by Mateen A. Khan (Piscataway, NJ)
A version of this article was first published in Al-Madania Magazine.
Islam does not require separation between the religious and the secular by asking its adherents to have a split mind, because it provides a coherent, systematic approach to all types of knowledge. According to Imam Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī, knowledge (al-`ilm) is a trait by which a thing is made apparent to the one possessing it.1 According to others, it is to grasp what is known in the way it exists.2 (al-Kifāyah 47) In other words, knowledge is a trait of the seeker by which he attempts to grasp reality as it truly is and not some imagined, false construct. Thus, knowledge (al-`ilm) is a term referring to a firm conviction that corresponds to how something truly exists.3 Consequently, it is not applied to falsities and inaccuracies. The importance of knowledge is widely appreciated, but knowledge itself is rarely examined. As a part of ‘Our Creed’ series, I would like to turn our attention to knowledge and its sources. The importance of this subject cannot be overstated. Many of our scholarly works begin with this topic so the student has a single framework to deal with knowledge in both of its forms – religious and secular. An Islamically educated mind does not suffer the ills of cognitive dissonance. Instead, it understands itself and the rest of existence within the confines of the human mind.
The Knowledge of Allah
To better understand our knowledge, it helps to briefly review what we know about the knowledge of our Creator ﷻ 4 His knowledge is an essential part of Him, is uncreated, and has existed in completion, pre-eternally, without the constraints of time. His knowledge encompasses all things in every detail including all that exists, will exist, or could have existed. He is, in fact, the source of all knowledge.
اللَّـهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ وَمِنَ الْأَرْضِ مِثْلَهُنَّ يَتَنَزَّلُ الْأَمْرُ بَيْنَهُنَّ لِتَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّـهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ وَأَنَّ اللَّـهَ قَدْ أَحَاطَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا
It is Allah who created seven heavens and a similar [number] of earths. His command descends throughout them. So you should realize that He has power over all things and that His knowledge encompasses everything. (Quran 65:12)
The Knowledge of Creation
In contrast, the knowledge of creation is not essential to its being and is itself a creation. For example, humans are born in a state without knowledge and are entirely dependent on others to feed and teach them.
وَاللَّـهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ ۙ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
It is Allah who brought you out of your mothers’ wombs knowing nothing, and gave you hearing and sight and minds, so that you might be thankful. (Qur’an Al-Naḥl 78)
We begin in a state of ignorance. Knowledge is acquired thereafter according to our abilities and exposure. In other words, human knowledge is something gained (iktisābī) through certain means or sources (asbāb). The rest of this article will serve as an introduction to the means of gaining knowledge.
Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Without epistemology, you have no systematic way of processing knowledge. Most of us have not been taught how to think. We merely imitated our surroundings. Our scholars were not unanimous in how to approach this topic, but we will take an approach outlined by many earlier scholars including Imam Abū Ḥafs al-Nasafī (d. 537 ﻫ) in his al-`Aqā’id al-Nasafīyyah as our guide. All the knowledge we acquire can be placed into three categories:
- If the knowledge comes from oneself without the need for reasoning or use of the intellect, it is from the five senses (al-ḥawās al-ẓāhirah).
- If the knowledge comes from oneself through reasoning and without the senses, it is from the sound intellect (al-`aql al-salīm).
- If the knowledge comes from another, it is a true narration (al-khabar al-ṣādiq).
Others have given more sources and gone into more detail including very intangible concepts, but the limitation to these three will prove to be more practical. As Imam al-Ṣābūnī wrote, “The obtainment of knowledge through these means is clearly perceptible to anyone just and fair.” (al-Bidāyah 31)
The Unimpaired Senses
The verse from Surah al-Naḥl quoted above suggests we exit the womb without any knowledge, and the first of it comes from the interaction of the senses with the external surroundings. Thus, the first source of human knowledge, as outlined by Imam al-Nasafī, is the five unimpaired senses, i.e. hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. The term ‘unimpaired’ is used to exclude individual senses which suffer from ailments like poor hearing or eyesight, color-blindness, paresthesia, and so on. When unimpaired, they are a source of knowledge that is immediate (i.e., little to no recourse to reasoning required) and give an extraordinary amount of constant information. One only needs to plug one’s ears or close one’s eyes to realize how important these are for information gathering, and how we practically rely upon them in all our affairs. We can also enhance our senses by using instruments like microphones and telescopes.
Note that this category is not exclusive to humans. Animals, insects, and even plants have sense organs with many of their abilities exceeding ours. They, too, acquire knowledge through this means. Hence, from this perspective, we are no better than them and perhaps, less gifted in many ways.
