Islamic characteristics from epistemological point of view (1)

Islam is the name of the religion of Allah. That is the religion preached by all Prophets. The most perfect from of it was conveyed to people through the last Prophet. Muhammad bin Abdullah. (May peace and blessings of Allah be on him and his progeny). With him the Prophet hood came to an end. The message given by is now known by the name of Islam throughout the world.

The Islamic teachings conveyed through the last Prophet, being the ever hasting guide and the most perfect from of the religion of Allah, have certain special features consistent with the period of finality. These features in their totality could not exist during previous ages, the period of the minority of people.

Each of these features is a means of knowing Islam, and represents one of its basic doctrines. These features help forming a picture of Islam, though it may be a bit vague. They are also a criterion by which it can be judged whether a particular teaching is or is not a part of Islam.

We do not say that it is possible for us to mention all these features, but we will try to present an overall picture of them.

A. School and Ideology
We know that every ideology, or for that matter, every school of thought, which offers a programme for the salvation, perfection and prosperity of man, also puts forward certain values and prescribes certain do’s and don’ts, should and shouldn’ts on the level of the individual or society. Every ideology says what should happen and what should be done, and determines the general policy and the aims to be pursued, for example it may lay down that everybody should be free and should live a free life. Everybody should be bold and brave and should make continuous progress in order to attain perfection. A society should be built on the basis of justice and fair play, making an advance towards proximity to Allah.

These do’s’ and don’ts’ should naturally be based on some philosophy capable of explaining them. In other words it is but natural that the injunctions of an ideology should be based on a particular conception of the world, man and society according to which it may be said that such and such should be like this or like that, because the world or man or society is like this.

B. Conception of the world
A conception of the world means the sum-total of the views and interpretations regarding the world, man and society. In regard to the world it covers such views as: the world is like this or like that, it has such and such a law, it goes forward in such and such a way, its pursuer does not pursue such and such objective, it has or has not an origin, it has or has not a purpose. In regard to man the views which constitute the conception of the world are such as whether man has any innate nature: whether he is free or predestined, whether he is, in the words of the Holy Qur’an, a chosen being. As regards man the questions are: Whether society has a law independent of the laws governing the individuals, what laws govern society and history, and similar other questions.

C. The relationship between ideology and conception of the world
As ideology is always based on a particular conception of the world which explains why the world, society or man is like this or like that, and determines what actions man should take and what sort of life he should lead. The answer of every why of an ideology underlies the world conception on which it is based. Technically every ideology is a sort of practical wisdom whereas every conception of the world is a sort of theoretical wisdom. Naturally every practical wisdom is based on particular theory. For example, the practical wisdom of Socrates is based on his particular outlook on the world, which forms his theoretical wisdom. Similar is the relation between the practical wisdom of Epicurus and others and their theoretical wisdoms.

As various people have different conceptions of the world naturally their ideologies vary. Now a question arises why there are so many conceptions of the world or so many cosmologies? Why should one school of thought look at the world in one way and another school in another way?

The relationship between social position and conception of the world
The answer to this question is not so simple. Some people have gone to the extent of asserting it is the class position of an individual that determines his attitude and outlook and puts special glasses on his eyes through which he sees the world. According to this theory the methods of production and distribution create reactions that shape the mentality and the views of an individual in a certain fashion depending on how favourably or adversely he is affected by these methods. The views thus formed affect his judgement and his evaluation of the things.

Mowlawi says: “If you feel giddy, you will find the whole house whirling round, if you travel in a boat, you will find the shore moving along with you, if you are distressed on account of some bad event you will find the whole world boring, if you are happy, you will find everything pleasant. You being a part of the world, you see as if the whole world is like you.”

According to this theory nobody can claim that his view alone is correct and the view of others is wrong, for the views are a relative matter only. They are the outcome of an individual’s contact with his natural and social environment. Hence every body’s views many be presumed to be correct as far as he himself is concerned.

Anyhow, the matter is not so simple. There is no denying the fact that a man’s thinking is greatly influenced by his environment. But it also cannot be denied that man is endowed with a faculty of independent thinking free from any influence. It is this faculty which has been termed by Islam as the innate nature of man.

