Of prejudice


By Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Of all the negative qualities of man, prejudice is the worst. It is such a bad attribute that it overshadows and ruins all his good qualities and actions. A prejudiced person may not admit it, but his behavior clearly indicates that he lacks the fortitude of balance and justice, which are the best of virtues. Once he steps into an erroneous position, he cannot come out of it due to his deep-rooted prejudice. His prejudice does not allow him to heed anything that is against it. Even if he is on the right path, he does not benefit from it, nor does he promote it, because he does not want others to become aware of their faults, or benefit from any rectitude.

Prejudice keeps a man from a lot of good deeds. It often happens that a man knows that a certain deed is advantageous, but hindered by his bias, he avoids it and knowingly shuns good, and remains stagnant in his error.

We would like to discuss a little about religious prejudice, but first we shall talk about the harms that prejudice inflicts upon our culture and society in general.

By his very nature, man is born a social being. He cannot fulfill all his needs by himself. He always needs supporters and helpers who can be enticed only with friendship and love. But, due to his blinkers, a prejudiced man remains detached from useful people, and he is not inclined toward anyone’s friendship, or love, except of those who share his opinions and beliefs.

As per the call of wisdom and the law of nature, it seems prudent that in cultural and social matters one should follow things that are of greater benefit, comfort, astuteness and respectability, but a narrow-minded person is deprived of these blessings. There are plenty of great skills and areas of knowledge that one should endeavor to acquire, but man’s predisposition stops him from achieving excellence in any of them. He remains ignorant of all material blessings that proceed from new research and knowledge. The power of his wisdom and intellect fails him, and he does not appreciate anything except whatever is in his dogmatic mind. He is reduced to a beast that is not capable of learning anything new except whatever it naturally knows.

There are many communities of people who, due to their tunnel vision, have declined from the highest levels of their manners and mores, education and craftsmanship, wisdom and intellect, culture and sophistication, dignity and glory, wealth and riches to the lowest ditches of humiliation. On the other hand, there are communities that, owing to their liberal outlook, have learned a lot of good things from everywhere and everyone and have risen from their lowest plains of existence to the highest summits of material well-being.

I have a sad distrust about the brethren of my nation that they too are suffering from the abominable vice of prejudice. For this reason, they are incapable of profiting from any good, and they cannot project themselves as a respectable community. They are damned in the plight of humiliation, ignorance and incompetence. I wish that they would come out of their miserable state and start benefiting from knowledge and opulence and achieve the highest level of education and skills.

A serious problem with us Muslims is that blinded by our passion for a good, which is actually a mistake, we often consider prejudice a boon. A man steeped in his religious bias looks down upon the people of other religions. He also tends to reject the knowledge and sciences that the people of his community lack. We consider such a man very learned and mature in religion, but such a view is fallacious and, in fact, it has destroyed Muslims.

We believe that our religion and religious sciences, and the world and worldly sciences are different entities. It is not wise to allow our restricted religious views to prevent us from acquiring the knowledge of material sciences and worldly skills.

We sadly foster the idea that learning worldly sciences makes our religious faith suspect, because the knowledge of such subjects adversely impacts its very morality and essence. It is unfortunate that Muslims consider their enlightened and solid religion so weak that the progress of material sciences might make its edifice crumble. On the contrary, Islam is such a steadfast religion that the more the science evolves, the better its truthfulness will become established.

To be well grounded in religious matters is different, and indeed a great quality of the man of faith, but a confounded view of the world is something that can only harm religious beliefs. One who is completely unbiased and mature in his religion is the real friend of his faith. Such a person propagates the virtues of his religion. He demonstrates its goodness by clear proofs and convincing arguments. With a cool head, he listens to opposite views, and he himself is firm in their rectification and manages to persuade others to correct themselves, as well.

A prejudiced person is but an ignorant friend of his religion. He harms his faith because of his naiveté. He badly stains its honor. Instead of positively advocating its good and inviting people to it, he causes detriment to his faith. He often becomes known to be ill-mannered, arrogant, astringent and unkind, and his rigid behavior fully contradicts this verse of the Holy Qur’an: O, Prophet, if you had been rude (in speech) and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. (3:159)

A religiously biased person does not like to hear the quibbles and objections of those of his own faith, nor does he want those views to become known to others. He consciously determines that the views with which he does not agree will remain unexplored and unanswered. Instead, in his benightedness, he gives the whole world the impression that his religion is threatened by rejections and questions of opposite forces that might cause it to completely disintegrate. All such tendencies do not proceed from any positive approach to religion, but rather they emanate from a desire to dominate and win a battle of biases.

In short, prejudice, be it religious or of worldly kind, gives birth to innumerable vices.

To be contemptuous and arrogant and to humiliate others, except those of his own kind of views, is the chief character of the predisposed person. The demand of his behavioral principles is that he must isolate himself from all, except a few of his own type, but he cannot do so. He has to meet all kinds of people, and unwillingly, express some respect toward them and show that he needs them. In so doing, he develops in himself elements of hypocrisy, falsehood, betrayal, guile and craftiness.

There is hardly any community in the world that has achieved success, great endowments and happiness by itself. One community has always benefited from the other. An opinionated person is unlucky. He never makes any progress in knowledge. He does not learn new crafts and skills. He remains imperceptive of the real world. He does not see the wonders of nature. He often loses respect, wealth and affluence, and gradually, becomes humiliated in his own society.

He becomes like a beast that stays in the herd, but does not know what his fellow animals are doing. He is deaf to the songs of the nightingale and the dove. He does not see what the baya weaver is weaving and what the fly is picking. He only grazes grass from a heap of rubbish, but does not know what the garden is for, why the flower blooms, what the narcissus looks like and what the grapevine is all about.

The greatest problem with prejudice is that unless a man gets rid of it, he learns nothing new. In him, there is no trace of a proper tutelage and politeness, or culture and humanitarianism. As long as he keeps the blinkers on, he is in a pathetic state. Our religion has no room for prejudice. To mislead and destroy man, the greatest trick of Satan is to instill in our hearts prejudice with a religious flavor. He presents to us this devil of darkness as the angel of light.

Therefore, my sincere submission to all our brethren is that our God is beneficent and just. He is the real lover of truth. He knows the secrets of our hearts. He appreciates our intentions. We must be well grounded in our religion and eschew prejudice, and educate ourselves for the good of our coming generations and humanity at large. All the people around the world are our brethren. We have a natural obligation to share true love with all, without any decimation, and be honest in our social transactions with them. We must promote true friendship with them and be their well-wishers in all sincerity, and we must follow this covenant unconditionally.

Translated and adapted from the Urdu by Mohammad Saulat Abbas, KAU, Jeddah