Asking is a praiseworthy and indispensable method in the realm of seeking and applying knowledge. It is its key. Moreover, since the truth and knowledge in Islam are inseparable, yet virtually synonymous, asking is generally as important in the realm of the truth.
Muslims are instructed not to follow anything or anybody blindly and irrationally, nor to concern themselves with anything of which they have no knowledge (al-Isra’, 36). They are likewise commanded, if they do not know, to ask of those who possess knowledge and the message (al-Anbiya’, 7).
A Muslim is not to act ignorantly even in the matters of the most fundamental religious tenets and injunctions. Actions must be preceded by sufficient and authentic knowledge and understanding, the threshold of which is sincere asking or questioning. This is so because deliberate ignorance is a poison for the soul, which attacks the soul from all sides. It also actively aids other diseases, such as haughtiness, avarice and self-centredness, aiming in unison but to corrupt and utterly destroy the soul.
If it is said that knowledge without practice is like a barren tree that yields no fruits, then, in equal measure, it could be said that practice without knowledge is hollow and perilous. Its parable is an ostentatiously beautiful and healthy tree whose produce is inedible and bitter. While the former is clearly deficient and anti-climactic, the latter is devious and outright dangerous. Neither condition is acceptable. However, both conditions are curable by the remedies at the heart of which reside open-mindedness, self-criticism and asking honest questions, so as to restore a person’s coherent, comprehensive and positive self-identity.
Accordingly, when they were in need, even the angels and the Prophets asked Allah. They did so in order to shed more light on certain issues about which they had no sufficient knowledge. The Prophets sometimes asked simply out of curiosity, to reassure their hearts and enhance thereby their faith. In the context of his continuous asking of, or discussion with, Allah concerning the people of Prophet Lut, Prophet Ibrahim was called “most clement, most tender-hearted, intent upon turning to God again and again” (Hud, 75).
Asking remains a commendable method so long as it signifies a means to seek, absorb and apply both knowledge and the truth, and to combat ignorance and intellectual as well as spiritual indifference and mediocrity. Asking becomes objectionable when it is done for its own sake, or for the sake of pursuing any agendas that are contrary to what asking as an educational approach was intrinsically meant to be.
On the other hand, disputing in the realm of seeking and applying authentic knowledge and the truth is not commendable. This is so because prolonged and often heated arguments, debates and controversies, in principle, are not compatible with authentic knowledge and the evident revealed truth, even though limited disputing might be resorted to -- and even encouraged -- in certain operational aspects of knowledge and the truth alike.
It stands to reason that where the passionate asking and discussing end, the first signs of disputing start taking over. It is due to this that a sage once said to his disciple: “When you start liking your own viewpoints and the ways you articulate them -- only because they are yours, not because you are championing the truth -- politely withdraw yourself from a discussion.”
In the spheres of knowledge and the truth, there is a remarkable code of ethics which emphasizes the significance of verifying and validating the sources and their authenticity, as well as the remarkable relationship between the knowledge and truth-giver or benefactor, and the knowledge and truth-receiver or beneficiary. Certainly, in such a code, there is no place for unjustifiable disagreements and arguments where the issue is not about teaching and learning, nor guiding and enlightening, but about excessive and often unfounded debating, striving to compete and win, and impose one side’s viewpoints on the other.
Disputing for the sake of disputing is strictly forbidden. It is on a par with obdurate ignorance. Both denote the devastating ailments of the soul. It is little wonder, for example, that Satan (Iblis) disputed with Allah about His divine plan for Adam and the whole of mankind; that Pharaoh disputed with Prophet Musa about the truth and its manifest signs, after they had been clearly presented to him; that the Babylonian king, Nimrod, disputed with Prophet Ibrahim about Allah and His attributes, after his inflated ego and self-image had been challenged by the latter through undeniable rational, revealed and common-sensical evidence.
It follows that constructive asking, or questioning, is a key to knowledge, and even the truth. It is a trait of a true believer. It is an integral part of the epistemological and ontological laws of existence and of man’s honourable vicegerency mission on earth. Adverse disputing, conversely, is toxic and at once blinding and deafening. It is a key to perpetual ignorance, arrogance and their numerous spiritual and mental derivatives. Allah says about such people as cultivate the habit of disputation and obstinacy that they are “in most things contentious or disputative”. It is not a chance that this comes immediately after the following words of Allah: “We have explained in detail in this Qur'an for the benefit of mankind every kind of similitude…” (al-Kahf, 54). Such people neither want, nor can, recognize the signs of the Qur’an, owing to their hardened attitude.
The case of the Companions of the Cave (Ashab al-Kahf)
The asking and disputing methods have been subtly contrasted in the context of the Qur’anic story of the Companions of the Cave, or the Cave Sleepers, (Ashab al-Kahf) (al-Kahf, 19-21).
When the young Cave Sleepers, who became a symbol of patience and perseverance on the path of the truth, woke up in their cave, having slept therein three hundred solar, and three hundred and nine lunar, years, they did not know how long they had slept. The only thing they knew and were able to agree upon was that the time was longer than usual. Thus, curious and somewhat perplexed, they asked one another (li yatasa’alu baynahum) how long they tarried. Some said: “We have tarried a day”, while others said: “We have tarried only some part of a day”.
