Throughout history the notion of truth has always been a shifting and a contested one. Truth most commonly refers to an ‘independent reality’; its opposite in common parlance is falsehood. Or truth can also signify ‘unconcealment’ or bringing something to the fore, which would otherwise be hidden. It is demonstrated in the oft use phrase of the Quran ‘to reveal the truth’.
As Muslims, in our metaphysical reality – either through our ontology, epistemology or sacred theology – truth is resident in the unitary Divine
ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْحَقُّ
Allah is the Truth (Q22:62),
This truth, we believe is transmitted through Divine revelation through the true Prophets. This truth is captured in Divine scriptures that guide us in our lived experience, and through the lived experience of the Prophet (SAW).
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ قَدْ جَاءَكُمُ الرَّسُولُ بِالْحَقِّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ فَآمِنُوا خَيْرًا لَّكُمْ ۚ
O mankind, the Messenger has indeed come to you with truth from your Lord (Q4: 170)
But this Divine revelation guides us to a path – the ways of which are open to interpretative traditions. Thus the Quran says:
وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَمُهَيْمِنًا عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَهُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ عَمَّا جَاءَكَ مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا ۚ
And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and an open way.
This verse points to an absolute truth and a relative interpretation of that truth – the open way that ensures that the Shari’ah remains alive to new challenges.
Throughout history this definition of truth has played out between an absolutist position and an interpretive or relative one; between a metaphysical reality and an empirical one, between truth revealed through scripture and an intuitive and inspirational truth that is pre-formed in our fitrah (pure human nature). Or as Kant argued moral law is a truth of reason – an innate ability of our logic.
Absolutists have held sway for many periods, and it is a danger we confront even today. We remember the Kharijites, responsible for the murder of Hazrat Ali on the basis that he sought arbitration. For them and for their successors who claim the Khilafat today, the absolute word of God cannot be arbitrated.
Our scholars have shown that they needn’t be such manichean dichotomies. Various ways of determining truth are both legitimate and necessary. The Quran itself uses various ways to point to the truth –both in its ontology and epistemology.
“What corresponds in the mind to what is outside it … the truth of a thing is the property of the being of each thing which has been established in it.”
But in interrogating truth we move from the ontological to the epistemological. We move from understanding the nature of being and God, to the sources and nature of our knowledge?
Of course we take it as a given, an a priori ontological assumption, about God as an existential and evident truth.
I will however focus on epistemic truths – the fundamental questions about our everyday confrontation with what is true in our lived experience? How do we make sense of that? How do we decide what is true and what is not?
- The first is that what we say or believe in corresponds to an external objective reality or state of affairs. It is our accurate representation or description of things. For example if I say there are 400 people in the mosque today it would reflect an accurate observation of a reality.
Thomas Aquinas summarised this as: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”.
Aristotle stated it in a much more complex way: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”.
In numerous places the Quran focuses our attention on such objective realities in our universe. Surah Ar-Rahman is an eloquent expression of this.
- The second quality of truth is that it fits into a system of coherence – wherein there is logical consistency, supportive ideas and statements based on mutual validation. It is not random or contradictory, but rather based on a preponderance of evidence. In other words, there is a unifying thread that validates the truth.
- There is also a view of truth that discounts transcendental truth and probably even scientific claims, but posits truth as a construction of social processes or social consensus. That truth is specific to time and place, history and culture and is constituted through a process of societal engagement, debate, changing mores and perceptions, and social experiences. They may even be informed by scientific progress. They are constructed through a dialectical process and through micro and macro power struggles in society. Prominent current examples are the debates around race, sexuality, gender.
- We are also aware of the Aristotelian view that truth arises from virtuous persons. This surprises us not if we follow the trajectory of the various Prophets sent by Allah.
