Muhammad Hussain Zadeh is a renowned scholar of epistemology (and other subjects) in the city of Qom, Iran. He has written numerous works in the field of epistemology in general, and specifically in Islamic epistemology. In these upcoming posts, I intend to summarize my readings from a series authored by him titled Religious Epistemology, comprised of a series of three books. The first of these books is titled: Ma’rifat-e Lazim wa Kafi dar Deen (Required and Sufficient Knowledge in Religion).
In his preface, he states that one of the most basic questions that need to be answered with regards to religious knowledge, is that what degree of knowledge is required by the religion and that which suffices for an individual. The first book is divided into two parts, where the author tackles the question from an external perspective, and then an internal perspective. In the first part, three main questions will be addressed: 1) In Islamic theology, ethics, jurisprudence or any other subject, what level of knowledge can actually be attained in them? By “level” or “degree” of knowledge the author is referring to degrees of knowledge such as True Certainty (yaqin bil ma’na al-akhass), Customary Certainty (yaqin bil ma’na al-a’amm), Speculative Knowledge (dhann) etc. 2) In the event that a certain level of knowledge is attainable, is it also then necessary to attain that level? 3) In the event that a certain degree of knowledge is sufficient, what is the standard for measuring its truthfulness?
In the second part of the book, the author will address the aforementioned questions in light of the Qur’an and Hadith.
Chapter One: Concepts and Generalities
The author reiterates, that in religious epistemology, one of the most important questions revolves around determining the necessary degree of knowledge required with regards to any given proposition. Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to become familiar with the different terms and their definitions and also their implications in the forthcoming discussions.
The first term that needs to be defined is religion (dîn). Religion has been translated in many different ways, however in this series of discussions, the author defines it as that which the Prophets were endowed with by God, and He made them or their successors responsible to reveal and explain to the people. Based on this definition, there are four main areas that religious propositions consist of: 1) Theology, 2) Ethics, 3) Jurisprudence, and 4) Propositions related to history, nature, geography etc. Also in this book, the author is taking for granted that it is Islam which is the true religion and that which fits the definition given above.
The second term that needs to be defined is knowledge (ma’rifat). The author defines it as mere awareness, and thus takes into consideration a) knowledge without a medium (knowledge by presence or al-‘ilm al-ḥuḍûrî) and b) knowledge through a medium (acquired knowledge or al-‘ilm al-ḥusûlî). The entity towards which this degree of knowledge is being measured against is propositional (and thus pertinent to acquired knowledge), which thus the degrees of knowledge are being divided into: 1) True Certainty (yaqin bil ma’na al-akhass), 2) True – diminishable – Certainty (yaqin bil ma’na al-khass), 3) Customary Certainty (yaqin bil ma’na al-a’amm) and 4) Speculative Knowledge (dhann)
1) True Certainty: Also known as Logical Certainty, is defined as knowledge that is definite, true, and non-diminishable. The fact that it is non-decadent points towards the fact that imitative knowledge (taqlid) is not part of it. This type of knowledge is either axiomatic (self-evident: badihi) or speculative (requires proof: nadhari).
2) True – Diminishable – Certainty: This type of knowledge is also definite and true, however what differentiates it from True Certainty is it being diminishable. Due to it being diminishable and not constantly fixed, imitative knowledge can also fall under its definition, as long as it is definite and true.
3) Customary Certainty: This is the kind of certainty which people are generally familiar with and what they refer to as certainty on a daily basis. At this stage, a person has knowledge towards a proposition, and develops an internal sense of certainty towards it. Thus, only the relationship between the proposition and the state of an individual is taken into consideration, not the relationship of the proposition with reality as it is. Since this type of certainty does not take into consideration the relationship of the proposition with the reality, an individual can develop compound ignorance towards it as well if the proposition is not in accordance with reality. This level of certainty always has the mere rational possibility of being incorrect, however humans live their lives based on it, as the probability of it being incorrect is given an extremely low percentage by them (to the extent where one becomes heedless of it).
4) Speculative Knowledge: This degree of knowledge is defined as probably true when it is in accordance with reality. It is divided into Assuring (itminan) and Non-Assuring. Assuring knowledge is that which results in satisfaction, and is close to Customary Certainty. However, the probability of it being incorrect always exists, even if people may generally become heedless of it.
Ways of Attaining Knowledge
Based on induction, the author goes through a brief explanation of nine ways knowledge can be attained. They are as follow: 1) Senses, 2) Intellect, 3) Revelation (Wahi), 4) Inspiration (Ilham), 5) Mystical Apprehension (Shuhud), 6) Religious Experience, 7) Memory, 8) Testimony, 9) Reference to Authority.
While our senses may have a large role to play in attaining knowledge, it is clearly expressed by the author that the most important way of attaining knowledge is through the intellect. Many of the general principles in ethics, jurisprudence and theology are recognized by the intellect.
Mystical apprehensions are limited to knowledge by presence, and there is no chance of them being incorrect since this knowledge is attained without a medium. However, explaining those apprehension requires one to present them in propositions and since there is a medium involved there, mistakes can find their way into them.
Reference to authority refers to the concept of referring to an expert in a specific field. For the purpose of this discussion, those who are authority in religious knowledge are the infallible Prophets and their successors. Due to the gap of time that exists between us and the infallibles, we refer to the traditions and narrations that have been transmitted down to us. These traditions need to be verified (through their chains of transmission and through their content) for authenticity, in order for us to rely on them.
