Ringside Seats at Friday Jumu'ah

wrongoninternetMy 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

Escalante-photoThe 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'a 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.

Conclusion

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.

37 Responses

  1. Shahin

    Wow, this put everything into a whole new perspective. I never even imagined that this notion of expecting people to know and understand what you do is so common. Alhamdulillah for this article; now I better understand myself and the people I tend to get frustrated with. Jazakallahu Khairan for writing this.

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    • Siraaj

      Glad it offered some food for thought and you benefited. Having written the article, I can think of areas I still struggle with this. With my son I often have to remember what I was like when I was five before I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s normal, I used to be like that too.” :)

      Siraaj

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  2. broAhmed

    I saw myself in several of the scenarios you gave. Time for some self-reflection.

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  3. Hassan

    Very nice, evolving of people and scholars is very important point. I know people (not mentioning any names) who were extremely super salafis and now they have become super ikhwanis and they look down upon people like us (regular salafis) as old fashioned and narrow minded, cultish etc. Being a salafi is no cool anymore.

    Point is, what you have made already, if we are wrong, we will evolve in our own pace and own circumstances. If we are not wrong, well then may Allah keep us steadfast. There is always room perhaps that those super ikhwanis will evolve back.

    With scholars evolving, it is even harder for listeners to follow what is going on in the mind of his. Many will keep stuck with old version of sheikh, many with middle, many will keep up with the latest. etc

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    • Siraaj

      I think the key here is that sometimes we hold to certain opinions in more of an emotional rather than rational way, meaning, there’s no room to discuss room for disagreement. If I gave it some thought, my criteria is:

      1. Can handle disagreement from others
      2. Doesn’t waste time calling people names
      3. Clearly trying to arrive at the opinion that pleases Allah (SWT)

      I may not always agree with these types of people, but that’s ok because I’m nowhere near a student of knowledge and that should never compromise brotherhood and good relations anyway.

      Siraaj

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  4. Zia Sheikh

    The whole concept of balaghah in Arabic is exactly what speakers need to understand. The definition of balaghah is to address the addressed according to their capacity of understanding. Many people think balaghah is to use long words and technological terms.

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    • Siraaj

      Salaam alaykum Imam Zia,

      I can’t speak much to the concept of balaghah (because I’ve never studied it), but I agree in principle that eloquence is not in “wordiness”, but simple, concise statements that convey a message to the target audience.

      Siraaj

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  5. Bint A

    JazakAllahu khairun… one of the few articles that I actually read all the way to the end!

    Very interesting, and seems to be a very simple concept (the tapping experiment) and it was excellent the way you brought it to relate to how we should be in our da’wah. I think Islam and psychology really go well together

    Just wondering–any good books that you recommend which can give us more insight into ourselves? (other than pop-psychology reads)

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    • Siraaj

      Another good book from the Heath brothers is “Switch”, highly recommended, on how a person with little authority can bring about change to themselves and their surrounding environment.

      Siraaj

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  6. Questioner

    “I grew up as a Muslim believing in Allāh and the Prophets, but did not know prayers, fasting, and so on were required. It was by sheer chance (aka the blessing of Allāh) 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.”

    Do you deny that these acts are “ma’lum min al din bi darurah” or “necessarily known from the religion”?

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    • Siraaj

      You’ll have to further explain in more detail what you mean by “necessarily known from the religion” – known how?

      Siraaj

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      • Questioner

        That it’s obligatory for people to attain this knowledge as part of being Muslim and if they don’t attain the knowledge,(despite having the means) their faith is deficient.

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      • Siraaj

        I don’t doubt it’s obligation – a person who knows that one of the five pillars of Islam is we pray 5 times daily and willfully neglects it has issues, but this is stage two of knowledge, conscious incompetent – I know what I don’t know. I know I have to pray 5 times daily, therefore I must learn it. I know I have to fast Ramadan all month, so I have to learn what I can and cannot do.

        What I’m speaking about is a level of ignorance below even this – I don’t even know what I don’t know. So I may know I’m a Muslim, I believe in Allah and the Prophets, but I’m not aware of its obligations, nor am I aware that there is a requirement to learn because the impression I’m given is I know all I need to know to be considered “good”.

        I do not know if any scholars or literature addresses ignorance at this level. I would also argue this is not exceptional, but a norm that we’re arriving at due to lack of education. I’m not saying the resources are missing, but the basic education that teaches the necessity of seeking out those resources are not there.

