The concept of knowledge in Islam (1)

The concept of knowledge in Islam (1)

While it is an open question whether an explicit and systematically worked out Islamic epistemology exists, it is undeniable that various epistemological issues have been discussed in Muslim philosophy with an orientation different from that of Western epistemology. Today attempts are being made to understand the basic epistemological issues in terms of that orientation. This is a valuable effort that deserves our interest and encouragement. However, it can be fruitful only if the practice of rigorous analysis is kept up, with close attention to the precise definitions of the various concepts involved.

With this view, an attempt is made in this paper to delineate the different shades and connotations of the term ‘ilm, i.e., knowledge, in the Islamic context. It is hoped that this brief attempt will serve as a step for future groundwork for the construction of a framework for an Islamic theory of knowledge.

In the Islamic theory of knowledge, the term used for knowledge in Arabic is ‘ilm, which, as Rosenthal has justifiably pointed out, has a much wider connotation than its synonyms in English and other Western languages. ‘Knowledge’ falls short of expressing all the aspects of ‘ilm. Knowledge in the Western world means information about something, divine or corporeal, while ‘ilm is an all-embracing term covering theory, action and education. Rosenthal, highlighting the importance of this term in Muslim civilization and Islam, says that it gives them a distinctive shape.

In fact there is no concept that has been operative as a determinant of the Muslim civilization in all its aspects to the same extent as ‘ilm. This holds good even for the most powerful among the terms of Muslim religious life such as, for instance, tawhid “recognition of the oneness of God,” ad-din, “the true religion,” and many others that are used constantly and emphatically. None of them equals ilm in depth of meaning and wide incidence of use.

There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remains untouched by the all pervasive attitude toward “knowledge” as something of supreme value for Muslim being. ‘ilm is Islam, even if the theologians have been hesitant to accept the technical correctness of this equation.

The very fact of their passionate discussion of the concept attests to its fundamental importance for Islam.

It may be said that Islam is the path of “knowledge.” No other religion or ideology has so much emphasized the importance of ‘ilm. In the Qur’an the word ‘alim has occurred in 140 places, while al-‘ilm in 27. In all, the total number of verses in which ‘ilm or its derivatives and associated words are used is 704. The aids of knowledge such as book, pen, ink etc. amount to almost the same number.

Qalam occurs in two places, al-kitab in 230 verses, among which al-kitab for al-Qur’an occurs in 81 verses. Other words associated with writing occur in 319 verses. It is important to note that pen and book are essential to the acquisition of knowledge. The Islamic revelation started with the word iqra’ (‘read!’ or ‘recite!’).

According to the Qur’an, the first teaching class for Adam started soon after his creation and Adam was taught ‘all the Names’.

Allah is the first teacher and the absolute guide of humanity. This knowledge was not imparted to even the Angels. In Usul al-Kafi there is a tradition narrated by Imam Musa al-Kazim (‘a) that ‘ilm is of three types: ayatun muhkamah (irrefutable signs of God), faridatun ‘adilah (just obligations) and sunnat al-qa’imah (established traditions of the Prophet [s]). This implies that ‘ilm, attainment of which is obligatory upon all Muslims covers the sciences of theology, philosophy, law, ethics, politics and the wisdom imparted to the Ummah by the Prophet (S). Al-Ghazali has unjustifiably differentiated between useful and useless types of knowledge. Islam actually does not consider any type of knowledge as harmful to human beings. However, what has been called in the Qur’an as useless or rather harmful knowledge, consists of pseudo sciences or the lores prevalent in the Jahiliyyah.

‘Ilm is of three types: information (as opposed to ignorance), natural laws, and knowledge by conjecture. The first and second types of knowledge are considered useful and their acquisition is made obligatory. As for the third type, which refers to what is known through guesswork and conjecture, or is accompanied with doubt, we shall take that into consideration later, since conjecture or doubt are sometimes essential for knowledge as a means, but not as an end.

Beside various Qur’anic verses emphasizing the importance of knowledge, there are hundreds of Prophetic traditions that encourage Muslims to acquire all types of knowledge from any corner of the world. Muslims, during their periods of stagnation and decline, confined themselves to theology as the only obligatory knowledge, an attitude which is generally but wrongly attributed to al-Ghazali’s destruction of philosophy and sciences in the Muslim world.

AlGhazali, of course, passed through a turbulent period of skepticism, but he was really in search of certainty, which he found not in discursive knowledge but in mystic experience. In his favour it must be said that he paved the way for liberating the believer from blind imitation and helping him approach the goal of certain knowledge.

In the Islamic world, gnosis (ma’rifah) is differentiated from knowledge in the sense of acquisition of information through a logical processes. In the non-Islamic world dominated by the Greek tradition, hikmah (wisdom) is considered higher than knowledge. But in Islam ‘ilm is not mere knowledge. It is synonymous with gnosis (ma’rifah). Knowledge is considered to be derived from two sources: ‘aql and ‘ilm huduri (in the sense of unmediated and direct knowledge acquired through mystic experience).

It is important to note that there is much emphasis on the exercise of the intellect in the Qur’an and the traditions, particularly in the matter of ijtihad. In the Sunni world qiyas (the method of analogical deduction as propounded by Imam Abu Hanifah) is accepted as an instrument of ijtihad, but his teacher and spiritual guide, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (‘a), gave preeminence to ‘aql in this matter. In the entire Shi’i literature of fiqh and usul al-fiqh, ‘aql is much more emphasized, because qiyas is only a form of quasilogical argument, while ‘aql embraces all rational faculties of human beings.

Even intuition or mystic experience are regarded as a higher stage of ‘aql. In Shi’i literature in particular, and Sunni literature in general, ‘aql is considered to be a prerequisite for knowledge. Starting from Usul al-Kafi, all Shi’i compendia of hadith devote their first chapter to the merits of ‘aql and the virtues of ‘ilm. In Sunni compendia of hadith, including al-Sihah al-sittah and up to al-Ghazali’s Ihya, a chapter is devoted to this issue, though it is not given a first priority. This shows that there is a consensus among the Muslims on the importance of ‘aql which is denoted by such words as ta’aqqul, tafaqquh and tadabbur in the Qur’an.

Exercise of the intellect (‘aql) is of significance in the entire Islamic literature which played an important role in the development of all kinds of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, in the Muslim world. In the twentieth century, the Indian Muslim thinker, Iqbal in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, pointed out that ijtihad was a dynamic principle in the body of Islam. He claims that much before Francis Bacon the principles of scientific induction were emphasized by the Qur’an, which highlights the importance of observation and experimentation in arriving at certain conclusions.

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