About a year ago, I stumbled upon the idea of compiling a list of rules that might help people learn better. I had noticed that I was not always as successful in my own learning efforts as I would have liked, and so I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to become a more effective learner. I had also noticed that some of my students were better at learning than others, and I wanted to find out whether the former knew something special that the latter did not. I thought if I could discover the most important rules for learning, I would be able to become a more successful learner by following those rules; in addition, I would be able to teach my students the same rules and thereby help improve their chances of successful learning as well.

There is an entire branch of psychology that deals with learning, and—not being a psychologist myself—I am obviously in no position to make any original contributions to that field. In any case, I had no intention of reinventing the wheel. What I wanted to do was to pick up some practical tips from other people’s research, especially ones that resonated with my own experience of learning and teaching, and to put them together in the form of a short, manageable list.

I have now come up with such a list, and I would like to share it with you. Let me emphasize, however, that my list is by no means “complete” or “final,” though it seems to me as more or less adequate for my own limited purposes at this time. I do hope to improve this list in the future, as I continue to learn more about the process of learning.

I began compiling my list of rules with the following premise in mind: “Human beings are born with an incredible capacity for learning. In order to realize that capacity to the maximum extent possible, we must follow certain rules.”

The premise is self-evident, in my view, and requires no further discussion. Based on that premise, I started collecting ideas for how to learn in the most effective manner. To prevent my list from growing out of control, I decided to group the ideas I had collected into categories. After numerous revisions, I ended up with three major rules: (1) there is no getting around the fact that learning requires hard work; (2) since I’m free to choose, I’m responsible for my own learning; and (3) since my knowledge will always be fallible, I must never stop learning.

Let me explain these rules in some detail.

Rule No. 1: Acceptance

Learning does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place within a world that exists independent of our thoughts and desires. To take effective action within such a world, we must come to terms with the way the world actually is. This means that if we are to succeed in pursuing our goals, we must begin by accepting the way in which reality functions and then adjust our own attitudes and behaviors in light of that reality. For example, if we want to build an airplane, we must understand and accept the laws of physics that exist independently of us. The only way to build an airplane that actually flies would require that we adjust ourselves to the laws of physics, rather than trying to adjust the laws of physics to our desire for flying. In other words, we are most likely to be effective when we work with reality rather than against it.

I have found that a major obstacle to learning is our resistance to certain facts. I am using the word “fact” in the sense of a knowable unit of reality. My understanding of the concept “reality” is inspired by how American philosopher Charles S. Peirce liked to define it. According to Peirce:

Reality is that mode of being by virtue of which the real thing is as it is, irrespectively of what any mind or any definite collection of minds may represent it to be.

Simply put, a “fact” is a knowable unit of reality that, by definition, is what it is, regardless of anyone’s—or even everyone’s—beliefs, preferences, opinions, thoughts, feelings, desires, wishes, etc. It’s a complete waste of time, as well as a major cause of human suffering, to be upset about things that cannot be changed, i.e., to want the facts to be different than what they are. There is no point is resenting or complaining that “the water is wet” or “the ice is cold.” It so happens that the water will remain wet and the ice will remain cold, regardless of how much we may dislike these facts.

Serenity-PrayerWhen it comes to learning, we are faced with a number of facts that must be embraced at the very outset or we won’t be able to make much progress. We must accept, for instance, that learning is neither easy nor painless, that we are almost certainly going to fail repeatedly before we start to succeed, and that any worthwhile learning requires a serious investment of time, attention, and effort.

While most people don’t reject these facts explicitly, there is often a subtle resistance or resentment within us based on certain subconscious assumptions. These assumptions tend to be unrealistic desires or expectations, such as “I should be exempt from pain” or “learning shouldn’t be hard” or “learning shouldn’t involve failure.” Even if we are unaware of harboring such unrealistic desires or expectations within ourselves, they can still exert a significant influence on our feelings, producing unnecessary suffering; and even sabotage our efforts to learn.


Rule No. 2: Reminders

The second rule is based on the recognition that human beings are liable to forgetfulness, which is why we must put into place some sort of mechanism that periodically reminds us what we are most likely to forget. Perhaps the most important truth that we tend to forget is that we are responsible.

