New Age Islam
Sun Jun 04 2023, 12:38 PM

Spiritual Meditations ( 20 Oct 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Limitations of Binary Thought


By Tammy Swofford

October 19, 2012

The same love that binds us to some basic rules also frees us to be like Allama Iqbal. We are free to examine thought (Ijtihad). We are free to form a consensus (Ijma)

We are all familiar with binary thought. Issues come down to right or wrong, do or die, yes and no. “If it is Friday, it is fish for dinner” (Catholics). “If it is adultery, there must be stoning” (Taliban). “If my son brings home a low test score there will be a beating” (A father). We rarely explore our thoughts beyond the black and white of things. And because of it, we miss out on the greatest opportunities to bless others through the gift of our own humanity.

So it was refreshing to read Muhammad Iqbal’s Caravan of Verse (Saudi Aramco World, September/October 2012). Allama Iqbal was no ordinary binary thinker. We owe a debt of gratitude to this man for his pen dipped in an inkwell of grace. Let me quote a bit from the text of what is an excellent article.

“Iqbal’s writings frequently dwell on the past glories of Islamic civilisation, but this theme never prevented him from considering the wisdom and ideas of other cultures and societies. No other Muslim thinker was as familiar with western writers and philosophers as was he. Iqbal displayed a remarkably international perspective when delineating the literary constellations to whom he was personally indebted...”

But it is what is noted at the beginning of the article that is worthy of discussion today. The author, Gerald Zarr, has this to say, “Iqbal is quoted by everyone from the Taliban to feminists and democracy activists.”

Is that a bone stuck in my throat?

Ahhh, the Taliban! The last of the great binary thinkers! Their intellectual limitations can be summed up with one name: Malala. “If it is education for girls, there must be bombs and assassination attempts.” Rigid in their thinking, criminal in their intent, and completely incapable of entering the policy arena to provide vibrant community initiatives, they carry on with tenacity. They are good at identifying ‘evil’ and eradicating it. Beyond that, the real world is something that they know very little about.

The latest foolhardiness reminds me of a 1971 horror film titled, Willard. A social misfit befriends a colony of rats, and forms a special friendship with one rat whom he names Ben. Soon, he is teaching them simple commands, and they become useful to bring havoc on his enemies. They are simple binary thinkers, and needful for his own machinations of revenge. Ben, the lead rat, actually learns to read. This ends badly for his master when Ben takes it upon himself to read his master’s diary. But since Ben remains limited by binary thought, he will continue to do what binary thinkers do best: put the world in his own little box with little regard for the perspective and possible wisdom of others.

The Bible and the Qur’an both have aspects of binary thought. This is not necessarily bad, in that such things provide critical societal scaffolding or introduce universal concepts. Within my text, the Old Testament has aspects of binary thought. Rebellious children are to be stoned. Goodness! I would be childless at this point, if I had literally stoned my two sons when they pushed against my will! I am grateful for the grace of God. The abrogation of the text is found in the New Testament admonition, “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). The abrogation goes further with a counterbalancing command for fathers: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them..” (Ephesians 6:4).

The Qur’an also has binary commands known as Fardh Ayn and Fardh Kifaya (the mandatory individual duties, and collective societal duties). But escape clauses exist, which move beyond binary thought. The most common example is that of the duty to pray. The individual duty becomes a collective duty when a quorum exists to establish prayers at a designated location. Binary limitations are loosened further for women during their menstrual period. They may stay at home. For your community, fasting and the Hajj are also loosened from binary considerations for various reasons. The bottom line is that we are bequeathed by our Creator with more free will than we realise. The same love that binds us to some basic rules also frees us to be like Allama Iqbal. We are free to examine thought (ijtihad). We are free to form a consensus (ijma). We are do so many things. Our lives are meant to be full and an expression of our own unique creativity within a few common sense boundaries.

Several years ago, I was enjoying lunch with the scholar-in-residence of the Islamic Association of North Texas. We were discussing aspects of binary thought within the Qur’anic sciences. He related the story of a man at his mosque who ignored the call to prayer. When gently approached regarding his conduct, the man stated he had heard a hadith quoted, “Do not heed the call to prayer.” A smile broke across my face as happens when sharing an inside joke. The binary aspect of the hadith is in the second part, which states “when in a drunken state.” I still have fond memories of that day, as stories were shared regarding the difficulty in shepherding a few binary thinkers of the local flock. Unfortunately, with the Taliban it would be more akin to herding feral cats. It cannot be accomplished with reason alone. Therefore, they protect their binary imam.

Malala has the world’s attention and empathy. But it is very possible that she will never again enter the world as she knew it. The details remain vague. She is on a ventilator and moving her arms and legs. Hand grip is a primitive reflex. Leg movement may be mere decorticate posturing. Her spirit may remain imprisoned in her body until the time of her death. May God be merciful beyond our finite concepts of right and wrong. I trust Him with Malala’s life. We must not trust the Taliban. They have forgotten a healing concept that moves beyond binary thought: Primum non nocere.

Tammy Swofford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at