- Michel Foucault, one of the most influential French philosophers saw any attempts to see truth as an “objective” quality as problematic. For him as well, truth was socially constructed and importantly for him it was itself a part of, or embedded within, a given power structure. Foucault’s view was that truth is something that shifts through various epochs throughout history. Foucault deconstructed how power was employed in society – significantly through the monopolisation of knowledge and truth claims.
Foucault and the post-modern project challenged the modernist, enlightenment notion of what we call the meta-narrative: creating the universal from the particular. He challenged the creation of a universal grand outlook and theories, from fragmented individual and local experiences. Thus in this view each individual can speak from a particular perspective informed by specific experiences, socialisation, culture and identity. Each one is affirmed in its validity.
- Søren Kierkegaard nuances the notion of truth – into objective and subjective truths. Objective truths are concerned with the facts of a person’s being (maths, science, and history), while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being. Objective truths do not necessarily shed any light on a person’s inner relationship to existence or ones experience.
This philosophical excursion is an attempt at making a very simple point, viz. there are various ‘regimes of truth’, thus my opening line that throughout history the notion of truth has always been a shifting and contested one. But these regimes of truth occur within a disciplined paradigm or philosophical framework, with which we may agree or disagree. Whether we agree or disagree, we acknowledge that they follow a systematic pattern of thought, reflection or values.
These ‘truths’ manifests in society in various ways.
- Another celebrated French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has opened up new vistas in our understanding of the world. Much of his work focuses on the “crisis in representation” – where, he argues, there is no longer any link between our sign systems or images and a central reality or meaning. In his discussion on simulation and simulacra – he argues that “in this post-modern culture dominated by TV, films, news media and the internet, the whole idea of a true or false copy of something has been destroyed: all we have are simulations of reality, which aren’t any more or less “real” than the reality they simulate” – in a sense they create they own reality.
Baudrillard proposes several phases of imagery, representation and simulation:
- the first phase is where the image is a reflection of a basic reality
- the second is where it masks and perverts a basic reality
- the third is that it masks the absence of a basic reality
- finally it bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum – where the image becomes the reality.
To illustrate the dissonance between Image and Reality, let me take an example from the world of marketing world. Levis is traditionally associated with jeans. Whenever the Levi logo was visible there was an automatic association with jeans. The cost of the jeans is made up of the cost of producing the jeans and the profit. In the current scenario, under the rubric of branding Levi the brand has become independent of the jean. As Naomi Klein point out in her book No Logo, the value of the brand is greater than the value of the product. A Levi branded t-shirt, which cost R10 to produce is sold at R200 – the surplus value being the brand value. This is a case where the image (or the brand) has superseded the reality (or the product).
Another obscene example is where actors, or models or sportsmen and women become famous because of a particular skill or attribute. Oftentimes their image rights are worth more than their salaries because the image trumps what they actually do. But this has taken on a perverse form in the example of one Paris Hilton (or the Kardashian) – who are famous not for any particular skills that they possesses – but they are famous for being famous for being famous. I hope you get the drift. It is smoke and mirrors.
The last phase proposed by Baudrillard represents the “death of the real” and with this there is a proliferation of myths, false objectivity and a lack of authenticity.
This radical theory has important ramifications of our view of the world – and the media which in effect is our window to this world. – not only does the media shape public opinion through a bias view of the world – but more importantly they create our meaning of reality through pure simulation – cinema, television, virtual reality games or even pure news.
This discursive journey brings me to the real point that I want to make today: and that is introduction of Donald Trump’s new lexicon to philosophy. These are the terms of alternate-facts, alternate-truths and a post-truth world. Let’s not forget the growing ‘fake-news’ industry. Of course Trump is not the first to do it. How can we ever forget Bush and Blair’s fake news about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass-destruction, which it is not an exaggeration to claim changed the face of the world. The international mainstream media (MSM) bought into this narrative; the narrative of power. But the Trump camp does not even attempt to camouflage the alternate truths, they simply lie. Some media remain complicit in propagating fake news.
