Part I | Part II
What do I know anyway?
One of my teachers taught us in a class earlier this year: ‘The less you learn, the more you think you know. And the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know!’ This shook me to my core. I reflected on this, questioned myself and have felt it hard to write about anything in many months—unusual for me—out of fear of my lack of knowledge and understanding. It also led me to write this article.
Before you began to read this article, what passed through your mind? Are you someone that enjoys VirtualMosque.com and its articles, for it chimes with you—which in turn makes you feel good about yourself, that you’re in the right? Or maybe the opposite—perhaps you don’t like the content around here, and are looking for something odd (which in turn proves that you’re right)?
Or did you open this article with the hope of learning something that you don’t know already? Or better still, did you open it with the hope that it may challenge your prevailing views in your quest for truth?
I have worked at the grassroots and walked the corridors of power over the last few years, with a leading role in student activism in Britain. Now—I may be wrong—but something that bothers me deeply after much consideration is the prevailing dogmatic state of the mind in the world today, and it is something I must remind myself often not to be (especially as I write this). A dogmatic mind assumes, as Professor Tariq Ramadan describes, that its “certainties and truths are exclusive”; its characteristic feature is “its tendency to see things from one exclusive angle, and to think in terms of absolutes”; it thinks it has all the answers; and it holds a monopoly on the truth.
This dogmatism manifests itself innocently in the living rooms of Muslim families, as well as the committee rooms of Muslim organizations. It can be there in our interactions with people around us, for young and for old. Often it is made out to be the monopoly of ‘conservative Muslims’ or ‘liberal Muslims’—I think it is label-less. It particularly rears an ugly face through tribalism in our national politics, but I will focus in this article on the Believing mind.
My real worry is that this dogmatism applies probably to most of us from time to time.
We lack the ability to consider that we may be, from time to time, potentially wrong. And we become so obsessive in our desire to be “right” that we forget what it means to be a seeker of truth and thus, as a believer, a humble servant of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He).
For Allah alone is Al-‘Alim (The Knower of All), He alone is Al-Qadir (The All Powerful), He alone is Al-Khaliq (The Creator). Intellectual humility was present amongst the greats of our religion. Imam Shafi’i radi Allahu ‘anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) beautifully said once, “I believe my opinion is right with the possibility that it is wrong and I believe the opinion of those who disagree with me is wrong with the possibility that it is right.”
Humility is a sign of mightiness, not weakness. Humility does not mean to be a ‘wimp’—it means to confidently witness that truth only lies with Allah (swt), not our egos. It means to recognize that our understanding and knowledge is not limitless—and that we must recognize our limitations.
Living in a world of ‘rightness’ is dangerous—we probably all know somebody who believes in their own superiority so much, doesn’t listen and wants everybody else to view the world just as they do, right? You wish they thought just like you? Stop there—because you aren’t any better—maybe they know better than you. Worse still, this is a spiritual disorder—at best of vanity, at worst of arrogance. One scholar wrote, frighteningly, “The dogmatic mind thinks that it is God and passes judgment from on high and in the name of eternity.”
One can be too humble too—living in a world of confusion and darkness. One could argue, if our knowledge and capacity for insight is so little, then how can we know anything?
Moments like these make you glad to be a Believer! Rather than simply floating aimlessly in life in confusion, in the darkness there is a Rope on to which we must hold fast (Qur’an 3:103); we have a Straight Path that we must tread (Qur’an 1:5); and we have The Most Trustworthy Handhold That Will Never Break (Qur’an 2:256).
We have as the bedrock of our existence the fact that the Creator of this world has created us to worship Him. And in the Qur’an we have an instruction manual to life, by the Creator of Life itself, in the Prophets we have the perfect model to follow, in the great people and scholars we have experts to show us the way, and the Signs of our everyday lives we have the tools to draw closer to Him.
Now that we have discussed the issue itself, in the second article to follow this (part 2) insha’Allah (God willing) I will provide some ideas on how we can reach such intellectual humility that we crave—and how what seems to be a flaw can be turned into your greatest strength.
Most certainly, my teacher’s comment gave me a whole new meaning to the verse, “O humanity, you are in need of Allah, but Allah is independent of all needs, worthy of all praise.” And sure as anything, we don’t have all the answers. We ask Allah to give us humble minds and to save us from arrogance and vanity.