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Art of Ignorance

By Amir Suhail Wani

There were times when people travelled for months together just to learn a single fact, a single sentence, a single poem or a single verse. Those journeys were much arduous than our imaginations can reveal. They were pilgrims to the temple of understanding. Each step they moved in the path of learning amounted to ascent to the divine. These men of learning and seekers of wisdom weren’t specific to a particular religion, but were found in all the cultures in all parts of the world. Thus we have Plato, Socrates and others from Greek tradition, Confucius, Chuang Tzu and others from Chinese civilization and Rumi, Ghazali and others from Islamic traditions just to name few representatives from each tradition.

With unforeseen advancements in science and the invasion of technology in all dimensions of life, the topography of human civilization has changed in a manner that our minds can’t comprehend. It is said that the developments of last three centuries have outpaced and outnumbered the sum total of all human achievements made during past thousands of years. While as last two, out of these three centuries revolved around inventions of electrical and mechanical nature, but the last century, due to the birth of Quantum mechanics, has been the century of electronics, communication, computers and related gadgets. With the arrival of these innovations in our lives, the human effort has been considerably reduced. World has been reduced to a palm and all the information one needs is almost a click away. A single click unfolds a universe of knowledge and one is often confused not by the scarcity of information, rather by its excess. The reign of scholarship is dwindling, for Internet has often given us an impression that each of us is scholar in the making. To revile this easy access to knowledge will sound trivial and primitive, but one can’t deny the fact that we have been bombarded with the information, data, statistics and facts we are unable to manage. It’s not just piling knowledge that is of interest, but the management of acquired knowledge shall be of equal importance to all of us. What all this simply amounts to is that we have picked up the habit of quoting facts that we don’t properly understand in the first place. This random and superficial quoting owes its origin to the information explosion that has occurred in the shape of digital knowledge banks like Google, Wikipedia and others. Earlier, scholar used to be initiated into a specific discipline and before they could read that subject they were taught a yearlong course on the principles or Asool of that subject. These principles guided them to quote things in proper context and avoid misquotations. Thus while quoting verses from the Quran due care was paid to their cause of revelation (shaani nazool). While quoting other religious texts a due procedure was in place to check any misappropriations. But these find can’t be expected from the students who have mistakenly adopted Google and other e sources as the supreme fountains of knowledge.

This readymade and baked information has not only done a considerable damage to our religious understanding but we have inadvertently started picking up even the scientific facts in an inappropriate manner. While quoting scientific facts we again tend to override the broad spectrum of issues associated to a specific theory or law and simply quote its defining statement. Thus emerges a spectrum of scholars who, in the bid of defeating their rivals quote facts out of broader context of which they possess little or no understanding. The reason why such an approach is dangerous is that for the sake of our ignorance we turn enemies of each other. While defending our ignorance we often mend the facts or quote them in a manner that’s not approved by the specialists of that field. Uninitiated people are often seen debating scholarly issues on social networking sites and in doing so they often quote fiction in the guise of facts. The people around are often deeply moved by these quotations and without any further investigation on their part they tend to take these statements as authentic and pass it on to others. What all this leads to is an unending spiral of ignorance and with ignorance comes hatred, rivalry and sometimes violence. Men aren’t rivals or enemies unto one another, but a misunderstanding of each other in terms of the ideologies that define us often leads us into personal clashes. This approach, besides other things leads to the loss of sanctity of knowledge. When the knowledge that we acquire as our saviour is used as a sword against others, it kills the very essence of learning. At this point it is important to mention that he who is one the path of learning shall be flexible enough so that one may bring necessary changes to his /her ideology as and when demanded by new revelations of understanding. Most of the times problems arise that we are so irrationally attached to an irrational ideology that despite the opening of new horizons of mind we refuse to change our stand, lest we crumble under the burden of our stubbornness. Alvin Tofler, a futurist said that the illiterates of twenty first century will be those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn. This forewarns us that in our pilgrimage to learning we shall be ready not only to learn but to unlearn and relearn as well.

All standard texts of Islam start with the chapters concerning knowledge, its importance, its purpose and its categories. Al Ghazali has dedicated a full length chapter to knowledge, its categories and its relevance and importance in his magnum opus ihya ul Uloom. The masterwork on Islamic mysticism kashaful mehjoob by Ali Hujweri too starts on the same note. Numerous verses of Quran and numerous authentic traditions of Prophet (PBUH) place high emphasis on acquisition of knowledge. But in all these sources, a difference has been made between the useful knowledge (ilm un naf’e) and the useless knowledge (ilm un zaar) and Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said “O Lord, I seek refuge from useless knowledge”. These incentives and guidelines form a basis of inspiration as well as models of learning for us. The acquisition of knowledge shall be deemed as a sacred journey and shall be perused in the same spirit. Any knowledge or arbitrary set of facts that are acquired to beat people and win over debates is not a wisdom but a set of redundant terms.

Perversion of learned is the perversion of worst order. Prophet of Islam forewarned us of this perversion not once or twice but on a dozen of occasions. A portion of the hadith from “Mishkat Ul Masabih” reports that the Prophet said “Surely the worst of evils is the evil of the learned and surely the best of good is the good of the learned”. Scholarship, when it sets on wrong path doesn’t only endanger the future of an individual or a community, but puts the future of entire globe into jeopardy. The role of scholars in setting narratives correct is paramount. The option before us is not of scholarship or ignorance, but it is one of positive scholarship and a negative scholarship. The word positive shall be understood as an approach that leaves open the possibilities of future and further discoveries. As against this negative scholarship sees itself as termination of research thereby leaving no scope for further revelations that are still lying asleep in the womb of possible future.

It is always a healthy element to engage in a debate, but while doing so one has to constantly question his own understanding of one’s own ideology and the ideology of other person/s. An improper or half-baked understanding in this age which is already fraught with intolerance not only generates an atmosphere of discord but legalises the state of intellectual savagery and that’s what we are reeling from.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: [email protected])