The Ignorance that Begets Overconfidence and its Ramification on the Ummah

In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell

Early this morning I read Errol Morris’s New York Times Opinion Piece, The Anosogosic’s Dilemma,  an intriguing article which sheds light on a groundbreaking study that shows how sheer incompetence leads to overconfidence [1]. Morris highlights how sheer incompetence can lead to overconfidence, what many now call the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning, one of the study’s authors, writes, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.” The scientific explanation of this phenomena opens up so  many possibilities for explaining many of the struggles both my husband and I have face as intellectuals who are committed to educating and empowering both the Black American and Muslim communities.

Daniel Hawes explains that the Dunning-Kruger effect is, ” a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.”[2] The Widipedia article on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, outlines their hypothesis on the way typical humans assess a skill as  follows:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill. [3]

In their Study, Dunning and Kruger cite numerous psychological studies which show how the incompetent are less able to gauge their own skill set than their more skilled peers. They write, for example, “high school students tend to see themselves as having more ability in leadership, getting along with others, and written expression than their peers….Mediocre students are less accurate than other students at evaluating their course performance….Unskilled readers are less able to assess their text comprehension than are more skilled readers.”[4] The reality is, most people see themselves as above average. And this is a cognitive bias, which has some negative ramifications on our self improvement and can lead to continual bickering and debates as we discount expert opinion.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains my observations of the the debates and struggles over legitimacy in the Muslim community. I found that the less informed a person was, the more he/she was absolutely sure of their opinions. I never knew there was a name for the inability of incompetent people to recognize their own incompetence, but it is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.


Strangely, my quest for mastering Arabic illustrated the inverse effect of gaining knowledge only to learn how little I knew. After nearly five years of studying Arabic, I was in Egypt to shore up my skills. However,   I felt as if my progress was stalling. Whenever I spoke, I could hear the mistakes roll out of my mouth.  I constantly self corrected in mid-sentence and my conversations felt even more stilted. I thought I hit a wall, partly due to the quality of programs I had previously enrolled in. Even as I studied in  some of the most prestigious and rigorous programs, I became much more self conscious about my language than I was two years before. Back then, I spoke with much more confidence.  My dear friend and roommate at the time, who was earning an MA in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language, reminded me that it was a good thing. My language was improving, as evidenced by the awareness of my mistakes. My other teachers reminded me that my growing self-consciousness in language was a good sign. I was aware of the grammar mistakes that I made even as I spoke them. Earlier, I was not able to distinguish the nuances of language, so this was a clear sign in my development. My self-consciousness contrasted with some newbie students who were so self-assured that they’d master the language in less than half the time only to become frustrated that they couldn’t hold a conversation after a year of study.

The more you know, the less you understand.


In addition to language, I found that my student of the history of Muslim societies opened up huge chasms of questions. When I got to graduate school I found it increasingly hard to write a definitive essay about anything.  It wasn’t just reading post-modern literature, and its refusal to acknowledge that there was truth in the world, that confused me. Well, Foucault and Derrida’s difficult language did befuddle me and plenty of incoherent texts  perplexed me. But even more than the boring theoretical texts, it was the inverse effect of specialization on my sense of mastery of any particular subject. I found each exploration to be like peeling an onion, layer after layer. One could never get to the bottom of it all.

I remember a Muslim artist who was cocky enough to tell me, “I can know just as someone with a doctorate by just watching documentaries.”  I jockingly agreed  acknowledging the increasingly narrowing specialization that made it difficult to make one’s study relevant. I was self-effacing about what I knew in order to diffuse the potential the battle of wills.  The reality was that the Dunning-Kruger effect had inflated his sense of his own ability to grasp the Humanities, let alone Social Sciences. The self-assured Muslim man made the assertion in an effort to put me and my knowledge in place. And I had learned from many negative encounters with lay people with strong opinions and little backing that it could turn ugly really quick if I weigh in with my expertise.  You can find the dismissal of scholars, and especially anyone who has been trained in Western institutions, in most public discussions. Some people will even accused scholarly people as “asserting privilege” as part of some ruling class and “silencing voices.” While that is sometimes the case, often this language is meant to dismiss a valid argument made by someone like myself who did not come from a privileged background and was a non-traditional student.  The Dunning-Kruger effect can explain many of the exasperating interactions I’ve had as a student, a teacher, public intellectual and mentor.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin

As a student of history, I found that many lay people would often assert they knew more about a particular subject than most experts. And of course, most people would assert that they knew more about a particular subject than I did, especially when it came to Islamic history, Middle East history and politics, and African history.  This was especially the case when it came to non-Muslims telling me about the history of Muslims. Often I sit and nod silently as I get mini-lectures from someone who watch too much history channel. Gaining a graduate degree has been an ultimate lesson in humility.

