A statement by Prophet Muhammad spoke of a future time that would cause the wise, sagacious and learned to be totally perplexed by unfolding events to an extent that they couldn’t make any sense of it. From the earliest post-prophetic period, the notion of the age of the perplexed has existed in Islamic literature with each calamity and difficult episode theorized as representing the beginning of the prophesized time. Earlier periods in Islamic history that were described as ushering in the age of the perplexed included the Mongol Invasion, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the colonial era.
Looking at the current period, a strong argument can be made that we are witnessing the age of the perplexed since the wise men and women of our time are totally bewildered by unfolding events. These wise men and women, be it collectively or individually, are in no position to provide clear and workable answers to the daily catastrophes confronting humanity. I am not discounting the vast contributions of so many people who are hard at work attempting to find solutions to various problems; I am pointing to the simple fact that the social, political and economic conditions around the world are in total chaos. No matter what political ideology, party affiliation or socio-economic philosophy one subscribes to, it is clear that perplexity is the order of the day.
At a ground level, the tools and technologies we produced are increasingly disruptive to a deliberative and systematic decision-making process. Daily, we have a massive information dump with the limited ability for any individual or a group to scrub through it and arrive at a kernel of wisdom. Even if we arrive at a kernel of wisdom, the challenge of sharing it and building upon it is monumental because numerous parties will engage in disinformation campaigns that attempt to nullify or limit its potential benefit.
The speed and reach of modern modes of communication makes our collective ability to arrive at a wise and conscious understanding increasingly impossible. Information is treated as knowledge, then acted upon as if constituting a valid basis for the forgone decision. Adding to this is the effect of social media, which confuses opinions, likes and shares on various platforms for sound knowledge and wisdom. The empowering effect of social media has been transformed and subverted by well-funded crafty outfits, think-tank-embedded intellectuals and marketing agencies, causing greater perplexity on any given issue. On this front, the technological tools have made it possible for all types of misinformation to be deposited on the web without any real tools, skills or abilities to decipher the soundness of a given material.
The above observation is not a condemnation of the technologies we are using, rather it is statement of fact on the consequences of the medium itself. Initially, the internet and social media had a potential to level the playing field, and in some areas it did achieve a success. This can be seen in the ability of individuals to produce and share materials with ease and at a low cost. However, the same powerful corporate, ideological and militaristic elites have been able to carve out and disorient the gains made by the powerless and disenfranchised. Who to turn to for the basic facts on any given issue is as much of a problem as the analysis of these facts themselves. The “role of the expert” is as much of a problem as the broader crisis of perplexity we are suffering from in the contemporary period.
We have arrived at an “expert” whose role is to amplify and consolidate the existing opinions and analysis located at an epistemic level in the society. Thus, the daily news cycle can’t keep up with the unfolding events and the “experts,” who are called upon to decipher and contextualize the events, are often unable to make heads from tails of what is going on around the world. The fallback position for the “experts,” often due to lack of sufficient time to examine the unfolding events (assuming no malicious intent), is to resort to established stereotypical and reductionist analysis that causes more obfuscation than clarity. Consequently, the “experts’” fallback position on the Arab and Muslim world is one of orientalism and reaffirming the imagined geographies with all the firmly embedded stereotypical representations.
The age of the perplexed is complicated by the heavy dose of orientalism and racism that colors all the information at the source and the subsequent analysis emerging from it. As it stands today, none of the Muslim scholarly groupings and all existing trends within the tradition are able to contend with the fast changes underway and the complexities at hand, which include a heavy orientalist imprint upon the minds of many as well as a deep-rooted sense of inferiority. The existing Islamic sources, while providing a wealth of knowledge, are by themselves, and the current scholarly establishment is at a total loss on how to respond and offer guidance grounded in something meaningful. The classical world that produced the text no longer exists and the eyes examining these documents are themselves disoriented by an intrusive and unforgiving orientalism and modernity.
The task at hand is monumental. I remain optimistic for the future; nevertheless, I do believe that hard work is badly needed to remedy the perplexity of the period. Certainly, the starting point to remedy the crisis is not to call for more and faster tools but to insist on transformative knowledge, deliberative educational process, meaningful and social justice based world view, real and equal access and an orientalist-free approach to the world. We must insist on principles and a standard that puts meaning and wisdom at the center of engagement in the world. Lastly, the North-South imbalance in information, economic, social and narrative production has to come to an end for any meaningful change to occur in the future.