BASIC TERMINOLOGY AND CONCEPTS
HISTORY OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE
- EARLY MAN
- ANCIENT CIVILISATIONS
- GRECO-ROMAN PERIOD
- MUSLIM PERIOD
- EUROPEAN RENNAISSANCE
SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE
CLASSIFICATION OF KNOWLEDGE
- SEEN - UNSEEN
- USEFUL - HARMFUL
- LAWFUL - INLAWFUL
LIMITATIONS OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE
- THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
- TIME FRAME
- THE SENSES
- THE INTELLECT
1.0 BASIC TERMINOLOGY/CONCEPTS (MUSTALAHAT/MAFAHIIM ASASIYYAT):
The term ‘ilm is used in the Qur’an
to refer to knowledge. Knowledge is of various degrees: ilm al yaqeen, ‘ayn al
yaqeen, haqq al yaqeen. Some argue that the term ‘ilm should be used
for ‘ilm al yaqeen. The Qur’an has used the term ‘ilm in many contexts. Knowledge is closely related to iman (‘ilm
& iman). It is a criterion of superiority (fadhl al ‘ilm). It is
used in the sense of intellect (‘ilm & ‘aql). It is used in relation
to the study and understanding of Allah’s signs (‘ilm & ayat).
Taqwat is based on correct knowledge of the creator, the self and the relation
between the two (‘ilm & taqwa).
The term The term ma’rifat is also translated
as knowledge. It is knowledge of a lesser degree of certainty than ‘ilm.
The term ma’rifat is preferred in most discussions of human knowledge because
of the uncertainty of human knowledge. Hikmat is a higher level of knowledge that
interpretes and uses factual information within a moral context. Basiirat is a
divinely-guided use of the senses such that their perceptions are correct. Ra’ay
is opinion based on rational considerations; it may be right or it may be wrong. Dhann
is a term used to refer to conjecture ie knowledge that is not certain because it is not evidence-based. The Qur’an
condemns both paying attention to or following dhann. In many verses the Qur’an
made the case for evidence-based knowledge (hujjiyat al burhan) and always challenges
those who make claims or allegations to produce their evidence. Ignorance (jahl)
is used in the Qur’an as the antonym of knowledge (‘ilm). Ignorance
can be simple when the person knows he does not know. It is compounded if the ignorant person is not aware of his ignorance.
Other Qur’anic terma related to knowledge are: tadhkirat, tasawwur, shu’ur,
yaqiin, lubb, albaab, nabaa, dirayat, haqq, and burhan.
The question ‘where in the body is the seat of knowledge?’ is unanswerable.
Both the brain (‘aql) and the heart (qalb)
are candidates. Modern medical science points more to the brain. The heart could not be excluded because the Qur’an
did mention it many times. Our scientific knowledge today can not shed any more light on this matter.
Knowledge is wide and is continuously expanding. An individual or community can only know
a little bit of the knowledge and must have the humility to know and acknowledge that there is a lot that is not known. Knowledge
is not confined to humans. Angels have knowledge. Living animals also have some forms of knowledge. We have no textual or
scientific evidence for existence of knowledge in plants.
Epistemology is the science of knowledge (‘ilm
al ‘ilm). It is the study of the origin, nature, and methods of knowledge. Modern epistemological thought has posed
two concepts that Muslim scholars have not addressed properly yet: relativity and probability. The concept of relativity has
caused much confusion both in social and natural sciences. What needs to be emphasized is that some knowledge and some facts
are absolute and do not change by time or space. Other facts change when the frame of reference changes. Relativity refers
to this change of facts with the change of the reference frame. Thus for complete description of a fact, the frame used must
be defined. The concept of probability concretizes the limitations of human senses. Knowledge based on human senses in approximate.
The aim of scientific research is to increase the probability of truth but can not reach perfect truth. No scientific fact
is absolutely right or correct. Each has a calculable probability of being correct. The higher this probability, the nearer
it is to the truth. The probabilistic nature of knowledge arises out of limitations of human observation and interpretation
of physical phenomena.
