Understanding Isam: The Other Blind Men and the Elephant
By Imam F. B. Rasheed, Lawton, OK
In a very familiar story of wisdom there are some blind men who went for the first time to “see” an elephant. They later disputed about the conclusions they had made from their individual experiences. Each being blind could only perceive by touch or “feelings” and was only able to touch one feature of the elephant. As the story goes, one touched the ear and thought an elephant to be like a fan while the others touched other parts and drew other conclusions - tusk - spear, truck - snake, side wall, leg - tree, and tail - rope. Which of these men was right?
Were they all right or were they all wrong? I conclude the later. No man’s description was that of an elephant. Each did however describe a feature of the elephant very well. With cooperation and mutual sharing, the men could have all grown to a better picture of the reality of that elephant. Perhaps each blind man became arrogant concerning his own experience and blocked out the benefits he could have received from the experiences of his contemporaries. Perhaps each forgot his personal limitations and lost sight of the fact that others also have important experiences and contributions to make.
These poor blind men are doomed to ignorance and its consequences until they understand their big mistake and change. Undoubtedly their intentions were good at first, but unless they change their direction even their good intentions will be lost. They will then reap consequences similar to those reaped by the other blind men who disputed about the elephant’s reality.
The other blind men are equally as blind as the first ones. Their position differs in that none of them has even touched the elephant. From hear say and suppositions they conjure up descriptions of the elephant and jealously promote and guard their made up stories. These men are mostly wrong in their conclusions, but some have bits of truth in what they say. The best advice that we can give them is, seek out the ones who have actually touched the elephant.
Both of the groups of men are blind and arrogant, and neither group nor even an individual among them has a correct comprehensive concept of the elephant’s reality. It is motive that gives and directs or prohibits motion. Why are these blind men acting as they are? What are they trying to achieve? Therein lies the keys to the locked doors.
Do those who are blind all long to see? Do all blind ones know they are blind? What of the leaders and followers; what are the results when the blind lead the blind? What is the market value of blindness and preserving the status quo? These are some questions the answers of which will regulate the elephant’s revealed identity.
The elephant symbolizes reality or truth. It is. Its nature and characteristics are set and real. The perceived reality is what is varied between these blind men. The men have no power over the true reality of the elephant. The reality of everything has been created by Allah, the Most High. “Surely your Lord knows best who strays from His way. He knows best those who are rightly guided.” (Surah al-Anaam: 117)
Originally published in the Spring 1993 print edition ofThe American Muslim