The concept of knowledge in Islam (2)

The concept of knowledge in Islam (2)

It may also be pointed out that Muslim fuqaha(Jurists) and mufassirun(Quran Interpreters) made use of the method of linguistic analysis in interpreting the Quranic injunctions and the sunnah of the Prophet (S). Al-Ghazalis Tahatut al-falasifah is probably the first philosophical treatise that made use of the linguistic analytical method to clarify certain philosophical issues. I personally feel that he is rather maligned than properly understood by both the orthodox and liberal Muslim interpreters of his philosophy. His method of doubt paved the way for a healthy intellectual activity in the Muslim world, but because of historical and social circumstances, it culminated in the stagnation of philosophical and scientific thinking, which later made him a target of criticism by philosophers.

There was made a distinction between wisdom (hikmah) and knowledge in the pre-Islamic philosophy developed under the influence of Greek thought. In Islam there is no such distinction. Those who made such a distinction led Muslim thought towards un-Islamic thinking. The philosophers such as al-Kindi, alFarabi and Ibn Sina are considered to be hakims (philosophers) and in this capacity superior to ‘ulama’, and fuqaha This misconception resulted in al-Ghazali’s attack on the philosophers. Islam is a religion that invites its followers to exercise their intellect and make use of their knowledge to attain the ultimate truth (haqq).

Muslim thinkers adopted different paths to attain this goal. Those who are called philosophers devoted themselves to logic and scientific method and they were derogated by the Sufis, though some of them, such as Ibn Sina, alFarabi and al-Ghazali took recourse to the mystic path in their quest of the truth at some stage. As I said earlier, ‘ilm may not be translated as mere knowledge; it should be emphasized that it is also gnosis or ma’rifah. One may find elements of mystic experience in the writings of Muslim philosophers. In Kashf al-mahjub of al-Hujwiri a distinction is made between khabar (information) and nazar (analytic thought).

This applies not only to Muslim Sufis but also to most of the Muslim philosophers who sought to attain the ultimate knowledge which could embrace all things, corporeal or divine. In the Western philosophical tradition there is a distinction between the knowledge of the Divine Being and knowledge pertaining to the physical world. But in Islam there is no such distinction. Ma’rifah is ultimate knowledge and it springs from the knowledge of the self (Man ‘arafa nafsahu fa qad ‘arafa Rabbahu, ‘One who realizes one’s own self realizes his Lord’). This process also includes the knowledge of the phenomenal world. Therefore, wisdom and knowledge which are regarded as two different things in the nonMuslim world are one and the same in the Islamic perspective.

In the discussion of knowledge, an important question arises as to how one can overcome his doubts regarding certain doctrines about God, the universe, and man. It is generally believed that in Islam, as far as belief is concerned, there is no place for doubting and questioning the existence of God, the prophethood of Hadrat Muhammad (S) and the Divine injunctions, that Islam requires unequivocal submission to its dictates. This general belief is a misconception in the light of Islam’s emphasis on ‘aql. In the matter of the fundamentals of faith (usu-l al-Din), the believer is obliged to accept tawhid, nubuwwah and ma’d (in the Shi’i faith, ‘adl, i.e. Divine Justice, and imamah are also fundamentals of faith) on rational grounds or on the basis of one’s existential experience.

This ensures that there is room for doubt and skepticism in Islam before reaching certainty in Iman. The sufis have described iman as consisting of three stages: ‘ilm al-yaqin (certain knowledge),‘ayn al-yaqin (knowledge by sight) and haqq al-yaqin (knowledge by the unity of subject and object). The last stage is attainable by an elect few.

‘Ilm is referred to in many Quranic verses as ‘light’ (nur), and Allah is also described as the ultimate nur. it means that ‘ilm in the general sense is synonymous with the ‘light’ of Allah. This light does not shine for ever for all the believers. If is hidden sometimes by the clouds of doubt arising from the human mind. Doubt is sometimes interpreted in the Quran as darkness, and ignorance also is depicted as darkness in a number of its verses. Allah is depicted as nur, and knowledge is also symbolized as nur.

Ignorance is darkness and ma’rifah is light. In the ayat al-kursi Allah says: (Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth … Allah is the Master of the believers and He guides them out of the darkness into light). Usually darkness is interpreted as unbelief and light as faith in God. There are so many verses in the Quran as well as the traditions of the Prophet (S) that emphasize that light may be attained by those who struggle against darkness.

Among Muslim philosophers, particularly some Mu’tazilites, like Nazzam, alJahiz, Aba Hashim al-Jubbai and others, adopted the path of skepticism. Al-Ghazali was the most eminent among Muslim philosophers who, in his spiritual autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-dalal, elaborated the path of skepticism which he travelled to attain the ultimate truth. There have been some Muslim thinkers, like Abu Hashim al-Jubba’i, al-Baqillanis al-Nazzam and others, who advocated skepticism in order to arrive at certain religious faith. Skepticism is a philosophy that has three different meanings: denial of all knowledge, agnosticism, and a method to approach certainty.

Most of the Muslims philosophers sought the goal of certainty. Skepticism in the general sense of the impossibility of knowledge is not compatible with Islamic teachings. It is acceptable only when it leads from uncertainty to certainty. The skeptical method has two aspects, rejection of all absolute knowledge, and acceptance of the path to overcome uncertainty. Muslim philosophers have followed the second path, because there has been an emphasis on rejecting blind faith. Shaykh al-Mufid (an eminent Shi’i faqih) said that there was a very narrow margin between faith and disbelief in so far as the believer imitated certain theologians. In his view, an imitator is on the verse of unbelief (kufr).

In Islam ‘ilm is not confined to the acquisition of knowledge only, but also embraces socio-political and moral aspects. Knowledge is not mere information; it requires the believers to act upon their beliefs and commit themselves to the goals which Islam aims at attaining. In brief, I would like to say that the theory of knowledge in the Islamic perspective is not just a theory of epistemology. It combines knowledge, insight, and social action as its ingredients. I would like to cite here a tradition of the Prophet (S) narrated by Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib: Once Gabriel came to Adam.

He brought with him faith, morality (haya’) and ‘aql (reason) and asked him to choose one of the three. When he chose ‘aql, the others were told by Gabriel to return to heaven, They said that they were ordered by Allah to accompany ‘aql wherever it remained. This indicates how comprehensive are the notions of intellect and knowledge in Islam, and how deeply related they are to faith and the moral faculty.

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