‘You have to watch things’.
In her perceptive, elegant essay, ‘Things are Against Us’, the British novelist Lucy Ellman confesses that she is the kind of person who is losing things, dropping things, breaking things ‘(even bits of my own body, bones, teeth, heart)’; and generally, ‘becoming a cropper over THINGS’. The problem is that things ‘do not have your best interests at heart’. They have their own priorities and agenda, and, as such, there are so many ‘cruel, cunning little acts of malice perpetuated upon us by THINGS’. Thing is, ‘THINGS are out to get us’.
But what is a thing? Philosophers have been pondering the question, but no real answers are forthcoming. The dictionary only tells us it could be any material thing or indeed anything that becomes a thought. A friend of mine spent around fifteen years pondering the question for his doctoral thesis. Irfan Ahmad Khan (1931–2015) was an exceptionally superb human being, as well as a brilliant philosopher and scholar of Islam. A ride in his car was an education on the nature of things, and how ignorant we are of things; and a close encounter or two, as he seldom paid attention to the road when in full lecture mode, with that thing called death. The thing that bothered him the most was how ignorant contemporary Muslims are of the thing called the Qur’an. He spent the last decades of his life writing a monumental commentary on the first two chapters of the Sacred Text. ‘Jan-e-mun (my life, my darling)’, he would say, ‘to repair a broken thing one has to work out why it is broken, and to repair it one has to actively follow the path of replacing evil with goodness.’ But how could you do that if you were knee deep in ignorance, things were always changing, you had no idea of how to change things, and worse, no understanding of goodness?
Paradoxically, the thing we are most ignorant about is a thing itself called ignorance. We know a lot about knowledge. But remarkably, we know next to nothing about ignorance. Given, as American historian of science, Robert Proctor, notes ‘(a) how much ignorance there is, (b) how many kinds there are, and (c) how consequential ignorance is in our lives’. Indeed, Proctor has suggested, ours is the age of ignorance. And, it’s everywhere.
It is ever present in popular parlance. ‘Ignorance is bliss’, ‘blind ignorance’, ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’. Indeed, ignorance is even used as a form of argument. In medical research, for example, a medication may be considered safe even though we may be ignorant of its potential side effects; as long as there is no evidence that it is unsafe. Courts judge a person ‘not guilty’ when we lack evidence of guilt. ‘These are judgments of practice, of course, and subject to practical conditions,’ notes the American philosopher Daniel DeNicola, ‘but the arguments on which they rest are appeals to ignorance, nevertheless.’ Then, there are such things as fake news, deep fakes, and racist algorithms and chauvinist AI. Big data, now used for most research, incorporates as much indecent ignorance as decent information. An ocean of ignorance is proliferated by social media and the communication channels that amplify lies and disinformation, harden cognitive maps, and seem to be taking us towards some sort of violent conclusion. Certain television stations have no other function than to spew ignorance twenty-four hours a day.
The meticulously researched Channel 4 series, ‘The Undeclared War’ (2022), illustrates how far we have travelled and where we have reached. A television station, not far removed from Fox News or Russia Today, establishes websites for two non-existing organisations: ‘Putin for Labour’ and ‘Take Back Control of Luton’. A young perturbed journalist confronts the mature editor, ‘it’s all made up. The whole thing’. No, the editor replies: ‘it exists. On this page it’s got ninety-six members.’ The two non-existing but opposing groups soon take a real shape and confront each other on the streets leading to violent chaos. The editor explains: ‘whether it is faked isn’t the point. I mean everything that is reported is fake one way or another…The point is to get the people used to the idea that everything is a lie. That there is no truth. Once they accept that, well, the biggest liar wins.’ Them’s the rules.
