Path to Knowledge – Part 3

This is another relevant excerpt from Martyr Mutahhari’s all-encompassing book ‘Man and Universe’, where he touches on the subject of the distinguishing features of Islam, one of them being the methods to the knowledge of Allah (swt). His work is simple enough to understand, so I will not tarnish it with my limited experience on the subject:

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.” (Al-Baqarah: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.” (Yunus: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!” (Al-Hajj: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’.” (Al-Ambiya: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.” (Al-Mu’minun: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.” (Al-Qalam:1)

(iii) What are the means of Acquiring Knowledge?

The means of acquiring knowledge are the senses, faculty of thinking, argumentation, 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.” (An-Nahl: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.” (Al-Anfal: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.” (Al-Shams: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.” (Al-‘Alaq: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.

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