The impacts of colonization and secularization were not restricted to destabilizing nations, threatening social structures, and coercing certain ideologies and corrupting existing ones, but are reflected in the fundamentals of our worldviews as well. While we have not altogether abandoned our ideals and metaphysics, it is impossible to overlook the abyss left therein due to the onset of modernity, and there is no aspect in which the case is more conspicuous than in the field that determines our very beliefs: epistemology.
Modernity has brought with itself secularization which is rife with its own set of implications and consequences, although it superficially refers to the separation of Church and State. As al-Aṭṭās indicates, it not merely encompasses the political and social aspects of life, but also inevitably the cultural, through implying an irreversible historical process wherein nature and culture are divested of their metaphysical elements and reduced to their materialist foundations; values are deconsecrated so that they, along with every cultural creation, may be rendered relative and changeable in the process of historical evolution; politics is desacralized—a natural byproduct of the modern state which founds its ideals in myth, legends, or historical achievements with no relation to the metaphysical.
Such divestments and desacralizations have likewise considerably impacted our epistemic bases and approaches, which one of the most influential scholarly figures of the previous century, Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī Effendi, had striven to preserve.1 It has enforced a “collective amnesia,” in the words of Yakoob Ahmed, upon Muslims, and shadowed their need to consult their intellectual heritage, and has rendered them unable to understand what knowledge is, leaving them to the mercy of those who have developed the contemporary paradigm.
It is imperative, as such, that an outline of our epistemology—as well as the problem with contemporary epistemic models—be laid out, not only to familiarize readers with our cultural heritage, but also provide them with the necessary tools with which they may prevent the absorption of ideas and ideals that are contrary to our faith and oppose our values. In particular, we will discuss the following subjects:
- The Islāmic Epistemic Model and the Importance of a Proper Epistemology.
- Objections of the Sophists and Modern Philosophy.
- Navigating the common Epistemological Frameworks through Islāmic Lenses, and a Discussion on Contemporary Scientific Philosophy and Its Relation to Metaphysics.
The sections to follow will address each subject in the aforementioned order. The subjects will be discussed in two parts, of which the first will discuss (1) and (2), and the second (3).
Epistemology, in basic terms, refers to the study of knowledge, its nature, and the methods whereby it may be acquired,2 and knowledge, as Imām Saʿad al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī writes,
is a quality by which any mentioned (madhkūr) object becomes clear (yatajallā) to the one who possesses it, i.e. it becomes apparent to him and he becomes able to express himself regarding it, be it something that is existent (mawjūd) or non-existent (maʿdūm).3
In simpler terms, it is the “conception of a certain thing in the mind,” as Muḥammad Zarqānī writes.4 Knowledge, in our Tradition, refers to certitude (yaqīn), as all else is speculation (ẓann). Given the definition, it should now be apparent why all else to follow is built upon these foundational principles and understandings, as whether a certain statement—widely propagated or otherwise—will be accepted or not, whether an idea carries weight, and which sources are to be consulted and how such are to be differentiated will rely on a proper epistemology and the laws of logic which govern the correctness of the conclusions derived thereby.
Given the ubiquitous availability of information, the importance thereof cannot be overstated particularly today. Its study underlies what man thinks, how he thinks, and how he applies his knowledge or proceeds to verify his findings or discover the validity of his conclusions. The field affects social, political, or even the most minor decisions, as they ultimately trace back to knowledge of a certain state of affairs, and knowledge of how it may be better than another. Subscribing to dangerous ideologies, similarly, arise due to faulty epistemic backgrounds or implementations, as do doubts in the dīn concerning seemingly minor matters, if the doubts are not absurd to begin with. It would be no exaggeration to state that the majority of these may be avoided through the proper utilization of epistemic tools from within a proper epistemic system.
The Islamic Epistemic Model
To proceed with the technical discussion of the concept at hand, an Islāmic epistemic model affirms three methods of knowing:
- The Senses (ḥawās), which include the outer five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—as well as the inner senses, which take the form of introspection. A thirsty individual gains awareness of his thirst through introspection, and it does not require external forms of verification. While some scholars had placed introspection as an aspect of the third category to be elaborated upon, it is a difference in semantics and minor differences in classification that do not necessitate a broad discussion.
