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A Qur'anic Epistemology


The sophistication behind the Qur'anic concept of iman is further apparent from a wide range of verses addressing the manner of seeking knowledge, which together establish a robust set of epistemological criteria for distinguishing between truth, falsehood and justifiable belief. 

Although it is commonly assumed that any sort of faith and rejection of doubt is valid within Islam, this is incorrect - the Qur'an repeatedly condemns any sort of blind belief and calls for attestation to the truth with certitude based on rigorous intellectual inquiry. 

The Qur'an warns against reliance on conjecture rather than sure knowledge: "Most people are such that if you follow them they will lead you away from the right path, because they rely on conjecture only." (6:116)

It goes so far as to condemn following anything without knowledge of it: "Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the ear, the eye, the heart, each will be questioned." (17:36)

The Qur'an also condemns, in connection with the above, favouringa certain idea due to one's own prejudice or desire: "They follow but conjecture and that which themselves desire." (Qur'an 53:23) Intellectual activity is distorted when attached to prejudice or partiality. Here, the Qur'an highlights a connection between conjecture and desire, thus linking ignorance with egoism. 

This leads us to the Qur'an pointing out the necessity of accepting only that which is based on sound evidence:

"Were they not asked in the Book to give an undertaking that they would speak nothing concerning Allah except the truth?" (7:169) 

"In fact they denied that of which they had no knowledge." (10:39) 

The general warning here is to avoid making hasty judgements without sound and conclusive evidence. In connection with this, the Qur'an confirms the danger and unacceptability of blind conformity to the structures or ideas into which one has happened to be born into - a matter that many contemporary Muslims are sadly oblivious to: "We follow the traditions of our forefathers. What! Even though their forefathers did not use their intellect and had no guidance." (Qur'an 2:170) The irrational allegiance to established traditions, cultures and systems without sound evidence is seen here as a serious problem, yet many Muslims born into Islam often adhere to the faith purely due to this form of blind following that the Qur'an itself roundly condemns.

This is also linked with the blind following of influential personalities and figures. This is worth bearing in mind in relation to contemporary Muslim exhortations to follow scholars unquestioningly: "Our Lord! We obeyed our leaders and great men who misled us from the Right Path." (Qur'an 33:67) Here, the importance of sincere and relentless independent thought is stressed in the Qur'an's rejection of irrational conformity to famous or powerful personalities, without developing one's own inward knowledge and understanding.

Together, these Qur'anic verses establish five principles of authentic intellectual activity, as follows:

1) refraining from conjecture, assumption and reliance on anything of which one has no knowledge.

2) being conscious of one's own prejudices, preferences, or desires.

3) not forming hasty opinions - not believing anything without proof of it, and not denying anything without proof against it.

4) avoiding blind conformity to existing traditions, cultures or systems.

5) no blind following of influential, powerful or famous personalities.


So far, we have focused on the issues one must avoid on the search for knowledge, but the Qur'an also advocates a range of positive practices for authentic intellectual inquiry.

With regards to the intellect (in Arabic, 'aql'), this word only occurs in the Qur'an in the verb form, not the noun form, emphasising that the intellect is only relevant in its activity. The verb forms (i.e. aqalu, ta'quilun, na'qilu, ya'qiluka, ya'qilun) can be essentially translated as "using the intellect." Often they are translated as "understanding", "having sense" or "having knowledge", and so on. Dr. Sakir Kocabas, the late Kings College philosopher of science, in his study Foundations of Scientific Thought in Islam (S. Kocabas, London, 1987) has translated the verb forms of the root word "aql" as "using the intellect" or "activating the intellect" (For a summary of this work see his short essay here). 

He points out that in the Qur'an "there is no occurrence whatsoever to suggest that 'using the intellect' has any undesirable consequences." On the contrary, the Qur'an specifically links the realisation of truth and "nearness" to Reality, with "using the intellect." Consequently the Qur'an links general deviation and disharmony with the lack of authentic intellectual activity.

"A soul does not attest to the truth with certitude except by the Will of Allah. And He places Doubt (filth, impurity, obscurity) on those who do not use their intellect." (Qur'an 10:100)

Here, we can see that it is the the lack of intellectual activity which invokes the impurity of 'Doubt' by Divine Will, so that we can deduce that the "use of the intellect" protects the soul from 'Doubt,' and brings one into harmony with the Divine Will. The attainment of 'iman' and the avoidance of 'doubt' is thus linked with "using the intellect", as opposed to not doing so. 

In the following verse, being led astray by "satan", the embodiment of evil and the principle of arrogance and rebelliousness toward Divine Reality, is bound up with not using the intellect:

"But he (satan) did lead astray a great multitude of you. Did ye not then use your intellect?" (Qur'an 36:62)

Hence, being rightly-guided and using the intellect cannot be separated, for a lack of either equals the 'Fire':

"They (who reject their Lord and effect the penalty of the Fire) will say: Had we but listened (to the Warner) or but used our intellect, we should not (now) be among the Companions of the Blazing Fire!" (Qur'an 67:10)

"Did they not walk on the earth with hearts to use their intellect and ears to listen? It is not eyes that become blind, but the hearts in their chests." (22:46)

As Kobacas shows, the Qur'an also makes a firm link between contradiction in one's actions and failure to activate the intellect (e.g. Qur'an 2:44, 2:76, 3:65, 7:169, 10:16, 11:51, 21:67, 41:52).

Additionally, the Qur'an alludes to several fundamental principles of knowledge in its various verses. The most important of these is the principle of non-contradiction. The Qur'an states: "And if it had been from any other than Allah, they would surely have found in it much contradiction."(4:82) This makes clear that if something is true and from God (one of Whose Names is Truth, "al-Haqq"), it will be free from contradiction, while if it is false and not from God, it will be contradictory.

The other principle is the principle of causality, which the Qur'an alludes to in such a way as to explain its real meaning - that the Divine Will is the ultimate existential cause of all things. The Qur'an frequently describes all things in this world, not as things in themselves, but as "signs" (ayat) of Reality. The world is nothing in itself, but is merely a manifestation of the Absolute Existence that is the Divine Being, arising from Him, and pointing to Him:

"He to Whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; no son has He begotten, nor has He a partner in His dominion. It is He Who created all things, and ordered them in due proportions.ö (Qur'an 25:2)

 "In things which are manifest, Allah has shown His signs." (24:46)

"All who dwell in the heavens and the earth implore Him. Every moment He brings about a new manifestation of His power." (55:29)

The principle of non-contradiction is, of course, the fundamental principle of logic. Other related principles are also alluded to in the Qur'an. For instance, the principle of the absolutism of Truth - that truth is not relative, that only belief can be relative, and that truth itself is absolute - is evident from the very essence of the Qur'an. This is clear when we see how the Qur'an refers to false beliefs or ideals as "names which you have named" (53:23) and speaks consistently of the Oneness of God, who, according to the Qur'an is both the Truth and the Absolute.

As noted elsewhere at perennial, the Qur'an also details the sources and subjects of knowledge, to which these principles should be applied. Countless verses of the Qur'an call attention to numerous aspects of the universe, in fact, all that may be experienced, as "signs" to be deeply reflected upon. It is in these verse that the natural sciences are promoted as beneficial sources of knowledge.

"Lo! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the difference of night and day, are tokens of His Soveriegnty for people who use their intellect.'" (3:190)

"Say: Behold what is in the heavens and the earth." (10:101)

"Verily, in the heavens and earth, are signs for those who believe. And in the creation of yourselves and in the animals scattered, are signs for those who seek to be near. And in the alternation of night and day, and the fact that Allah sends down sustenance from the sky, and revives the earth after its death, and in the change of winds are signs for those who use their intellect." (45:3-5)

The Qur'an also calls human beings to the study of society and history:

"Many were the systems that passed away before you. Do but travel through the earth and see the nature of the consequences for those who rejected Truth." (3:137)

This could include the development of humankind; the evolutionary dramas of different societies; the various cultures and traditions and their relationships to Reality and Revelation; the rise, downfall and movement of societies, and so on: "Have they not travelled in the land and seen the nature of the consequences for those who were before them? They were more numerous than these and mightier in power." (40:82)

The Qur'an also emphasises the need to study the inward-self, the consciousness of the human being, as a source and subject of knowledge. "We shall (continue to) show them Our Signs in the horizons of the external world and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth." (41:53)

Thus, in summary, the main principles of knowledge which the Qur'an highlights are:

1) the principle of non-contradiction

2) the principle of causality

3) the principle of absolutism

We can also detail the primary sources or subjects of knowledge which can be derived from the Qur'an as follows:

1) nature

2) history/society

3) self/consciousness

We see then that the Qur'an sets out fundamental guidelines for authentic intellectual activity, which are considered integral and foundational to acquiring iman in Islam. It is imperative, then, that Muslims recognise that this establishes the framework of our intellectual constitution, and the basis of what is commonly called 'faith' or 'belief,' which really refers to a state of consciousness attuned to affirmation of what is Real.