On top of all this we have such things as conspiracy theories. The world is awash with them – from QAnon and Trumpism to Barack Obama birtherism, the moon landing hoax to alien abductions, the Protocols of Zion to myths about the Holocaust. ‘The trouble with the conspiracy theory,’ writes Robin Yassin-Kassab in this issue, ‘is that it over-simplifies, over-generalises and over-explains. It assumes that one specific conspiracy wields the power to cancel out all others. It reduces the dazzling complexity of reality. It seeks to boil everything down to one key factor. It sees one overarching plot rather than a jumble of a trillion.’ Thus, ‘a child’s refusal to pray can be put down, very simply, to polio drops,’ which the dastardly Americans are using to sterilise innocent Muslims.
There is ignorance that actually threatens our survival – ignorance about the consequences of the behaviour of our own species, such as micro plastics throughout the planetary environment and in our bodies, the proliferation of man-made chemicals and their interaction with each other and the biota, the potential future consequences of all varieties of genetic engineering, and AI enhanced killer robots. Not to mention our ignorance of other species on the planet. We don’t know, reports Colin Tudge, ‘even to an order of magnitude how many different species share this world with us. Fewer than two million have been formally described and named (which means several per day for the past 200 years). But even among the best-known and best-studied species – birds, mammals, frogs, fish, insects, flowering plants – new discoveries are still being added, probably faster than ever. So modern scientists now estimate that the true number of living species could be anywhere from five to 30 million – or 100 million-plus if we include bacteria and archaeans. Eight million is a conservative ball-park figure. So, at best we have observed and formally described less than a quarter.’ When it comes to the creatures lives and relationships, how they create and maintain ecosystems, we known even less.
Considerable amount of ignorance in our times is deliberately manufactured. Nation states use digital technologies to enhance the ignorance of their own citizens; and engage in cyberwars with the clear aim of increasing the ignorance of societies they perceive as enemies. Whether it is Russia’s misinformation war, or China’s use of digital technology to maintain and control its citizens – and, in some cases, eradicate their religion and culture – or, the old-fashioned CIA ‘black ops’, the end goal is the same: suppress knowledge and truth and promote ignorance. Big business often suppresses genuine knowledge and fosters ignorance. Think of tobacco companies consistently denying the dangers of smoking, preventing regulations that would reduce smoking, and promoting cancer sticks as a sign of ‘liberation’ and what is ‘cool’ in advertising as well as cinema. Or oil giants who bank-rolled ‘research’ that deliberately caused doubts on climate science, set up lobbies that denied the impact of human action on climate change, and systematically undermined regulation to promote renewable energy sources. Much of advertising is in fact lies that hide the dark side of the product being sold.
Given that we are shrouded in what I have elsewhere called ‘the smog of ignorance’, why is so little attention being given to ignorance? What we know and what we don’t know is a product of cultural, social, political, ideological, and institutional structures that surround us. Knowledge does not emerge from a vacuum but arises from a particular cultural milieu that determines what is important to know and what is not, what is central to its worldview and what is marginal and irrelevant, what needs to be controlled and managed and what needs to be promoted and elevated, and what needs to be made visible and what needs to be suppressed and hidden. We know a great deal about the male body, but our knowledge of female bodies is pitiful largely because biology and medicine have been hitherto dominated by men. The dominant culture often presents its knowledge as truth while attributing ignorance to other cultures thereby producing its own kind of ignorance of other cultures. That is why we know so much about Western epistemology and are so ignorant of the epistemologies of the South. Orientalism, for example, was/is constructed ignorance about Islam and Muslims designed both to relegate them to the margins and deprive them of the power of self-representation. Anthropology emerged not so much to gain knowledge about other cultures but to discover how they can be controlled and managed – made into good colonial subjects. The subaltern really does not speak in modern and postmodern scientific, political, and cultural arenas.
