The Methods of Knowing

(i) Is it possible to identify the truth?

This is and has always been the first question in this respect. Many of the thinkers are of the opinion that it is impossible to identify the truth correctly. They maintain that it is the lot of man not to know exactly what really in this world is and what passes in it. They consider it impossible to gain an indisputably accurate knowledge conforming to reality.

However, the Holy Qur'an regards it possible to know the truth. It invites man to know Allah, the world, himself and history. In the story of Prophet Adam, which is really the story of man, it considers him to be fit to learn all the Divine names or the realities of the world. The Holy Qur'an says that in certain cases human knowledge can comprehend some items of Divine knowledge:

"They cannot comprehend anything out of what He knows save what He wills." (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:255)

(ii) What are the Sources of Knowledge?

From the viewpoint of Islam the sources of knowledge are: the natural signs or the signs existing in the world, man himself, history or the social events and episodes of the nations and the communities, reason or the self-evident principles, heart, in the sense of the illuminating and purifying organ and the written record left by the past people.

In many verses the Holy Qur'an has asked people to ponder over the nature of the heavens and the earth:

"Behold what is in the heavens and the earth."(Surah Yunus, 10:101)

Similarly the Holy Qur'an has invited people to study the history of the past nations intelligently with a view to take lesson from it:

"Have they not travelled in the land so that they may have hearts to understand and ears to hear!" (Surah al-Hajj, 22:46)

The Holy Qur'an believes in the reliability of reason as well as of self-evident truths. It bases its arguments on them and says:

"Say: 'Had there been gods besides Allah, then surely both the heavens and the earth (i.e. the whole universe) would have been thrown into confusion'." (Surah al-Ambiya, 21:22)

"Allah has not chosen any son, nor is there any god along with Him. Otherwise each god would have surely championed which he has created and some of them would surely have overcome others. Glorified be Allah above all that they allege."(Surah al-Mu'minun, 23:91)

Similarly the Holy Qur'an regards the heart as the centre of Divine inspirations and intuitions. Every man can receive inspiration in accordance with his sincere devotion and his effort to keep this centre spiritually pure and active. The revelation of the Prophets is the highest degree of this kind of knowledge. The Holy Quran has repeatedly referred to the value of the pen and the book and on several occasions taken an oath by them:

"Nun. By the pen and that which they write therewith." (Surah al-Qalam, 68:1)

(iii) What are the means of Acquiring Knowledge?

The means of acquiring knowledge are the senses, faculty of thinking, argumentation, and purification of soul and the study of the learned works of others. In Surah an-Nahl the Holy Qur'an says:

"And Allah brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers knowing nothing, and gave you hearing, sight and hearts so that you might give thanks." (Surah an-Nahl, 16:78)

In this verse it has been expressly stated that contrary to the theory of Plato, man at his birth is devoid of every kind of knowledge. Allah has bestowed on him senses to study this world. He has given him conscience and the power of analysis so that he may subsequently go deep into the realities of things, and may discover the laws governing them.

According to his famous theory Plato believed that everything that existed had its corresponding form in the world of ideas. At the time of his birth man was already aware of all things, but was oblivious of them. He did not learn things anew in this world but only recollected them.

What has been mentioned in this verse is not contrary to the Qur'anic theory of innate knowledge. This theory does not imply that man at his birth actually knows all things. What the Holy Qur'an means is that the essence of man is in a state of growth and evolution, and that in his life he intuitively discovers certain fundamental and self-evident truths besides what he learns through his senses.

The discovery of these truths is sufficiently convincing to force man to believe in them. That is what the Holy Qur'an means when it calls for 'tazakkur' or recalling. Hence there is no contradiction between the Qur'anic verses calling for tazakkur and the above quoted verse of Surah an-Nahl.

In this verse hearing and sight, being the most important senses, have been mentioned as the instruments of knowing. Technically they are known as the means of superficial or primary knowledge, while heart or conscience which has also been mentioned in the verse, is technically described as the means of deep and logical knowledge.

Incidentally in this verse an allusion has been made to another important question also. It is the question of the stages of knowledge.

Apart from the sense and the faculty of thinking the Holy Qur'an equally recognizes piety and purity of soul as the means of acquiring knowledge.

This point has been mentioned in many verses implicitly or explicitly:

"Believers, if you fear Allah, He will give you power to distinguish between what is good and what is bad." (Surah al-Anfal, 8:29)

"By the soul and Him who perfected it and inspired it with the consciousness of what is wrong for it and what is right for it! He is indeed successful who purified it and he is indeed a failure who corrupted it." (Surah al-Shams, 91:7 - 9)

Learning and reading are some other means of acquiring knowledge which have been formally recognized by the teachings of Islam. In order to illustrate this point, it is enough to say that the first revelation to the Holy Prophet began with the word, 'Read'.