Part of being human is that we are free to make choices. Each choice we make, no matter how big or small, gives birth to certain consequences. We are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose which consequences will emerge from those actions. The consequences of our choices, in turn, shape our own immediate and long-term future. The same consequences also ripple out far into the world, affecting the world’s circumstances as well as the lives of other people.

Waking up to the fact that we are free to choose is essential to becoming proactive. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey:

What does it mean to be proactive? It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.

The opposite of being proactive is to be reactive. Very often, we go through life as if we’re half asleep. In such a condition, we do not live deliberately or freely, but automatically—we react out of our past conditioning or we mindlessly imitate others around us. When we are reactive, we lose our capacity to shape our own future as well as our capacity to influence the world. We begin to see ourselves at the mercy of other people and of the circumstances that are beyond our control.

Becoming aware that we are free to choose is necessary for becoming responsible, in the true sense of the word. According to Stephen Covey:

Look at the word responsibility—“response-ability”—the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.

When we are proactive, we know that no matter how difficult or challenging our situation may be, there is always some amount of freedom available to us—the freedom to choose our response. And we know that this freedom isn’t static. The more we use our freedom, the more it grows. It is true that we can’t control how other people act, and that very often we don’t choose the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But we can almost always choose how we are going to respond to the stimuli we receive from people and circumstances. As Lou Holtz famously said, “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”


The purpose of the second rule is to help us become aware of how our freedom to choose is connected with our capacity for learning. We are responsible for our learning insofar as we are aware that learning is a choice that we make (or fail to make) in each moment. We are free to learn, just as we are free not to learn. The truth is that if I have chosen to learn, then nothing can really stop me from learning; and if I have chosen not to learn, then nothing in the world can make me learn. To quote a classroom poster I once saw, those who’ve made the decision to learn will always find a way, while those who’ve made the decision to not learn will always find an excuse. Since choice belongs to the individual, each person is individually responsible for his or her own learning.

When we are reactive, we blame others (“students these days don’t want to learn” or “the professor doesn’t know how to teach”). But proactive people know that learning is primarily a matter of choice. Proactive people don’t blame; rather, they take responsibility. As we become proactive, a mutually enriching relationship begins to develop between the student and the teacher. Both sides come to terms with the fact that the learner is responsible for learning and the teacher is responsible for teaching; yet, the teacher cannot cause learning to happen but can only provide the conditions in which the student is most likely to learn. As Roger Schank puts it, “learning happens when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach.” Or, as Herbert Simon was fond of saying, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”

In his book The Prophet, Khalil Gibran expressed the same insight as follows:

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.

And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

I like to think of learning as analogous to mountain climbing, for it allows me to visualize the responsibilities of the student and the teacher. A teacher is like a guide who knows a particular mountain well because he/she has been climbing that mountain for a long time. Such a guide can inform the climbers about the best routes to the top and can warn them about the dangers that may lie ahead. But a guide, no matter how skilled, can’t do the climbing for you. You must carry your own gear and supplies, and you must do your own climbing.


Rule No. 3: Attitudes

What sorts of attitudes are most conducive to learning? Or, to ask the same question from a different angle, what motivates us to do the hard work involved in learning? Many people would say that interest or curiosity is an important motivating factor. This is true as far as it goes. However, we are not born with an interest in any particular subject or a curiosity about any particular question; rather, we acquire these during the course of our learning. What causes us develop interests and curiosities that last a lifetime?

doubtThis is a very broad question, and a great deal can be said to answer it. For my limited purposes, however, one of Charles Peirce’s suggestions would have to suffice. In his paper “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), Peirce argued that human beings embark upon the path of inquiry whenever they wish to overcome a disturbing state called “doubt” and to replace it with a satisfying state called “belief.” Being a pragmatist, Peirce emphasized that “beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions,” each “according to its degree,” while “doubt” has no such effect. Having a “belief” means, for Peirce, that some sort of “habit” has been “established in our nature” that “will determine our actions.” In the absence of “belief,” we are unsure how to act, or how we would act, and this “uneasy and dissatisfied state” is called “doubt.” According to Peirce, since “doubt” is a feeling of unease, akin to having a splinter in the eye, we “struggle to free ourselves” from it, and seek to achieve “a calm and satisfactory state” known as “belief.” This struggle is known as “inquiry.” Hence:

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.


