The Tyranny of Knowledge

by Paul L. Heck (June 10, 2016)

A piece of your religion is in my religion, and a piece of my religion is in your religion.

Such were the words of a religious scholar who resides in the southern regions of Morocco in the city of Tizneet where Jews and Muslims lived for centuries alongside one another in a single shared culture.

What does his statement say about the nature of religion?

We were a mixed group of Americans: a Jewish woman, a Muslim father of three, a Catholic who grew up amidst Jews, and a Franciscan Friar. This religious scholar, a Muslim in his fifties, is a teacher of Islamic Education in the ancient schools of Morocco. In addition to modern sciences, the ancient schools emphasize education in the religious sciences. They serve a small number of mainly male students who go on to university to specialize in shari‘a before seeking employment in the country’s official religious establishment. Morocco is a nation with a very well established religion, which the state guards, but this does not mean that people encounter God through the state’s religious discourse. After all, who is God?

A piece of your religion is in my religion, and a piece of my religion is in your religion.

What is religion?

We began our journey into the heart of Morocco in Dakhla, located in the western regions of the Sahara. Dakhla is a relatively small city of two hundred thousand, the majority of whom are transplants from the north, settlers in the name of the Moroccan State. The indigenous people are a mix of tribes, all Muslims. There is a church in the heart of the city, built by the Spaniards when they were in control of the region, nearly destroyed by the Moroccan army when it entered the region, now a place where sub-Saharan African Christians who pass through Dakhla in small numbers gather to pray on Sundays.

There is more to say on this, but now is not the time.

Islam permeates this part of the Sahara, nurtured in the hearts of believers over centuries in desert schools (sometimes located atop camels) for memorizing the Qur’an and learning the prophetic traditions and also in what are called corners, places where men gather to pray and recite the names of God, religious devotions that bind them to one another and help them overcome the self-centered tendencies we all have.

But times change. People in Dakhla now want a university. This, they feel, will integrate them into modern currents of knowledge and research. Also, with a local university, their daughters will be able to pursue higher studies without having to travel to the big cities in the north where customs differ from those of the Sahara. But it’s unlikely that a university will be established in Dakhla. The state has its doubts. Would it be a place for learning or a place for political activity and protest against the state?

There is something enchanting about the women of the Sahara, not least the flowing robe they wear, known as a milhafa, which comes in varied colors and qualities, depending on the occasion. Devoted to their traditions, the women of the Sahara, no less than the men, won’t put up with any slight to their honor. A second wife is out of the question for the men of the Sahara even if Islam permits it. A man’s first wife would not hesitate to break with him and return to her family home. And a Saharan woman who is educated carries a significant aura. Some might say allurement. Men seek her company, and it’s not for romance. The desert woman who recites poetry with eloquence attracts learned men to her. If she possesses the power of words, she can use it to manage desert literary gatherings more forcefully than any man.

Among the many people we met in Dakhla, one stands out: a woman who has founded a local association for washing the bodies of the dead and caring for unwanted orphans and the elderly. How can I describe her? To use a bit of Christian language, I would say the Holy Spirit inspires her as the camel driver sings a soulful tune to his herd to urge it onward. Who else would do such work unless so driven? Who would lay out the dead body and wash it with the honor it deserves? Who would care for orphans, especially those born out of wedlock, viewed by many as a curse on society, and ensure that they find a caring home? This woman has no need of modernity. Wrapped in her milhafa, covered from head to ankle except for her face and hands, she has a message for those of us in the modern university who gather to discuss our grand ideas more often than not in order to enhance our own stature. The message is simple but rarely whispered in the hallways of the ivory tower. The message is this: If you want to be a true scholar, you need to be close to the poor. Indeed, you need to be ready to learn from those whom society marginalizes. The wretched of the earth are not perfect. They have issues. But they also have something to teach us about the human condition. What’s more, the scholar needs to stay close to the poor and serve them because the scholar who is far from them is at risk of epistemological blindness.

That’s a big phrase. Let’s try to unpack it. Knowledge has a purpose. Knowledge of the world helps society prosper and helps us engage one another—diverse peoples and races—with greater wisdom.

