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Constructive Criticism

3949221288_0a2be0fa5c_bIt’s not a wonder that the term ‘criticism’ is often qualified with the adjective ‘constructive’. Constructive means to build and is the opposite of ‘destructive’. Hence ‘destructive criticism’ is criticism aimed simply at tearing down what others are doing or have done. One can easily fall into what seems to be ‘destructive criticism’ when care isn’t taken to avoid some traits which indicate malicious intentions. This gives rise to a counter-destructive criticism and then a war of words ensues.

Through such means, animosity and enmity grows in our hearts for one another. Furthermore, the topic often being disputed is from those matters in which either the Qur’ān and Sunnah1 are not unequivocal about (dhannī), or the Qur’ān is silent and the evidential value of the particular ḥadīth in question is spurious (dhannī).2 Now we know that Allāh says in the Qur’ān to “hold firmly to the rope of Allāh all together and do not become divided” (3:103). As it is mentioned in the Qur’ān, we know for certain its source is authentic, and the meaning of the command is also clear. This means that it is qaṭ’ī. So how Satan fools all these Muslims when they engage in heated debates of subtle points of fiqh and ʽaqīda is to leave a qaṭ’ī matter over a dhannī matter. This then destroys the whole purpose of engaging in the discussion in the first place, which is to stay within the dictates of the divine will. To avoid such scenarios there is etiquette3 that we should adhere to every time we think of offering constructive criticism.

1. Intentions

First, before you even say or write a word, check your intention. Is it really because you differ with the other person on academic grounds, or is there some other ulterior motive? Is it really because you envy the other person’s position, or the fact that they hold more sway then you? Remember the Prophet ﷺ said in the famous ḥadīth “Actions are judged by intentions.”4 So if your foundation is shaky from the outset then even if you adhere to all possible etiquette when criticising, your action would be recorded at best worthless, and more likely as a sin against you.

2. Don’t pretend to be God

If you do not receive revelation from the All-Mighty, then please do not act as if you know what is concealed in the hearts of people. If you do, then you risk falling into the major sin of shirk (to associate partners with Allah)! This is not an over exaggerated statement, for time and again, Allāh mentions that it is He Who knows what lies in the hearts of people – that it is His exclusive ability. How many times do you see writers, from scholars, students of knowledge, to the general Muslim, state how they know “this is not what the other person intended” or how they know the other person “wants to follow their vain desires (ittibā’ al-hawā)”?5 Frankly it is shameful to see the level of discourse Muslims frequently engage themselves in. Remember the incident of the beloved companion Usāma ibn Zayd. He was sent on an expedition during which he was pursuing an enemy combatant. Just before being killed the non-Muslim soldier declared, “There is no God but Allāh!” This meant that he was legally a Muslim and thus meant he had forfeited his pact with the enemy, yet Usāma struck him and killed him. After narrating to the Prophet ﷺ what had happened, the Prophet ﷺ rebuked him in harsh words saying “Did you split his heart open (to see)!”6

3. Don’t use offensive names

Calling people dogs, hypocrites, ‘modernists’ (usually used derogatively by Muslims), is not the very best of expressions of good conduct. Children are taught this from a young age, yet how many are in constant breach of this protocol? Just because I differ with you on a matter even though you, your Sheikh (scholar of Islam) and his Sheikh right up to some grand-Sheikh differ with me, if the opinion I follow is validated by qualified scholars and has precedence within the scholarly legacy, then the best thing to do is either leave me alone or try to persuade me to your view (this itself is an art, not suitable for the lay). If you fail, then the best policy is to keep your mouth sealed. Remember Allāh says “And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (49:11).

4. Tafsīq (Accusation of sin), Tabdīʽ (Accusation of innovation) & Takfīr (Accusation of blasphemy)

If the matter is one in which scholars have differed in, then you have no right to call someone a fāsiq (sinner), or worse a mubtadiʽ (innovator), or even worse a kāfir (infidel). Yes, it seems as though some people get an amount of pleasure out of calling their fellow brothers such names, but this simply exposes the sick hearts they conceal. Let me give you some examples7 to drive the point home. Many scholars, including the European Council for Fatwa and Research, have allowed interest-bearing mortgages, with stringent conditions. Do not condemn someone to hell if they follow this opinion.  It is valid and has its precedence amongst the ʽulamā (scholars).

If brother Yusuf or sister Zeinab likes listening to music (following all the conditions), then even if you think they are heading straight for the fire, the fact that there was and is a valid difference of opinion means you sadly have to keep your mouth sealed.8 And why should you find this difficult? If you do, then maybe you are simply someone who is controlling. I remember once Sheikh Hamza Yusuf said “How many of you would become like Saddam if you were given the same power?” It is the sheer blessing of Allāh that few people have such power.

