The best proverbs manage to capture important ideas in just a few words. One well-worn Arab proverb has it that: nisf al-‘ilm akhtaru min al-jahl – ‘Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.’ ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ insists Steven Hawking, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ In the scholastic tradition of Islam there is the concept of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: claiming to be well-versed in religious matters merely by reading books, rather than by learning, studying and dialoguing with seasoned scholars. And so very often, such half-baked knowledge can be more corrupting and dangerous – to both the individual and the society – than simple, plain ignorance. Permit me to elaborate:
The whole notion of how a little knowledge can deceive a person into thinking they are more expert than they actually are has, I think, been wonderfully stated in a poem by the English poet, Alexander Pope. In his An Essay on Criticism (1709), he says:
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
Some of the lines of his Essay have become part of the popular lexicon, such as: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Then there is the famous first line of the above couplets, often misquoted as: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’
In Greek mythology, it was held that drinking from the Pierian Spring would grant a person great knowledge and inspiration. Pope explains how if a person only learns a little; if they only drink shallow drafts, it’s likely to intoxicate them and make them feel giddy and delusional. It’s apt to make them feel as if they know a great deal. However, a greater share of learning should remove their false pretensions and humble them. For drinking largely sobers, in that one then understands their level and becomes aware of how little they truly know.
Pope’s dangers of a little learning finds an earlier parallel in Muslim heritage. In some of the manuals written to help train Muslim scholars, teachers and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). It’s said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: Whomsoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; while whoever enters the third realises they know nothing.’1 An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of learning; having only drunk shallow drafts, Abu Shibr is intoxicated, looses sight of his fledgling level, and acts as if he is seasoned in sacred knowledge.
Of course, not everyone who enters the first stretch of learning becomes intoxicated. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into the Abu Shibr persona, the experienced shaykh is likely able to treat the disease with an effective cure). Rather, it’s those whose knowledge comes only by way of a few books or surfing the Net that are most at risk. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a problem to himself as well as to others.
As for the second and third spans, or stretches, of knowledge, then as the months and years pass, the one seeking it appreciates, at first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even via one single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the highly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own level. With further learning and engagement with knoweledge, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they truly know – in comparison to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition.
Nowadays, online forums and chatrooms are awash with pseudo-scholars audaciously speaking about things they have no knowledge of. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’2 Such pretenders might know something about the subject they are discussing, but do not know enough for a God-pleasing, objective discussion. They know a thing or two on the matter, but are ignorant of ten other things about it: and all too often they are ignorant of their own ignorance! This is due to a diseased heart and diminished piety, so the ego pushes them into false pretence, denial, haughtiness, conceit and being too full of themselves – wa’l-‘iyazubi’Llah.
Al-Khalil b. Ahmad remarked: ‘There are four types of people: (1) One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! (2) One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! (3) One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! (4) One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’3
Our ‘ulema explain that there are two types of ignorance (jahl): simple ignorance (jahl basit), and compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab). Simple ignorance is, to a degree, a minor problem, in that it is easily remedied by the simple act of asking. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, orders the Qur’an [16:43] One hadith states: ‘The cure for ignorance is to ask (innama shifa’u’l-‘iyy al-su’al).4 Simple ignorance is where one is aware that one doesn’t know; in other words, one realises their state of ignorance. As such, there is a sense of humbleness that accompanies simple ignorance.
Not so compounded ignorance which, Islamically speaking, is a far more pernicious problem. For the person wallowing in this ignorance is convinced he knows what he doesn’t know. He thinks he has knowledge of the issue, while in reality he knows next to nothing about it. Much of the Islamic postings on the Internet are characterised by such ignorance upon ignorance, or half-baked knowledge, as they pass themselves off as the real McCoy. But what causes a person to pant like a dog on heat, insisting: ‘I do know, I do know’, while the reality is very different? And what are the telltale signs of being soiled by such ignorance?
As noted earlier, the ego is all too often the culprit in such matters. In his censure of half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, the great Muslim polymath, Ibn Hazm wrote:
‘Some people who are overcome by ignorance, whose intellects are weak and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they aren’t. There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah; exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or to shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’5
A telltale sign that one is afflicted with such a disease includes: An eagerness to poke one’s nose into difficult religious issues that are well above one’s proverbial pay grade, so as to offer their tuppence worth on the matter. The Arab proverb likely fits such a person: laysa hadha bi‘ushshik fadruji – ‘This isn’t your nest, so hop along.’
