I slam’s sources of knowledge By Dr Riffat Hassan

Courtesy to “Dawn”

SURAH 96, verses 1-5, the first revelation received by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), links divine bounty to the human ability to read, write and to know.

The passage states, “Read in the name of your Sustainer, who has created — created man out of a germ-cell. Read — for your Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One, Who has taught (man) the use of the pen; taught man what he did not know.”

Thus, knowledge has been at the centre of the Islamic worldview from the outset. The Quran recognises multiple sources of knowledge amongst which the following are particularly important: revelation, sense perception, history, reasoning and intuition.

Revelation is God-given knowledge which Muslims believe is enshrined in the Quran, the highest source of knowledge and authority in Islam. Sense perception is knowledge gained through one’s senses. Referring to the Quran’s empirical attitude reflected in its emphasis on the observable aspects of reality, Iqbal stated that nature, described by the Quran as a sign of God, stands in the same relation to God as character does to the human self. In his view, “Scientific observation of nature keeps us in close contact with the behaviour of reality, and thus sharpens our inner perception for a deeper vision of it.... The scientific observer of nature is a kind of mystic seeker in the act of prayer.”

Classical Greek knowledge, which constitutes a significant part of the western civilisation’s intellectual foundation, was contemptuous of sense perception. However, as Iqbal stated, the Quran “sees in the humble bee a recipient of Divine inspiration and constantly calls upon the reader to observe perpetual change of the winds, the alteration of day and night, the clouds, the starry heavens and the planets swimming through infinite space.”

History, to which the Quran refers as ‘the Days of God’, is the third source of knowledge. As Iqbal pointed out, “It is one of the most essential teachings of the Quran that nations are collectively judged and suffer for their misdeeds here and now. In order to establish this proposition, the Quran constantly cites historical instances, and urges the readers to reflect on the past and present experience of mankind.”

For instance, the following two verses refer to the lessons that can be learnt from history: “Of old did We send Moses with Our signs, and said to him: ‘Bring forth your people from the darkness into light, and remind them of the Days ofGod’. Verily, in this are signs for every patient, grateful person.” (14:5); And then: “Already before your time, have precedentsbeen made. Traverse the earth then and see what has been the end of those who falsify the signs of God.” (3:137)

Reasoning generally refers to the discursive faculty or logical understanding by means of which theoretical (deductive) and empirical (inductive) knowledge is acquired. The Greeks had regarded reasoning as that which differentiated humankind from animals. But according to the Quranic narrative (2:31-34), “Adam is accorded superiority even over celestial creatures because he has the ability to name things which they do not have”.

Citing the above-mentioned verses, Iqbal observed: “The point of these verses is that man is endowed with the faculty of naming things, that is to say, forming concepts of them, and forming concepts of them is capturing them. Thus the character of man’s knowledge is conceptual and it is with the weapon of this conceptual knowledge that man approaches the observable aspect of reality.”

Intuitionis a mode of knowledge in which a direct revelation is made to the mind similar to a direct revelation made to the eye when it sees a physical object. In Quranic terms, intuition is called fuad or qalb, andmystics often refer to it as the ‘heart’.

The noted scholar R.A. Nicholson pointed out that though qalb is connected to the physical heart in some mysterious way, it is not a thing of flesh and blood but “is rather intellectual than emotional … whereas the intellect cannot gain real knowledge of God, the qalb is capable of knowing the essences of all things, and when illuminated by faith and knowledge, it reflects the whole content of the divine mind, hence the Prophet said, ‘My earth and my heaven contain me not, but the heart of my faithful servant contains me’.”

Iqbal believed that God was known through an intuitive or mystic experience, and said: “The heart is a kind of inner intuition or insight which, in the beautiful words of Rumi, feeds on the rays of the sun and brings us into contact with aspects of reality other than those open to sense perception. It is, according to the Quran, something which ‘sees’ and its reports, if properly interpreted, are never false. We must not, however, regard it as a mysterious special faculty; it is rather a mode of dealing with reality in which sensation in the physiological sense of the word does not play any part. Yet the vista of experience thus opened to us is as real and concrete as any other experience.”

The writer is professor emerita at the University of Louisville, US, and a scholar of Islam and Iqbal.