7-Step Strategy for Dealing with (‘Distressing’/’Different’/’Difficult’) Ideas that could Shake Your Belief in the Foundation of ‘Things’
An Easy-Guide Method to Navigate Your Way through Confusion
We live in changeable times.1
In such times, one can feel particularly disoriented. We all have ideas, beliefs about what life is about; about the purpose of us (alive and breathing) on this world.
So what is it about?2
I’d suggest that we all have to – and do – respond to this uncertain changeability. We negotiate a range of options in the responses we take to it; sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
We could: keep up with the times; put our foot down and remain unchanged; get ahead; be the changing force; or be the thing that gets in the way; hold onto the essentials of life; let go of all attachments and carry on; review and restart…
I believe, in sum, most of us would want to be able to deal with changing times adequately and effectively.
Here is a 7-step way of navigating your way through life without suffocating in uncertainty, procrastination and despair:
1. Be Open
2. Listen to your Earnest Conscience
3. Use the Wisdom of the Journeyman
4. Deal with the Challenge of Difference
5. Consider an Eclectic Approach (to ‘Truth’)
6. Engage with ‘Workable Theories’, and
7. Remember your Purpose
1) Be Open
When something ‘distressing’/’different’/’difficult’ comes your way, do not knee-jerk into a defensive ‘no’ or even an embracive’ yes’. Rather a hand-shake salaam of ‘let’s see’ 3
Certainly don’t fear it. That’s the trick. Try to be more attuned to the possibilities of change (you don’t have to change). “The readiness is all”4 Keep an open mind. That is first.
2) Listen to Your Earnest Conscience
Second. If you’re a believer of God, then regardless of everyone’s thoughts this way or that; or demonstrations in this world, this way or that – God exists, so actually, there’s no problem.
Conversely, if you’re not a believer of God, the same principle applies – God doesn’t exist, so there’s no problem, right?
The real issue is: do you or don’t you believe in God, and then what does this mean in how you should live your life?
If you’re a believer of God, then remember God will judge (justly) the nature of things even if you get it wrong. He’ll look into your heart (your conscience) and at your earnestness of wanting to get it right. So don’t worry.5
If you’re not a believer of god then you must judge the nature of things through that propensity that drives you: a philosophy (moral, ideological, or other); a political point of view; a financial angle; an aesthetic sense; or the pit of your own instincts (a gut feeling, whim, or fancy); or a combination of all of the above. If you get it wrong, no matter, you will have learnt a valuable lesson. But so long as you’ve looked into your heart and were guided by that propensity through which you judge (your conscience), then you have at least been earnest with yourself.
Don’t fool yourself; this is a waste of time and your emotional resources. You don’t have much time left so make the most of the time you have left.
There is a link between who you are (your Identity), the will to “know thyself”6 and making a decision (to act). Let’s call the totality of these three factors, ‘acting self-Knowingly’ (as opposed to acting in a ‘self-seeking’ way); and by your actions in this world whether believer or non believer, the connection between the three parts to acting self-knowingly is critically dependent on your conscience and your earnestness.
(For the believer) Allah will judge ultimately; (for believer and non believer – if this self-knowing action is pursued) your restless soul will be nourished.
3) Use The Wisdom of the Journeyman
Next: let alone the hadith, “Seek knowledge even unto China,”7 there are plenty of verses in the Quran that spells out that we should traverse the world and see what occurred to civilisations prior to our own (as evidence of the ‘natural law’ and God’s Will); or for us to witness the signs in his creation (of God’s existence).8 The implied directive is the same:
“Get your head out of the book and look/witness/seek/live (be) in the world.” And ask: ‘to what end?’
Wisdom is not just in one place (in books only – or in one book only) – but all over the world too; around us; within us. We should look for it.
The Quran is not an Encyclopaedia Britannica or an A-Z bullet-pointed check-list, spelling everything out of what to do and what not to do for every conceivable occasion: “I wonder what the meaning of representative government is?”, “What are the origins of France?”, “What is 3 to the power of 3?”, “How should I conduct the harvest this year?”, “Should I clip my toe nails today?”, “Do I like the colour red?”…
No. It is more like a guidebook, or a moral compass as you journey so you know ‘which way is north’. To ensure you don’t get lost, so you can keep your bearings straight. The Quran is ‘Al-Furqan’, the criterion – the reference point when in doubt.9 It requires you (metaphorically in the least) wander around. Not (metaphorically) stay in one place.
Why else did the final revelation come out of the deserts of Arabia – the land of the nomads? We are wayfarers all, travelling within the context of this life from birth to the dust.10
“I swear by the declining day that man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to [sabr]steadfastness [patience and perseverance, endurance, i.e. being ‘noble’, being ‘strong’].”11 This is the material point.