In The Fire Next Time, the brilliant American novelist and thinker James Baldwin accuses his country and fellow white countrymen (and women), of a heinous crime for which they will never be forgiven. It has taken hundreds and thousands of black lives – a thing called slavery – on an institutionalised and industrial scale. But Baldwin does not accuse them of racism. Rather, he accuses them of ignorance: ‘they do not know it and do not want to know it’. Moreover, it is this ignorance that continues to perpetuate the crime in its manifestation as racism. And as Gordon Blaine Steffey shows, this ignorance is deeply embedded in ‘neutral’ institutions of American society and democracy, the police and zoning laws, what is taught as history, in liberal categories of reason and neutrality, and in knowledge production itself. Critical Race Theory (CRT) aims to expose this ignorance: it ‘is an indispensable tool for disclosing a more truthful story about America because it unsentimentally exposes the past in our present with an eye to an America that is yet to come’. This is precisely why right-wing America wants to suppress and raise doubts about CRT.
Contemporary modes of knowledge production and practice themselves lead to ignorance. Indeed, Western epistemologies are also theories of suppressed, neglected, deliberately constructed, and other varieties of ignorance. Knowledge structures, notes Linda Martin Alcoff, American philosopher and women’s studies professor, impress ‘a pattern of self-forming practices’ that create ‘systematic ignorance’; they establish ‘specific knowing practices inculcated in a socially dominant group’. So, ignorance becomes not just absence of knowledge but an integral, substantive part of knowledge production and practice.
We can see this in philosophy and science. The prime focus of philosophers is on analysis – on the sources, structures, evidence, arguments, and justification of knowledge. The emphasis is on the delineation of knowledge from mere belief, supposition or unsupported hypothesis. Philosophers, after all, as Andrew Bennett, the British literary critic, notes, ‘seek to go beyond their own exploration of ignorance, to produce “positive” or “constructive” knowledge’. Plato was not impressed by Socrates’s mantra that all he knew was that he knew nothing – ‘awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom’; ‘admitting one’s ignorance is the first step to acquiring knowledge’. He banned poets from his Republic for their ‘disease’ of ignorance. Philosophy, notes Bennett, ‘can be seen as a discourse, before all others, that in the end because it knows ignorance, defends against it and exposes it, thereby cutting it’. But it is like cutting the branch one is sitting on.
Modern science too banished ignorance. After all, science was a war against ignorance and superstition; and ‘scientific method’ was supposed to deliver Truth. Scientific progress, as Tudge says, meant ‘complete understanding of life, the universe, and everything, all expressed with the neatness and finality of E=mc2’. Economics too followed a similar path, suffering ‘physics envy’ just like life sciences. The ‘dismal science’, whether happy or not with that moniker, would lean into that idea that at least a ‘science’ had an answer for its problems, yet its attempt at knowledge creation has resulted in some of the most oppressive ignorance produced to date – that constantly befuddles our complex and interconnected world. For much of modern history, ignorance has been the unthought of knowledge production: something to suppress, escape, eradicate, be left out of sight, ignored as the outliers.
Not surprisingly, until quite recently, we did not even have a word for the study of ignorance. The word ignorance itself comes to English from the French who derived it from the Latin ignōrāns, or ‘the want of knowledge or information’. An initial term for the theoretical study of ignorance was suggested by the Scottish rationalist philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864). Ferrier coined the term epistemology for the theory of knowledge and suggested ‘agnoiology’ for the study of ignorance. But much like ignorance itself, agnoiology largely remained neglected. More recently, the term agnotology has come into vogue, introduced by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger in their 2008 edited volume, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance.
So finally, ignorance is emerging from the shadows of Western academia. It is being taken seriously in philosophy, science, and technology studies, and a host of social science disciplines. Its diverse causes are being investigated – from denial, suppression, and secrecy to neglect, myopia, and wilful manufacture. And forgetfulness – so movingly explored in this issue of Critical Muslim through a very personal essay by Alev Adil. The conscious, unconsciousness, and structural dimensions of ignorance are being explored. This is well illustrated by the Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies – with a graffiti image on the cover that declares: ‘Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge’ – edited by German sociologist and science studies scholar, Mattias Gross and British sociologist, Linsey McGoey. The Handbook covers a wide variety of ignorances, including literary, scientific, economic, journalistic, rational, and white ignorances, providing historical and methodological perspectives, and explores the connection between ignorance and power. It is quite a treasure trove of ignorance!
