Concepts and General Principles | Introduction to Islamic Epistemology – Part 1

Compiled by Saiyid Hasan Ali Rizvi and Sayyid Ali Imran

God Willing, we will be posting up a series of posts introducing the subject of Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge – Ma’rifat Shināsi in Farsi, or Naẓarīyah al-Ma’rifah in Arabic. These posts are primarily based off of two works. First of them being Dar Āmadī bar Ma’rifat Shināsī va Mabānī-ye Ma’rifat-e Dīnī by Agha Ḥusain Zādeh – one of the most renowned scholars of epistemology in Iran and holds a senior position at Mu’assaseh Imam Khomeini, an institute run under the guidance of Ayatullah Misbāḥ Yazdi. I have previously summarized a few chapters from another work of his. The second work is Ma’rifat Shināsi written by Mujtaba Misbāḥ and ‘Abdullah Muḥammadi – both from the same institute, the former being the son of Ayatullah Misbāḥ Yazdi. These posts are not always direct translations, rather summaries of the discussions present in these works, a few other works, and any relevant points learned in classes.

The idea of compiling these summaries was first given to us two years ago by a teacher from Pazhūheshgah Farhang va Andisheh Islāmi who we were having weekly sessions on epistemology with, and he asked us to produce a work that would be titled Epistemology for Dummies. While we had begun this work, we never got around to finishing, let alone publishing it. We intend on now finishing and publishing them on this blog as posts, rather than in a book format.

Importance of Epistemology

At times, we may come across an issue where even the experts of that specific field differ. More often than not, each expert is able to bring evidence for their views, whether it be through the senses, experimentation, rational deduction, historical or even religious texts. In such a case, how can one distinguish which view is correct? Furthermore, when there is a unanimity in the views of the experts, is it not possible that their views may not be in accordance with reality? How can we rely on our own understanding or the understanding of others? Is sensual or experimental knowledge always free from error? How about rational knowledge? If all types of knowledge can be prone to error, how can we rely on the conclusions that scholars reach in different subjects? Is it even possible to reach the truth?

We truly recognize the importance of a thing the moment we no longer have it. Imagine for a moment that you have absolutely no knowledge, nor can you attain any. It is obvious that when there exists no knowledge, we cannot know anything about ourselves or others. We cannot make decisions since decisions are based on knowledge. When decisions cannot be made, no action can take place either. In such a scenario, we are more like a lifeless dummy than a human because we cannot understand nor do anything.

From another angle, all of our various sciences & fields of study have come into existence because of the awareness humans have towards their various needs and the hope that knowledge can be attained in order to fulfill these needs. The non-existence of knowledge is tantamount to not being able to derive any conclusions in these sciences and rendering these sciences as futile.

Now imagine that we only assume that we know certain things, but none of it is reliable. In addition, we do not have a method to determine the reliability of the things that we do know. In this scenario also, it is as if we do not know anything since we are only assuming we know something. If we are not able to distinguish between incorrect and correct knowledge, how can we have any hope of attaining true knowledge? Can physicians, chemists, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and all the researchers of different sciences determine the truth of that which they research or are they unable to attain any reliable knowledge regarding the different subjects that they research? By utilizing the different sources & tools of attaining knowledge, it is sensible to hope that at the very least some type of reliable knowledge can be attained. Otherwise, all the efforts put forth by scholars, researchers, and scientists would be useless.

Definition of Knowledge

In Farsi and Arabic, the word ‘knowledge’ (علم) and its equivalents mean awareness, recognition, and understanding. Linguistically, this word has numerous meanings and usages in Islamic Sciences such as Logic, Philosophy, and Principles of Jurisprudence.  Muslim Scholars in Epistemology have considered and used its lexical meaning from among the different meanings and usages of ‘knowledge’, which is a general awareness and recognition.  Accordingly, in epistemology, the intended meaning from ‘knowledge’ is all types of awareness and recognition, whether ‘knowledge’ is obtained through a medium or not and whether it’s a concept or proposition. Since epistemology is general and all-inclusive in a way that all divisions of knowledge are given value, it’s more suitable that knowledge in epistemology intends to imply general information and awareness.  In these posts, for ‘knowledge’, we have intended this broad meaning and we will briefly discuss each of its divisions.

Definition of Epistemology

Please examine the following propositions below which have been taken from Moral Philosophy, Theology, and Mathematics:

Set A:

  1. Religious verdicts and ethical propositions are absolute.
  2. God is One.
  3. Every triangle is 3-sided.

Set B:

  1. Religious verdicts and ethical propositions are subjective, not absolute
  2. God is not One
  3. Not every triangle is 3-sided.

