Epistemology is a subject which has dominated many philosophers’ debates. It is in such endeavors that the issue of Islamic epistemology comes into play and its existence thus questioned and confirmed. Indeed, there is a distinct difference between Islamic epistemology and western epistemology (Akhtar, 2010). While westerners have perceived knowledge to include both divine and human information Islam has seen knowledge to be more than that. Otherwise referred to as ‘ilm’, knowledge in Islam is of a theoretical nature, highly active and it involves various concepts of education. Knowledge has been a significant and critical element as a determinant of the Muslim civilization and all it encompasses. Islamic traditions have continued to insist on all Muslims’ acquisition of knowledge and the use of that knowledge in their daily operations. As a consequence of this, it is evident that all levels of Muslim life are influenced by the implications of the concept of knowledge. In addition, a comparison with other religions and ideologies places Islam at the highest level of insistence on the fundamental importance of knowledge. It is in this light that this paper seeks to understand the epistemology and concept of knowledge in Islam.
In a bid to expound on the concepts of knowledge the paper will consider the Islamic meaning, theory, nature and sources of knowledge. Knowledge within the Islamic constraints has also had an influence on many facets of philosophy. Therefore, the issues of logical intellect and philosophy of knowledge will be discussed. Drawing from Islamic philosophers, the hadith and the Qur’an knowledge has become a remarkable force in the lives of Muslims. However, there are Islamic philosophers who differ with the common understanding of Islamic Knowledge. These philosophers provide a basis of what the Islamic concept of knowledge does not encompass. The meaning of knowledge in Islam distances itself from most peoples’ conception of knowledge. Most individuals think of knowledge as those ideas, cultures, information, beliefs, values and facts they have gained from their ancestry. Moreover, these conceptions extend to the teachings and other ideals they have come across in their lives. Regardless of the fact that all these items may constitute knowledge it is crucial to focus on the true entity of knowledge. Islamic epistemology details that Muslims have to derive their own meanings of knowledge as per their own ideals and beliefs.
In Islam, Allah is known as the first teacher who imparts knowledge to all Muslims. This gives the Qur’an precedence in dictating teachings and ways of life to the Muslims. Looking at knowledge from this perspective establishes ‘ilm’ to be of three types (Akhtar, 2010). For one, knowledge is seen as undeniable signs of God. Secondly, there are the traditions which were set by past prophets. Lastly, knowledge entails mere obligations. These conceptions create an overall view of Islamic knowledge implying that it constitutes of many fields like law, theology, ethics, science and politics among others. The Qur’an has gone to great lengths in defining knowledge and in creating an analysis of what it encompasses. Knowledge is thus seen as truth dictated by Allah himself. His nature expels knowledge to all of his creation and as a consequence, mankind acquires it through revelations, experiences and reasoning. Allah has always been exalted in Islam which has in turn authenticated the concept of knowledge as truth. While as human beings Muslims may know and relate to fellow human beings they cannot do so with Allah. This differentiation in nature becomes a vital component in the definition of knowledge.
Human happiness is an aspect which carries great weight and importance amongst Muslim philosophers. In their concerns for its attainment they perceive knowledge as the only way to doing so. In essence, Knowledge bore crucial importance in the study of epistemology. The nature of knowledge in Islam has seen philosophers conceptualize it as the seizing of non objects, their nature and reality of things (Inati, 1998). These things may be considered as either materialistic or not. While one may automatically acknowledge the existence of such material things, it is difficult to do the same for the immaterial. The pure forms which emanate from individuals distancing themselves from material things are what act as the stronghold of knowledge. As a result, objects ensue from the forms in the mind which are then used as tools of judgment. Judgment on the other hand is a construct of conception but it cannot be considered as either a fact or falsity. Islamic philosophy thus entails the known and unknown conceptions. In order to maximize one’s knowledge there has to be an increment of the known objects and a decline of the unknown objects. This further brings to light other forms of knowledge envisioned by Muslim philosophers. Information is regarded as part of the known in contrast with ignorance which is rather the unknown. Other types of knowledge are the natural laws and knowledge acquired through guesswork. These forms of knowledge are obligatory with respect to various componential levels. Information and natural laws are quite crucial while knowledge by conjecture may not be a necessity in all respects of Islamic epistemology.