        Siraaj

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  7. O H

    Jazak Allaahu Khair for the well written article. However there is one point made in the article which I slightly disagree with it which is the ignorance of people when it comes to certain fundamentals of the deen. Scholars have highlighted that in general when it comes to belief in certain tenets of faith or performance of certain deeds, etc a person may not be excused for ignorance such as in matters of major shirk. However I am aware of the difference of opinion of scholars when it comes to this matter. As the esteemed late Shaykh Ibn Baaz said that not everyone can be excused for ignorance in certain things as mentioned in Kitaab Majmoo’ Fataawa wa Maqaalaat Mutnawwi’ah li Samaahat al-Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Baaz (may Allaah have mercy on him), vol. 7, p. 132.

    Jazak Allaahu Khair once again for the great beneficial points.

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  8. Maruf

    “To believe in a certain truth comes only after knowing it. How can people be said to believe in a faith when they do not know its true significance or what it means?”

    I found the above quote to a beautiful one by Syed Qutb (I know he is highly controversial writer!) in his Tafseer of Surah Yusuf which many people may misunderstood as takfeering but in theory it does make sense to certain extent. Probably not the best example but it won’t be wise for me to claim to be a doctor if I don’t know the fundamentals of medicine. Again the issue of ignorance the scholars have stated that is it not acceptable in certain aspects of the deen & its is acceptable in other cases.

    Note: Just making a theoretical point – I am not takfeering! :)

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  9. Siraaj

    Salaam alaykum maruf and OH

    Jazakallah khayr for that – we have a reality of children such as myself in the west who are raised and identify as “muslims”, but we are simply unaware of our obligations.

    In a country, state, or town you have a central authority who defines the parameters of what is acceptable or unacceptable, and you’re expected to know those rules. For many of us, our authority is our parents, our families, and in the US this is well beyond the age of being mukhallaf that this occurs.

    In other instances, certain practices are promoted which are not from the religion by central authorities (the masjid, the imams, and so on) which can cross into some of the matters mentioned. We have no central authority or curriculum in the west, so i think in this context those statements need more consideration.

    In a country like Saudi or Egypt, I can see how difficult it would be to misunderstand the religion when you simply can’t miss it, be it the daily call to prayer or the fasting and feasting during Ramadan.

    Putting the opinions aside for a moment, my real point is that if someone doesn’t know (as i didn’t), be easy on them within yourself first so you can be easy on them when you begin calling them to the deen, inshallah :)

    Siraaj

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    • O H

      I get where you are coming from considering the context. It is a sad state of affairs that so many Muslims are ignorant of their deen whilst prioritising & excelling exclusively in wordly matters which is also the case in many so called Muslim majority countries.

      I am a Bangladeshi living abroad & a significant cause of the current political turmoil in Bangladesh can be attributed to the ignorance of the masses with regards to their deen. Hope no one misunderstands this post thinking I am looking down on non-practicing, uninformed brothers & sisters in an arrogant manner.

      I urge people to read Page 95 of this booklet (page 100/302) where the author explains the topic of the ignorance of the masses regarding the deen & the correct attitude to resolve this issue relating to a verse in Surah Yusuf. Part of it is in line with what Siraj suggested which is educating those who are ignorant of their deen, although differing in the accountability aspect. Check link below:

      (http://ia600803.us.archive.org/27/items/InTheShadeOfTheQuranSayyidQutb/Volume_10_surahs_12-15.pdf)

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  10. Amad

    Wow
    Solid piece– thank god I read it without reading your name as author (cognitive bias) lol… Just kidding

    Hope you have gotten all the shayookh to read this

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    • Siraaj

      Thanks bro, glad you liked it :) i havent sent it to any shuyukh, not sure how they’d take it if i was like, “hey you, yeah you, you need to read this.” =D

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  11. umahmed

    as-salamu ‘alaikum,

    mashaAllah. mashaAllah. mashaAllah. this is the type of deep introspection we all need on a daily basis.

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    • Siraaj

      Walaykum as salaam, jazakallah khayr for the encouraging feedback, I believe strongly if we give thought to the way we go about our lives, we’ll find our problems are less “Muslim” and more “human” and the solutions for these human problems are available to us if with a little research and reflection, insha’Allah.

