Taking Stock of our “Thinking” Abilities
Allah, when explaining the message revealed in the Quran, repeatedly challenges mankind to “think” and “think deeply”. One wonders how this is different from the “regular thinking” that we engage in on a day to day basis. Our thinking processes enable us to reach conclusions, make decisions, and solve problems constantly. However, a detailed study of the Quran reveals that these terms allude to a more rigorous form of thinking, which in today’s terms can be equated to “critical thinking”.
The difference between the two forms of thinking – regular thinking and critical thinking – is quite profound. For the purpose of our understanding, let’s consider one of the definitions provided by The Foundation for Critical Thinking: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.” It further states that “critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.
Quran advocates this level of “thinking” because, naturally, superficial thinking alone isn’t enough to cut through the beliefs and faiths that people have held onto for centuries. As “thinking deeply” allows people to question their internal biases and notice patterns that otherwise they may not be able to see, such thinking has allowed many over hundreds of years to understand Quran’s divine message and accordingly, to reconstruct their belief patterns and come into the fold of Islam.
Quranic verses expand on this form of “thinking” throughout by asking mankind to observe, seek knowledge, reflect, and ask questions and to ultimately connect the dots by using the faculties of human reason. Other similar terms used in the Quran in various contexts can best be translated as “to reason”, “reflect”, “ponder”, etc. Understandably so, a cursory and superficial study of the Quran (e.g. merely relying on translations) carries the risk of the divine message being misunderstood and misrepresented, something that unfortunately seems to be quite common today.
The following are some of the examples (parts of verses) where Allah has mentioned the use of reason and thinking in various contexts.
- Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think. (16:69)
- Do they not think deeply (in their own selves) about themselves (how Allah created them from nothing, and similarly He will resurrect them)?…….(30:8)
- …. so that their hearts (and minds) may thus use reason… [22:46]
- …in all this] there are messages/signs indeed for people who use their reason. [2:164]
- Those who remember Allah (always, and in prayers) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth…..(3:191)
- ……….. So relate the stories, perhaps they may reflect. (7:176)
- Do they not reflect? There is no madness in their companion (Muhammad). He is but a plain warner. (7:184)
- …. Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect. (59:21)
It is well known that critical thinking skills have to be learned. There is also abundant research highlighting that learning in today’s world is mostly information-oriented and based on providing ready-made answers rather than challenging people to think creatively and critically to help them understand issues better, decide intelligently, and resolve problems. Even in a technologically advanced country such as the US, a study (documented in a book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses) shows that a relatively high percentage of students demonstrated no significant improvement in their critical thinking and reasoning skills as they graduated and entered adult life.
Sadly enough, a considerable percentage of us probably fall in that category as well.
When you are not thinking critically, your understanding of the issues is usually muddled and vague. You are more prone to jump to conclusions based on limited information. Your decisions aren’t expected to be sound because you haven’t taken the time to consider alternatives and compare options. You are driven more by various biases and emotions, rather than being open minded and listen with an attentive ear. Such thinking habits unfortunately can lead you to make the wrong decisions (or no decisions at all) and sap away your problem solving abilities, thus increasing your life’s inventory of problems.
On the contrary, thinking critically can bring order to your thinking processes. When you force yourself to define the issues and problems clearly, you can select better approaches to resolve them. Gaining more knowledge can help you get a better view of the landscape that you are facing. Asking the right questions can help you disentangle from the problems faster. Generating alternatives and comparing options push you forward toward resolution of your problems. Applying sound logic and reason helps in bridging the gaps in your thinking. All in all, taking the needed time to go through the rigors of “thinking” can help you draw warranted conclusions, render accurate judgments and arrive at sound decisions.
Even if you don’t find solutions to your issues, you would have at least maximized your mind power to contribute toward your well being.
Finally, let’s not forget that if Allah challenged the non-believers to employ the faculties of human reason and thinking to help them get over their beliefs they have held for centuries – something that is not just sacrosanct but also one of the most difficult things to overcome – we too, then, can use those mental faculties to get over any of the problems that we face in our daily lives.