Despite their immense benefit, the senses are limited. For example, the senses perceive only what is present and direct. You can see what is in the room with you, but you cannot see what is in another room or what is on the other side of the planet. More importantly, even at their best, the five unimpaired senses cannot give us knowledge of unmeasurable concepts. The senses alone cannot interpret the data they perceive. They may observe the cosmos in all its splendor or the intricacies of the human body but cannot deduce their origin or purpose. Thus, while the senses are valuable, we are prompted to search for further sources.
إِنَّ فِي اخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَمَا خَلَقَ اللَّـهُ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَّقُونَ
In the succession of night and day, and in what Allah created in the heavens and earth, there truly are signs for those who are aware of Him. (Qur’an 10:6)
The Sound Intellect
In the previously mentioned verse of Surah al-Naḥl, after hearing and sight, Allah makes mention of the intellect, which is the second source of knowledge.5 The term ‘sound’ excludes intellects that may be afflicted with the many possible ailments of the mind. When sound, the intellect is a powerful tool allowing us to rationalize and determine things we cannot immediately perceive with the senses. Furthermore, it allows us to make sense of and draw conclusions from what we perceive. In other words, it takes over where the senses leave off. Knowledge obtained from intelligence can be accurate and lead to conclusions that must be true and acted upon.
There are two types of knowledge gained from the intellect – immediate (badīhī) and deduced (istidlālī).
- Immediate knowledge is a statement understood at first glance without the need for thought. Logically and by definition, it must be true and is not open to rejection. For example, statements like an object is larger than one of its parts, one added to one gives two, or the knowledge of one’s existence must necessarily be true and cannot be rejected. Such knowledge is immediately apparent, binding, and needs no sensory input.
- Deduced statements require reflecting on proofs whether by deduction from cause to effect (e.g., where there is fire, there is smoke) or from effect to cause (e.g., where there is smoke, there is fire). (al-Taftazānī) With the right conditions, it can give certainty in knowledge but requires contemplating information from the five senses, information provided by other individuals, and rational ideas. (al-Sa`dī)
The second type is of more interest to us because we rely upon it in most of our affairs. Whether in our day to day activities or in the different physical sciences or Islamic sciences, we continually contemplate amassed information in the form of premises and formulate inferences by deduction. If the premises are true, the inference must necessarily be true. For example, if all men are mortal (premise #1) and Zayd is a man (premise #2), then Zayd must be mortal (inference). Similarly, if a mu`jizah can only be performed by a Prophet and Ibrahim performed a mu`jizah, he must be a Prophet. The intellect is immensely valuable and makes up for much of the senses’ limitations. It assists us with an important concept mentioned in the previous article in this series and to be discussed further in a subsequent article: It is impermissible that Allah remains unknown to a person gifted with intellect.
However, like the five senses, the intellect has many limitations. The list is long, but I will suffice you with two important examples: an objective purpose (Why are we here?) and morality (What should we do here?). Despite these two being of utmost importance to our humanity, no amount of thinking or philosophizing has given us clear answers. Instead, some intellects have gone to the extreme of justifying ethnic cleansing and infanticide, while others have proposed purposelessness and amorality. For an objective answer, we need another source. We cannot fathom that Allah would have left us in deficiency with just the senses and the intellect.
أَيَحْسَبُ الْإِنسَانُ أَن يُتْرَكَ سُدًى
Does man think he will be left alone? (Qur’an 75:36)
The True Narration – Mass Transmission
The third and final source of human knowledge is the true narration. The term ‘true’ excludes information that is false despite an honest narrator or because the narrator is himself a liar. Imam al-Nasafī divided it into two types. He writes, “The first is the mass-transmitted, and it is the narration established by such people whom it is inconceivable that they would all collude on falsehood.6 It brings about necessary knowledge such as the knowledge of past kings in past times and of distant countries.” (al-Nasafī). For example, no one denies the existence of George Washington or the Ottoman Empire. We accept the existence of both, even though none of us have directly witnessed either one with any of our senses, and no amount of reasoning necessitates their existence. Rather, we accept them based on a multitude of different narratives that have reached us. The strength of this information is in such numbers that falsehood becomes impossible. Instead of a lengthy discussion of the merits of mass transmission, I will suffice by asking the reader to evaluate his own daily actions with the question, “How many truths do I hold based on information known to me purely because another told me?” You will find basic truths are known to you, not because of your senses or reasoning, but purely based on being informed of them by others. Similarly, you are more likely to believe news that is reported by multiple news sources of different persuasions than had it been reported by only one source. You believe it because that knowledge has reached you in such a way that to reject it is both unreasonable and inconsistent with how you function in the rest of your life.