"Read in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from clot. Read, for your Lord is the most Bounteous, Who taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know." (Surah al-'Alaq, 96:1 - 5)

(iv) Subjects of Knowledge

What are the things worth knowing and what is that which one should know? One should know Allah, the world, man, society and time. All of them are worth knowing and one should know all of them.

Conception of the World

This book being an introduction to the Islamic conception of the world is mainly concerned with this subject and it is the subject which you will find scattered throughout this book. Anyhow, to maintain continuity, we give a brief narration of the main features of the Islamic conception of the world:

(1) Nature of the world is 'from Him'. In other words the reality of the world is derived from His reality. A thing may come out of another thing, but its reality is not necessarily completely derived from that of the latter. For example take the case of a son and his parents. The son comes from his parents, but the reality of his existence is different from theirs and is something additional to their reality. In contrast the nature of the world is 'from Him'.

Its entire reality is nothing more than its attribution to Allah. Its reality and its attribution to Allah are identical that is what is meant when we say that the world has been created by Allah. Had the creation of the world meant differently, it would have been procreation and not creation. The Holy Quran says:

"He does not beget nor was He begotten." (Surah al-Ikhlas, 112:3)

It makes no difference whether in terms of time the world has or has not a beginning. If it has a beginning, it is a limited reality "from Him". If it has no beginning, it is an unlimited reality "from Him". But in either case it is 'from Him', and its limitedness or unlimitedness makes no difference to its creational reality and its being 'from Him'.

(2) The reality of the world besides being "from Him" and hence transient by its nature, is not only changing and moving with the time, but is in itself a movement. As such it is continuously in the flux and is always in a state of being created and recreated. No moment passes without the world being created and annihilated.

(3) The realities of this world are a lower form of the realities existing in another world called the unseen world. Whatever exists here in a measured and limited form, is found in the transcendental or the unseen world in an unmeasured and unlimited form, or in the Qur'anic words, in the form of 'treasures':

"There is nothing but we have treasures of it and We do not send it down except in a known measure." (Surah al-Hijr, 15:21)

(4) As the nature of this world is "from Him", it is also 'to Him'. This world has made a descending journey, but it is also in the state of making an ascending journey towards Him:

"We are Allah's and indeed to Him we are returning." (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:156)

"The end of them all rests with your Lord." (Surah an-Nazi'at, 79:44)

"Remember that all things reach Allah at last." (Surah ash-Shura, 42:53)

(5) The world has a firm and regular system based on causation. Every existing thing is governed by a Divine destiny through this system.

(6) The system of causation is not confined to material causes and effects. As far as the material dimension of the world is concerned, its causative system is material, but as far as its spiritual dimension is concerned, its causative system is not material. There is no inconsistency between these two systems, each of them having its own place. The angels, the soul, the protected Tablet, the Pen and the revealed Books are the means by which Divine favour operates in the world by Allah's will.

(7) The whole world is governed by unfailing laws and norms they being a part and parcel of the system of causation prevailing in the world.

(8) The world is a guided reality. Its evolution is guided. All the particles of the world are situated in such a way that they receive the light of guidance. Instinct, senses, reason, inspiration and revelation are all different stages of the general guidance of the world. Prophet Musa said:

"Our Lord is He who gave to everything its nature and then guided it aright." (Surah Ta Ha, 20:50)

(9) In the world there is good as well as evil. There is consistency as well as inconsistency. There exist abundance and scarcity both. There is light as well as darkness. There are progress and development as well as stillness and stagnation. But the existence of what is good, consistent, abundant, and bright and developing has the prime importance, whereas the existence of all that is evil, dark, inconsistent, and stagnant, is only subsidiary and secondary. Yet these subsidiary and secondary things play an important and basic role in the induction of what is good, consistent, harmonious and evolutionary.

(10) The world being a living unit and being administered by conscious forces (the angels managing the affairs of the world), is a world of action and of reaction as far as its relation with man is concerned. The world is not indifferent to a good man and a bad man. The rules of retribution, recompense and remuneration operate in this world as they do in the Hereafter. The faithful and the unfaithful are not treated equally. The Holy Qur'an says:

"If you are thankful, I will give you more, but if you are ungrateful, then know that my punishment is terrible." (Surah Ibrahim, 14:7)

Imam Ali says:

"The ingratitude of someone should not deter you from doing good. Maybe that someone whom you have done no favour gives you thanks. You may receive more gratitude from the grateful than you miss in the case of the ungrateful. Allah likes those who do good". (Nahjul Balaghah -- See Saying 194)

What Imam Ali means is that the world being a living organism, harmonious and coordinated, it is not necessary that a person should get the reward of his virtue from whom he expects it. He may get it from some other unexpected quarter. The world has Allah who likes the virtuous.

(11) This world will be followed by another world. That world will be eternal where everybody will be recompensed in accordance with the deeds performed by him in this world.

