this information come from? Is this accurate? These are the very first questions we should ask, closely followed by “Why would the Prophet say this?” and “How can I apply it to my life?” (For more on this, see my upcoming article in this series.)

Even if the email comes from a good friend or references a noted scholar, or the page is distributed by the imam of our mosque, we should demand a modicum of intellectual rigor from our scholars and from ourselves. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves — and to God — to determine if information we intend to incorporate into our religious belief is actually from Prophet Muhammad or not. Obviously, to accept any assertion that something is hadith or from the Qur’an without checking that it actually is, is intellectually irresponsible and potentially disastrous for the accuracy of one’s practice of Islam.

This textual laxity not only allows wrong practices to seep into the religion, but also creates intellectual dependency and immaturity of thought process. The word of the scholar, not the words of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad, becomes the final authority, relieving the individual from cultivating his or her own knowledge and understanding. The uncritical acceptance of what one is told reinforces an attitude of carelessness towards matters of doctrine.

The classical hadith scholars used specific terms for the precise manner in which hadiths were transmitted — recited to the teacher, written with the teacher watching, written and then read aloud to the teacher, etc. They only accepted narrations from people of good character and did a great deal of research to determine the character of various narrators. The exegetes explained meaning based upon precise wordings. They were not sloppy, making recommendations on almost accurate wordings of Qur’an or hadith. Obviously, we cannot all reproduce the efforts of Bukhari or Muslim (and it would be foolish to do so), we cannot all have the command of Qur’anic Arabic of an Ibn Kathir or a Suyuti, but we can approach our faith with the same sincerity, and the same intellectual integrity that they did.

Until Muslims mature intellectually, until the scholar’s opinion and the printed page are no longer treated like Commands from Upon High, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to escape the rigidity, extremism, and simple error in religious practice that currently plague us.

(Look for the third installment, The Linguistic Literalism of Four-Year Olds, next week on Hijabman!)

(Photo by Javed Memon)

For more on Pamela Taylor, check out her website. This article was first published on the now-defunct MWU.


  1. Leels says:

    I think comparing people who believe everything they read in an e-mail to three year olds is insulting to three year olds, Ms. Taylor.

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