Exploring Islamic Theory of Knowledge

In order to lay bare the structure of the Islamic theory of knowledge it is imperative that we turn our attention to the Holy Book ‘Al-Quran´ the fountain head and bed-rock of Islamic doctrinal belief and faith. In so doing we should also adhere to the most essential rule phrased very aptly by late Fazlur Rehman thus: "What is required is a willingness to get into the Quran itself rather than to go around it indulging in what must be distortions of the Quran at worst and trivialities at best". 1

At the outset, let me say a few things which must be appreciated positively by any scholar studying Islam and its doctrines. About the character of the Quran one thing is abundantly clear. It neither is nor purports to be a book of philosophy or metaphysics. It calls itself "Guidance for mankind" (hudan-lil-nas) and demands that people live by its commands. Islam has, as its central task, the construction of a social order on viable ethical basis. It is a practical remedy for the multiple ailments of humanity and a recipe for how man may transcend his banalities to create a positive human brotherhood. In order, therefore, to derive a theory of epistemology from it, a determination of its teachings into a cohesive enough unity is required. Islam is a divinely revealed monotheistic religion: it is a complete way of life-ideology or Deen. As such, its epistemology is deeply enmeshed in its over-all metaphysical view of reality and being. In the present paper I shall mainly concentrate on the concept and nature of knowledge in the Quranic scheme of things and the sources of veridical knowledge. My interest in the subject grew by reading a paper on this very theme contributed by Professor B.H.Siddique which was published by the international institute of Islamic thought at Islamabad.2

Professor B. H. Siddiqui´s seminal writing entitled "knowledge: An Islamic Perspective" is quite impressive in its scope and a commendable attempt at putting in bold relief the variegated strands of the authentic Islamic theory of knowledge. The first two subsections of his essay dilate on the cultural value of knowledge in Islam and its general intellectual temper. The first ayat in the order of the Quranic revelation, ‘Read in the name of thy Lord who createth´ (96:1) with its categorical injunction to read lays an undeniable emphasis on that capacity of man which the Creator has endowed him with as pre-eminently human. The raison d´etre of man, the ‘why´ of his being cannot but be to understand and learn, and for that purpose the providence has equipped man with

                (1) Nur-i-Fitrat, i.e an inherent light of nature
                (2) senses for observation
                (3) reason for deduction and ratiocination
                (4) provided him with guidance revealed through the Prophet. The object of knowledge can only be primarily the world within and the world without and ultimately the Really Real, the Creator of all existence. The Quran beholds in the knowledge of God alone the end and telos of life. Among the numerous sources of knowledge just mentioned, perhaps the first calls for some elaboration and I think that professor Siddiqui did not pay full attention to it when he wrote, "knowledge, as the root of culture, is not given to man at birth" (p.2) On the contrary, verse 50 of Surah Ta-Ha states:

Our lord is He who gave into everything its nature and constitution, and then guided it aright". (20:50)

According to this Quranic verse, our Lord has given everything its inner structure, equipped it with its means of attaining perfection, and then guided it towards its real goal. 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 the Quran and explicated by Muslim philosophers 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 or rigorous analysis is kept up, with close attention to the precise definitions of the various concepts involved.

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.3

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´ (allama Adan al-asmaha kullaha). Allah is the first teacher and the absolute guide of humanity. This knowledge was not imparted to even the Angels.

The idea of ilm distinguishes the world-view of Islam from all other outlooks nd ideologies: no other world-view makes the pursuit of knowledge an individual and social obligation and gives enquiry the same moral and religious significance as worship. Ilm, therefore, serves as the hallmark of Muslim culture and civilisation. In the history of Muslim civilisation, the concept of ilm permeated deep into all strata of society and manifested itself in all intellectual endeavours. No other civilisation in history has embraced the notion of ‘knowledge´ with such passion and pursued it with such vigour.

