My knees and shins ached and I was forced yet again to switch my seating position back to cross-legged on a painfully sore rear end. The shaykh, a relatively young man well-dressed in modern western formal attire who had studied well over 8 years at the feet of many well-known scholars of Islam in Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, was in the midst of the battle of his life and we all had ringside seats for the fight.
For well over one hour, the shaykh rebutted, refuted, annihilated, and destroyed his opponent from the minbar, a person on the internet who had made certain claims about the Qur’an, the Hadith, and their relationship with one another. Looking to our elders for wisdom is a virtue, and those I looked at during that khutbah were snoring into their hands, the side of their heads smooshed into their palms. The khutbah had become an afternoon qayloolah lullaby.
You probably realized there was a disconnect between the speaker and what he thought the audience could handle. Speaking 101 Rule #1 is to know your audience, but knowing that the vast majority of the audience was made up of Muslim laypeople didn’t stop the shaykh from deep-diving into the weeds on hadith terminology for an hour and a half at a Friday khutbah. What could have caused this well-intentioned shaykh to possess such a vast disconnect between himself and his audience? It’s possible he was suffering from “The Curse of Knowledge”.
What is the Curse of Knowledge?
“The Curse of Knowledge” is not some form of jinn-based magic, nor is it a formal psychological term – it’s a statement coined by Robin Hogarth and mentioned by Dan and Chip Heath in their NY Times bestseller Made to Stick. It represents a concept in human psychology wherein a person gifted with a certain domain of knowledge is unable to understand the perspective of a person without this knowledge.
As an example, the Heath brothers mention a study conducted in Stanford University by Dr. Elizabeth Newton in which one group of people (called tappers) were told to tap certain popular songs (such as “Happy Birthday”) on a table to another group of people (called listeners). The tappers were also asked to predict how often they believed listeners would correctly guess the tune they tapped. The tappers predicted a 50% success rate. In 120 trials only 3 guesses were correct, or 2.5%.
The reason believed to cause this cognitive bias is that the tappers had the song playing in their mind while they were tapping, so the tune was obvious. The listeners had no reference except the sound of tapping on a table. The important point is not so much the inability of listeners to correctly decipher the tunes, but the high expectation from tappers that listeners would figure out the tune.
The Heath brothers go on to write:
In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday” for “The Star Spangled Banner” are priceless: How could you be so stupid?
In light of this study, we have at least one good excuse for the marathon rebuttal shaykh discussed earlier—he didn’t properly place himself in the mind’s eye of his audience. He wrongfully assumed our ability to process his arguments (as well as our attention span endurance). But is he the only one to make this mistake? How about the rest of us—is it possible we also commit this error in our lives, perhaps on a daily basis?
Are You a Tapper?
The attitude of the tappers was perhaps the most interesting tidbit of all in this whole experiment. Their expectation of success was so high that the listeners’ inability to guess correctly was not the fault of the tappers, and in fact the listeners were “stupid”. The formula would thus be:
1. Tapper attempts to convey message to listener (the song), confident they will be understood.
2. Listener doesn’t understand the tapper’s perspective (wrong song guessed).
3. Tapper concludes negative attribute of listener (listener must be really stupid).
Can this formula fit other situations?
The Non-Practicing Muslim Comes to the Masjid
1. Tattoo’ed Muslim (listener) shows up at Masjid to pray (let’s consider this the experiment initiation).
2. Regular Masjid-goer (tapper) attempts to convey message to listener by angrily telling the Tattoo’ed Muslim (listener) tattoos are haram!.
3. Tattoo’ed Muslim (listener) doesn’t understand regular Masjid-goer’s perspective – his priorities are different.
4. Masjid-goer concludes this is an evil person who should be put in their place (negative attribute assumed).
The problem with the Masjid-goer? He doesn’t understand what it means to be a non-practicing Muslim who is just returning to Allah, even if he himself was once upon a time in this very same state. Let’s try another, less obvious example.
Regular Masjid-Goer Needs to Learn Giving Naseeha
1. Regular Masjid-Goer (listener) yells at Tattoo’ed Muslim, and is observed by Reformed Masjid-Goer (tapper).
2. Reformed Masjid-Goer (tapper) confronts Regular Masjid-Goer (listener) about his poor manners, telling him his manners are not the sunnah.
3. Regular Masjid-Goer (listener) believes it is his duty to enjoin good and forbid evil, and that it is ok to be angry for the sake of Allah – he doesn’t understand Reformed Masjid-Goer’s perspective (tapper).
4. Reformed Masjid-Goer concludes this person is from among the unintelligent who are holding the ummah back (negative attribute assumed) and they make it a point to give them what is normally good advice in a backhanded manner, such as, “You need to read more Qur’an” or “You should keep quiet and work on your tajweed”.
The problem with reformed Masjid-goer? He or she is often the person who was “hardcore” about their views and someone expanded their perspective with new insights. When they realized their mistake, they corrected the mistake by not prioritizing or focusing on the old issues and started berating people about new issues. In this case, it’s a bit of an ironic twist – poor manners in telling people to have better manners, unfortunately. Let’s try another situation.
The Shaykh’s Position Evolves on an Issue
1. The Shaykh (tapper) preaches a particular position on a matter, and teaches his opinion to all who will listen (listeners).
2. Further study and life experience causes the Shaykh to change his position on that matter and he begins to preach this opinion to others.
