Did they really say that? The use of quotes in Religious Education (and life)

In researching in the area of Religious Studies, and teaching Religious Education I often come across the words of religious leaders and others that have entered into common understanding and parlance, but on closer scrutiny are often hard to find the source of. The internet meme below would be funny if it wasn’t so accurate.


This isn’t a phenomena that has arisen in the internet era however. One of my first mentors in my faith was a man called Joseph Fielding McConkie- he was my mission president (the person in charge of me when I served a proselyting mission for my Church), he was also a BYU Professor, the son of an Apostle and the grandson of a Prophet in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1975 (a long time before I knew him) he said:

On many occasions I have listened to people tell stories about things my father or grandfather is supposed to have said or done which I know are not true I have occasionally listened with surprise to things I am said to have taught or done that also have little resemblance to what, in fact, did happen. In most of these instances the stories or expressions have been given in good faith, without any desire to distort or pervert truth. Yet, through them, I have learned the importance of being cautious about second- and third hand accounts of what people have supposedly said or done… An original source, when available, is always preferable to a secondary source (Teach and Reach, p11).

As Joseph said, the majority of times that people are misquoted it is often done with no malicious intent, rather the story or quote has entered into the public arena, seems to fit with what we know and supports the points that we are trying to make. In our fast paced lives it is always easy to trust the received knowledge and the hive mind of our community to confirm the authenticity of a source, than perhaps to take time to find the original source.

Why is this important? Maybe we think it’s not, after all what harm is done? There may be little or none, but any paraphrase slightly skews the message or the authenticity of the message being delivered. In teaching philosophy of religion I used to use Wittgenstein who recognised the problems of using everyday language in religious contexts. “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that” summarised as ‘don’t ask for meaning ask for use’ (1968: 109). Hallet (1967) argues that the “don’t ask for meaning, ask for use” is never found in any of Wittgenstein’s published writings. This phrase is a useful shorthand for Wittgenstein’s argument but may distract from the full extent of what he means and the nuances of what he is saying.

Sometimes in the context of a faith quotes and stories are used in a ‘faith promoting’ way. I remember listening to a story told in a Church service. This story told of an event that happened to a Church leader- I was familiar with the life of the Church leader having just spent two years studying his life and teachings. The story didn’t ring true. Not that it didn’t teach the lesson that the speaker wanted it to, it was something that I had never heard. Maybe I was wrong, I searched and searched and couldn’t find any reference to the story. I was left to conclude that either it didn’t happen, or the leader to whom it happened felt it so sacred that he never shared it publically. Was any harm done in the retelling of this seemingly apocryphal story? Possibly not, but it may perpetuate folklore that in other areas could be damaging.

In another aspect of my life I teach Religious Studies and am involved in its assessment. In a recent change to the GCSE specifications (those sat at the age of 16) there has been a requirement to refer to Sources of Wisdom and Authority. This means that when I have been writing and teaching I have been very conscious of finding the source for all the material that I reference. This was brought home to me last year when I delivered a public lecture about Sikhism. My anxiety level increased when a Sikh man entered the room- not that I was unsure of what I was saying but that here was a man that would know if I was wrong. He loved my lecture (or he was too polite to say anything else) but he raised a concern with a quote from Guru Nanak that I had used. The quote was:

“Before becoming a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu, or a Christian, let’s become a Human first.”

Picture1This is quote that has been shared widely in the Sikh community but the gentleman informed me that he had been unable to find it anywhere in the writings of Guru Nanak. I was embarrassed- I had been lazy in my research- I had trusted what I had read with no critical thought. It had seemed a positive quote and fitted, on the surface, with other elements of Guru Nank’s teachings. After his river experience it is reported that his first words were “There is no Hindu and no Musalman [Muslim]”- there are many reference to this. I have also heard it reported that the words are “God is neither Hindu or Muslim.” I am not doubting the veracity of this quote- but similarly struggle to find a source for it. Both of these fit with Guru Nanak’s teachings found in the Guru Granth Sahib. Indeed, when questioned but his assertion that there is no such thing as a Muslim, Guru Nanak responded:

It is difficult to be called a Muslim; if one is truly a Muslim, then he may be called one. First, let him savour the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let his pride of his possessions be scraped away. Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Mohammed, let him put aside the delusion of death and life. As he submits to God’s Will, and surrenders to the Creator, he is rid of selfishness and conceit. And when, O Nanak, he is merciful to all beings, only then shall he be called a Muslim. (Guru Granth Sahib 121)

We could argue that the original quote I used fits with the wider teachings of Guru Nanak but Harwinder Singh Mander suggests that this quote is actually at odds with the teachings of Sikhism:

The main concern is the notion that Guru Nanak would categorise his Sikhs as a religious group of people, devoid of the true status that he imparted to them. The real author of this quote lists various religious communities and suggests that they are divisive because their members give them prominence over a universal human identity. But by including Sikhs, he/she has ignored Guru Nanak’s fundamental teaching that everything emanates from One – ੴ; how is it possible that the Guru who makes this the basis of Sikhi would then go on to teach Sikhs to become something other than that? To put it another way, if recognising the Oneness of existence (or becoming human) is at the heart of what it means to be a Sikh, then at no time would Guru Nanak advocate for Sikhs to become something else as the quote alludes by stating “Before becoming a… [Sikh]”. It is an entirely inaccurate statement! (https://naujawani.com/blog/guru-nanak-didnt-say-this)

What do we do then? I have stopped using the first quote, but it led me down a path that also led me to question the authenticity of ‘There is no Hindu or Muslim.” That is a quote that is indelibly linked with the River experience but if I go to the nth degree of my exploration of sources then should I couch it in such a way that “Guru Nanak is reported to have said…”? If you’re reading this and you know its source then please let me know.

It didn’t stop there- I was in a discussion and one of the most oft quoted Hadith in teaching about Islam is:

“People are equal like the teeth of a comb.”


This is easily searchable on the internet but there is never an original source attached. It links well with other teachings of Muhammad including the Final Sermon: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” But I can’t find a source except the generic ‘Hadith’. I don’t seem to be alone: “The Arabic, transliteration, and English for this was quoted in the following: “The Shaykh’s Tears Clean His Mureeds,” by Mawlana Shaykh Hisham Kabbani (07 November 2012 in Lefke, Cyprus), pub: 2012, Sufilive.” This appeared on a blog http://freedomtwobe.blogspot.com/2015/03/researching-hadith-teeth-of-comb.html

The idea seems to be compatible with the teachings of Muhammad but I can’t find it anywhere. Again, if anyone knows where it’s from please let me know.

To some extent the internet had made me lazy- I need to be much more secure in my use of quotes. This is doubly true in my role of a teacher- I am teaching people to be robust in the points that they are making. I am also asking them to question the veracity of arguments being made. How can they trust me if they can’t trust my sources.

Without getting political, the use of reliable evidence and sources is crucial to an exploration of news stories and political opinions. This, again, links back to Wittgenstein in the sense that we don’t only have to be sure of our sources, but also that we’re using them in a way that was intended or in harmony with other things that are taught or said. I remember in 2012 Presidential campaign in the USA Hilary Rosen made a comment about Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life. This was immediately jumped upon by opponents suggesting that the Obama administration is anti-family, and anti-women. But did anyone really believe that this is what was meant? Opponents seized on a weakness and built a straw man around what was supposedly meant; this lady did not mean that stay at home mums do not work, rather that they do not earn a salary- I think most observers recognised this, but it would not have made good headlines or fodder for attack. As a Brit, I have no US political agenda to push, I just think that if people have to disagree they do so honestly without misreading or misquoting people’s intentions and words.

The point of this post? I’m not sure except to make a plea that when we use scripture or the writings of religious leaders we do so honestly and sure of their authenticity.