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On the Merits of Seeking Knowledge by Rayhan Al-Safawi

Knowledge is not just a means for self growth, but it is also the most critical tool a person will ever have in fighting oppression.

By Rayhan Al-Safawi

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Edward Bernays, Propaganda

Perhaps one of the major reasons behind the erosion of our democracy is the current work week as set up by our capitalist system. We work at least 50 hours a week, and spend 10-15 hours in traffic. By the time we get home, we are too exhausted to do proper reading. We are sucked into a culture of spectacle whereby witnessing triviality on the screen becomes our major pastime. We don’t have the energy to deal with our children and less so when it comes to educating ourselves and expanding our minds.

The consequences of this attitude is by no means benign. The corporations and the true ruling powers of the world love this. They love it when people vote against their own interests and instead, support policies that benefit those who are out to destroy them. Just think of the universal health care debate here in the United States, the fact that it is even a question within a large segment of U.S society is alarming.

As Noam Chomsky points out, the powers-that-be want us to be uninformed citizens and consumers and thereby make irrational choices. In order to do this, they must make sure that we do not gain knowledge. There is nothing that despotic powers hate more than an informed, rational and educated population. So what’s the solution that they have come up with? Distraction. As Aldous Huxley once pointed out, future despotic regimes will no longer need to ban books, people will simply stop reading. They will no longer need to control us through the threat of pain, but they will control us by bombarding us with distractions and pleasures.

If there is one critical contribution that Islam historically made it is the idea that knowledge is the central weapon a believer has in combating the despot within himself/herself as well as the despot without. The Qur’an is a text that glorifies individualism in so far as encouraging the educated individual to challenge the false propaganda of the powers that be and the dominant culture that supports it. This is, after all, what the Biblical/Qur’anic prophets did, speak truth to power as individuals against the deluded group.

Yet as Muslims, we have fallen into the same pitfall as the rest of the world. We are immersed in the spectacle of entertainment. We do not read, we do not study. When on planes, we read the Qur’an because we are afraid of crashing or we simply have nothing better to do. As religious practitioners, we are subject to a double oppression. On the one hand, our lack of knowledge makes us uninformed and thus prey to making irrational decisions when it comes to our socio-political and socio-economic context. In addition to this, it also makes us prey to the whims and false claims of people who purport to know about Islam in our community.

In order to live as fully rational participants in the global world, we must train ourselves to think better and expand our scope of knowledge. This means that we must carve out a space and time within our busy schedule to do deep reading and not just cursory browsing on the web. This is indeed possible, it just requires that we waste less time watching spectacles on the screen. Developing the habit of reading is probably the best gift you will ever give yourself because it is the one form of leisure that brings real lasting inner peace and expands your mind at the same time.

The path of knowledge is not only necessary for adequately fighting oppression and gaining inner peace, but it is also the true path to paradise.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) once said:

“Whoever treads a path seeking knowledge, Allah makes him tread a path to Paradise.”

الكافي: محمد بن الحسن وعلي بن محمد، عن سهل بن زياد، ومحمد بن يحيى، عن أحمد بن محمد جميعا، عن جعفر بن محمد الاشعري، عن عبدالله بن ميمون القداح، وعلي بن إبراهيم، عن أبيه، عن حماد بن عيسى، عن القداح، عن أبي عبدالله عليه السلام قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله: من سلك طريقا يطلب فيه علما سلك الله به طريقا إلى الجنة …


Yours Faithfully,

Rayhan Al-Safawi



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