So, what is it that motivates us to invest our time, attention, and effort in learning something new? While the immediate cause can be correctly identified as interest or curiosity, Peirce’s suggestion helps us to see that what we call interest or curiosity is itself motivated by the desire to overcome the “uneasy and dissatisfied state” known as “doubt.” From this, we can draw the conclusion that “doubt” is a powerful motivator for learning. When we feel doubt, we are sometimes tempted to ignore or suppress that feeling; we try to wish it away by acting as if it doesn’t exist. To do so would be self-defeating. The irritation of doubt is really the awareness that we don’t know something that we do need to know. The uncomfortable feeling of doubt is not our enemy; it’s merely a message informing us of our own ignorance, a sign that we need to embark upon a journey of discovery. Even though doubt irritates, we ought to welcome that irritation, for without it we would have no reason to learn anything beyond what we already know.

Peirce says that the irritation of doubt stimulates a process of inquiry, and that this process of inquiry lasts as long as doubt continues to irritate. The process of inquiry can only come to an end when the irritation of doubt is replaced by “a calm and satisfactory state” which he calls “belief.” Peirce warns us, however, that reaching a state of belief does not mean that we have reached absolute truth. We attain a state of belief when we feel that we have found a resolution to our doubt, and that the resolution is somehow “true.” However, that may or may not be the case. Consequently, virtually any belief is vulnerable to further doubt, which initiates another process of inquiry, which leads to another belief. If we are lucky, every round of inquiry leads us to a belief that is better and truer than our previous belief. It is important, therefore, that we never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that we have reached the absolute final stage of inquiry. Even when we are more or less satisfied with our present beliefs, we ought to remain open to the possibility of further doubts and fresh avenues of inquiry. This is why Peirce said, in another context, that in desiring to learn, we must never be satisfied with what we’re already inclined to think.


You can find the above rules presented in the form of a poster here.

This post has been long overdue!

Even as I wrote “Iftar at the White House” (1) on August 11, I knew I wanted to write a sequel—for there were several things that needed to be clarified regarding the position I was taking. At that time, I was pretty sure I would be able to write the sequel over the next few days. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Now that more than two months have passed, I can barely recall exactly what I wanted to say!

Blogs usually contain commentaries on current affairs, and it is fair to say that my original topic is no longer “current.” For all practical purposes, the issue of American Muslims participating in a White House iftar is now ancient history. As such, I doubt that it is of much interest to anyone anymore. The topic is already obsolete by contemporary standards—like Windows 3.1—and therefore any further discussion would probably seem quaint and pointless to most readers.

White House Iftar 2012

Yet, there are larger issues at stake—issues that cannot be rendered obsolete or irrelevant by the passage of time. Instead of trying to recall what I had originally planned to write in this post, I would therefore try to say something useful about those larger issues.

Let me reiterate that I had no intention of issuing a fiqhi ruling when I wrote the original post, nor did I mean to condemn anyone for their participation; rather, I was expressing my sense that there was a deep-seated contradiction in the whole affair that somehow seemed to escape our attention. What I tried to do in that post, and what I am trying to do now, is to shed some light on that contradiction in order to make it more visible.

Why did I think there was something “wrong” with some American Muslims attending an iftar dinner at the White House? I promise I will answer this question, but I can’t give an honest answer without digressing for a little while. This is because I don’t think we can deal with this question in the best possible way without first dealing with another, more fundamental question: How does one know whether a particular choice is moral or immoral? There are many ways of answering this question, and I have no reason to reject any of those methods or theories. For my present purposes, however, I think it would be most beneficial to draw upon the approach that Max Weber described in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). According to Weber:

We have to understand clearly that all ethically oriented action can follow two totally different principles that are irreconcilably opposed to each other: an ethic of “ultimate ends” or an ethic of “responsibility.” This is not to say that the ethic of ultimate ends is identical with a lack of responsibility, or that the ethic of responsibility is identical with lack of conviction. There is naturally no question of that. But there is an immeasurably profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of ultimate ends—to speak in religious terms: “The Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcomes in God’s hands,” and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the “foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.

In this passage, I think Weber is making the following points:

1. There are two types of actions: (a) actions that we do out of habit or routine, and (b) actions that we undertake consciously and deliberately, believing them to be justified on ethical grounds. Only these latter ones are “ethically oriented” actions.

2. There are two main standards that we can use to judge our actions on ethical grounds. These may be called (a) the ethic of ultimate ends and (b) the ethic of responsibility.

