Overcoming implicit bias with Surat Sad

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Every human being has the unavoidable tendency to construct biases in their mind. This process is natural because the world is simply too complex to conceive without making some mental generalizations. Nevertheless, the Quran’s miraculous language and penetrating insight provides us with some important lessons about the existence of these biases and how to overcome them.

Sad is a letter in Arabic that is pronounced by resting the front of the tongue against the bottom of the front teeth and raising the rest of the body of the tongue to allow only a small passage of air between the top of the mouth and the tongue. It belongs to a set of letters that are characterized by a whistling sound. Those letters are Sad (ص), Seen (س), and Zay (ز). They share in common that the sound is modulated by the tongue and the air passes between the front upper and lower teeth (thus the whistling sound).

Those features are significant in communicating the meaning each letter represent. Deep letters in the throat communicate deep meanings related to the inner selves of individuals, letters modulated by the tongue communicate an intermediary meaning representing where the inner self is edging toward interacting with or expressing itself to the outside world, and letters modulated by the lips represent an outward looking attitude. The whistling letters here represent the intermediary stage where the inner self expresses itself to the outside world with different grades according to each letter phonetic.

Sad, which is pronounced like a heavy ‘s’ in English, is modulated by a narrowing of the tongue at the top of the mouth and it represents a resistance of full disclosure. On the other hand, lhe letter Seen, which is like a light ‘s’ in English, is pronounced by opening the air channel further and it represent a request or a quest for an answer. Adding the letter Seen to the front of any verb in Arabic changes the verb to being requested, which is consistent with the meaning the letter Seen adds. For example كتب is to write استكب with an added Seen is to ask someone to write.

Sad is, in fact, the name of a chapter in the Quran. In the chronological order od revelation, it comes after Surat al-Qamar. Surat al-Qamar is the last of three chapters revealed successively that teaches how to deal with illnesses of the heart. Surat Sad comes to distinguish between two subjective sides of an individual, one is a disease in the heart that needs to be cured, the other is a natural bias. The letter Sad here represents the human tendency to safeguard full disclosure of their true motives. It also represents being moved by inner subconscious motivations.

Whereas we can work on cleansing our illnesses in the heart, natural biases are part of who we are. There is simply too much information in the world for humans to process all of it, so mental stereotypes and generalizations must be constructed, for better or worse. The best we can do is to acknowledge them when we realize them and mitigate them as much as we can.

Allah starts the chapter by addressing Sad in the context of the most dangerous disease in heart, kufr or unbelief:

ص ۚ وَالْقُرْآنِ ذِي الذِّكْرِ بَلِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي عِزَّةٍ وَشِقَاقٍ

Sad. By the Quran full of reminders. Nay, those who disbelieve are in pride and conflict.

Surat Sad 38:1-2

In these verses, Sad is representative of the arrogance of unbelief and opposition to the truth, a direct result of a human being’s pure selfishness . However, the chapter also points out that people can resist the message of Islam due to their natural or implicit biases of which they are not aware. In this case, the believers have to be patient in the path of calling others to the truth, hoping that they can overcome those biases:

اصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ وَاذْكُرْ عَبْدَنَا دَاوُودَ ذَا الْأَيْدِ ۖ إِنَّهُ أَوَّابٌ

Be patient over what they say and remember Our servant David, endowed with strength. Verily, he was penitent.

Surat Sad 38:17

The chapter then provides examples of natural biases with examples from the best of mankind, the Prophets. The highlight of all those stories is that each Prophet immediately corrected his behavior or judgement once he realized he had erred because of his implicit bias.

Bias of sympathy

The first example is in the story with Prophet David (ṣ) when he was surprised by two disputing individuals; the fact that he was caught off guard shows that it becomes more likely to incline towards a natural bias when one has less time to think about it. The bias here is looking at a situation superficially with a view towards compassion. People tend to incline towards compassion and, indeed, it is a great virtue but it must be balanced by justice.

Allah said:

وَهَلْ أَتَاكَ نَبَأُ الْخَصْمِ إِذْ تَسَوَّرُوا الْمِحْرَابَ إِذْ دَخَلُوا عَلَىٰ دَاوُودَ فَفَزِعَ مِنْهُمْ ۖ قَالُوا لَا تَخَفْ ۖ خَصْمَانِ بَغَىٰ بَعْضُنَا عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَنَا بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا تُشْطِطْ وَاهْدِنَا إِلَىٰ سَوَاءِ الصِّرَاطِ

Has there come to you news of the disputants when they climbed the wall into his prayer chamber? When they entered to find David, he was alarmed by them. They said, ‘Fear not! We are two disputants and one has transgressed against the other, so judge between us in truth, do not violate it, and guide us to the right path. 

