SOME PUBLIC CRITICISM IN PUBLIC MATTERS IS ESSENTIALby
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (1983)
It is a commonly held notion among us Muslims that no matter what the nature of a problem the best way of dealing with it is to have a private talk with the person or persons concerned. One is always supposed to take these concerned persons to a corner and whisper in their ears. Public discussion, criticism or questioning is considered as something always undesirable and unbefitting of a good pious Muslim, even in matters of public concern.
Yet, sometimes it is only through public criticism that the Muslims can perform their collective duty of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong which is assigned to them by God Most High in Surah Al Imran:
Sometimes one can perform this duty of enjoining right and forbidding wrong by personally talking to relevant persons and doing nasibah (exhortation) privately but at other times we need to make a public noise and protest to set things right. The whole of the Holy Qur'an is, in fact, a public protest against the moral wrongs into which men have fallen at various stages of history and into which they still continue to fall. All prophets and their true servants have publicly criticized certain classes, groups, institutions and public figures in their societies for some of their wrong ways.
Islamic history is full of examples of public criticism or questioning in public matters. One such example is provided by a well-known story about Hadrat 'Umar.
It is reported that one day Hadrat 'Umar was delivering a speech in the Mosque of the Prophet. Hadrat 'Umar usually wore simple patched-up clothes, but this time he was dressed in a new robe. Noticing this, one of the audience stood up and asked the speaker whether he bought his new clothes from public money. These days it may look strange to us that someone should think of raising a question about such a small thing as a new robe, but we must remember that in those days many Arabs were still used to extreme poverty, so that acquisition of a new robe would not be as insignificant a matter for them as it would be for most people in Canada today. In any case, Hadrat 'Umar duly explained how he acquired his new clothes and the person who raised the question, and others who had the same question on their minds, were completely satisfied.
Let us observe that in the above instance, the person who raised the question did not do so privately. He did not go to Hadrat 'Umar after the speech, saying "Amir al-Mu'minin: I would like to talk to you in private". He did not then take him to a corner of the mosque and whisper in his ears, "Amir al-mu'minin: Forgive me for asking, but this new robe that you are wearing - from where did you get the money for it?" Let us observe also that other Muslims in the audience, too, did not feel that the bold questioner should have raised his question privately in the ears of the Caliph (may God be pleased with him).
Thus it is clear that in the early days of Islam, questions regarding matters of public concern (use of public money in the above example) were sometimes raised and discussed publicly; indeed, in those days this was a general rule and secrecy in public matters was used only in exceptional cases.
Ethics of Public Criticism
As in everything else, in public discussion or criticism one should keep some ethical and moral limits in mind.
1. The first and most important of these limits is the purity of intention. In any public criticism of public figures, institutions or organizations we should have but one purpose: to fulfill a Muslim's duty of "enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong".
2. The language used should not be obscene or indecent but at the same time it should be forceful enough to be effective in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. The names of public figures, institutions, etc. may be mentioned if the purpose of public criticism is to prevent a particular figure, institution, etc. from doing a particular wrong, for in such cases if we do not clearly indicate about whom or what we are talking, our purpose will be lost. However, if the purpose of criticism is not to prevent a particular person or group of persons from doing a particular wrong but to correct a prevalent error in thinking, attitudes or practices of a community, then it is not ethical to mention any names.
3. We should remember that sometimes it is necessary to entrust some competent persons with some public work and leave them alone to do it according to their best judgment. In such cases we should not let our criticism interfere with their work, unless we have very solid evidence that there is something seriously wrong in the way the work entrusted to them is being carried out. Of course, the choice of these competent persons must be made by a process which is based on genuine Shura (consulation) and which therefore has the confidence of the people.
4. In our manner of criticism we must make a basic distinction between those leaders, rulers, etc. who assume their positions through a process of genuine Shura and those who do so by force or other improper means. In criticizing the first category of public figures we must show all possible sympathy and respect, and despite disagreeing with them in some matters continue to obey them, if they are in a position of authority over us, in accordance with the divine command:
In case of the second category of public figures, on the other hand, we should show no mercy, respect or obedience, but through public criticism, ruthlessly build up public pressure to a point that they are ousted from their positions and tried according to the Islamic law.
First published in Al-Ummah, Montreal, Canada in 1983. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.