For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:18

This passage from the Bible provides us with an entry point in discussing the remarks made by HH the Aga Khan during his commencement speech at Brown University. We place a heavy emphasis on knowledge, and rightly so. But we cannot categorically accept knowledge without being wise enough in understanding its limits. While the terms knowledge and wisdom are used synonymously in the above Biblical passage, there is a distinction between each, perhaps best captured in the facetious yet apt adage: ‘knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit but wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” The issue is that more knowledge does not necessarily mean more understanding. Knowledge has the potential to lead to a deeper awareness. Knowledge can be a liberating force. Wisdom however should guide how we utilize our knowledge in the pursuit of a good life. In combination, knowledge coupled with wisdom can lead to greater understanding and fulfillment.

Extract from speech given HH the Aga Khan at the Brown University convocation March 10, 2014:

Information travels more quickly, in greater quantities these days. But the incalculable multiplication of information can also mean more error, more exaggeration, more misinformation, more disinformation, more propaganda. The world may be right there on our laptops, but the truth about the world may be further and further away.

Too often, as the world grows more complex, the temptation for some is to shield themselves from complexity, we seek the comfort of our own simplicities, our own specialities. As has often been said, we risk learning more and more, about less and less. And the result is that significant knowledge gaps can develop and persist.

The danger is that knowledge gaps so often run the risk of becoming empathy gaps. The struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us.

The danger of having knowledge gaps grow into empathy gaps – that was the theme of my address in 1996. I discussed then what was becoming an enormous knowledge gap, nearly an ignorance gap, between the worlds of Islam and the non-Muslim world. Since that time, to be sure, there have been moments of encouraging progress on this front, including academic-centred efforts here at Brown, with your wonderful Digital Islamic Humanities Project.

But in many ways, that knowledge gap has worsened.

We have heard predictions for some years now about some inevitable clash of the industrial West with the Muslim world. These multiplied, of course, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies and other violent episodes. But most Muslims don’t think that way; only an extreme minority does. For most of us, there is singularly little in our theology that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths, with Christianity and Judaism. And there is much more in harmony. What has happened to the Islamic tradition that says that our best friends will be from the other Abrahamic Faiths, known as the “People of the Book”, all of whose faith builds on monotheistic revelation?

Of course, much of what the West has seen about the Muslim world in recent years has been through a media lens of instability and confrontation. What is highly abnormal in the Islamic world thus often gets mistaken for what is normal. But that is all the more reason for us to work from all directions to replace fearful ignorance with empathetic knowledge.

Down through many centuries, great Muslim cultures were built on the principle of inclusiveness. Some of the best minds and creative spirits from every corner of the world, independent of ethnic or religious identities, were brought together at great Muslim centres of learning. My own ancestors, the Fatimids, founded one of the world’s oldest universities, Al-Azhar in Cairo, over a thousand years ago. In fields of learning from mathematics to astronomy, from philosophy to medicine Muslim scholars sharpened the cutting edge of human knowledge. They were the equivalents of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Galileo and Newton. Yet their names are scarcely known in the West today. How many would recognise the name al-Khwarizmi – the Persian mathematician who developed some 1,200 years ago the algorithm, which is the foundation of search engine technology?

For more  on the importance of diverse knowledge within our school curriculum please see my post On Education pt. 5 / Curriculum, Power and Memory 

Photo: TheIsmaili / Aly Z. Ramji

Alim Fakirani