Since there was no way to answer their legitimate query and know exactly the length of their sleep, some, who were endowed with deeper insight, suggested, and they all agreed, to give up the futile discussion and refer the certitude of the matter to All-Knowing Allah. “(At length) they (all) said: ‘Allah (alone) knows best how long you have stayed here’” (al-Kahf, 19).
That was the end of the matter, even though it remained unsolved. Debating it further would have been pointless and unrealistic. It would have brought the Cave Sleepers nowhere, while turning to and solving more pressing issues would have been inhibited. As a result, they turned their attention rather to the practical and more readily solvable business of life. “Now send one of you with this your silver coin unto the city, and let him see what food is purest there and bring you a supply thereof. Let him be courteous and let no man know of you” (al-Kahf, 19). Going to the city and buying food could be interpreted as much as giving up barren and potentially controversial disputes and attending to life’s everyday business, as resorting to another perhaps more effective method for solving the dilemma of the incredible length of their sleep.
On the diametrically opposite side of the Cave Sleepers stood the majority of the people of the city. Allah sent the former as a powerful sign to the people who, unfortunately, failed to recognize it as such, let alone act over it. Such was the case especially on account of the people’s general propensity to overly dispute and argue concerning life’s essential matters and events, overlooking the latter’s substance and how pertinent they are to their own intellectual and spiritual wellbeing.
Allah says that He had produced the miracle of the Cave Sleepers, drawing people’s attention to their story, so that the people “might know that the promise of Allah is true and that there can be no doubt about the Hour of Judgment” (al-Kahf, 21). However, the people missed the whole point. They disputed among themselves as to their affair (idh yatanaza’una baynahum amrahum), focusing on the trivial aspects of the miracle, rather than its core. Instead of subjecting themselves to the supernaturalism of the extraordinary phenomenon, learning and benefitting greatly therefrom, the people rather tried to subject the occurrence to themselves, attempting to colour it by their own impulses and (mis)interpretations, and deposit it as such in the annals of human history. Hence: “(Some) said: ‘Construct a building over them’; their Lord knows best about them. Those who prevailed over their affair said: ‘Let us surely build a place of worship over them’"(al-Kahf, 21).
This incident has been used for centuries as a case in point for either proving or disproving a culture of architecturally glorifying the dead in Islamic civilization by erecting various structures, such as mosques, tombs, mausoleums and memorials, over, and in the vicinity of, their burial sites. The proponents of both sides used the above Qur’anic verse for bolstering their respective positions. They did so both resourcefully and liberally.
However, the big picture, more often than not, was missed. In actual fact, it did not matter at all who said what in the context of the incident’s aftermath, and if it was the believers or non-believers who proposed building a structure over the Cave Sleepers, or if it was the true or nominal believers who prevailed over their affair and proposed that a place of worship (masjid or mosque) be built over them. Nor did it matter why and what exactly had been erected over the Cave Sleepers.
What mattered was that the people of the city ended up unnecessarily and excessively disputing of the case of the Cave Sleepers among themselves. They ended up debating the undebatable and disputing the undisputable, relegating the essence of the matter as non-essential. And whatever emerged from such a flawed approach was flawed itself, partly or completely. Whatever any segments of the population of the city, in the end, proposed regarding the Cave Sleepers, it should not be taken as entirely authoritative or trustworthy, for it originated from sheer disputes and quarrels which commonly beget nothing but dishonesty and decadence.
It is primarily from those results and corollaries that lessons must be learned, specifically by those to whom the Qur’an had been revealed. Thus, Allah warns Muslims: “And obey Allah and His Messenger, and dispute not one with another lest you falter and your strength depart from you; and be patient and persevering, for Allah is with those who patiently persevere” (al-Anfal, 46).
Also: “O you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger if you are (in truth) believers in Allah and the Last Day. That is better and more seemly in the end” (al-Nisa’, 59).
Indeed, most knowledge results from asking. But asking ought to be preceded by admitting that one does not know and so, wants to know, which in and of itself is not the state of ignorance. Rather, it is a state of disequilibrium, so to speak, which sets productive curiosity and inquiry in motion. Positive and curious ignorance, as the first phase of learning, is not an enemy. Disputing, as the antithesis of the former, is one of the greatest enemies of knowledge. Equally evil are the illusion and manipulation of knowledge as well. Together with a pattern of disputation and disagreement, they form an alliance that relentlessly works against any constructive initiative and program.
Finally, if today’s Muslims could take a leaf out of the Cave Sleepers’ book, they would approach many of their seemingly perennial issues and conundrums differently. By and large, their approaches and strategies would be marked by aspirations to learn, know, listen, appreciate, contribute, improve and solve, set in cultural as well as civilizational frameworks of mutual understanding, appreciation, participation and peaceful dialogue and coexistence. The way most of those issues and conundrums – on top of which certainly stand sectarianism, civil wars, westernization, globalization, fostering Muslim unity and the prospect of reviving Islamic civilization – are currently dealt with only exacerbate, amplify and perpetuate them. It seems as though when confronted with grave challenges, most Muslims, instead of following the exemplary standard set by the Cave Sleepers, followed in the footsteps of the inhabitants of their city.