3. The ethic of ultimate ends can be summed up in the following principle: Always, and under all circumstances, you must choose only that action which you know to be right, and pay no heed to the consequences that may follow.

4. The ethic of responsibility can be summed up in the following principle: You must choose only that action which will lead to the most desirable results, for you are fully responsible for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.

5.In any given case, I can either follow the ethic of ultimate ends or the ethic of responsibility, but not both at the same time.

Take, for example, the issue of truth-telling vs. lying. In theory, everyone agrees that truth-telling is moral while lying is immoral. But what if I find myself in a situation where telling the truth will lead to an innocent person’s persecution or even death? Suppose, for instance, that I am a French Catholic living under German occupation during WW-II, and I am hiding a Jewish person in my attic to save him from arrest and deportation. If Nazi soldiers were to knock at my door and ask whether I am trying to protect any Jews, what am I supposed to do? If I believe truth-telling to be the right thing, then, according to the ethic of ultimate ends, I am obligated to tell the truth to the Nazi soldiers, regardless of the consequences.

As Weber notes, the ethic of ultimate ends is not “identical with a lack of responsibility.” Following the ethic of ultimate ends does not mean that I am acting irresponsibly; rather, I see myself as responsible only for my choices and not for the choices that other people make. Telling the truth or lying is a decision that I must make myself, and therefore only I am responsible for making that choice. What the soldiers do or don’t do is their choice, and only they are responsible for making it. From this viewpoint, I am not responsible for any harm that my Jewish neighbor may suffer at the hands of the Nazis; rather, the individual soldiers will be responsible for any such harm.

But if I follow the ethic of responsibility, I am going to view myself as responsible not only for my own actions but also for all the consequences of my actions—direct and indirect—that I am able to foresee. I know exactly what the Nazis would do to the man hiding in my attic, and so I see myself as responsible for the harm that he is likely to suffer as a result of my truth-telling. Since the foreseeable consequences are unacceptable to me, the ethic of responsibility requires that I ought to lie to the soldiers. Again, this does not mean that the ethic of responsibility is identical with a lack of commitment to ultimate ends. I do believe that truth-telling is a moral virtue, but in this case I am willing to act immorally in order to ensure a desirable outcome.

The above example may suggest that the ethic of responsibility is somehow superior to the ethic of absolute ends. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Weber, neither ethic is inherently better than the other. In effect, every individual person must make his/her own moral choices according to his/her own conscience. Whether a particular choice is based on the ethic of responsibility or the ethic of absolute ends is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the choice is “right.” A great deal depends on the nature of the particular circumstances in which the choice is made, as well as who is making the choice.

To clarify the last point, let’s take another example. Yasir and Summayya, along with their son Ammar, were three early converts to Islam. They were particularly vulnerable to persecution because of their low social status in Makkah. Islamic sources report that all three were brutally tortured, their tormentor demanding that they renounce their new faith and return to the pagan beliefs of their ancestors. Clearly, one of the highest moral virtues for these Muslims was to remain steadfast despite all the pain and suffering. After weeks of torture, Yasir and Summayya were killed by their tormentor while Ammar saved his life by renouncing his faith. A Qur’anic verse (16:106) later absolved Ammar of any wrongdoing, since he was forced to renounce his faith in God even though his heart was in the right place.

What is a person supposed to do in a situation depicted above? The conduct of Yasir and Summayya is no doubt exemplary, representing the highest possible standard of commitment, perseverance, and faithfulness that any human being can demonstrate. In contrast, what Ammar did seems to fall short of that standard—and yet the Qur’an insists that he did nothing wrong when he renounced his faith only to save himself from torture.

This example shows, far more clearly than the first one, that the choice between the two ethical approaches is neither obvious nor unambiguous. Yasir and Summayya followed the ethic of absolute ends—holding on to their faith and refusing to lie, regardless of the consequences. Ammar followed the ethic of responsibility—lying about his beliefs in order to save his life. Since we can defend both approaches as ethically sound, it would seem that the individual person must consider his/her values and the particulars of the given situation before making a particular choice. Some times, for some purposes, and/or for some people, the “right” answer is found in the ethic of absolute ends. At other times, for other purposes, and/or for other people, the “right” answer lies in the ethic of responsibility.

With this background, I think I am ready to tackle the original question.

Should American Muslims participate in the civic and political affairs of their country? Yes, by all means. Should American Muslims maintain channels of communication with local and national authorities? Yes, certainly. Should American Muslims work with the White House in order to ensure that their civil rights are protected and that they have a voice in the policy-making process? Yes, definitely. Should American Muslims share an iftar dinner with a leader who is responsible for killing countless innocent Muslims, including children, and who is very likely a war criminal? Well ….

If you were to ask me, I would choose the ethic of absolute ends in this case and give a single, straight-forward, and unapologetic answer: no.

But if you were to consider the matter for yourself, in light of your own values, your own priorities, and your own assessment of the needs of American Muslims, it is certainly possible that you would decide to follow the ethic of responsibility. In that case, you may not see anything particularly problematic or questionable in enjoying an iftar dinner with President Obama and other dignitaries.

If you were to answer the above question with a yes, I can certainly understand your reasoning. But do you understand mine?

It started innocently enough.

It was late last night and I was looking at my Facebook news feed. I noticed a picture posted by someone who was attending the Iftar dinner at the White House. I knew this happens every year, and not seeing anything unusual in the picture (except the very large number of “likes”), I quickly scrolled down. Few minutes later, I decided to glance through my Twitter timeline, where I saw the following tweet:

I confess that I was shocked, but only for a brief moment. Of course, this was a valid critique. Why didn’t I think of this when I first saw that picture on Facebook? I felt a slight disappointment for not noticing the moral implications of attending a White House Iftar. I knew I had to atone for my complacency.

How would I respond?

First, even though I believed that the moral critique contained in the tweet by @irevolt was powerful and valid, I could also anticipate that at least some Muslims would become easily distracted by the quasi-fiqhi tone of the tweet and, therefore, they would fail to appreciate the real point. (I’ll have more to say about this issue in my next blog post.)

Second, I decided that I would not say anything too negative or harsh about the folks who attended the White House Iftar. I knew some of them personally, and I knew they were not bad people by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I knew that according to the usual criteria they were far better Muslims than I was. Clearly, I had no reason whatsoever to doubt their faith, and I was certainly not going to claim that I was somehow better than they.

Third, I thought about their possible motives. Why would they do such a thing? Since I had already decided not to attribute any immoral or hypocritical motive to them, the only option was to assume that they didn’t know the full implications of their choice. I had to assume they were sincere. I must be as gentle and generous with them as possible, because they couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing. We all make mistakes while having the best of intentions.

Fourth, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those who attended the White House Iftar. What would I had done if I was in their position? I decided that the only justification for visiting the President would be to speak the inconvenient truth to him. But that required courage. Did I have that courage? I thought about a recent experience in which I had failed to speak an inconvenient truth in front of people who were far less powerful than the U.S. President; I had remained quiet out of sheer cowardice. I decided that I didn’t have the courage needed to speak the inconvenient truth in a formal White House dinner, where such behavior would also have required breaking all etiquette and protocols, leading to rather unpleasant consequences. I knew I had no reason to demand that other folks must have the courage that I lacked.

Fifth, if I didn’t have the courage to do the right thing, what would have been my options if I were actually invited to the White House? I could have attended the Iftar with the President, followed the required etiquette and protocols, and afterwards enjoyed a celebrity status among my peers. But this would have injured my soul and done serious violence to my conscience. Therefore, lacking the necessary courage to rock the boat but also wanting to preserve my soul and conscience, the only thing I could have done under those circumstances would have been to decline the invitation. Sorry, I would have said to the White House, but I can’t come to your dinner.

In view of the thought process described above, I hope that the tweets I sent out would make better sense:

To summarize, here are the main points I’ve been trying to make:

1. It was not a good idea for any conscientious American Muslim to attend an Iftar in Barack Obama’s White House during Ramadan 2012. The reasons for this should be obvious to anyone who has not been living in a cave, but I will list them anyway in my next blog post.

2. Without questioning the faith or sincerity of a fellow Muslim, the least that can be said about his/her participation in the above program is that it must have been the result either of ignorance or a lack of critical reflection.

3. Cowardice in itself is not a moral defect. If you lack the courage to speak the inconvenient truth in the face of the powerful, you can do the next best thing and avoid being in the company of the powerful.

Comments are welcome, as always :)

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Following are some of the main insights that I found in Iqbal’s poem, “The Morning Sun” (1902). Continue Reading »

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The Violence Triangle

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