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Chapter 1: Knowledge And Its Sources

We want to know if God exists, and if He does, then what can we learn about Him? Before we get to the question of God, the preliminary step is to first learn about knowledge itself. How do we know what we know? Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with what knowledge is and how it is acquired. Let us lay the foundation of this book by first discussing knowledge.

Knowledge is a metaphysical reality which is present in every existent being; and knowledge is inherent with existence. It has also been described as light which by its very essence brings out hidden realities. It is human nature to pursue and seek knowledge and there are obvious benefits and merits in acquiring it.

The sixth Imam, Jaʿfar al-Sadiq (‘a) has said:

Knowledge is the basis of every sublime state and the culmination of every high station.1

In addition, Prophet Muhammad (S) has said:

The good of this world and the world to come is through knowledge.2

Knowledge of one “being” (Arabic: wujud) can be acquired by another. This ability to acquire knowledge is variable and follows a hierarchical order. The higher beings have the ability to acquire knowledge of the lower beings (e.g. we can learn about plants and animals), and this ability gives us a higher order in existence. Thus, the highest being in existence which is the source of all existence should have knowledge of everything and this is exactly what we learn about the most perfect being i.e. God.

هُوَ الْأَوَّلُ وَالْآخِرُ وَالظَّاهِرُ وَالْبَاطِنُ ۖ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

He (God) is the First and the Last, the Evident and the Immanent: and He (God) has full knowledge over all things. (Quran, Surah al-Hadid, 57:3).

Knowledge is broadly understood to be of two realities in existence:

a) Apparent realities (Arabic: al-Shahadah)

b) Hidden realities (Arabic: al-Ghayb)

هُـوَ اللّٰهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ۖ عَالِمُ الْغَيْبِ وَالشَّهَادَةِ ۖ هُوَ الرَّحْمَٰنُ الرَّحِيمُ

He is God besides whom there is no other god; the Knower of the unseen and the seen; He is the Beneficent, the Merciful. (Quran, Surah al-Hashr, 59:22).

وَعِنْدَهُ مَفَاتِحُ الْغَيْبِ لَا يَعْلَمُهَا إِلَّا هُوَ

And with Him (God) are the keys of the unseen - none knows them but He. (Quran, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:59)

Knowledge of apparent or visible realities is available and can be acquired by those who seek it using the means available to them, whereas knowledge of the hidden or invisible realities is exclusive and is not available ordinarily except by special endeavor or favor:

عَالِمُ الْغَيْبِ فَلَا يُظْهِرُ عَلَىٰ غَيْبِهِ أَحَدًا إِلَّا مَنِ ارْتَضَىٰ مِنْ رَسُولٍ فَإِنَّهُ يَسْلُكُ مِنْ بَيْنِ يَدَيْهِ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِ رَصَدًا

He (God) alone knows the unseen, and so He does not make any one acquainted with His Mysteries, except a messenger whom He has chosen - and then He makes a band of watchers (guards) march before him and behind him. (Quran, Surah al-Jinn, 72: 26-27)

At birth, human beings have limited or no knowledge, and as they grow they are gradually given knowledge through various means, but primarily through the use of sensory organs:

وَاللّٰهُ أَخْرَجَكُمْ مِنْ بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ ۙ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

And God has brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when you knew nothing; and He gave you hearing, sight, and intelligence that you may give thanks (to God). (Quran, Surah al-Nahl, 16:78)

This process of acquisition of knowledge continues throughout an individual’s life, as well as the collective knowledge of humanity which has grown tremendously over many centuries and millennia. But despite tremendous advancement in human knowledge, the extent of our collective knowledge as a proportion of total knowledge is still miniscule:

وَ مَا أُوتِيتُمْ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا

…and you have been given very little knowledge. (Quran, Surah al-Israʾ; 17:85).

Besides the use of the sensory organs, knowledge can also be acquired by using the pen (Arabic: qalam). Here, the pen can denote its use in the ordinary sense of the word, but it can also refer to a metaphysical reality of “the pen” which has been described by philosophers as the “first creation” or the “intellect.”

The very first revelation of the Qur’an talks about imparting knowledge to mankind through the pen.

الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ 4 عَلَّمَ الْإِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ

He (God) who taught (with) the pen, Taught the human being that which they did not know. (Quran, Surah al-ʿAlaq (96: 4-5)

Sources of Knowledge

Knowledge is ordinarily acquired by one of the following sources:

1. Sensory Observation

Perhaps the most primitive way of acquiring knowledge is by means of the sensory organs. A newborn has no knowledge, not even language skills and learns mostly by observing his or her parents and caregivers. Thus, the sensory organs help us to perceive our surroundings and explore the environment, so that we can learn:

وَاللّٰهُ أَخْرَجَكُمْ مِنْ بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ ۙ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

It is God who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when you knew nothing; and He gave you hearing, sight, and intelligence that you may give thanks (to God). (Quran, Surah al-Nahl, 16:78)

2. Communication

The single most important phenomenon which has helped mankind accumulate a vast amount of knowledge is the development of language. Through language, knowledge can be preserved and propagated. Communication can be both verbal such as a teacher imparting knowledge in a classroom, or written like reading a book.

أَلرَّحْمَٰنُ عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ

The Beneficent (God). He taught the Qur’an. He created the human being. He taught them the mode of expression (utterance). (Quran, Surah al-Rahman, 55 1-3)

3. Experimentation

Experimentation is fundamental to the scientific pursuit of knowledge. Scientific process involves identifying a particular problem and then posing a question and hypothesis about it. This hypothesis is then tested by performing experimentation to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Through that process, new knowledge as well as new hypothesis and questions are generated. For example, if we wanted to know whether elephants have kidneys or not, then we can take a sample of elephants and dissect them to detect the presence or absence of kidneys – thus, through experimentation we can prove or disprove this hypothesis.

4. Intellect and Reasoning

Reasoning or the use of intellect is another very important way of acquiring knowledge. Reasoning is employed to make sense of knowledge acquired by other methods like observation, communication and experimentation. Great insights and understanding are achieved by employing reasoning. For example, if we want to answer the same question as to whether elephants have kidneys or not, then we can attempt to solve it using deductive reasoning. Our argument can look something like this:

a) All elephants are mammals,

b) All mammals have kidneys,

c) Therefore, all elephants have kidneys.

The above mentioned sources and methods have been employed to generate a tremendous amount of knowledge. However, those who pursue knowledge at the highest level employing these methods, like scientists or philosophers, realize the limitations of these methods. There are often unknowns and probabilities, estimations and errors, biases and confounding factors which can limit the conviction in our findings, and often leave many questions unanswered or answered incompletely. In fact, sometimes the entire hypothesis is rendered incorrect once new data becomes available.

There are however, other methods of acquiring knowledge besides the ones mentioned above which help us acquire the highest form of knowledge, in which there is no doubt and can lead to certainty and conviction. This knowledge comes from within and is imparted directly through a special favor to a few who deserve to receive it - it is called direct knowledge or as it is known in the Arabic, ʿilm laddunni:

فَوَجَدَا عَـبْدًا مِنْ عِبَادِنَا آتَيْنَاهُ رَحْمَةً مِنْ عِنْدِنَا وَعَلَّمْنَاهُ مِنْ لَدُنَّا عِلْمًا

So the two of them found an individual from among Our servants upon whom We had bestowed mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge to by Ourselves. (Quran, Surah al-Kahf, 18:65).

This direct knowledge, is obtained by directly witnessing the reality, as opposed to merely reading about it or trying to get an estimate of it using empirical methods or philosophical arguments. The clarity and certainty obtained by direct knowledge far exceeds that from other methods.

This direct knowledge or ʿilm laddunni has a method to itself and does not come without an effort - in fact obtaining it requires continuous effort throughout one’s life. This way of gaining knowledge comes about through spiritual self-purification and controlling the bestial urges.

Spiritual self-purification means that one must decrease and finally eliminate human vices such as arrogance, greed and jealousy from ourselves; and to avoid lying, cheating, oppressing others and many other spiritual evils. It means to respect others, give them their rights, deal with them with kindness and fairness, and help them whenever possible.

When we speak about controlling the bestial urges, this means that we must limit excessive eating, drinking, sleeping, sexual activity, anger, insulting others, vile talking and other such traits. In short it requires spiritual discipline and it means to follow a spiritual path which ordinarily is also known as religion.

Examples of direct knowledge are:

5. Intuition (Ilham)

Intuition or “ilham” is a way of obtaining knowledge which can be experienced by many ordinary individuals as well. An example of it is when an idea comes into the mind from “nowhere” and gives a degree of certainty to a person. Or it is an epiphany about something that clears the problem in the mind. Of course, this has to be differentiated from random thoughts that cross our mind. Another example of intuition is a true dream.

A person witnesses something in his or her dream which one later finds out by other sources to be true. Other examples include unveiling (Arabic: mukashifa), or witnessing (Arabic: mushahida). An institute based in California called the Institute of Noetic Sciences founded by a former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, has been doing scientific research on these phenomenon for a number of years now.3

6. Revelation (Wahi)

The highest form of knowledge that can be acquired by mankind is by way of direct revelation from God or wahi. Very few select individuals who have special favor and character have experienced this form of gaining knowledge. It is the most certain and the most accurate form of knowledge - whether it is about past events, future phenomenon, human nature, ethics, morality, scientific facts and most importantly about events that happen after death.

A living example of such a form of knowledge is a book called The Qur’an. It consists of over 6,000 sentences and short paragraphs known as ayat or signs which are a direct communication from the original source of knowledge – God – to a man named Muhammad (S) and it is revered by billions of people. He introduced this book to humanity between the years 609-632 AD.

To summarize, knowledge is a metaphysical reality instinctively pursued by human beings. Knowledge is a Divine favor, the acquisition of which results in innumerable benefits and is the basis of every excellence. The extent of human knowledge is very limited as compared to the entire body of knowledge which exists in the world. Some knowledge is available to most people through the means available to them, but other types of knowledge require special endeavor or favor.

The reality (Arabic: haqiqa) of existence is one. We can approach existence through sensory observation or using empirical methods, or through philosophy, mysticism or revelation. Those who have the spiritual insight (Arabic: basirah) can reconcile within themselves knowledge obtained through these different methods and know that their method does not change the reality of existence, the difference is only how they look at this reality.

This basic description of knowledge and its sources is very important in developing our world view, our approach towards life, our values in our personal and social life, and what we regard as important and significant.

In this book, I will attempt to give a world view from a monotheistic perspective, using a synthetic approach of combining different methods of knowledge mentioned above to discuss some of the fundamental questions that are important to humanity, which all generations have attempted to answer and will continue to do so in the future as well. Questions like: is there a God and if yes then what is He like He ? Why does the Universe exist? What is the purpose of life and is there life after death? I will quote from the Qur’an and its interpretation based on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (S) and his family (‘a), just as previously stated that Qur’anic quotations are an argument in themselves and that we will discuss the validity of the Qur’an in Chapter Four.