4) Deal with The Challenge of Difference
Now, this approach when negotiating a ‘distressing/different/difficult’ idea is one without denying or destroying your heart (conscience).
It expects that many things you hold dear, your firm beliefs, must be challenged. When you’re faced off with something different you have to make a stand. A stand is not to ‘fight’, or ‘embrace’ – but to ‘comprehend’12 first.
Being challenged is a good thing. It gets you out of your comfort zone, off the sofa. Think about the Prophets and the times they came to articulate their message. They didn’t pop up for any reason at a time that people couldn’t care much less about. Events were such that needed someone to negotiate the realities around them and make sense of them (through God’s guidance) and provide a way out of the troubles. All pre-existing firm beliefs were challenged.
Like a warm up before an exercise session, shake yourself about, un-tense your muscles and relax. You’re about to go places.
Now please note that though firm beliefs were challenged, the message seemed to come back clearer in its articulation of the essentials. Everything was not dug up and overturned into a pile of junk, but rather the garden was thoroughly toiled, the soil cleared more effectively and refined, the paving stones from gate to garage became more and more clear of stinging nettles and clinging weeds. The Kaaba represented the (devotional) House of (the One) God. He was worshipped in a way prescribed by God, but whose original record of procedure was lost to us; but then later, the Kaaba housed many gods made up by the Arabs themselves. The methods of prayer would have inevitably altered too. It was finally tidied back to purpose with the Prophet, but the refinement this time included a contemporaneous record of the procedures of worship: a clearer articulation of the essentials.
There is a difference with the Prophets time and ours: the Prophet has passed away and no more (new) prophets will be sent to mankind now that God’s message in Islam is succinct enough. But the machinations of cultures, politics, and the lively debates to understand faith and practice have led history to confuse us with what the essential point the Prophet came to articulate was. In each generation, renewers/reformers came to bring back the message in its pristine forms or to find in it something particularly relevant for their time or to enable cultures to begin sharing in its ethos.
So what is the import of the Islamic message in our time and for our generation? Good question.
This article seeks only to assist in outlining a method to deal with the pressures in your mind (if this occurs) as you configure or attempt to make sense of answers to this very question.
I will suggest that difference of thought is good. Though this can lead to tensions in your mind, as stated, above, it does release a creative power that allows you to think ‘outside the box’ and come up with better ways of dealing with such anxiety. So don’t ever feel lost or desperate. Instead look at it as a challenge: the first one who comes up with the best way of dealing with the ‘problem’ wins the lolly! Let’s go.
Step one: don’t think of it as a problem…
5) Consider an Eclectic Approach (to ‘Truth’)
When the Europeans had to ‘deal with’ the new thoughts during the periods labelled as the ‘renaissance’ or the ‘age of discovery’ (1400-1600), how else will you describe the sense of bustle and tension as firm beliefs were challenged? Not just a ‘clash of philosophies’ as ancient Greek via Arab and Persian (and Indian) ideas rocked a Euro-centric Christian mindset; but new worlds were discovered; new technologies were discovered/invented. What was going on?
When Francis Bacon (a 16th century English philosopher, statesman, and refiner of the scientific method) attempted to deal with phenomena and his attempts to reconcile them, he decided to allow them to speak for themselves. He is said to be a proponent of ‘eclecticism’.13 That is to say, he had an eclectic range of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about the world, which he collected. He retained different ideas without feeling a need necessarily of synthesising them.
The eclecticism in Bacon’s work can be characterised as an ‘unwillingness to decide between what seem to be competing views, trying instead to balance them, as if deciding between them would inevitably lose something valuable in the view … decided against.’14
It is certainly crucial to highlight the central role eclecticism played in the Christian West’s intellectual (and cultural) encounter with Muslim philosophers’ writings:
‘In the rediscovery in the West of Greek and Roman philosophical sources, from the twelfth century onwards, their eclectic approach is if anything reinforced’.15 This seems to illustrate quite clearly, how in a bid ‘to make sense’ of ‘strange’, ‘new’ and ‘radical’ ideas, wherever it comes, there is a need – in order to ‘digest’ the ideas – to swallow them alongside seemingly divergent (and contradictory?) ideas of one’s own more familiar notions. It is the means through which we might chew on a novel thought and mull it over. Perhaps through this process a synthesis might take place; perhaps not; such thoughts might allow others in a later generation to argue about them – pitting people for or against; or indeed, this process might be that very thing that sets off a spark for a brand new idea.
