Naming the World

Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.

An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.

On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter – action for action’s sake – negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible. Either dichotomy, by creating unauthentic forms of existence, creates also unauthentic forms of thought, which reinforce the original dichotomy.

Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.

Before continuing go back and read the passage at least one more time.

3275294497_e496ef875f_oThe first topic to discuss regarding this passage is the relationship between reflection and action in creating a true word. Most of the time we have one of two possibilities (both of which were mentioned by Freire): verbalism or activism.

Knowledge sought for the sake of knowledge itself results in verbalism. That is why in many parts of the Muslim world one can attend a Friday sermon and hear a lot of nice things while seeing no practical effect in reality. This is knowledge for the sake of knowledge and it is, like Freire said, alienating and alienated. It is out of tune with reality and irrelevant. Therefore the student whose search for knowledge is not grounded in a greater vision and a desire to benefit mankind becomes no more than a mouthpiece for verbalism; that is, speech without action. In this regard the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) du`a’ was:

اللهم علمنا ما ينفعنا و انفعنا بما علمتنا وزدنا علما

“O Allah! Teach us that which benefits us, allow us to benefit from what You have taught us, and increase us in knowledge!”

The other possibility is action that is not founded in reflection and knowledge (in a broad understanding of the word). This leads to action that does not result in real change, but is rather action for the sake of action. It is nothing more than activism. True action in Islam is rooted in knowledge and gushes forth from it as a result of sincere reflection.

Therefore Islam seeks not a mechanical activist, but rather an Islamic worker. Work being the product of a true word which derives its essence from the relationship between reflection and action.

The second topic of this passage is naming the world. If we understand the concept of a true word representing the perfect balance between action and reflection and the idea that naming the world is a means by which humans understand, analyze, and act upon their reality for its betterment, we should then reread the story of Adam (pbuh) in the beginning of Surah al-Baqarah in this light.

Allah says in the Qur’an:

وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

And He taught Adam the names – all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.”

قَالُوا سُبْحَانَكَ لَا عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلَّا مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ

They said, “Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.”

قَالَ يَا آدَمُ أَنبِئْهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَنبَأَهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُل لَّكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَأَعْلَمُ مَا تُبْدُونَ وَمَا كُنتُمْ تَكْتُمُونَ

He said, “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names, He said, “Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed.” (2:31-33)

These verses show that Allah taught Adam the names of everything. Before these verses Allah says:

أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” (2:30)

When these verses are combined and understood in light of the greater objective of Islam, reforming the human condition, the role of the human being on earth is more clearly understood.

The previous remarks conclude: Allah created humans, placed them on this earth, and made them responsible for its cultivation and prosperity. He has given the tools needed in order to understand life and transform it according to the reading of revelation (Allah’s signs in His Book; آيات الله في الكتاب) and reality (Allah’s signs in the creation; آيات الله في الكون). It is our job to fulfill this responsibility and work to not merely adapt to life, but transform it. The one who truly reads is a visionary, and a visionary must reform.

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ

“Read in the name of your Lord who created.” (96:1)

About the author

Jamaal Diwan

Jamaal Diwan

Jamaal Diwan was born and raised in Southern California and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Third World Studies and a minor in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego . He accepted Islam in 2003 and has been married to his wife, Muslema Purmul, since 2004. He has served with the Muslim Student Association (MSA), MSA West, and Muslim American Society (MAS) at varying capacities. He remains an active MAS member and is a scholarship student with the Islamic American University. Jamaal is a graduate of the Faculty of Shariah at al-Azhar University in Cairo and has done some graduate work in Islamic Studies from the Western academic perspective. He recently finished serving as the Resident Scholar at the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI).


  • I have question in regards to this passage…
    The angels did bow but then asked why humans… human will cause destruction and chaos. Allah(swt) did not answer the question directly; instead went through this routine to show the Angels; that Allah(swt) knows all but kind skipped the question of why us human beings? Onwards in the rest of Quran; Allah(swt) says the He did not create us for naught, enjoyment or meaningless purpose… The given purpose is to worship Allah but Allah alludes to something else also but I have not found any clear signs of it. But then I am not a scholar… Have you pondered on this Br. Suhaib or anyone else?

    • Salam,
      Very interesting question.
      I am not sure how accurate this would be but I read in Ibn Katheer that one of the tafaseer ties this whole story to the creation of the jinn. Iblis to the Jinn was like Adam to humans but Iblis in his arrogance transgressed and deviated. The majority of the jinn became those that the angels describe (kill people, transgress….etc) so the question was for the clarification of this creation that seems to be capable of doing these things just like the jinn did. Allah swt here answers them by saying I know what you don’t know meaning that from this creation there will be prophets and momineen that worship Allah truly and will earn his paradise.
      Walllahu Alam, Allah knows best.