Which of these propositions do you accept? Would you accept all of the propositions from A and B, none of the propositions from A and B, or would you accept only A or only B? It is clear that one cannot accept all propositions from both A and B and consider all of them true, or reject all the propositions from A and B and consider them false. Rather, only one set of propositions – that is A – is true, and the other set – meaning B – are false. Thus, the first, second and fourth options are incorrect and false, and only the third option – accepting only set A – are true and real.

However, for every rational thinker, a question still remains. Based on what criterion and against what scale were these propositions judged, and based on what standard was one set considered true and real, and the other set was considered false and incorrect? How and through which method can this issue be solved? How can we differentiate between the truth and reality of one set and the incorrectness and falsehood of the other set? Does a standard or method even exist whereby we can identify that which is real from that which is fake, that which is truth from that which is false, and that which is correct from that which is incorrect?

Before we can begin to discuss these issues, there is another more pressing issue, and that is, what is the meaning of reality and fakeness, or truth and falsehood? Until the whatness & definition of reality and error or truth and false is not clear, we cannot begin to discuss the standard of identifying reality from illusion and truth from false. Furthermore, the previously mentioned propositions can be examined with a bit more attention and can be analyzed as to where they originated and through which source or tool have we come to those conclusions? In other words, by which tool or scale do we confirm the propositions in set A and reject the propositions of set B? Through which tool can the individual parts of those propositions themselves be understood?

The above-mentioned discussions are considered to be the most important issues in epistemology. Now, by taking into consideration these issues, a definition for epistemology can be given as follow: Epistemology is a subject that discusses issues like the ones mentioned.

Definition: Epistemology is a subject that discusses the whatness or quiddity of knowledge, the ways of attaining knowledge, the reality of truth, and the basis for identifying truth and falsehood.

The History of Epistemology

Epistemology has had a long history.  During the time of the Ancient Greeks, they discussed the fundamental issues like the possibility of knowledge and an investigation of the claims of skeptics and relativists, the methods & instruments of human knowledge, the discussion of our knowledge of the outside world, rationalism, and sensualism. They were pursued further during the eras that followed. Nonetheless, despite this longstanding history enjoyed by the discussions of epistemology, it has not been long since it has been codified into an independent field of study.

Philosophy has normally been less negligent and oblivious with regards to epistemological discussions. Within different sections of logic and Islamic Philosophy, discourses on epistemology have been presented in a scattered, unorganized way. Thus, a valuable legacy does exist for us so to benefit from and utilize in contemporary epistemological discussions.  Fortunately, in the present age, many works on epistemology have been written in Islamic Philosophy as a separate and independent area of study. ‘Allāmah Tabatabāī (q) in this regard is a pioneer.

The Approach of Muslim Intellectuals in Epistemology

Some undeniable human truths

In this work, we will conduct our discussions according to the approach of Muslim intellectuals in epistemology, which is also the approach of the ancient scholars.  According to their viewpoint, obtaining knowledge is possible; rather, it has already been obtained.  Therefore, based on the approach of the ancient scholars, the existence of reality, the possibility of knowing it with certainty, the existence of falsity, and the capability of humans in determining reality from falsity, and truth from lies, are all obvious and self-evident matters.  The main concern in epistemology is to address the criterion for knowledge and the standard of value for propositions and to acquire a guideline for identifying true propositions from false propositions.  In this approach, humans have knowledge of some of these matters and this knowledge is certain, undeniable, and unbreakable.

Based on this approach, doubt and uncertainty have no rational place in these truths. What is rational is that by these undeniable truths, one can differentiate between propositions that are true from propositions that are false. By these, the possibility of attaining certain, undeniable knowledge is self-evident. This kind of approach can lay a strong foundation for housing man’s different types of knowledge.[1]

The Possibility of Knowledge

By utilizing the approach of the ancient scholars, Muslim scholars had perfected and added another type of knowledge, knowledge without any intermediary: knowledge by presence (also known as presential or presentational knowledge). With this knowledge, we are led to the conclusion that knowledge with certainty is indeed possible. In fact, generally speaking, it does not need to be proven.  Any person, by way of their own existence, has knowledge with certainty of the existence of their own cognitive abilities, the existence of their own internal psychological forces, the existence of their own mental pictures, and the existence of their own inner feelings. A person that is writing has no doubt in the existence of the paper that they are writing on or the pen that they are writing with. They have knowledge with certainty.  Every person realizes that some of the things that they understand and know are incorrect and do not conform to reality.

