The Call-Out Culture: An Islamic Perspective

The Call-Out Culture: An Islamic Perspective on

Jonathan Brown

Anyone who follows social media or even cable news has wittingly or unwittingly come across what is called, for better or for worse, ‘Call-Out Culture,’ namely the phenomenon of representatives of particular points of view, often social justice or anti-racism advocates, drawing public attention to what they view a discriminatory, oppressive or insensitive words or conduct. Calling-Out has become increasingly frequent, whether in academia, politics, the entertainment industry or social and civic engagement. It is certainly not inherently tied to the internet or social media, but the rise of Twitter, blogsites and – most importantly – the ubiquitous smart-phone recording at any and all public or even private events has made holding people publically accountable both much more possible and much easier. As one can imagine, there have been those who have criticized Call-Out Culture for stifling free speech (especially on college and university campuses), while its defenders point to its effectiveness in identifying patently unacceptable discrimination and then effecting changes in attitudes towards it.

At the level of society overall, I think that Calling-Out has proven extremely valuable. People disagree on how power, wealth and privilege should be distributed in a society, but it’s evident from history that the status-quo holders of power, wealth and privilege will never entertain any discussion of this crucial question unless they are forced to. Calling-Out uses media and technology to hold particular individuals in a social edifice responsible for values or policies that the edifice (at least notionally) espouses. 

Calling-Out is equally helpful in universities, provided that those doing it recognize that their voices are ultimately only some of many in a forum designed for discussion, not compulsion. As a professor myself, I deeply value the university as a place where all ideas can be voiced, heard, discussed and evaluated regardless of how unpopular or offensive they are. I support allowing any person or organization to speak on campus, provided that the forum and framing are appropriate (for example, some types of events, like a commencement address, convey approval of a speaker, while others include them merely as an effort to represent the range of viewpoints on an issue).

But this is not what I wanted to write about here. An epiphenomenon of Call-Out Culture is the problem of accurately verifying what is being called-out. This might seem more procedural than dramatic, but it is, I think, a more dramatic problem that it might seem. All reasonable people would agree with the premise that one should verify a report or a piece of news before issuing a reaction to it, and that one should properly understand something before judging it. This has always been a fundamental maxim of thought for Muslim scholars:

Passing judgment on a thing is a function of understanding it.

الحُكم على الشيء فرع عن تصوُّره.

It’s tempting to think of such concerns as quaint in our digital age, in which people’s writings are easily accessible and recordings of their speeches or interviews are usually mere clicks away. But if we actually reflect on how we receive and react to information, our ideal of a world in which information moves frictionlessly and is ingested instantaneously quickly falls apart.  How often do we pass judgment on someone or something said based on a video that we’re sent but that we don’t actually watch?  How often do we watch part of video but not the whole thing?  I’ve had personal experience with this. A few months ago I was attacked by Alt-Right and conservative media over a talk I gave on slavery and Islam. One person who attacked me was the then-triumphant (now disgraced) Milo Yiannopoulos, who posted on his Facebook that I had called slaves “walking venture capital” (actually, I had said that, in the Ottoman Empire, slaves had been used as investment capital, i.e., someone who buy a slave who was a good carpenter, then send him off to find work, taking a portion of his earnings while he worked to buy his freedom). One night when I couldn't fall asleep I looked through his attack on me, which had 12k likes, 5.7 shares and 1.4k comments. I skimmed all the comments, the vast majority of which were just expletive-laced hate spew. But two of the people commenting said that they had actually listened to the whole talk and objected that I hadn’t said any of the things I was accused of. Two out of 1.4k comments.

And then, of course, there is the problem of context: how often are we sent a video or a quote from someone without the surrounding context – context that might totally explain it or neutralize any concern? Our own president, admittedly not an exemplum of anything approaching ordinary care in communications, did this with London’s major Sadiq Khan. Khan had told the public that there would be an increased police presence in the streets of London following the horrific attack on London Bridge and that “there was no reason to be alarmed” by this; Trump immediately ‘called him out’ for suggesting that terrorism left “no reason to be alarmed.”

Here it’s instructive to remind ourselves how seriously Muslim scholars took the transfer and verification of claims and reports. In the late 800s CE the chief judge of Egypt, Bakkār bin Qutayba (d. 884), who was a Hanafi, heard about the criticisms of Abū Ḥanīfa made by Imam al-Shāfiʿī and recorded in the book of one of al-Shāfiʿī’s students in Egypt, al-Muzanī. Instead of merely reacting to this and writing a rebuttal, Bakkār sent two trustworthy court notaries to sit with al-Muzanī and hear him read his entire book to them, instructing them to inquire whenever it came up, ‘Did you hear al-Shāfiʿī say what is written in this book?’ When the two notaries had returned to Bakkār, he said, “Only now does it seem right to us to say, ‘al-Shāfiʿī said…’,” and he began writing his rebuttal.1