      Siraaj

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  12. Dreamlife

    JazakAllah for the very insightful piece. I’ve found most jumuahs of late haven’t been very inspiring, and wish more imams would actually work on their audience analysis and speaking techniques. Just because you’re guaranteed a platform, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for improvement every week…

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    • Siraaj

      Wa iyyak, I find the best way to deal with boring jumu’ah khutbahs is to treat it like a game, to find the most interesting thing the person says that is beneficial and relevant for myself, so I end up paying attention more. If I don’t find anything, at least I was rewarded for active listening, insha’Allah =D

      Siraaj

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      • Aly Balagamwala | DiscoMaulvi

        JazakAllahu Khairin Siraaj. That was a wonderful “hack” that should be adopted to up our concentration in khutbahs.

        -Aly
        *Comment above is posted in a personal capacity and may not reflect the official views of MuslimMatters or its staff*

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  13. Nahyan

    Excellent article. I appreciate the examples to hone in the message, particularly the paragraph before the conclusion. Good case study/reminder on practical dawah.

    I’m thinking about the “Be the Teacher Who Cares” point, is there a way to “measure” or know if it is actually working? Because couldn’t it easily become wishful thinking that since I’m working so hard and being nice, I care. Whereas it doesn’t really bring any real results, you’re just another nice guy/teacher/older acquaintance…

    -Nahyan

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    • Siraaj

      Salaam alaykum Nahyan

      Glad you found it beneficial :)

      I believe it’s good to have an intended effect in mind – for example, it’s good to want to see many people change as a result of the daw’ah work you’re performing. However, if we measure ourselves according to how many people are changed alone, then think of the number of Prophets who had no followers. Think of the number of people who didn’t follow the Prophets who had followers. Those would all constitute daw’ah failures if we measured ourselves based on the number of people we bring to our side.

      We’re best served by measuring ourselves according to our behaviors – our behaviors are within our own control. We can also measure, as recommended in the article, according to what is within us – what is the general internal vibe when things we know are wrong happen in front of us – is it anger? Do we feel hatred towards the person? Or do we feel a sense of calm, and a desire to help that person?

      After that, the best way to measure beyond checking yourself is to actively take feedback from others. Unfortunately, taking feedback is a difficult exercise because you’re asking someone or people to hone in on your flaws, and depending on your personality, you might become a bit defensive. If you engage in the practice enough times, you can learn to absorb it and channel it positively rather than it hitting you and making you feel like you need to punch back :)

      Finally, the most important measure I believe is to keep asking yourself how the Prophet (SAW) dealt with people – not just what he called to, but how he did it, and how did your behavior compare to his? And make sure to do it within the proper context – there were times when the Prophet (SAW) was leading a small movement in Makkah and had little authority, and there were times he was the full leader of Madinah. He built a strong reputation within the community over 40 years. What position of authority / credibility do you have relative to the person you’re calling to the deen? If it’s not much, then you have to be extra careful of any negative attitude and dialogue, and I find this is the majority of cases for many people, but because of their emotion and attachment to the deen, they react (or perhaps overreact) without thinking on the consequences of their approach and attitude, or more importantly, if they have any sort of authority / credibility to speak to the person being called the way they are.

      Siraaj

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  14. Abdiaziz

    Mashallah…….Jazakallah for the well written article, May the Almighty Allah made us those who benefit from it.

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  15. Ikhan

    We living in the UAE and the same goes for the other 5 GCC countries, all the Friday sermons are delivered in Arabic except for a very few select mosques in the country…

    I do not speak Arabic and I do not understand a word of the sermon..which I am sure is educational..
    The problem with these Arab speaking countries is although their demographics are skewed..i.e. more non Arabs than Arabs…they still like to conduct the sermons in Arabic..

    How is that supposed to benefit the other majority Muslims? I think Islam has now just become a faith with rituals and that’s it…although my understanding of the religion is its more practical than any other religion and can be applied in your daily life…but i think the scholars and the rulers of these countries don’t think like that…

    Take Saudi for example, I regularly go for business to Jeddah and I perform umrah or visit the holy sites, for the last 11 years…why cant they have the sermons either on Friday and during Ramadan displayed on electronic boards in at least other 4-5 languages…these sermons are always read by the imam or scholars anyways..

    I understand the superiority of the Arabic Language..for heaven sake!… other Muslims shouldn’t be sitting idle and be lost with other thoughts during sermons..because they can only hear not listen

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  16. Mariam Shafeena

    Masha Allah… such a beautiful article…just loved it… time to introspect (:

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