Knowledge by Presence | Introduction to Islamic Epistemology – Part 2

Read Part 1

The Definition of Presential Knowledge* and Acquired Knowledge

There are different ways to understand and recognize pain.   You’ve no doubt had these experiences in your life where you got sick or got into a bad accident and felt a lot of pain.  You’ve also probably had friends or family members that have gotten sick or into accidents who’ve suffered excruciating pain.  It’s obvious that there’s a difference in the way you understand these 2 types of pain (your own pain vs. someone else’s pain).  What exactly is this difference?  Is the only difference that the one feeling the pain is different in each scenario or is there something more to it?

What we come to understand is that the difference between these two is very significant.  Each type of understanding has specific characteristics and traits.  Whenever you feel pain in your own body, you are experiencing the reality of pain, meaning the pain actually and really exists within you, and it is not some mental conception or picture of pain.  On the other hand, when you see someone else in pain, that pain that you are seeing doesn’t actually exist within you; rather, a picture of the concept of pain exists in your mind.  So, your knowledge of pain is acquired through a mental picture and conceptualization which acts as an intermediary in your mind.  You have a mental picture of pain.  You understand the concept of pain by seeing someone’s face change colour, hearing them scream in agony, or other signs of pain, not the reality of pain itself.  Thus, the difference between your two understandings of pain boils down to knowing the reality of your own pain without any intermediary, whereas to know the other person’s pain you use an intermediary mental picture of pain.  In this latter scenario, you are not actually feeling pain yourself neither are you experiencing the reality of pain.

Now, with what we have just described, we can define Presential Knowledge. It is knowledge, recognition, and understanding, without the use of a medium or an intermediary of mental conceptions & mental images. In this type of knowledge, the reality and existence of the known thing is present with the individual.

Therefore within Islamic Epistemology, one of the ways we divide types of knowledge is presential and acquired. Whereas the former does not require an intermediary, the latter does. That being said, whenever one has presential knowledge, they also have its acquired knowledge, as we will explain later.

Types of Presential Knowledge

The different types of presential knowledge that we have are based on induction. Meaning, they may not be limited to what we have listed below, but this is what we have come to know about thus far:

  1. Knowledge of the self: Everyone realizes their own existence.  We do not require a concept of the self in order to come to the conclusion that we exist.
  1. Knowledge of our internal states: States such as happiness, sorrow, hope, satisfaction, fear, pain, which one feels and experiences within themselves, are understood without a medium.
  1. Knowledge of our internal actions: Some of our internal actions such as contemplation, attention, judgments, decision making are also known without a medium. For example, when we are in a state of thinking, we know without a medium that we are in a state of thinking.
  1. Knowledge of our mental-concepts: We know of conceptions that we have in our mind without any medium. For example, when we recall a friend in our mind and think about them, a mental concept comes to our mind. The knowledge of the fact that we have this concept in our mind is without a medium.
  1. Knowledge of a cause that gives existence[1] towards its effect: In theological discussions pertaining God, it is proven that the real cause, ie: God, knows of its effects without a medium.
  1. Knowledge of an effect towards its cause that gave it existence: An effect is also aware of its real creative cause without a medium and has presential knowledge towards it.

It should be noted that not all presential knowledge exists at all times, rather some of them only come into existence in certain cases. For example, everyone constantly has presential knowledge of their own existence, and do not need to do anything to arrive at this knowledge. However, presential knowledge towards a certain feeling which comes when a certain kind of poetry is read, only comes when such poetry is read. More specifically, in religious epistemology, we learn that revelation on a prophet is also presential knowledge and thus limited to them and no one else.

Qualities of Presential Knowledge

There are some qualities of presential knowledge which differentiate it from acquired knowledge:

1, Not attributable to being true or false: Since there is no medium in presential knowledge, in one sense, the concept of it being true or false is meaningless, because such a quality is restricted to acquired knowledge which has an intermediary. This applies when you want to judge whether this intermediary is in accordance with reality or not. In presential knowledge, since there is no intermediary, the known thing is present with the knower as it is, and there is no way to judge it against something else. Though, in another sense, we can say that this knowledge is “true” as far as it is present and existing with the knower.

2. Unmistakable: When taking into consideration the definition of presential knowledge, knowledge without an intermediary, it becomes clear that such knowledge is unmistakable. One can never be mistaken about it.

3. Without an intermediary: In presential knowledge, there is no intermediary or medium between the knower and the known. Rather the essence of the known is present with the knower.

4. Personal and non-transferable: Presential knowledge is limited to the knower, and one cannot transfer it over to another person unless it is changed into acquired knowledge. For example, no one can know my presential knowledge of pain, unless I relay it to another person through speech or writing.

5. Gradation: An individual’s presential knowledge can be weak or strong, due to the level of attention they may have towards it at any given time. You may be experiencing pain, but if your attention was to be diverted towards an important sports event that you were looking forward to, your attention towards your pain will diminish.

6. Always accompanied with acquired knowledge: Presential knowledge is accompanied by acquired knowledge either by possessing a mental image of that presential knowledge or by a judgment made regarding it. For example, one may have presential knowledge of their pain, but they will also have a mental image of that pain, and furthermore, they may even make a judgment about their pain resonating from their tooth. It is only through our mental images that we can compare our presential knowledge – if we encountered pain one day, and then encounter pain again a few days later, as we possess two mental images of this pain we are able to compare them and say that the pain we experienced was the same pain, and we are able to treat it the same way we did the first time.

Differentiating Presential Knowledge from Acquired Knowledge

At times it may look like presential knowledge can be mistaken. Consider these scenarios:

A) Humans have differed for centuries over the nature of their existence and if our existence was presential knowledge, people would not have differed

B) One may feel a sense of hunger – an example of presential knowledge – but many times due to a certain medical or psychological condition, this sense of hunger may be completely false and we may, in fact, have a full stomach and be in no need of food. Or, one may feel pain – another example of presential knowledge – and tell themselves that it is an earache, but in reality, it was a toothache.

C) One kind of presential knowledge that was mentioned was knowledge of an effect towards its creative cause. If such was the case, then why is it that humans differ over the existence of God? In fact, one may even argue that they have no presential knowledge towards God.


A general answer for all three scenarios is that these apparent mistakes and differences of opinions are not related to presential knowledge, rather they are related to acquired knowledge. In scenario one, it isn’t the existence that is doubted, rather its details are which are an instance of acquired knowledge. In the second scenario it isn’t the feeling or hunger or pain that is incorrect, but rather its interpretation and diagnosis is incorrect – which once again is an instance of acquired knowledge.

In the third scenario, keeping into consideration that presential knowledge accepts gradation, it is the lack of attention towards this creative cause which makes one’s presential knowledge so weak that it is as if it does not exist at all. Within Islamic Epistemology, one of the instances of presential knowledge that humans have is towards its Creative Cause (i.e. God) – but we are so heedless, inattentive, and immersed in the material world, that it is as if we have no knowledge of it at all.

* Terms such as Presential Knowledge, Presentational Knowledge, or Knowledge by Presence are all used to refer to the same thing

[1] A cause which is constantly needed for the existence of an effect

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.