- Truthful Reports (khabar as-ṣādiq), which are defined as reports that conform to reality, as reports that do lack such a conformity are deemed false. Such reports are subject to verification, and the form of knowledge they grant is contingent upon their strength.
- Intellect (ʿaql), which is the faculty of the soul via which a posteriori knowledge is gained, fundamentally based upon the knowledge that is instilled within us, also known as self-evident, intuitive, or ḍarūrī knowledge. The proper utilization thereof yields ʿilm, regardless of whether the object of thought is physical or metaphysical.5
All knowledge is acquired in one of these three manners. Ḍarūrī knowledge may, in addition, be further divided into three separate categories, namely, those imposed upon us through:
- The senses.
- Induction, which occurs through our observations of regularities in nature.
Further elaborations and elucidations will be provided in later sections.
Categorization of Knowledge and Its Relation to Metaphysics
Our knowledge and reasoning are not restricted to the material realm. What is considered rational in Islām does not merely pertain to the mind’s systematic and logical interpretation of the brute facts of experience or the abstractions thereof. Given that reason, in our view, is a projection of the intellect, it must function in conformity with the intellect, and such is the spiritual organ of cognition known as the ‘heart’ (al-qalb). As such, the understanding of spiritual realities is well within the province of reason and not divorced from it. When this role of the intellect is suppressed and it is used to focus on the scientific role of the purely rational, the spiritual connection is severed from the object of intellection, and it is reduced to its purely material foundations.
To continue the original discussion, thinking, knowing, or perceiving, according to Ibn Sīnā, may divided into two categories:
- Plain ‘conception’, that is, free from any judgmental assent, wherein a judgmental assent is a proposition itself or a proposition related to a certain event or thing. Related to this discussion is also the difference between the ḥaqq and the ḥaqīqah of a certain matter or thing, wherein the ḥaqīqah denotes its ontological nature, or what it truly is. The ḥaqq, on the other hand, has two aspects, one of which pertains to the reality of what it is in reference to, and the other to certain modes or aspects relevant thereto. In simpler terms, a proposition regarding some accidental property of an object—say, its color—would denote a ḥaqq, if true, whereas the very essence of the object would denote its ḥaqīqah.7
- Conception with judgmental assent, also known as propositional knowledge, wherein the thought consists of a proposition or a set thereof. In other words, it requires, as al-Qāḍī Nāṣir al-Bayḍāwī writes, thinking about a matter and pass a judgment with regard thereto.
It must be the case that a portion of knowledge is intuitive, and another acquisitional. A part, in other words, must be based upon a priori knowledge—knowledge that must impose itself on the mind without any deductive process taking place—and the other must require ponderance, and will therefore be a posteriori. If it were not so, then we are presented with only two possibilities:
- All knowledge is intuitive.
- All knowledge is acquired.
The first requires little clarification, as few facts are known intuitively, and the latter leads to Meno’s Paradox. To elaborate and reformulate Meno’s words, he proposed that if one is aware of what he is seeking or wishes to know, inquiries are unnecessary. On the other hand, if he is unaware, it is impossible for him to inquire about it, as he does not know what to inquire to begin with.
The Paradox presents a reductionistically dichotomous view of knowledge, and the question itself is little other than a byproduct of sophistry. It is undeniably true that we acquire knowledge about things and, from there, we may likewise see that whatever we come to know is based upon what we had known prior. Following this pattern, a chain is formed which binds itself to axioms/self-evident knowledge. At any moment in time, therefore, we do not lack knowledge in absolute terms so as to be rendered unable to learn, although such would be the natural conclusion were we to deny axioms. Knowledge may only arise on the basis of some previous knowledge, and so there must be a primary cognitive starting point that does not depend on previous learning.8,9
Intuition, in our epistemic view, is not merely knowledge that subsists in our nature, but may also be defined as a synthesis of reason and experience, and the intuition that an individual may have with regard to reality or certain aspects thereof would be dependent upon his experience, existing knowledge, and capacity, all of which may be strengthened. A mathematician, due to his knowledge and experience of Mathematics, would have certain intuitions when approaching a mathematical problem that may be absent in an Economist. A scientist, in particular, given that it his profession to explore the natural world, may be able to develop his intuition regarding certain aspects of reality rather than the entirety of reality itself, which is only open to those who are able to attain the highest spiritual stations, for in their case, they are not as limited in their spiritual vision as the common man.
