For many, husn adh-dhann or having a good opinion of others is amorphous. A simple willingness to offer the benefit of the doubt or a “get out of jail free” card which grants immunity in the face of wrongdoing? In our scandal-laden cultural moment, in which the enhanced ability to share news, warnings, rumors, and outright lies about people–some of whom we’ve never even met–is literally at our fingertips, a cursory glance at husn adh-dhann might be helpful.
It’s interesting. An overview of the sources reveals husn adh-dhann to be a kind of shorthand; an economically-phrased bit attributed to the Prophet (upon him be peace) but actually a concept representative of a set of religious teachings. For instance, God says,
“O ye who believe! Avoid suspicion (as much as possible): for suspicion is in some cases a sin…” [49:12]
The following narration of the Prophet (upon him be peace) reported on the authority of Anas ibn Malik and recorded by Imam Muslim also comes to mind:
The Messenger of God (upon him be peace) was in the company of one of his wives when a man passed by them. The Prophet called to him and when he came, the Prophet said, “She is my wife.” The man said, “O Messenger of Allah, I do not doubt you in the least.” The Prophet said, “Verily, Satan flows through the human being like blood.”
Although both texts elaborate upon husn adh-dhann, the tradition of the Prophet (upon him be peace) is more specific and illustrative. In it, the Prophet is walking with an unidentified woman and rather than potentially leave a passerby in question concerning the woman’s identity, the Prophet (upon him be peace) informs the man that he is walking with his wife. The most evocative part comes at the end when the Prophet (upon him be peace), after being assured of the man’s confidence, explains that Satan is the source of our negative, unfounded judgments about others.
This is a well-known hadith. However, most authorities, classical and contemporary, interpret the Prophet (upon him be peace) as having taught the virtue of husn adh-dhann in order to protect his reputation. It’s seldomly offered that the Prophet (upon him be peace) was just as interested–if not more–in teaching this man how to protect his faith. The Prophet (upon him be peace) is the one to whom the Qur’an was revealed and the living embodiment of its teachings. If he (ma’adh Allah) was assumed to be less than faithful to its message, what would that mean for the passerby? Could he believe?
“Verily, Satan flows through the human being like blood.” Satan’s insinuation only begins with the suggestion that another person is involved in misconduct. In many cases, the initial negative judgment about the person in question metastasizes into more inclusive judgments about religious people or even faith itself. This is especially true when someone of religious standing is suspected of wrongdoing. Although those who find the core of their faith in personal experience might denounce it as “personality worship”, every time a Muslim public figure is suspected of indecency scores of Muslims experience crises of faith. Personally, even if I dare consider my faith rooted in experience, I don’t find it shallow when people are deeply challenged by the possibility that their role models and heroes might have committed grave sins. A radical embrace of husn adh-dhann will prevent this from being a pretext which can prove detrimental to faith.
But what about when the facts are clear? Articulations of this principle usually show up in places where there is doubt from which a person can benefit. However, is there a role for husn adh-dhann in cases of proven guilt?
Words are important because they shape our cognitive frames. Those of us lacking background in clinical psychology or behavioral health should be weary of terms like sociopath, psychopath, predator, etc. when describing a Muslim proven guilty of sin. Those terms have a bio-deterministic tinge that calls a person’s fundamental sincerity into question. The sincerity of someone proven guilty of sin or convicted of a crime should have no bearing on the prosecution of the case against them or their punishment. Sincere or insincere; they should be held accountable. However, what we believe about such people may have a bearing on us.
When a Muslim public figure once considered virtuous is hastily denounced as a sociopath or predator, it’s always difficult to watch the response among young Muslims. Trying to make sense of their positive and even life-changing experiences with an erstwhile role model now marked a predator, they struggle. Feelings of betrayal, confusion, and doubt set in: “How could they?” “How could I have been so gullible and failed to recognize them earlier?” “They spoke so passionately about Islam. Did they ever believe it? Should I continue to believe it ?” In addition to the erroneous idea that a true believer cannot commit a major sin, this line of thinking also suggests that the state of the individual at the time of the commission of sin was identical to their state at the time of apparent acts of devotion. In a rigorously authenticated hadith recorded by Imam Muslim, the Prophet (upon him be peace) mentions:
“The one who fornicates is not a believer while he is fornicating. And the one who consumes intoxicants is not a believer while he consumes them.”
The belief that faith increases and decreases has been a matter of consensus throughout most of the history of Sunni Islam. The narration above indicates that grave sins entail a loss of faith during the time of their commission. The corollary; however, is that both before and after the commission of sin, the person is capable of faith. Inasmuch as we believe in God’s grace and the possibility of redemption (tawba), the “after” will not trouble most of us. Working through the feelings of denial, pain, betrayal, doubt, etc. that occasion the proven guilt of our role models in faith, it is the “before” with which we will struggle.
In conclusion, humanizing evil and the positive consequence of doing so is an important topic; but that is not what I have written about. Protecting the honor of sinners; legitimate idea, but I’m not concerned with that either. When we learn that someone that we’ve looked upon as an exemplar is guilty of heinous crimes and possibly even abuse, we naturally struggle to reconcile their crimes with what we know of them. Although the inclination to think we never really knew them and call into question every act of apparent sincerity or goodness we’ve ever experienced from them is unavoidable, foresight dictates another course. Using husn adh-dhann concerning what the person did before the confirmed violation will not alleviate their guilt, it will not remove the necessity of restorative justice, it will not mitigate the terms of their punishment, and it will not restore their image. However, it might save your faith.