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

Division of Knowledge
Division of Knowledge

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three

Chapter Two: Possibility of Attaining Certainty In Religious Beliefs

Continuing on with where he (Hussain Zadeh) left off, in the second chapter – a relatively shorter one compared to the other chapters in the book – the author attempts to answer whether it is possible to reach True Certainty in religious beliefs or not. If such a feat is possible, is it possible in all matters of religion or only a part of them?

Secondly, if True Certainty is achievable in certain matters of religion, is it also then necessary for one to work towards achieving it or not? In other words, has the religion of Islam itself made it incumbent upon Muslims to achieve the highest level of certainty (i.e. True Certainty) where it is possible? Finally, if only Customary Certainty or Speculative Knowledge or Assurance is sufficient, what are the premises that permit us to rely on them? The second and third question will be addressed in the forthcoming chapters.

Before beginning the discussion, the author mentions a few general statements. He mentions that in Islam, faith (iman) is dependent upon Knowledge – however Knowledge is not a complete or sufficient cause (al-‘illah al-taamah) for faith, rather it is only one of the necessary causes (al-‘illah al-lazimah) for it. The other necessary cause for faith is man’s own free-will and choice. Therefore in Islam, expecting true faith before knowledge is incorrect, because knowledge is one of the necessary conditions for developing faith. As a matter of fact, without knowledge, one cannot develop faith in some of the most fundamental theological matters of religion. The author’s reference to the term knowledge here implies both knowledge by presence and acquired knowledge.

Degree of Knowledge Possible in Religion

The author has already gone over the degrees of knowledge in the first chapter. In this section, he attempts to answer what degree of knowledge is possible in religious propositions (irrespective of theology, ethics or jurisprudence). Very simply put, for propositions that are a priori, it is possible to attain True Certainty in them. He then lists a number of examples for which True Certainty can be attained, such as: existence of God, oneness of God, some of the traits of God, existence of the soul and it being non-material, general ethical principles, rational rulings that can be understood without the need of revelation etc.

However, given the fact that many other religious beliefs are a posteriori, a discussion with regards to whether it is possible to attain True Certainty in such matters is dependent on determining if one considers attaining True Certainty in a posteriori possible or not. The author states that those a posteriori propositions whose underlying premises are experimentation, hadsiyat or mutawatirat, one cannot attain True Certainty in them. The most one can attain in such propositions is Customary Certainty. The only way an a posteriori proposition can be considered at the degree of True Certainty, is if it is attained through the senses and one is able to reduce the proposition – through certain rational premises – to an axiom.

Most a posteriori knowledge in religious matters comes through traditions and reports. These reports can either be solitary or mutawatir. If the chain of transmission of a report is mutawatir, or if it is solitary report supported by strong contextual proof for it being true, it results in certainty – however this is Customary Certainty. This is because rationally speaking, the possibility of it being incorrect still exists (although we may generally become heedless of such a possibility and not give it any value or attention at all).

Given the above situation, since there is no possibility of reaching True Certainty in various religious matters, religion itself cannot demand such a degree of knowledge in it.

In summary, the author states that it is possible to reach True Certainty in a priori propositions. With regards to a posteriori propositions, only sensory knowledge which can be reduced to an axiom through certain rational principles allow an individual to attain True Certainty in them. Since most of the a posteriori propositions are not of this nature, True Certainty cannot be attained in them and subsequently Islam can also not demand or expect such a degree of knowledge in them. This conclusion itself is based on the rational premise that Allah [swt] does not make an individual responsible for fulfilling a task that is beyond their capacity. Since Islam does not dictate anything against the intellect, it is therefore also not an Islamic responsibility for one to attain such a degree of knowledge in areas where there is no possibility or capacity to do so.

Till now, the discussion attempted to answer what degree of knowledge is possible to attain in religious matters. That being said, two questions still remain unanswered: 1) In areas where True Certainty is not attainable, what degree of knowledge does Islam expect – as being sufficient – from Muslims? and 2) In matters where True Certainty is attainable, does Islam expect one to achieve such a degree of knowledge or not?

The third chapter – a relatively lengthy one – will seek to answer these two questions, and is one of the interesting sections of the book. In it the author brings in quotes from different scholars – particularly jurists – that seem to answer the two questions. He then spends considerable number of pages presenting, discussing and analyzing the views of Shaheed Muhammad Ali Qadhi Tabataba’ee (who he refutes) and Muhaqqiq Mirza Qummi on the subject.

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