The eclectic temperament did not cease with the European Renaissance. Again, this is very interesting. ‘Forms of eclecticism [are] not only found in, but shape, natural philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they continue to play a significant role into the eighteenth century’.16 In the modern era, Justus Lipsius has been cited as ‘the first to use the term ‘eclecticism’. …Taking Seneca as his model, he advises that we should “not strictly adhere to one man, nor indeed one sect”’.17
Indeed Robert Boyle asserts that ‘professors of [eclecticism] did not confine themselves to notions and dictates of any one sect [read, school of thought], but in a manner include them all, by selecting and picking out of each that which seemed most consonant to truth and reason, and leaving the rest to their particular authors and abetters.’18
This method is reinforced by what Gaukroger says about Jean Bodin, who he explains, ‘used the commonplace book19 as an arsenal of ‘tidbits of knowledge which he divorces from their original context in order to suit his own purposes’.20
Eclecticism is a phenomenon, which does not have much airtime in today’s general reception of the past. But it was a vital and influential process. Eclecticism was a feature of major figures in sixteenth century English natural philosophy, such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.21 Indeed Gaukroger explains how ‘in the 1760s, Diderot, in his article on eclecticism in the Encyclopedie, associated the ‘rediscovery’ of eclecticism, as he sees it, with the birth of modern thought.22
***A Muslim may be alarmed with my suggestion, thinking I’m authorising the notion that we must pick and choose in order to make sense of the world (pick and choose from the Quran, from the Sunnah). No! For a Muslim, the Qur’an and Sunnah would be that moral compass – that bench-mark to gauge other things. Rather, when encountering divergent scholars, the world, your life, you will find you will invariably pick and choose a nuance or an valuable take on something – perhaps even involuntarily. My point is that this is not necessarily a problem if you view it as a stage of knowledge, moving from one point to another, as you come to learn and know more than the day before – but you can’t be ignorant of it. The critical point is that we must not be dogmatic with the (what little) knowledge we’ve acquired. That is when things go wrong.***
Now, we don’t have the time to observe everything, digest it all and make meaningful and total sense within our lifespan. Yet we have to live and make decisions about what to do on a day to day level. Bacon couldn’t, for example, wait for the whole of the scientific enterprise to conclude that, ‘Yes, there wasn’t a god’ (as many scientific positivists believe) before he was able to make decisions about how to live, for instance.
The same applies with us. Make your mind up with the information you have – but don’t be jealously possessive with ‘truth’. You don’t know everything – and the truth is, the professors – though they know a lot – don’t know everything either. We only have what we believe and we point to signs (evidence) to prove things this way or that.
Consider therefore the notion of a ‘workable theory’.
6) Engage with ‘Workable Theories’: A Method to Navigate Your Way Through Confusion
Regarding ‘workable theories’, this is the notion of possessing a perception of the world, which is ‘open to change’. It is akin to both an ‘informed opinion’ and a ‘hypothesis’23 of how things are. Having a grand theory that attempts to explain specifics concerning everything is a dangerous business. Exceptions invariably render the grand theory useless.24
Workable theories are useful as they are aimed at us who do not know. As the world/life appears unknowable in its entirety, such a theory serves a purpose.
In particular, with the modern Muslim situation in the West, where there are many Muslims who may be unclear how to deal with certain circumstances in the present age, drawing on workable theories allows one to set principles at least temporarily. Workable theories are useful, therefore, in bridging a gap: you may go from 1. What you believe you know, to 2. What you deduce yourself (or with others) to be the case in the face of a ‘problem’; 3. If one accepts that more may or will be learnt in the future, this will avert that sense of finality with one’s understanding of a problem. This way you avoid a kind of complacency with the truth; and 4. finally, keep a Stop-Gap open: one may find out after later research that what one originally held as true is no longer the case, incorrect, misleading or false. Keeping this Stop-Gap open means that one may move on from one’s original perception or move back to it if the research itself is ‘proved’ to be wrong. A Stop-Gap is the premise by which a principle may change due to changing circumstances. Change must be considered and dealt-with in some way. It is the stage at which one rests and deliberates.
7) Remember your Purpose
Remember in Islam, ours is not about trying to prove (and convert) people to our way of thinking.25 We enjoy the range of phenomena that Allah has created in the space between breath and death.26 We are meant to (in the least) to speak of the glories of God27 and at most, to devote ourselves to Him – to (consicously) submit ourselves entirely to God.28 Even if you wanted, Allah says, you won’t be able to convert everyone (to the truth). Allah has made some believe and some disbelieve29 as a challenge for us all.