For many centuries, in fact, Muslim scholars did not trust any information that was transmitted in written form without a chain of live, person-to-person transmission of the information alongside the written material. Abū Dāwūd al-Sijistānī (d. 889), author of the famous Sunan, notes before providing one Hadith, “I found [this Hadith] in my written notes from Shaybān (a Hadith transmitter), but I had not heard it directly from him. So our trustworthy friend Abū Bakr narrated it to us, saying: Shaybān narrated to us [in person]… etc.”2

Not only did Muslim scholars require in-person transmission to verify written material for what they were including in books, well into the 1100s most required this for verifying the provenance of books. For example, the Musnad (a massive collection of some 27,000 Hadiths) of Imam Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855) comes down to us via the transmission from him by his son ʿAbdallāh – meaning that his father read the entire book to his son, or that the son read the entire book out loud to his father, or some mixture of both.  The son then transmitted it to a scholar named al-Qaṭīʿī (d. 979) in the same way. But the copy of the Musnad that al-Qaṭīʿī had read in person with his teacher was damaged in a flood, and he lost some volumes. He had a replacement copy, but the fact that he had not read those volumes of that copy out to his teacher meant that he was severely criticized for inaccuracy in his transmission. Later scholars such as al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) even saw this as possibly being the door by which some extremely unreliable Hadiths has been included in the Musnad.3

This was not just some act. By the 1300s some Muslim scholars were voicing real concern over the integrity of manuscript transmission and authorial attribution. In an age before the printing press (at least outside of East Asia), new copies of books had to be made by, well, copying them out by hand. If an influential copy, which would later by the basis for many other copies, happened to include some error or (God forbid) intentional alteration, this could have a serious impact on the textual integrity of the book in question. Writing in the late 1300’s, the North African Mālikī jurist al-Maqqarī (d. 1358) wrote that scholars in his day had stopped relying on books that could not reliably be traced back to their authors via person-to-person transmission because numerous books of Mālikī law that had been transmitted by written copies only were filling up with scribal errors and numerous opinions written in the marginal commentaries (ḥāshiya) of manuscripts had been lazily attributed to the original author of the book as it had been copied and re-copied. Not only that, but sometimes anomalous or bizarre opinions had been introduced into the text and attributed to the original author.4

It's important to note that, in the cases of Abū Dāwūd’s Sunan and the Musnad of Ibn Ḥanbal, the scholars in question could have argued that they did, in fact, have reliable written records of what was being transmitted. But their scholarly culture did not permit that. Written material may well be reliable, but it cannot be trusted without verifying that it can actually be traced back to the alleged writer or source. 

This actually raises interesting questions about how we know things were written or said by the people they are attributed to. When we go to a bookstore and pick up a book written by a certain author, how do we really know that that particular person wrote it? We actually have no idea; we rely on the assumption that authors or alleged authors would take legal action if their names were being misappropriated. Of course, if someone claiming to be an author (ahem, lots of celebrities) has the cooperation of a ghost writer and their publisher, then the reading public has no way of knowing who actually wrote the book they’re reading. With software making it more and more possible to clone people’s unique voices and tones, we may soon find that we cannot trust that a recording like Mitt Romney’s 47% comment or Trump’s ‘grab ’em’ remarks was actually said by the voice we seem to recognize so well.

The rigorous verification of claims made or information passed along has always been a hallmark of the Islamic tradition. The Quran itself orders Muslims to “seek clarification” when an unreliable person brings you a report (Quran 49:6), asking opponents to “bring your proof, if indeed you are among the truthful” (Quran 2:111). The mantra of the Hadith tradition was Ibn al-Mubārak’s (d. 797) famous saying, “The chain of transmission (isnād) is part of the religion; if not for the chain of transmission, whoever wanted could say whatever they wanted.”5  This doesn't mean that Muslim scholars understood that you have to verify claims before reacting to them or that you have to understand things before judging them. Of course they knew that… we all know that. What this means is that they were obsessive, as a matter of both principle and practice, about verifying claims or attributions even when it would have been very easy for them to proceed on a comfortable assumption that things were as they seemed. I urge you (as I remind myself) to keep this in mind the next time you’re tempted to react to “what so-and-so said” without hearing it yourself, to voice your outrage over some clip someone sent you but which you did not watch at all or watch in full, or to pass judgement on something someone said without considering its context.

1. Ibn Ḥajar, Rafʿ al-iṣr ʿan quḍāt miṣr, ʿAlī Muḥammad ʿUmar (Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī, 1988),105.
2. Sunan of Abū Dāwūd: kitāb al-diyāt, bāb diyāt al-aʿḍā’.
3. Al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī, Tārīkh Baghdād (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1997), 4:293-94; Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī, Mīzān al-iʿtidāl, ed. ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Bijāwī (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyya, n.d.), 1:511-12.
4. Muḥammad Ibn Maryam al-Tilimsānī, al-Bustān fī dhikr al-ʿulamā’ wa ala-awliyā’ bi-Tilimsān, ed. ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Būbāya (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2014), 385.
5. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: muqaddima, bāb fī anna al-isnād min al-dīn.

By Jonathan Brown , 17 Jul 2017

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