    • “The given purpose is to worship Allah but Allah alludes to something else also but I have not found any clear signs of it.”

      Can you please reference the “something else” Allah alludes to?

  • well. Point 1. Allah(swt) doesn’t answer the question. He answers in oblique way instead of directly answering the question.
    Point 2. Though Allah(swt) state again and again for salat and belief in Allah and his messenger. There is a surah towards the end of the quran where Allah(swt) talks about creating the Universe and human beings and expressly saying humans and the universe was NOT created as an amusement; but for a purpose. Allah(swt) says He swears by moon and the stars and that it is very high degree of oath that Allah(swt) does not need to take,
    Point 3. Allah(swt) also states he does not need our prayers or our good deeds, sacrifices etc. Allah(swt) is independent and complete and all powerful.

    So in conclusion; Our prayers may please Allah(swt) but they our not needed for Him.
    Then Allah does not answer the question about human destructive capabilities; instead answers by saying the angels do not know what Allah(swt). Angels know that; that why they asked him. Allah(swt) for whatever reason did not want to answer this question head on. Then Allah(swt) takes huge oath in the Quran that we were not created for naught. So there is another purpose which we will find on the other side; innshallah in jannah. May Allah bless us and take mercy on us.

  • al-salam `alaykum

    Just a quick observation – the second-to-last cited verse ( 2:30 ) in the article does not match the translation provided – probably just a typo to be sure. you can delete this comment anytime.

  • I am glad that Freire’s “Pedagogy of the oppressed” was followed with “A pedagogy of hope” (1996). In that book he provides a clearer view of the difficulty explaining the “silence” he encountered in the classrooms. Freire told us that no education is liberating enough, no democracy, free of oppression when they impose the educator’s world-view on that of the students. Because no word is apolitical. The socially responsible teacher should make the student aware of his or her self, gradually withdrawing the didactic role of the teacher/adult/researcher from the milieu of any education. Easier said than done. Bakhtin (1930) uses the notion of “heteroglossia” (competing multiple voices) to explain how the centrifugal force of the dominant culture and a centripetal force of the subaltern works on the “word” to either elevate or “denouce” the meaning. In that sense, it is almost impossible to be the benevolent orator who only speaks the “truth”, as Freire would have it, because here the truth is a constructed reality made conscious for the student, not apriori knowledge which transforms the one who experiences it through sensible actions, an Avicenian (d. 1037) form of pre-cognition.

    Aristotle in his Nichomenian ethics puts knowledge of the supreme Good, (cognitively derived) or truth as a good enough reason to call for action. The western narrative, according to Hentsch(2004) a canadian political scientist, in the last three millenniums has been of a gradual march to modernity, supplanting the ultimate truth (God) with its own reincarnated truth (secularism, hedonism, myths of salvation). Postmodernism although provides a lot of resolutions to deconstruct modernity, none of it actually goes beyond it. Using the tropes of other ways of knowing, the postmodernist hopes to break the way knowledge has been produced and dissipated as a tool of oppression. The discursive practices of the teacher, Freire believed, are embedded within the cultural codes of oppression, traits of our historical relationship with each other, where the text is just one pattern of communication that aims to vanquish repeatation. Nothing can thus be said twice without altering the original meaning somewhat. Since there are no theories of language possible that accurately tells us exactly how we store, process, understand and translate meaning; there cannot be any useful praxis of unoppressive education.

  • On verbalism- heck yeah, this is one of our diseases. I it is unrealistic to expect every word which comes out of our mouths to be a “true word” but the Religious Establishment (Muslim one) in the US is VERY comfortable in engaging in verbalism only. One of the reasons MAS is attractive to ppl who discover this nature of “verbalism” is b/c many of the ppl involved (at least who I know) recognize this bad habit and try and steer away from it.

    The practice of activsim alone is less common in MAS. I see it more w/other Muslim groups and nonMuslim organizations that are formulaic in their approach to work (signature projects).

    If I had to make an SAT question out of this, I’d say Intellects:Verbalism what Do’ers:Activism.

    The reason your blog post was impactful for me is b/c I am sick and tired of dealing w/the religious establishment when it is domoniated by verbalists. They take way too long to make any impactful and positive changes. On the flip side, I am sick of dealing with young activists who don’t want to think or reflect on the work they are doing. We are so affected by “what appears” and what people will say that we forget the deeply rooted reasons on why we are trying to do anything in the first place.

  • p.s. I am using the top part of your post for a khatera to be delivered during a focus group on Combating Extremism. May you be rewarded for any good that comes.

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