An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Is imagination more important than knowledge?

In Education, Mevlevi Tradition, parenting on January 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm

“Why is it that in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is write what you know. Perhaps, that’s not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature isn’t necessarily writing, who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel”. Elif Shafak

The paragraph above has give me, somebody who thinks in pictures, numbers and symbols, the courage to set up a blog and write. As a parent I feel. I feel authors like Elif Shafak, who have immense levels of creativity, have much to teach us and remind us through their imaginative story telling. But how are we to expand our hearts and express what we feel. I must confess I was poor at both verbal and written expression until I sat in sohbet (spiritual discourse). I don’t claim to be particularly good now but I think I’ve improved a great deal. The first thing Kabir Dede asked us to do when to speak was not worry about grammar or sounding eloquent- “speak from the heart” he said. For his own teacher, Suleyman Dede, didn’t know any English nor did Kabir Dede speak Turkish. Yet they got by; teachings were transmitted, hearts understood and souls were cooked. In sohbet students are asked to listen non-judgmentally with presence. Isn’t that amazing? listening opens up a space both inwardly and outwardly! Mevlana Rumi reminds us of the importance of listening:

“Since in order to speak one must first listen,

Learn to speak by first listening”


Today I found my daughter having a wonderful conversation on her toy phone with a police man. I listened attentively, as she used words I didn’t know she knew. She ended with “bye now, you too”. I asked her what she was talking about. She said she was phoning the police man because, Owais, her younger brother was being naughty.

Later I reflected on this incident and I realised what an active imagination children have. How much of it gets nurtured and how much gets covered by ‘things they are supposed to learn’ which has its place too but often at a price. Ask a class of year 7 if they can ‘explain what it feels like on the moon?’ and a dozen or more hands go up. Put the same question to year 11 and less then half a dozen. What went wrong in those five years? The goal of secondary and sixth form teachers nowadays is, from my experience, to create independent learners and thinkers. May be a way to start is give space to their inquisitive minds and imagination while they are young. How can we expects kids to be creative if they’re imaginations haven’t been given its due importance? Didn’t Einstein devise his theory of relativity with thought experiments such as ‘what the would the world look like if I sat on a beam of light?’ To complete the quote on imagination “Imagination is more important that knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand”. Albert Einstein. .

  1. Yes, the imagination is so important, and is so undervalued in our current schooling systems.

    Let me add something to get us to consider what we mean when we use words like ‘imagination’ and ‘knowledge’.

    Firstly, there is evidence form work on creativity that suggests we should be careful about setting up a dichotomy between knowledge and the creative imagination, as if they are in some way mutually exclusive.

    “Creative Imagination” in its highest sense (and in the sense understood by Ibn ‘Arabi, the Shaykh Al-Akbar) is the capacity for symbolic understanding, the spiritual perception which unveils the hidden realities behind and beyond observable signs and ‘similitudes’ (Arabic amthal). It needs to be distinguished from the lower levels of ‘creative imagination’ associated with those forms of subjective ‘imaginative’ artistic exploration which may not be connected with any awareness of the objective significance of universal symbols. The ultimate contrast here might be between a great work of sacred art and a ‘conceptual art’ installation such as a random display of bricks on the floor of a gallery (I once tripped over such a display in the Tate Gallery many years ago, not realizing that it was the latest piece of ‘modern art’) or a more recent exhibition in Paris of a whole room full of completely blank canvases (which drew a crowd of art-lovers earnestly discussing their ‘significance’).

    Jean Houston puts it well when she speaks of “the importance of teaching-learning communities in stimulating, supporting and evoking each other’s highest sensory, physical, psychological, mythic, symbolic and spiritual capacities.” In such a community, she says, “education is an adventure of the soul in which our personal themes become joined with those of universal reality.” The transcendent function of creativity is also beautifully expressed by Joseph Conrad: “All creative art…is evocation of the unseen in forms expressive, enlightening, familiar, and surprising.” (The Qur’an is, of course, “a Book for those who believe in the Unseen, Al-Ghayb). As such, the highest level of creativity is the discovery of the “due measure and proportion” in the divine imprint of the Creator (Al-Khaliq), the unveiling of the unseen, for “God is forever making hidden things manifest”.

    There are a lot of misconceptions about the nature of creativity. The most common one is that there is a necessary tension between existing knowledge and creativity, that creativity is necessarily iconoclastic and based in originality or novelty, a reaction to the past. This is part of the individualistic tendency, derived from misconceptions too about the nature of genius, which seeks to divide humanity into creative or noncreative individuals, geniuses or ordinary folk, musical and unmusical people, and so on.

    Some research in the field of cognitive psychology suggests that the ability to do creative and innovative work depends on deep knowledge and mastery of a chosen field, often involving an initial phase of imitation of existing models. There is an excellent section on the value of memorisation in Jean Houston’s Jump Time, which shows clearly how the genius of Shakespeare was grounded in the memorisation culture of Elizabethan England. Imitation, too, was another formative practice in that era. “One studies a great piece of writing by one of the acknowledged giants of the past, enters into a process of internalisation – an alchemising through one’s own life and experience – and then creates a poem of other work that is unique to the writer yet has similarities to the original. This practice enriches one’s ways of thinking, depends one’s ability to allude to other forms, thickens the soup of one’s mind.” The best schools will use imitation of great models this way, and not only in literature, but also in art and music. It is important to realise that this is not unthinking imitation, mere reproduction or mechanical copying. It is using a model to catalyse the creative process.

    Mapping the early development of Mozart, improvisation skills in jazz musicians, and the Beatles has shown the absolute importance of rigorous practice as a prerequisite for the development of true creativity, as opposed to what I would call the “bogus creativity” based on the self-delusion that mastery can be bypassed.

    Thus, one view of creative thinking is that it is the result of direct application of a body of knowledge which has been mastered and internalised. This “application” may occur after a long subconscious process has digested the material. Many are the examples of scientists who have had the experience of a new and revolutionary insight bursting into consciousness after such a period of deep internalisation. But the point is that they have done a lot of work in amassing a body of knowledge which acts as the ground of such inspiration (personal revelation).

    Unsubstantiated opinions are not the same as valid inner perceptions. True knowledge is based on two sources, as the Qur’an reminds us: divine revelation (which can also be authentic inspiration) and the evidence of our own faculties. The latter serves also to validate the truth of Revelation, and strengthen our faith, which has nothing to do with ‘blind belief’.

    It is only when we examine the situation from outside that we feel the necessity to postulate basic differences between creative and noncreative individuals. It may not be necessary to assume that creative individuals differ from the noncreative in any significant way, except for the knowledge they possess. The Qur’an advises us: ‘Can they who know and those who not know be deemed equal?’ At the same time, the verse continues that ‘only those who are endowed with insight keep this in mind.’ The Arabic word here translated as ‘insight’ is albab, that inner faculty of knowing centred in the heart (lubb). So the Qur’anic vision of ‘knowledge’ is of course multi-layered, and its deepest locus is indeed in the Heart.

    But once again, we should not set up a dichotomy between heart and mind, as has happened in Western culture. The Arabic words fu’ad and ‘aql refer to a composite faculty of mind-heart, and also encompass an ethical and spiritual dimension. As always, Islamic spirituality is centred on Divine Unity (tawhid), on holistic capacities. That said, it may be necessary at some point in one’s life to apply a strong corrective and throw some baggage down the well, including most (or all) of one’s books! But in the case of Mevlana, it’s worth remembering that he was a great scholar when he did so. In the same way, as Saqib reminds us, Al-Ghazali had a similar crisis, realizing that direct perception (tasting, dhawq) was the only way to spiritual certitude (yaqin), but he too was a man who had gained a degree of knowledge from conventional sources.

    As in all such questions, the key is to follow the guiding principle of balance (mizan). One should not give pre-eminence to either the creative imagination or knowledge, but seek always to provide a corrective when disproportionate emphasis is given to one over another. That is what I understand also by the Qur’anic statement that “we are a community of the Middle Way”. This does not mean unchallenging mediocrity or an arid compromise, but refers to the Golden Mean, that sacred point of balance.

    I once had a recurring dream as a small child. I was driving a chariot through the skies, drawn by two horses, one black and one white. It was a hard job to balance the two horses, and the chariot would veer off to the left or right depending on the way I pulled on the reins. Even minute adjustments in pressure seemed to have major consequences in driving the horses off course. I persevered during many of these recurring dreams, and there came a moment when the perfect balance was achieved. The result was momentous. Suddenly a cosmic energy seemed to take over from me as ‘driver’ and the chariot swept upwards and forwards through the heavens with boundless grace and energy. I no longer needed to operate the reins.

    Balancing black and white can mean many things, but perhaps for the purpose of this post, it might mean not seeing in terms of ‘black’ or ‘white’, or ‘either/or’, that polarizing and dichotomizing tendency in the human brain.

    • Thank you for highlighting the importance of definitions here. I feel what Einstein had in mind when he used the term knowledge isn’t quite the Quaranic definition which as you have shown us is much deeper. Kabir Dede wrote on seeking knowledge as “not merely a mental activity, but a quest, something we have to embody.”

      I personally, don’t see how that level of embodiment can take place without a student disciple relationship in which two souls come together. I feel in classrooms where teachers (as well as students) are labelled by external authorities, are under pressures to conform, have issues such as behavior management to deal with, all in an age where our obsession with quantity obscures much of our value for quality, gives little room for the development of “higher cognitive faculties such as tadabbur (pondering), tafakkur (deep thinking, reflection, and contemplation), and tawassum (observation and understanding of the signs of nature)” which you reminded us of.

      On a basic level of knowledge and creativity, I’ve seen time and again when it comes to problem solving, A-level Maths students, who have good grades at GCSE, lack the imagination to draw an accurate diagram from a written question. Give them an equation and they’ll solve it. Ask them to think outside the box to come up with a solution that may involve linking concepts together and they generally get stuck. How does one develop creative problem solving here?

      Jeremy, if you were director of education of a community or school with all the freedom you could imagine, how would you design a curriculum which would allow such mastery of knowledge? Or put another way, what can we parents do to help our children develop such levels of mastery and cultivate the higher creativity that gives rise to sacred art? I would have thought such levels of mastery in a specific area, such as Mathematics or Music, would normally come from an interest in the child, almost as though they’re innately programmed to master that particular field. For example, we all have a nervous system, heart & mind yet not everybody takes to the mystical path.

  2. Intriguing post and very useful comment below it from Jeremy. Very briefly, I think that modern life mitigates very strongly against creative thinking as kids are led into thinking particular ways through structured toys and activities from birth. Most toys have pre-set ways of playing with them and are electronic and/or musical, limiting a child’s ability to engage with them in creative ways. Kids are exposed to TV from birth which similarly imposes on them narratives and characters. Even kids clothes, cereals, yoghurts etx come branded with characters so they are sadly immersed in a world of adult-created stuff that doesn’t leave them free to think and act freely like they might if,for example, they are let loose in the forest to play. So it’s a paradox that we live in times of unprecedented technological advancements but modern life is dumbing down our kids.

    • Thank you for your comments Olga. Yep. Certainly see ‘dumbing down’ in our curriculum here in the UK. Pick up an A-Level Physics book from the 70’s or 80’s and they have calculus in it!

  3. Dear Saqib,

    What a wonderful space for discussion you have created here (I just discovered it today). As I mentioned when we spoke briefly on New Year’s Day, I have recently quit teacher training at a secondary school being quite disheartened by the experience.

    The approach to teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at GCSE I encountered at the school is illustrative of the problem. Rather than fostering a genuine relationship with the play, the state system encourages teachers to spoon-feed ‘correct’ responses to the various scenes; responses that will be rewarded with a tick by the examiner and mean the students hit their target grades. We were not supposed to read the whole play with the class (not even the top class), only a small selection of scenes that would allow the students to write around their theme and so seem acquainted with the play. All the students were completely disengaged and wanted only to know what to write. The idea that they might understand and appreciate the text for themselves, that they might read it as a whole or be moved by it, seemed completely foreign to teachers and students alike.

    I realised I was not educating the students in any real sense.The short attention span of today’s students was also a problem I think – why grapple with language as difficult as Shakespeare’s? As Jeremy pointed out in one of his posts, we are surrounded by a bubble of pop culture and mass media that is aggressively low-brow and unchallenging, and it is very difficult for the younger generations in particular to penetrate it. What to do?

    Perhaps we can begin exploring answers in spaces like this. Thank you for providing the opportunity.


  4. Dear Daniel,

    A pleasure. Thank you for your comment. Look forward to more.


  5. Dear Saqib (and contributing commenters),

    This is a really vital issue, not only to young children but to us adults. I think the most important ingredient to a healthy creativity is quietness. This is what is so obviously lacking in the vast majority of urban environments. As Olga pointed out, toys and television only seem to add to the level of stimuli which a young child is utterly overwhelmed by. Only yesterday, after a few episodes of Peppa Pig (I caved in), my son (3 1/4 years old) totally freaked out when the DVD ended, running around the house hitting me, screaming like a banshee. I was a “naughty mama” apparently!! Yes indeed…for putting the thing on in the first place. Even the most innocent (or inane) programmes seem to have the same effect. His teacher at the Steiner kindergarten advised me to take lots of walks with him, and to gently squeeze his body when I was hugging/dressing/playing with him, just to remind him that his body exists. Sounds strange but more and more I think (speaking for myself) we are drawn into our headspace, with the result that we can think and reason and plan and organise, but we can’t relax the analytical mind sufficiently to allow for inspiration or thinking-outside-the-box. If only we could create spaces in schools and city homes that zapped excess noise, to just hear birds and the wind and let our minds wander.


  6. Dear Medina,

    Many thanks. I think you’ve touched on two very important themes here: silence and the (inner) body. May be we can explore this further in the posts to come.


  7. I died from minerality and became vegetable;
    And From vegetativeness I died and became animal.
    I died from animality and became man.
    Then why fear disappearance through death?
    Next time I shall die
    … Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;
    After that, soaring higher than angels –
    What you cannot imagine,
    I shall be that.
    Rumi .

  8. Dear Shabana

    Thanks for reminding: There is that which is beyond what we can conceive!


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