A Grammar of Tolerance

Jaume Plensa’s Tolerance statue and Rosemont Pedestrian Bridge, Houston, Texas / Photo by Patrick Feller
Jaume Plensa’s Tolerance statue and Rosemont Pedestrian Bridge, Houston, Texas / Photo by Patrick Feller

If a profligate comes to you with news, make sure you understand it (tabayyanu), and make sure you know it indeed happened (tathabbatu), or else you will attack people out of ignorance and end up in great remorse.
– Qur’an 49:6[1]

How many faultfinders of statements
Yet the fault is faulty understanding
– Al-Mutanabbi

Upon seeing one of his students reading a difficult book, a teacher said, “Don’t read that book yet.”
            The student replied, “I promise to take from it only what I understand from it.”
            “It is not what you understand that concerns me,” responded the teacher, “but what you think you understand.”
– Shaykhna b. Mahfudh

How quick people are to condemn things they don’t understand.
– Lady Aishah, Sahih Muslim, chapter on funerals

The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.
– Michel de Montaigne


One aspect of language, even in its most simple usage, is ambiguity. Anyone who has ever used a dictionary knows that words often have multiple meanings. In rhetoric, amphiboly refers to the phenomenon of ambiguous syntax.

In the Islamic tradition, the prerequisites of debate include a mastery of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and a branch of logic that also contains the requisite courtesies of decorum when one is engaged in dialectic and intellectual conversation (adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah). Those ill prepared in these areas fall prey to common misunderstandings. In the past, such people did not debate with or challenge statements made by an erudite person because they knew well the verse in the Qur’an, “Are those who know and those who don’t equal?” (39:09)—a rhetorical question, needing no response, as the answer is obvious. 

Reading is an activity largely of the mind, but reading well is an exhausting effort of one’s mental faculties. One of my own teachers said that reading has four levels: understanding the outline of the piece; “coming to terms” with the author, meaning that one understands terms as the author intended; understanding the propositions, their arguments, and evidence supporting them; and finally, responding with the appropriate etiquette. This last phase, which Dr. Mortimer Adler describes as “talking back” to the author, is the most difficult level of reading. It is the ability to criticize with understanding, giving your reasons for dissent, and supporting them with counterarguments, but this last and problematic phase of reading is entirely predicated upon mastery of the first three. At this level, criticism means disagreeing with all or part of an author’s assumptions, logic, or conclusions based on an accurate and contextual reading of his work. One of the mysteries of the mind leaves us unable to discern our own errors while witnessing those of others—hence, dialectic’s importance as a means to enable one to see one’s errors through the mirror of the other.

One of the mysteries of the mind leaves us unable to discern our own errors while witnessing those of others. 

A serious student of knowledge must work to grasp the ambiguities of the text she is reading. For instance, Imam al-Ghazali is noted for saying, “Laysa fi al-imkan abda’ mimma kana” (It is not possible for the actualized possible to be more creative than it already is), and multiple meanings can be inferred from this statement. Indeed, whole books were penned in an attempt to pin down Imam al-Ghazali’s intended meaning. 

The fact that language allows multiple possibilities reveals its richness. Readers can marvel at the sundry connotations of words individually or in syntactical order, or explore the various interpretations possible in their attempt to exhaust meanings embedded in the statements, which is what Muslim scholars and exegetes tend to do. Many people lacking the skills to read with nuance often misread and subsequently fall victim to anger and confusion. In the age of the Internet, some go further yet by responding to what they read with diatribes; due to their failure to understand as opposed to their ability to read, they simply reveal their own ignorance, as reading and understanding are two distinctly different phenomena. The Qur’an describes those who know the literal words of revelation but cannot penetrate the true meaning of revelation as being like “donkeys carrying books.”

Misunderstanding with the assumption of understanding is common to people who are arrogant, ignorant, or just too lazy to further probe the subtleties or nuances of the language. Their self-conceit leads them to believe that they simply know. “I understood it, and I am right. Hence he is wrong.” This is the path the devil chose: “I am better than Adam; I am superior to him. My knowledge surpasses his.” On the other hand, when a humble person finds words that ring false or challenge his own assumptions, he pauses, thinks, and asks himself, “Am I understanding this correctly? Did the author mean what I think he means?” If he can ask the author, all the better; if not, he may seek a second opinion from an intelligent friend or resort to a good commentary, if available, or a reference book or dictionary, seeking shades of meaning he may have missed. 

* * * 

Several Islamophobic websites now claim that Islam is not a true religion but only a political ideology. Yet Islam shares nothing with what can be called an ideology if we understand the term both etymologically and in modern usage. Furthermore, one can’t find a word in classical Arabic that expresses the meaning of “ideology”; no equivalent word can be found in Ibn Manzur’s authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic, Lisan al-Arab, and it is certainly nowhere to be found in the Qur’an or hadith. Neither the Salaf nor any of the scholars of the past 1300 years of Islam used that term. In fact, it only becomes widespread after ideologues in the Islamic world, infected with Marxist thought, began to reform Islam as a resistance movement to colonialism and neocolonialism.