3. The listeners who followed this opinion do not understand why the Shaykh (tapper) changed his opinion – they bought into his previous opinion strongly and held to it. They think he may be selling out.
4. The Shaykh begins calling the people who took his previous opinion fanatics, jahils, misinformed, shortsighted, and impractical. They obviously are not happy with that.
The problem in this scenario is that while the Shaykh has evolved his position for intellectually honest reasons, his followers have not gone through the same experiences he has in arriving at his new position. Indeed, we are all human and we are all susceptible to human character flaws, Muslim or non-Muslim. In their book, the Heath brothers write:
The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEOs and front line employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances. When a CEO discusses “unlocking shareholder value”, there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can’t hear.
Breaking Free of “The Curse of Knowledge”
1. Check Yourself for Strong Negative Emotions
There’s nothing wrong having distaste towards things Allah (SWT) doesn’t like, but be careful of turning someone’s flaws into a cause for unchecked hatred. I recall Shaykh Yusuf Estes once telling a friend, “How can you call them to Islam (meaning non-Muslims, but even Muslims constantly require daw’ah) if you hate them?” In each example scenario presented above, the listeners had a type of ignorance and the tappers had their own. It wasn’t that our “tappers” should keep quiet – far from it, if they see something wrong, they should work to change it. The fundamental problem is the negative emotions within because what is in the heart naturally displays in the speech. Nonverbal cues such as the look of anger, disgust, disapproval in the eyes, a sarcastic smile, pursing of lips, and more can tell that person someone is attacking me, and I’d better be ready to defend.
2. Be the Teacher Who Cares
The vast majority of teachers I had throughout school and college were competent in their domain of knowledge, but it was also obvious this was just a job for them. The teachers I remember best are those who cared that I learned the material. They may have used humor and stories or spent extra time as needed to make sure I learned. Their attitude was always positive and they believed in me, believed that I could learn the material and master it. A teacher on the first day of classes may assume some level of prerequisite knowledge, and those who cared for me often didn’t care if I had it or not – they would bring me up to speed as best they could.
When your own attitude changes from anger at someone else’s behavior to a strong desire to see that person succeed, when you can see the best that person could be, it transforms your whole approach. You begin to look for creative ways to teach, to speak, and to convince the other person. You might try different analogies, you may refer to other authorities, you might prioritize one discussion over another, you may even try befriending a person and gaining their trust and confidence before ever opening your mouth to enjoin the good and forbid the evil.
The best example of this was the Prophet (SAW). When Abdullah ibn Ubayy, the head of the munafiqeen (those pretending to follow Islam to gain influence in the Madinan Islamic state) died, the Prophet (SAW) prayed for him, asking Allah to forgive him. The Prophet (SAW) was eventually forbidden from doing this, but pay attention to the attitude he brought to the table—he cared for Abdullah ibn Ubayy, despite the trouble he caused, despite his betrayal, enough that he would keep making du’aa for Allah (SWT) to forgive him.
3. Try Your Best to Understand and Befriend the Other Person
Oftentimes we make unfounded assumptions of people that don’t help anyone. Sometimes the assumption is that this person is Muslim, so the concept you’re attempting to convey should be easily understood. Or that a person is from group xyz, and all people from group xyz are a monolith – they all think the same way about the same issue, and there are no differences or nuances within them.
I’ve heard many a khateeb, both scholar and layman, get up on the minbar and say, “If you’re Muslim, you have no excuse not to know that the 5 prayers are mandatory and must be done.” I say to those speakers with all due respect, walk a few years in my childhood and teenage years and then say that. I grew up as a Muslim believing in Allah and the Prophets, but did not know prayers, fasting, and so on were required. It was by sheer chance (aka the blessing of Allah) I happened upon a Masjid newsletter which spoke about this and began practicing, otherwise I would never have prayed, thinking I was a good Muslim in my western lifestyle. If I had not happened upon the newsletter and my life had followed the trajectory it was on, I would have been just another ‘Eid or Friday Prayer Muslim, thinking I was a good person doing everything right.
There’s a term for this – it’s called the unconscious incompetent – you’re so ignorant, you don’t even know what you’re ignorant about. How can one be asked to be responsible for seeking knowledge of something when they don’t even know they’re responsible to seek that knowledge to begin with? Some would say, it’s common sense, you just do, and this is essentially the Curse of Knowledge – you know it and understand it, and it’s so obvious to you, that you can’t understand why it’s not so obvious to others.
If you want to know what benefited me, it was that I started with a relationship with Allah, that people simply took me to the Masjid without imposing anything or adding complicated fiqh details, and there were no judgments or sarcastic cutting remarks about my poor practice. They simply befriended me, hung out with me, learned about me, and in the context of socializing with me and seeing the few attributes I had they could point out as good, built on top of it rather than listing all my flaws and “need to improve” items to-do.
The Curse of Knowledge can cause a number of problems. The first example I used showed us a shaykh who was disconnected from the needs of his audience. In the book Made to Stick, the authors focused on how a message can be lost when the “tapper” attempts to communicate with a “listener” and how to correct the content of the message so that it is remembered and not forgotten. The focus in this post is slightly different—what attitude might a “tapper” have towards a “listener” due to the Curse of Knowledge, and what can we do to address this, specifically in the context of daw’ah. By addressing this very human phenomenon, we can insha’Allah make better headway in our daw’ah efforts and take better steps toward correcting one another with love, mercy, and hikmah.