But what we call the MSM has lost its influence as a point of reference; in the past they manipulated events, information and perceptions in the way they reported, did not report, or frame a story. Today with the democratisation of the media – particularly social media – anyone can trigger an outflow of fake news literally within minutes. This has frightening consequences – as it particularly challenges our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. It challenges our ability to distinguish between the image and the reality.
Besides the numbers at his inauguration, the Trump campaign came up with two stories to justify their block on Muslim refugees into the USA. Kelly-Anne Conway who is part of Trump’s team invoked the ‘Bowling Green massacre’ live on television, where allegedly Iraqi refugees massacred civilians in a city called Bowling Green in Warren County Kentucky. There was only one small problem with this story: no such massacres ever occurred, nor even a single killing. In a second incident Trump himself at a rally used Europe’s migration policy to explain a terror attack in Sweden. Small problem: no terror attack ever occurred in Sweden. These are just two examples of a post-truth world where statements do not conform to any external reality, nor is there any coherence to such statements. Images are plucked out of nowhere to create an alternate reality to support a particular position.
In the state where we have 24 hour news channels, tweets, FB posts and Instagram we have moved from fast news to instant news; fast thinking to instant thinking. This leaves little room for fact checking, truth verification or even reflection. We retweet and repost without any consciousness.
Such fake news also characterised Islamic history. God the Almighty says:
“O Believers! If an iniquitous person comes to you with any news,
Verify it and ascertain the truth,
Lest you harm people unwittingly,
And afterwards you become regretful for what you have done.”
In this verse from Sura Hujraat, which Imam Rashied Omar spoke about a few years ago, Allah commands us to be scrupulous in investigating any news that is brought to us, verify its authenticity, and the reliability of the source of the information. The import of the above verse, however, is general: no-one should rush into action on the basis of a piece of information that has not been verified. Such rash action invariably leads to committing an injustice against an individual or an entire community, and subsequent regret.
A number of Qur’anic commentators, including the famous ibn Kathir, claim that the specific historical context that this verse speaks to is a situation which took place in Madina in which a companion by the name of Walid ibn `Uqbah ibn Mu`ayt had been sent by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to collect zakat alms from the tribe of al-Mustalaq. When he returned Walid reported to the Prophet (pbuh) that the al-Mustalaq tribe was preparing to attack the Muslims with a large force. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was alarmed by this news and sent Khalid ibn Walid to repel the impending attack but wisely advised him to first verify the information before taking action.
Khalid arrived at his destination at night and sent out some of his soldiers to gather information. On their return, they refuted the original report and testified that the al-Mustalaq tribe were in fact not planning any attacks on the Muslims. On the contrary they were conscientious and peace-loving Muslims. Khalid was so astonished that he went to investigate the matter for himself and discovered that the original report had indeed been fabricated. He rushed back to the Prophet (pbuh) to inform him of the matter. It was in this context that the above verse was revealed commending the Prophet’s (pbuh) wise counsel.
One can just imagine the mayhem, injustice and remorse that might have ensued had the Prophet (pbuh) asked Khalid to wage a defensive attack on the basis of the original information. The information peddler is characterized as “iniquitous” in the above verse because the act of spreading rumours and unsubstantiated reports about people affecting the reputation of people constitutes a spiritual offence and thus incurs the displeasure of Allah.
Thus we have two challenges. The one is to deconstruct information that arrives. Secondly we have a duty to verity anything that we transmit. We may become unwitting purveyors of fake news.
The Prophet said “The complete believer may have any characteristic in his nature except treachery and lying.” A Muslim can be a coward or a miser but can never be a liar. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) was asked, “Can the believer be a coward?” He said, “Yes.” He was asked, “Can the believer be a miser?” He said, “Yes.” He was asked, “Can the believer be a liar?” He said, “No.”
I am also reminded of the famous words of Rumi (attributed to others as well) who said “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: At the first gate, ask yourself “Is is true?”At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?” At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
“The Truth has come and falsehood vanished. Surely falsehood is ever bound
to vanish.”— 17: 8.