Surat Sad 38:21-22

The dispute was between a rich man and a poor man, so David naturally judged in favor of the poor man since, as a Prophet, he would incline to mercy. However, he realized later that his judgement was hasty and influenced by his implicit bias. The poor man had actually been at fault against the rich man:

وَظَنَّ دَاوُودُ أَنَّمَا فَتَنَّاهُ فَاسْتَغْفَرَ رَبَّهُ وَخَرَّ رَاكِعًا وَأَنَابَ

David suspected that We had put him to trial, so he sought forgiveness from his Lord, fell down in bowing, and repented.

Surat Sad 38:24

Everyone can be misled by their natural biases, even the Prophets themselves, which means the believers must always be self-introspective and willing to correct their mistakes. Only the Creator, who knows us better than we know ourselves, can provide us with the prophetic guidance to unpack the sometimes misleading generalizations we hold in our minds:

أَمْ نَجْعَلُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ كَالْمُفْسِدِينَ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَمْ نَجْعَلُ الْمُتَّقِينَ كَالْفُجَّارِ كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِّيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

Or shall We make those who believe and do righteous deeds like those who cause corruption on earth? Or shall We make the righteous like the wicked? It is a blessed Book revealed to you that you may contemplate its verses and that those who take lessons will be reminded.

Surat Sad 38:28-29

Bias of overindulgence in what is lawful

The next example comes from the Prophet Solomon in which his usual hobby of petting horses distracted him to the extent he missed his prayers, a clear instance of a perfectly natural and healthy bias leading to undesirable results. Petting horses and being kind to them is a joyful act which Allah loves, but like all lawful things it must be enjoyed in moderation:

إِذْ عُرِضَ عَلَيْهِ بِالْعَشِيِّ الصَّافِنَاتُ الْجِيَادُ فَقَالَ إِنِّي أَحْبَبْتُ حُبَّ الْخَيْرِ عَن ذِكْرِ رَبِّي حَتَّىٰ تَوَارَتْ بِالْحِجَابِ رُدُّوهَا عَلَيَّ ۖ فَطَفِقَ مَسْحًا بِالسُّوقِ وَالْأَعْنَاقِ وَلَقَدْ فَتَنَّا سُلَيْمَانَ وَأَلْقَيْنَا عَلَىٰ كُرْسِيِّهِ جَسَدًا ثُمَّ أَنَابَ

Mention when the poised racehorses were shown to him before the afternoon. He said, ‘Indeed, I preferred the love of good things over the remembrance of my Lord until the sun set in darkness, so return them to me,’ and he set about wiping over their forelegs and necks. We had put Solomon to trial and placed him upon his throne, then he repented.

Surat Sad 38:31-34

This bias is interactive, it must involve an activity that starts to take a primary role in one’s life. There are many habits today that people fall into to the point they miss prayers or other obligatory acts of worship. Again, the believer must be self-introspective and constantly examining their priorities, the highest of which should be to accomplish the will of Allah.

Bias of outward appearances

Acknowledging that the human soul has a subjective component, resulting in unconscious bias, makes it difficult or even impossible to judge the inner-state of people based on their outward actions alone. We certainly cannot truly know how Allah will judge them in the Hereafter. The chapter goes on to reveal a dialogue between the people in Hellfire:

وَقَالُوا مَا لَنَا لَا نَرَىٰ رِجَالًا كُنَّا نَعُدُّهُم مِّنَ الْأَشْرَارِ أَتَّخَذْنَاهُمْ سِخْرِيًّا أَمْ زَاغَتْ عَنْهُمُ الْأَبْصَارُ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ لَحَقٌّ تَخَاصُمُ أَهْلِ النَّارِ

They will say, ‘Why do we not see men whom we considered the worst among us? Is it because we ridiculed them and turned our sight from them?’ Verily, that is the truth of the disputants of Hellfire.

Surat Sad 38:62-64

These inhabitants of Hellfire will be surprised when they cannot find the people they used to think were the lowest of the low, the poor and downtrodden such as the former slave Bilal ibn Rabah. They used to mock the poor, yet it will be the poor believers who will be exalted over them in the Hereafter.

Likewise, we can never really know how Allah will judge certainly people. If someone opposes Islam outwardly, it may be that they are being influenced by an unconscious bias they have not yet recognized. In fact, it took many years for several of the companions to come around to Islam. In this regard, the Prophet said:

إِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَعْمَلُ عَمَلَ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ فِيمَا يَبْدُو لِلنَّاسِ وَهُوَ مِنْ أَهْلِ النَّارِ وَإِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَعْمَلُ عَمَلَ أَهْلِ النَّارِ فِيمَا يَبْدُو لِلنَّاسِ وَهُوَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ

Verily, a man may appear to people as doing the deeds of the people of Paradise, yet he is among the people of Hellfire. Verily, a man may appear to people as doing the deeds of the people of Hellfire, yet he is among the people of Paradise.

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2742

Holding biases in our minds is unavoidable, as life is just too complicated to live in without constructing some kind of mental generalization. Sometimes these biases can be useful or benign, while at other times they can be misleading or pernicious. The believers ought to wage a constant struggle of introspection and self-evaluation to make sure that our biases do not blind us to the truth of things.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.