Islamic Concept of Knowledge


It is undeniable that various epistemological issues have been discussed explicitly and systematically in Islamic philosophy which is different from that of western epistemology. With my little knowledge on Islam I will compile and try to pen down the Islamic concept of knowledge- epistemology on this paper. This is my small effort to understand the basic epistemological issues in term of Islamic orientation. This could be a valuable effort that deserves one’s interest and encouragement. It can, however, be fruitful only if the practice of rigorous analysis is kept up, with close attention to the prices definitions of the various concepts involved in it. With this view, an attempt is made in this broadsheet to demarcate the different shades and implications of the term ‘ilm, i.e. knowledge, in the Islamic context. I hope that this small attempt will serve as a step for future groundwork for the construction of a framework for an Islamic theory of knowledge.

The theory of knowledge in Islamic philosophy, the term ‘knowledge’ is derived from an Arabic word ‘ilm’. Rosenthal has justifiably pointed out, that this ilm has got a much wider connotation that its synonyms in English and other Western Languages. According to Rosenthal, ‘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. Here Rosenthal belittles the nature and scope of the concept of knowledge in western thought to mere information (how) about something. But in reality knowledge is much more than information dealing that/ what not just how. What-knowledge is epistemological knowledge but not how-knowledge which is information.

Islam, more than any other religious, emphasizes the importance of knowledge. The world knowledge appears many times in Quran. Dr. Sayyid Wahid Akhtar has rightly pointed out that 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 towards ‘knowledge’ as something of supreme value for Muslim. Ilm is Islam, even if the theologians have been hesitant to accept the technical correctness of this equation. The very fact of the their passionate discussion of the concept attests to its fundamental importance for Islam

Nature of knowledge
We see clearly that Muslim philosophers are primarily concerned with human happiness and its attainment. Regardless of what they consider this happiness to be, all agree that the way to attain it is through knowledge. The theory of knowledge or epistemology, has appeared chiefly in their logical and psychological writings. Epistemology concerns itself primarily with the possibility, nature and sources of knowledge. Muslim philosophers stress on this. Their intellectual inquiries, beginning with logic an ending with metaphysics and in some cases mysticism, were in the main directed towards helping to understand what knowledge is and how it comes about.

Muslim philosophers followed in the footsteps of the Greek philosophers. They consider knowledge as to be the grasping of the immaterial forms, nature, essences or realities of things. They are agreed that the forms of things are either material or immaterial. While the latter can be known as such, the former cannot be known unless first detached from their materiality.

Once in the mind, the pure forms act as the pillars of knowledge. The mind constructs objects from these forms and with these objects it makes judgments. Thus Muslim philosophers like Aristotle divided knowledge in the human mind into conception, apprehension of an object with no judgment and assent, apprehension of an object, the latter being, according to them, a mental relation of correspondence between the concept and the object for which it stands.

Goal and means
There are two matters that a person must take into consideration when he/she wants to seek Islamic knowledge:
The Goal: Understanding Aqeedah, Fiqh and Islmaic Conduct according to the book of Allah and the Authentic Sunnah.
The means: The person must study the sciences that serve as a means to understand the goals that were previously elaborated.
Aqeedah refers to what one believes and acts upon. The scholars of Islam have said that this science pertains to the study of the six points of Imaan which are: Belief in Allah, the angels, the books, the prophets, the Day of Judgment and Divine Decree.  There are others scholars such as Shaikh Aman Al Jaami, who divided this study into three categories: knowledge of Allah, Knowledge of the Massagers and Belief in unseen matters.

The theory of Knowledge
The central concern of philosophy is with questions connected with knowledge, the answers to which are called the ‘theory of knowledge or epistemology’. The theory of knowledge is a product of doubts or skepticism, which is well accepted by all philosophers begun by sophists, who experienced chaos created by different earlier Greek schools of thoughts- on cosmological issues and knowledge, may be: What is the definition of knowledge? Is knowledge possible? Is there some knowledge which proceeds birth or, is a baby born like a blank slate? How do we know? How do we know what we know? These kinds of questions will go on and on.

When we have asked ourselves seriously whether we really know anything at all, we are naturally led into an examination of knowing, in the hope of being able to distinguish trustworthy belief from untrustworthy.  Descartes doubted everything even his own doubt, and concluded ‘I think therefore I am’. Thus Kant, the founder of modern theory of knowledge, represents a natural reaction against Hume’s skepticism. It is perhaps unwise to being with a definition of the subject, since, definitions are controversial, and will necessarily differ for different schools but I will least say that the subject is concerned with the general conditions of knowledge in Islam, in so far as they light upon truth and falsehood.

What is knowledge?
Knowledge generally refers to understanding any issue, specific or general, in the manner by which it supposed to be understood. Islamic knowledge therefore refers to having the correct understanding of issues which the Quran and the Sunnah have dealt with. The scholars have divided Islamic knowledge in three broad categories: Aqeeda or worship, Fiqh or Jurisprudence and Suluuk or behavior.

The first problem encountered in epistemology is that of defining knowledge. Philosophers use the tripartite theory of knowledge, which analyses knowledge as justified true belief, as a working model much of the time. The tripartite theory has, however, been refuted; Gettier cases show that some justified true beliefs do not constitute knowledge. Rival analyses of knowledge have been proposed, but there is as yet no consensus on what knowledge is. This fundamental question of epistemology remains unsolved. Though philosophers are unable to provide a generally accepted analysis of knowledge, we all understand roughly what we are talking about when we use words such as “knowledge”. Thankfully, this means that it is possible to get on with epistemology, leaving unsolved the fundamental question as to what knowledge is.