In other words, knowledge necessitates a disposition of service. Call it love. Call it mercy. Call it skill in listening to the hearts of others. It’s a nice way to live: the face of the other as locus of discovery. And who does not want to discover the mysteries of the human being? But scholars, despite their learning, easily fall prey to the subtle pull of power and dominion. And here I’m not speaking of the relation of universities to state power and global financial interests. I’m speaking simply of the scholar’s all too human desire for stature, quickly exploited by forces that seek to dominate others. But here’s the epistemological dilemma. The desire for stature puts one in a twisted relation with the world that one studies. It could be the cosmos. It could be another religion or culture. It could be plants and animals.

A scholar who seeks stature will have trouble understanding his relation to his object of study. He’ll simply be unable to grasp the nature and purpose of the knowledge he pursues. As a result he’ll be unable to understand it. The odd thing is that we cannot acquire knowledge of others without entering into friendship with them, and we cannot enter into friendship with them if we are not ready to acknowledge that they have something to teach us, rather than viewing them as objects to be defined and thus controlled, and we will be unable to cultivate this attitude towards the things we study, without which full knowledge of them is impossible, if we do not stay close to the least valued in society. Anyone in Dakhla who pretends to be a scholar will necessarily go to the door of that woman and ask to be introduced to the unwanted orphans of the city in order to serve them. The true scholar will do so not simply to be kind. He will do so not because he feels he has something to offer others. He will do so in order to extirpate from his heart all that blinds him to his pursuit of knowledge. The scholar has purely epistemological purposes for wanting to remain close to the poor. Doing so will free him from the egoism that blinds him to the nature of the very knowledge he pursues.

Have you made it this far?

I fear few will read my words. And why should they? But still I write.

The most enjoyable part of life in the Sahara is the tea ceremony. The making of the tea is a lengthy process. That’s the point. No rush. In addition to tea there’s camel milk that people drink from a single shared wooden bowl. Then the conversation begins. There’s a protocol. One could call it etiquette. Again, that’s the point. No rush. No tests. Gradually, a discussion of ideas unfolds, and many a topic we did discuss: the poetry of the desert and the way it gives voice to emotions and also political concerns; the rituals of the Jewish home and the different kinds of monks and nuns in the Catholic Church—those who live in the Holy Spirit more contemplatively, the hermit oriented wholly to God’s face, and those who do so in society, laboring to educate troubled youth and care for those at risk.

Remember: We were with Muslims of varied tribal backgrounds. But the interest in other religions should not surprise us. This is what happens when knowledge becomes the measure of one’s life.

In the US, for reasons that I cannot discuss here, we have confused knowledge with personal choice.

For this reason facts can take a back seat in universities. Identity is supreme. Knowledge that raises questions about personal choices is generally seen as tyrannical. Yes, knowledge is seen as tyrannical.

What is knowledge? And what is our relation to it?

One of the most enriching discussions we had in the tea ceremonies of the desert was a discussion on a Muslim literary figure of the ninth century by the name of Jahiz. Poetry has always been essential to the culture of the Arabs, prose less so, but Jahiz turned prose into a force for eloquence in Arabic, making it palatable to the tastes of a people that sees language as the bearer of beauty no less than of knowledge.

Jahiz deployed the language of the Qur’an to speak of all topics of interest: animals and plants, all of creation; belief and confusion; various classes of people in society from government officials to soldiers, slaves, and even songstresses who entertained caliphs and viziers in the courts and palaces of the day.

He also talked about the wisdom of other peoples: Greeks, Persians, and Indians. And for this reason he criticized those Muslims of his day who rejected other cultures, which they saw as a threat to the purity of Islam. Such stuffed-heads, as Jahiz labeled them, would sever religion from human wisdom as if the two stood in mutual opposition. In contrast Jahiz argued that Muslims could not understand God’s message without first training their minds in all the sciences of the day, regardless of cultural origin. Without the likes of Jahiz, Islam would have remained a religion without a civilization.

And so the conversation went on from there. Religion as civilization. Religion in the service of civilization. Religion as a power that ennobles human civilization and its values. What … is … religion … ?

And then we went to Agadir. Here we discovered another side to Morocco. It is common—even among the learned—to assume that only Arabs live in the so-called Arab World. Such is one byproduct of a post-colonial discourse that concealed ethnic diversity in the name of Arab Nationalism.

