Posted by: Dawud Israel | June 11, 2009

How Muslims Interpret Islam and Why-Revisited

Bismillah, alhamdulillah, wa salat wa salam ala Rasulullah

I wanted to re-visit this old post here. This is by no means a complete discussion and it should be understood this is not to demean the beliefs of Muslims, but merely to illuminate how and why we come to interact the way we do and how we can misconstrue our beliefs. Certain cognitive processes can cause harm and obscure the truth of our deen so it is important to be aware of these or else we end up short-changing our Islam. I’ve used a few examples but in reality, most of our interaction can be summarized and explained by these psychological phenomena. Feel free to google or research more since these are documented phenomena.

Primacy Effect: The tendency to believe and recall the first thing learned. For example: people will remember the first part of a lecture, the first impression you have of a Muslim. This is difficult to undo and it is problematic in that it dominates over everything else.

Perseverance Effect: When a person believes in something even after it has been proven to be completely false; the pattern where a false beliefs perseveres over a true belief. This means, even if you understand something is patently false and accept the fact it is false, you will still cling onto that initial false belief. In a Muslim context, even though we have had certain beliefs of ideas proven to us to be otherwise, we still cling to them. Combined with the Primacy Effect, then it makes things harder to remove.

Example: Doritos is haram, but even after someone shows you Doritos is halal, they say, “Oh well, you know, we shouldn’t eat them anyways!” (Ask yourself, what was the benefit of the fatwa?) or “There is no basis in Islam for Quran Khanis, but we’ll still do them since they are good.”

Peer Pressure (Social pressure): People disapproval as basis of believing or following haram or halal or forming a “religious opinion” (may lead to actually believing halal to be haram or vice versa).

Example: Someone shouts at you in the masjid that you are praying wrong or you are cornered by some MSA brothers asking why you don’t attend their halaqa and force you to attend (which might make you want to avoid these brothers all together!)

Enthymeme: Implicit means of persuasion where no argument is stated, but a bias statement is made and the listener has to justify it—very common, very effective and partially ties into social pressure. Used heavily in advertising, especially by placing women as sexual objects side-by-side with products such as cars, toothpaste, etc to imply one will gain sexual appeal by using these products.

Example: A great deal of hatred and prejudice is spread in our communities via this method. Someone says, “Sufis love to do bid’ah.” And the person around them, therefore, unconsciously think to themselves, ‘What do I have to believe in order for this comment to make sense?’ and then they reply saying, “Yeah, Sufis are goofy!” rather than protesting the bias judgment.

Ideology: System of ideas misrepresenting reality. It consists of three factors: 1) conceals some things, 2) glorifies others and 3) makes what it cannot explain seem unusual or attributable to chance; often in the interest of a powerful elite. Most commonly, you see this in certain bookstores or publishers for certain Islamic interpretations. Muslims are held back from reading books from other interpretations, as potentially dangerous, but in the end results in limiting Islamic Tarbiya (consider how many Muslims even read in the first place!).

Example: Saying, “Study all the evidence and decide for yourself,” but only showing selective parts so as to bias one’s judgment. Combine this with Primacy Effect and Perseverance Effect and people become heavily entrenched in their original views, thus strengthening their ideological views. When a Muslim discovers certain things which were censored or omitted, they either go deeper into their interpretation of Islam or revoke it and switch to a differing interpretation because they feel they were deceived and scholars were dishonest with them. Interpretations, although valid, become problematic when they become dogmatically ideological, because a believer feels confident they have the full picture of Islam, when they only have part of it. This leads to fragmentation of the community, resentment and fragmented understanding of the religion and in some cases, people leaving Islam all together because they feel its incomplete or not fulfilling certain needs (it does fulfill those needs, but they haven’t discovered it yet) similar to why Christians leave their religion.

Overconfidence barrier: When a person’s accuracy is low they are overconfident, but when their accuracy is high they are more likely to doubt themselves; the more you know the less confident you are.

Ex: Often you see a brother who has just taken his first Islamic class behave as if he knows everything, similarly with a person who knows very little with Islam. This arrogance is common among extreme Muslims. But with a scholar you see he is hesitant, careful and cautious. One can see how this can lead to increasing argumentation creating a sitution difficult to control.


I would introduce the possibility that by solely using the above, one could effectively control and destroy Islam. One can manipulate even the most well-intentioned of believers to commit these mistakes, and if this believer is in the circumstance of a leader many others can be misled, unknowlingly. We should not outrule the possibility Islam can be manipulated by humans but understand that ultimately Shaytan is the ones who is doing the manipulating to divide and undermine Islam and the Ummah by exploiting the psychological factors mentioned above. Thus, one solution is to seek Islamic knowledge, but also to ensure one cultivates and diversifies the sources of Islamic knowledge as well as, increased focus on akhlaaq.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, Ameen.

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