The Adab (Perfection of Character) of Disagreeing

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By Munther El-Alami from Boston
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the name of Allah (swt), The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful,

“When you’re involved in work for the sake of Allah, one of the greatest fitna (here best translated as temptation) you’ll experience is in dealing with the people you work with.”

I heard this maxim two years ago. It was said by a man who has served on multiple levels of leadership in local and national capacities and, at the time, I understood that it was true but I didn’t completely believe it. What I understood is that there will be interpersonal challenges that we will all be faced with as long as we work on something we truly care about. Since there is so much passion involved in this work, it’s only inevitable that there will come a time when those passions pull in two (seemingly) different directions.

Conceptually, that all made sense. But, in my mind, there was a unifying element that would prevent any of these disagreements from causing more harm than good: sincere intentions. At the time, I sincerely believed that as long as the people involved in the work had sincere intentions, there would never be an instance of “dividing disagreement.” That is, a group of individuals who work for the sake of Allah (swt) sincerely will always find themselves in a situation where they can work past disagreements that have the potential to divide the team/collective. While this idea(l) may sound true, it’s actually a very naive understanding of interpersonal communication and how to conduct yourself in a team.

At the heart of the matter is our intentions and emotions. We are constantly working for the sake of Allah (swt) and that work requires us to be sincere and dedicated. When we begin to channel that into organized work, we often find that we channel it based on what we expect is the best course/method based on our experiences or on our understanding of the sunnah. Since the vehicle that we attach our intentions/dedication to varies from person to person, it’s only natural that those vehicles take different routes in the pursuit of the same objective.

In most cases, as long as those different routes lead to the same objective, these differences only improve the work. Oftentimes, however, the routes can look drastically different from one another. Some routes are dead ends, others loop, and others lead to a completely different objective all together. Since we have strong feelings that our route (which was made out of sincerity) is the one that has the best chance of success, we often find ourselves advocating for its benefit over the others.

The success of our venture, however, is not dependent solely upon whether or not we reach our objective – it is also important to reach that objective with as many individuals and vehicles as possible. So, how do we communicate our methods in a manner that is building and not damaging? That is what I hope to provide some clarity about. Over the past few years, through serving on a national level and interacting with many of you in that capacity, I’ve seen some practices in this aspect that I was moved by. Of course, what I present is based on my limited understanding, and I ask Allah (swt) to give you the ability to seek out better advice from individuals who have been involved much longer that I have.

Call or Meet. Don’t Email. Don’t Text

I’ve seen (and been a part of) a trend of refuting arguments/opinions via email and text messaging. Usually the discussion begins in a very candid and matter-of-fact manner, but it’s usually only a matter of time before one party misreads or misinterprets the tone of the other. There are many challenges with this medium (writing, that is) including: taking time to perfect your message, ensuring every point in a message is discussed/refuted, incapability of expressing tone, etc. Compare this type of disagreement with the Facebook arguments that you see and you’ll find that the mediums are quite similar – and so are the outcomes: frustration on both sides with the hope that the other will reflect on your clear argument.

A simple call with the person you disagree with can save you time, effort, and energy. It will allow you both the opportunity to hear the sincerity in your voices and will allow you the space/time needed to come to an agreement, or come to an agreeable compromise. This is, of course, assuming that the difference in opinion is one that can be solved with such an approach. If it can’t, then involving a respected member of the community who knows both parties is necessary.

Personally Compromise and Communicate That

Disagreements are an expected part of our work, so naturally compromise should be a part of it too. Remember that the work we are involved in stems from a sincere intention and the reliance upon Allah (swt) to make the outcome of this effort one that pleases Him (swt) – whether that be its success or failure.

On a call with a dear brother (a title I give him because of this action), we were discussing the differences we had with the approach my team was taking. I stated our thought process clearly and he said: “I appreciate your judgement, albeit that I disagree with it. Jazakumullahukhairan…”. I immediately thanked him and made duaa for him and then asked Allah (swt) to give me the same strength of character.

What this brother communicated to me is that he was willing to put his personal reservations aside and trust in ours. He trusted that my intentions were aligned with his and was willing to abandon his route in favor of mine. As a leader, that caused me to stop and check my own intentions, along with that of my team.

By communicating that you are compromising your ideals for the sake of the effort, you build trust. While an aspect of the project may not be as successful as you imagine it to be, the trust developed in that single interaction is life-long, Allah willing.

Allow People to Take the Longer Route

Having been exposed to some of the best mentors in the country (yes, I stand by that statement), I’ve noticed a trend of projecting and allowing failure to happen. Especially when dealing with youth, who often have a black and white understanding of outcomes, it’s acceptable to invest time and money into a project we are excited about that is destined (in your eyes) for failure. This is because the time and money that you are investing is not for the success of a project, it’s for the sake of Allah (swt) and to build our youth as the future of Islam in America.

Many of the best lessons that we’ve each learned in our work were only learned through failure. Many of the best relationships we have are born from moments of weakness and the support that was offered then. Similarly, some of the causes that we, old or young, pursue with complete sincerity may end in failure – and those are the best opportunities for lessons. While our first instinct is always to steer others in a different direction when we see them veering off our defined route, give others the support to explore their own paths – even if it appears to lead to a dead end. Your support might be what causes that individual to join you on your path after completely exploring their own.

These are only 3 pieces of advice for myself and for you, written by someone who’s only been involved in this work for a handful of years. If there is anything above that leads to harm, then it is from myself, my lack of knowledge, and lack of experience. If there is anything that leads to good, then it is from what I’ve learned from my elders, mentors, parents, and teachers. May Allah (swt) shower them with mercy and His love, ameen.

We ask Allah (swt) to send peace and blessings upon our beloved messenger.

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