Whither truth

There are some who say that they always believe the testimony of a woman. There are others who say the opposite, that they rarely believe their claims. There are others still who insist that a practising Muslim is always truthful — though what is meant by ‘practising’ is never clearly defined.  

Of course none of these generalisations are based in fact. A man or woman could be truthful, or they could be anything but. Some people may tell the truth all the time, others some of the time, or hardly ever. But more likely, in our accounts of events we encounter a vast spectrum of truthfulness or otherwise. There will be what happened. There will be interpretations of what happened. There will be representations of what happened, or understandings, or partial-understandings. In an occurrence made up of multiple episodes, truth and falsehood may be mixed inseparably. He said and she did, all interwoven and stitched together, and impossibly combined.

For many years, because Muslims are commanded to always be truthful, I naively believed that Muslims, generally speaking, always tell the truth. I once believed that they were truthful in dawah, in reporting the news, in relaying history, in their business dealings and in teaching. That illusion was shattered long ago. There are indeed those who are honest and true, meticulous in their representation of facts and events, at all times. But for the most part, most Muslims are like most other people: selectively truthful at best and often compromised. And once to my horror, sometimes outright liars, even when charged with conveying critical information pertinent to the preservation of life.

In truth, I once thought that about Christians too, until my encounters with various particularly abrasive Evangelists persuaded me otherwise. Likewise, campaigners for human rights or the rights of the poor, I always imagined, would be the truest of all, devoted as they were to the betterment of people’s lives. But we live and learn. Truth is often contingent on short and long term goals, sometimes because truth cannot be easily divined, sometimes because the truth is inconvenient.

The reality is that to be truthful is not always easy. It can take a huge amount of effort, particularly once our inner desires take control: our lust for wealth, power, fame or carnal desires all place immense strain on the soul, causing honesty to fall along the wayside. Sometimes deception seems to be the only way to get ahead in the world. Sometimes dishonesty is the armoury of the coward, who refuses to stand tall, confident in his own designs. Sometimes small lies morph into big lies by accident, metamorphosing out of control.

To be truthful: this would be the biggest prize. To be counted amongst the truthful: imagine that. But such a station demands hard work: to be forever vigilant, to be watchful, to say no to the latent calls of the ego when it petitions us so violently. To be able to speak the truth, even when it will result in our own humiliation, or cause us to lose out, or to fall from grace. To be truthful demands that we take something away from ourselves, replacing it with something better, though it may pain us.

Telling the truth sounds so easy. But wait until you stand before a braying crowd who demands not the truth, but a response that works in their favour. Wait until you must swim against the tide. Wait until you face the powerful with vested interests. Wait until your friends desert you. Wait until your life or livelihood or freedom depend on you saying what is expected of you. Then you will know what it means to be truthful. It may hardly seem worth it in the short term, but you would be wrong.

“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember God often and the women who do so — for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” — Qur’an 33:35

Truthfulness is not gendered. It is not sectarian. It is not dependent on class or ethnicity or wealth. To be truthful is an act, a decision, a commitment. To be truthful is within the means of all of us, if only we make the effort. For some of us it is an aspiration: something we would like to be, if only we could vanquish our egos. For some, it is nearly all that they are, if only they could make that final, sincere push. For some of us, we have a long way to go, but we know it is our only way forward.

May our Lord make us of the truthful, who return to Him having earned His pleasure. May He make us of the patient, the humble and kind. May He rectify our affairs, purify our hearts, and allow us to return to Him well pleased.

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