The Art of Criticism

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī and translated by Dr. Abu Zayd

To access the original arabic, follow this link

They asked: What is the true meaning of critique?

I replied: Critique1 linguistically means to examine something and distinguish its good from its bad, and lexically refers to highlighting the dimensions that are beautiful, complete or beneficial, while exposing those that are detested, deficient or harmful. It is also to study an academic or artistic enterprise in order to analyze it and place it in proper perspective, arriving at its true value and estimation. It is also to reject a view or position, but only after proper examination, study or research.

They asked: What is the meaning of censure?2

I replied: It is to wound or injure another, which could be in the physical body of a person, in his intellect or thought, his heart or emotion, his knowledge and writing, or in his academic or artistic output. There generally does not lie any inquiry, investigation, analysis or study behind it.

They asked: What is the difference between them?

I replied: The difference is explicit from their definitions themselves, but the summary of it is that critique is a form of knowledge whereas censure is ignorance; critique is light while censure is darkness; critique faithful, just and balanced while censure is rejection, depreciation and enmity.

They asked: What is the ruling on them?

I replied: Critique is a religious obligation and a responsibility that comes with knowledge. God the Exalted stated: O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.3 Censure, on the other hand, is forbidden and evil. God the Exalted stated: O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.4 He also stated: O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers. 5

They asked: Are they not very similar and comparable?

I replied: No, they differ in their aims, intent and function.

They asked: Explain to us this difference.

I replied: The aim of critique is to appreciate an individual, and assess and bring forth his true stance or position, while the purpose of censure is to rebuke, denigrate, condemn or belittle someone. The intention of the one involved in critiquing is reform, instruction, counsel and truth, whereas the intent of the censurer is corruption, blame and deceit. The work of critique follows a clear academic methodology known to scholars and experts of the discipline and science. Censure is pure ignorance and folly, deceit and falsehood. It is narrated in Siyar Aʿlam al-Nubalāʾ:6 From ʿAbbās b. Muḥammad: from Ibn Maʿīn, who said: We attended the circles of Naʿīm b. Ḥammād in Egypt, and he began to read one of his own works. After reading for one hour, he said: “Ibn al-Mubārak narrated to us: from Ibn ʿAwn: some ḥadīth.” I said to him, “That is not from Ibn al-Mubārak.” He became angry and said, “Are you refuting me?” I replied, “Yes, by God, I am. But I only want to raise you.” But he refused to recant. So I said, “No, by God, you have not heard this from Ibn al-Mubārak at all, nor did he hear it from Ibn ʿAwn.” He became angry, as did some of the people of ḥadīth around him. He got up, brought some pages and proceeded to say, “Where is the one who claims Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn is not the Commander of the Faithful7 in ḥadīth? Yes, Abū Zakariyāʾ,8 I have made a mistake. The pages contain the error. I was writing the ḥadīth of Ibn al-Mubārak from Ibn ʿAwn, but it was narrated from Ibn ʿAwn by other than Ibn al-Mubārak.”

They asked: Can critique fall under the ruling of censure?

I replied: Yes, if the one doing the critique does not have the right aim or intent, or does not confine himself to its right methodology.

They asked: Where do the disparagements of the ḥadīth scholars regarding weak transmitters fall under?

I replied: It is critique, which they used to distinguish the sound from the unsound reports and traditions.

They asked: Then why did they name this noble science al-jarḥ (“impugnment”)?9 And why did they speak about censure and its various aspects?

I replied: Their aim was to purify the sunnah from forgery, deceit and plagiarism, by investigating the states and characteristics of transmitters. The basis for this science is critique (naqd), either by way of validating or invalidating someone. The complete name for this science is al-jarḥ wa al-taʿdīl, which is basically critique and differentiation.

They asked: Has censure come from any ḥadīth scholar?

I replied: No, except for a small amount that was not deliberate, like a mistake a person happens to commit or a slip that happens to emanate from him, which God forgives and overlooks. However, those who deliberately engage in censure have crept into the ranks of the people of ḥadīth and entered the realm of slander and sin, which is as serious of a sin here as it is in any other case. There is no escape for them except to repent to God the Exalted, and relieve themselves of this liability and become innocent of it.

They asked: What can the scholars, students of knowledge, callers and reformers of our time do about the attacks of the slanderers, gossip- mongers and liars?

I replied: This is a real calamity and painful loss. They have adopted for their censure specific means, using them to transmit lies and falsehood, well-formulated and well-forged, into the world from one end to another.