Is Religious Knowledge A Priori or A Posteriori?
What the author means by a priori in this section, is that the truthfulness or the falsehood of a religious proposition can be determined solely by using the intellect and without having to refer to one’s senses or any other source. Since these propositions are derived by the intellect alone, and are in no need of any other source, they do not have any exceptions. If an exception is found to the rule, they lose all of their reliability (i.e. they must either be true in all cases, or must be false in all cases).
A religious a posteriori proposition is one whose truthfulness or falsehood can be determined through one’s senses or other ways, besides the intellect. Thus, the author now attempts to address whether Islamic theological, jurisprudential and ethical propositions are a priori or a posteriori.
Theological Propositions: The author states that the most fundamental principles of Islamic theology, such as God Exists, God is One, God is All-Knowing and All-Powerful etc. are a priori and can be deemed truthful by the intellect. That being the case, one therefore has the possibility of reaching True Certainty in them. However, there are numerous other theological propositions that are a posteriori, such as, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, He is the Last Prophet etc.
He asks whether, it is possible to reach True Certainty in theological propositions that are a posteriori. He says that we must divide a posteriori into axiomatic (baidhi) and speculative (nadhari). If an a posteriori proposition is speculative (i.e. requires evidence), and if its premises can be reverted back towards the basis and fundamental premises, one can judge their validity. For example, a priori propositions can be reverted back to first-principles (awwaliyaat) and intuitive cognition (wijdaniyaat) in order to determine their truth or falsehood.
However, what are these fundamental premises when it comes to theological a posteriori propositions? The author suggests that these would be the senses, reports that are Mutawatir which lead to certainty, and Hadsiyat.
Ethical Propositions: These propositions are related to man’s actions that are based on his free-will. The author suggests that the most basic statements in ethics, such as Justice is Good, Oppression is Bad, etc. are a priori and one’s intellect can understand these. Furthermore, even if Allah [swt] comes and reiterates these in the Qur’an or in the narrations, it is not to establish them as rules, rather it is merely for emphasis. The predicates in ethical propositions are generally good, bad, must, must not, appropriate, not appropriate, etc. If these statements are in accordance with reality, they are true, otherwise they are false.
Actions that are based on free-will are always in accordance to a purpose or goal. It is understood that the goal of life according to Islam is to reach perfection and closeness to Allah [swt]. If these actions help one attain this goal, they are deemed good, otherwise they do not have any value. Of course not all ethical propositions are a priori and therefore our intellect may not be able to determine whether a certain action is good or not. As a matter of fact, in many particular areas, God’s revelation must come and assist us in determining whether a certain action is good or not – or in other words, whether it assists us in moving towards our purpose and goal. The result of this is that knowledge towards general ethical propositions are a priori, whereas the particulars are not. The validity of an a posteriori ethical propositions will therefore be dependent on our reference to religious authority (Prophet or the Imams).
Jurisprudential Propositions: Jurisprudential propositions can be divided into three:
- Those that were sent down through Revelation, but our intellect can also determine them
- Those that were sent down through Revelation, but we can determine them through our senses as well
- Those propositions that we have access to only through Revelation, but neither our intellect nor senses can derive them
Based on this division, the second and third group are a posteriori, whereas the first group of propositions will be a priori. The author explains this section in length, as the issue is not as simple as it appears. He states that the key to understanding the first type of rulings is dependent on being able to differentiate between:
- Rational rulings that can be understood through the intellect alone – without the need of revelation
- Rational rulings that are in need of Revelation regardless
The first is compromised of purely rational premises, and results in a rational outcome, whereas in the latter, one of the premises is through revelation (thus an a posteriori). An example for the latter would be the necessity of fulfilling the preliminaries for an action that is obligatory. For example, if Hajj becomes obligatory on a person, our intellect concludes that it is therefore rationally required for one to purchase the ticket, and travel to Makkah in order to perform the pilgrimage. Since the obligatoriness of Hajj is something that was provided by Revelation, the conclusion suggesting the necessity of purchasing tickets is not considered a priori, although it is deduced through the intellect.
The purpose of this chapter was to prepare the mind of the reader for the forthcoming discussions and to get them familiar with the different terminologies. The definition of the term religion and knowledge being used in this book was addressed. The sources and ways to attaining knowledge were also covered, although the author has written a handful of books that cover this specific subject in a lot more detail.
Then it was explained that propositions can be divided into a priori and a posteriori – which themselves can be divided into self-evident and speculative. Based on this division, we concluded that:
- Speculative a priori propositions are those for which the intellect is sufficient in determining their truthfulness and falsehood. In a logical deduction, both premises would need to be purely rational
- Speculative a posteriori propositions are those where at least one of the premises in a logical deduction is a premise non dependent on one’s intellect
In the next chapter, the author will discuss what level of knowledge is attainable with regards to religious propositions.
 Uninterrupted and continuously transmitted reports by people that cause us to reach certainty
 Loosely translated as conjectural, it is the capacity of the mind to draw quick inferences from the information it is presented. There is a lengthy discussion and a great number of opinions amongst the scholars of Logic as to what the exact definition of this word is
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.