The co-editor of the Handbook, McGoey, is a pioneer and can be considered a doyen of ignorance studies. In her contribution to this issue of CM, she analyses her notion of ‘strategic ignorance’ defined as ‘the mobilization and exploitation of the unknowns in a situation in order to command resources, deny liability in the aftermath of disaster, and to assert expert control in the face of unpredictable outcomes’.
The story of ignorance in Muslim culture is somewhat different. Knowledge in Islam, it is generally accepted, is not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge; it ought to have a purpose, and as such, its immediate object is its own ignorance. Muslims were well aware of what German theologian Nicholas Cusanus (1401–1464) called ‘learned ignorance’. As Bruce Lawrence states, ‘there is a long legacy of attention to ignorance, both simple and compound, in Islamic intellectual history’; and William Franke acknowledges, there are ‘outstanding figures of genius who have made unmistakable the eminent role that Muslims have played in developing knowledge which, at its truest and highest, cannot but be an unknowing knowing’.
Lawrence takes a closer look at Knowledge Triumphant, the majestic 1970 book of Franz Rosenthal (1914–2003), the German-American scholar of Islam. Rosenthal shows that during the classical period, Muslim scholars produced over 500 definitions of ilm, the term for knowledge in Islam, many related to jahiliyah, the term for ignorance in Islamic parlance. In contrast to knowledge, to which the Qur’an devotes considerable space, jahiliyah is mentioned in the Qur’an only four times. The term is sometimes used to describe the pre-Islamic period, but, as Rosenthal points out, its true meaning is an ‘ignorant person’; and such a person could also be someone who has some type of knowledge. Indeed, Iblis, the angel who rebels against God and is thrown out of heaven, is a very knowledgeable entity but determined to be wicked. In his Book of Knowledge, al-Ghazali (1058–1111) categorises certain kinds of knowledge as ‘blameworthy’, for they could lead to wickedness even though they may be based on evidence and rational inquiry. Ignorance, then, is seen in Islamic history as an essential dimension of knowledge, and an integral part of the thought of a knowledgeable individual. Or, as Lawrence puts it: ‘all human knowledge, precisely because it comes from God, is shadowed by ignorance’. Hence, the universal command in Islam to constantly say, no matter who you are, ‘I do not know’. The Prophet emphasised this when he said, ‘it constitutes part of knowledge to say, if one has no knowledge, Allah a’lam’ – God knows best.
Ilm is often equated with other terms to draw attention to its ignorance. One term often mentioned in conjunction with ilm is marifa, or coming to know with experience or reflection. This is the domain of the unknowable and the unsayable that Franke explores in the thought of the great mystics Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) and Rumi (1207–1273). Here, our knowledge, derived through contemplation of God, turns out to be nothing but a cosmos of ignorance; for ‘God is not degraded to identity with things; he is in no way any thing. Rather, all things are nothing, except in him’. Ignorance becomes a resource that is essential for acquiring certain kinds of knowledge; and knowledge and ignorance are not viewed as competing perspectives at loggerhead with each other but as two sides of the same coin.
It is interesting to note that another term used for experiential knowledge is tahqiq, which literally means investigation. This investigation begins with the attempt ‘to know things by verifying and realising their truth and reality for oneself. One cannot verify the truth and reality of things without knowing them first hand, in one’s own soul, without any help from anyone other than God’. This is intellectual knowing: ‘true self-knowledge knows the nothingness of the self and the absoluteness of the Other that it can know at first only as Nothing’. Intellectual knowing, argues Franke, is ‘Islamic philosophy’s greatest breakthrough towards modernity’. And there is an urgent need to leverage this Muslim tradition ‘in constructing the genealogy of an alternative modernity’.