The above view depicts that knowledge is a reflection of the uniqueness, simplistic and universal nature of the human mind. Islamic philosophers draw their theories of knowledge from these ideas. As asserted in Yazdi, 1992, p. 13) Avicenna argued that even when intellect is a separate entity it still allows all types of human knowledge to gradually transcend from potentiality to actuality. Furthermore, the reduction of the unknown introduces a theory which stresses that ignorance is ridden off when individuals are willing to assent to the levels of the known forms. As such it is evident that only though explanations and proof of these explanations can knowledge be acquired. It is not easy to authenticate the validity of this claim as it can either be false of true. However through logic, determining this validity can become plausible. Logic is a critical element of knowledge whose entity cannot be subject to anyone’s scrutiny or change other than God’s. Allocating logic such a role elevates it to a form of power in which logic functions as a disclosure of the true nature of things. Following this, logic unravels human knowledge which is basically what humankind needs to be happy. In spite of this, rational thinking is not a reliable source of knowledge. Human intellect has its limitations and thus requires other sources of knowledge in order to authenticate what is acquired through rationalism. This is where revelation comes into play otherwise the overreliance on rational thinking may permit the introduction of misconceptions into Islamic philosophy. Any knowledge which is acquired by other means and contradicts the Qur’an is considered unacceptable.
Another limited source of knowledge is the use of experience. With the provided senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing, individuals are able to fathom many experiences during their day to day life. In addition, the individual is able to shield their object of knowledge from any external influences regardless of them being their values, beliefs and attitudes. They do so by subjecting themselves to rigorous control of their minds and dictating the occurrence of natural laws. This concept of knowledge has been refuted on the grounds of being highly impossible especially when relating to objects of human behavior. This form of objectivity is nullified in the sense that human behaviors cannot be separated from the values, beliefs and attitudes of the individual carrying them out. Due to this, any sort of acquired information is just as distinct as the number of individuals who have acquired it and this makes it difficult to account for its validity. Islamic philosophy thus embraces the universality and also the distinctness in which knowledge is. Gaining knowledge of the world does not mean the possession of mere facts about it but it implies the perception of the world in specific ways which are unique and derived from unique points of view. These views are not subject to the mind only but also to both historical and social contexts. Empiricism even though construed from individuals’ actions and thoughts cannot be trusted and just like rationalism it needs another source of knowledge to confirm and authenticate it.
Apart from rationalism and experience as sources of knowledge, Islamic epistemology also perceives revelation as a crucial source of knowledge. Shehu (2002) claims that revelation is often dismissed as a source of knowledge. Modern philosophers believe knowledge to emanate from intellect and human senses. Labeled as a mere mythical conception revelation has in the past instigated conflicts between some religious factions and scientists. Despite such rows, revelation still remains a significant source of knowledge in Islam. Muslims believe in revelation and consider it a crucial aspect of their faith. This explains there extensive reliance on the holy Qur’an and the Sunnah as the main sources of Islamic knowledge. As Muslims delve into the many ventures which bring them into contact with all kinds of knowledge they are influenced by this belief. Revelation takes many forms including direct communication with Allah, inspirations and the use of intermediaries as carriers of messages. Such intermediaries may be prophets who are stated in the Qur’an to have received information in the form of dreams. This mode is however inexistent since the times of Prophet Muhammad. His death marked the end of revelation through prophets. The form of knowledge acquired through revelation is considered to be highly divine and superior to all other sources of knowledge.