Since the Arabs don’t have a word for this phenomenon in their classical language, they had to make one up to express the idea; when we look up “ideology” in any modern English-Arabic dictionary, we find “idialajiyiah.” However, if we use classical Arabic to attempt to translate this word, “mandhur fikri” is a closer rendering. “Fikr” is not an attribute of God. “Mufakkir” is not one of God’s ninety-nine names, and unlike “tafakkur,” which carries a positive meaning in the Qur’an, “fikr” has a negative connotation, as in “Innahu fakkara wa qaddara, fa qutila kayfa qaddara” (For he thought and calculated. And how he calculated to his doom) (74:18–19). 

Islam is not an idea, even though some modern writers have used the term fikr Islami (Islamic thought). One of my teachers in Mauritania, a master of Arabic and Islam, once said to me, “What does fikr Islami mean? I have never seen that in an old book on Islam.” When I explained its meaning, he said, “That is very different from how the Salaf [the founding generations of the Islamic ethos] would have understood Islam.”

A reader must try to understand the terms of any article, book, or argument based on what the author or speaker meant by it, as writers use words, which invariably have ambiguity, in order to convey their intended meaning. According to Adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah, a book on Islamic manners related to research and discussion, it is a requisite of discussion that when terms are introduced, an interlocutor may request a definition if it is ambiguous; hence, our tradition has glosses and superglosses. Ideology generally refers to something that comes from thought that entails an all-encompassing absolutist view, such as “Marxist ideology.” Islam, on the other hand, is far more nuanced than any ideology.

Sadly, many modern Muslims use the term “ideology” to describe their faith not knowing the negative connotation it carries. To use “ideology” to describe our religion feeds into the haters of all things Muslim, as most educated Americans consider “ideology” a pejorative term, extreme leftists notwithstanding. In his Political Dictionary, under “ideology,” William Safire says, “Originally, a system of ideas for political or social action; in current political attacks, a mental straightjacket or rigid rules for the philosophically narrow-minded.” In the same entry, he later quotes former President Reagan saying, “I think ‘ideology’ is a scare word to most Americans.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams mentions that Marx used the term in a pejorative sense saying that ideas were “nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships. . . . Failure to realize this produced ideology, an upside-down version of reality, . . . ideology is then abstract and false thought, in a sense directly related to the original conservative use.” Thus, both conservatives and Marxists originally used it pejoratively.

Lenin departed from Marx’s use of the word, and it later became a common word in leftist vocabulary to mean a political worldview. Gert Wilders, in a recent book, argues that Islam is not a religion but rather an ideology, and “ideology” is the word he uses when referring to Islam. Unfortunately, plenty of uneducated Muslims will provide him with quotes to support that thesis. And we will continue to hear the detractors of Islam refer to Islam as an ideology rather than a religion. Pat Robertson said, “This Islamic—I want to say religion, but it’s not a religion. It is a political system” (i.e., an ideology).

Not only is Islam not an ideology, but it does not offer a political solution per se. The operative idiom here is “per se.” “Per se” means “by or of itself, inherently or in isolation.” Hence, in the context of the sentence, what it means is that without the foundational morality of Islam, any political system, Islamic or not, will not work. For example, in the Egyptian constitution, a political solution to the problem of presidential corruption is that a president may not earn money or take any monetary remuneration outside of the state salary. As such, that is a reasonable political solution, but without the moral basis within the heart of the president, the solution fails. A person with a corrupt heart will not abide by the rulings of any constitution. Therefore, the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state but instead on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state. “Surely, God does not change the state of a people until they change the state of their own souls” (Qur’an 13:11). We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state. 

The focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state but instead on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state.

In one of my favorite books, The Lamp of Rulers (Siraj al-muluk), Imam al-Tartushi says, “The qualities necessary from our religion that are necessary for an Islamic polity are three: gentleness and not roughness with the populace; mutual consultation [parliament or congress, in today’s language]; and not to give positions of power to those who seek them or desire them.” If those three were implemented, we wouldn’t need so-called revolutions to change the status quo. Instead of serving the people, the rulers have made the people their servants. 

* * * 

Language is the crowning achievement of human beings, and that is something Muslims have always known and revered. Muslims traditionally made up a literate people whose miracle is a book from an unlettered man, peace be upon him, who was the most articulate and eloquent human being who ever lived. Muslims honor the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in honoring the language arts that he loved so much and used so well.

Hence, traditional Muslims also honor him in honoring, as he did, the ambiguities of language so beautifully expressed in the hadith in al-Bukhari, “Let none of you pray ‘Asr [the late-afternoon prayer] except in Bani Quraydha’s dwellings.” 

As the Companions were on their way to Bani Quraydha, the time of ‘Asr came in, and some of them said, “We need to pray.” 

Others said, “No, the Prophet, peace be upon him, told us to only pray it at Bani Quraydha. 

The first group said, “He meant for us to hasten, so we would be there by ‘Asr.”

The other group took his statement literally and did not pray until they reached Bani Quraydha. 

When they arrived at their destination, they informed the Prophet, peace be upon him, of what happened, and he accepted both understandings as ways to interpret his words. 

Disambiguation occurs sometimes in simply accepting ambiguities. 

Berkeley, California


[1] Tabayyanu and tathabbatu are two different recensions of the same word and thus carry both meanings in this verse.

Hamza Yusuf is president of Zaytuna College. He has been a student of the classical Islamic tradition for over forty years, studying with some of the most respected scholars of our time, and serves as an adviser to the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is vice president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, an international initiative that seeks to address the root causes that can lead to radicalism and militancy. His most recent book is Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart (2012).