Change and the paradox of illiteracy
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Illiteracy is defined as the state of lacking knowledge in a particular subject or field. Cultural literacy, by contrast, is the ability to understand and participate in a given culture. Humans have responded to the problem of illiteracy by realizing the value of knowledge and education. To efficiently communicate the value of literacy and knowledge, cultures emerge to facilitate the spread of learning and to preserve accumulated experience over time. In this regard, the older and stronger the culture is the more accumulated experience is available, or so it is expected.
However, it is inevitable that cultures will eventually depart from the original values they were built upon. Cultures are transient in nature whereas values are fixed. Moreover, cultures carry inertia and the older and deeper they are the more difficult it is to introduce change, and this produces a paradox. Cultures are intended to promote knowledge and accumulated experience by setting rules and norms to serve as a platform for people of that culture. The stronger the culture is the more efficiently those norms are communicated. On the other hand, the stronger the culture is the more it will resist change. Since cultures are transient in nature, strong cultures can also inhibit learning by acting as an obstacle to change. This leaves the door open for change and new knowledge to come from those who lack a strong culture or who are otherwise unaware, the illiterate, and such is the paradox.
The paradox of illiteracy has been cited in multiple fields. For example, it was noted in business that strong established companies fail in disruptive innovation merely because of their strong culture that prefers the status quo. More profoundly, it was noted by philosophers of science that new ground breaking findings and discoveries are often introduced by young scientists or ones new to their field. What is interesting here is that new theories developed outside of conventional scientific circles are strongly denied by older scientists from the establishment to the degree that those new theories are often adopted in their field only after that old generation of scientists either dies or retires!
This paradox has also been noted in formulations of strategy based on game theory. Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff explain this paradox from a strategic perspective in their book the Art of Strategy:
Groups that instill norms of fairness and altruism into their members will have less internal conflict than groups consisting of purely selfish individuals. Therefore they will be more successful in taking collective action… they will spend less effort and resources in internal conflict. As a result, they will do better, both in absolute terms and in competition with groups that do not have similar norms.
This paradox of change and illiteracy is very much related to the message of Islam as mentioned in the Quran:
هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِّنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُوا مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ
It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom, although they were before in clear error.
Surat Al-Jumuah 62:2
And again in another verse:
الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ ۙ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
They are those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So those who have believed in him, honored him, supported him, and followed the light which was sent down with him, it is those who will be successful.
Surat Al-A’raf 1:157
Novel change, as stated in those verses, was coming through novices, a people who lacked experience with scripture and established religion. However, that change has a story which runs deep through history.
The message of Ibrahim
Ibrahim, being the first to articulate the pillars of faith, was given the glad tiding that those pillars will be preserved and eventually spread to all humanity:
وَجَعَلَهَا كَلِمَةً بَاقِيَةً فِي عَقِبِهِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ
And he made it a word remaining among his descendants that they might return to it.
Surat Az-Zukhruf 43:28
The articles of faith have been preserved as an option for people to consider practicing again. Yet the story of how this preservation happened is quite interesting and open to examination. Preservation of the words of Ibrahim took two distinct paths, the first of which was through a strong culture which had been built around those articles by Ibrahim’s son Ishaq, known as Isaac. The second was through novices with a loosely defined culture by Ibrahim’s other son Ismail, known as Ishmael, when he was left with his mother in the desert by his father. Understanding the art of change and the paradox of illiteracy sheds light on the wisdom of leaving Ismail in the desert to preserve Ibrahim’s teachings.
In the first path, it was established early on that Ibrahim’s heritage will be preserved by passing it from one generation to another. In this approach, the linkage of each generation to Ibrahim and the understanding of their mission are very critical:
أَمْ كُنتُمْ شُهَدَاءَ إِذْ حَضَرَ يَعْقُوبَ الْمَوْتُ إِذْ قَالَ لِبَنِيهِ مَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِن بَعْدِي قَالُوا نَعْبُدُ إِلَٰهَكَ وَإِلَٰهَ آبَائِكَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَإِسْمَاعِيلَ وَإِسْحَاقَ إِلَٰهًا وَاحِدًا وَنَحْنُ لَهُ مُسْلِمُونَ
Or were you witnesses when death approached Jacob, when he said to his sons: What will you worship after me? They said: We will worship your God and the God of your fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, one God. And we are Muslims in submission to Him.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:123
Since the burden of preserving Ibrahim’s words was fully dependent on culture and heritage, any signs of weakness in the culture would constitute a serious crisis. An example of this is given in the story of Zakaria and his fear that the culture of his people was in decline and was departing from the original values of Ibrahim:
وَإِنِّي خِفْتُ الْمَوَالِيَ مِن وَرَائِي وَكَانَتِ امْرَأَتِي عَاقِرًا فَهَبْ لِي مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا يَرِثُنِي وَيَرِثُ مِنْ آلِ يَعْقُوبَ ۖ وَاجْعَلْهُ رَبِّ رَضِيًّا
Indeed, I fear the successors after me, and my wife has become barren, so give me an heir who will inherit me and inherit from the family of Jacob. My Lord, make him pleasing to you.
