Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.
Last night I tried to give some food to a homeless man after we had broken our fast following sunset. The man said thanks, but didn't take it and continued to ask passers-by for money. I wondered to myself why a homeless person wouldn't want free food. Was he really not homeless? Was he doing drugs? Then I realized the only person who can answer the question is him. So I asked him.
Most of us are probably guilty of being negatively judgmental at some point in our lives. When we see people acting in a certain way that we don't understand, it becomes easier for us to lash out in astonished horror rather than put in the effort to understand why they might be doing what they are doing. We become so offended that they would act in a way that challenges any of our ideals, that the only response we can come up with is one of anger, ridicule or condescension. It's really easy to assume the worst and doing so tends to bring out the worst within us.
We as individuals give a certain amount of value to personal ideals that we have set up for ourselves to live by. When we are judgmental, we basically are pitting something or someone against one of these ideals to see how they compare. At times when someone acts contrary to an ideal that we have set for ourselves, we evaluate their action via our ideal. As such, it isn't always that we have some kind of animosity or issue with that person as an individual, but rather we are looking at this person from a generalized standpoint that their behavior doesn't agree with our ideal. You are doing something that doesn't fit into the way that I think things should be done, and I need to make a judgment call as to whether or not I am ok with this. This has both its positives and negatives.
I can be positive in my judgmentalness because it helps me reinforce my own personal values. I have set a certain standard for myself and via this process I can begin to truly understand how that standard factors in my life and if in fact it holds the worth that I claim it holds. It's not just about me saying or thinking something where I see you do something wrong from my perspective. But if I praise you or compliment you, then this is me being judgmental also. "I like your make-up", "this food tastes great", or even saying simply "Good Job" are all judgments, even if they are nice.
However, in pursuit of this reaffirmation of our own values, it becomes problematic if we push it to the extent that we are no longer open to receiving the values or critiques of anyone else. When I begin to make claims that my perspective is the only perspective, in simple terms this is really bad -- but it's really worse for me than anyone else. If I get to a point where I rely solely on my own perspectives, I have the potential to become complacent and passive in pursuit of knowledge. If I begin to think that I am always right, how will I grow? What would be my motivation to learn more if I've already made a determination that not only am I "good", but I am also better than you? It puts us in a place where the development of our character and personality becomes so stagnant, because we are all the while seeking to elevate ourselves by denigrating those around us. This breeds arrogance, which breeds prejudice in all of its forms, which in turn leads to hatred. What diminishes it is learning about the experiences of others. Try talking to someone before assuming. You'll learn a lot.
Hamdun al-Qassar, a Muslim scholar from the earlier generations of Islam, said, "If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves."
When I asked him why he didn't want the food, he said that he has no place to keep it. He had four sandwiches in a plastic bag that would stay good for a couple of days and taking more food right now would just be excess. Why would he take something knowing that he might not be able to eat it? Then it would just go to waste. He then asked God to bless me and I, in turn, asked God to bless him for teaching me to not assume.
My good friend Yusef Ramelize is taking the learning experience one step further. Each year he tries to raise awareness of and funding for homelessness issues in New York City through a campaign that he calls Homeless for One Week by literally going homeless for a week himself. This year he'll be spending most of his nights in Grand Central Station, where many people find refuge in the late hours of evening after the working crowd has gone back to their homes. Yusef is a kind and compassionate man and I would argue that the time that he has spent living the experience of the "other", in this case someone who is homeless, has helped to shape the remarkable man that he is.
My experiential knowledge is limited and if I see the world only through eyes that trust what they have seen, I lose out on so much. How can I know what its like to be homeless if it's something that I am not? How can I know what it's like to be a certain race, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or sexuality and all of the challenges that come with each respectively if I am not of those things? I can easily know -- I just have to want to.