Meanwhile, current modernity has lumbered us with a host of problems, not least of which is climate chaos. Shanon Shah looks at the manifestations of ignorance of climate emergency in Muslim societies, and focusses on three countries: Egypt, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. Shah uses two criteria for examining the policies of each of the three states: what influence it exercises on shaping a contemporary understanding of Islam; and does it acknowledge its own contributions and responsibility in tackling climate change, seeks forgiveness for its environmental sins (makes tawbah), and is ready to make amends. Egypt, it turns out has destroyed its environment, and nearly killed the great river Nile that provides water for five countries, through shear old fashioned ignorance. It represents the jahils, the ignorant people the Qur’an condemns as those ‘who have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear’ (7:179). Malaysia displays a different kind of ignorance. It is seen as a modern state, but its influence on shaping Islamic understanding of climate change is marginal. It has the right policies and appears to be saying and doing the right things on the surface. But the underlying reality is otherwise: it is actually destroying its rainforests at a frightening pace and endangering the entire planet. It has knowledge, but scrumptiously chooses the path of ignorance. Shah describes this as munafiq ignorance – the ignorance of the hypocrites. Their outward appearance, the Qur’an says, is pleasing; but ‘they use the oaths as cover’, ‘what they have been doing is truly evil’; ‘they are like propped up timbre’ (63:2-5). Finally, Saudi Arabia, which exercises major influence on how Islam is perceived and understood, and which has played a significant role in promoting fossil fuels and thwarting global efforts to tackle climate change, is assigned a totally different category of ignorance. Saudi Arabia is not just in denial, consciously and unconsciously, of climate change. Rather, it has set itself ‘up as a Divine authority whilst defiling Allah’s creation’. It is committing shirk, which is not just ignorance via denial, but ignorance that represents an existential threat here and now as well as in the Hereafter.
Climate change, Shah points out, is a ‘wicked problem’. It has numerous contradictory variables that are changing, it is socially, culturally, and politically complex, has many varieties and dimensions of ignorance, and is therefore not particularly amenable to a single solution. Strictly speaking, wicked problems have no solutions. But climate crisis is not the only complex issue currently facing humanity. The world is full of wicked problems. Virtually all our economic, environmental, and political issues, are wicked problems, which cannot be resolved in binary true or false fashion, or have a given solution that can be discovered through trial and error. Wicked problems are a product of our interconnected, interdependent world. We are faced not just with accelerating change that is global in scope and reaches to the scale of the individual, but change also happens simultaneously in several arenas of human endeavour. The outcome is mindboggling complexity – proliferating contradictions, and frequent chaos. In other words: the nature of change is itself changing. In such postnormal times, understanding ignorance in all its multiple dimensions is an imperative to our survival, and the endurance of the planet. Wicked problems and complex issues cannot be managed and controlled. We need to navigate our way out of postnormal times to more viable futures – and ignorance is a quintessential component of the compass we need.
The emergence of agnotology and ignorance studies is thus both vital and timely. But we cannot be content with the way things are. Agnotology has been criticised, particularly from a science studies perspective, for being limited in scope, ignoring institutional and structural mechanisms that produce ignorance, and ascribing ignorance mostly to corruption in science, perpetuated by corporations, industries, private interests, and the odd bad apple. This shortcoming, it has been suggested, can be met by giving due attention to things that are not explored and studied: ‘empty spaces’ in all areas of research, and ‘undone science’ – the lack of knowledge on certain issues and problems identified by activists and concerned citizens, but neglected by mainstream research. A new discipline, dubbed ‘political sociology of science’, is emerging to meet this need.