The Arab World actually contains all sorts of peoples. Agadir in the southern regions of Morocco is one example of this. Morocco, it’s worth noting, has two official languages, the language of the Arabs and the language of the Amazigh, which is the language of Agadir and the surrounding towns and villages. The Amazigh— meaning free people—are the indigenous people of Morocco. Saint Augustine was one of them. There are Muslim Amazigh and Jewish Amazigh. As in the Sahara, so in Agadir, the woman is a symbol of local identity. Here, like the land, she is understood to suffer so that her children might live.

Amazighi songs speak of this idea. For a long time, the language of the Amazigh was not allowed in national life (education, government, television), but a decade ago it was recognized as a national language. This led to a renaissance of sorts. Amazighi letters now appear alongside Arabic and Latin ones on public buildings. But it’s just a first step. It will take time for a distinct literature to take root.

From Agadir we traveled to Tizneet to visit the scholar who spoke of religious overlap. He added a further idea: “You cannot know me unless you know my religion, and I cannot know you unless I know your religion.” Religion is the most fundamental element in the human condition. According to this scholar, we all have religion, a set of principles we take as guiding us in life from one day to the next.

You cannot know me unless you know my religion, and I cannot know you unless I know your religion.

But how can I know your religion? What discloses your religion? Your religion is the sum of your life commitments. It makes you do certain things and take certain decisions. What you do shows me your religion. Your religion moves your body in certain ways for certain goals. Your body puts your religion on display. The way you move your limbs, for good or ill, communicates the nature and power of your beliefs.

In Agadir we met a man who plays the saxophone. He is also a big fan of the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. The spirit of the Beat Generation helps him find his faith as a Muslim. For him, institutions have no place in human religion. He’s critical of those who pretend they’re responsible for the rest of us, and so he plays his saxophone to the tune of the Beat Generation.

During one gathering he played his saxophone while the friar and I recited the words of Woody Guthrie’s hit song, “This Land is Your Land. This Land is My Land.” It was a nice mix. Guthrie’s song evokes the American land. The saxophone in this man’s hands evokes the land of the Amazigh. The land is for all but has been wounded by those who would claim it for themselves and yet neglect those who have long toiled on its soil.

In the words of Guthrie: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/By the relief office I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood asking/Is this land made for you and me?” In echo of Guthrie the Amazighi saxophone raises a shared plaint: What is our land? What is our religion? What is in our hearts?

What is in my heart? What do I want to be in my heart? Do you ever ask yourself this question?

Not far from Agadir is a town by the name of al-Mazar. (The last syllable is long: al-Mazaar.) To get to al-Mazar you travel west from Agadir by car for about thirty minutes, passing Dcheira, Inezghane and Aït Melloul. Al-Mazar lies in the south of Aït Melloul. I will share with you what we discovered in al-Mazar, but first a basic rule: A community cannot prosper if it relies on the state to meet its needs. That’s one of the rules of human society. A community that expects too much from the state will lose its ability to govern itself. It will eventually lose the spirit that gives life to the hearts of its people. It will lose its religion. “We have a problem with the poor and elderly. Let the state take care of it. We have a problem with education. Let the state handle it. We have a problem. The state is the solution.” A community with such outlook and such expectation will inevitably forsake its soul to the state willingly or not.

In al-Mazar we discovered the exact opposite. Our friends there introduced us into the heart of the community. We visited one association after another. All gave us evidence of the spirit of the people and the strength of their religion. In one association young people patiently cared for elderly persons no longer appreciated sometimes even by their own families. In another association young people cared for orphans. In still other associations young adults offered individual attention to middle and high school students so they don’t fall behind in a public school system that can work against them rather than for them. They do all this on a volunteer basis. We visited one of these associations in the evening, and there they were, students and tutors, discussing new ideas, books, and films. They have a club called “The Dimensions Club.” The goal is to discover global diversity. They read books and watch films and discuss political ideas from varied cultures: America, France, Iran, India, in addition to insights from the culture of the Arabs and the culture of the Amazigh. It all reminded me of Jahiz. They’re all Muslims and are also thinking across human civilization entire. It’s more than that. The people of al-Mazar are actually producing human civilization. They are doing what Jahiz did in ninth-century Baghdad.

But it’s even more than that. They are living out a religion that animates their bodies in service of others.

