Building off of a previous post regarding the halo and horn effect in the way we observe and interpret historical personalities, another manifestation of this cognitive bias occurs when we wish to engage in academic evaluation or criticism of a person’s views or behaviour. One of the ways opponents and enemies of prophets & messengers would expose their insincerity in their opposition was by trying to push them (p) into situations where they could become prone to making blunders or losing hope. Polytheists would often wait for opportunities for prophets to be afflicted with some ailment, hardship or difficulty, so they could unleash a flurry of attacks against them and get everyone else to join in too. Many of the companions of the prophets would often get the same treatment. This is a sign of insincerity. In a sincere opposition and criticism against a person or group’s behaviour or ideas, one limits their critique to those ideas and actions – or related ideas – but refrains from exaggerating in their opposition.
Therefore, one of the areas where one exposes their own malicious intent & insincerity towards someone they disagree with is when a person makes an honest mistake or blunder. Oftentimes critics merely wait like hyenas for their intellectual interlocutors to slip so they can unleash their wrath on them. In fact, this anticipation is so great that sometimes when a person makes an error, the hyena-like-group may not even consider it a blunder themselves, but because others may consider it a blunder and call it out, the hyenas will see that as an opportunity to attack their opponent too.
At times, perhaps all parties see that a person has made a blunder and error, but despite one or two influential figures calling this error out, warning the masses, and moving on, you find that every individual sees it as an opportunity to get their word across while this person is down and defeated. They will become obsessive with the belittlement of the individual and express their urge to lynch, kick and humiliate this person while the opportunity exists so they can never rise up again.
While there are so many examples of this occurring in our communities, just consider the example of one prominent scholar from the US. This scholar does have a lot of critics and has been critiqued for various different reasons over the last two decades. However, during the early days of Covid he said something absurd regarding a possible treatment for the Coronavirus. Despite being called out by a few big scholars, what we saw were a flurry of attacks against him by many uninfluential and even less-studied speakers and students, who simply wanted to throw in a punch on this scholar they despised for other reasons. Ironically, some of these speakers themselves have no issue uttering just as much, if not worse absurdity throughout the year.
Consider the case of another prominent jurist and intellectual from the seminary of Qom who has earned numerous critics over the last decade or two, but publicly made certain remarks on the theological topic of excommunication in Shi’i jurisprudence, over a year ago. A certain group of his critics had no issue acknowledging the validity of this theological and legal position regarding excommunication, as they themselves are proponents of this view. In fact, soon after those remarks were made by the jurist in Qom, another prominent jurist in Najaf reiterated a similar point without any drama in his advanced classes of Fiqh. However, when the jurist of Qom uttered these remarks, certain figures called him out and one even labeled him as the Dajjal, without giving him a chance to defend himself as he was getting medical treatment at the time. However, this was enough of an opportunity for every group to unleash a flurry of attacks, even those who themselves had no issue with what was actually said publicly, but it was enough of an opportunity for them to humiliate the jurist while they had an opportunity. Some made outlandish accusations that this jurist had not even studied a basic jurisprudence book properly, eventually sending him into a sort of house arrest. The irony here was that many who were trying to get their punches in during this event, themselves despise those scholars who called the jurist a Dajjal!
Further, consider the shutting down of a popular YouTube channel operating from the seminary of Qom. This channel also has critics within Shi’a communities and even amongst students of Qom themselves. A very large number of scholars and students simply either do not agree with their ideology or their approach. However, whether the channel was shut down due to copyright infringements or for some other reason, what we saw once again were people cheering and celebrating as if they were waiting for something like this to happen. Instead of engaging and responding back to discussions raised by this channel, one waits for them to make a lapse so they can be mocked and silenced. All talk by some of these critics during the year, from one center to another, regarding the importance of free speech, tolerance, coexistence, inter-faith work, reform, not excommunicating one another for their views, evaporates into thin air.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that we do not have a culture of engaging in meaningful and sincere dialogue. Much of our community does not know what that is even supposed to look like because all they have ever experienced is that when two people disagree, one side is merely meant to point out the flaws of their opponent’s personality and paint a draconian image of them. Thus, we have a very visible unethical culture of attacking people, highlighting irrelevant aspects of their lives, nitpicking irrelevant errors they may make, ignoring their overall arguments.
We thrive in a culture of ad hominem attacks & straw-manning our opponents – often times all in private behind people’s backs. Yet this is a culture we should be committed to dismantling – God-willing – for the sake of our own future and preservation of religion.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.