Confessions

On changing one’s views and opinions

Beliefs are strange creatures. Opinions reached after thorough deliberation, those held by one’s elders and friends, and one’s wishes and daydreams are all lumped together in the consciousness as one’s beliefs. The proportion of each ingredient differs from man to man, and from time to time in the same man, but this unholy cocktail is found in the mind of even the most rational of men. Continuous re-evaluation of the contents of his mental furniture is therefore a major responsibility of every individual. If a man is supposed to be able to give an account of his beliefs – and there can be no doubt that he is – then it is his duty to strive to make his thoughts ever more consistent, well-founded and defendable.

Before I go any further, let me forestall a possible misunderstanding. For a Muslim, Islam is perfect for all times to come. The need of revisiting one’s belief system, therefore, is not for the purpose of improving the religion itself – may God preserve us! It is one’s understanding of one’s religion that is supposed to constantly evolve for the better, usually ever so slowly. Sometimes there are sudden changes as well, when certain things that did not add up suddenly start making all the sense in the world (or vice versa) when seen in a new light or from a different perspective.

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A few words of autobiography are in order here. These are not intended to be some kind of a testimonial – ‘Look how misguided I used to be before I saw the light’ and that sort of thing. I plead guilty to being misinformed and intellectually lazy, but I have changed my views way too many times to entertain the cocky idea that what I believe today is the last word on anything. My only purpose is to illustrate the challenge that any thoughtful man is bound to face till the last day of his life.

Love and fear of disapproval are two sides of the same coin. The reason why people are so reluctant to change their long-held views is the expected reaction of those who still hold those views.

As a child, my religious views were more or less those held by the majority of the population of this country – essentially the mystical interpretation of Islam. Of course, I was too young to have acquired these beliefs after subjecting them to any degree of disinterested scrutiny. ‘Belief’ here means an impression that one perceives in those one is surrounded by, and for as far back as one can remember. It is so natural to take such opinions for granted that one never really questions them. Until the day that one does.

While as far back as age twelve, in my heart of hearts, I had started struggling making heads or tails of concepts such as iisaal-e-sawaab, Quran khwaani or ‘khatam’, qul, chaaleeswan, and nazar o niaz; a part of me thought that so many people would hardly believe in such items without there being any substance to them. The realization that, if anything, I needed to be suspicious of concepts and practices that the masses so enthusiastically believed in would come many years later when I decided to read the Quran (as opposed to its blind recitation that I had been doing since I was eight). It was the Quran that would drive home the point that when it comes to right and wrong it is the argument that will decide an issue – not who presents the argument, and certainly not how many men are on which side.

The kind of emotional attachment associated with beliefs held in childhood and early youth is something one rarely experiences again in life. Getting a belief out of one’s rational system is hard enough. Harder still is getting rid of the subconscious traces of it. And it is challenging in proportion to the percentage of people around you entertaining those views. Especially the beliefs one associates with one’s elders are not easy to question, let alone disown. This has always been the hardest idol to smash to pieces. Few things are known to cloud judgment quite like love does.

Love and fear of disapproval are two sides of the same coin. The reason why people are so reluctant to change their long-held views is the expected reaction of those who still hold those views. It is rarely the case that this sort of person says to himself: ‘Well, it is now beyond doubt that the arguments against my opinion are unassailable, and this calls for adoption of a view more in line with the available evidence. But that would mean earning the displeasure of my friends and family; so, let me sweep all these considerations under the carpet and go on my merry way.’ It is usually much more subtle than that. Whenever it is felt that the conversation is heading in the wrong direction so to speak, any further evidence is dismissed out of hand after labelling it obviously mistaken, ill-motivated, or childish.

To return to my little story, for many years I hopefully kept on assuming that my beliefs must be based on something in the Quran; or, if not in the Quran they must surely be rooted in some prophetic narration. For why else would so many people hold them, I kept telling myself. Reading the Quran was an eye-opening experience: it was shocking how different (in many cases contradictory) its message was from the popular views on so many issues. That a Muslim is supposed to adopt a religious belief only after being shown it explicitly in the Quran is an understanding of much later vintage – after I had gone through the book multiple times.

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After I outgrew the mystic interpretation of Islam, it was the so-called Political Islam that appealed to me for a short while. Again, it was the Quran that exposed the shortcomings of this interpretation, which prompted me to move on from that too. I have been mistaken too many times not to realize that my current views too could easily turn out to be inadequate tomorrow. That is quite all right, as far as I am concerned. However, there are those who are alarmed by such changes of religious views. They fail to realize that giving up previously cherished opinions as a result of study and deliberation is a far cry from picking and choosing from conflicting philosophies in the interest of expedience. Obstinately sticking to one’s position even after one knows better can hardly be considered a virtue.

On the social media (and off it), I have occasionally been accused of changing my views – of disowning things I used to believe in, and vice versa. As if evolution was some sort of a crime! I always respond by saying that I have outgrown many things: I do not wear knickerbockers any more. I stopped drinking milk years ago when I graduated to meat, vegetables, etc. There was a time I used to like Ishtiaq Ahmad novels! I even used to dunk cookies in my tea. I am not ashamed to have progressed in any of these areas. I am equally at ease owning up to my religious evolution. A man is supposed to learn till the last day of his life. Self-improvement is a lifelong labour.

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Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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