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Choose When to Choose (Dr. Ingrid Mattson)

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Ingrid Mattson on Purity, Simplicity & Balance
By Reading Islam Staff
Dr Ingrid Mattson
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Canadian Muslim convert, professor and activist and former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Ingrid Mattson

I begin by praising God and by sending peace and blessings to the Prophet Muhammad.

Today I want to just outline a brief presentation on the general issue we are talking about today which is justice. This is a very complicated topic and the subtopic that I’ve been given has even many more dimensions.

I have 20 minutes so I've decided to simplify my presentation and focus on basically one issue; and that is how to understand justice as a balance between allowing the maximum freedom possible, the freedom that God has given us to choose to do right or choose to do wrong, with the need to have rules that regulate our lives here on this earth so that we don’t impede on each other’s freedoms, as well as rules or guidelines that help us develop a close and meaningful relationship with Allah so that we can attain His pleasure and ultimately His eternal presence.

So this balance between freedom and following rules or guidelines, I think that much unhappiness that we see and experience in our own selves is by being imbalanced in this area from one side or the other by inclining towards one side or the other, or not understanding the rules of each of these two important aspects of our lives as believers and so we are confused.  

Now on the one hand we have people who see the pursuit of freedom as an end in itself, as a value in itself. And although I don’t like to rely very much on the different contemporary science or the current studies and science when I'm talking about Islamic theology and ethics, I think there are some interesting and important facts about human beings, about our psychology, about the way our brain works that can help us understand why we have some of the rules we have about being a Muslim, why Islamic civilization and Islamic scholars have developed certain ways of interacting with the Muslim community to help guide us.

I think that there are some very important realities that can help us understand these things, and live ultimately on more satisfying peaceful life in harmony with the guidance that we have been given through the prophets and particularly through the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

Freedom in Islam

one of the main points of revelation is to help guide us in a complicated and sometimes confusing world

So the issue of freedom, we are all aware of a very clear statement in the Quran that Allah the Almighty gives us “ There is no compulsion in deen (religion)” (Al-Baqarah 2:256). Now one of the aspects of the subject I’m supposed to address today is simplicity. Is there any thing that can be more apparently simple than this?

Part of the challenge is to, on the one hand, not lose the simplicity of very clear messages that are given to us by Allah in the Quran and by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), not losing that simplicity and clarity and at the same time not becoming simplistic, because of course in the application of these principles we are dealing with complex societies, complex human beings who are living in particular circumstances. So to always remember not to make things overly complicated so that we lose the clarity of the message, after all that is one of the main points of revelation is to help guide us in a complicated and sometimes confusing world, while at the same time not reverting to a very simplistic approach in dealing with complicated situations: individuals, societies, communities.

But it is very clear that when our creator tells us “There’s no compulsion in religion” that we need to contemplate this statement very deeply that we understand as Muslims that the term deen (religion) is not simply about worship about how we pray and how we fast and the rules for making pilgrimage and the other areas of `Ibadat (acts of worship) but that deen includes as well the way that we are required and encouraged to interact with each other, all of the good things there are to do, as well as the necessary things, the required things and the limits and the rules on our interactions. For example our contractual relationships that they must be entered into voluntarily that the people shouldn’t deceive each other on the two sides of the contract, that we should fulfill our contracts, that we should not engage in usury.

So there are many other rules that affect our worldly lives that are aspects of our religion. Now if that is the case that there is no compulsion in religion, then how do we as a community that has clear guidelines about these things interact with other communities who have chosen a different way of understanding their contractual laws, political matters, family laws and many other aspects of life. And here is where things can start to become very complicated and we need then to engage as a community in very serious deliberation and study about these matters. These are not issues that can be answered very simply. This is where simplistic thinking will only get us into trouble. And here’s where we are required to join together as a collective obligation (fard kifaya) in studying these issues by developing think tanks, by developing collages and universities, madrassas, by developing journals where we study these matters, by supporting the education of scholars, men and women who can research these issues and come to a very deep understanding.