And don’t feel that this seems quite final. If you’re thinking you’re a non-believer, it may turn out you’re in fact a believer by the time you die. So let us not be complacent in our interaction with life. If you’re thinking quite smugly that you’re a believer, it may turn out (God forbid) that you’re not…
1The historian, Eric Hobsbawn called the twentieth century, the ‘Age of Extremes’ (1995), and the Humanities Professor, Harold Bloom called it the ‘Chaotic Age’ in ‘The Western canon’ (1994) (albeit in the field of literature). How this description pans out for the twenty-first century is still unclear; the ancient Chinese phrase, “We live in ‘interesting’ times”, is a euphemism to express the same point. Incidentally, every time/era/age has always been ‘ever-changing’ – but there is something in the back of our minds that seems to think the past was a static, unchanging time where stable identities existed. This is a caricature of events, a short-cut narrative to explain the past quickly, briefly, to make immediate sense of the present; in short, an ‘imaginary’, and illusory; but real in how we act on it (in the present) based on this ethereal impression of the past. See Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ (1983) and Mohammad Arkoun’s ‘Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers’ (1994)
2In Islam, the Quran expresses it explicitly: “I created jinn and mankind only to worship Me.” (21:56); and “We never sent any messenger before you [Muhammad] without revealing to him: ‘There is no god but Me, so serve Me’” (21:25). Trans. Haleem (2004). But how do we ‘worship’, ‘serve’, ‘devote’, ‘submit’ or ‘surrender’ ourselves to Allah? Much has been written on this and your personal task is to answer this: ‘what is the import of the Islamic message in (my) time and for (me in my) generation? The answer will (and should) initially begin with the Qur’an and Sunnah.
3This initial starting point is probably the greatest step to take. There may be a long history in our personal narrative that has led to us adopting a (negative) defensive attitude. To step out of that mindset, I’d suggest you do this: Say: “yes, I can adopt my usual way of thinking about this (issue), and I may revert to it at any time I like. In the meantime, let me consider – even if for a second – another possibility, another reading, another perspective on this (issue); let me be at least ‘open’ to something other than what I already know, believe, perceive…” In that manoeuvre is a possibility of a less defensive approach and you would have learnt the way for a more balanced one. For those that rush to ‘embrace’ new ideas too hastily, ‘being open’ is misunderstood to mean ‘be open wide – (and defenceless)’. For them is a need for a different article: it would outline how they should be more reflective and critical before decisions are made and to assess the purpose of their intentions. The move to seek a new perspective should not mean you undervalue (and lose) what you may already possess, which is of value.
4Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet contemplates taking revenge on his Uncle whom he suspects murdered his father. Hamlet spends most of the play trying to decide if he should act or how he should act, it occurs to him by the end that his troubles will cease if he is at least ready to act (the ‘if’ and the ‘how’ were strategies to avoid him make the decision at all).
5“…in time [God] will tell them about their deeds… Whoever has done a bad deed will be repaid only with its equivalent – they will not be wronged… Each soul is responsible for its own actions; no soul will bear the burden of another. You will all return to your Lord in the end, and He will tell you the truth about your differences… your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” (6:159-165). Fazlur Rahman in his ‘Major Themes of the Quran’ (2009 edition) adds “Whenever a person commits a lapse and then sincerely regrets it and “seeks God’s pardon,” God quickly returns to him – indeed His often-mentioned attributes besides the “Merciful” and the “Compassionate” are the “Returner”… (2:37, 54, 160, 128; 5:39, 71; 9:117, 118; 20; 122, etc.)
6Originally an ancient Greek aphorism. Moreover, Socrates was said to have stated: “the unexamined life is not worth living” after being convicted for undermining state religion and corrupting the youth; his sentence was death. (Plato, Apology section 38a)
7A hadith attributed to Malik ibn Anas. (c.f Kanz al-Ummal, Hadith 8697)
8See for example the Qur’an (trans. Haleem 2004): “Have they not travelled through the land and seen how their predecessors met their end?” (30:9); and “Have they not thought about their own selves? God did not create the heavens and the earth and everything between them without serious purpose and an appointed time.” (30:8); and “Another of his signs is that He created the heavens and the earth, the diversity of your languages and colours. There are truly signs in this for those who know.” (30:22); and “There are truly signs in this for those who use their reason.” (30:24).
9For the Quran says of itself: “This is the Scripture in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of God…” (2:2)
10“Be in this world as though you were a stranger/traveller.” (the oft-cited – but pertinent hadith narrated by Ibn Unar in Al-Bukhari, Chapter Rikak, 3)
11Surah Al Asr (Declining Day [or Time]) surah 103. Trans. Haleem (2004)
12We can approach this positively (assertively) – or negatively (defensively). See also footnote 3. I’d suggest the negative is one that starts on the back foot, as it were. It is counter-productive. Judging something with a frown betrays our feeling of dislike or hate. Since Islam is the religion of submission and surrender to Allah in peace, which ensues peace, we should (aim to) be both positive and assertive in our approach to judgement.