The True Narration – Single Transmission
Next, Imam al-Nasafī turns his attention to the single transmission narration.7 This is unlike mass transmission, in which the information is not dependent on one or even a few individuals. Information in the single transmission can reach one through, say, just a single person. Generally, if information is conveyed to you by one person, its veracity is only as good as that informer. In other words, the strength of a single transmitted narration is in the truthfulness and veracity of the speaker. In our day to day life, we generally accept and rely on such information knowing in the back of our minds that it may be incorrect because even an intelligent, knowledgeable, reliable, and honest person can make a mistake. That being said, we routinely consider such information to be indispensable. Even the most skeptic or empiric of people rely upon it when taking information from experts and textbooks simply because they either lack the expertise or access to verify every piece of information on their own directly. So, we accept some narrations as absolute fact if conveyed to us by trusted experts.
As our discussion has focused on knowledge that is certainly true, Imam al-Nasafī points out one situation in which a single transmission narration gives us indisputable knowledge without the possibility of mistake. “The second (true narration) is the narration of [a single] Messenger aided by a miracle, and it brings about deductive knowledge. The knowledge established by it resembles the knowledge established by necessity, in certainty and in permanence.” Briefly, a miracle (i.e., mu`jizah) is a sign of divine approval and protection of the Messenger. One, who is afforded such protection, must be truthful and either protected entirely from mistakes or corrected immediately upon making one. In shā Allah, this idea will be further explored in a future article.
Putting It Together
Everything we know falls into one of these three sources of knowledge (unimpaired senses, sound intellect, and true narrations). Whether Muslim or non-Muslim, in religious or secular matters, we rely upon this framework to understand the world around us. Daily, we survey our surroundings with our senses (e.g., the contents of the room we are in). We infer what we cannot sense with our intellect (e.g., the continual existence of what is outside of the room). What we cannot sense nor infer, we take from a narrator(s) (e.g., the existence of North Korea).8 Another example from the physical sciences is that I may watch leaves fall with my sight. I reason that there is a force that causes things to fall in my area and perhaps, such a force also exists elsewhere. Narrations from first-hand witnesses inform me such a force also exists in every place humanity has visited or observed.
In our religious matters, our approach is no different. As discussed in the previous article of this series, our most important purpose is to recognize our Creator. The unimpaired senses prompt us with what they perceive. The sound intellect provides rational proofs. The true narration is the revelation (waḥī) from Allah to guide us wherever the intellect fails. We can only gain knowledge of our objective purpose and morality by revelation from the source of all knowledge, our Creator. We know with certainty that this revelation is traced to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as it has reached us through a process of mass transmission. The astute reader will now realize that the deen rests entirely on the shoulders of a single, true transmitter from Allah. He ﷺ was one aided by many miracles, which prove whatever he narrated to us must be true by virtue of divine confirmation of his prophethood.
This relatively short article cannot do justice to this critical discussion. Instead, the reader should get the impression that all information is not the same. Each source of knowledge discussed above adds a layer of knowledge the prior could not provide. Through it, one may arrive at certain knowledge (yaqīnī). This is knowledge that demands conviction and action. Anything less, gives presumptive information (ẓannī); information that may encourage but not necessitate belief and action depending on the varying levels of certainty. For example, we know with certainty from mass transmitted narrations that George Washington was the first President. We know with less certainty from single transmitted narrations that he was born on February 22nd. And, we know his statement, “I can’t tell a lie.” after cutting the cherry tree is likely untrue since it is untraceable to him. Similarly, we know with certainty the Qur’an and mass transmitted hadith are from the Prophet ﷺ, and we know with deduced certainty that he was Allah’s Messenger. We have varying levels of certainty about other single transmitted hadith based upon their strength in text (matn), individual narrators (rijāl), and chain (sanad) according to the principles of the Hadith Scholars.
It should now be clear to the reader that Muslims do not approach knowledge with an inconsistent mind, a part of it for the religious and another for the secular. We approach all knowledge with one epistemology. This makes sense as the source of all knowledge is one. And Allah knows best.
وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ اللَّـهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا
If it had been from anyone other than Allah, they would have found much inconsistency in it. (Qur’an 4:82)
6 It is impossible that such so many people could have come together to decide on the same lie. Additionally, the information being conveyed must be sensory and not an idea. In other words, the narrators are conveying what was witnessed and not a widespread non-sensory idea like the Universe has a beginning.