By engaging in a dialogue with the communities with whom we are interacting on these matters to see if we have any common values or principles so that together we can build a more just society. And in fact one of the very satisfying things about engaging at a deep level, at the levels of ethics and values with sincere people of other faith communities in America, is that we discover that there are some truly significant shared values and that together when we research and study and discuss at a serious and deep level that we find that not only is it easier for us to fulfill our own religious obligations to find the freedom to do that, but we also together with others we can make society as a whole more fair and more just.

But if this is the case, if we are going to not be simplistic about these matters and if we are going to understand them on a deep level, then we also have to understand that as individuals there are certain matters that we are not going to completely understand, they will be out of our areas of expertise. It doesn’t mean we can’t understand something about them, but if we have not deeply studied in this area, if we are not specialists or experts in this area, then we will find it very difficult to make a decision about how to act. When we are presented with a situation in which we have to choose one way or another; is this lawful or is it unlawful, is this act or transaction permissible or is it prohibited?

this desire to always want to be the one who chooses is something that is hardwired within us

And here we have this tension within us as human beings where we want to express our individuality, we want to choose issues freely. And in fact current science has shown that when we do choose something freely there are certain areas of our brains that are stimulated that create a sense of pleasure and joy that are not stimulated when we are simply given that thing.

So say that you are present in a situation where you can do one of two things, and you choose to do a good thing, you will not only have chosen to do the good thing but you will feel an added sense of satisfaction and pleasure because of doing the good thing. Now if you have been compelled to do that by your parents, your teachers or someone else to do that and experienced that situation as being oppressive or in a way taking away your freedom of choice you wouldn’t experience the same satisfaction even though the result was precisely the same. You got the same object or the same good or you ended up doing the exact same thing. You know, playing in a particular sport or buying a particular item. So this desire to always want to be the one who chooses is something that is hardwired within us. 

Community and Collective Decision-Making

Now if this is the case, why in certain societies are people satisfied when their parents, elders or others might choose for them? The difference is that their understanding of self is a narrow sense of self. They understand that they are both an individual and a member of a community, so that they are able to identify as their choice something that is done by an expert or someone whom they choose to listen to, they experience that as in fact their choice. Why is it their choice? Because they identify it as part of that group or part of that community. They don’t have this very narrow understanding of narrow self, where always has to be "I’m the one who is going to decide and no one is going to tell me what to do."

So when it comes to choosing within our community how we are going to behave, how are we going to act, what is right and what is wrong, how are we going to simply become better people and more able to follow the guidance that has been given to us. There is an important issue here we need to realize that we have to let go of a very narrow sense of self and to truly understand that we are both individuals who are responsible after all for our decisions as Allah the Almighty says in the Quran “no soul bears a burden of another soul”. But we can choose to be part of a community that collectively shoulders the burden of decision-making about certain issues.

I’m not giving up my individuality because in fact I have chosen the method or mechanism by which I will make a decision

And here is the beauty of the balance between being an individual and not letting go of that sense of responsibility and autonomy, but also being part of a community that allows for the choice of who are going to be our scholars, who are going to be our experts, who are going to be our imams. And this is an extraordinary freedom that we have in American society. No one is choosing that for us. So when I choose to consult with an expert in a certain area who knows far more than I do about a certain matter, and I say whatever you tell me is the right thing to do in this area. For example, financial law in which I have no expertise and I have no interest in learning much about other than the basics and I say I trust you I know this person he is well educated and with integrity, you can give me the answer which is the right thing to do in this situation? I can embrace that answer and adopt it and I’m not abdicating my autonomy, I’m not giving up my individuality because in fact I have chosen the method or mechanism by which I will make a decision. 

Why More is Less

What I like to do now is summarize this with a few general rules that I gleaned from reading a number of books, one of them is a very interesting book by Barry Schwartz called “The Paradox of Choice, Why More is Less” and I’m going to give you quickly six lessons from that book that I think apply in this situation. I derived these six principles from this book and I’d like to highlight how they align with many of the teachings that we embrace as Muslims and how perhaps this will help all of us move beyond the kind of antagonism and debates that we hear between those who feel that I should be free to decide whatever I want to do, I should be free to interpret the Quran and Sunnah the way I want because after all there’s no one between me and God and my worship. This is an extreme that reduces Islam to a very simplistic understanding.

