Quranic Reflection No. 311 Āyat 17:36 – The Illusion of Knowledge

وَلَا تَقْفُ مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْمٌ
Walā taqfu mā laysa laka bihi ‘ilm
Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge
(Sūratul Israā, No. 17, Āyat 36)

There is a growing disconnect in present day society between the illusion that people have of their own information and the reality of the limited knowledge they actually possess. In a world of easy access to digital information coupled with superlative education in a particular field, many people get an exaggerated sense of their own intelligence.  They overlook the fact that lot of information, coupled with knowledge and abilities in certain areas does not mean a comprehensive grasp of all fields.

The Holy Quran warns believers in the verse above: do not say/follow that which you do not have knowledge of. The word taqfu means to pursue something and then make a judgement. It can apply to religious interpretations, personal and social judgements, rumors, etc. The reasons behind these unfounded claims could be the influence of other people, or past baggage that distorts realities. It can also stem from a misperception about the depth of one’s own knowledge.

When there is no solid knowledge behind a claim it can be classified as an assumption. Or as a guess, a doubt, a possibility. These are unreliable opinions, at best. They lack certainty. They often come in the guise of expertise, clothed in articulate and appealing language.

Islam is strict with its followers regarding spreading of unfounded opinions. It may be done with good intentions but is dangerous in its impact on the individual and society. If all people made claims without a solid foundation of knowledge supporting it, the results would be disastrous. Many gullible people, lacking knowledge themselves, would be trapped into believing and implementing it in their lives. If society would follow the simple rule in this verse it could free itself from the harms of much confusion and chaos. It would keep in check rumors, quick judgements, unreliable assumptions, wrong fatwas, and fake news.

In many other places the Quran also condemns the following of assumptions rather than knowledge. It says, for e.g., Most of them just follow conjecture; indeed conjecture is no substitute for the truth. Indeed Allah knows best what they do; (Q 10:36), and: They follow nothing but conjectures and the desires of the [lower]soul, while there has already come to them the guidance from their Lord (Q 53:23).  A Hadith of Imam al-Sādiq (a) says: The essence of faith is that your speech does not overtake your knowledge (Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, v.18, p.16). Imam Kāzim (a) has also said: You cannot speak whatever you want for Allah has said ‘Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge’ (Ibid, p. 17).

It is important for individuals to be certain of their knowledge and research in a particular area before speaking about it. This is especially true when their words are portrayed as educated opinions and give the illusion of knowledge. It is also important for society to distinguish between opinions based on knowledge and those based on an illusion of knowledge.

Let this verse remind you of the importance of true knowledge before you spread something, and to listen only to those who do the same. That is an essential skill to help sift out much of what we hear these days.

Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh