[Book Summary] Required and Sufficient Knowledge in Religion – Chapter Three

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Degree of Knowledge Required by Religion

In his attempt to determine whether True Certainty is expected in areas where it is possible to achieve it and what degree of knowledge is expected by Islam in areas where True Certainty is not attainable, the author jumps straight into the views of different scholars in the third chapter.

Previously, the author already alluded to the fact that attaining True Certainty is a very difficult task, even in matters where it is possible to do so. The author presents his conclusion in the beginning and then brings evidence for it from rational arguments and uses the words of jurists to justify it further. He states that given that attaining True Certainty in matters where it is possible is a complicated and difficult process, Islam cannot have such a difficult task as a default expectation from all Muslims. Furthermore, if we take into consideration the belief in the existence of God for example, while it is completely possible for one to attain True Certainty in such a belief, when one looks at the various verses and narrations that attempt to prove the existence of God, they do not result in such type of certainty. Rather, most of them are only sufficient in bringing Assurance (itminan) or at the very most Customary Certainty.

In more blunt terms, Hussain Zadeh states that the necessary level of knowledge required in religious matters is that which has probative force (hujjiyah), and iterates that what he means by probative force is that which is discussed and defined in Islamic legal theory (Usul al-Fiqh). This means that the knowledge will have an aspect of exculpatoriness and inculpatoriness[1], and encompasses True Certainty, Customary Certainty, Assurance and Speculative Knowledge that God has allowed one to act upon. As it is discussed in Islamic legal theory, a mere probability that does not bring assurance is not reliable in it of itself. Only in a limited number of cases, speculative knowledge – which does not bring assurance – is reliable to the extent that one is allowed to act upon it, such as if it is attained from a solitary report of a trustworthy person, or if it is the prima facie meaning of a word or a statement.

Views of Different Scholars

Majority of the scholars who have alluded to this subject, have not done so in independent works, but rather their views can be found in books of theology, legal theory, jurisprudence etc. Therefore, the author browses through some of the important works in these fields and discusses what the different scholars have said:

1) In ‘Urwah al-Wuthqa of Ayatullah Syed Muhammad Kazim Yazdi, and as well as in the various commentary notes written on the work by later scholars, the topic pertaining to the necessary level of knowledge required in the most fundamental theological beliefs has not been discussed. The very first issue that has been mentioned in ‘Urwah is: “It is incumbent upon every responsible individual to be a mujtahid in all of their worships and transactions…”[2] [3]

2) In other books of practical law, jurists have written along the lines of: It is necessary for a Muslim to believe in the principles of the religion (Usul al-Din) based on evidence, and is not allowed to perform taqlid in them.[4] An example of Taqlid would be if someone says: “I believe in the existence of God, because XYZ scholar believes in His existence.”

3) Many other jurists have pointed out that the necessary amount of knowledge required in the fundamental principles of religion is certainty (yaqeen), however they have not clarified what type of certainty they are referring to. Imam Khomeini responding to a question says: With regards to fundamentals of the religion, the criteria is knowledge and certainty, and if it is attained through the words of another it suffices.[5] Ayatullah Syed Zanjani[6] and Ayatullah Safi Gulpaygani[7] also have similar statements suggesting that while certainty is the requirement, and even if it is attained through the words of someone else, it is sufficient.

What is not generally discussed by these scholars in their books of practical law is the definition of certainty that they are employing. Furthermore, those scholars who have made certainty a condition, but have also permitted certainty attained through the words of someone as sufficient, are they referring to True Certainty or its lower degree? Are the jurists, who do not permit taqlid in the pillars of religion, doing so while defining certainty as True Certainty, while those who permit taqlid (that results in certainty) in these matters, are referring to True – Decadent – Certainty? Hussain Zadeh suggests that it seems from the apparent rulings that what the jurists are referring to could be anything between Assurance and at the very most Customary Certainty.

From the well-known jurists, Ayatullah Husayn Mazahari seems to be one of the few who explicitly states that a Muslim must attain Assurance (itminan) in the fundamental pillars of religion.[8] Hussain Zadeh suggests that a similar understanding can be grasped from the ruling of Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi.[9]

While majority of the jurists have not explained or defined the definition of the term certainty in their works of practical law, Hussain Zadeh says that it can be rightfully understood that they do not mean True Certainty. Furthermore, when it comes to jurisprudence, he says that there is definitely no need for non-jurists to reach any form of certainty – rather Assurance is sufficient (and this can be attained by following the conditions laid out for following a jurist).

The author then discusses a view of Muhammad Baqir Mirdamad (d. 1631 or 1632) which can be misunderstood by some readers as him claiming that Muslims should attain True Certainty even in jurisprudence. The author clarifies that this is not what Mirdamad meant. He then brings a quote from Fakhr al-Razi who refers to a religious group called Sumniyah (before Islam) who believed that reason and deduction in the realm of theology can never result in certainty and can only give you Assurance. He then discusses the comments of Fakhr al-Razi against them.

Halfway through the chapter, Hussain Zadeh quotes Shaykh Ansari who summarizes the different views on this subject as follow:

  1. The necessary degree of knowledge required in the fundamental pillars of religion (Usul al-Din) is certainty that has been attained through research, proof and evidence, not through taqlid. Knowledge that is attained from taqlid in these matters is not reliable or sufficient and thus not permissible. Scholars such as Sheikh Tusi, Muhaqqiq Hilli, Allamah Hilli, Shahid Awwal and Shahih Thani seem to have similar views.
  2. Knowledge that is attained through any method, whether it be through evidence or through taqlid, is reliable. Thus, knowledge that is attained through taqlid with regards to the fundamental beliefs of the religion is also reliable and sufficient.
  3. Speculative Knowledge in matters of beliefs, is sufficient. This opinion has been attributed to Muhaqqiq Tusi, Muhaqqiq Ardibili, Muhaqqiq Karaki, Sheikh Bahai, Allamah Majlisi and Faydh Kashani.
  4. In the fundamental pillars of religion, speculative knowledge attained through evidence is reliable and sufficient, but not if it is attained through taqlid.
  5. With regards to the fundamental pillars of religion, speculative knowledge attained through a solitary report is reliable. This view has been attributed to the Akhbaris.
  6. With regards to the fundamental pillars of religion, knowledge based on evidence is necessary, although speculative knowledge attained through taqlid is also sufficient. If someone does not have evidence for their belief in the pillars of religion, and suffices with speculative knowledge through taqlid, they are to be deemed Muslims, although they have not fulfilled their responsibility. In other words, those who attain knowledge through taqlid in the fundamental pillars of religion are Muslims, but have sinned. This view has been attributed to Aqa Jamal al-Din Khwansari.

Hussain Zadeh reduces these six opinions to two: 1) Those who say that certainty is the required level of knowledge in the pillars of religion, and 2) Those who say that speculative knowledge is sufficient.

Amongst the first opinion, there are those who deem certainty attained only through evidence being sufficient, while others say that if it is attained through taqlid, it also suffices. Whereas amongst the second opinion, there are those who deem speculative knowledge as sufficient irrespective of whether the person has some sort of evidence for it or not, while others only deem it sufficient if it is based on reliable evidence. In any case, Shaykh Ansari himself considers certainty attained through any method to be the required and sufficient sufficient level of knowledge in the theological pillars of religion, and does not consider speculative knowledge sufficient. Hussain Zadeh expounds that by certainty, Shaykh Ansari is referring to Customary Certainty. Ayatullah Muhammad Ridha Muzaffar has the same opinion as well.[10]

Till now, the main concern that the author has is that majority of the jurists merely mention the necessary degree of knowledge required in the main pillars of the religion, but do not clearly define what they mean by terms like “knowledge” or “certainty”. This is particularly confusing when some jurists consider certainty to be necessary with regards to the pillars of religion, yet permit taqlid in it as well.

The author says that there are two scholars who cover this specific subject at hand directly and in detail. The first opinion is that of Shahid Muhammad Ali Qadhi Tabataba’ee[11] and the second of Mirza Qummi.

View of Qadhi Tabataba’ee

Shahid Qadhi Tabataba’ee is one of the rare scholars who explicitly says that with regards to the five pillars of religion (Oneness of God, Justice of God, Prophethood, Imamah, Day of Judgement) one must attain True Certainty. This opinion of Tabataba’ee is taken from his footnotes on the book al-Lawam’i al-Ilahiyah fi al-Mabahith al-Kalamiyah (اللوامع الالهیه فی المباحث الکلامیه) of  the Shi’i theologian Fadhil Miqdad (d. 826).

He writes in one of the footnotese[12] that taqlid in the pillars of religion is like doubt, and a person who doubts in these matters is an unbeliever. Rather, even speculative knowledge (dhann) or certainty (i.e. customary certainty) attained through taqlid in the pillars of religion are in the same status as doubt. This is because taqlid in its essence cannot result in True Certainty which is the only degree where no rational possibility of knowledge being incorrect can be conceptualized. Whereas in other degrees of knowledge, a rational possibility of knowledge being incorrect can always be given (albeit a really trivial percentage).

Tabataba’ee implies that with regards to the pillars of religion, the degree of knowledge that is expected is such where a person does not even give a rational possibility of it being incorrect. He suggests in another footnote[13] that what is meant by knowledge is that which we have defined as True Certainty.

The author, Hussain Zadeh, rebuts this conclusion through four arguments, of which I will summarize two:

1) The faith of people is dependent on their degree (whatever it may be) of knowledge, and this knowledge is attained through some sort of evidence. Most people do not have True Certainty due to the nature of evidence they have used for themselves to believe in these matters. In fact Hussain Zadeh implies that most people would not have the opportunity in their lives to be able to understand matters such as True Certainty to be able to work towards it. He further states that most of the Qur’anic verses and ahadith only bring a level of Assurance or at the very most Customary Certainty. If all people were expected to attain True Certainty in the pillars of the religion, we would have no choice but to label the majority of them as unbelievers, or at the very least sinners which is really uncalled for.

2) If the rational people of the world take Assurance and a higher degree of Speculative Knowledge to be binding proof for themselves in their day to day beliefs and activities, why should there be a double standard when it comes to theological matters?

View of Mirza Qummi

The author spends roughly 6 pages discusses the views of Mirza Qummi as recorded in his most important body of work al-Qawanin al-Muhkamah fi al-Usul. Qummi explicitly rejects the need to attain True Certainty and states that Assurance suffices. Qummi approaches the topic by asking three main questions[14]:

  1. Is obtaining knowledge of God obligatory?
  2. If it is obligatory, is this a rational obligation or an Islamic legal obligation?
  3. Regardless of whether it is rational or a legal obligation, can this obligation be fulfilled by taqlid or is it necessary for a person to research the subject and bring evidence for themselves? If it is the latter, does Speculative Knowledge suffice or is it necessary for one to attain certainty? If certainty is condition, then does Customary Certainty suffice or must it be True Certainty? If it is Customary Certainty, is it necessary for it to be in accordance with reality or not?

Qummi reaches the conclusion that words like ‘ilm and yaqeen in the Qur’an have been used in their customary meaning and not their technical meanings. He states that the true and real meaning of these words is what their customary meaning is, not what is technically intended by it and if one is to understand the technical definition of it, they must bring some sort of contextual evidence for it. Thus, when the Qur’an refers to these terms, it is not referring to True Certainty – which is a very technical definition of certainty – rather knowledge that one holds to be definitely true and due to it a person does not possess any doubt (whether it is in accordance with reality or not) – although this degree of knowledge can be diminished (due to doubt for example).[15]

Muhaqqiq Qummi takes it a step forward and says that even if we were to consider attaining True Certainty in the pillars of religion obligatory, such a degree is not possible to reach in all of the pillars for all the people. This is because, in order to reach higher degrees of knowledge with regards to some of the pillars of religion, one must possess a sufficient amount of relevant information to be able to deduce a solid conclusion. Such a task is generally carried out only by scholars (Qummi says, not even all scholars) who are able to dedicate their time and life to such matters.