The discussion of intuition ties into that of conception or apprehension (taṣawwur) in another form. As Ibn Sīnā writes in his Ishārāt, apprehension is of three types, and may be defined as follows: “To perceive a thing is to have its quiddity represented (mutamaththila) in the perceiver, by which the thing is perceived in him [i.e. the knower intuitively perceiving it].”10 The first level is one in which the senses come into contact with the object of apprehension and there is no degree of abstraction. In the second, the object may still be imagined, but it is no longer present to the senses. In the third, it is the quiddity itself that may be perceived by the intellect, and such makes the object intelligible in its entirety. This, once again, intertwines with the discussion on intuition, as the cognition of the quiddity of an object is a gift that is given to man, and not one that the base intellect is capable of grasping.
The Sophists and Modern Philosophy
Objections issued against axioms and the acquisition of knowledge primarily stem from the Sophists, a group of people who had originally come from the Greeks but nonetheless have influences—or counterparts, rather—in the modern world. Their words and acts remain the same, as does their duty—to employ robust rhetorical strategies, combined with complex jargon, to harbor pretenses of sophistication to confuse and deceive the audience, all the while their words are devoid of any substance. Anthony Kenny, from Plato’s The Republic—wherein the author, in a series of dialogues, deconstructs the arguments provided by thereby—mentions Euthydemus and Dionysodorus as two members of the group who would offer to ‘prove’ to anyone willing that his father was a dog.11
Sophistic arguments may pertain to any issue, but those that pertain to our epistemology are relevant here. In particular, they contest:
- The Reliability of the Intellect.
- The Reliability of the Senses.
- The Reliability of Reports.
The following sections will discuss each in further detail.
The Reliability of the Intellect
Ibn Sīnā, concerning those who deny the principle of noncontradiction (although his statement may likewise be applied to those who deny the intellect as well), writes, “The one who denies the intellect should be beaten and burnt until he admits that to be burnt is not the same as to not be burnt and to be beaten is not the same as to not be beaten.”12 Imām al-Taftāzānī proposes the same.13
The Münchhausen Trilemma manifests as another objection which does not only attack axioms, but reason itself. It posits that it is theoretically impossible to prove any truth, for all propositions are based upon proofs that are one of the follows:
- Circular, in that the theory and the argument support each other or trace back to one another in some form.
- Regressive, in that the proof of a proposition is based on a set of other propositions that further require their own proofs, and this continues ad infinitum.
- Axiomatic, in which case the proof rests on axioms or self-evident knowledge.
Notwithstanding its impracticality—the implementation of which would thwart progress in any matter at all in every form—what is particularly ironic is that the proposition posited by the Trilemma, that is, it is impossible to prove any truth, itself makes an absolute assertion about the nature of knowledge, and quite ironically employs reason to deny reason itself. Its invalidity is self-evident through its usage of the same faculties whose effectiveness it challenges.
A weaker argument, although less sophistic, takes the form of indicating differences amongst the knowledgeable to argue that no truth can be discerned. This, however, views the world through reductionistic lenses, ignores the multifaceted nature of matters, dismisses the notion that differences may be semantic, and reduces every matter to a set of propositions. Imām al-Taftāzānī writes,
Differences of opinions and arguments arising in the matter of things which are clearly and immediately perceptible by the intellect are simply due to an absence of acquaintance (with the subject-matter), or due to a cloudiness in [one’s ability to] correctly picture or form a notion, and this does not negate the fact that the item itself is such that it is immediately perceived by the (correctly functioning) intellect. The many arguments due to the corruption of views do not negate the ḥaqīqah (truthfulness) of some of the views or opinions.14
Differences themselves do not indicate that the intellect is unreliable or that truths cannot be known, but rather possible weaknesses in reasoning, along with varying foci or improper articulation.
The Reliability of the Senses
If it is claimed that the senses are unreliable as they may err, we respond that the senses are not inherently unreliable, and only err due to particular causes, whose absences do not negate the reliability of the senses. Imām al-Taftāzānī provides the example of the one suffering from diplopia (double-vision). There is a particular reason, in this case, for the unreliability of his perception, and his perception in effect constitutes a mere part (juzʾ) of his overall senses, and does not affect his other senses; nor does it imply, for others who lack such an impairment, that their visual faculties are likewise impaired.
