Over the Christmas break, I watched, as I do every year, the 1951 version of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge.
It is my favorite film version of the story, and I think it is the best. One scene in particular hits me every time: when the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robes to reveal two meager, ragged desperate children at his feet.
“Spirit, are these yours?” Scrooge asks.
“They are man’s,” says the Spirit. “They cling to me for protection from their fathers. This boy is ignorance, this girl is want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy.”
The narrative at this point is about the consequence of Scrooge’s miserliness, but it reminds me of the steep price we all pay for ignorance.
Here I have to make a distinction. There is ignorance, which simply means “not knowing.” It can be overcome. After all, we start out not knowing anything, and we learn. Not a sin. The real devil is willful ignorance, the sort that refuses to learn, or change. or adapt, even in the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This takes me back to the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath. In particular to the behavior of too many Americans who set out to harm or kill innocent people of Arabic lineage and Islamic faith who had not one damned thing to do with the murderous lunatics who engineered 9/11.
Some Americans killed people because they had dark skin and wore turbans. They were Sikhs.
All around I was hearing people who knew nothing about Islam and had never read a word of the Quran suddenly pontificating as if they had, spouting out absurdities, and others believing what they’d said, and Mosques and meeting halls burning.
I was curious. I had to know what was true. So I set out to educate myself. I went to the International District in Seattle to buy a Quran and a boxed set of the entire Quran on CD from a business I’d contacted that had both to sell.
The robed man behind the counter looked at me warily and drew me aside. He demanded to know why I wanted those things. I understood his concern, and did not take offense. Tensions were running high at the time.
“I don’t want to be ignorant,” I replied.
That was good enough for him. He sold me the items.
That’s the same answer I gave to Christian friends who didn’t appreciate my interest either, and asked what I was up to.
“I don’t want to be ignorant,” I replied. “There’s ignorance all around. Isn’t it better to know? Don’t you want to know?”
No, no they didn’t.
I went on to study Arabic first from a private tutor in Seattle. I thought then and think now that learning about what we don’t understand is a much better thing to do than to remain in ignorance, when we have a choice. If we are willing to set aside our opinions, even for a moment, we can learn a helluva lot.
Here are a few things I learned.
One of the passages in the Quran that affected me most comes in an early Sura. Muhammed is citing what he considers the worst crimes of his era: killing of baby girls simply because they were girls.
“And when the girl child, buried alive, is asked what she did to deserve murder…” the passage begins. In a narrow sense, it suggests Muhammed would have disapproved of the atrocities misguided people now commit against girls simply because they are girls.
I also learned that the early Suras contained passages of surpassing beauty, but that the only way to know that was to study Classical Arabic.
That phrase, “because I want to know,” I have employed many times in my life, including today, when someone finds me learning Biblical Hebrew or studying Immanuel Kant’s epistemology.
Or trying to understand the roots of the absurdities and lunacies and conspiracies too many embrace these days to their own and everyone else’s harm.
It is good to make the effort.
Robert Whale can be reached at email@example.com.