To Criticize or Not to Criticize in Public?

Muslims are so much under pressure since the colonial, neo-colonial era and in today’s Islamophobic environment that the historic open deliberation about our scholars and our institutions is no longer a common sight in the ummah, unfortunately.

Each time someone does dare to publicly question policies or processes of an organization, people jump in with a strong advice to do it privately. This has not been the case throughout the Muslim history where public affairs, public officials and scholarly opinions were always discussed publicly and preserved in our history. Ilm Asmaur Rijal is just one such example when a whole new discipline of criticism was created and preserved for the common good of authenticating the Prophetic sayings, Sallallahu Alaihe wa sallam

Some criticism does infact defeat itself when it is characterized by harshness and rudeness. This is perhaps what has led many of us to overemphasize praising good works while turning a blind eye to serious problems in our leadership and institutions.

However, while there is an Adab (Islamic etiquette) of criticism, the absence of this etiquette should not be a reason to criticize someone raising an objection or pointing out some mistakes. It is the duty of the Muslim leadership to encourage both criticism as well as its Adab without using the lack of etiquette to discourage critical feedback itself. It's better to have poorly presented criticism than no feedback at all. This is exactly how the pious caliphs and imams have done throughout the history.

Criticism doesn't harm unity. Instead, it makes it stronger because Muslims then work together to solve problems for the benefit of the community.

Public Criticism versus Private Criticism

Some Muslims take a position that public criticism is harmful for Muslim unity. 

Muslims number over 1.6 billion people. We cannot sit in one living room together to sort out our issues in private. Matters regarding public leaders were always discussed publicly in the golden era of Islam. All Islamic scholars agree that the sin of Gheebah (backbiting) does not cover public officials, Muslim leaders, public institutions or public affairs. 

There is of course a distinction between criticism on an individual level and on a collective level. On an individual level, according to Islamic teachings, it is preferred to give advice to a person in private, without humiliating him or her. This allows a person to avoid embarrassment while gaining from the criticism. In the long run, this helps him or her become a better person, thus strengthening the community.

However, when it comes to public figures and institutions, the need for privacy is optional but not necessary. This is indicated in numerous examples from Islamic history.

In the Quran, Allah has “publicly” corrected the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, on a few occasions, including the interaction of the Prophet with the blind companion, Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum; the issue of adoption of Zaid bin Harith by the Prophet; the dilemma of Prophet’s marriage to Zainab bint Jahsh; and the instruction in the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud to Prophet to deal with his companions gently and consult them.

As the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and his companions were getting ready for the Battle of Badr, the Prophet indicated that he had chosen a location for the battle according to his own judgment. Upon hearing this, a polite enthusiastic companion asked him: “Has Allah inspired you to choose this spot or is it an opinion and strategy of war and a matter of consultation?”

The Prophet, peace be upon him, replied, “It is strategy of war and a matter of consultation.” The companion said, “This place is not good.” The Prophet asked: “Where is the best place?” And the man pointed to the suggested a place, which the Prophet approved and agreed to move army to. This was a public interaction, where the companion questioned the effectiveness of the Prophet’s war strategy in a respectful manner.

Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Khalifa of Islam, was subject to constructive criticism on a number of occasions, including during one of his Friday sermons. He did not react with anger at this public questioning of his actions. Rather, he explained himself. And when someone tried to stop the critical person, he interfered saying that if that Muslim did not criticize Umar he is not good for the Muslims and if Umar didn't listen to his criticism he was not good for the Ummah.

On another occasion Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said: “May Allah bless him who shows me my faults.” He also said: “The Muslim decline will materialize the moment they abandon the duty of checking their leaders and when their leaders show reluctance to receive and welcome such criticism.”

If someone like Umar could be publicly criticized, who are our present-day leaders and institutions to become upset when we do the same in questioning their actions?

Tips on Offering Constructive Criticism

  • Renew your intention and ensure it is for the betterment of community.
  • Keep your criticisms constructive.
  • Be polite and civil.
  • Be positive and solution-oriented.
  • Be consistent in your argument.
  • Be willing to accept criticism and feedback in return.

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