The mind, likewise, interprets facts as they are perceived, and if the perceptions are themselves inaccurate, and the perceiver draws conclusions based on limited, flawed pieces of information, he in effect misinterprets sensory realizations, and this occurrence does not prove that the rational faculties are inherently flawed. As al-Qāḍī al-Bayḍāwī writes, “Our position is that the absence of sensate perception and the absence of any nourishment taking do not logically require the absence of any power of sensate perception or power of nourishment taking. It is admissible that the power of sensate perception and the power of nourishment taking should exist, while some hindrance would prevent them from [being active in] sensate perception and in nourishment taking.”15 ʿAyn al-Fuqahāʾ ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī, as Ibn Sīna [in the previous section], adds that an individual who denies that the senses are reliable should be beaten and have their wealth confiscated, and, should they complain, they are to be informed that their pain is not real, as is their perception of the confiscation of their wealth.16
The Reliability of Reports
If it is claimed that testimonies cannot be relied upon as any individual or a group thereof may conspire to formulate false narratives, we respond that our premises and reliance on testimonies do not ignore this factor.
We agree that testimonies may be fabricated, but this existing possibility does not imply that we should altogether dismiss them. The methodologies developed in our Tradition, as their primary objective, distinguish strong reports from weak ones, adding that mere strength does not necessitate certainty, as certain knowledge is granted by mass-transmitted reports (mutawātirāt), and are predicated on the condition that it is impossible for individuals to conspire together to lie on the matter it discusses. And this is not to mention either that the knowledge of our circumstances and those who surround us are, likewise, based upon testimonies. Although we are well-aware that they are probabilistic in nature, we do not prevent ourselves from acting thereupon.
We have briefly laid out the fundamentals concerning an Islāmic Epistemic Model, and have responded to a few prominent objections. The later sections, as mentioned, will discuss our stances toward empiricism, scientism, and elaborate upon our approach towards the Philosophy of Science. For further reading, one may refer to Karim Lahham’s The Anatomy of Knowledge and the Ontological Necessity of First Principles, the section of knowledge in Sharḥ al-ʿAqida al-Nasafiyyah by Imām al-Taftāzānī, or works on Sunnī manṭiq (Logic). A more detailed overview is provided in Imām Iṣfahānī’s commentary on al-Qāḍī al-Bayḍāwī’s Ṭawālīʿ al-Anwār, translated as Nature, Man, and God in Medieval Islam. Should further clarifications be required or further engagement be desired, any reader is more than welcome to engage with us in al-Zāwiyah, our Discord server.
- Mona Hassan, Longing for the Lost Caliphate, p.244
- Epistemology, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Sharḥ al-ʿAqida al-Nasafiyyah, p.29.
- Muḥammad Zarqānī, Manṭiq.
- Man, Nature, and God in Medieval Islam.
- Karim Lahham, The Anatomy of Knowledge and the Ontological Necessity of First Principles, pg. 29.
- As Ibn Sīnā writes, the purpose of philosophy or conceptual thought is to arrive at the reality of things, insofar as it is possible for a human being to do so. Later in his book, he qualifies this assertion, writing that man himself cannot grasp the realities of things. Of things, we may only know their properties, connections, and accidents, but not what makes them different, for it is difference that defines the essence of a thing and sets it apart from other existences. Al-Aṭṭās, similarly, indicates that objects have a physical reality, consisting of substances and accidents, and a metaphysical reality which is not perceptible through the mere senses. Our lower forms of reasoning can only draw conclusions relevant to the material natures of things, but it is the unveiling of the heart that is required to perceive the metaphysical and the true ontological natures of essences. This will be elaborated upon in our discussion concerning an Islamic Philosophy of Science.
- For further reading, refer to this.
- Lahham, The Anatomy of Knowledge
- Lahham, pg. 36.
- Anthony Kenny, Ancient Philosophy, pg. 32.
- Metaphysics I.8, 53.13–15.
- Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid, pg. 28.
- Nature, Man, and God in Medieval Islam, pg. 437.
- Uṣūl al-Dīn.