Another telltale sign is: being obnoxiously adamant that one’s own opinion is correct, and that everyone else is off. All too often this leads Abu Shibr to take this differing to the next level. His half-baked knowledge doesn’t allow him to realise that there may be more than one valid take on the issue, and that his mightn’t even be the soundest. But by this time it’s already too late, Abu Shibr has already made a mountain out of a molehill. In his hubris, he thinks that he alone is on haqq and the others are on batil. Such delusions of grandeur lead him to demean, defame and even boycot and warn against those who differ with him. In the bigotry and blind-following of his desires, Abu Shibr unwittingly does the devil’s work, becoming an active agent in destroying unity and brotherhood among the believers – and we seek refuge in Allah from such mischief and misguidance.
Another sign is: hiding behind phrases like, ‘I’ve got a brain to think for myself.’ But I suggest that this is to draw from the phrase more than is warranted. Whilst it’s a fact we’ve each been endowed with some level of intelligence or reason, it’s also a fact that some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, a person who can reason well in one topic or area of life, may be unfit to do so in another. Surely, true intelligence should lead us to acknowledge that some disciplines of life and learning require an immense amount of study and specialisation. Such is the case for the intricacies of Islamic law and theology. Yet some will casually dismiss the verdicts of highly qualified scholars, not upon a detailed evidence-based critique, but upon a vainglorious whim. ‘I’ve got a brain’ demands that we engage the evidences and legal rationals of the experts before dismissing their conclusions, or humbly defer to their authority. Anything else would make intellects look suspect; or even down right stupid! The Qur’an says: Yet among people are those who argue about Allah without knowledge, guidance, or an illuminating Book. [31:20]
Compounded ignorance; this Abu Shibr syndrome, is extremely difficult to cure. For the one afflicted with it doesn’t see the deficiency in himself. As far as he’s concerned, he knows; and that’s that! To reveal to him that he is ignorant of his own ignorance is nigh on impossible. And yet it’s because the Abu Shibrs of this world are least likely to recognise their inadequacies, and because the Abu Shibr syndrome can be contagious, that we need to be alert to the following shari‘ah cautions:
Firstly, that speaking about Allah, His religion, or its rulings, without due knowledge, is a heinous crime and amounts to lying against Allah and the religion of Islam: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [16:116] Such a crime against Allah requires an immediate handbrake turn to tawbah.
Secondly, to reign-in our soul from its egotism, exhibitionism and from seeking to be a wannabe. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever does deeds in order to be heard of, Allah will make him heard of; and whoever does deeds to show-off, Allah will make a show of him.’6 That sincerity to Allah and sound intention are key, is vividly demonstrated in the next hadith too: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then Allah shall enter him into Hell.’7 As can be seen, Islam doesn’t do ego. Those who are eager for it to be otherwise have possibly got the wrong religion and way of life.
Thirdly, that one of the best defences against getting intoxicated on shallow draughts of knowledge is: learning to say, ‘I don’t know’. In fact, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: la adri nisf al-‘ilm – ‘To say: “I don’t know” is half of knowledge.’8 One of the scholars said: ‘Realise, that to reply with, “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish one’s status; as some of the ignoramuses imagine. Instead, it elevates it. For it is a splendid proof of his lofty rank, strength of his religion, his fear of his Lord, and the purity of his heart.’9
Fourthly, ask, inquire, learn, study, discuss, and grow in Islamic knowledge – but let us do so with humility and with being aware of our own levels. In this respect, let’s take our queue from how the Angels extolled Allah: ‘Glory be to You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are the Knowing, the Wise.’ [2:32]
That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing is only when intentions are corrupt, or if we lose sight of our own levels. We all have half-baked knowledge about many matters. In some of those matters, our half-baked knowledge will mature and become seasoned knowledge. In some, it may improve but never fully ripen. In other cases, it may always remain half-baked. But that needn’t be a problem, so long as we are aware that we don’t know; that we don’t act like Abu Shibr; and that, if required or wanted, we are open to learning. In this regard it’s been wisely said that: ‘A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.’
1. Consult: Bakr Abu Zayd, ‘Hilyat Talib al-‘Ilm’, in Majmu‘at al-‘Ilmiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 198.
2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.
3. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538.
4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, nos.336-7. The hadith says: During the time of the Prophet ﷺ a man suffered a serious head wound. Later he had a nocturnal emission and inquired from some companions if he was allowed to perform dry ablution (tayammum)? They said that they didn’t think it was permissible. So he took a full bath (ghusl), because of which he died. When the Prophet ﷺ came to learn of this, he said: ‘They have killed him; may Allah kill them! Why didn’t they ask, if they did not know. Indeed the cure for ignorance is to ask.’
5. Ibn Hazm, ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.6499; Muslim, no.2986. The meaning of: ‘Allah will make him heard of’ is: Allah will publicly expose and humiliate him on the Day of Judgement – as said by al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1990), no.1626.
7. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2654. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6382.
8. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Madkhal, no.713.
9. Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir, 2013), 68.