If someone celebrates birthdays, please do not call him or her an innovator, because if you do, you’re calling all the scholars including the likes of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayya an innovator too. If you have no qualms about doing that then I suggest you quickly go and see a sheikh of tazkiya because you definitely have a sick heart.

Lastly, if I vote in a non-Muslim country, it doesn’t mean that I have abandoned my faith. I am still called Muhammad, I still believe in Allāh and his messenger. I just chose a course of action in which the majority of the scholars have said is allowed, and only a minority have said no.

5. Substance

Lastly, in offering criticism, do have some substance yourself. Make sure you make sense, and do your homework. Remember the maxim “there is no jarḥ (criticism) except with tafṣīl (detailed explanations).”

May Allāh keep us all on the straight path. Āmīn.

  1. The sayings, actions and tacit approvals of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
  2. See: When is the difference of opinion (al-Ikhtilāf) amongst scholars a mercy?
  3. Read also: Differences in Islamic Law. You may also refer to Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn by Imām Ghazzālī.
  4. Bukhari and Muslim.
  5. This is an oft-used polemical phrase used to discredit the arguments of others. It has no meaning unless it is explained.
  6. Muslim.
  7. All the examples I gave do not necessarily represent my views; I am simply using these examples because they are hotly contested. Furthermore, just because a matter is differed amongst the scholars, does not mean that you cannot have scholarly discussions about it, or for example advise someone if you think they can follow a better course of action. But it requires you to be scholarly, and this comes from study, so if you did not study, it’s best you keep quiet.
  8. See: When is the difference of opinion (al-Ikhtilāf) amongst scholars a mercy?

About the author

Muhammad Haq (Haq)

Muhammad Haq (Haq)

Muhammad Haq was born and raised in the United Kingdom. He studied the Islamic Sciences (Sharia) for several years in the UK under the tutelage of many shayukh in the United Kingdom (may Allah preserve them). He has a particular interest in Fiqh and its related sciences. Currently he is studying for a Bachelors in Comparative Religion and is involved with several grassroots projects.

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  • This is a great reminder. I especially liked your 4th point on the differences in opinion amongst scholars. It is believed that Prophet (pbuh) said that differences amongst scholars is a mercy.

  • Salaam alaikum,

    Thank you for this timely article, I think it’s important. Sometimes as Muslims we get very passionate about something and are unable to articulate our position clearly, or we get upset and let our tongues run unchecked.

    Can I make a suggestion for future articles of this nature? Everyone is different of course, but IMHO it’s best to avoid using the words “you” and “I” in articles like this. For example instead of saying:
    “If you have no qualms about doing that then I suggest you quickly go and see a sheikh of tazkiya because you definitely have a sick heart.”

    maybe try saying
    “If one has no qualms about doing that then he/she should go and see a sheikh of tazkiya because he/she definitely has a sick heart.”

    Sometimes using “you” in an article makes it seem as if the words are directed straight at the reader and may come off sounding harsh.

    Also, considering that the article says that only Allah knows what is concealed in the hearts, it doesn’t seem fair to declare that someone “definitely” has a sick heart based on his/her inability to offer constructive criticism. Maybe I have misunderstood?

    Just my thoughts.

    • Wassalam Fuseina, May Allah reward you for sharing your advice, I greatly appreciate it.
      Your first concern about using ‘you’ was exactly because of the reason you mentioned, it is directed at the reader. Sometimes things need to be clear so the nafs hears it loud and clear.

      Secondly, the conditional statement I made did not contradict the fact that Allah only knows what’s in the hearts of people. It is not because someone was unable to offer constructive criticism that I said they have a sick heart, but the condition was if they had no issues with saying someone the likes of Sh Abdullah bin Bayyah (h) was an innovator, if they had no problem in saying that, only then they had a sick heart. Also, it is ok to make general statements like this without applying it to specific people and this does not contradict the fact that Allah only knows what’s in people’s hearts. So for example “those who lie have sick hearts”, this is fine and there is a Hadith to that effect. However, for someone to then say definitively ‘X has a sick heart because they lie’ would be wrong since this would be overstepping the line and be contradiction to the fact that Allah only knows the secrets and states of people’s hearts. Thus my statement did not contradict what I said about Allah’s knowledge, nor was it said because someone was unable to offer constructive criticism but because they deemed someone very great in our times as an innovator.

      Hope this clarifies your concerns.
      Again, May Allah reward you for your feedback !

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