I paused in the dim light, still seated on the floor where I was praying. The room was near-darkness, in the hour before sunrise. My room-mate Belle had sleepily asked the question from where she lay on her bed:
“What do you say, when you pray?”
A Muslim in the post-9/11 world that has any regular interface with westerners, would have faced this situation at least once. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of heretofore complacent Muslims suddenly found themselves requiring the skills of expert communicators, in a world suddenly curious.
Suddenly finding that understanding is not achieved by simply answering the questions.
Communication is in the heart and mind
Many people are under the mistaken assumption that if you simply answered questions truthfully and factually, and the other party has no defects in intelligence, this is enough.
This is only true in cases where the factual question itself is sincerely asked, for its own sake.
But the thing is, most people have no interest whatsoever in facts (by the way: also why scientists have so much difficulty communicating with the public). Consequently, when they ask a factual question, it is actually a means to ask for an entirely different personal need to be fulfilled.
I learned this the hard way, growing up INTJ in a super subtle Asian culture, and through work experience. For example, when a manager asks you for ‘more information’ even though there’s more than enough to justify an action, it may not at all be about having a certain amount of data that is yet to be gathered. No.
You could be asked, what does this mean? But the actual question might be, I’m afraid it means that the person I spoke with last week was right, and I want you to assure me otherwise.
But you cannot possibly know that. It is unique to the individual – unique to his concerns, his personality, his baggage, and past experience. Yet, you have no choice but to give the correct answer. Preferably at the first try.
And that is why, sometimes I don’t answer questions – even when I know the answer.
Because I do not know your need.
The necessity to master theory of mind
You see, even assuming the question was sincere, and of a genuine curiosity, the answer cannot just be phrased as you want.
You must deliver the answer using terms and language and references that the other person will understand and appreciate.
My networks straddle east and west, and so I have had ample opportunity to reflect on this. Plus, my place of work keeps sending us to communication courses.
Consider the answer “I live with my parents”. This is never offered with qualifications in an oriental conversation, as the connotation is almost always neutral or even positive. But it is always given with lengthy explanation or at least defiance, in an occidental one.
In either case, it is a factual answer – literally the same answer. The person answering in both cases may even be motivated by identical reasons. So, what accounts for the difference? What drives the modification of the answer?
It is the mindset of the questioner. Not the questioned.
10 years in a nutshell.
A decade ago, a lot of otherwise religious and observant people suddenly realised, they only knew the answers to the questions they were being asked, from a Muslim’s perspective. It is how we learned them.
Laypeople – or even scholars – had not really bothered to break answers down, so that they can be re-told with different words. Let alone for a different, non-Muslim mindset. Because being all similar to each other, they had no need to talk about their stuff the hard way. And after all, no one but themselves had ever been interested before.
And that’s not considering those who were only loosely religious – the ones who mainly phoned it in during theology class, and who only dimly remember the textbook, going by a sense of instinctive right and wrong, and by ‘feeling their way’. Yet they are also asked for factual, precise answers, as if they had been studious!
And as if more facts and greater precision will serve to assuage an unfulfilled and unexpressed communication need.
All of this came rushing to the fore in that mere second or two as I considered my answer.
Fortunately, my room-mate’s curiosity was guileless and sincerely curious. She carries no wounds against the religious or against Muslims, despite being neither herself. It came across in her voice. So I could focus on the question itself.
I could simply literally recite what I say. I could translate everything that I say in prayer. If context is required, I could explain the basic theology in order for the prayer to be appreciated.
None of these options are helpful in the least, despite being factual, correct and accurate. She asked what, but she couldn’t really be interested in what.
In the darkness and calm of early morning, I remembered that communication is not about the question. It is about the questioner. It is about what they must feel at the end of the answer.
I decided that more likely, Belle wanted to know what, so she could understand why.
So I explained the Chapter of Opening, without which the prayer is not complete. I explained that I believe in a day at the ending of the universe, when we will all be gathered. And on that day safety can only be found with God. So I pray to acknowledge His mercy and authority over everything, and ask Him to show me how to live in such a way, that I would be safe on that day.
Belle’s quiet voice came over, That’s really beautiful.
And I was satisfied with my answer. Because indeed, it is.
Do you aim to be called ‘religious’? Are you sure?
I reflected on this exchange long afterward. It made me think about how strangely inconsistent we are: we invent words to describe certain concepts, but then disregard those meanings in common usage.
In my country these days there’s such an overt religious rigidity that is the result of a dysfunctional religious conservatism. A significant number of the core demographic are curiously absorbed in doing more, ever more, obscure rituals and tasks and things, to be ‘more religious’. Somehow, the (more useful and practical to mankind) options of becoming excellent in the basics, or understanding more deeply – like, which things are the right things for where and when – don’t appeal.
How then, would you ever get better at taking questions, if you’re only absorbed in yourself? How would you ever learn what other people need? I think it is borderline selfish, in a world crying for communication.
But I cannot help but notice something, when you read about the highest religious role models of any of the major religions. No one ever referred to them as ‘religious’. Even though they clearly had to be.
No. They are remembered as being things like extraordinarily kind, or patient, or forgiving and giving. Peaceful, serene, and causes serenity in others. Or extremely just, incorruptible, fearless or persistent with the truth. They solved the problems of people.
Yes, at the same time they were also role models for the ritual and discipline parts of their religions. But, no one remembers them for being ‘religious’.
I guess it’s like praising an artist’s ‘technique’. If you look at it literally, it should be no bad thing. But, it is also a way of saying, you can’t find anything more valuable than that to praise.
Why is there no ‘religious left’?
As I reminisced on that morning in the Maldives, thinking about language, I reflect as well on the incessant news cycle of our era. Most especially the American one, which fascinates everyone in the same way as we cannot look away from a derailed train. Even though we might ourselves be riding a train that is itself about to be derailed.
The narrative from Anglophone media would invariably refer to the rigidly conservative side as the ‘religious right’, if in any way it claims the trappings of a religion. This is the case whether it’s speaking about their own countries, or news of conflicts, uprisings, and rebellions abroad.
But, in many countries, the side struggling against this ‘religious right’ are themselves motivated by religion – often the same one. Many times, actually that is the side that is truer to what an honest practice of the religion demands, compared to the side that is called by everyone as the ‘religious’ one!
And yet, we do not call them the ‘religious left’. Even when they are, even when they claim it, and even when they meet the objective definition more than the other side.
Is it any wonder that so little communication happens, when we are unable to use the very words of our own language honestly?
And aren’t even aware that this is a symptom that we’re carrying something in our minds, that needs healing?