The Halo and Horn Effect in Studying Islamic Personalities & Events

In the middle of one of my Muharram lectures a few years ago as I was making some point, I made a quick side remark about how Khalid b. Walid was a successful war strategist during the conquests. That is all I said and moved on with the rest of my talk. After the lecture, one of the organizers quickly came up and whispered in my ear to “clear up the point about Khalid b. Walid.” I was confused and had already forgotten what exactly I had said about Khalid b. Walid as he was not even remotely the subject of the lecture and I wasn’t sure what I had said that needed clarification? They said I had mentioned he was a good war strategist, and it may give the impression to the audience that he was a good person – which conflicts with the general Shi’i perception of him as a person who betrayed Imam Ali (a).

One of the issues in the way we educate the community about religion altogether is the extreme oversimplification of some issues. While granted most people are not interested in nuance and technicalities, there are some aspects that simply should not be oversimplified such that years of dogma is built on top of these oversimplifications only for severe damage to be caused once the “nuance” or “truth” is uncovered. In fact, it is for this fear there is a very prominent sentiment amongst some scholars and students where it is claimed that “we cannot expose every truth to the community in detail” because of the anticipated damage it will cause. This is not the fault of the laity, rather this is due to a deficient pedagogy and the shortcomings in the way a certain topic or issue was introduced and taught to the laity.

One of the shortcomings in the way we educate the community is not allowing them to look at individuals and events through two lenses, the positive and negative, instead, restricting their observations, understanding and analysis to just one lens. This is a cognitive bias known as the halo and horn effect respectively. For example, if Abu Bakr or Umar or Khalid b. Walid were individuals whom the Shi’a disagree with and deem them to have usurped the right of Ali (a), then not only are they bad, but rather their entire life has to be read through a negative lens, as if no good could have ever been exhibited by them. We can see this in the conspiracy theories concocted around such figures, where it is argued some of these figures from the very first day they converted to Islam in Makkah were insincere, or that they were plotting to take over control of the Muslim ummah from the early Makkan period because they were anticipating the success of the Prophet (p). Of course, it only takes a moment to realize that such accusations themselves have a degree of praise as it acknowledges the foresight of such figures from day one, which somehow even the Prophet (p) wasn’t able to detect for almost two decades.

Anyone following the online Shi’a-Sunni polemics scene will also know that in recent times the Shi’a have faced a very heavy onslaught from some Western Sunni polemicists. What one observes though is that some of them have gone to far lengths to paint everything the Shi’i community does as evil and problematic, going after individuals and popular Shi’a speakers, nitpicking on every little statement of theirs, and portraying everything they do or say in a negative light. They paint and observe matters as if the Shi’a never produced worthwhile scholars in their entire history, that their role in the Islamic civilization was irrelevant, or that all they did was engage in superstitious rituals. This is nothing but a mass oversimplification of a thousand years of Shi’i scholarship and heritage, only because the critics observe us through one lens: the negative one and hence are completely incapable of seeing even one positive.

The opposite is also true.

Once you conclude there is a certain personality whom you like and respect, then you begin observing them through one lens: the positive lens and become heedless of the fact that they could also have some shortcomings, flaws and even make blunders. This often happens with regards to pious scholars whom we all admire, love and take lessons from. If someone points out a certain error they made, whether in an academic discussion or even in some general day to day affair, one’s love and restrictive positive lens simply do not allow them to acknowledge this. There are some highly respected scholars in the Shi’a world where I have personally witnessed and even engaged in discussions with their admirers on whether the scholar is infallible or not! This is not only dangerous but if you come across as someone who has a problem with holding such an extreme view, admirers will make it seem as if you are the problem. This is also true for certain historical personalities that are admired. Consider Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, where Shi’a hadith literature itself paints him as a person who had a very problematic side but had also done some good in his avenging the killers of Imam Husayn (a). As a result, he will perhaps be granted intercession on the day of judgement. This in fact is a very realistic description of many humans. In a more extreme case, there are some who do not deserve much respect at all, like Abu Lu’lu the disbeliever who killed ‘Umar, yet some Shi’a in their admiration of a single act that he did, which they consider to be a good act, they have gone to such absurd lengths that they painted him as a pious believer, and later even constructed a fake shrine for him in Kashan! This is a direct result of what occurs when you restrict your observations to one lens.

Even amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah we see this occurring. Due to their belief in the ‘adālah of the companions, many of their scholars have explicitly written in their books that the wrong deeds of the companions should not be spoken about nor mentioned, for it may cast doubt in the laity. When you keep such matters hidden for centuries, you end up creating a dogma, a false and misleading understanding of history and its events, where a person’s faith is only waiting to be shattered once they discover the truth.

I believe the Muslim community currently, particularly the younger generation, has a very good opportunity to attain a proper and thorough education regarding their religion. An education that does not contain such psychological prejudices and interpretations of events. It is rarely the case that any human is completely perfect and flawless, or completely evil. Such cognitive bias hinders the growth of the community as it renders a scholar incapable of investigating the Prophetic sirah, or the lives of the Imams (a) in a manner that is as authentic as possible. It fails to consider the various personalities and dynamics involved in any given event. Once that is hindered, a scholar is then incapable of deriving teachings and lessons that can assist us in dealing with the issues of the world today, or the teachings that are derived are highly superficial and often useless for addressing the complex issues we are confronting today.