On the other hand, those people who don’t understand the importance of all of us together as a community of choosing who will be our experts and choosing what’s the mechanism by which we will give up some of our individual choice for the sake of the community deciding. For example, if you are a member of a mosque, and equally and after an open discussion the members decide that the imam will make the determination of how the lunar calendar will be decided. You have all made that choice, leave it after that. It’s not right after that that then someone stands up and says “But no, I believe this and I can’t do anything other than what I believe”. This is a false paradox, or a false choice. So we can choose and we need to choose how we are going to decide things, who will be the people to whom we will turn to ask for more directions in very complicated issues or on issues where we need one decision for the whole community. We need to do that. But let’s think about a few of these rules.

One of the things that the author Barry Schwartz talks about in his book, he has a very nice phrase, he says “We should not be fetishistic about choices” meaning that we don’t make choice itself as a fetish. But choice is something that we naturally want for the sake of improving our lives.

So 1. He says “voluntarily embrace constraints on our freedom of choice”. In other words, choose when to choose. As I said in some cases, I would choose to listen to someone who I identify as an expert in this field. I’ve chosen to make a choice and after that I’ll be satisfied with that. 

Avoid regret by lowering our expectations about the results of our decisions.

Second, in a consumerist society we should choose what’s good enough, rather than always wanting the best. The problem is that there will always be a better item or a better-looking spouse. The day you get married, you are going to look around and say "Oh, there is someone who would have been better than my wife or my husband." There is always going to be a better school out there or a better job, so we should be people who say you know what? That’s good enough. Not to avoid pursuing excellence but it doesn’t mean that in everything we need the best because with that we will never be satisfied.

Another rule which comes, quite amazing, from studying many people, it’s from psychology, from sociology: Avoid regret by lowering our expectations about the results of our decisions. This is very interesting because when we say as Muslims “in-sha-‘Allah” (If God wills), what we are acknowledging is that we are going to make a great effort to do the best of things, to choose the right course of action but at the same time the result is not in our hands. And I think that it’s so if we understand what in-sha-‘Allah means, we will be much happier people. If we truly embraced the implications of that.

I can’t go through all of this so let me just say one final thing that he talks about, if we really want to be happy when we are making our decision and I think this has to do with not just in the consumer economy which is what he primarily focuses on but also in our relationships and in the way that we even live our lives as Muslims if we do compare ourselves with others, we should adopt downward comparisons instead of upward comparisons and practicing an attitude of gratitude of what you have.

Now what does he mean by downward comparisons? This is precisely the meaning of the statement of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when he said "When you see someone who has more, look to someone who has less", because when we see someone who has more we are frustrated but when we see someone who has less then we are feeling gratitude and I think this is true of the Muslim community in America at this time. Are there communities that has more than us in terms of religiosity, piety, maybe their adherence to good behavior as Muslims? Sure there has been and there are in other places in the world. But it’s a little bit frustrating when we hear people say “Oh, Muslims are not any good and they are not behaving the way they should” because let’s do a little bit of downward comparison.

Let’s think of all of the places where things are so much worse. Things are so much worse for so many other people; politically, economically, socially and even in terms of our communities. We have beautiful caring generous people in our communities and we shouldn’t forget them when we are remembering that there were great Muslims in history who were so much better than us. Yes they were. But there were also many people who were a lot worse than your neighbor or brother or sister who is trying and struggling to make a contribution in the community.

So we shouldn’t always compare ourselves and our communities only with the best, we should strive to be better. Certainly, but we shouldn’t forget that there are people who are really trying and who have elevated even themselves compared to where they were in their lives because that would be ingratitude and we are required to be grateful because Allah loves those who are grateful.

So these are just a few brief comments on this issue of seeking justice and balancing justice and particularly the issue of freedom and how we pursue freedom and freedom of choice with balancing that with creating some kind of order in our community so that we won’t simply be chaotic or a bunch of people who have no ability to work together for what is good.

Assalamu`alaikum (peace be upon you).

Watch Dr. Ingrid Mattson's Talk at ICNA 2011 Convention

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Related Links:
What Does Islam Teach About Justice?
Islam: The Call For Humanity & Equality
Human Rights in the Quran (Part 1)
Compulsion in Religion
Freedom of Religion

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