No authority

In the early days, I was enamoured with and very proud of the Muslim tradition of verification. So much so, in fact, that as a student of publishing, I wrote my Master’s thesis about it. In those days I marveled at the attention to detail that saw men and women scrutinizing the chains of narration in an attempt to authenticate the information they had received. I was impressed by the documentation of biographies, aimed at judging the veracity of a narration. I soaked up the notion that scholars took their jobs so seriously that they would record who had studied a work in full or in part, bestowing permission to convey the learning onwards only to those deemed competent having learnt the work by heart. An ijazah seemed to be a certificate of authority: a marker of the seriousness with which the Muslim views the pursuit of truth.

I speak in the past tense, because the actual practice of many Muslims in our own time leaves me extremely disappointed. That proud tradition of authentication is nowhere to be found in the day to day practices of those we interact with. On the contrary, Muslims often seem to be at the forefront of disseminating spurious information far and wide. Twenty years ago it was the chain-letter email, today the viral WhatsApp video. Hardly ever does anyone ever pause to verify whether the information they receive is factual or true prior to passing it on en masse. Isnad, matn, ijazah… to most of us, these are just terms from the distant past. Perhaps almost mythical constructs, in fact.

To be sure, our populist preachers of religion have jettisoned all notion of responsibility for the information they disseminate far and wide, nowadays to complete unknowns, who listen remotely to amazing stories without sources, that they will never be able to verify. All the listener has to hang onto is trust… trust that their teacher is truthful. An unwarranted faith, perhaps, given that so many contemporary men of knowledge turn out to be in it for something else entirely. A far cry from the processes we believed to be in place to safeguard the teachings of religion. It turns out these may have been exaggerated.

For common folk, perhaps we can excuse their ignorance, which causes them to pass on all they have heard without question, compelled by emotion to play their part. But the learned who once patiently studied in difficult circumstances? What is their excuse? Is the allure of fame just too toxic to resist, compelling them to speak carelessly in order to meet the expectations of their audience? Never an I don’t know. Never: I made a mistake. Never: I made this up. Never: some of this is true, some of it is bunkum. For their audience they must perform. Alas, as a consequence, we all suffer.

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