The prophetic mode of revelation often constituted an intense norm of interaction with Allah. However in comparison to Islamic concept of knowledge prophetic knowledge is perceived to be acquired in simplistic manner. Prophetic knowledge is impervious to the performance of any actions and the only form of mandatory requirement is the possession of an irrefutable soul which can receive and hold this knowledge. Also, prophetic knowledge initially construes theoretical intellect and then moves on to the realm of imaginations at the final stages of acquisition. On the other hand, philosophical knowledge starts off with conceptualized imagination and subjectivity of the mind to various views and then it moves to highly theoretical intellect. It is therefore true to conclude that philosophical knowledge details the true entity of nature without the influence of any imagined symbols. Both philosophical and prophetic knowledge hold surmountable truth but only differ in forms of acquisition. This is what has often been used by Islamic philosophers to reconcile Greek philosophy with Islamic knowledge. This was nonetheless impossible as further analysis of the Greek philosophy and its interaction with the views depicted in the Qur’an indicated different beliefs and doctrines. Regardless of the influence of Greek philosophy in Islam, it sought to obscure the Islamic perception and vision of the embodiment of the holy Qur’an. Theoretical intellect is also further seen to undergo the stages of potentiality, actuality and acquisition. In view of theoretical intellect being an object of nature, it becomes necessary for it to grasp the essential universal objects as only then can it be permanently acquired (Goodman, 1972). Without the interaction with eternal objects, theoretical intellect disintegrates and ceases to exist.
The shift of human intellect to actuality is seen as the cause of human thought. Davidson (1992, p.315) illustrates Averroes conception of the actuality of theoretical intellect. This nature of intellect is known to be significantly spiritual surpassing the human soul. As material elements of thought are elevated to actuality there is need for an agent. In order to eventually end up with distinct actual thought, the agent has to be themselves in possession of intelligible thought. In this sense, the active intellect bears effect to images in both the soul and the material intellect. Active intellect thus illuminates material intellect and gains precedence in Islamic philosophy (McCarthy, 1964). Epistemology in Islam also views knowledge as light. It is not only synonymous to what is perceived to be Allah’s light but also to the sort of light that those who seek knowledge struggle to attain. Ignorance or the lack of knowledge is seen as a form of darkness which is made possible by the presence of doubt found in the human mind. Apart from the Qur’an, Islamic traditions have always conceived that light is only attainable to those who seek to shift from the unknown to the known. Prophet Mohammad often found himself referring to light and its essentiality in the achievement of Islamic knowledge. Knowledge in Islam is not differentiated from wisdom but it is rather referred to as one entity. This implies that it is a knowledge which encompasses both the knowledge of an individual self and that of the world. Following past reflections on the ideals of light, Islam became pressured to impart a symbolic reference to light. This saw the utilization of the pen, Qur’an and the Islamic writings as metaphors depicting this light.
Gnosis in Islamic philosophy is said to the ultimate form of knowledge. As such it trails its existence and permanent authority from the essence of light. The Qur’an teaches that light is the optimum guide for human kind and it is only derived from Allah. True Islamic insight is thus provided for by the knowledge, guidance and the Qur’an all which encompass the Islamic faith. Rosenthal (1970, p.158) asserts that light holds great significance in the Qur’an and as God is reflected to be the provider of knowledge, the process requires the factor of light. If not so, even the Qur’an would not have remained an important component of Islamic knowledge. This recognition of light in conjunction with both knowledge and wisdom was a concept accepted and adopted by Islam since the ancient times. This theoretical framework of knowledge emanated from Sufism which often emphasized on the interaction of both light and knowledge as the foundation of Islamic mysticism. Other Islamic scholars have either taken a similar approach to this aspect or differed completely. Though in critical awe of the views developed by Sufism Al-Ghazzali came up with a systematic approach to their views. His semantic depiction of light entailed its application to Allah as the ultimate source of all forms of light, the universe as the reactionary result of light which emanates from Allah. Therefore despite the notion that light was optimally synonymous to Allah it also referred to the initial source of light where all other objects derive their light from. As per Al-Ghazzali, epistemology may correspond to the theory of human existence. This claim brings to mind the question of what are the ontological characteristics of the human intelligible universe.
