Knowing Where We Are

Knowing Where We Are

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

A recent discussion on the BBC Today Programme aired the concern felt by many geographers that increasing reliance on in-car navigation systems and other GPS (global positioning systems) technology was likely to lead to a further decline in map-reading skills.

Well, you might say, we shouldn’t necessarily regard this as a “decline” in skills, but simply the positive outcome of technological change and “progress” which makes old skills redundant. Aren’t new skills continually superseding old ones? Aren’t those people who are continually moaning about the loss of old skills simply out-of-touch dinosaurs, backward-looking fuddy-duddies, or reactionary neo-Luddite technophobes?

I do not count myself as a dinosaur, but neither am I mesmerised by technology, useful as some of it is, and I think we do need to take on board the growing concern about the state of our geographical knowledge and skills.  Above all, we need to think deeply about what this implies in the light of the higher knowledge afforded to us in our tradition.
First, some disturbing facts.

A survey carried out in the USA in December 2005 found that six out of ten Americans aged 18 to 24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the world, despite media exposure about the country since the invasion.  More than 40 per cent could not locate Pakistan in Asia.

An earlier survey carried out in 1989 had revealed that among the same age group world-wide, on average, Americans were least able to provide correct answers in identifying places on a map of the world. Only one in four could locate the Persian Gulf, and one in seven could not even identify the United States.

The president of the National Geographic Society, which commissioned the survey, attributed this ignorance to a prevailing culture of isolationism. “Geography”, he says, “is what helps us make sense of our world by showing the connections between people and places. Without it, our young people are not ready to face the challenges of the increasingly interconnected world of the 21st century.”

The survey shows that domestic geography is also poor. Despite the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Katrina, one-third of those questioned were not able to find Louisiana on a map of the USA.

An article in the Chicago Sun Times (March 2006) by the Vice-President of the American Geographical Society went so far as to accuse geographical illiteracy as the factor that led Americans to be “hoodwinked” into war. “In a world where the gap between political rhetoric and reality is growing by the day,” he writes,  “public accountability is impossible in the absence of a basic level of global understanding.”

Had modern-day Americans had the depth and breadth of geographical knowledge of 8th-graders in Salina, Kansas at the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps they might not have been hoodwinked in more recent times. The final geography exam for these thirteen-year-olds in 1895 included this question: Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each – and this is only one of ten demanding questions to be answered in one hour!  And I don’t buy the criticism of those who mock such questions as being too focused on the rote memorization of physical features, countries, rivers, mountain ranges, capital cities, and the like. If you have no essential framework or skeleton of information, if you can’t locate and name the points, how to do you work out the more meaningful relationships between them?

But let’s not be complacent here. It is true that the level of geographical ignorance is not so bad in the UK, but there are worrying signs of a continuing decline in the study of the subject in our schools along with other humanities subjects such as history and modern languages.

With this in mind, we might be shocked to know that a BBC Poll which questioned 16- to 34- year-olds in Britain has revealed that one in eight thought Anglo-Saxon Britain had been overrun by Napoleon, and, astonishingly, one in twenty thought it was Gandalf, the wizard from The Lord of the Rings, not Francis Drake, who had led the British fleet to victory against the Spanish Armada in 1588. One in five, incidentally, thought it was Columbus. As for foreign language learning, the decline of this in our school system is now recognised as a national disgrace.

All these types of knowledge and skills share an important common factor: the ability to locate where we are, to position ourselves through our relationship or connection to other spaces, other times and other peoples and cultures.  If we are unable to locate a point in relation to other points we are in the grip of a kind of tunnel vision which can only leave us lost, isolated and disorientated. The Royal Society reported in 2000 that the decline in the teaching of geometry in our schools could only be to the detriment of visual and spatial intelligence.

Fewer and fewer people in our culture, it seems, are able to locate themselves in relation to the cardinal points of the compass and would have little or no idea how to approximate time or direction from the position of the sun. The Greek word anthropos (human being) may well be derived from the concept of “looking up”. Our erect posture gives us that upward vision, that higher aspiration which reaches beyond the earth to the heavens, and positions us as a bridge between the two realms. The global positioning system with which we are endowed as khulafa is within our own fitra.

