Recently, Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist and author, published an op-ed in the New York Times on faking cultural literacy. “It’s never been so easy,” he wrote, “to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them.”
It’s never been easier to fake knowledge than it is now. You can pop open a Wikipedia page and within a few minutes feign competence. If you do this a few times and you don’t get called out, you come to believe that you’re actually pretty competent in something you really have no clue about.
Such intellectual dishonesty is prohibited in Islam. The prophet ﺻﻠﯽ الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽٰ ﻋﻠﯿﮧ ﻭﺍٓﻟﮧ ﻭﺳﻠﻢ said, "the one who boasts of receiving what he has not been given is like him who has put on two garments of falsehood." Abu Dawud (with a Sahih chain)
Umar رضي الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽٰ عنه said, “Whoever decorates himself by displaying to the people some characteristics that Allah knows are contrary to his real characteristics, will be disgraced and dishonoured by Allah.” [Ad-Daaraqutnee, 4/207]
It’s bad not just because it’s dishonest. It’s bad also because we make real, sometimes life altering decisions based on this fakery that can have serious consequences for ourselves and others in Dunya and Akhirah.
Unable to discern between what we know and what we pretend to know, we ultimately become victims of our own laziness and intellectual dishonesty.
In a lecture at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964, the future Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
One of the reasons for faking knowledge is that the Internet forums and social media have opened up the fields of religious debates and sectarian preaching/poaching to the common people who resort to copy-pasting and faking knowledge to prove their 'authentic' version of Islam and beat their opponents.
Another reason is that we’ve become scared to say, “I don’t know,” lest we be considered less knowledgeable by others. Whether the subject is religious, political or professional, those words are disappearing quickly from our vocabulary.
We should remember that the Islamic tradition actually encourages even the scholars to say "I don't know" in the presence of other qualified people who can answer a question or in case of a lack of certain knowledge on the issue.
Importance of Saying: "I don't know":
Imam Malik رحمه الله said:
“The shield of the Scholar is, ‘I do not know’, so if he leaves it down, his attacker will strike him.” [Al-Intiqaa’, p. 37]
Imam Ibn ‘Adbil-Barr رحمه الله said:
“It is authentically related from Abu Dardaa’ رضي الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽٰ عنه that ‘I do not know’ is half of knowledge.” [Jaami’ Bayaanil ‘Ilm Wa Fadhlih, 1/54]
‘Adbullaah Ibn Yazeed Ibn Hurmuz رحمه الله said:
“It is befitting for the scholar that he passes on to his students the statement, ‘I do not know’, until that becomes the foundation that they flee to.”
Abu Bakr as-Sideeq رضي الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽٰ عنه said:
“Which sky will shade me? And which land will harbour me if I were to speak about the Book of Allah without sound knowledge?”
Ibn Mas’ood رضي الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽٰ عنه said:
“O people! Anyone who is questioned about that which he has knowledge of then let him speak, and anyone who does not have knowledge then he should say “Allah knows best“, for certainly from having knowledge is to say “Allah knows best” regarding that which you do not know.”
Imam Ash-Sha’bee was questioned about an issue and he said:
“I am not well-versed in it.” So his companions said to him: “We have become shy for you.” So he said: “But the angels did not become shy when it was said, “…we have no knowledge except what you have taught us…” [2:32] ”
May Allah protect us from all forms of dishonesty. آمين يا رب العالمين