A critical look at these ontological features exhibits the argument developed by Mulla Sadra where his view as a realist derived a unique description of knowledge in Islamic philosophy. Sadra describes knowledge on the basis of various features of ontology: the primacy and the stages of being. A study of this ontology unveils a new and unique perspective of the Islamic intellectual traditions. Being according to Sadra is an entity which is devoid of definitions or descriptions. However, their concrete existence can only be detected through empiricism where senses are used as tools of observation. Moreover, what remains unknown to individuals can only become known when they are able to relate it to other known concepts. As human beings this procedure is rather subconsciously followed but it does not surpass the intuitiveness which springs up the familiarity of our being (Otto, 1960, p. 34). This concept clearly distinguishes those things which are known to individuals and those which they are able to demonstrate. Izutsu and Mohaghegh (1977, p. 32) indicate that the concept of being is widely known but its depth and reality still remains elusive. Actually the only way of accessing this reality is through illuminative presence. Illuminative presence emphasizes the functions of particularity and spiritual illumination. Human experiences have always been of a particular nature encompassed with unique characteristics. As such it is assumed that all abstractions are meant to distort the uniqueness of all beings. For the conceptualization of knowledge and wisdom it is crucial to establish a link between the awareness of being and spiritual enlightenment. After formulating the distinction between being and reality a far more familiar distinction to the Islamic philosophy can be carried out. This distinction involves being and essence. These two differ in that with being there is a feasible description while essence has no external existence but only within the mind.
Islamic Epistemology has thus identified knowledge as a mode of being. In an attempt to do so, there is established a need for the presence of knowledge and an ignorant being. Furthermore the fact that knowledge eludes most definitions and that these attempts always culminate to a use of its own conceptions is a similarity shared in the attempt to define being. As such this parallelism between being and knowledge becomes the initial step towards forming a concrete understanding of knowledge as a form of being (Butterworth, 1992, p. 17). In addition, the definition of knowledge as a mode of being is derived from the explanation that any acknowledgement of the existence of a particular thing which is basically a being amounts to acquiring knowledge. Therefore being becomes the basis to which all knowledge and its forms are formulated. The concept of knowing further details the action of grasping and appropriating the intelligible form of the thing you claim to know. From the intelligible world, the intelligible forms are derived and as they unite with human intellect then knowledge is conceived. The intelligible world is considered in Islamic philosophy as the place where forms and reality of all things reside. Hierarchically, this world supersedes the normal world and it thus reflects its ideas and knowledge unto human beings who then acquire knowledge as a consequence. Individual senses are only responsible for the experiencing of various forms but their meanings are only known to us through the intellect and by its interaction in the world of intelligibleness (Kenney, 1991, p.4).
A central theme to the concept of Islamic philosophy which encompasses intellectual unity has been known to bring together the subject and object of knowledge. It is from this perspective that knowledge has been understood as representational. In essence knowledge is seen to reflect the relationship between the subject and object of knowledge. The established relationship is a cardinal aspect in the epistemology of Islamic philosophy. This further authenticates Mulla Sadra’s conceptualization of knowledge (Kalin, 2009). In addition to Sudra’s emphasis of the unity of the intellectual being and the intellect object, there are other philosophers who have understood knowledge on the single concept of representation. Representation dominates their arguments as the sole significant type of knowledge. This theory of knowledge underpins the epistemological evaluations of ancient philosophy. Knowledge is observed to be the true depiction of the external world within an individual’s mind. More so, there exists a link between the mental objects and their images. Therefore, from the external world individuals are able to gather various impressions which are then replicated within the mind. The truth of the acquired knowledge can only be validated through this link where inconsistencies in the mirroring of the external world and mental images account for falsehoods. This theory has a rather debatable assumption which entails the prior existence of the external objects in their interaction with the subject.
Enlightenment is a distinct concept in Islamic epistemology. This concept is based on the systems of belief and science. Originating from the Qur’an, this concept details the unity of the mind’s enlightenment with that of the heart. This is done through true belief in both Allah and science. The mind is regarded as irrelevant if it is not guided by the light in its conceptualization of both behaviors and thoughts. Reason in Islam is the unmediated source of knowledge. It comprises of all the logical and rational entities of the human mind. Thus it is meant to be a prerequisite of knowledge. Altwaijri (2010) emphasizes that reason has always been given a high stature in Islam. This has enabled human intellect function effectively in both cultural and scientific fields. As a consequence those barriers and notions put in place in order to jeopardize the freedom of an individual’s mind and thus prevent their grasp of knowledge have been eliminated. Islam unlike other forms of epistemology has not been known to impart restrictions for reason. As Muslims interact with Allah they do so without the use of intermediaries but by the guidance of reason. Their quest for knowledge only brings them happiness which is the optimal level of Islamic enlightenment.