To translate ilm as ‘knowledge´ is to do violence, even though it be unintentional, to this sublime and multi-dimensional concept. It certainly contains the elements of what we understand today as knowledge. But it also contains the components of what is traditionally described as ‘wisdom´. But this is by no means the end of the story Perhaps, we can best under-stand the notion with reference to other concepts of the Qur´an to which it is intricately linked. This ilm also has some connotation of ibadah (worship); that is, the pursuit of ilm is a form of worship. Similarly, ilm incorporates the Qur´anic notion of khilafah (trusteeship of man): thus, men (and women) seek ilm as trustees of God for if ilm is sought outside this framework it will violate the fundamental Islamic notion of tawheed. And, the means by which ilm is acquired and the final use to which it is put both by the individual and society are both subject to accountability: the Qur´anic concept of akhrah (the Hereafter) envelopes ilm to ensure its moral and social relevance. These few of the many, many dimensions of ilm illustrate the complex and sophisticated nature of the notion.

The synthesis of a whole array of principles and notions into a single, unified concept of ilm is one of the basic features of the world-view of Islam. It was this universal synthesis that demolished the artificial boundaries of the so-called religious and secular knowledge. And it was this universal synthesis which ensured that for a Muslim, knowledge was not an isolated, abstract act or thought; it was at the very root of his/her being and world-view. It is not surprising then that ilm had so much significance for early Muslims, that countless Muslim thinkers were so occupied with the exposition of the concept. Their conceptualisation of ilm is perhaps best manifested in the attempted definitions of ilm of which there seems to be no dearth. The seemingly insatiable quest of these scholars to define ilm in all its shapes and forms was inspired by the belief that ilm was nothing more than a mainifestation of tawheed; "understanding the signs of God", being near Him, as well as building a civilisation required comprehensive pursuit of knowledge. As Rosenthal observes: "a Muslim civilisation without it would have been unimaginable to the medieval Muslims themselves, and it is even more so in retrospect. Change was not likely to alter its true meaning. Since, however, it was so important a concept, a tremendous amount of thought was given to it at all times and all levels of education" ("Muslim definitions of knowledge", in: The Conflict of Traditionalism and Modernism in the Middle East edited by Carl Leiden, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1966, p.117)

‘Knowledge´ in the Quranic Perspective


Historically speaking, philosophical thinking, including epistemological doctrines, is closely related to religious beliefs and gnostic traditions. It has often culminated in the attempt to do intellectually what religion has done practically and emotionally: to establish human life in some satisfying and meaningful relation to the universe in which man finds himself, and to get some wisdom in the conduct of human affairs. knowledge, according to the Quranic doctrine, is both a gift of Divine revelation as well as a creative element or aspect of the human spirit. Most of recent philosophy threatens our spiritual existence and freedom by driving the contemporary mind into irrational and compulsive negation of religious truth. Islam, however is a faith that is reasonable and rational, a faith we can adopt with intellectual integrity and ethical conviction.

Philosophy, with all its variegated disciplines, in the framework of Islam cannot be squared with an antiactivist or ‘spectator´ view of it which aims merely at an enlargement of the understanding. Indeed in an Islamic framework it becomes an essentially practical subject: it seeks to get people to do things. It cannot remain uncommitted to social action. The attack on spectatorism which we find in Existentialism and in the pragmatists is very relevant to the current philosophical scene. Moreover, Anglo-American academic philosophy is presently built around the assumption that its true centre is espistemology. This assumption is apparent particularly in the structure and content of university courses. The approach to the various areas of philosophy via the problem of knowledge is one possible way of organizing one´s conception of philosophy. But the outcome has been the abstraction of ‘man as knower´ from the rest of human life, and in particular from human practice. This has been a distinguishing feature of the empiricist tradition and epistemology is still dominated by that tradition: the so-called ‘problems of knowledge´ are the problems of the isolated individual knower confined to the world of his own sense-perceptions.4 Conversely, it is essential to see the activity of ‘knowing´ as arising out of, and part of, man´s general attempt to organize and cope with the cosmos, in order to vindicate the status of human knowledge as a meaningful totality rather than a series of discrete sense impressions.

However, it is reassuring to note that as the last quarter of this century comes to a close, a new revolutionary mood is placing new pressures on the course of philosophy. The wirtings of Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty and others show the fractured nature of our highly individualized and atomized culture and how very difficult it is for us to get out from under the shadow of positivism. Another critic, Alasdair MacIntyre, focuses on the moral bankruptcy of modern way of life and behaviour calling this a failure of the "enlightenment experiment" of Western culture. Still other voices of this revolutionary mood__largely represented by a group of French and German philosophers who refer to the present culture as a "post-modern" one__point a finger at scientific and technocratic communities, blaming them for the current state of human fragmentation and an oppressive rationalization of human life.