Surat Maryam 19:5-6
Zakaria’s comment exposes that the culture developed by the Israelites to preserve Ibrahim’s teachings was no longer serving its original values. It became resistant to change, despite change being an element necessary for any culture to adopt over time to better serve its values. This became apparent when the articles of faith started to give way to tribal loyalty instead of their universal mission. Hence, the culture which was initially developed to serve those values ultimately became an obstacle to them.
The idea of a chosen people and guaranteed forgiveness are some of the features that this culture started to adopt which degraded Ibrahim’s universal values into nationalistic and racial slogans. Since the culture no longer served the values of monotheism, the prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, was sent to them.
Jesus’ story is very important as it demonstrates problems in the cultural preservation of ideas. Although Jesus embraced the same values articulated by Ibrahim, his miraculous birth cut the linkage that traditionally existed for prophets carrying and promoting the same set of values. The fierce resistance he faced from the Israelites exposed their deformed culture which overshadowed Ibrahim’s universal values. This, by itself, indicated that a new form of change was coming:
وَإِذْ قَالَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ يَا بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُم مُّصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيَّ مِنَ التَّوْرَاةِ وَمُبَشِّرًا بِرَسُولٍ يَأْتِي مِن بَعْدِي اسْمُهُ أَحْمَدُ ۖ فَلَمَّا جَاءَهُم بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ قَالُوا هَٰذَا سِحْرٌ مُّبِينٌ
And mention when Jesus the son of Mary said: O children of Israel, I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me whose name is praised. But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said: This is obvious magic.
Surat As-Saff 61:6
The universal mission of the prophets was soon forgotten as the scriptures were co-opted by rulers and regimes who exploited religion to advance national, tribal, or racial causes. In this case, change was required to return Ibrahim’s words to all of mankind so his teachings could always be available for those who want to embrace them. This change would only be possible through novices, or illiterates, the lineage of Ismail.
Ismail, being left by his father in a deserted land at an early age, developed a relationship with people who later settled in the same area by sharing a common language and embracing the harsh reality of the desert. Caravans used to travel twice a year to the northern Levant and southern Yemen. Those caravans would bring back new products, ideas, and tools, a blessing to which the Quran would call their attention:
لِإِيلَافِ قُرَيْشٍ إِيلَافِهِمْ رِحْلَةَ الشِّتَاءِ وَالصَّيْفِ فَلْيَعْبُدُوا رَبَّ هَٰذَا الْبَيْتِ
For the accustomed security of the Quraysh, in the caravans of winter and summer, let them worship the Lord of this House.
Surat Al-Quraysh 106:1-3
The fact that they depended heavily on those annual trips made their culture loosely defined and open to change. The Arabs at that time were referred to as the illiterates since they did not have a strong culture of their own to impose or promote, rather, they were split in allegiances between the Persian Empire and the Roman Empire. For those who lived deep in the dessert, their embrace of the caravan’s journeys led them to import almost everything, aside from language which was considered a form of art in poetry as well as communication. Thus, with their less experienced culture more ready to change than those of the established empires, the revival of monotheism would come through them.
The path forward
The incredible spread of the message of monotheism at the hands of novices, who embraced the same universal values with a fresh perspective, is a clear manifestation of the paradox of illiteracy. But what happens when novices start to build a strong culture around their success? We would expect the same natural phenomena of resisting change and departing from the original set of values to take place. Indeed, as Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
خَيْرُ النَّاسِ قَرْنِي ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ ثُمَّ يَجِيءُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِمْ قَوْمٌ تَسْبِقُ شَهَادَتُهُمْ أَيْمَانَهُمْ وَأَيْمَانُهُمْ شَهَادَتَهُمْ
The best people are those of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them. Then, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths and whose oaths will precede their witness.
The development and decline of culture will take place in the Muslim world the same way it has with other cultures. If the message is to be preserved for future generations, how can this cycle be interrupted? The answer will come from fresh minds who will embrace the values and revive the message in every generation, as Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَبْعَثُ لِهَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى رَأْسِ كُلِّ مِائَةِ سَنَةٍ مَنْ يُجَدِّدُ لَهَا دِينَهَا
Verily, Allah will raise up in this nation at the beginning of every century someone who will renew their religion.
These renewals will not depart from the values embraced by Ibrahim and all monotheists, but rather they will update practices, cultures, and understandings in light of new developments in society.
In a time in which the Muslim Ummah seems to be losing its direction, we believe this revival that the Prophet foretold is right around the corner. We believe that this will involve a return to Islamic values in light of the latest advancements in science, technology, and the abundance of information. The revival will take form by going directly to the original sources of Islam, the Quran and authentic Sunnah, and deriving previously hidden insights in light of this modern knowledge.
Yet it is important for individuals to be able to detect and embrace such change as soon as it happens and this entails being very clear about the core Islamic values communicated by Ibrahim and every prophet after him. It is only through this clarity of values and principles that the awaited change can be recognized and embraced, otherwise it will be more of the same chaos and misguidance.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.