Chapter 5: Plagues of Knowledge
“Truth is a polished house,
Capricious is a raised dust,
When the dust is raised,
Even those endowed with eyesight cannot see.”
In our search for truth, it is vital for us to utilise our tools of knowledge appropriately. If one is searching for an optical phenomenon, you are bound to use the power of eyesight to achieve your goal. Similarly, to solve a mathematical problem you would use mental and rational tools.
Accordingly, in order to discover the spiritual secrets of the world, self-purification is a very primary tool to use. In other worlds, as there are different realms of knowledge from sensory perception to rational and spiritual knowledge, the tools of each realm should be utilized appropriately.
There are however, different kinds of realms, which are able to affect the accuracy and precision of each tool of knowledge that a searcher of knowledge, any knowledge, has to avoid. Such realms are known as “plagues”.
An example of a plague is in a situation where a person is colour blind. He is incapable of recognizing different colours and distinguishing them from one another. Colour blindness is therefore, a plague, which affects his access to the knowledge of various colours which can be taken for granted.
Plagues of the Mind
1) Personal Interest
The first plague affecting the discovery of truth is known as ‘personal interest'. We sometimes say ‘truth hurts', but why? If man by nature, is in search of the truth, then why can it hurt? The irony is that sometimes truth tastes as sweet as honey and at other times is as bitter as colocynth.
This is exactly what happens when we compromise ourselves in our search for truth. The plague of personal interest creeps in and the result, is treated with satisfaction if it meets personal interest, and as such is accepted as the truth, or is treated as dire falsehood, when not in the person's best personal interest. In this case the person would rather die than face such a truth.
A genuine searcher for truth must admit the truth whether it is in his favour or not. Personal interests can be material benefits, position, tribal or national interests. Sadly, in many instances, even our judgment is affected by personal interest.
Sheikh Toosi, before writing his essay on the jurisprudential rules relating to wells, he covered up his water well at home to assure himself that even subconsciously his personal life would not affect his jurisprudential deductions.
However sometimes in life, we meet people who are very much plagued by personal interest and whose sole motive of denying religion is their fear of losing their sensual life. One Muslim lady was not attending lectures at the mosque Her reason for not attending was that ‘if the lecturer talks about Hijab, he may convince me that it is the right thing to do and I am not prepared to accept that in my daily life yet!'
Han Christian Anderson, a Danish author of the 19 th century, whose fairy tales have been translated into more than 80 languages, has well introduced the effect of this plague in his fairy tale ‘The Emperor's New Clothes'.
In this fairy tale, two schemers with their own personal interest, play with the truth and deceive the Emperor and all his subjects, about the new clothes that he wanted. All however, except for a young boy, who lacking any personal interest unveiled the truth about the Emperor's so called new clothes!
“There is only one veil between you and a sound piece of advice; your pride.”
-Prophet of Islam-
Although it is quite healthy to keep up confidence and pride in a positive manner, these can, however, actually be obstacles in our search for truth; especially if it establishes a feeling or haughty attitude of superiority over others.
A true searcher for knowledge should always be humble in his acquisition of knowledge irrespective of any social, age, cultural and/or religious background of the informed.
3) Compound Ignorance
As explained in Chapter Three, there are two types of ignorance. The first is simple in which the person is aware of his ignorance, and the latter is compound where the person assumes he knows while he does not. There is a famous saying from Al-Ghazali that the incompleteness of everything is better than nothing save knowledge.
That is, it is better to be totally ignorant of a subject than have incomplete knowledge of it, for the latter always assumes he knows whilst he does not. For instance, it is better to be quite healthy than unhealthy at all, quite wealthy than in total poverty, but little knowledge however results in compound ignorance, which is not better than no knowledge at all. Ibn Sina also says: اياك و فطانة بترا" “Avoid incomplete cleverness.”
As man grows up he learns and acquires the art of hypocrisy and as such is able to hide his real face from people. As this is a learned experience, hypocrisy is less observed among children than adults. Children are honest and naïve, expressing themselves directly. When a child is hungry at a party, he/she just openly expresses that feeling of hunger, without reservation.
Many may read books, studying comparative religions and different schools of thought, but not all of these people search for the sake of learning and certainly are not searching for the truth. . People who have hidden agendas such as learning in order to misuse information or pretend they are learned people to achieve some position, are rather hypocrites and their sheer hypocrisy alone will prevent them from reaching the truth.
In these instances, a hypocrite is not in fact in search of a truth, he has already formed an opinion and is just attempting at proving his enemies wrong. This disease is commonly observed in writings of particular religious zealots, when condemning another religion or sect.
Hypocrisy is considered a severe mental disease in Islam. In more than 13 chapters of the Holy Quran this disease has been analyzed. Chapter 63 of the Holy Quran is even dedicated to unveiling this disease, introducing the distorted personality of the hypocrites.