In the Islamic context, the knowledge-seeking mind has not only a conceptual-spiritual being, but also a social-material existence. Islam has never allowed the speculative and active lives to become totally divorced from each other. Thought and reflection have always been wedded to action. On the one hand, according to a prophetic tradition, an hour of thoughtful reflection is better than sixty years of acts of worship. But knowledge without action has been described as a tree without fruit. Contemplative thought (tafakkur) and reflection in Islamic spirituality essentially provide a knowledge that relates the knower to higher modes of being. Only in this manner do we hope to remove the root-cause of a strong dissatisfaction with the present state of philosophy. Fortunately, a great deal of work has recently been done by Muslim thinkers in detecting the subtler mechanisms of widespread false consciousness perpetrated by materialistic philosophies. An enormous amount remains to be done along the same lines.

It will be instructive at this juncture to explore at some length Rosenthal´s analysis of knowledge. An over view of Rosenthal´s classification of Muslim definition of ilm yeilds that it can be classified as:

1. A process of knowing that is identical with the known and the knower.

2. A form of cognition (marifah).

3. Sgnonymous with comprehension (ihatah)

4. A process of mental perception.

5. A means for clarification, assertion and decision.

6. A concept or percept subject to apperception.

7. An attribute (sifah)

8. A agent of memory or imagination.

9. Motion

10. A relative term.

11. Defined in relation to action.

12. A product of introspection.

And as he states, more definitions could be found and classified accordingly. And, contrary to erstwhile common opinion, these and other definitions were not restricted to the so-called religious knowledge alone. Even if we follow the above twelve categories, as delineated by Rosenthal, we find that these definitions of ilm encompass a very wide spectrum of philosophical thinking. There is a clear awareness of both the subjective and objective dimensions of knowledge; even of the fact that from one particular perspective a branch of knowledge may be classified as ‘objective´, while from another perspective the same branch may be considered to be rather ‘subjective´. However, attempts at the delineation of ilm were not confined to mere definition of the concept. While the practice of internal criticism was faithfully followed by Muslim scholars in defining ilm, they consistently moved far beyond this fundamental exercise. This is apparent from the fact that the continuing debate on the definitions of ilm did not end in blind alleys; operational definitions were emphasised and continually sought.

The impetus for operationalisation of knowledge was provided by the moral imperative that was inextricably meshed into the fabric of ilm. Here again, it was at once a moral obligation to acquire and disseminate ilm. For eight classical scholars, it was at once a moral obligation to acquire and disseminate ilm and operationalise it as a moral discriminant. The classical division of knowledge as praiseworthy and blameworthy, and the role of knowledge as individual and collective obligation is too well known to be explained here. Suffice it to say that amal (action) was declared part and parcel of ilm and ilm without amal was inconceivable. This was indeed the operationalisation strategy for ilm and it was guided, in spirit and letter, by the central Islamic concept of tawheed and the moral dictates which this implies. Indeed, the moral imperative, the function that knowledge performed, whether it was ‘objective´ or ‘subjective´, ‘praiseworthy´ or ‘blameworthy´ was determined on the sole criteria of its moral worth. Classical Muslim scholars were well aware that while a branch of knowledge, a particular piece of information, may have intrinsic value, it could equally have harmful effects for the society as a whole. The pursuit of truth required that it should be pursued within moral boundaries and its fruits should be beneficial for all society. They were aware that the pursuit of truth could become perverse; that when the process of pursuit itself becomes an obsession, then ‘truth´ loses its moral significance. That ‘truth´ could be manufactured and made to appear ‘objective´; that beyond the Absolute Truth, judgements about truth can be relative.