13In ‘Jakob Brucker’s Histori critica philosophiae, one discovers that “the eclectic method of philosophizing, long approved by intelligent men and practiced by philosophers of the greatest ability,” produced its greatest works in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, thanks to the great philosophers who founded modern thought by fighting against sectarian ideas and the principle of authority’ in The question of Eclecticism by J M Dillon. Gaukroger explains how an eclectic feature of philosophy existed in the ‘late Hellenistic, Roman and early medieval periods.’ (Page 28.) There is an implication in Gaukroger’s reading that moves for eclecticism was paired with moves for syncretism. He says: “Generally, Roman thought [for instance] … was saturated with various forms of eclecticism and syncretism.” And then going on to say: “the most familiar case of syncretism is … most notably … and especially the Christian appropriation of Neoplatonic thought in Augustine and others in the formation of a Christian metaphysics and theology.” (Page 28.) See ‘Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy’ by Stephen Gaukroger, 2001.
I don’t believe that eclecticism is synonymous with syncretism and the distinction, I think, must be acknowledged. They may go hand in hand at times, or syncretism might ensue only after moves for eclecticism takes place first. In my proposal, I talk of eclecticism specifically and am silent about syncretism.
14‘Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy’ by Stephen Gaukroger, 2001, Page 28
15Ibid, Page 29
18Ibid, Page 30
19A commonplace book was a book that thoughts and observations were noted down. “places in which one jotted down – for later retrieval and use – passages, arguments, factual information, or turns of phrase that particularly struck one, although there are medical, travel, recipe, and other forms of commonplace books common through the middle ages and Renaissance.” (Gaukroger page 32.)
20Ibid, Page 32. Incidentally, in this way, it might explain how the Arabic and Islamic origins to the ‘rediscovery of Green and Roman thought’ were so flippantly discarded from narratives of the European cultural history of ideas. This has now been addressed to varying extents.
21Ibid, page 30
22Ibid, page 31. He says: “Eclecticism, the most reasonable of philosophies, which had been practiced by the first geniuses of mankind before it received a name, remained in oblivion until the end of the sixteenth century. Then nature, torpid for such a long time as if in a state of exhaustion, made an effort and finally produced some men who were jealous of the most beautiful prerogatives of mankind, the freedom to think for oneself. Eclectic philosophy was reborn with [Bruno, Cardano, Bacon, Campanella, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Thonasius…]” Ibid, page 31.
23A hypothesis is ‘1. A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation; and 2. A proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without any assumption of its truth’ (from Google dictionary). A workable theory differs to a hypothesis in that the latter is usually the preserve of a scientist, who will work to substantiate his hypothesis into ‘fact’. Workable theories are different in that they’re for anyone and their purpose is not to be proved true or false. They are attempts to make sense of the world, but they are understood not to be as final as facts. They are stronger than ‘opinions’ because of their basis on academic readings. They differ from ‘informed opinions’ in that they attempt to explain a range of (possibly diverse) informed opinions into a semblance of unity in order to offer a ‘near-total’ perspective. The avoidance of being ‘absolute, exacting, dogmatic’ about the truth is important for seekers of knowledge; the ‘fuzziness’ in definitions is a step up from a lack of definition but allows conceptual flexibility when trying to get to grips with things; which would be invariably problematic with the ‘tyranny’ of ‘systematic’ thought.
24See countless debates from postmodern thinkers; notably Jean-Francois Lyotard.
25“If they do [devote themselves to God alone], they will be guided, but if they turn away, your only duty is to convey the message.” (3:20). Trans. Haleem (2004)
26“He calls you to Him in order to forgive you your sins and let you enjoy your life until the appointed hour.” (14:10). Trans. Haleem (2004)
27See for example: “talk about the blessings of your Lord.” (93:11). Trans. Haleem (2004)
28See footnote 2
29“You [Muhammad] are truly one of the messengers sent on a straight path, with a revelation from the Almighty, the Lord of Mercy, to warn a people … It is all the same to them whether you warn them or not: they will not believe. You can warn only those who will follow the Qur’an and hold the Merciful One in awe, though they cannot see Him.” (36:3-6 and 10-11); and “If God so willed, He would have made you all one people, but He leaves to stray whoever He will and guides whoever He will. You will be questioned about your deed.” (16:93). Trans. Haleem (2004)