The following article is in response to a lecture titled “Crisis of Knowledge” by Sheikh Saad Tasleem at ICNA Baltimore 2017. In this article, I am going to briefly discuss the implication of different avenues of education as it applies to Islam and the stark difference between information and knowledge in the modern world.
Before discussing the crisis of knowledge in the Ummah today it is first important to understand the age that we are living in. We often refer to these times as the Age of Information. This is because of the extensive and infinite abundance of knowledge conveniently available today. There was a time only a few decades ago that to find answers to even rudimentary questions you had to either read books or ask scholars or experts in that field. For example, the other day I thought to myself what is Islam’s position on men wearing rings. In the past, I would have had to either open up books on Islamic law or consult my local Imam or sheikh. Needless to say, I do not do either of these things. What I actually did was take my phone out of my pocket google “men rings Islam” and two minutes later I was sufficed in my curiosity. From a closed minded perspective, this would seem great. If everyone has such access to knowledge then how can anyone be ignorant, right? Wrong.
The reality is that even with so much information available, ignorance is as high as ever. This is because we confuse information with knowledge and use the two terms interchangeably. Information is a collection of facts and opinions. Knowledge is the ability to synthesis, comprehend, and utilize that information as well as properly communicate it to others. Sheikh Saad Tasleem gives an interesting example of how the two differ. Let’s say that there is a gathering of a doctor, lawyer, businessman, and engineer. All of these people are obviously very educated in their respective fields. If a question arises on Islam, let’s say the conditions that deem something to be halal or haram. Each person in the group has very strong opinions on what they think is correct based on basic Islamic knowledge, hearsay, and culture with no way of differentiating between any of those. None of them will hesitate to attempt to persuade someone to their point of view or lecture someone on what they believe to be as true.
Now imagine the same group of people at a gathering. If someone poses a question on medicine suddenly the doctor is quite. He does not want to say anything because he does not want to be wrong, even though he is an expert in that field. If someone poses a question about law suddenly the lawyer is quiet because he is afraid of giving the wrong advice. If someone poses a question about businesses suddenly the businessman is quiet. If someone poses a question about engineering suddenly the engineer is quiet as well. All of these people were very vocal when it came to matters of deen but were suddenly very quiet when it came to matters of their expertise. Why is that? Why is it that we now treat Islamic knowledge so trivially? Scholars of Islam used to feel an intense fear of giving wrong answers to questions so much so that they sought refuge in Allah from it. Do we have that same fear today? Let me bring this concept a little closer to home. There are so many places to find lectures and speeches today on any and every topic you can think of. If you feel like it, you can easily watch an hour-long lecture on YouTube from your favorite scholar. Now neither Sh. Saad Tasleem nor I am criticizing anyone for doing that. In fact, it is very commendable that you would go out of your way to try to educate yourself on the deen. The problem arises when you start considering yourself an expert on that topic, and that is much easier to do than you would think. When you begin to feel that you can educate others on the deen or sufficiently answer questions based on information that you have gathered from the Internet that is when you get into trouble. Ask yourself how many times have you found yourself lecturing someone based off some video you have seen or article you have read? How often do you become pleased with answers to questions you find after one Google search? Did you get your knowledge from systemic classes or courses taught by real scholars or from random tidbits of information gathered from a random variety of sources? These are some important question to ask yourself if you feel like you fall into the wrong side of any of these questions that that does not mean you are a bad person of course. In fact, it may even show that you are very passionate about the deen. But passion is only good when it is correctly directed not when followed blindly.
We are living in the age of information and through a crisis of knowledge. The best way to combat this is to pursue true knowledge. Pursue Islamic knowledge in the same way you would any other knowledge, in a systematic and measurable way, whether that be a seminar, class, course, or even just instruction from your local scholar. The key is to do it in a consistent way where you can measure your progress and your learning under someone who is knowledgeable himself. This doesn’t mean drop everything and become a scholar or start taking classes. But, if you do wish to educate yourself on the deen then take that seriously and value the responsibility that comes with. Respect the tradition and learn it from those that are qualified to be the mediums to transfer it from a rich history to the next generation.
If The Young Ummah can commit to fighting this crisis of knowledge then maybe we can change it from the age of information to the age of wisdom when it comes to Islam.