Knowledge and Value


Professor Siddiqui maintains in his paper that knowledge, all types of knowledge, is normative and valueful. Many modern Muslim scholars have qualms against this thesis, but I think his claim is fully substantiated by the Islamic revelation. If one thinks with and through the Qur´anic premises, the Holy Book considers all things to be "signs" (ayat) pointing to the ultimate origin of the world. Besides describing the internal structure of an object, its history, present state, and future course of development, it also discusses its place in perspective or origination and ultimate end; that is, it makes a vertical movement that cuts across the horizontal physical plane. Thus the systems of "efficient cause" and "final cause" act as two wings attached to the body of the experimental science (study of internal structure) helping it to break out of static, earth-bound state and enabling it to fly in the infinite skies of the Divine world outlook. The same sort of approach towards the phenomena of this world can be seen throughout the Quran. In this manner the two wings of origination and ultimate purpose are revived and rejuvenated in all the research being carried out about these phenomena. In this way, the Holy Quran turns knowledge into reason, reason into wisdom, and mental conceptions into verities. This is the fashion in which the Quran coordinates the findings of theoretical reason with the effort of practical reason. This means that the Quran turns a specialist into man of religion, a scientific researcher into a practical investigator, a scientific "authority" into a devotee of the Truth, a technical inventor into a committed believer, an industrial entrepreneur into a man of faith, thus transforming raw mind into a seasoned intellect.

In the past Muslim philosophers did not consider any field of learning to be truly independent science. They believed that, without the science of ethics and spiritual purification, mastery over any science was not only devoid of any value, but it would in fact lead to the befogging of insight and ultimate destruction of those who pursue it. That is why it has been said that "al-ilmu´ huwa al-hijab al-akbar" which means that knowledge itself is the thickest of veils, which prevents man from seeing the real nature of things. Moral virtues in man gain him eternal happiness and vision of the truth, while moral corruption leads him to everlasting wretchedness and ignorance. It is, therefore, necessary for man to purge and purify himself of all evil traits of character and adorn his soul with all forms of ethical and moral virtues. The human soul can be compared to a mirror in this regard. If we wish to see something beautiful reflected in a mirror, we must first clean the mirror, so that dust and dirt do not disfigure the reflection. Any attempt to attain true veridical knowledge would be fruitful and successful only when one has purified himself of evil habits and tendencies. In the words of the Quran those who have a sound heart (i.e., qalb-e-saleem)can be granted true knowledge of the Real. In order to attain ultimate and final perfection in knowledge and action, is it necessary to traverse the path of struggle against the selfish lusts and immoral tendencies which may exist within the soul and thus to prepare the soul to receiver the grace of God. If man sets foot on the path of self-purification and actively engages in performing religious obligations God comes to his aid and guides him along the right path. The Quranic verse 69 of Surah Al-Ankabut asserts: "As for those who strive hard in Our cause__We shall most certainly guide them onto paths that lead unto Us." Indeed this Quranic thesis of, so to say, ‘knowledge-in-action´ has subtle affinities with ideas of some contemporary philosophers of education and theorists of teaching practice and skill, notably Schon and Michael Erut.5

From amongst the classical thinkers, Ibn Hazm (d. 457/1064) made significant contribution to epistemology. I shall briefly pause here to present the salient features of his thoughts.

Ibn hazm on knowledge



Prior to Ibn Hazm, the Muslim thinker al-Amiri (d.309/922) had felt the heat generated by the alleged secularisation of ilm and attempted to argue in favour of the ‘secular´ sciences by stating that these fields of knowledge conformed to pure reason and did not contradict the principles of the ‘religious´ sciences. However, it remained to the genius of Ibn Hazm to expound a theory of knowledge that revived the spirit of early Muslim epistemology.

Several of Ibn Hazm´s works, suchas Maratib al-Ulum, Ihkam, al-Fisal fil-Milal wa al-Ahwa wa an-Nihal, and at-Taqrib li-Hudud al-Mantiq, are devoted to an extensive discussion on the concept of knowledge. According to Ibn Hazm, there are four cardinal virtues of knowledge, namely, adl (justice), najdah (courage), fahm (understanding) and jud (generosity). Knowledge, a multi-faceted concept, is a vehicle for the attainment of virtues in this world and the hereafter. He recognizes the differences in the nature of faith and reason but argues that the both are aimed at same objective: acquisition of fadail (virtues). Thus, at the outset he establishes the moral imperative implicit in the pursuit of knowledge__as expounded by early Muslim thinkers. In this case, his vision, unlike some of his predecessors as well as contemporaries, is not blurred by the operational divisions of ilm into praiseworthy and blameworthy sciences. For instance, in his classification of sciences, he excluded occult, alchemy and astrology, not because of religious considerations but due to the fact that they do not fit any logical or moral criteria. In so doing, he displays his remarkable felicity in retaining the unified conceptualization of ilm and avoids the dangerous pitfalls of disciplinary orthodoxy.