Islamic epistemology also constitutes the endeavor to address the place of God’s knowledge within human knowledge and also discovering the role played by those in possession of knowledge. Allah has constantly been attributed with exemplary abilities and characteristic far from the features of power and life bestowed on him (Leaman & Nasr, 2003, p. 824). In addition, traditional Islamic philosophy claimed the attainability of knowledge to be subject to the access of divinity or access to the essence of the universe. These features conceptualize God as having distinct knowledge and also being true knowledge. Thus it is logical to fathom that when human beings attain knowledge they possess a trait attributed to God and that God can become eminent knowledge to human beings. These conceptions have over the years developed numerous philosophical debates entailing the place of God’s knowledge in human knowledge. Some philosophers claim that regardless of the nature of God’s knowledge whether philosophical or mystical it is possible and that human beings can unite with God through many forms including that of knowledge. Those who do not favor this claim argue that human beings due to their limited intellect and existentialism are meant to find ways of intensifying their capabilities. As such they land in the realm of faith where God instills in them the knowledge needed to fully understand the universe. Another view puts the Qur’an at a pedestal where it gains importance in the revelations of God’s knowledge which is rather vital to the acquisition of true knowledge. Epistemology also assigns roles to those in possession of knowledge. However, these roles are quite distinct and are not governed by any specific guidelines. As such, intellectuals may choose to join politics, religion, law or other sectors. At times where there are disputes on the individual who bares true knowledge it becomes easier to establish this by taking up a leadership role in politics where debates and arguments dominate the essence of knowledge.
Islamic philosophy in its search for those who are entitled to possess knowledge and to venture in search of more knowledge identifies the epistemology of Kalam. However this theory is encountered with the problems of diverse saturated views and the lack of a distinct account of the theory. Regardless of this a critical scrutiny of Kalam provides a significant view of Islamic Knowledge. Kalam exhibits itself as the rational investigation of truth which occurs within theological concepts (Corbin, p. 105). Kalam is far from the gnosis and science earlier conceptualized by the Shiites. Thus the Sunni Kalam was formed under different doctrines. These doctrines are initialized by the presence of a form of divine unity. Here, they emulate the foundation of Islamic dogma which identifies Allah as the ultimate spirit where all is grounded. In their characterization of God, the Sunni regarded him as invisible, unique, timeless, unconditioned and omniscient. While they construed him as a thing they were rush to point out his distinctiveness from other things. Divine justice in Sunni doctrines entails that human beings are responsible for their liberty and freedom. This clearly gave them the role of deriving and formulating knowledge so as to take responsibility of their lives. This concept is not of direct origin from the Sunni but rather a reflection of the Qur’an. Furthermore, Allah’s promise for great rewards to those who seek his presence and the punishment of those who defy his will play a vital role in constraining the freedom of Muslims. This idea of justice in Sunni Kalam also prompts the hunger and desire for knowledge. As a result, the teachings obtained from the Qur’an guide human beings into intellectual elevation of their heightened abilities. This knowledge of justice, freedom and liberty also formulates a moral imperative amongst Muslims who are required to cultivate and practice moral social behaviors.
Conjecture is not allowed in Islamic philosophy but only when it leads to the authentication of knowledge or in providing certainty. In fact Islam’s intolerance of skepticism derives an epistemology which ascertains the truth of knowledge as its certainty, its visual component and its intellectual unity of both the subject and object. Even though there is no room for doubt in Islamic philosophy there are some philosophers who have used the element of doubt in formulating new perspectives of intellectual activity. Al- Ghazzali has had significant influence on the concept of doubt in Islamic philosophy. His theory of knowledge detailed the place for methodological doubt and epistemology in Islam. In order to acquire the ultimate truth of facts and knowledge it is crucial to analyze the various sources of knowledge. This view voiced by Al Ghazzali is emphasized in Al-Allaf (p.187). These sources and levels of knowledge should match with reality and the many levels which it constitutes. In his argument, Al- Ghazzali identified ‘Fitra’ as the state possessed by all human beings from birth and which allows them to immediately recognize their presence of an imminent creator in the world. This state not only accounts for this recognition but also for the determination of the unity between mankind and the creator. Moreover, this state can be enhanced by the use of empirical abilities and reasoning but at times it can be impeded by the presence of doctrines of disbelief and a lack of faith.
