Be Like Adam's Son: Power and Knowledge Again

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We are now in a better position to ask again if power and knowledge are one and the same thing, or the two sides of one coin.

What we see in life is that power, or authority, is different from knowledge; we see for instance how the ruling elite is different from the intellectual elite. This dialectic relation can be better understood through analogy. Let us look for instance at agriculture. Crops used to grow without human intervention at first. And then people observed, and from first observing and then working at cultivating crops humankind developed scientific agriculture. We can go from here to observing what happens in social life, and to draw out laws and rules; and if our knowledge is sound enough, we can ourselves choose what will happen in the particular context we have investigated. In this spirit we can study authority and knowledge.

Let us as a start say that authority is the fruit of knowledge, a particular type of knowledge. To understand this it is necessary that one realizes that knowledge is not just a homogeneous mass. Knowledge can be solid and hard, or can be soft; one may have knowledge and is conscious of it, or it may lie deep in his subconscious without his/her being aware of it. You may just reflect on our ability to speak – how the acquisition of words begins by learning words and expressions with effort, and then, as we use the learned things time after time, they are produced unconsciously. We can notice this more clearly in our learning a foreign tongue – you see how the process of language learning begins as an arduous effort, and ends up as a smooth flow in which the subconscious mind plays more and more the main part. It is especially noticeable how some rules of grammar are present in the conscious mind, but they may take a very long time to be used spontaneously, i.e. we have difficulty shifting them from the conscious to the subconscious mind. And some scholars of the grammar of a foreign tongue can tell you the rules to perfection, but still make so many errors when using the foreign language. It is quite relevant here to reflect how God reminds us that learning the facts of belief and disbelief, and getting to know the world, is not unlike this process of speaking, "Then, by the Lord of heavens and earth, this is the very Truth, as much as the fact that you can speak intelligently to each other." (51:23)

Of course one can think of so many situations in which one's mastery of the skill proceeds from the conscious to the subconscious – riding a bicycle, typing, driving a car, swimming, and so on.

We may go on to consider situations where the conscious and subconscious go in different directions, as happens in mental disturbances handled by psychiatrists. It also happens that one may consciously claim to be something which is only superficially admitted, while deep in the mind one knows himself/herself not to believe in that which he/she claims to believe – this is the condition of the hypocrite. This mismatch of the two levels of consciousness is an important topic in the Qur'an, such as in the following example: "Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works." (18:104)

But how does all this pertain to the problem of authority and knowledge? Something definitely goes wrong in the Muslim world in this relationship between the body of scholars and the ruling elite. And we need to take this up in earnest. Since the mid 1960s I have felt the need to shed light on this situation, and back then I made a first attempt at this in my first book, The Way of Adam's son.

Now in the right order of things knowledge should use power to serve the good of people. We see this for instance in harnessing powers like electricity to do us various services. While electricity can shock or even kill a human in case he/she does not know how to deal with it – it is really not in electricity's nature to surrender to human beings and to help them; it is rather people's learning about its laws that enabled them to subdue it and use it to their good.

From this we may reflect on another point that is related to our discussion: people, even the scholarly ones, generally hold to things they have heard so many times, and deny what is new to them. But let us further reflect that some of the ideas and norms that we now accept without difficulty caused some people in the past to be tortured for holding them. It is often unfortunate how long it takes a novel idea to get to be commonly accepted. We may readily accept innovations in technology, but that is not so in social matters. It is much harder for social facts to get settled in the subconscious.

All that we have gone through about this conscious-subconscious business is quite relevant to our discussion of the authority and knowledge and men of knowledge.

Let us begin with stating that in our part of the world authority draws more on the subconscious than on the conscious; that is because we have not yet learned at the conscious level enough about the modern concept of authority. It takes time and effort to quite comprehend the modern sense of authority, and then more effort to be more familiarized with this developed sense of authority until it takes its place at the subconscious level. What determines how authority is like in our part of the world is the old notions that we inherited from previous centuries. Even when we declare and announce our conviction that authority must develop into a more democratic form, our conviction there is shallow and has not taken root. Such conviction will have to be more fully internalized before it is reflected in our various moods and activities, and will have to be seen in our art and literature. At present, it is still a brittle and tender thing.

Therefore we are justified in saying that our knowledge in connection with authority is at variance with the practice of authority; but had our knowledge been solid enough, then authority as it is practiced will have to apply what is settled in our minds. The Qur'an teaches us how knowledge does not occur in an all-or-none state – Abraham, for instance assures his Lord that he does believe, but he needs to strengthen his faith, "Behold! Abraham said: 'My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.' He said: 'Do you not then believe?' He said: 'Yes! But to satisfy my own heart.' " (2:260) So if God guided Abraham here how to deepen his faith, how can we revive that right conception of authority, which has been in slumber for centuries and centuries?

Look carefully, young man and young woman! The real authority belongs to knowledge; and when you see a scholar who has no authority, it is because he is not well-grounded in his knowledge. Do not be daunted by the power elite's strutting around – indeed, once firm and solid knowledge comes, the authority will without much ado transfer into the scholars' hand. When we now see the wrong people holding the reins, we must imagine them saying, without words: "Do not blame me, O scholars! blame rather yourselves! It is only that your knowledge is still lame and inadequate. If you had attained to sound knowledge, I would be at your service, rather than you at mine. You in fact know almost nothing about the new age, and that is shown in your bending low before this obsolete and outmoded kind of rule. You are even dazzled and subdued at the spectacle of modern knowledge, and would not rise to absorbing it. Such knowledge as you possess is brittle and not impressive at all!"