Ibn Hazm declared knowledge as an indispensable entity: its pursuit an obligation, and its moral imperative as an objective. Thus, according to him, knowledge should be pursued in accordance with one´s fullest potential but it must not become a tool of material and moral exploitation. "In essence, knowledge consists of comprehending God´s revelations, practising moral virtues, and knowing the realities of things in this world. The object of knowledge is to please and be close to the Almighty and to attain a world order encompassing humanity at large", (quoted in Ibn Hazm by A. G. Chejne, Chicago, Kazi Publications, 1982, p.67)

In his classification, Ibn Hazm designates a superior status to ‘religious´ sciences, but makes his point abundantly clear that the so-called ‘philosophical´ or ‘secular´ sciences are also indispensable. Thus, he places iman (faith and aql (intellect) almost at par with each other. He vigorously argues that not everyone is equipped to deal with the philosophical intricacies, and hence, such an individual may find solace in faith. On the other hand, he defends the reliance on aql by stating that faith alone may not provide workable answers to immediate problems of humankind and it is the role of aql to remove skepticism and uncertainties so that a confusion about the faith itself may be put to an end. In such a pragmatic approach, Ibn Hazm does not appear to be making iman subservient to aql, nor does he propose that the affirmation of iman is contingent upon the agency of aql. He explains this delicate balance between iman and aql in these words:

"The intellectual faculty (quwat al-aql) is that which helps the discerning soul to make justice triumph, to choose what sound understanding dictates and to be convinced of it, and to make it manifest with the aid of the tongue and other bodily movements in action", (Chejne, op. cit., p.69).

In assigning such a pre-eminent status to aql, he rejected the claims of those who professed introspection (Sufi methodology), or blind and uncritical following (taqlid) for the acquisition of ilm.Ibn Hazm then moves on to a detailed description of physical basis of integrating of the sensory data and how aql manifests itself as the final evolved stage of the cognitive apparatus.

For Ibn Hazm, iman and ilm originate from the same source and he considers both as a mawhibah (gift) from Allah. What he does not forget to emphasis is that a discernment is what is required to maintain a balance between the two. That discernment lies in the recognition of imam. Once again, his argument derives strength from the fact that both are aimed at the same objective. Let us now try to analyse and understand some of the terms used in the Quran which will help us in comprehending its cognitive scheme in greater depth.

‘Tazakkur´   Recalling the Fundamental Truths Intuitively


Tazakkur´ is a very significant Quranic term which means recalling to mind the fundamental truths intuitively recognized by human nature. For understanding the significance of this term we have to note that the Quran frequently calls itself ‘Zikr´, Zikra´, derivatives of the same root from which ‘Tazakkur´, stems. In essence, ‘Tazakkur´ pertains to the first stage in the comprehension of divine realities and meanings. It also alludes to the truth that the Quranic teaching is not extraneous or heterogeneous to human nature. It actually reflects the experience of man´s inner self and it is meant to awaken reminiscences of something already apprehended rather than to import anything altogether new. The Holy Quran appeals to all thoughtful persons whom it addresses as ‘Ulul albab´ (men of discernment) and ‘Qaum-ya´qilun´ (people who have comprehension and insight) to think and ponder over the outer universe of matter as well as the inner universe of the spirit, as both are replete with the unmistakable signs of the Almighty Creator. Simultaneously, it invites them to deliberate over its own signs, i.e., its divinely inspired verses.6 Thus the Quran, in addition to its own verses, regards both ‘anfus´ (self) and "afaq" (world) as sources of knowledge. By pondering over the three categories of signs, a man will be able to perceive a perfect concord between them; and, with the realization of this concord, he will grasp certain fundamental truths which are borne out by the internal testimony of his own nature. The truths cherished by his inner self will emerge from its depths and shine in all their brilliance on the screen of his consciousness. In other words, full and intense awareness of the Absolute Reality will spring up to his consciousness like the memory of a forgotten thing shooting up from the dark depths of the psyche to the surface of mind with the aid of a pertinent suggestion.

The Qur´an thus declares in unequivocal terms that every man can derive the benefit of ‘tazakkur´ from it. It does not matter if a person´s intelligence is limited, and his knowledge of logic and philosophy is poor. It also does not matter much if he has no fine sense of language and classical Arabic literature. In spite of these drawbacks, he can develop an inkling and appreciation of ultimate truths if he has a noble heart, a sound mind, and an untainted nature__a nature not perverted by any kind of crookedness. The central themes and basic subjects of the Divine Book are nothing new or unfamiliar to the true human nature. While reading it a man often feels as if he were listening to the echoes of his own inner self. In this sense, the Quranic theory of knowledge subtly resembles the Platonic theory in which true knowledge is also attained through recollecting forgotten memories of eternal forms.