In explicating the sources of knowledge Al-Ghazzali claims that it is only through perception that man is able to understand the world. Each form of perception has been distinctly created in order to allow man to understand as many worlds of existence as possible. This accounts for the numerous things which man must either claim to know or endeavor to do so. This philosopher showcased the growth of man as being gradual and which was initiated by the senses. From touching, man becomes aware of the world and its texture and other forms of existences but this sense can only do as much. At this point man needs to us his sight in order to configure that which remains obscure after the use of the sense of touch. After these stages, man is elevated to levels which require the use of the hearing, taste and senses of smell. The intellect is a stage which surpasses the empirical senses. Instead it allows man to conceptualize what cannot be understood through these senses. Without intellect an individual is rendered powerless and unable to discern that which is of intellectual capacity. As such, they are bound to dismiss any perceptions as impossible. At the epitome of all this is the development of mere ignorance. This is also attributed to a lack of reason as this kind of man will claim the existence of such possibilities and then go ahead to live without acknowledging the same.
Prophetic knowledge is only gained through experience and successful encounters with those acclaimed as prophets. Doubt in Islamic philosophy arises when on cannot validate the true nature of such prophets. However, in order to do so it is imperative that one follows the path taken by the said prophets. Only though this acquaintance it becomes possible to delegate truth to various forms of knowledge. In fact the same applies to the increment of knowledge within the Islamic religion. Those who whole comprehend prophecy and what it entails and also dedicate their time to the understanding of the Qur’an are able to obtain ultimate knowledge of the prophet’s perceptions. Prophets are meant to be healers of human hearts and in imparting reason into man (Al-Allaf, 2003, p. 199). In his conceptualization of reality, Al- Ghazzali differs quite distinctively with other philosophical levels of reality. The epistemological sources of knowledge include revelation, prophecy and the heart which encompass the religious reality of Islam. However the metaphysical and mathematical realities of Islam construe knowledge in terms of the logical reasoning of the human intellect and the abstract and demonstrative forms of human intellect. Physical reality on the other hand has its grasp on the experiences obtained through the interaction of the human senses and intellectual activities. What culminates this concept is the ‘Fitra’ earlier mentioned which involves the commencement of intuitive knowledge.
In Bakar (2007) Al-Ghazzali is said to have generated doubt within the Islamic philosophy as a result of his quest for certainty. This certainty basically illustrates the knowledge of reality as a valid truth in which knowledge can be manifested without the slightest element of doubt. Furthermore, this reality must be devoid of errors or even the possibility that the mind may misconstrue its real depiction. In observance of how most Muslims are driven to blindly cling to their beliefs, doubt plays a significant role in establishing the reality of such beliefs. This also led to their disregard for religious beliefs but only to the extent that they are misleading to Islam. In fact beliefs are said to possess a positive role when they are used in the acknowledgement of truth according to authority. Therefore if belief systems possess individuals who have acquired true knowledge and have legitimate authority then they are mandated to clarify the truth on religious knowledge. Al-Ghazzali (1980, p. 11) claims that faith is the true form of knowledge which is derived from hearsay and other people’s experiences. Prophetic knowledge falls under this category and becomes the most reliable form of religious knowledge. Beliefs do not contain intense forms of intellect and the fact that it is an avenue of both truth and error makes it an even more unreliable source of knowledge.
In traditional Islamic epistemology there has been fundamental significance placed on the relationship between knowledge and science. Dahlen (2003, p.55) explains that epistemology has ventured into understanding the nature of knowledge and the sources and limits of cognition in formulating knowledge. While the Qur’an has been shown to play a big role in comprehending these aspects of knowledge, science has not been that far removed from the debate. In fact science is just another component of knowledge. It deals with the materialistic world and has natural objects and phenomena which is observed and measured through the perception of the human senses. Scientific knowledge is thus comprised of the critical elements of observation and reflection. Observation only exercises the