In conclusion, Qummi says that the necessary and sufficient degree of knowledge required by Islam is merely Assurance (itminan).

إذا سأل سائل: هل يجب في الدّليل أن يفيد اليقين، أعني الاعتقاد الجازم الثّابت المطابق للواقع أو يكفي مطلق الجزم أو يكفي مطلق الظنّ؟
فنقول: يكفي ما تطمئنّ به النّفس‏

If a person asks: Is it obligatory for the evidence to result in certainty, by which I mean a belief that is definite, fixed and in accordance with reality (i.e. True Certainty), or does it being merely definite or speculative suffice?

We say: That (evidence) which brings assurance to the self (al-nafs) is sufficient.[16]


In areas where True Certainty is attainable, Hussain Zadesh suggests that it is not Islamically obligatory – in normal circumstances – for one to attain such a degree of knowledge. Assurance or a reliable degree of Speculative Knowledge in all matters of religion such as theology, ethics and jurisprudence, suffices for a person. Although, if a person is clouded by doubt or is someone who simply doubts a lot or doubts very easily, the intellect itself dictates that they must strive hard to reach a higher degree of knowledge, even if it means attaining True Certainty.

In the next chapter, the author will address another question: Since Assurance – or at the very most Customary Certainty – are sufficient in matters of religion, how can we prove their truthfulness, given the fact that with these lower degrees of knowledge a person could simply be possessing compound-ignorance (“You don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know“)? What is the criteria and standard for measuring their truthfulness?


[1] For more details on these two aspects of Hujjiyah, see translation of Halaqa al-Ula of Shaheed Sadr by Roy Mottahedeh, titled Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence, page 58-62

[2] يجب على كل مكلف في عباداته ومعاملاته أن يكون مجتهدا

[3] al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqa, of Syed Muhammad Kazim al-Tabatabaee al-Yazdi, Volume 1, Issue #1

[4] Tawdhee al-Masa’il of Syed Sistani, Syed Khoei, Jawad Tabrizi, Issue #1

[5] Istiftaat, Volume 1, Question #1

[6] Tawdhee al-Mas’ail of Syed Zanjani, Issue #1

[7] Tawdhee al-Mas’ail of Saafi Gulpaygani, Issue #1

[8] Tawdhee al-Mas’ail of Ayatullah Husayn Mazahari, Issue #1

[9] Tawdhee al-Mas’ail of Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi, Issue #1 – the author is specifically referring to the term: به فراخور حال خویش – which means that a person should believe in these matters based on evidence that is suitable for their own personal levels, so an evidence could result in Assurance for someone and it will be sufficient for them, or it can result in True Certainty for someone else and that will suffice

[10] Refer to the introduction in ‘Aqaid al-Imamiyah of Muhammad Ridha Muzaffar

[11] Not to be confused with the famous mystic, Sayyid Ali Qadhi Tabataba’ee [d. 1947], a teacher of many great scholars such as Ayatullah Behjat and Allamah Tabataba’ee

[12] al-lawam’i al-ilahiyah fi al-mabahith al-kalamiyah, page 81 – فالتقلید فی أصول الدین کالشک و الشاك فی أصول الدین کافر، بل الظن فی أصول الدین کذلک، فإنّ الظن لا یغنی من الحقّ شیئا بل العلم الحاصل  عن تقلید أیضا کذلک کما هو المعروف

[13] Ibid, page 85 – المراد بالمعرفة، العلم الخاص و هو الاعتقاد الجازم المطابق الثابت

[14] al-Qawanin al-Muhkama fi al-Usul, Volume 4, Page 368

[15] Ibid, page 375 – ثمّ إنّ هذه الآيات و ما في معناها لا تدلّ على اشتراط العلم بمعنى اليقين المصطلح

[16] Ibid, page 419

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