The Wisdom of Saying “I Don’t Know”

Wednesday, November 22, 2017 - 11:47 am

The Wisdom of Saying “I Don’t Know”

I was recently reading a book about a medieval saint. Every day, people came to ask the saint questions about life, the world, faith, the heart, the path, politics, and more.

One person came and asked a question about the law. The saint simply answered, “I don’t know.” Another had a philosophical question. The saint, again answered, “I don’t know.” All in all, 29 people came and asked questions. To each and every one the saint answered, “I don’t know.” It was when the 30th person asked a question that the saint said: “Oh, I have something to answer about this one.”

One out of 30. The rest of the time, the saint realized that silence was an improvement over words.

I ponder sometimes the people I see around me: politicians, scholars, religious leaders, spiritual guides — myself. I ponder how quick we are to opine on every topic, at times with an authoritative voice. We opine on this, we opine on that. We opine on nuances of scripture, we opine on the most efficacious form of protest, we opine on global warming, we opine on medieval philosophy, we opine on Turkish politics and refugees and the tax code.

In fact, I can’t remember many of my colleagues, or myself, ever saying “I don’t know” in response to a public question.”

How lovely would it be to say:

“That is a great question. I don’t know the answer, but you know who might…?”

We cherish not only answering every question, but also being quick-witted. The answer has to be produced in the shortest amount of time with the snappiest of declarative performances. That kind of quick response is taken as a measure of supreme intelligence.

I’d love to see us become a community where our knowing and not-knowing, as well as our partial knowing, is not handed down vertically from the (all too often) one man on top, but is produced in a communal fashion.

We know that this arrogance, this know-it-all-ness, is not evenly distributed. There is a hierarchical element to it. In many corporations, the higher up you go, the more the people on top seem to have a word on every topic — and the final word on all topics.

There is absolutely a gendered component to it. How often have we found ourselves around a table in a committee meeting when one of the few women present makes a brilliant point only to have it go unacknowledged? It’s only when a male participant echoes that same point that the folks around the table, especially the ones with decision-making power, pick up on it.

How painful it is when I see a newcomer to a field mansplain a topic to a female scholar or expert, not pausing to realize that she is an established expert with publications on the topic. It is painful to behold on social media, it is more painful in real life. This is not simply about rudeness or haughtiness, it reveals structures of inequity and injustice.

There is also a racial component to it. In corporations, in universities, in so many of our communities, you see that the daily work of service, the unacknowledged committee work, the glue work without which nothing would be done, is carried out mostly by women and people of color. The further up the pyramid of power you go, the whiter and whiter the pyramid gets. And the (usually) white men at the top, far too often speak with a confidence and all-knowing-ness that is unrelated in any factual sense to the depth of their wisdom or experience vis-à-vis their people-of-color counterparts. This is not simply a personality trait, an “alpha male” quality, or “exuding confidence.” It is directly related to a structure of power inequity that both reflects and perpetuates racial hierarchies.

The guidance counselor at my children’s Quaker school has a bumper sticker on her computer that reads:

“Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

This know-it-all arrogance is actually more than a mere crime of racism, sexism, and hierarchy. It is a theological error. God, and God alone, is omniscient. Only God is all-knowing. When we fallible, flawed, beautiful, messed-up human beings — that is to say, all of us — act as if we are the all-knowing one, we are literally attributing divinity to ourselves. God is in us, in all of us. And for us as a community to resemble God, we need the knowledge, the wisdom, the experiences, that come from all of us.

May light pour out from us as a community.
May knowledge spring up from our hearts.
May we pause to acknowledge the wisdom and insight and knowledge all around us.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Thank you so much for this. I always hope that the people who most need to read your words will do so and see themselves.

  • Louis Schmier

    A student once asked me a question in class to which I answered, “I don’t know, but….” Before I could finish my response, she blurted out in astonishment, “But, you’re the professor. You have a Ph.D. You’re the expert. You’re supposed to know all the answers to our questions.” I then finished my answer, but in a different way. I quietly asked the class, “Do you know the difference between a fool and a wise person?” No answer. “Well, let me tell you. The fool arrogantly thinks she or he knows it all and always comes up with something to say. The wise person humbly knows that she or he doesn’t know it all, but knows where to find the answer.”
    It was a life-long teaching moment par excellence. Omid, let me wish you and yours a joyous Thanksgiving, and may you avoid a tryptophan overdoes that sends you into a caloric coma.

  • Helen

    I’ve always had good experiences in the classroom saying “I don’t know”, though I never really said it like that. When I was an assistant professor, I was very fortunate to teach an upper level elective in my area of expertise to a group of highly intelligent undergraduates, so the circumstances were favorable to developing trust with the group, year after year. Because the class was in my area, it was very easy to establish credibility from the start. So when asked a question to which I did not know the answer, I never felt that I had to BS my way through it.

    I also made a point of distinguishing between things that were known, but not by me, andthings that were unknown. I think students really got excited by the idea that what they were learning in my class was bringing them to the edge of knowledge in that particular field. So much of undergraduate knowleges

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  • Michelle

    I don’t know what to say about this article other than it ‘hits the nail squarely on the head’.
    Thank you…..

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