“Confound not Truth with Falsehood.” ~Qur’an 2:42
“There is Truth and there is Truth of Convenience.” ~Sufi Saying
Let’s admit it, truth is a slippery topic. Gandhi lived by the Hindu dictum: “God is Truth.” Al Haqq, or The Truth, is one of the 99 Divine Names of God in Islam. We all know that truth is important. However, there are so many aspects to truth, and we don’t all agree on what truth is, although most of us recognize and abhor falsehood when we encounter it. If this seems contradictory, please read on.
The most straightforward form of truth is when someone is being questioned about some event that he or she experienced or witnessed. However, we all know how contradictory different accounts of the same event can be, with all witnesses claiming what they saw is “true.” And, in fact, it probably was true to their experience of the event, which most likely was complicated, many-faceted, and observed from a certain angle or perspective. We don’t all pay attention to the same details when we experience something. I brought this home to my middle school humanities class when I arranged for a colleague to play a prank on me (put a pie in my face!) in front of the class, and then asked the entire class to write their version of what happened. You would not believe the differences in the accounts, even though they all witnessed the same event and believed they were telling the truth. So, we could say, there is “truth of perspective.”
Another aspect of truth is that slippery habit we sometimes have of “withholding the truth.” We might do this intentionally or not. Is it falsehood? Depends on the motivation. If we are withholding the truth to protect someone from harm, it could be justified. However, the Qur’an instructs the believers to testify the truth, even if it means we might incriminate ourselves or a family member. “O you who believe! Stand our firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin and whether it be (against) rich or poor: For Allah can best protect both. Follow not the desires of your hearts, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” (Qur’an: 4:135) Yet, the US Constitution gives us protection against self-incrimination in the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights. And haven’t we all experienced situations where we felt it was best for all concerned that we just keep quiet about what we know, so as not to bring unnecessary harm to someone, when no harm is done by withholding the truth under the circumstances? These are all matters of judgement, and I believe that Allah judges our intentions.
Can someone lie about the future? I contend that it is not possible to lie about the future, since no one knows what will occur in the future. For example, when someone promises to do something and then doesn’t do it, is that a lie? Circumstances may change, obstacles intervene, etc. I can lie or deceive someone about my intention to do something in the future, but I can’t control all intervening circumstances.
It is certainly a worthy goal to work on leading a truthful and authentic life. The real test is, can we be truthful with ourselves? For when we lie to ourselves about our intentions or actions, that is when we are most certain to lie to others. This can become an unhealthy pattern of behavior, which I call “living a lie.” In my opinion, there is nothing more destructive to a person’s character and peace of mind than this form of falsehood.