Islamic Philosophy of Knowledge

Islamic Texts

The following are my notes from a lecture explaining one of the chapters in Shaykh al-Uthyameen’s book al-Usool min ‘ilm al-Usool. It is a basic level book on Hanbali usool.

  • Definition of knowledge: Knowledge is a definitive realization of something based on its true reality
    • Not having any realization or understanding of something is referred to as plain ignorance
      • Ex: if someone asks you when the battle of Badr took place and you respond, “I don’t know.”
    • Realization or understanding of something based on a false reality is referred to as compound ignorance
      • Ex: if someone thinks that the battle of Badr took place in the year 3 AH. This is false because it took place in the year 2 AH
    • Definitive realization means that there is no doubt about it. The reality of the issue is exactly as one understands it to be true and there is no possibility of it being something different
      • Ex: the sun rises from the East and sets in the West. There is no doubt about this fact, it is a definitive form of knowledge
      • If an understanding of something is based on giving preference to one opinion over another based on the evidence, then it is called zann (assumption)
        • The weaker opinion of the two is called wahm (delusion)
      • If two opinions are equal in evidence and there is no way to give preference to one over the other, then it is called shakk (doubt)
  • Based on the above, we can categorize the understanding of something into six categories:
    • ‘Ilm (knowledge)
      • A definitive understanding of something based on its true reality
    • Plain ignorance
      • Complete ignorance of something. Meaning you do not know anything about it
    • Compound ignorance
      • False understanding of something. Meaning you believe it to be true but it is actually false
    • Zann (assumption)
      • Understanding of something by giving preference to one opinion over another based on the evidence with the possibility of the weaker opinion being true
      • Most rulings of fiqh come under this category because different Muslim jurists evaluate the evidence and then give perference to one opinion over others based on the evidence
        • The other opinions also have the possibility to be right because they have evidence behind them as well, this is why it is not considered sinful to follow other legitimate opinions of Muslim jurists
      • The verses and hadiths which criticize zann are speaking about the type that is not based on evidence but just rumors and guesses
    • Wahm (delusion)
      • Understanding of something with the possibility of the preferred opinion being true
    • Shakk (doubt)
      • Understanding of something with the possibility of the two opinions not being equivalent

Modality of Knowledge

    • How knowledge is derived can be divided into two types:
      • Essential knowledge: something arrived at without speculation or inference
        • Meaning the reality of this type of knowledge is so obvious that there is no reason to speculate or infer it from something else
          • Our intellect immediately realizes the truthfulness of it
          • Ex: a whole apple is greater in size than half an apple, fire is hot, ice is cold, etc.
        • This type of knowledge can further be subdivided into the following three types:
          • Natural: what we realize and know innately
            • Ex: a whole of something is greater than its part
          • Sensory: what we realize and know through the five senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste)
            • Ex: fire is hot, ice is cold, the sun is bright, sugar is sweet, etc.
          • Continuous succession (tawaatur): reports of the message of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his miracles transmitted to us through contiuous reports generation after generation from numerous people of various backgrounds all over the world that it is impossible for them to all have agreed upon a lie
            • This is the strongest form of essential knowledge
            • The truthfulness of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has reached us through this method
            • Prophetic miracles have also reached us through this method: when a prophet of God is given a miracle that is indicative of the truthfulness of his prophethood
              • Moses splitting the sea, Jesus bringing the dead back to life, etc.
              • Directly witnessing a prophetic miracle is also a form of essential knowledge
      • Speculative knowledge: something arrived at through speculation and inference after evaluating the various evidence
        • It is the opposite of the essential knowledge
        • Some opinions are given preference over others based on the evidence
          • Goal is to try to arrive at the truth to the best of your ability based on the evidence
        • Ex: wudu is required for prayer, etc.
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