While in the social field I avoided heavy handed intellectual discussions, I made my splash in the blogosphere in defense of a friend who was getting slammed on Umar Lee’s Blog. I remember those early discussions where I would openly tell people they didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t see me until they read up. I’d give them a list of books read before they could discuss any further, knowing full well that they wouldn’t read them. It was harsh, but I wrote that stuff with sincerity. And it was some vindication for all the crap I had to go through dealing with people who would become resentful, talk me down, or become passive aggressive once they knew I was a Stanford grad student. Over time, my approach became less heavy handed. I had sharpened my writing chops enough in the blogosphere. But over time, I didn’t enjoy the fitnah or the intellectual smack down. But still the Dunning-Kruger effect pops up time and time again.

In a recent blog entry, A Basic Primer on Sunnah, Marc Manely posted a selection of Sherman Jackson’s book, Towards Empowering The Common Muslim,. Someone posted the following well meaning comment that illustrates my point:

May Allah bless you in your effort to help Muslims new and old in better understanding the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet {PBUH}. But I am feeling that to much emphasis is put into what the scholars say {which might be a little to hard to digest for new muslims} and not what the Quraan and The Prophet {PBUH} have to say on the necessity of not only following his {PBUH} sunnah but obeying The Prophet, which is initself is a requirement to attain Allahs pleasure, which would be pointed out if the whole the verse was quoted and not only part of it.
Secondly, a better understanding of following his sunnah or in this case his behaviour would be to explain the series of verses that this particular verse is in and also why it was revealed.

Within this quote is a basic assumption that an untrained layman can fully understand the Qur’an and Hadith without the aid of scholars. There is also an  assumption that scholars are not following a consistent methodology to unravel the meaning of a verse or hadith in an effort to understand what Allah intends in that revelation. Often Muslims in the West have a rugged individualist approach to Islam, without understanding the intertextual nature of the Quran and Sunnah. Last year, as I tried to organize a halaqah, a sister told me she felt that tafsir was not necessary because the Qur’an was straight forward. The sister did not understand tafsir as a legitimate Islamic science. For her, reading the Qur’an’s English translation was straight forward. But the thing is, the translation is not the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the reading in Arabic. But even with Arabic, can we go back to understand something written 1400 years ago and understand it without the aid of generations of scholars?  Without coming to terms withe the layers of meaning, in addition to bridges that help us arrive at the text, we will probably be lost.

Finally, I’d like to get into how lay people with too much confidence in what they think they know who involve themselves polemics. These are the same people who were offended by the “Pledge of Mutual Respect” which states:

Likewise, detailed discussions in matters of theology are the specific domain of trained specialists, and proceed on the basis of well-defined principles and methodologies, which are beyond the knowledge of the generality of Muslims. Our forebears in faith, with all the dedication, brilliance and sincerity clearly manifested in their works, have debated and discussed abstruse and complex issues of creed and practice, and have failed in most instances to convince their opponents of the veracity and accuracy of their positions. The average Muslim is only responsible for knowing the basics of creed as they relate to a simple belief in Allah, His Angels, Scriptures, the Prophets and Messengers, the Last Day, and the Divine Decree.

Some claimed that this pledge was meant to silence average Muslims. Instead, it was to let the unskilled and ignorant know that they should not quibble about that which they don’t understand. And that includes myself, I can’t argue about Kalam, Islamic theology because my training is limited. The pledge goes on to do the following:

  • Urge Muslims in the West, especially our youth, to leave off unproductive and divisive discussions of involved theological issues that are the proper domain of trained specialists, and we especially discourage participation in those internet chat rooms, campus discussion groups, and other forums that only serve to create ill-will among many Muslims, while fostering a divisive, sectarian spirit;
  • Urge all teachers to instruct their students, especially those attending intensive programs, to respect the diverse nature of our communities and to refrain from aggressive challenges to local scholars, especially those known for their learning and piety;
  • Urge our brothers and sisters in faith to concentrate on enriching their lives by deepening their practice of Islam through properly learning the basics of the faith, adopting a consistent regimen of Qur’anic recitation, endeavoring to remember and invoke Allah in the morning and evening, learning the basics of jurisprudence, attempting to engage in voluntary fasting as much as possible, studying the Prophetic biography on a consistent basis, studying the etiquettes that guide our interactions with our fellow Muslims, and the performance of other beneficial religious acts, to the extent practical for their circumstances [5]

Ignorance is breeding overconfidence, and overconfidence is nothing short of arrogance.  And I have found that some of the most ignorant people are the most boisterous in causing problems both within and outside of the Muslim community. Before the accusations of intellectual elitism go flying, I want to emphasize the importance of public scholarship and empowering the common Muslim. “The rather odd element of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the incompetent don’t become aware of it until they become more competent. The key is education.”[6] My overall goal is to increase the Islamic literacy of average Muslims in order for us to be aware of our own shortcomings in knowledge. By doing so, we can rectify the situation. We can also increase humility. Once we have gained a greater competence in our Deen, we will see where our gaps lie. I think that through education, many lay Muslims will avoid disputations. We will also have better etiquette in doing so. Further, by educating ourselves,  and becoming aware of our own shortfalls in knowledge, we can work towards solving discord and respect the rights of our our brothers and sisters. Through education initiatives in the Muslim community, such as the Alim program, Madinah Institute, Zaytuna Institute, The Madinah Way, Maghrib Institute, etc, we are slowly reversing the disastrous consequences that the Dunning-Kruger effect has had on our community.