They asked: What is demanded from the perpetrators and victims of censure?

I replied: What is demanded from those who censure is the reverential fear (taqwā) of God the Exalted, to repent to Him with sincere repentance, and to become closer to their victims in apology and regret. What is demanded from those who are its victims is that they be patient for the sake of God and leave off malice or revenge.

They said: Many people from one time or another have fallen into this with you.10 What is your stance regarding them?

I replied: It pains me greatly—more so on some occasions than others—until I remember the command of my Lord to have patience and force myself to do so, stopping myself from considering revenge and forbidding my companions from confronting or refuting them.

They asked: What makes it easy for you to practice patience?

I replied: There are several things:

  1. The great reward that lies in patience, and the company of God the Exalted, that comes with it, as He has said: And indeed God is with the practitioners of patience.11 And what a great reward that is! What should bother me if God is truly with me?
  2. The great favor of God upon me when He made me preoccupied with knowledge and writing, while He made the slanderers occupied with that which is evil and detested.
  3. The fact that it breaks the arrogance and carelessness inside me, for when people praise a person he becomes pleased with himself, which leads him to become proud, to transgress limits and to walk with borrowed clothes. And that contains the destruction it contains. Bukhārī relates from Abū Hurayrah that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: While a man was walking, clad in a two- piece garment and proud of himself with his hair well-combed, suddenly Allah made him sink into the earth and he will go on sinking into it till the Day of Resurrection. Ḥasan al-Baṣrī said: Were all of the speech of human beings to be true and all their actions good, they would nearly perish. It was asked: How would they perish? He replied: By becoming proud of themselves.
  4. Because of the fact that the good deeds of the slanderers become transferred to me, while my sins transfer to them. Muslim and Tirmidhī relate from Abū Hurayrah that the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, asked: Do you know of the bankrupt one? They replied: The bankrupt ones for us are those with no money or goods. He then said: The bankrupt one from my nation is the one who comes on the Day of Judgment with much prayer, fasting and charity, but others will also come who were the victims of his slander, calumny, his misappropriation of their wealth, his violence and his shedding of their blood. The victims will be given from his good deeds until they run out, in which case their bad deeds will be transferred to the perpetrator, until he is cast into the Fire.

They asked: If the good deeds of the slanderers are indeed transferred to you, would you like them to increase their censure for more deeds?

I replied: No.

They asked: Why not?

I replied: Because censure is backbiting and sin, and it is forbidden for servants to wish that God is disobeyed. In Ḥilyat al-Awliyāʾ12 there appears the biography of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Mahdī who said: Were it not for the fact that I hate that God is disobeyed, I would wish that none remained in this city except that they slander me. What could be more joyous than a good deed that a person unexpectedly finds in his register on the Day of Judgment, which he performed but forgot about?

They asked: What would you advise us?

I replied: I advise you and myself with the fear (taqwā) of God the Exalted, not to carry any malice, to avoid all censure, reprimand and backbiting, to deny for our ears any evil, to protect the motivations of our hearts, to mandate on ourselves deliberation and critique of knowledge and thinking, that we accept only that which is sound and distinguished, and to not let our greed allow us to accept that which is vile and base. In Siyar Aʿlam al-Nubalāʾ, the author relates the biography of Aʿmash who said: I sat with Iyās b. Muʿāwiyah in Wāsiṭ, Iraq, when he mentioned a ḥadīth. I asked: Who related this? He mentioned a man from the Khārijite sect. I asked: Do you mention this person? Do you wish that I sweep the road with my clothes, such that I begin to carry whatever dung or beetle I come across?

1 In Arabic naqd.

2 In Arabic, the term is ṭaʿn, which refers to a deeper and more negative type of criticism, censure, or reproach, that approaches complete dissection, breakdown or exposition.

3 Qurʾān 49:6.

4 Qurʾān 49:12.

5 Qurʾān 49:11.

6 The monumental biographical and historical work of Imām Dhahabī (d. 748/1348).

7 Amīr al-Muʾminīn, an honorary title for a scholar of ḥadīth who has attained supreme proficiency in ḥadīth scholarship.

8 The title of Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn.

9 The science of judging the ḥadīth transmitters was termed al-jarḥ wa al-taʿdīl, meaning “discrediting and accrediting,” or “impugnment and validation.”

10 i.e. they censure or slander you.

11 This appears in the Qurʾān in multiple verses.

12 Famous work of Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī (d. 430/1038).

Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator