Verifying What One Hears

Musa Kâzım GÜLÇÜR

From time immemorial it has been the case that blind acceptance of information broadcast among the community has resulted in numerous misunderstandings, which often lead to unrest or other serious situations. For this reason, the Qur’an tells us what the proper conduct of a believer is in such matters:

O you who believe! If some transgressor brings you news (that requires taking action), verify it carefully (before you believe and act upon it), lest you harm a people in ignorance and then become regretful for what you have done.” (Hujurat 49:6)

Some scholars believe that this verse was revealed because of an incident involving Walid ibn Ukba ibn Abu Muayt. There is a tradition which recounts the incident as follows. The Prophet sent Walid ibn Ukba to collect the zakat from some people of the Banu Mustaliq clan who had accepted Islam. Walid went there, but because he was afraid, he turned back; he returned to the Prophet and told him that they had refused to pay zakat and threatened to kill him.

When the Prophet heard this, he prepared an army to go and quell the supposed rebellion. But before they left, the chief of the Banu Mustaliq, Harith ibn Dirar, came to the Prophet with a delegation and said, “We swear before God, we did not refuse to pay zakat, nor threaten to kill the one who came to collect it; we did not even see Walid! We are still believers and ready to give our zakat.” [Bayhaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, 9/54–5; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 4/279; Haythami, Majma al-Zawaid, 7/108–111]

The event that prompted this revelation makes it clear the general meaning of this verse, with no room for speculation or interpretation. Believers must be very careful that they act on correct knowledge, particularly in matters that require responsibility, and which are concerned with social relationships. If a person is known to be someone who does wrong and is not honest, then one must be very careful about believing what they say. Accepting anything and everything one hears as being true without checking first will, as the verse tells us, unavoidably cause embarrassing or potentially dangerous blunders.

But what exactly is a fasiq, the type of person mentioned in the verse? In the early age of Islam, this word denoted someone who still considered himself a believer, but yet engaged in behaviour that was forbidden by Islam, overstepping the bounds of what is ethically allowable. As defined by Raghib al-Isfahani, it is “someone who believes but does not follow some of the mandates (of religion).” In other words, for these purposes, a fasiq is someone who is not entirely to be trusted because they are known to do unethical or immoral things. Taking at face value any important information that is brought by such a person can lead to a huge disaster. For this reason God tells us that when we hear something very important, we must take into consideration who is telling us this information before immediately believing it; if the bearer of the news is not a completely trustworthy person, then, on principle, the news should be verified before the information is acted upon or before we believe ill of another person or group because of what has been reported.

As this Qur’anic verse shows, a person who is not entirely trustworthy should not be a witness. Indeed, in Islamic law scholars consider the testimony of a fasiq invalid, and the evidence of such a person is thus inadmissible in court. As Imam Qurtubi said, “The testimony of a fasiq is not valid; for information is like a valuable object which should not be entrusted to just anyone. And (unethical behaviour) makes a person unqualified to be entrusted with the truth.” [Qurtubi, Al-Jamiu li-Ahqam al-Qur ’an, 16/316] It should be noted, however, that one is regarded as trustworthy until such a transgression as lying, slander, or the committing of any prohibited action has been established.

It goes without saying that common sense and balance must be applied; these strictures are for important information, meaning matters when another person’s liberty or privacy is in question. (The word naba in the verse is not applied to simple daily information; its meaning is crucial information.) People must not go to the other extreme and think it necessary to investigate every single titbit heard from another person they may not know well, nor try to determine if that person is a fasiq before accepting anything they have said. The necessity for verification pertains to serious situations, not day-today minor issues.

In short, the verse is stating that generally, when dealing with a person who is known for immorality, we should be careful to check out any serious stories they tell us before forming opinions or taking actions based only on their word. People who are trustworthy, on the other hand, should be believed, since they carry out their duties and are mindful of their responsibilities. Becoming suspicious of news from normal, trustworthy people, doubting everything, or trying to find proof damages the bonds of trust and leads to paranoia. This is an obstacle to personal mental health and the stability of the community.

Translated by Jessica ÖZALP

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