There’s a strange thing about knowing. It is irreversible. That’s different from learning, where you can unlearn what you’ve learnt, and do it all over again — with a new approach. You can undo previous theories and unravel previously accepted norms to lay them down in a different manner, all over again. But knowing denotes certainty in its very name. You see the sun in the sky and you know it’s daytime. The sky gets dark and the stars peer out and you know that now it’s night. Knowing carries certainty, undeniability, and with the passage of time, also an air of normalcy — because you know this is how a certain thing occurs.

This holds true for things that you experience through your senses as well. Once you’ve heard a sound that you’d never heard before, it’s embedded in your consciousness forever. You can extract it from those inner chambers and play it over again. Melodies, in particular, have a habit of haunting people around. And so do fragrances. Years may pass before you smell the same fragrance again, and yet you would instantaneously know it when it crossed your path another time. Once you’ve smelt it, you know. You can’t undo the experience for it is stored in your subconscious forever.

Once your eyes have experienced a scene, it’s stored perennially in the precincts of your mind. You may move far away from there, but you’d always be able to pull it out from those hidden crevices and revisit it all over again. For once you’ve seen something, you can’t un-see it.

Like an image that hides several images within it—until you’ve seen them all, they’re hidden from sight. You don’t even know that they exist. But once your brain has processed them, it is impossible to ‘not see’ them again. They are right there, before your eyes, as simple and plain as daylight, and you wonder how you could never see them before. That is how the brain functions, that is how you ‘see’ things around you, that is how you see the truths of the universe. Once you’ve discovered the truth about the world, you can’t close your eyes and pretend you never knew it. Knowing is an irreversible process, knowing lays the world bare before you like the fingers of your hand. You wouldn’t have to count them to know how many there are.

That was what Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the greatest teacher, philosopher and jurist in Islam, said whenever he was asked a question. He would answer the question within a splitting fraction of a second, answer it in the same tone, the same instant, the same language and the same vein in which it was asked. The questions ranged from things as varied as biology, physics, history, geography to law and jurisprudence, philosophy and spirituality. The instantaneous nature of his replies never changed. When people wondered how his replies could be so swift, this is what he would always say: If someone were to ask you how many fingers there are in your hands, would you need to stop and think? No, you’d reply instantaneously, because you know, most certainly, about your own hand. It’s right before your eyes every moment of the day. So too, the unfathomable and unimaginably vast knowledge of this universe and everything it encompasses lies right before my eyes, every second of my life. I do not have to think to answer. I know.

Indeed, once you know, you know. Knowledge is light, for it makes everything bright and clear. You see it all, and you see it forever.

 

Columnist: 
Zehra Naqvi