But there is a bigger challenge. The study of ignorance in disciplinary silos, based on paradigms that demonstrably are increasingly irrelevant and no longer work, will not take us very far. The first ignorance we need to overcome is the ignorance of disciplines themselves as well as disciplinary boundaries. Most social science disciplines are ‘zombie disciplines’ – things that are dead and continue their ravenous existence nevertheless. Zombie disciplines, note Shamim Miah and Liam Mayo, ‘disseminate ideas and concepts that are no longer representative of reality but continue to shape minds and imagination, education and policies, outlooks and futures’. They are products of ‘modernity, diseased by neo-liberalism, unchanged and increasingly irrelevant in postnormal times’. These disciplines range from anthropology and political science to economics (held together with mindless rotting notions such as perpetual growth and the putrid plaster of illusory free markets). They also include ‘development studies, cultural studies to media studies, all varieties of “area studies”, certain types of history and philosophy, particular perspectives on biology, and many other “subjects” in between’.
This is the ‘normal’ world of academic disciplines. A graffiti slogan that appeared in a variety of languages and syntax throughout the world in response to the globe-stopping first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, roughly reads: ‘We don’t want to return to normal. Because normal was the problem in the first place.’ The disciplinary structures of knowledge, which is largely a product of imperialism and emerged during the colonial period, is itself based on ignorance; and hence, the major problem and challenge for initiating the study of ignorance.
At the very least, ignorance needs to be studied from multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary perspectives. A good example is provided by Bennett who suggests that literature and philosophy should join hands with regard to ignorance to explore ‘whether or not one moves beyond aporia or perplexity, beyond not knowing’. While philosophers aim at producing affirmative knowledge, literature is a discourse ‘which doesn’t (or doesn’t always or doesn’t necessarily) move (or attempt to move, or desire to move) beyond perplexity or aporia, beyond ignorance’. The inability to know is not necessarily a disadvantage; indeed, it can be turned into an advantage. The key to the flip resides within such profound simplicities.
The point is that we need to move from disciplinary enclaves to integration of knowledge. This journey begins with the acknowledgment of: (a) the limitation of disciplinary perspectives that cannot deal with complex problems and issues; and that (b) complex problems need complex approaches that can only be gained through multiple perspectives; (c) multiple perspectives need many different modes of knowing; (d) different ways of knowing cannot be supplied by a single culture but require plurality of cultures, each with its own definition, notions and concepts of knowledge and ignorance; and (e) the total abandonment of the ignorant belief that Western culture is the only culture entitled to produce knowledge, and is the only culture that has produced knowledge. However, it is not good enough simply to acknowledge that other cultures have produced knowledge and continue to do so. We need to engage with knowledge systems of non-Western cultures within their own notions and conceptual frameworks. We need to give equal attention to the epistemologies of the South, tacit knowledge of indigenous cultures, and experiential knowledge, not just of mystics, but also that found in everyday lives. This is not an exercise in arrogant assimilation, or alienating reduction, but in holistic synthesis aimed at seeking knowledge about the limits of knowing. A knowledge production system inspired by a network, as opposed to a hierarchical or pejorative system, assists the maintenance of equality towards equity. Most of all, this requires humility, appreciation, understanding, and imagination free from the colonised constraints of disciplinary structures and the obsessions and fantasies of a single dominant culture. It’s time to usher in a new understanding of goodness.
At the end of her essay, Ellmann realises that there may be sound reasons why things are against us. We are, she says, ‘polluting THINGS, shooting THINGS, refuting the nature of THINGS…we are always wrecking THINGS, exploiting THINGS, belittling THINGS, dislodging THINGS’. She could have added we are creating things that kill us, things that are destroying the planet, things that are altering our biology. We use things that belong to the dead-end of modernity, academic things that have passed their ‘sell by’ dates, and things that will not help us find a way out of our current impasse. A thing that goes under the rubric of capitalist ideology has devastated ordinary lives. The thing called Western civilisation has brought us to the brink of extinction with its hubris. Meanwhile, we keep building things that, as James Brooks says, are nothing more than a Can of Ham, and keep ‘filling our time and heads’ as we stare at things we call screens.
Ellmann concludes: ‘we are ignorant of THINGS’. But more than that: we are just ignorant things.