Even if we hold that man has no independent, in fact, realistic thinking, it is still too early at this stage of cosmology to blame him.

D. The relationship between epistemology, conception of the world and ideology
What the modern philosophers who have made a close study of this question admit that the root-cause of the variety of conceptions of the world should be looked for in what is called the theory of knowledge.

The philosophers have paid enough attention to this theory. Some of them have asserted that philosophy is not cosmology. It is only the methodology of the pursuit of knowledge. The reason why there are so many cosmological theories is that there are several methods of knowing the world. Some say that the world should be known through reason. Some others are of the opinion that the knowledge of the world can be acquired only through illumination and inspiration. So there is a difference of opinion about the method, the source and the criterion of attaining the knowledge of the world. According to some reason has a very limited role in this respect, but according to others its role is unlimited.

In short, the ideology of every school is based on its conception of the world, which in its turn based on its theory of knowledge. How far an ideology is progressive depends on how far its conception of the world is progressive, which in its turn depends on how far its method of attaining knowledge is progressive. In fact the practical wisdom of every school depends on its theoretical wisdom, that is its way of thinking. Therefore it is necessary that school must in the first instance make its way of thinking clear.

Islam is not a school of philosophy and has not talked in philosophical terms. It has its own terminology, which is intelligible to all classes in accordance with their particular level of understanding. It is astonishing that thought it has referred to these questions only in between other subjects, its ideology in the form of practical thinking and its world conception in the form of a logical doctrine can easily be deduced from its teachings.

Evidently here we have to be contented with making a reference only Islamic world conception, and cannot dwell al length on the valuable views expressed by Muslim scholars such as jurists, philosophers, mystics and other thinkers on the questions of Islamic ideology, Islamic World Conception and the Methods of Acquiring Knowledge. Should we make such an attempt, the task is likely to be voluminous.

At the most we can produce a list, though incomplete, of the main features of Islamic views on these questions. A list of the main features of the views of Islam under their appropriate headings, viz. The Methods of Knowing, Conception of the World and the Ideological Features of Islam is as under:

1. Islamic characteristics from epistemological point of view
(i) Is it possible to identify the truth? This is and has always been the first question in this respect. Many of the thinkers are of the opinions that it is impossible to identify the truth correctly. They maintain that it is the lot of man not to know exactly what really in this world is and what passes in it. They consider it impossible to gain an indisputably accurate Knowledge conforming to reality.

However, the Holy Qur’an regards it possible to know the truth. It invites man to know Allah, the world, himself and history. In the story of Prophet Adam, which is really the story of man, it considers him to be fit to learn all the Divine names or the realities of the world. The Holy Qur’an says that in certain cases human Knowledge can comprehend some items of Divine Knowledge: They cannot comprehend anything out of what He knows save what He will. ( Surah al- Baqarah, 2: 255) (و لا یحیطون بشیء من علمه الا بما شاء).

(ii) What are the Sources of Knowledge?
From the viewpoint of Islam the sources of knowledge are: the natural signs or the signs existing in the world, man himself, history or the social events and episodes of the nations and the communities, reason or the self-evident principles, heart, in the sense of the illuminating and purifying organ and the written record left by the past people.

In many verses the Holy Qur’an has asked people to ponder over the nature of the heavens and the earth: Behold what is in the heavens and the earth. (Surah Yunus, 10:101) (قل انظروا ما ذ ا فی السموت و الا رض ).

Similarly the Holy Qur’an has invited people to study the history of the past nations intelligently with a view to take lesson from it: Have they not travelled in the land so that they may have heart to understand and ears to hear! (Surah al – Hajj, 22:46) (افلم یسیروا فی الارض فتکون لهم قلوب یعقلون بهااو اذ ان یسمعون بها ).

The Holy Qur’an believes in the reliability of reason as well as of self- evident truths. It bases its arguments on them and says: Say: Had there been gods besides Allah, then surely both the heavens and the earth (i.e. the whole universe) whose have been thrown into confusion. (Surah al- Ambiya, 21: 22) (لو کان فیهما الهة الا الله لفسدتا ).

