Don’t Let Wikipedia Become Wickedmedia

Islam is rooted in the idea that knowledge is the most potent force on earth. The more one knows, the closer one gets to the One who knows all. The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, loved knowledge, and it is the only prayer the Qur’an commands him to supplicate: “Say: O my Lord, increase me in knowledge” (20:114).

I feel fortunate that I am able to spend a great deal of time in the pursuit of knowledge, and in sharing what I have learned. We live in a time when technology has made both the acquisition and the impartation of knowledge easier than ever before. And Wikipedia, launched in 2001, has fast become a quintessential tool of knowledge transmission.

Nary a day goes by when I don’t look something up on Wikipedia. For starters, it is surprisingly accurate and studies have shown that it stands up to, and even surpasses, the accuracy of information published in encyclopedias. Except that, unlike most encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a nonprofit entity. What truly amazes me is the powerful message of hope it gives by being an open source medium, a testament to the talent and skills of a global community of experts and amateurs who service it for our sake.

There is something in us that loves to share. The great Persian theologian, Fakhrudin al-Razi, said that discoveries are without enjoyment if they are not shared, and even a child, upon discovering something new, runs frantically to find someone to share it with. As adults, we love to share knowledge because we know, deep down, that it doesn’t belong to any individual but to everyone. That is the power and message of Wikipedia.

What I find most wondrous in this age of avarice and venality, where the mercenary attitude has possessed even the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker, is that the people who conceived Wikipedia and run it are committed to a commercial-free knowledge zone in cyberspace. The price they pay, willingly, for keeping it untainted by commercial considerations is that they work with less; they have a smaller staff that works for smaller wages than most private, for-profit online institutions. And yet they have built what is now the fifth most popular website in the world. They are doing all of us a great service, and they actually believe that that is reward enough – to serve humanity. When Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in 1955, he refused to patent it, instead giving the rights to the society. Asked why he didn’t patent it, he replied, “Could you patent the sun?”

Wikipedia is committed to spreading the light of knowledge as freely as the sun spreads its light. And Wikipedia needs our help.

Wikipedia, overseen by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, has less than 100 employees and 100,000 contributors. And it needs to stay independent and free from advertising or commercial underwriters who will inevitably use it to their ends. In order to draw our attention, bothersome banners are currently on their site, banging the proverbial tin cup, seeking donations. I hope all of you who use Wikipedia will donate. I am committed to sending them a yearly donation to help keep it free.

The beauty of Wikipedia is that it is knowledge for the people and by the people. It may not be flawless, but if we find flaws or biased statements, we have a right and a duty to correct them.  If we have expertise in an area, we ought to be vigilant and contribute our knowledge so others can benefit. And for many of us who are simply users, we should donate.

I am aware that Wikipedia represents the lowest form of knowledge, i.e. scientia, which is related to facts, sound opinions, and information. In the classical schema, the intellectual virtues were science, understanding, and wisdom; in Islam this was ‘ilm, fahm, wa hikmah – knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

However, both understanding and wisdom are dependent upon knowledge, so it is the foundation. Wikipedia is an incredible source for those pursuing knowledge and those who want to share what they have learned.
As for understanding and wisdom, that, unfortunately is not readily available online.