Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
And when it is said to them, "Follow what God has revealed," they say, "Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing." What! Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided? (Chapter 2: Verse 170)
This verse examines a dangerous issue in the Muslim society; the issue of people following the traditions and habits of their forefathers, rather than the teachings of God and His prophet. Imitating or following customs is a natural instinct of humans from childhood. When a baby is born, the greatest source of learning and influence for his or her movement comes from observing others, especially mom and dad. A child does not know that his hands have the ability to clap unless he sees people clapping. Children mimic their parents in most of what they do. In fact, children who share a household with different generations will pick up some habits from the grandparents, some from the parents and other from their siblings. This directly applies to matters of faith and religion. A child may not spend much time with her father who is often out at work, but the child will take note when she sees grandpa and grandma get up to pray every time the call for prayer –Athan- sounds. She may often help the grandparents by pulling out the prayer rug as soon as she hears the Athan, and then stand by their side to imitate them praying. Having different generations in the same household is often a great blessing that benefits the children. A child will learn both worldly necessities required to earn a living, and divine values. God reminds us of this blessing in the following verse:
And it is God who has given you spouses from amongst yourselves and through them He has given you children and grandchildren and provided you with good things. How can they believe in falsehood and deny God’s blessings? (16:72)
So the matter of new generations imitating the traditions of the previous ones is a natural trait. When God advises us to follow what is revealed to the Messengers, He is in essence forbidding us from blindly following the traditions of our forefathers because their actions may have been influenced by negligence or tainted by old customs. For this reason, He Almighty invites us to detach from those traditions and adhere to what is revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). People’s actions often change with time, and are easily influenced by what is popular at the time. As for the heavenly curriculum, it is constant and guarded from change.
People often claim that they would rather follow that which their forefathers did because it is what is true and tested. We answer that had this been true, then everyone would be on the religion of Adam peace be upon him. God would not have had to repeatedly send Messengers and scriptures after He taught Adam faith. But we all know that heavenly scriptures were changed, abandoned and even lost with time. It is a proof that people neglected what they found their forefathers doing and even altered religion to match what they wanted to do at the time. Thus, their statement: “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing” is a lie and mere justification for wanting to follow their own whims and desires. This is further evident by the fact that, after childhood, each one of us wants to wear different clothes from our parents, listen to different music, and go to different social gatherings.
Allah uses these facts in His reply. He –Almighty- responds with “What! Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?” The response covers two aspects: the first is the aspect of intelligence and the second is the aspect of guidance. Let’s discuss them in detail.
In order to blindly follow someone, you would have to have complete trust in him or her. You also have to trust that this person has superior abilities and unquestionable insight. This is simply impossible between adult humans because we all have many abilities and many flaws. No one is superior to others in all aspects. In other words, if you blindly follow another person, you leave yourself open to their errors of judgment and lapses of insight. Allah alone has perfect wisdom, insight, knowledge and He alone is free from need; so, absolute obedience can only be to what is revealed from the heavens.
For these reasons, the issue of following traditions or blindly imitating a person in every action does not exist in Islam. Even if you believe a person is wiser than you, Allah asks you to think over this person’s actions before imitating him or her. In fact, Allah does not assign you any religious obligations and does not hold you accountable to any of your actions until you reach the age of maturity and puberty. Moreover, Allah does not assign any duty, nor holds a person responsible for any of his or her actions regardless of age if this person is mentally challenged or incompetent. Sound mind and intellectual maturity are prerequisites to religion. Why, you may ask? It is because Allah wants you to freely choose what you want to believe without compulsion or undue influence. Allah knows that if you reach faith through your intellect, then you will follow its path with love and confidence. If, on the other hand, you were forced into belief, or had someone else’s faith imposed on you, then you may develop resentment within your heart and look for the first opportunity to rebel.
Here it is often asked: why was the age of puberty specified? We answer that puberty is the time when a person gains the ability to reproduce and extend life to a new person. It is the time when we as individuals become ready to be fathers and mothers, and be independent from our own parents. It is the time when each person forms his or her identity, questions all his or her parents do, chooses the way to dress, eat, and his or her path in life. We see many family problems rooted in the fact that the teenage son or daughter want to do things differently than the parent.
Allah uses this fact to free us from the shackles of tradition. He invites you to use your intellect to find your own path in faith and religion. Allah presents you all the evidence in the Quran and addresses your mind and thoughts. You have the ability to personally find guidance and know your Creator. Now, you can move from being dependent on your father providing for you, to being connected with and dependant on your creator. He -Almighty- provides for you and your family, and He is best aware of the finest path and religion for your wellbeing in this world and the next. God says:
People, be mindful of your Lord and fear a day when no parent will avail their child, nor a child avail their parent in any way. God’s promise is true, so do not let the present life delude you, nor let the Deceiver delude you about God. (31:33)