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Islamic Concept of Knowledge
By: Professor Maqsood Jafri



There are three theories of knowledge.  First; the Idealistic notion. Second; the Materialistic notion. Third; the Islamic notion.  The Idealists like Plato believe that the material world does not exist at all.  Only the world of Ideas, Forms or consciousness exists.  Plato believed that knowledge was a function of the recollection of previous information.  He based his theory on his specific philosophy of the archetypes.  He believed that the soul has a prior existence.  He said all ideas and things are shadows and reflections of those archetypes and realities that are ever lasting in the world in which the soul had lived.  It is also known as Plato’s Theory of Ideas.  According to the Materialists, the spiritual or immaterial world does not exist.  The Materialists are also known as the realists, the empiricists or the Marxists.  These empiricists believe in five senses.  They consider sense perception as the source or means of knowledge.  They have no faith in mind conceptions without sense perceptions.  John Stuart Mill, David Hume and Berkeley were the exponents and proponents of the doctrine of sense perception.  Knowledge is through experience and teaching.  David Hume says that when a babe is born his/her mind is like a clean slate.  With the passage of time it receives impressions and pictures.  As we teach a small kid and show him different pictures, he starts learning from outside impressions.  When we show the picture of a horse to a baby he/she starts recognizing horse.  Then we tell the babies; it is a goat; it is an apple; it is an aero plane etc.  The empiricists do not believe in the existence of soul and innate knowledge.  But it can be said that the empiricists talk about external information.  They have failed in differentiating between material information and intuitive inspirations or knowledge.  Besides, the materialists we find the Rationalists like Aristotle, Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant.  They believed in Mind perception.  Descartes, French philosopher (1596-1650), author of Discourse on Method; The Meditation; Principles of Philosophy; The Passions of the Soul; and Rules of the Directions of the Mind opined that God exists from the certainty of his knowledge of Himself.  He believed in the duality of Soul and Body.  His belief in the immortality of soul made him rationalist and intuitionist at a time. Kant, German philosopher (1724-1804) in his master piece entitled “Critique of Pure Reason” writes that knowledge can be obtained apart from any sense experience. 


Let us throw some more light on the notions of the empiricists to clearly understand the notion of the Rationalists.  The advocates of Empiricists state that sense perception supplies the human mind with conceptions and ideas.  According to this theory, the mind merely manages the conceptions of sensible ideas.  John Locke, the eminent British philosopher propounded this theory.  In his book titled, “Essay concerning Human Understanding”, he rejected the Cartesian notions of Innate Ideas.  He attributed all conceptions and ideas to the senses.  The Marxists and the Behaviorists like Pavlov, Freud, Lenin and Mao reject the mental, subjective and theoretic notions of knowledge as on the other hand philosophers like Plato, Epicurus and Democritus reject the objective reality of knowledge.  George Politzer, a renowned communist scholar and activist in his book titled “Elementary Principles of Philosophy” about knowledge writes; “it is sense perception”.  The great Chinese communist leader Mao Tse Tung writes; “The source of all knowledge lies hidden in the perception by the bodily human sense organs of the objective world which surrounds us.”  The empirical theory focuses on experimentation.  This theory gave birth to materialism and atheism.  It rejects the principle of causality and proclaims the habit of the association of ideas and necessary relations.  Syed Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr in his famous book entitled “Our Philosophy” about the logical and scientific failure of the sense perceptions theory writes; “it is possible for us to show the failure of the empirical theory in its attempt to attribute all the human conceptual notions to the sense by investigating a number of the notions of the human mind, such as the following; ‘cause and effect’; ‘substance and accident’; ‘possibility and necessity’; ‘unity and multiplicity’; ‘existence and non-existence’; as well as similar notions and conceptions.”  The ancient Greek philosophers used deductive method of inquiry instead of inductive method.  According to the Rationalists the theoretical knowledge depends on necessary primary knowledge and it is called ‘thought’ or ‘thinking’.  As all knowledge is produced by previous knowledge, and so on, until the progressive series reaches the primary rational knowledge that does not arise from previous sense perceptional knowledge.  The sense perceptional knowledge deals with the existence and non-existence of a thing.  It is the field of physics.  But the Rationalists deal with Metaphysics that deals with ideas, soul and thoughts.  Aristotle, Avicenna and Averoes were the exponents of Rational doctrine.  The former used deductive and latter use inductive method.  The Existentialists like Yean Paul Sartre believe in existence and knowledge through the existence of ego.  The natural sciences based on pure experimentation need rational principles that are prior to experimentation.  The mind accepts the following directly; the principle of causality; the principle of harmony between cause and effect and the principle of non-contradiction that asserts that it is impossible for negation and affirmation to be true simultaneously.  The Rationalists believe that mind has some fixed knowledge which is independent of sense perceptions.  Islam rejects the notions of both, the idealists and the empiricists.  Islam believes in the existence of matter as well as of soul.  About senses and sense perceptions in Sura “The Bee” the Quran says; “it is He who brought you out of your mother’s wombs when you did not know anything.  He gave you hearing, sight and intelligence and affections in the hope that you will be grateful.” (16:78).  The material universe is a reality.  The Quran in Sura Adoration says; “Allah is the one who created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in six days.” (32:4). Then the Quran testifies the creation and existence of soul in Sura “The Israelites” as such: “They ask you concerning the soul, say: Soul is the special command of my Lord.  You have been given very little knowledge (about it).”(17:85).  As man is the blend of matter and soul, hence he/she attains knowledge through two sources; material and spiritual.  The Quran in Sura “The Prostration” says; “He who has made everything which He has created Most Good; He began the creation of man with clay.  He made his offspring come into existence from an extract of insignificant fluid, then He gave it proper shape and blew His spirit in it.: (32: 7-8).  God gave knowledge to Adam through inspiration; not through empiricism.  In Sura “The Heifer” the Quran says: “And He taught Adam the nature (names) of all things.”(2:31). About the advancement of knowledge the Quran in Sura “Ta Ha” says: “Be not in haste with the Quran before its revelation to you is completed, but say, “O my Lord! Advance me in knowledge.” (20:114). According to the Law of Newton you see apple falling down but you can not see gravity.  Hence Islam believes in matter and soul as the sources of knowledge.  Our mystical experiences and dreams totally reject materialism and open the vista for the knowledge of revelation.  Without revelation we can never discern between vice and virtue.  William Shakespeare says; “Nothing is good or bad, it is our thinking that makes it so”.  By saying this he makes values as relative ones.  On the other hand Immanuel Kant has said, “Good is good and bad is bad.”  By saying this he showed his faith in Absolute Values.  Revelation is the supreme authority on good and bad.  Dr. Ahmed K. Nazir in his book entitled, “In light of Al-Quran” writes; “A primary task of life for us is to learn and be able to differentiate between good and bad.”  Of course the real guide is God and the straight path is the path shown by God.  This is true knowledge and one should strive to seek it and act on it.


(The writer is an eminent speaker and scholar on comparative religions and a political activist. He can be reached at    

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