Thus, with the attainment of the many foolproof pieces of knowledge with certainty, every kind of denial in the possibility and attainment of knowledge is illogical and unreasonable.  If someone, in spite of the above mentioned (click previous image for this list) types of knowledge with certainty and those like it, claims universal skepticism or relativism, it must be said that they are extremely confused or they’re suffering from a mental or psychological condition.  When a person is feeling normal, they would never claim such a thing.  Thus, there should not be any denying the attainment of knowledge with certainty.  We have a lot of different types of knowledge with certainty and with the existence of this collection of different types of knowledge, all doubt and denial of the possibility of acquiring knowledge are irrational.

In addition, any type of claim of skepticism or absolute relativism contradicts one’s own claim; it requires admitting having obtained knowledge with certainty.  Therefore, the previous assertion from this perspective is also illogical and unreasonable.  Let’s explore this claim which says that knowledge with certainty is not possible at all. We can ask them, do you have knowledge with certainty or not?  If they say, yes, we have knowledge with certainty and we know that we have this knowledge, then they have admitted to one type of knowledge with certainty and in this way, have gone against their own argument; not just the possibility of knowledge, rather, they have admitted to acquiring it.  However, if they say, no, we don’t have knowledge with certainty about our belief and our claim. We have doubts or maybe just assumed or imagined it. This then means that the opposite of what they claim is possible.  So, generally speaking, in some cases acquiring knowledge with certainty is probable.  As a result, the claim to skepticism, absolute relativism, denial of any type of knowledge or doubts in them is inseparable from the possibility of knowledge, because the claim that no type of knowledge is possible for humans is itself one type of knowledge.  Therefore, this claim violates itself and has fallen victim to contradiction.

Thus, skepticism and absolute relativism are irrational theories.  For any wise person, it is not rational to be immersed in complete skepticism and absolute relativism.  Whoever genuinely wants to accept these theories would be in contradiction with their own selves, their own existence, their faculty of understanding, and their inner feelings.  These are all certain and undeniable.  If we accept that it is possible that relativism and absolute skepticism exist, then it cannot prove nor reject anything.  Refutation requires accepting the intellect, reasoning, contemplation, accuracy of logical rules of deduction, causality, the principle of non-contradiction, etc… .  If the law of non-contradiction is invalid, logical conclusions can never be accepted nor can anyone’s statement be dismissed as being contradictory, because, based on the assumption, contradiction is not impossible and the opposite of their logical conclusion is possible.

In addition to the counterpoints to the claims and proofs of skeptics and relativists, a solution can be offered to them.  The system of epistemology according to the outlook Muslim scholars have presented, in reality, is their answer and solution to their claims and arguments. This view is founded upon the basis of flawless, real, absolute, obvious axioms, and irrefutable things which are known by presence. In later posts when we discuss ‘knowledge by presence’ and ‘the criterion for truth’ in further detail, it will become clear why Muslim scholars like many other scholars, consider doubt in this matter irrational and they believe that logically, the different types of knowledge with certainty, cannot be denied.

An Overview of the Discussions

Considering what has been said, an overview can be given of the discussions within epistemology which will be discussed in subsequent posts.  The most important and essential issue in epistemology is this: With what criteria can true and real statements be distinguished from false and incorrect statements?  Normally, this issue is called ‘the value of recognition’.  In order to solve this, it is necessary that we mention some preliminaries:

  1.     The division of knowledge into ‘by presence’ and ‘acquired’ and their definitions;
  2.     The characteristics of ‘knowledge by presence’ and its types;
  3.     The division of ‘acquired knowledge’ into concepts and statements;
  4.     The types of concepts and statements;
  5.     The reality of truth.

After presenting these initial discussions, we will return to the primary issue of epistemology, meaning the criterion for truth, and we will search for a way to solve it.  In the next post, we will address ‘knowledge by presence’, its characteristics, and its types.

[1] However, historically were there were people who doubted knowledge in this way or denied them?  In the West, the history of the philosophy of schools of thought like skepticism and relativism mentions that either they have denied the possibility of obtaining any type of knowledge or they denied acquiring absolute knowledge.  They considered knowledge relative, meaning, they became supportive of the idea that all viewpoints and beliefs of humans are true and in accordance with reality.  Did they seriously say this or what it a joke? Were they pursuing political objectives?  If they had said these things seriously, they were either extremely confused or they may have been suffering from a mental or psychological condition.  The possibility of acquiring absolute knowledge and knowledge with certainty cannot be doubted.  Any sort of doubt in that is self-contradictory; admitting to the possibility of knowledge with certainty is necessary.

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