In a very real sense, physical disorientation, the chronic unawareness of environment and firmament (who can even see the night sky these days, given the intensity of light pollution?) is a metaphor for a deeper spiritual disorientation in which we lose our inner map and compass. We also lose our connection with that balanced “common sense” which is an element of our essential nature or fitra.  Thus are we increasingly oppressed by the disproportionate and unrealistic measures of politicians and bureaucrats who have lost their senses. If we too have lost ours, then we are as the blind being led by the blind, and we should not expect anything different.

How does Islam help us to restore a sense of orientation? The concept of orientation is absolutely fundamental to our spiritual tradition. Five times a day we orient ourselves towards the qibla in Mecca, the direction of the ritual prayer. Christian churches are built so that the congregation faces towards the east, the orient, where the sun rises.  The English word “orientation” comes from Latin oriri, “to rise” which also gave us the word “origin”. To be in a state of orientation is to face towards our divine origin, to the place of our “arising”, which is also the place of our ultimate return.

But there is a deeper level to the concept of orientation than that of habitually turning our bodies towards a geographical point, no matter how sacred that point is. To be a Muslim is not only to face the qibla at prayer times, not simply to orient ourselves in physical space at certain times of the day, but to orient ourselves inwardly to our divine origin, to establish ourselves in the very centre of our being, to firmly root ourselves there and to abide there through constant taqwa or mindfulness. As the Qur’an reminds us: “Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him” (49:13).

A friend once told me that he had been privileged to have been allowed to enter the interior of the Ka’bah. Wanting to pray there, and not knowing the direction of the qibla, he was momentarily thrown into a state of disorientation and confusion. Then he realised that in that place, at the point of the qibla itself, any direction to which he turned would face the qibla. There, at the centre, in the words of the Qur’an, “wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” Most of us will never have the opportunity to pray inside the Ka’bah, but we do not need to be there to be at the physical point of the qibla. The Qur’an is telling us that the centre is within our own selves – how else could we see the face of God from every angle unless we are fully centred in that inward consciousness of Him, no matter where we may be physically?

I am not all suggesting that there is never a place for an in-car navigation system, especially in the urban jungle.  To pontificate in such a way would be to trivialise this column and to justly invite the accusation that I am indeed a fuddy-duddy or a technophobe. Blanket proscriptions of this kind are the stock-in-trade of dogmatic bigotry. The Qur’an invites us to use our insight (basirah) to understand signs and similtudes (amthal) and the deeper point here is of course metaphorical.

What, then, is the significance of a state of reliance on a machine which cannot understand what it “sees” and can only offer robotic instructions based on degraded and minimalist representations of the immediate environment?

The Prophet Muhammad never looked fixedly in front of him, but always looked with interest around him, seeking to engage with all that he saw.  To stare only in one direction, oblivious of the surrounding context and the bigger picture, directed only by a mechanical and linear form of perception, is to become a Flatlander inhabiting a universe of sensory deprivation, devoid of vertical co-ordinates.  The same goes for our faculty of hearing. Switched-on IPods may look cool as we walk around, but they may leave us switched off to everything around us. The original meaning of the word “enthusiastic” was to be inspired (enthous) by God (theos). If to be cool is to be switched off and indifferent to others, it has lost the divine. Like people fixated on TV screens or computer monitors, we become disengaged, self-absorbed, wrapped up in a sterile cocoon, a constricted space which is all but impermeable. The spiritual equivalent is the rigid, one-dimensional religious exclusivism which breeds intolerance and bigotry.

In order to unfold our full humanness we need to be open to the richest input which engages all our faculties, and this applies not only to the physical landscape around us but also to the world of creative ideas and fertile relationships with people of many perspectives. Only that expanded vision can open the door to that sense of awe, wonder, discovery and love which accompanies the full engagement of consciousness, and only in that expanded space, the space of the Heart, can we truly discover where and who we are, and why we are here.


Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
January 2007


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