Defining an Islamic epistemology (nadhariyyat ma’rifiyyat
Islamiyyat) is the biggest challenge facing Muslim intellectuals. Such an epistemology must be Qur’ an-based and
within the tauhidi paradigm. It will have fixed parameters from the Qur’an
and sunnat and many variable parameters to take into account varying spatio-temporal
circumstances. The aim of epistemological studies is truth (yaqeen). Knowledge
from revelation or empirical observation could be misunderstood if the human intellect is biased away from objectivity. The
Qur’anic term for objectivity is istiqamat.
2.0 HISTORY OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE (TARIKH AL MA’RIFAT AL INSANIYAT):
Adam was the first human in recorded history to have acquired knowledge through an active
process. He learned the names of things so that he might classify and identify them; most knowledge however complex starts
with naming and classification. The historical record is silent about what happened in terms of knowledge and scientific development
after Adam. The archeological record however shows that humans in various habitats made progress in learning scientific concepts
as well as developing simple technology such as using fire, making and using tools, building durable homes, animal husbandry,
and agriculture. Progress was slow and was mostly by trial and error.
When early humans settled down in communities they needed a means of efficient communication
and record-keeping. Various civilizations experimented independently with various forms of writing until they developed an
alphabet. At the beginning a picture told the whole story. Then a picture was used to depict just one word as in modern mandarin.
A later stage of development was using a letter to represent a sound. Both the Arabic and the roman alphabets are of this
type. Development of writing was a major step in the growth of knowledge because it enabled preservation and transmission
of knowledge. Development of language was also closely related to growth and sophistication of human knowledge. Language provided
verbal symbols that could represent concepts of objects. The human intellect could then manipulate these symbols in description,
analysis, or synthesis. Mathematics starting in its simplest form, counting and use of numerals, enabled humans to understand
magnitudes and to put objects or concepts in some form of logical order.
The history of modern science disciplines is very brief. Europeans dominate science and
technology today. This domination may make some people forget that modern science and technology are a common heritage of
all humans and that all people contributed to their growth. The Babylonians pioneered astronomy and mathematics. The ancient
Egyptians also had many developments in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. The Greeks studied Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics
ad medicine. They tried to find theoretical explanations for phenomena but loathed experimentation. Romans used some of the
Greek science and made additions but mostly practical ones. With the decline of the Greek and Roman civilizations science
was forgotten in Europe but it had a new beginning in the then ascendant Muslim world. Muslims used knowledge from the Greeks, improved it,
and made new discoveries of their own. Starting in the 1500s Europeans rediscovered Greek science largely by learning from
Muslims who had preserved and developed this knowledge. This led to renaissance in Europe and the rise of Western Europe to being a world power.
Many theoretical and conceptual break-throughs were realized during and after the renaissance. Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler,
and Isaac Newton discovered many new physical laws. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries
was an application of the newly discovered scientific knowledge. The 20th century also witnessed many theoretical
break-throughs. Albert Einstein showed that mass and energy were interchangeable and that time and distance were relative.
Werner Eisenberg proposed the uncertainty principle ie that you can not know both the location and speed of an object accurately
at the same time.
There have been periods in human history when humans deviated from the correct ways of
getting knowledge and therefore lived in ignorance. Superstition and rejection of revelation denied access to ‘ilm al ghaib. Neglect of empirical observation and experimentation led to deficiency of empirical knowledge.
Failure to use their intellect properly deprived humans of full understanding of revealed and empirical knowledge. History
has recorded many intellectual crises (azmat ’aqliyyat) whenever humans failed
to use their intellectual faculties well.
Rapid growth of the corpus of human knowledge in the past 150 years is several-fold the
growth of knowledge since the start of recorded human history. This momentum is likely to continue into the next century.
It could slow down or stop altogether when human mistakes (social or physical) lead to destruction or drastic change of the
ecosystem and human social organization as we know them today. History is full of examples of previous civilizations that
attained a high degree of scientific and social sophistication only to fail and fall later.
There is a difference in knowledge (quantity and quality) among humans as individuals and
as communities. Some know more than others. Some have deeper and firmer knowledge (rasikhuun
fi al ‘ilm).
Knowledge is always the source of strength and leadership if used well and with good intentions.
Knowledge by itself is not enough guarantee of strength and success. It must be accompanied by a resolve to undertake practical
action which will make the actual change.
3.0 SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE (MASADIR AL MARIFAT):
It is a cardinal principle of Islam that all knowledge is from Allah. Throughout human
history knowledge has been acquired passively by revelation (through the agency of prophets) or actively by empirical observation
and experimentation. Knowledge of the unseen (‘ilm al ghaib) is through revelation.
Knowledge of the seen (‘ilm al shahadat) is acquired by direct interaction
with the physical environment. Both methods of acquiring knowledge require the use of human intellect (‘aql).
Humans have some knowledge even before birth for example the knowledge of the creator.
A human baby has a lot of in-born knowledge that is mostly needed for the intuitive and instinctive biological functions needed
for survival at that tender age. Most human knowledge is learned. The learning can take place at the level of the individual
or the community. Humans learn from transmitted knowledge or experience (naql),
or by their own empirical experience. Transmitted knowledge can be from revelation or from past history and experience.
Revelation (wahy), inference(‘aql), and empirical observation (kaun) are the three major sources
of acquired knowledge accepted by believers. In terms of quantity, empirical knowledge (‘ilm
tajriibi) is the most common. There is close interaction and inter-dependence between revelation, inference, and empirical
observation. ‘Aql is needed to understand wahy and reach conclusions from empirical observations. Wahy protects ‘aql
from mistakes and provides it with information about the unseen. ‘Aql can
not unaided fully understand the empirical world.
Revelation is knowledge par excellence. It is true, relevant and essential knowledge. In
addition to providing facts, it also provides a methodology that can be used by other sources of knowledge. Knowledge of the
past and the future is best obtained from revelation because empirical observation is limited in the time dimension. Archeology
for example is an empirical observation of the past but is limited because with time the artifacts become changed and distorted.
Even if not distorted they may not be interpreted correctly. The new discipline of futuristic studies relies on extrapolation
from present-day trends. Its results can not be conclusive.
Intellect (‘aql) distinguishes humans
from other living things on earth. It enables them to understand and correctly interpret the sensory perceptions of the signs
of Allah in the universe and thus leads to stronger iman and taqwah. Intellect is so important that its misuse or under-use (ta’atwil
al ‘ql) are severely condemned by the Qur’an.
The Qur’an has used several terms to describe intellectual processes: dirayat, fahm, idrak, fikr, tadabbur, and tafaqquh. Basic analytical
intellectual processes can be deductive or inductive. They are used either in parallel or in sequence depending on the problem
being tackled. Careful study of the Qur’an shows the predominance of the inductive methods.
In a neutral/natural state of fitrat the human
intellect in enough to lead to guidance. It can lead to mis-guidance if there are corrupting influences in the environment
or in the individual. Correct knowledge is the truth (haqq). Human observation
and interpretation can be biased away from this truth by human desires/inclinations (hiwa
There is controversy whether direct inspiration (ilham),
intuition (hadas), instinct (jibillat),
and firasat are independent sources of knowledge or are sub-sumed under the sources
above. Firasat is a term that assumes ability of a human to adduce knowledge by incomplete observation for example looking
at a person’s face and deducing what type of character he has or what experiences he has gone through. This is an unscientific
approach that could lead to wrong or even dangerous conclusions. There is no empirical proof of its validity as a source of
knowledge. There is however divine intervention in human observation that is acknowledged by the Qur’an as basiirat.
Allah can give a gift to believers to see in a phenomenon more than others can see (firasat
al mu’umin). This is a sort of divinely-guided empirical observation and not telling the unseen from limited empirical
Magic, sorcery, and other forms of superstition are not sources of true knowledge. They
may lead to correct and verifiable facts but only by chance and coincidence. They most often lead to wrong and misguiding
The concept of causality (sababiyyat) underlies
most knowledge obtained by empirical observation. Simply stated this concept asserts that there is a material cause for every
physical event that a human observes. He may be or not be aware of the cause but can not deny its existence.
Hiding knowledge or monopolizing it is a sin. Knowledge is not property (mal) that can be traded. It is a common property of all and those who have it must disseminate it to others. Payments
made to teachers and researchers are not in exchange for the knowledge they have; they are for the purposes of maintaining
them and their families so that they may concentrate on research and teaching.
4.0 CLASSIFICATION OF KNOWLEDGE (TASNIF AL MARIFAT)
Knowledge can be classified in different ways as shown below:
On the basis of empiricity: knowledge of the seen (‘ilm
al shahadat) and knowledge of the unseen ( ‘ilm al ghaib)
On basis of obligation (takliif) : collective
obligation (fard kifayat) & individual obligation (fard ‘ain).
On basis of utility: useful (nafiu) and harmful
On basis of status: sharei’ & non-sharei’
On basis of legality: lawful (eg Qur’an, medicine, science) & unlawful (sorcery,
On basis of level: ‘ilm al yaqeen, haqq al yaqeen, ‘ayn al yaqeen
On basis of holiness: sciences of the world (‘uluum
al ddiin) & ‘sciences of the hereafter (‘uluum al duniyat).
On basis of subject matter: biological & non-biologocal
On the basis of methodology: methodological (eg epidemiology, mathematics, usul al fiqh) & descriptive (fiqh, clinical medicine)
5.0 LIMITATIONS OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE (HUDUUD AL MARIFA AL BASHARIYYAT)
Human knowledge has definite limitations that a Muslim accepts. These are summazised below:
The past and the future are unknowable with certainty. Both are part of the unseen (‘alam al ghaib)
Humans cannot perceive very slow or very rapid events.
Humans can operate in limited time frames.
Human senses can be easily deceived.
Human intellect has limitations in interpreting correct sensory perceptions
Humans cannot know the unseen (ghaib). The unseen
can be absolute or relative. The absolute (ghaib mutlaq) such as the day of death
(ajal) is known only by Allah. Humans have no access to ghaib mutlaq except through revelations. The relative (ghaib nisbi)
can be known by some people in favorable time and space circumstances and not others or can be known if special and appropriate
instrumentation is used. The whole purpose of scientific research is to roll back the field of relative ghaib.
ARABIC: ‘aql, fikr, ilm, marifat, ghaib
ENGLISH: epistemology, deduction, induction, causality, empirical knowledge, relativity,
probability, intuition, instinct
- What do you understand by
the term ‘knowledge is power’; is it always true?
- What is the difference between
knowledge and information?
- What instinctive knowledge
does a child have on birth?
- How do you define intuition;
how reliable is it as a source of knowledge
- What do you know about extra-sensory
perception; is it a reality or an illusion?
- Define tadabbur and explain how it is used in the knowledge process
- What does understanding (faham) imply? Is knowledge possible without understanding?
- What does the term ‘fiqh’
mean in Qur’anic usage?
- What do you understand by
intellect? How does human intellect function?
- What is thinking? Is it necessary
- What is meant by evidence-based
- What is meant by experiential
- Define the terms burhan, hujja, and daliil. How do they differ in Qur’anic usage?
- What is the antonym of knowledge;
explain how you reach that conclusion
- List as many ways as you can
in which human differs from animal knowledge
- Look up verses in which the
following synonyms of knowledge are used: yaqeen, shu’ur, idraak,
- tasawwur, hifdh, tadhkirat. What does each mean exactly
- Describe how Allah’s
knowledge differs from that of humans
- What does the Qur’anic
term dhann mean?