Constructive Criticism

Sheikh `Abd al-Karîm Bakkâr
There is an intrinsic relationship between criticism and constructive achievement. It is a relationship of great importance, with each prospering on account of the other in a clear and tangible way. We do not realize how much these two processes depend upon one another until we try to dispense with one of them.

We can see how the Qur’ân was revealed gradually over a relatively long stretch of time, from the time that the Prophet (peace be upon him) received the first revelation from his Lord up to near the time of his death. We observe that most of the revelations were somehow connected with the activities of Muslim society, guiding and directing its course, showing it the proper way. The revelation also continually reminded the people of the ultimate goal of their efforts. Whenever a wrong decision was made or a mistake came about on account of human failings, the Qur’ân would inform the Muslims about that error, regardless of the status of the one who made the mistake and regardless of whether the matter being criticized related to an individual action or a matter of general concern.

Allah says: “Allah forgive thee (O Muhammad)! Why did you grant them leave before those who told the truth were clear to you and you came to know who the liars were?” [Surah al-Tawbah: 43]

Allah says: “And when you said to him to whom Allah had shown favor and to whom you had shown favor: ‘Keep your wife to yourself and be careful of (your duty to) Allah’; and you concealed in your soul what Allah would bring to light, and you feared men, and Allah had a greater right that you should fear Him.” [Sûrah al-Ahzâb: 37]

In the Sunnah, we find many cases where the actions of various Companions were criticized. They were always directed to what was better more correct. The Muslims understood and appreciated the underlying reason for this. They, themselves, practiced criticism in a number of ways, using constructive criticism as a means to keep their community free from misguidance and error.

If we ask ourselves what is it that gives legitimacy to criticism and makes it so indispensable to a decent life, we would be able to answer in a number of ways.

First of all, when we plan to do something or try to distinguish some activity that we are engaged in, we find that we are unable to ascertain everything that we need to determine for sure that our decisions are the best ones. There will always be facts that allude us and something missing from our understanding of the complete picture. We will never have all the relevant information at our disposal. Therefore, whatever plans we make or decisions we take, we need to recognize that they are subject to revision and correction. They can be improved upon. We would not be objective in our approach if we refused to acknowledge this.

Consider a doctor giving a diagnosis to a patient. The first thing he does is to prescribe a tentative treatment to see what happens. After looking at the results of that treatment, he is then able to give a final diagnosis and prescribe a more appropriate cure. His experience in medicine has shown him that this is the right way to approach to finding the right treatment, since all the information needed to make a correct diagnosis is not available at the beginning. Planning and foresight are needed to deal most effectively with the insufficient information that is at hand.

We have to realize in our efforts that we have to make decisions on the basis of our best judgments. Those judgments might show themselves to be the right ones. They might also prove to be false. Many of those who shy away from criticism fail to recognize this or at least do not wish to acknowledge it. If they had a deep understanding of the true nature of their decisions, they would welcome criticism, recognizing that it is another whole sphere of awareness for recognizing the shortcomings in their decisions.

Another reason criticism is needed is due the inevitable differences that exist between theory and implementation. When we are theorizing in the planning stages, we have a free hand. As the old saying goes: “Dreams don’t cost a thing.”

It is a different story altogether when it comes down to implementation. This is where our shortcomings become all too clear. We have to operate under a host of time constraints and physical limitations. Our abilities are limited as is our capacity to work. We are limited in the relationships we can forge with others. All of this adds distance to the gap between what we want to achieve from our efforts and what we are actually achieving.

Often, when we fail to reach the goals we planned for, it is not because we are unable to reach them, but rather because of a difference of opinion or because of disagreements in the work team. Constructive criticism is an important part of what it takes to overcome such hurdles.

A third reason criticism is so important is the fact that mistakes occur during the implementation of our efforts. Circumstances change. Often, what it takes to keep an enterprise running is quite different than what it takes to first get it off the ground. We find that the problems facing our society today where reform is most needed are often of this nature. The Muslim world lags behind primarily because of the shortcomings of its people in carrying out their obligations and because of their engaging in sinful behavior. Both of these problems arise from a deficiency in proper practice.

Likewise, we see that developments in society have made modern life very different than that of our forefathers. This has placed us in a state of intellectual crisis and causes a lot of confusion, because we are no sufficiently equipped to deal with all the changes and make informed decisions. Again, we need to be able to give and accept constructive criticism.
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