Can you remember a time in your childhood when you first realized that your perceptions of the world were not necessarily the same as everyone else’s, and not necessarily correct? One example from my own childhood involves my perception of the past. I had seen old shows on TV like Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy, or old news reels about World War II. My visual perception of what the past was like was based on these shows and other sources like old family photographs. All of these were in black-and-white. It was a revelation for me when one day I suddenly realized that color had not first come to exist sometime in the mid-twentieth century and that the world was not black-and-white in the past, but rather the media available simply were unable to record the color. It was a double revelation for me when I discovered that not every child had the same misconception that I did.
That was one of my earlier experiences that taught me that we do not all interpret the world identically to one another and that our perceptions at times do not match reality. A much later example of this came after adolescence. Even though I realized that men and women were different physically, I had been raised to believe that the differences between genders stopped there. I was taught that there was no basis for any different treatment between genders in terms of work, career, school, sports, or anything else. However, I saw that society didn’t fully uphold this teaching in its practices; boys shouldn’t come to school in skirts or play too often with baby dolls.
I gradually came to understand that the differences in gender extended to brain chemistry and hence also psychology, perception, mental processing, and even spirituality. In particular, I realized that there was merit behind Islamic teachings regarding interaction of the sexes. We now understand that males are more easily and quickly stimulated through visual means than women, and that words are a faster way to a woman’s heart than to a man’s, generally speaking. As simple as those two ideas may sound, many adolescents are at a stage of psychological development such that they fail to understand them well enough to realize the implications and act accordingly. An example: as a high school teacher, I regularly see girls dressing in a way that stimulates their male counterparts. Some of them do it on purpose to get a reaction, but many others are truthfully unaware that males may perceive their appearance through a different lens then how they see themselves. It takes time to develop the empathy and ability to comprehend the myriad ways that others may experience and perceive the world differently from us.
These different perceptions and experiences, whether tied to biology or something else, mean that we each have different strengths and weaknesses in the face of temptation. A case in point, the Catholic Church has recently reported results of a study indicating that there is a relationship between gender and what particular types of sin we are more likely to commit. The Catholic study focused on The Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath/anger, envy and pride. The exact origin of this Catholic list of the seven classes of sins that warrant hellfire is unclear, but they are mentioned in Dante’s Inferno, were written about by Pope Gregory I in 590 AD, and became relatively common in the fourteenth century as a theme of European religious art.
According to the report, based on a study of confessions carried out by Fr Roberto Busa, a 95-year-old Jesuit scholar, the top three confessed Deadly Sins for males are lust, gluttony, and sloth. For females, the top three are pride, envy and anger. Lust is a sin of sexual desire, gluttony a sin of excess particularly associated with food, and sloth is a sin of despairing of God’s mercy or losing hope as well as a sin of laziness or failing to work to achieve one’s potential. Pride is a sin of desiring or viewing oneself to be more important or attractive than others and is considered by Catholics (and others) as the most deadly of all sins, being the reason for Shaitan’s fall and the precursor of many other sins. Envy is the sin of resenting the good in others’ hands and desiring it for oneself, and anger is a sin of hostile emotion associated with loss of self-control and objectivity. The study does not assert that either gender is immune from the other sins, but merely that the strongest temptations and struggles are likely to be different.
The study results were released in the context of concern that fewer and fewer Catholics are going to confession. Pope Benedict said that, "We are losing the notion of sin. If people do not confess regularly, they risk slowing their spiritual rhythm."
Islamic theology holds a slightly different view about confession. Catholic doctrine holds that a priest is a necessary intermediary between a layperson and God. Shia Islam does uphold the concept of appealing to God through the means of someone closer to Him than oneself, but it does not put the intermediary as a barrier to the direct connection. Further, Islamic teachings suggest that it is often preferable not to advertise one’s sins in the form of public confession, as doing so may gradually make the commission of such sins seem more acceptable or ordinary to those who hear the confession. This is apparent enough to anyone who has watched TV long enough to see its influence on what is acceptable in society. Granted, Catholic confession is not public per se, but certain denominations of Protestant faith have taken it to that level and adopted public confession as a virtue.
All, however, seem to agree that a path of spiritual self-improvement, i.e. jihad e akbar, requires careful self-examination and acknowledgment of one’s sins to oneself and God. Pope Benedict was right at least to the extent that if we do not analyze our behavior for sinfulness, then we risk overlooking our sins, taking them too lightly, and going further away from the right path. A sin that is excused or overlooked as minor may open the door for greater and greater disease in the soul and ultimate loss. At a societal level, there does seem to be an alarming global pattern of losing the notion of sin or wrong. What a previous generation would find shocking may be in this generation seen as normal behavior.
Islam also holds the concept of mortal sins akin to the Seven Deadly Sins of Catholicism. The list, however, is not limited to only seven, although many of the long list of mortal sins in Islamic teachings are related to one another and could be classified into a fairly short list of overarching categories or clusters, just as the Seven Deadly Sins have under them many related diseases of the soul and so could be considered far more than seven. Ayatollah Sayed Abdul Husain Dastghaib Shirazi wrote a fantastic treatise on mortal sins called Greater Sins, including mention of such sins as shirk/polytheism, despair of God’s mercy, disregard of Allah’s punishment, murder, disobedience to parents, usury, fornication, drinking alcohol, lying or cheating, and many others. It is excellent and necessary reading for anyone seeking to engage in the Greater Jihad against self. An online English version is located at http://www.najaf.org/english/book/37/.
One point that was unclear from the BBC’s summary of the study is whether the variable of what sins people admit to, either to themselves or to a priest, is confounded with the variable of what sins they really commit. Regardless, several reflections can be made about this study and its context. One is that awareness of what constitutes sin and self-evaluation for any sign of sin or moral error is absolutely necessary. Second is that the paths to ruin are wide and numerous, while the straight path is a narrow, moderate one. Third, due consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of human beings includes understanding of differences and adapting one’s behavior to limit the trials and temptations of self and others as much as possible. This may include anything from observing hijab to avoiding places where alcohol is sold.
Finally, the above three points should lead us to develop a focus on our own shortcomings over judgment of others. To paraphrase Jesus (as), why should we obsess over the speck in our brother’s eye yet ignore the mote in our own? Or, as he also said, “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.” In conjunction, if we care for our brothers and sisters then we must not overlook our obligations to help them steer clear of those wide and numerous paths of ruin. For most of us, our duty is that we are our brothers’ keepers, but not their judges. Just as when we were children we gradually learned about how our perceptions may differ from others’ and from the truth, as we grow older we must expand and refine that knowledge to understand the differences between Jihad –e- akbar and irresponsible asceticism or selfishness, between recognizing one’s sins and accepting them or unwarrantedly relying on the forgiveness of Allah swt, between tolerance, forgiveness, or compassion and enabling or encouraging a sinner, and between enjoining good or forbidding evil and self righteousness or obdurate harshness.