5) Prejudice & Stubbornness
“When spite arrives, art departs
One hundred veils travel from heart to eyes.”
The central problem of prejudice rests on egotism, in the sense of being absorbed in oneself, family, tribe, race and even religious zealousness to condemn whatever and whoever is against the self. Frederick Copleston, in the preface of his work ‘A History of Philosophy' criticizes the authors of history for their biased approaches, yet admits that it is quite impossible for an author not to influence his personal opinion.
He assumes that his narration is free from any prejudice, yet it clearly represents an orthodox, scholarly interpretation of history. Based on the above discussion, prejudice can be present in many situations to which the person is related, such as a particular party, group, ethnic element and patriotism. The summation of this is personal interest.
A man asked Imam Ali (a.s) to define Islam for him. The Imam replied: “I will give you an exact definition which has not been given before. Islam means submission to truth”. Islam is therefore contrary to stubbornness and prejudice.
From the Islamic point of view, the search for ‘truth' is like the search for a lost property. For instance, if you have lost your wedding ring you don't mind who brings it to you; whether they are from the same party, religion, creed, colour, social status, friend or not, as long as it is found. Such finding shall be truth for a Muslim.
Stubbornness is also a natural result of prejudice. Once a person forms a prejudice towards another person or situation, it can make stubborn.
In your search for truth promise yourself not to form any opinion beforehand about anything. Avoid any pre-judgment by insufficient knowledge, irrational feelings and inaccurate stereotypical approaches.
6) Blind Following
One of the most destructive plagues of knowledge is to blindly follow inherited opinions. Naturally, when an opinion is accepted for many years or centuries, people tend to take its truth for granted.
The general acceptance of the Ptolemaic system of the geocentric universe in which the earth was considered to be stationary and motionless at the centre of the universe, was taken for granted for more than 13 centuries until Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, came up with the theory that the sun is at rest near the centre.
One of the major problems of reformers with the people of their age, has always been their ‘fear of any change' to the inherited systems they have been practicing, whether it has been rational or not.
Another spectrum of blind following is to follow the majority purely because of their number. For a true researcher of knowledge, the number of people is not a determining factor; it is purely reasoning and sensibility, which determines fact. Sadly, as the mass is easily manipulated, they are not usually with the truth. A genuine searcher for truth therefore, ought to be free from the kingdom of number.
It is very important when in search for truth, not to be scared or discouraged by the small number of people who agree with you, if you believe you have found the truth. Imam Ali (a.s) says: “If you have a walnut in your hand and people say you have a piece of gold, it won't benefit you, and if you have a piece of gold in your hand and people say it is a walnut, it won't harm you.”
Motives of Blind Following
• Mental Immaturity
• Common Fame
• Ethnic Identity
7) Superficial Observation
Many superficial and trivial looking ideas may seem wrong, but when you spend more time on them and have studied more in-depth, you would then be in a better position to comment. The difference between a superficial look and the professional observation is the difference between Newton 's observation of an apple tree and other peoples' view.
8) Statesmen's Influence
An Arabic expression says: “People are with the religion of their kings.” This is due to the influence of the statesmen over their subjects by utilising various means. The story of a man who came to Damascus, had a dispute over his camel and the reply of Mo'awia is very famous.
Propaganda agencies attempt to induce psychological warfare against their enemies. Today with the technological advancement of the mass media, especially those of the electronic media, outlets available to propagandists are expanded.
The story of a man who came from Damascus, met Imam Husain (a.s.) and started insulting him, is very famous in history. Also, for further example of this ‘plague', see the book ‘ The Gulf War Never Happened' ! or watch the movie 'wag the dog '.
The effect of propaganda is sometimes very strong. Take, for example, the story of the fool who was disturbed by some naughty children. In order for him to get rid of the children he told them that someone was distributing free ice cream on the other side of the city.
When all of the children left towards that place, he thought for a while and then immediately followed them. Someone asked him: “Why are you following them?” “Just in case it was true!!” he replied.
10) Indulging in Sins
The last but not the least plague of any knowledge is indulging in sin. Truth is pure and will not be achieved with impurity. Seeking pleasure contradicts and avoids discoveries in the search for truth.
Two Tips for Researchers for Truth
1) Make No Assumptions
Assumption is the first obstacle in search for truth. Assumption means to take something for granted and to believe it is true without proof. The treatment is to promise yourself you will make no assumptions without looking at the evidence first.
2) Do Not Justify
By justification here, I mean to try to find excuses to justify an irrational issue, due to your pre-assumption influence. The classic example of such justification is how a Christian believes that people are absolved from all sins if they merely believe in Jesus Christ. This false doctrine would justify committing sin as they will be absolved.