The concept of knowledge and the theory of knowledge appears from certain our’anic verses that the Islam supports the view that knowledge is a statement or a conceptualization that corresponds with reality. It was once believed by some Arabs that an intelligent man had two hearts. ‘one might, if he got angry at his wife, tell her, ‘you are like my mother.’

He would then consider him as such and would not treat her the way one treats one’s wife. Another of them would adopt someone else’s son or daughter and attribute the child to himself as if he were the biological father, just as people do now in the west. Allah declared these claim to be nothing more than words in contradiction to reality. The exalted claims: “Allah has not assigned unto any man two hearts within his body, nor has he made your wives whom you declare (to be your mother) your mothers, nor has He made those whom you claim (to be sons) your sons: this is but a saying of your mouths. But Allah says the truth and He shows the way.”

Is knowledge possible?
The skepticism has begun in the early Greek philosophers. If we are too skeptic and take this question literally, we find it contradictory, because when a person asks about the possibility of knowledge it presupposes that he knows what knowledge is, and if he knows what knowledge is, then he knows something. However, the [point of the question is: how can know whether that which we believe to be real actually corresponds with reality and is not merely imagination or delusion?  The Noble Quran indicates that knowledge is one of the blessings of Allah which requires gratitude. Allah the exalted said, “Allah brings you forth from wombs of your mothers knowing nothing, and gives you hearing and sight and hearts that you might give thanks.”

They believe that Hadith indicates that although human being is born knowing nothing, he is not born with an empty mind; rather, in his mind is the seeds of knowledge which will grow as he grows and reach completion with his maturity. However, this knowledge which is originally planted in each human being may be overridden by external factors, even if they don’t have the power to completely extinguish it.

What is this knowledge whose seeds are implanted in the Fitarh of a human being? The Hadith treats Fitrah as being something different from Judaism, Christianity or Zoroastrianism, which means that Fitah is Islam. Obviously the meaning is not that a person after the development of his mind finds himself knowledgeable about the details of the Islamci religion. Rather, two things are meant, first each person is born with seed of Tawhid in his mind, that is, the affirmation that no God deserves worship except the sole Creator.

Second, this person is born with a nature which is not suited to belief and conduct other than the realities and laws brought by Islam. For that reason Allah described the religion which He revealed to his messengers as bring the pristine nature on which Allah created this servants. Allah the exalted said: “so set your face the religion as open by nature upright- the pristine nature (framed) by Allah on which He has created man. There is no altering (laws of) Allah’s creation. That is the right religion, but most people do not know.”

When a person’s mind and disposition are designed so that nothing but the realities and laws of Islam suit them, he will feel no contentment or spiritual peace unless he has surrendered himself to be a worshiper of Allah. “Those who believe and whose hearts feel content with the remembrance of Allah. Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.”  

Philosophical and Prophetic Knowledge
The prophetic way is a much easier and simple path. One needs not take any action to receive the divinely given universal; the only requirement seems to be the possession of a strong soul capable of receiving them. While the philosophical way moves from the imagination upward to the theoretical intellect, the prophetic way takes the reverse path, from the theoretical intellect to the imagination. For this reason, knowledge of philosophy is knowledge of the nature of things themselves, while knowledge of prophetic is knowledge of the nature of things wrapped up in symbols, the shadows of the imagination.

Philosophical and prophetic truth is the same, but it is attained and expressed differently. Ibn is the best illustration of the harmony of philosophy and religion the so-called double truth theory wrongly views these two paths to knowledge as two of truth, thus attributing to Ibn, a view foreign to Islamic philosophy. One of the most important contributions of Islamic philosophy is the attempt to reconcile Greek philosophy and Islam by accepting the philosophical and prophetic paths as leading to same truth.

Muslim philosophers agree that knowledge in the theoretical intellect passes through stages. It moves from potentiality to actuality and from actuality to reflection on actuality, thus giving the theoretical intellect the respective names of potential intellect, actual intellect and acquired intellect. Some Muslim philosophers explain that the last is called acquired because its knowledge comes to it from the outside, and so it can be said to acquire it. The acquired intellect is the highest human achievement the theoretical and agent intellects.

The growth of Islam has tremendous impact on almost every field of life, not only knowledge. Muslim philosophers agree that knowledge in the theoretical intellect passes through stages. Its moves from potentiality to actuality, from actuality to reflection on actuality, thus giving the theoretical intellect the respective names of potential intellect, actual intellect acquire intellect. Some philosophers explain that the last called ‘acquired’ because its knowledge comes to it from outside, and so it can said to acquire it. The acquired intellect is the highest human achievement, a holy state that conjoins the human and the divine realm by conjoining the theoretical and agent intellects. For them, happiness is achieved by this intellect’s grasping of the eternal object, for such grasping perfect soul. Muslim philosophers who believe that eternity is attained only through knowledge also agree with Ibn Sina that knowledge is perfect and perfect is happiness.

Is knowledge is perfect as they believe? Is knowledge not growing or dynamic? Can we take the knowledge of Quran as perfect knowledge? How do we know that we know perfect knowledge as Muslim claim? Is perfect a reality? If so then it’s perfect, but if not, their perfect is relative; it cannot be perfect and true. Many of these basic skeptical questions they do not have dealt into like that of the western and epistemology. They deal more on belief but not much on justification and truth. It is because they take Quran is perfect, taking it word by word with without much reflection, justifying and analyzing with the growing of scientific knowledge. 


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14.  Islamic Science by Ziauddin Sadar, 2002.
15.Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement- by Pervez Hoodbhoy.

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