Neutrality is Often a Virtue

Neutrality is something we should cultivate as one of our good values. It stems from a will for balance, an acceptance of plurality, a practical spirit, and a desire to avoid taking sides with anyone without having all the facts. Our pious predecessors had a special way of expressing their neutrality. They would say: “I don’t know.”

Indeed, some of them went so far as to declare: “Half of all knowledge is to say: ‘I don’t know’.” Or: “Whoever abandons saying ‘I don’t know’ has put his knowledge in peril.”

Another way they expressed their neutrality was to say: “Allah knows best.” In this way, they defer knowledge to the One who truly knows all.

Scholars of Islamic theology and Islamic legal theory have a technical term for it: “tawaqquf” (non-commitment). This is the stance taken when various lines of evidence lead in equally compelling directions so that the scholar or jurist is unable – or too cautious – to determine which is more likely to be correct. This stance of non-commitment is not a final resolution, but a provisional stance that can be abandoned in the face of further evidence.

The Caliph `Umar, while preaching from the pulpit, admitted he was unsure what the meaning of the word abb meant in the verse: “And fruits and abb (fodder)” [Surah `Abasa: 31] The same thing was related from his predecessor Abu Bakr. Indeed, nearly every scholar from every era has gone on record with a stance of non-commitment on a number of questions, or with simply refusing to express an opinion on certain matters.

Indeed, once a man approached Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and said: “O Messenger of Allah! Which country is most beloved to Allah?”

The Prophet replied: “I will not know until I ask Gabriel (peace be upon him).” Thereafter, Gabriel came to the Prophet and informed him: “The most beloved places to Allah are the mosques, and the most disliked are the markets.” [Musnad Ahmad (16744)]

In stark contrast to this behaviour, we find most people today willing to speak glibly and prattle on about every issue, whether or not they have knowledge about it. They seem to be aware that their opinions hold no real value, sometimes taking diametrically opposite positions to others just for spite. Moreover, their understanding the issues or having solid background knowledge is no prerequisite for speaking. They might completely misconstrue the matter they are criticising, since they simply do not have the depth of understanding to grasp the matter precisely or to properly critique the evidence and arguments that bear upon it.

The current proliferation of the media encourages the general public to engage in such behaviour to an unprecedented level. People today regard a person’s silence or “no comment” as a sign of weakness and low self-esteem. The social pressure to have an opinion is too great, regardless of the topic, whether it be a matter of practical religious teachings, theology, politics, economics, or what have you.

In such a climate, it does not matter what opinion one holds today or tomorrow. No one is keeping track of all the hubbub, so no one is going to be able to point out anyone else’s inconsistencies. At the same time, every issue seems to polarize people for the duration of its popularity. Everybody is identified with one camp, or one faction, or another. You are either “with” them or “against” them. People then waste huge amounts of time, energy, and resources in refuting each other, even though those who are so earnestly engaged in it have at best a superficial knowledge of the issues.

The issues themselves come and go. Some discussion gets started that you expect to pass by without much bother. Then you see it being talked about everywhere. People become obsessed with it, preoccupied with it as if it was the only issue of importance in the world. They make friends and enemies of their acquaintances on account of it. Then all of the sudden, you hear no more about it. Something else has come along to occupy their attention and that issue is completely forgotten. This leaves you to wonder what they gained from all the time, effort, and emotional investment they gave the matter.

What is worse, when the issue is a religious one, people seek support from the sacred texts to back up their opinions. Then they convince themselves of their righteousness of the unwavering correctness of their stance. They mistake their interpretations to be the indisputable world of Allah.

I once observed that some right-wing extremists in the West say “You are either with us or against us.” However, some Muslim extremists say what’s worse: “You are either with us or against Allah!”

When will we return to respecting ourselves, others, and the values that we believe in? We should not abuse everything we hold dear by employing it to score in our arguments. Even when we have a valid point to make, there is no need to exaggerate our argument to the level of a clash between ultimate truth and falsehood.

This is a far cry from the cautious neutrality favoured by our Pious Predecessors.

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