(12) The soul of man is an eternal reality. Man shall not only be raised as a living being on the Day of Resurrection, but during the interval between this world and the Day of Resurrection also he enjoys a sort of life which is stronger and more perfect than this worldly life. Some 20 verses of the Holy Qur'an indicate that while the body of man is in the state of decay following his death and prior to the Day of Resurrection, he is not totally devoid of some sort of life.

(13) The fundamental rules of life, that is the moral and human principles, are firm and eternal. It is only the secondary rules and not the main principles that are relative and subject to a change. Humaneness cannot be one thing in one age and something totally different in another. It is not possible that during one period of time humaneness may mean to be an Abuzar and during another period it may mean to be a Mu'awiyah. There are certain eternal principles according to which an Abuzar will be an Abuzar and a Mu'awiyah will be a Mu'awiyah. The principles according to which Prophet Musa is Musa and Fir'awn is Fir'awn, are eternal.

(14) Truth is also eternal. If a scientific truth is absolutely correct, it is correct forever and if it is wrong, it is wrong forever. If it is partly correct, and partly wrong, it is always partly correct and partly incorrect. What undergoes a change is a reality, and that too, a material reality. As for the truth, that is intellectual ideas and mental beliefs, they remain firm from the point of view of their applicability or non-applicability to a particular reality.

(15) The world, the earth and the sky are founded on the principles of truth and justice:

"We have not created the earth, the heavens and what is between them except with truth." (Surah al-Ahqaf, 46:3)

(16) It is the established practice of Allah to bring final victory to truth against falsehood. The righteous and what is right are always victorious:

"Our word has surely gone forth to our Prophets that they would be helped and that those who fight for Our cause would be victorious." (Surah as-Saffat, 37:173)

(17) All men have been created equal. No man by virtue of his creation can claim any privilege or right which another man does not possess. There are only three things which make a man superior to others:

The first is knowledge:

"Are those who know equal with those who do not know?" (Surah az-Zumar, 39:9)

The second is fighting for the cause of Allah:

"Allah has given those, who struggle with their lives and property, a rank higher than those who stay behind." (Surah al-Nisa, 4:95)

The third is piety:

"Indeed the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is he whose conduct is best." (Surah al-Hujurat, 49:13)

(18) Man by nature has certain innate tendencies and inclinations. They include his religious and moral inclinations. The main foundation of man's conscience is his God-given innate nature and not his class position, gregarious proclivities or his struggle with nature. All these influences are acquired conscientiously only. Man by virtue of his human nature can have a unique culture and ideology. He can resist his natural environment, social atmosphere, historical factors and hereditary tendencies, and can rid himself of their influence.

(19) Every man is born as a human being, and as such even the most wicked man is capable of giving up his bad habits and reforming himself. That is why the Prophets have been entrusted with the task of advising and giving spiritual counsel to even the most wicked persons and their worst enemies in order to awaken their human conscience. If that method fails, only then they are allowed to fight against them. In his first meeting with Fir'awn, Prophet Musa was told to say to him:

"Are you interested in reforming yourself. If so, I will guide you to your Lord, so that you may have a fear of Him." (Surah al-Nazi'at, 79:19)

(20) Man's personality is a compound in the real sense. At the same time it is one single element and that too in the true sense.

Unlike other organic and inorganic compounds, the component parts of which when combined together, lose their identity and independent nature and are merged in a harmonious whole, the contradictory elements of which man's personality is made up, do not lose their nature totally. This results in an inner struggle in which man is pulled to different directions. In the language of religion this struggle is known as the contradiction between reason and passion or the contradiction between the soul and the body.

(21) As man has an independent spiritual essence, from which his will originates, he is free to exercise his will. No kind of compulsion can deprive him of his freedom of choice. That is why he is accountable for himself and his society.

(22) Like human individuals, human society is also a real compound. It has its own laws, traditions and systems. Throughout history society as a whole has never followed the will of one single individual. A society is always composed of contradictory elements. The various intellectual, professional, political and economic groups forming it, never lose their identity completely.

Clashes between these groups always continue in the form of political, economic, intellectual and doctrinal wars. Moreover, so long as man does not reach the zenith of humanity, a war will always be on between the developed men having the highest tendencies and the beastly men having the lowest tendencies.

(23) Allah does not change the destiny of any people unless and until they change themselves:

"Allah does not change the condition of any people until they first change what is in their hearts." (Surah al-Ra'd, 13:11)

(24) Allah, the Almighty, who is the Creator of this world as well as of man, is independent of everything. He has no component parts. He is absolutely perfect. He shall always remain as He is. In His case any further development or evolution is impossible. His attributes are identical with His essence. The entire world is His work and a manifestation of His will. None can check or obstruct what He wills. Every other factor or will is perpendicular and not horizontal to His will.

(25) The world has a quasi-organic unity, because it has issued forth from one single source, is going back at a uniform pace towards it and is being managed and administered by conscious forces.