Allah has not chosen any son, nor is there any god along with Him. Otherwise each god would have surely championed which he has created and some of them would surely have overcome others. Glorified be Allah above all that they allege. (Surah al- Mu’minun, 23:91) ((ما اتخذ الله من و لد ما کان معه من اله اذ ا الذهب کل اله بما خلق و لعلا بعضهم علی بعض. سبحان الله عما یصفون).

Similarly the Holy Qur’an regards the heart as the centre of Divine inspirations and intuitions. Every man can receive inspiration in accordance with his sincere devotion and his effort to keep this centre spiritually pure and active. The revelation of the Prophets is the highest is the degree of his kind of know ledge. The Holy Qur’an has repeatedly referred to the value of the pen and the book and on several occasions taken an oath by them: Nun. By the pen and that which they write therewith.
(Surah al-Qalam, 68:1) (ن و القلم و ما یسطرون).

(iii) What are the means of Acquiring Knowledge?
The means of acquiring knowledge are the senses, faculty of thinking, argumentation, and purification of soul and the study of the learned words of others. In Surah an- Nahl the Holy Qur’an says: And Allah brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers knowing nothing, and gave you hearing, sight and hearts so that you might give thanks. (Surah an Nahl, 16:78) ( (و الله اخرجکم من بطون امهاتکم لا تعلمون شیئا و جعل لکم السمع و الا بصاروالا فدة لعلکم تشکرون. ).

In this verse it has been expressly stated that contrary to the theory of Plato, man at his birth is devoid of every kind of knowledge. Allah has bestowed on him senses to study this world. He has given him conscience and the power of analysis so that he may subsequently go deep into the realities of things and may discover the laws governing them.

According to his famous theory Plato believed that everything that existed had its corresponding form in the world of ideas. At the time of his birth man was already aware of all things, but was oblivious of them. He did not learn things anew in this world but only recollected them.

What has been mentioned in this verse is not contrary to the Qur’anic theory of innate knowledge. This theory does not imply that man at his birth actually knows all things. What the Holy Qur’an means is that the essence of man is in a state of growth and evolution, and that in this life intuitively discovers certain fundamental and self-evident truths besides what he learns through his senses. The discovery of these truths is sufficiently convincing to force man to believe in them. That is what the Holy Qur’an means when it calls for tazakkur’ or recalling. Hence there is no contradiction between the Qur’anic verses calling for tazakkur’ and the above quoted verse of Surah an- Nahl.

In this verse hearing and sight, being the most important senses. have been mentioned as the instruments of knowing. Technically they are known as the means of superficial or primary knowledge, while heart or conscience which has also been mentioned in the verse, is technically described as the means of deep and logical knowledge.

Incidentally in this verse an allusion has been made to another important question also. It is the question of the stages of knowledge.

Apart from the sense and the faculty of thinking the Holy Qur’an equally recognizes piety and purity of soul as the means of acquiring knowledge. This point has been mentioned in many verse implicitly or explicitly: Believers, if you fear Allah, He will give you power to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. (Surah al- Anfal, 8:29) (یا یها الذین امنو ان تتقوا الله یجعل لکم فرقانا ).

By the soul and Him who perfected it and inspired it with the consciousness of what is wrong for it and what is right for it! He is indeed successful who purified it and he is indeed a failure who corrupted it. (Surah al- Shams, 91:7-9)((و نفس و ما سو لها فا لهمها فجورها و تقولها قد افلح من زکها وقد خاب من دسها ).

Learning and reading are some other means of acquiring knowledge which have been formally recognized by the teachings of Islam. In order to illustrate this point, it is enough to say that the first revelation to the Holy Prophet began with the word, Read. Read in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from clot. Read, for your Lord is the most Bounteous, Who taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know. (Surah al- Alaq, 96:1:5) ((ا قرا باسم ربک الذی خلق. خلق الانسان من علق. اقرا و ربک الا کرم. الذی علم بالقلم. علم الا نسان مالم یعلم ).

(iv) Subjects of Knowledge
What are things worth knowing and what is that what one should know? One should know Allah, the world, man society and time. All of them are worth knowing and one should know all of them.

Sources :

  1. Man and Universe- part Revelation and Prophethood- pages: 181to188