Some truths are absolute, universal and without exception, some are general and some relative. For example, God’s existence with His essence, attributes, Names and works are absolute and universal truths; so are principles of faith such as Divine justice with its dimensions of forgiveness, munificence, mercy and punishing. Occurrences that can be examined by sciences like physics and chemistry are general truths for which exceptions can be found. On the other hand, truths showing differences in color, tone and character dependent on time, individuals, or conditions as opposed to seriousness, discipline, gentleness and tolerance, are relative truths. The number of relative truths in our lives is much greater than the number of absolute and universal truths.
If we evaluate knowledge as ‘an accumulation of information obtained as a result of a person’s effort, merits, and capabilities’, then man will come to this world without knowing anything and will encounter an endless universe where innumerable creatures come together and countless events unfold. Everything in the .universe outside of man’s influence is in its proper place and complete order, harmony and balance reign. We can say that all the spiritual and scientific principles underlying the unshakable order, harmony and indestructible balance of this vast and complex universe, of which the human body comprises a miniature, are the sum of truth or truths.
On the other hand, sciences like physics, chemistry and biology-regardless of whether or not they are accurate-examine the universe and universal relationships with their own peculiar principles. The data from these sciences are taken up by philosophers and thinkers and data from human relations is used by sociologists and psychologists. In contrast, through their basic tenets of faith, monotheistic religions like Islam see the universe and man as an expression of the same truth in all relationships, principles of life and particulars of existence. In this situation Divine books like the Qur’an are an expression of, in fact, comprise, themselves, the truth that provides universal harmony, balance and order or the totality of truth. Throughout history philosophers, sociologists and psychologists who have determined or discovered truths have differed among themselves, which has lead to the emergence of different schools of thought. In contrast, all Prophets and the Divine books they brought have espoused the same thing. Consequently, we can say that all the principles that bring about the universe in all kinds of events and relationships and provide universal harmony, order and balance and Divine Scripture, which contains the sum of those principles, are the ‘truth itself’. Thinking and drawing conclusions according to these in view of all things and events can be called ‘thinking straight’.
Man is equipped with many capabilities, while being at the same time caught in a web of very mixed emotions and endless needs. He has faculties like intelligence that surround and burden him with sorrows from the past and fear and anxiety for the future, a conscience that reminds him of his human responsibility and the essential purpose of his creation, and a will that continuously brings him to choose between alternatives. Just as man can put his intelligence, conscience and will under the command of truth, he can also surrender them to the power of his desires, needs, interests and ambitions. The characteristics inherited at birth also play an important role in his thought. The sum of these characteristics is called man’s nature or character.
A person under the influence of self-interest, desire, and moral weaknesses, and who has not yet found the right direction, especially one motivated by lower emotions such as jealousy, revenge, hatred and hostility, cannot easily think straight. Thus, one of the most important conditions for thinking straight is spiritual and moral training, of which the most reliable for all times and peoples, is by the guidance of the Qur’an.
The elements making up a person’s character such as desire, inclination, sensibility and need, always influence his intentions. When the intention is not to reach the truth but to realize a personal goal the individual has set for himself, then that individual may not hesitate to distort data or even twist the truth. In order to strive after the truth and think straight, a person must have a sound intention which depends upon a trained and disciplined character.
Sent to this world with a nature that is ready to be trained, in fact, must be trained, man encounters two main resources for filling the transparent and empty mental cup that he is born with. The first is an environment composed of the immediate family circle, the cultural and social milieu (this includes the modern media) and schooling. The second is Divine inspiration. From the moment of birth man naturally falls under the influence of his immediate family and surroundings. In time this influence leads to the development in the individual mind of many notions, modes of thinking, patterns of value and understanding. At school these are changed, reinforced or renewed by what is learned there.
During this process many divinely inspired thoughts come depending on the individual’s effort and mental concentration. These thoughts can come, like many scientific discoveries, in the form of dreams or as inspiration to the heart. Divinely inspired thoughts, even if they are always essentially true, take on colour and form (like water taking the colour and shape of the bowl) according to the person’s mental make-up, spiritual degree, and emotional sensitivity. Thus, the mental framework that has been shaped by the family, the environment, by formal or informal training, and by received modes of perception and patterns of value, can be regarded as the individual’s measures.
At every stage in the process of developing the mental make-up, that is, at the different stages of the life-long educational process, man thinks and evaluates differently. This is normal. We can see changing thoughts and values as the normal consequence of a constantly developing mental make-up. What is abnormal is if a person falls into the trap of thinking that every stage is the final one, then promotes his thoughts at that stage as absolutely true. This is one of the gravest mistakes that people make. The presentation of his thoughts as the absolute truth by one who is constantly in a learning phase, and in whose mind many false thought patterns and measurements have accumulated, is harmful. It can prevent him from learning new ideas, from avoiding repeating his mistakes, from reaching the truth, and from questioning and investigation at a later stage. God forbid, it can even lead him to stray or become a despot ‘for the sake of knowledge’.
In view of this, the path to thinking straight passes through sound criteria and, as a result, a healthy perspective. This can be achieved first by doubt, that is, by doubting every- thing except absolute truths taken from their source. Then, by mental and spiritual purification. The mind must be cleared of mistakes and biases and the heart of sin and lower emotions. Beyond that, signs of enlightenment that will take one to the truth and to thinking straight should be followed. Unless these stages are accomplished, unless sound criteria and consequently a healthy point of view are obtained, it doesn’t matter how much a person knows or works; he can’t reach the truth.
After a sound character, sincere intention and correct point of view, the most important factor for thinking straight is accurate knowledge. For a person with a healthy intention and perspective, accurate knowledge is the essential sound material with which to think straight, just as, for making bread the right flour in the right amount is essential material. Without this, it’s not possible to think straight. Unless, there is revelation as for the Prophets-but that is no longer possible. Otherwise Divine inspiration can only manifest in a very pure heart. Even with inspiration, the range is very limited; in most aspects of life there is a need for accurate knowledge.
Another factor for thinking straight is being able to escape the restrictions brought about by epoch and circumstances. While doing this, current time and conditions must be taken into consideration so that one is not crushed by them.
Another important factor in thinking straight is thinking about subject-matter or seeking truths that are not tied to time and conditions. This will save a person from thinking in fragments and allow for holistic thinking, which is very important.
However important it is to be free from the restrictions of time and conditions in order to reach truths not limited by them, it is also vitally important to take advantage of time and conditions. Just as the number of truths in our lives that are absolute (i.e. true for everyone all the time and under all conditions) is small, the number of relative truths (those that change according to people, time and conditions) is great. Thus, especially in finding truths in this second group, knowing and diagnosing accurately the times, conditions, and people involved, is one of the most important paths to thinking straight. Regarding the subject of Islam, which is a religion that addresses every century, every level, every character and temperament, and every condition, it is vitally important to know well all the different epochs, social levels, characters and temperaments in order not to fall into error. Otherwise, in the name of Islam the door to catastrophe can open and-God forbid-the danger of man falling within the bounds of reference of the following verses can arise:
Say: ‘Shall we tell you of those who lose most in respect of their deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they think that they are doing well (what they are doing.’ (Kahf: 103-104)