Back in Dcheira we visited a center for the care of the mentally handicapped. In Morocco no less than in America some consider such persons to be a shame in society and even a curse from God. The director told me that he has discovered a special grace from God in the center’s clients. They may have mental disabilities, some quite severely, but they still bear a message from God to the rest of us. As we tour the center he hugs one child after another, and they respond with joy. This center exists not just to serve the mentally handicapped. It exists to demonstrate that they are not a curse but a blessing from God even if we don’t notice it at the first or even second glance. Why do we overlook this grace from God and fail to see the place these handicapped persons have in God’s plans for human happiness?

And then we visited a center for training and educating the deaf. This association stood out. There is not a lot of support for the education of the deaf in Morocco. How to integrate them into the public school system? Very few teachers have the needed professional training. But at this center we found more than professional competence. We found a community, some deaf and some hearing, who live as a single family laboring to empower the deaf through classes that prepare them to take standard exams and also through workshops to train them in technical skills. We had a chance to listen to them through sign language. One of the girls told us that growing up she wondered why she didn’t go to school as the other kids. Many confuse deafness with mental disability. Why send them to school? But the brains of the deaf are no different from those who hear. Indeed the deaf may hear things the rest of us don’t. Because they can’t hear, she told me, she always assumed the deaf are the only ones who make mistakes in reading and writing. She reasoned: How can people who hear words and sentences ever make a mistake? As I witnessed the intense desire of the deaf students to learn words and sentences at the center’s blackboard, I thought of my students at Georgetown, grads included, indeed all of us, who have everything in terms of knowledge possibilities but seem so rarely to display such intensity of purpose in pursuing them.

At one point on our tour of these varied associations, the friar gave voice to what we were all thinking: We Americans have no solutions to offer Moroccans. We have nothing they do not have. Their hearts move as our hearts do in love of others, especially the abandoned and forgotten. And despite obstacles, they forge ahead to prove not only that they are self-governing but also that they are producers of human civilization as witnessed in their cultivation of the arts and sciences and care for the needy.

As Pope Francis says, “God is mercy. Let us be renewed by God’s mercy.”

Such is the religion of the people of al-Mazar as witnessed in the actions of those who work at the associations. They move their bodies mercifully in loving service of others. A ninth-century Muslim scholar by the name of al-Muhasibi said that those who live what they believe become signs of God’s mercy on earth.

Many insights can be gleaned in societies like Morocco with benefit for us the United States of America. Our beloved nation—beloved not holy—is currently caught up in a cultural battle over the meaning and purpose of human nature. It’s not a new battle. Especially since the Reformation, westerners have sometimes ferociously debated the value of human nature.

Some have said that human nature is purposeful, seeing in this purposefulness a way by which God guides his human creatures. Others have declared human nature wholly depraved, its one hope being God’s gracious readiness to redeem it. And so the battle has raged over the centuries. Is human nature part of the solution or is it the problem?

Voices in the ascendancy today call for the end of human nature, oddly echoing some of the rhetoric of the reformers but now in a distinctly American tone: You are right because of what you choose unhindered by any consequences. Purposefulness no longer lies in knowledge of the consequences of your decisions but in your personal choices here and now.

There is a long backstory to this life outlook.

At one point the idea that we all share a single human nature was used for imperial purposes. The French especially used this tactic. It was useful to them to promote the idea of a single human nature. Doing so allowed them to deny the value of the customs and practices of the people they conquered, which got categorized as sub-human. After all how could such backward peoples, so easily conquered, represent human nature in any fashion? The idea of human nature has a checkered history, and it is true that we humans do share common purposes across our cultural diversity, but the French reduced the idea to a modern definition. To be human you have to be modern. To be human, you have to be like us. Your society may be ancient, with its own ways of educating and healing its peoples, but all that is mere culture not human nature as modern science defines it. You need to abandon these ways of yours and get on board with modernity.

The perhaps not unexpected reaction is suspicion of the very idea of human nature.

Why do I mention all this? One of the buzzwords today is dialogue between religions and cultures rather than rejection of others and their beliefs and customs. It’s work that needs to be done. As the Cold War with its ideological clarity becomes a distant memory, we face a new moment with particular questions.

