Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.
An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.
On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter – action for action’s sake – negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible. Either dichotomy, by creating unauthentic forms of existence, creates also unauthentic forms of thought, which reinforce the original dichotomy.
Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.
Before continuing go back and read the passage at least one more time.
The first topic to discuss regarding this passage is the relationship between reflection and action in creating a true word. Most of the time we have one of two possibilities (both of which were mentioned by Freire): verbalism or activism.
Knowledge sought for the sake of knowledge itself results in verbalism. That is why in many parts of the Muslim world one can attend a Friday sermon and hear a lot of nice things while seeing no practical effect in reality. This is knowledge for the sake of knowledge and it is, like Freire said, alienating and alienated. It is out of tune with reality and irrelevant. Therefore the student whose search for knowledge is not grounded in a greater vision and a desire to benefit mankind becomes no more than a mouthpiece for verbalism; that is, speech without action. In this regard the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) du`a’ was:
“O Allah! Teach us that which benefits us, allow us to benefit from what You have taught us, and increase us in knowledge!”
The other possibility is action that is not founded in reflection and knowledge (in a broad understanding of the word). This leads to action that does not result in real change, but is rather action for the sake of action. It is nothing more than activism. True action in Islam is rooted in knowledge and gushes forth from it as a result of sincere reflection.
Therefore Islam seeks not a mechanical activist, but rather an Islamic worker. Work being the product of a true word which derives its essence from the relationship between reflection and action.
The second topic of this passage is naming the world. If we understand the concept of a true word representing the perfect balance between action and reflection and the idea that naming the world is a means by which humans understand, analyze, and act upon their reality for its betterment, we should then reread the story of Adam (pbuh) in the beginning of Surah al-Baqarah in this light.
Allah says in the Qur’an:
وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
And He taught Adam the names – all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.”قَالُوا سُبْحَانَكَ لَا عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلَّا مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ
They said, “Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.”قَالَ يَا آدَمُ أَنبِئْهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَنبَأَهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُل لَّكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَأَعْلَمُ مَا تُبْدُونَ وَمَا كُنتُمْ تَكْتُمُونَ
He said, “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names, He said, “Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed.” (2:31-33)
These verses show that Allah taught Adam the names of everything. Before these verses Allah says:
And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” (2:30)
When these verses are combined and understood in light of the greater objective of Islam, reforming the human condition, the role of the human being on earth is more clearly understood.
The previous remarks conclude: Allah created humans, placed them on this earth, and made them responsible for its cultivation and prosperity. He has given the tools needed in order to understand life and transform it according to the reading of revelation (Allah’s signs in His Book; آيات الله في الكتاب) and reality (Allah’s signs in the creation; آيات الله في الكون). It is our job to fulfill this responsibility and work to not merely adapt to life, but transform it. The one who truly reads is a visionary, and a visionary must reform.
“Read in the name of your Lord who created.” (96:1)