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The “Wise” Men And The Elephant: How Our Opinion Can Get Us In Trouble

When I was in seventh grade (a very long time ago), I memorized a delightful poem called The Wise Men and the Elephant written by John G. Saxe. Recently I found a very appropriate application to the Quran and specifically to 43:40: Can you make the deaf hear; can you make the blind see, or those who are far astray? Here is the first verse of the poem:
It was six men of Hindustan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant,
(Though each of them was blind);
That each by observation
Might satisfy the mind.

So here you have six men who are physically blind but are very intelligent and wise. They appear interested in acquiring knowledge. The next six verses describe what happens as each man approaches the elephant. The first falls against its side and so declares that the elephant is like a wall. The second touches the tusk and immediately concludes that something so sharp is like a spear. The third grabs the trunk and boldly announces that the elephant is like a snake. The fourth feels around the knee and knows that the elephant is like a tree. The fifth touches the ear and recognizes a fan. The sixth gets hold of the tail and declares it’s like a rope.

Here’s the final verse:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion,
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right;
They all were in the wrong!

And that’s the heart of the matter. Each of these supposedly wise men had taken a piece of the whole picture and drawn their own conclusions, and then they refused to be shaken from their opinion. Instead of pooling their information and looking at the whole picture, each one stuck to his own view and declared that it was the truth.

Now, let’s take this one step further. Each of these “wise” men goes back to his own village and passes this information on to his people. If they are people who have seen an elephant, they might laugh at and disregard him. BUT he’s the “wise” man; he’s the respected and highly regarded “expert” whose opinion counts for much more than the ordinary man. So in spite of their own senses telling them this man is wrong, the people might just change their minds and decide, “Yes, by george, the elephant is like a rope (or fan or snake).” And if they’re people who have never seen an elephant, they will readily accept this expert testimony and probably not investigate for themselves. And someone who finds a picture of an elephant and tries to bring this to the attention of the community will be ridiculed, persecuted, perhaps even killed.

This is the danger in following someone else’s opinion and not investigating information for ourselves. This is the danger in thinking that “wise” men must be right because they talk well and impressively, or the majority must be right just by sheer numbers. And this is the danger in looking at only part of the Quran and not taking the Quran as a whole. Remember: Though each was partly in the right; they all were in the wrong!

You cannot make the dead, nor the deaf, hear the call, once they turn away. Nor can you guide the blind out of their straying. You can only be heard by those who believe in our revelations, and decide to become submitters. [30:52-3]

You shall not accept any information, unless you verify it for yourself. I have given you the hearing, the eyesight, and the brain, and you are responsible for using them. [17:36]

Among the people, one may impress you with his utterances concerning this life, and may even call upon GOD to witness his innermost thoughts, while he is a most ardent opponent. [2:204]

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