Ignorance: Bliss or Poison?

By Maryam Asad

“The hearts of the wise live in the house of mourning, while the hearts of the fools are in the house of mirth (amusement).” Ecclesiastes 7:4, Bible

It is often remarked that ignorance is bliss and the path of knowledge takes this feeling away from you. Which is to say the more we inquire and learn about the reality of the world, the more depressing it seems. That is why often people willfully remain ignorant to keep their peace of mind. Yet, the Holy Books and Scriptures prescribe you this apparently miserable path for salvation. Islam too, is adamant on this position and heavily encourages one to tread this path. An often-quoted incident from Prophet Muhammad’s (S.A.W.) life in this regard is the way war prisoners were dealt with after the Battle of Badr. The Makkans were literate people and those who could not afford the ransom were entrusted with teaching ten Muslim children. This step highlighted how the Prophet (S.A.W.) valued literacy in the young state of Madinah from the earliest days. He also encouraged travelling for the sake of knowledge: “He who treads the path in search of knowledge, Allah would make that path easy, leading to Paradise for him” [Sahih Muslim 2699]. Numerous other examples can be extracted from the Quran and history of Islam where knowledge is given utmost priority. Allah says in Quran:

            “Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike? Only the men of understanding are mindful. ” (Quran, 39:9)

Here having knowledge means being more conscious of Allah. It means to be conscious of the fact that Allah is all-knowing, hearing and seeing. He is aware of the deepest secrets that resides in our hearts and of the actions which we perform. Being conscious of this makes us conscious of our words and actions. It, then, implies that having knowledge about the existence of one true God makes us truthful in our words and actions. This truthfulness then makes us to seek knowledge and extend the horizons of our thinking. It then leads to the eradication of ‘jahalat’ (ignorance), on which Islam has emphasized the most.

            If seeking knowledge is accredited such an important position in our religious tradition, then why is ignorance considered to be a bliss? Think of it in this way; if you are unaware and, then you are freed from the burdens of truth. One cannot hold you accountable when you are unaware of the responsibility in the first place. It liberates you from the responsibility of spreading the word of truth. Even Allah has given leverage to those who are unaware. For instance, if you have committed a sin without knowing it was a sin, you will not be penalized for that.

Yet, the question arises why knowledge is given an immense importance then? Why do we try to eradicate ignorance and impart knowledge? Professor Suroosh Irfani, a writer and columnist based in Lahore, explains it as: “Ignorance is a poison to humanity and the escape is through consciousness.” It shows an apparent contradiction between ignorance being a bliss and a poison. He explains this contradiction as being context specific. For instance, a cat will not be worried about who is the creator of this universe, or what elements does the Earth have, or how does wood catches fire etc. For it, ignorance is a bliss because it neither has drive nor need for that knowledge and it lets it live peacefully. It does not have the responsibility of gaining knowledge and deciphering the truth.

 If we look closely then ignorance does not harm humans individually. They can also go on living without knowing the secrets of universe. But if we extend the concept of ignorance on a societal level i.e. lack of knowledge about our society, social responsibilities, rules and regulations, our rights and duties, our national agenda or the politics happening around us; it can create many problems. It can cause destruction beyond repair. It can be, in true sense, a ‘poison’. To be unaware of society we live in and the demands it poses towards us, makes our existence difficult. If we will not know the functions and operations of the public, we will not be able to solve the issues we will face resulting in weakening our community. Moreover, the weakness of the community can be used as a tool against the society itself. For instance, a person was interviewed who was in the protest by Teehrek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) against the government of Imran Khan. He was asked why is he in the protest? To which he replied because IK is a Jew and his sons are getting an education from Israel. Then he was asked who told you this? He said: Our Leader. Now that is problematic. Here ignorance has been used as a tool to disturb the peace of society by fabricating the knowledge of people. Using the same tool, we see terrorist organizations like ISIS brainwashing people. They then use these people to spread terror in the name of Islam. These brainwashed people are told they are doing it for the greater good and they accept it. Ignorance has also been used as a tool for oppression. We can find many other examples of destruction and havoc caused because of ignorance. Now, what is the solution to it? As stated earlier “escape is through consciousness.” We awake our reasoning and see from the eyes of knowledge. Being human, it is our responsibility to look for the truth. We should be looking for credibility instead of blindly following the news. The Holy Prophet (SAW) made the following dua in reference to knowledge:

Oh Allah, indeed, I ask you for beneficial knowledge.”

Nonetheless, with knowledge will come great moral responsibility. That responsibility would be of spreading the truth. However, there will always be people who will resist it and will not be open to conscious awakening. Quran explains these people as they will not be able to see despite having eyes, they will not be able to hear despite having sense of hearing and they will not be able to understand despite having ability to understand. Allah said to Holy Prophet (SAW), who was continuously trying to bring the lost ones to the right path, that you cannot do anything about them. Allah says in the Quran:

Such are men whose hearts Allah has sealed, and who follow their own lusts” [Quran 47:16]

 However, such people should not stop us from preaching the truth. Our responsibility is not only to strive for the credible knowledge but also to save ourselves from the poison of ignorance. The reason being ignorance can lead to arrogance in a way that an ignorant person is not flexible in learning. They are rigid in their concepts and leave no room for improvement. If they internalize a concept, they do not think it can be a wrong one, and when a person tries to defy it through logic, they do not listen. Therefore, we should rather be open to criticism than be arrogant. In such cases, the responsibility will lie on those who possess knowledge to make sure such arrogance does not hurt the society. However God is aware of our intentions; and the hurdles in fulfilling the responsibilities towards the truths we know of, should not prevent us from immersing in the pursuit of knowledge.

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