In my first year of studying social work, one of my professors said something I thought was quite profound. It was about the power of asking the right questions. In the field of social work and therapy, she said, we rarely seek to give our clients direct advice. Rather, we seek to empower our clients to make their own decisions by asking them the right questions.
Asking a question (not just any question – I mean, the right question) is not an easy skill to develop. It requires training, and unparalleled listening skills. You need to know the person sitting in front of you well enough to understand what motivates him or her, what his or her past and present struggles and anxieties are, what goals he or she wants to achieve. That’s why therapy is often a long-term set up. It takes time to know these things.
Many years ago I read a statement of Prophet Muhammad (saw) that has stuck with me: “Verily, the only cure for ignorance is to ask questions.”
This statement was made because there was a man who had been wounded in time of the prophet, and his wound was bandaged. He entered into a state of ritual impurity so was ordered by the people around him to make ghusl or take a bath. When he did so, the water entered his wound and he died.
When the Messenger (saw) heard this news, he said, “Why did they not ask if they did not know? Verily, the only cure for ignorance is to ask questions. It would have been enough for him to perform dry ablution (tayyamum), or to use a small amount, or to tie a bandage around his head.”
Pronouncing a judgment or opinion based on no solid knowledge or evidence can be deadly. So we are told to ask when we do not know the answer to something: “So ask the people of the message if you do not know” (21:7).
Sometimes we plunge forward, blinders in place, not quite caring whether what we say, do, or believe is right or wrong. We never stop to ask the important questions, so we often trample on the rights of others and violently plough through our own God-given dignity.
We come from a rich history of people who asked powerful, important questions – and a powerful question is the seed from which knowledge grows. The companions of the Prophet actually used to be happy when a Bedouin would come and ask questions of Prophet Muhammad (saw). These Bedouins would ask the frank, open questions that the companions would shy away from asking.
Prophet Muhammad (saw) also used questions to teach people by engaging their minds or drawing parallels between two things.
The Prophet (saw) once asked his companions, “What would be the situation of someone who has a river at his door and every day, five times a day, he comes out and he takes a bath in that river? At the end of the day would he have any dirt on himself?’ They responded, ‘There would be no dirt on him, O messenger of God.” Then the Prophet said, “Similarly there are the five prayers, cleansing the person in this way.”
His questions painted vivid imagery and gave his companions room to explore their own thoughts before being given the answer. It expanded their scope of understanding. And there are many more similar examples like this in the prophet’s Sunnah.
Coming full circle back to my original statement that social work and therapy is all about asking the right questions – I’m reminded that Prophet Muhammad (saw) also used questions to determine the state of the person in front of him. Look at this absolutely awe-inspiring hadith:
Abu Hurairah (ra) narrates: While we were sitting with the Prophet a man came and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I am doomed!” The prophet replied, “What happened?” The man said, “I had intercourse with my wife when I was fasting (in Ramadan).” The Messenger of Allah (saw) said, “Are you able to free a slave?” The man said, “No.” He said, “Are you able to fast for two consecutive months?” The man said, “No.” He said, “Can you feed sixty poor people?” The man said, “No.”
Then the Prophet (saw) remained silent for a while, and whilst we were like that, a large vessel of dates was brought to the Prophet (saw), and he said, “Where is the one who was asking?” The man said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take these and give them in charity.” The man said, “Is there anyone more poor than me, O Messenger of Allah? For there is no household between the two mountains (of Madina) that is poorer than my household.” The Messenger of Allah (saw) smiled until his pre-molar teeth could be seen. Then he said, “Feed it to your family.”
This man who committed a serious sin came to the Prophet to seek his help, and instead of being punished or severely scolded, he actually left that gathering with food for his family! The Prophet knew how to ask questions in order to ascertain what kind of kaffara (compensation) this person would have to take on because of his sin.
Instead of issuing a blanket statement, he took the time to delve into the man’s physical and financial capacity and dealt with him according to his findings. And the results we see – the mercy, the compassion, the acceptance – are the products of asking before judging or helping.
The power of a right question cannot be overstated. Ask the right questions, to the right people, at the right times, and the world of knowledge will open up at your feet. But listen, your questions shouldn’t be laden with an arrogant kind of doubt – you know the kinds of questions I’m talking about. Don’t be an Internet-troll-questioner who continuously plays ‘devil’s advocate’ or speaks just to hear the sound of his or her own voice.
Asking is important. And in turn, we should also know what it means to really answer questions properly, and come to terms with the responsibility and the liability of giving out potentially false information. Just because someone asks us something, doesn’t mean we can or should respond.
I recently heard a scholar say, “Knowing when to say ‘I don’t know’ is half of knowledge.”
A man once came to Imam Malik (one of the most knowledgeable scholars in history) from a very far distance and he asked him 40 questions. Imam Malik only answered four of them and for the rest of the 36 questions he replied, “I don’t know.”
In our social media obsessed world we’ve lost the ability to connect with others by asking the right questions. We sadly cannot differentiate between a good question and an entertaining or exposé-type question.
We are on the earth to worship, learn, and grow until we reach the edge of the unseen and cross over it. At the basic level of everything, before we charge forward into the unknown, or make plans for our lives, we have to start out by asking the questions that we know are important – questions we ask ourselves and others, questions we seek from God, questions that make us good and compassionate humans.