‘Tadabbur´ Intellection and Reflection

The Holy Quran urges us again and again to study it intelligently and with deliberation, bringing our thought to bear upon it, and exercising our reasoning faculty in following its arguments and comprehending its meaning. For this purpose it uses the locution ‘Tadabbur´ and its cognates ‘fahm´ ‘aql´ ‘fiqh´ ‘fikr´ ‘Tadabbur´ generally mean pondering and reflecting over the meaning and significance of ultimate questions. Specifically in the Quranic context, it connotes diving deep into the fathomless ocean of Divine wisdom. We learn from authentic traditions that the companions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) used to reflect and ponder over the different surahs of the Quran for years on end.

This brings us to the question as to what reason, reflection and ratiocination mean in the Islamic perspective. Of course, one must distinguish between the use of reason and rational faculty, and rationalism which makes reason the sole source of gaining knowledge and the only criterion for judging the truth. One does sometime speak of Aristotelian rationalism. Although in the philosophy of Aristotle there are metaphysical intuitions which cannot be reduced to simple product of human reason or logical understanding. Most regrettably, the meanings of many words like thought, reason, reflection and others have shrunken tremendously in contemporary philosophy, with the result that suggested association of ideas have become quite restrictive.

In the human microcosm, intellect is the deep spiritual centre of being, and not merely any limited or specifiable mental faculty. It is necessary to distinguish between rational thought and intellective thought. For whereas rational thought is discursive and proceeds from the mental faculty alone, intellective thought proceeds from intuition and pure intellect. The Arabic counterpart of reason or intellect__’aql´__signifies etymologically both that which binds or limits the Absolute in the direction of creation and also that which binds man to the truth, to God Himself. In this sense, the word ‘aql´ is at once intellectus or nous and ratio or reason. In the Islamic perspective it is precisely ‘aql´ which keeps man on the straight path and prevents him from going astray. The sense of the numinous cannot be excluded from the world of empiricism. Experience is not exclusively what comes through science and scientific method. In other words, a distinction has to be made between terrestrial thought, aroused by the environment and celestial thought aroused by that which is our true being and finding its term beyond ourselves and, in the final analysis, in God.7 Reason, in the present day limited sense, is something like a profane intelligence; essentially the profane point of view springs from there. It is necessary for reason to be determined, transfigured or enriched both by faith and gnosis which is the quintessence of faith. Gnosis, in the Islamic theory of knowledge keeps its original meaning of wisdom made up of knowledge and spiritual sanctity. It is the higher type of knowledge which comes of intuition by the intellect, the term intellect having the same sense as in Plotinus or Eckhart. If human intellect i. e., ‘aql´ is obscured by the passions, by the nafs, then it can become the evil that hides man from the Divine. Were it not so there would be no need of revelation at all.

In the Islamic world, gnosis (ma’rifah) is differentiated form 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).

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, al-Farabi 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, al-Farabi and al-Ghazali, took recourse to the mystic path in their quest of the truth at some state. 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 khabr (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’arafah 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 non-Muslim world are one and the same in the Islamic perspective.

ilm is referred to in many Qur´anic 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 Qur´an 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.

‘Love´  Mystic Unitive Apprehension


There is intellectually nothing more depressing than to read the trivial writings of the linguistic philosophers and the existentially barren texts of the social theorists. Islamically-oriented epistemological theory on the contrary, represents a deep-knowledge process which transforms the seeker. Here the idea of knowledge as being merely an ideational process is not assigned much worth. The foundations of knowledge are only accessible to one who is prepared to undergo a profound existential transformation. The Islamic approach to knowledge involves an operational zone taking in the whole life-pattern of the seeker.

