Friday Sermon: Benefiting from constructive criticism

To date our series have offered the following principles for maximising our sitting in sermons:

First, our intention has to be purely for learning and growth, not entertainment or reaffirming what we already believe. Second we must have active forms of learning, including making use of technologies and writing notes. Third, we must equip ourselves with useful questions that challenge not only ourselves, but the scholars too.

Today’s sermon focuses on a principle of intellectual and moral honesty that is truly very difficult to achieve: Accepting constructive criticism.

It is common that during the sermon something is said that may pinch a nerve due to it speaking directly to our behaviours or sensitivities; or as post-traditional or post-cultural understandings of our religion become the norm, a challenge is raised against the status quo of practises; or even a family member or friend raises some criticism, it can burn and be difficult to accept.

To grow however, we must welcome these discomforts which at times may give deep insight into things we may not have considered about ourselves. Sometimes the criticism comes from a place of care in which case we should be grateful whether it is accurate or not. At others it may come from a place of scorn, in which case if it is true then we should still be grateful.

The Qur’an provides us with a starting principle: فَاصْـبِرْ کَماَ صَبَرَ أُُولُوا الْعَزمِ مِنَ الرُّسُلِ “Be patient just as were those of determination, the great prophets from among the Messengers” (46:35).

Patience here is not simply waiting for difficulty to pass but rather refers to the internal response of dignity, trust in Allah, and working hard on one’s soul when confronted by life’s difficulties. We are being called here to respond like the greatest Messengers responded – and no doubt the Prophet (s) faced intense scrutiny and criticism from their communities. Thus let us look at three principles on navigating constructive criticism from the Islamic perspective.

First, we must be willing to accept criticism of us and not close it down.

Many misinformed people think that Islam forbids ‘freedoms of speech’ or criticism of the Prophet Muhammad (s) or Islam itself, or that violence is the response to criticism. This is completely against the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (s) faced the most abrasive and vitriolic of criticism. What is interesting is that Allah (swt) not only allowed it but even recorded it in revelation for it to be known and recounted through the ages!

“They (the disbelievers) say: It is just stories of the ancients! He makes them up! And they are dictated to him morning and afternoon” (25:5) was the claim, because the Prophet Muhammad (s) spent months with Christian Monks in the Sinai. Allah (swt) allowed this criticism, though futile and wrong, responding in the next verse: “Say: It has been revealed by He who knows [every] secret of the heavens and earth. Indeed He is ever Forgiving and Merciful.”

This teaches us that criticism must be allowed and then reviewed for its accuracy. Not accepting it from its inception or thinking you are above it or that you know better removes the potential of it having a positive effect.

Second, the closer a person is to you the better.

It is often the case that we like to keep friends who match our ideas and positions. Whilst of course having friends of the same beliefs and values are necessary, that should not mean that if they are critical of us, we feel hurt, vengeful, or cut off relationships.

The very best person to be critical of you is yourself! Imam Ali (a) stated إيّاكَ أنْ تَـكُونَ علَى النّاسِ طاعِناً، ولِنَفْسِكَ مُداهِناً “Beware of being critical of the people while going easy on yourself.” داهَنَ means flattery or to dupe, thus the narration is saying do not dupe yourself into thinking you are above reproach the way you might of others.

After that, your friends and family who have unguarded, real moments with you are those who may give you feedback. Often we expect our friends to take our sides or back us up because they are our friends. The narrations tell us in fact the best friend we may have is the one who can tell us the truth and be critical if they see something, thus do not be offended. Narrations include:

  • “The friendship of the religious ones does not get severed quickly and is ever firm and lasting” مَوَدَّةُ ذَوِى الدّينِ بَطيئَةُ الاِنْقـطاعِ، دائِمَةُ الثَّباتِ والبَقاءِ
  •  “The one who assists [you] in obeying [Allah] is the best companion” اَلمُعينُ عَلَى الطَّاعَةِ خَيرُ الأصحابِ
  • “The brother whom you benefit from is better than the brother [for] whom you increase [benefit]” أخٌ تَسْتَفيدُهُ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أخ تَسْتَزيدُهُ.

Third, once I receive criticism how do I review myself?

Now that we know to allow criticism to occur and to be pleased with it, we need tools to measure whether the criticism is valid or not. This of course requires honesty, time for introspection, and wrangling with the matter.

Imam Mohammed al-Baqir (a) says: “Contemplate and ponder about what is said about you. So if you observe and come to know about a vice that exists in you, know that to lose honour in the eyes of Allah is much greater than losing respect in the eyes of the people. And if your condition is contrary to what has been said about you, then you have earned a reward short of doing any strain!”

In this vain, once a person was abusing Imam Ali ibn al-Hussain as-Sajjad (a) and his mother. The Imam calmly replied, “If what you have said about me is true, then may Allah forgive me. And if what you have said is false, then may Allah forgive you” and left it that. The man was amazed by the Imam’s (a) beautiful character.

In conclusion, our sitting in sermons often evoke criticism of our individual and collective behaviours. This should not be a reason to feel unease or discontent, rather we must review ourselves in accordance with the Book of Allah (swt) and proactively be patient in overcoming whatever infractions we may have. As Imam Ali (a) said, حَلاَوَةُ الظَّفَرِ تَمْحُوا مَراَرَةَ الصَّـبْرِ “The sweetness of success erases the bitterness of patience.”



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