1.Errol Morris, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)” New York Times. June 20, 2010.

2. Daniel Hawes, “When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect” Psychology Today Published June 6, 2010 Retrieved June 21, 2010

3. “Dunning-Kruger Effect” Wikipedia. Last modified June 18, 2010 Retreived June 21, 2010

4.  Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated
Self-Assessments”Psychology, 2009, 1, 30-46

5. Pledge of Mutual Respect and Cooperation Between Sunni Muslim Scholars, Organizations, and Students of Sacred Knowledge

6. Daniel Keogh, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect.The Science Show May 8, 2010

See also:

Katherine A. Burson, Richard P. Larrick, and Joshua Klayman”Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions of Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2006, Vol. 90, No. 1, 60–77

Islamic Salon: Are DC Muslims building the BlackAmerica’s Muslim intelligentsia?

One of my friends pointed out that living in Cali I was pretty much living in an intellectual wasteland for African American Muslim intellectuals. Even with two other Black Muslim women from other parts of the Diaspora in graduate school, our schedules too hectic to come together. I didn’t have many peers to share my ideas, build on my research, or to find support. Even though my personal background and experiences had influenced my research direction, I had no one to share the insights I found in my research or make my research relevant to broader issues in the Muslim world. My friends and adviser said that I would likely find a support network outside of academia, through continual exchange online and academic conferences. Slowly I’ve been working on building a peer group, where the respect is mutual. I’ve been looking for people who are intellectuals and activists, people committed to asking deep questions in order to think about creating a better future.

That’s when I began to reach out through blogging. While there have been some amazing sites that have shown promise, I have been disappointed by the distracting posters who follow up discussion with uninformed and counterproductive commentary. Ultimately, I know the limitations to open discourse on blogosphere. I have found promising and civil discourse in academically based discussion groups. What is clear is that we need high standards for our discourse. Moreover, we need real human exchanges with discussion groups, work groups, and writing workshops.
So, today, when someone forwarded me a link to AbdurRahman’s latest post. I was happily surprised. Here’s a brief account of what’s going on in DC:

Imagine for a moment that you’re a highly educated African-American living in the segregated Washington, DC of 1895. Modern distractions like radio and television haven’t been invented yet, and most other avenues for culturally rich and intellectually stimulating entertaiment have been racially proscribed. What do you do? This was the predicament facing the elite members of the race at the close of the 19th, and beginning of 20th centuries. In those days, education meant a heavy dosage of Latin, Greek, or French, great familiarity with the classics of western civilization – like Shakespeare and Plato – and usually the ability to perform a difficult piece of music on either piano or violin.

In learning to cope with the injustices of segregation, these educated Blacks turned inward and developed their own avenues for cultural and intellectual expression. They formed debate clubs and literary societies, attended plays ( held usually in churches), and wrote books and papers. However, one of the more important outlets they turned to – one which we are attempting to rediscover in the Washington D.C. of 2007 – consisted in holding lively and engaging programs in each others homes.

So often we hear that our masjids maintain an atmosphere inhibiting free discussion and thoughtful debate, a lamentable state of affairs. Most masjids, whether African American or immigrant, usually follow some type of “line” ( some ideological Kool-Aid they want you to drink), and all topics not sanctioned by the administration are strictly prohibited. But the home “salon”can be the perfect remedy to combat the intellectual and cultural stagnation that so many Muslims are experiencing today.

Here in the nation’s capital, Muslims are beginning to meet not only in homes, but in little coffee shops as well. Some attend to hear the short lectures and the discussions that follow, while others go simply to find a mate, and that’s o.k. too.

I really hope this idea catches on. After reading Sherman Jackson’s work on BlackAmerica and talking with several up and coming leaders, I am convinced that we need to go back to the drawing board. While we may look at faulty ideologies and failed movements, I think this is an exciting time for Muslims in the West. I believe we may be on the brink of some cutting edge thought. Our thoughts in exchange with the thinkers coming from Muslim majority countries may really help provide some real world solutions to the problems that we face all over the world.

Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.

Sunni Unity Pledge

In light of the sectarian violence in Iraq and intense polemical debates between traditional Muslims and Salafis, progressive Muslims, and everyone else who believes their community is on the right path and everyone else is deviant:

Hold fast to the Rope of Allah, all together, and be not divided. (Qur’an, 3:103)

Surely, those who have made divisions in their religion and turned into factions, you have nothing to do with them. Their case rests with Allah; then He will inform them of what they used to do. (Qur’an, 6:159)

Suhaib Webb has posted a pledge entitled “Pledge of Mutual Respect and Cooperation Between Sunni Muslim Scholars, Organizations, and Students of Sacred Knowledge” A number of prominent Muslim figures signed the pledge.

One hopes the list of signees would get longer.