According to Islamic epistemic theory, the sole element that can unite the soul to God is love, for love alone is desire of possession or of union, while discursive knowledge appears as a static element having no operative or unitive virtue. For securing a complete vision of Reality, therefore, sense perception must be supplemented by the function of what the Quran describes as ‘fuad´ or ‘qalb´ i.e., heart. ‘Love´ is held to include all modes of spiritual union, an eminently concrete participation in the transcendent realities. Intellect, divorced from Love, is a rebel (like Satan) while intellect wedded to Love has divine attributes. But surely ‘loving´ God presupposes being conscious of God. To be conscious of Him is fix to the heart in the Real, in permanent remembering of the Divine. ‘Remembering´ or ‘dhikr´ must be understood as referring essentially to an aspiration of the contingent being towards the universal with the object of obtaining an inner illumination. Heart, in Quranic epistemology, is symbolically the seat of the true self or the repository of soul of which we may be conscious or ignorant, but which is our true existential, intellectual and hence universal centre. The heart is, as it were, immersed in the immutability of Being. Contemplativity is here stressed more than the sharpness of intelligence. In contemplation of the heart things appear in their metaphysical transparency. The role of love in knowledge is also emphasised in Christian philosophy. For example, Paul Tillich writes, ‘full knowledge does not admit a difference between itself and love, or between theory and practice´.8

Thus knowledge infused with intuition and love gives celestical and divine knowledge. Love acts as the purgative that effects the perfection of soul by purging it of all spurious matter accumulated by intellect. The practical explanation of love is also contained in Allam Iqbal´s philosophy of self. In a systematized exposition of it in the letter sent by Iqbal to Dr. Nicholson and incorporated in his Introduction to the Secrets of the Self, the English translation of Iqbal´s Asrar-i-Khudi, he says about love: the word is used in a very wide sense and means the desire to assimilate, to absorb. Its highest form is the creation of values and ideals, and the endeavour to realize them. Love individualizes the lover as well as the beloved. The reason why in Islamic epistemological framework so much emphasis is laid on love or intuition is that intuition catches the glimpses of the Ultimate Reality while intellect fails to achieve that goal on account of its inherent imperfection. Love, in short, is able to know the unknowable.9

To conclude: the various components of Islamic epistemology I have outlined are mutually supporting and interdependent. Islamic theory of knowledge updated in idiom, sweeps away the contemporary western state of confused affairs in no uncertain manner. It recomposes man´s divided self and restores his sanity because it restores the unity of knowledge and wisdom on the one hand, and of knowledge and action on the other. It infuses in us the realization that the state of our knowledge is an important characteristic of the state our being. It teaches one to be logical, rational and scientific without losing sight of the spiritual verities known through prophetic revelation, love and intuition. I have not loaded the essay with much technical detail but nevertheless tried to give a fairly intelligible account of the Quranic epistemology in the context of present philosophical scene. Quite significantly, in the post-modern Western sensitivity the search for unitary claims has been abandoned altogether. Instead there is pastiche, cultural and methodological recombination Anything can be juxtaposed to anything else. This trend in contemporary thought provides tremendous philosophical support to sapiential Islamic epistemology.


 1. Cf. his contribution to Levi Della Vida Conference Proceedings entitled ‘Islamic Studies: A Tradition and Its Problems" edited by Malcolm H. Kerr, Malibu, California, 1990.

2. This article has been published in ‘Occasional Paper Series´ by the International Institute of Islamic Thought, Islamabad (1992)

3. Rosenthal. F., knowledge triumphant, Brille, Leiden, 1970. It presents a detailed discussion of ilm and its various definitions.

4. This contention is borne out by a study of contemporary philosophical treatises of Russell, Ayer, Ryle, Hamlyne, Chisholm, Castaneda, Lehrer and many others.

5. Schon.D., The Reflective practitioner, New York, Basic Books (1983)

6. It is noteworthy here that the Quran calls its verses ‘ayat´ i.e., signs (of God). These verses are considered as signs or portents of God___as important as any other of His signs in the universe or in the heart of man. It is because the Quranic verses are parts of Kalamullah (God´s speech) and also because, like other signs of God, they, too, turn man´s mind to the Almighty.

7. I owe this very relevant and illuminating distinction to F. Schuon. Cf. his book Gnosis; The Divine Wisdom, London, pp. 78-90 and Spiritual Perspectives and Human Fact, London, 1953, p. 54

8. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations. Penguin Books, 1966, p. 115.

9. Dr. Nicholson, The Secrets of the Self (Eng. trans. Allama Iqbal´s Asrar-i-Khudi) Intro, p. 6


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