What am I to make of my religious and cultural identity? What am I to make of the religious and cultural identity of others? The work of reconsidering our common humanity amidst our differences has become particularly urgent with the rise of extremist thinking. But dialogue today as science in the age of European Colonialism can become a tool for domination. There are lots of interfaith initiatives today that aim to get us to downplay our religious and cultural distinctiveness for the sake of a common humanity. Some of these initiatives even want to make us confused about our religious and cultural commitments. What’s more, much of this interfaith activity takes places without knowledge of religions. Those who run the show sometimes have no training at all in religious reasoning–and often fail to understand how religious reasoning is a kind of knowledge and not simply a personal choice or a tool to dominate others. As a result there can sometimes be a conspicuous but perhaps unconscious drive to flatten out differences to the point of making them personal quirks. In the end your beliefs aren’t knowledge, only personal choice, and so they do not matter beyond your own brain. It’s all about what you choose. And since choice is but a personal matter, your religion shouldn’t have any relevance to society. The imperial impulse is subtle and often unnoticed by those whom it propels.

And so the goal of interfaith encounter becomes the celebration of random diversity. This is to approach our differences out of fear that religious and cultural commitments invariably generate extremist sentiment. For this reason such interfaith warriors labor to convince people that their differences don’t matter. It’s just random diversity, not knowledge. This puts us between those who see in the other a call to violence and those who seek to make differences inconsequential in the name of a power they unwittingly serve.

This is a big concern in Morocco. Many there feel their religion is misunderstood—even threatened. They feel targeted by western cultural power that calls them, as they perceive it, to abandon their beliefs and values as a threat to global security. Others acknowledge that they need to learn about other religions after decades of being taught to see other peoples through the lens of religious xenophobia. There’s a lot of confusion today when it comes to dialogue.

What are we doing when we dialogue with the other? This question was front and center during our last days in Morocco, which we spent at universities in Tetouan on the Mediterranean and in Eljadida on the Atlantic. People expressed concern about the motives behind the call to dialogue even alongside their keen interest to take part in dialogue with other religions and cultures.

It’s a precarious issue. I’m a scholar and so that’s how I view it. I prefer to use a word other than dialogue. I speak of the vital relation that friendship has to knowledge acquisition. You can’t acquire knowledge of another religion if you see it as enemy. You simply won’t be able to think clearly when studying it. Indeed, if you don’t actually love the culture or religion you study, you may never be able to acquire knowledge of it.

We often view so-called others in terms of religious and cultural categories, even stereotypes. But our trip to Morocco defies this. Think of the truths of Moroccan society we discovered in two short weeks as a result of the friends who introduced us deeply into their communities. Without these friends we would not have grasped some of the truths of Moroccan society today. There is a close relation between dialogue and knowledge that has yet to be fully articulated. It goes beyond personal choices; after all the other can be very unsettling. But dialogue today, as science in the colonial past, can also be pursued for power.

And yet dialogue works to keep knowledge from being reduced to the dictates of either personal choice or power. Dialogue challenges us with beliefs other than our own but also requires that we view the other as friend. It is in the crucible of dialogue that real knowledge takes shape. Dialogue teaches us that there is something beyond our personal choices, something to be discovered in the other that makes us more aware of who we are and what has shaped our choices beyond our own claims to personal authority. That makes us view the other anew, not as a problem to be controlled but as a source of knowledge and discovery. Dialogue helps us better understand the nature and purpose of the knowledge we seek. It shows us that knowledge is impossible apart from friendship and that knowledge, if its purpose is understood, invariably strengthens the bonds of friendship without reducing us to a single type.

Ironically, all this raises the specter of religion as knowledge. We discover the religion of others in their actions. But we cannot know who they are and how they act without entering into friendship with them. What is religion?

Dialogue has consequences, either productive or destructive, depending on the purposefulness with which it is pursued. All things have consequences, and when we better understand the consequence of things, we can better determine the distinction between knowledge and illusion. A smile has consequences. A frown has consequences. What you do with your body has consequences for good or ill. How you approach the other, as a problem to control or a world to discover, has consequences. The question is whether we make our choices in light of the knowledge that comes from understanding the consequences of things. Over the course of two weeks in Morocco, we chose friendship rather then fear, and that had consequences: deep knowledge of the realities of Moroccan society, much deeper than we could have ever acquired without this friendship. This knowledge was not about power nor was it about the random diversity of personal choice. We moved more deeply into the workings of human civilization through this scholarly companionship with the other, only to realize that the other may be quite different from us but in the end is not other than us. In that lies a scholarly method able to liberate us from the twin pitfalls of personal choice and power, since in both cases they lead only to the categorization of people as different kinds of others, and categorizing people, history teaches us, often results in killing them.

A piece of your religion is in my religion, and a piece of my religion is in yours. What is religion?