x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Honesty, a cost benefit analysis

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So if point B is what you need, why not just reach out and grab it if you can?

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So if point B is what you need, why not just reach out and grab it if you can? Why follow the route of protocol or etiquette? Why take the high road of principle if the low road will get you there quicker? Why take a detour around sacred ground when walking on the grass will work just as well? Plus, nobody's looking.

And morality; morality never turned a profit. In fact, when morality starts to turn a profit, the name probably no longer applies. We live in an age in which quantity reigns. Measurability is the criterion of value. The profits to be gleaned from "misrepresentation" seem soundly to outweigh anything that might be gained through honesty. The Prophet Mohammed was asked if a Muslim might perpetrate all types of crime while still retaining his or her faith; this included things as heinous as theft and adultery, for which of course there is prohibition and punishment. He replied in the affirmative to all of these; yes, he would still be considered Muslim. But when asked whether a Muslim might lie, here he drew the line. To lie would put a Muslim beyond the pale. We keep forgetting that one, don't we?

The Prophet also said that a man will consistently speak truth until his name is inscribed among the truthful. Another will continue to lie on a consistent basis until he is written as a liar. However, if he were called by the name that he's earned for himself, I'm sure he would spit and splutter with preposterous irreverence. The very euphemism "misrepresent" denotes how the habit has found its place as part of acceptable behaviour.

It has been said that to be an honest person means first to be honest with God. I disagree. In order to be honest with God, one has first to be honest with oneself. This is where the conundrum of a great many people sits. Quite often we want to believe in the reality we've fabricated for ourselves. We have the utmost confidence in the self-image that we've fashioned as a customised avatar, replete with the "paragon of virtue" option. Just look at popular entertainment. From professional wrestling to X Factor, we want to be led to believe that this is spontaneous and not contrived. We like to conceive of ourselves as "red pill" people; there goes that avatar again.

Ibn Ata al Sakandari said in his aphorisms: "Nothing drives you like delusion." What is actually meant here is that nothing herds you along as though sheep in a flock like self-delusion. A person needs to have a moment with him or herself and ask: "Am I content with life in the herd?" The answer may very well be a "yes". Honesty is the mark of men. "Misrepresentation" rhymes with "no backbone". Virtues like honesty reify us as human beings. Deceit is a spiritual flaw. Our age idealises the "flawed angel". But there are romantic flaws, and there are awkward ones. Lying to people, lying to oneself, is not glamorous.

But if that's not sufficient to persuade us to review our policies and procedures, perhaps the practical repercussions will pull our mutual coat. The soundness of social stability in any civilised society is based on trust. If we stop and think to what degree we have no recourse but to trust our neighbour or the stranger on the street to be a human being and not descend into the animal kingdom, it's actually quite frightening how vulnerable we all really are.

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi