Religious Epistemology

Updated: Jul 2

As you may have already noticed, there is a particular theme we are following. By first elaborating what has embedded itself into academic structure through secularism, and then refuting that doctrine by elaborating what Islam teaches.

‘Epistemology’ being an English word, its meaning is drawn from one of the roots of the English language, Greek. Episteme, ‘Knowledge’, and Logy, ‘the study of’. It is, quite crudely put, ‘the branch of knowledge that studies knowledge’.

While its origin is Greek, its true source can only be from an ancient religion once, perchance, followed by the Greeks, which at its point of origin would have been Monotheistic. No need to argue this point, because the Holy Qur’an affirms, that to every nation was sent a Messenger from God, and the Greeks were no exception. They too received Knowledge and Religion from Almighty Allah, and perhaps, as history has proven that all ancient civilizations eventually reverted back to their pagan ways, the Greek nation also fell astray. But its core truth was never lost, for once Almighty Allah reveals the truth, that truth always remains.

That being said, the stubborn student will certainly dissent in acknowledging Greek epistemology, but the objective philosopher (ourselves concerned) will at least strive to draw as much truth and benefit, just as our esteemed scholars once did. As Ibn ‘Arabi once said; ‘Do not praise your own creed exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will miss much good. Nay! You will miss the whole truth of the matter. Then shall we be, seekers of the truth, open minded and receptive. Let us delve deeper into the matter. In a nutshell, Epistemology attempts to answer two fundamental questions; What is Knowledge? What are its sources? Can they be verified? What is its structure? What are its limits? What is justification? What makes justified beliefs, justified? Is justification internally induced, or externally deduced? This is secular epistemology. The secular branch of knowledge that examines secular knowledge. Have you seen the flaw yet? This epistemology is attempting to seek the truth only by asking the question ‘What’. While it does occasionally try to seek the ‘How’, it never succeeds in proceeding to the ‘Why’. It then confounds itself being unable to comprehend ‘When’ and ‘Where’. If you have not yet seen the flaw, perhaps you will soon enough. Let us continue. Fundamentally, all epistemological structures of Knowledge and Justification are pursued using two methodologies; Foundationalism; which states that a justified belief is structured like a building with a foundation and rising levels, each one resting and dependent on the last. This means that if the foundation is absolutely true, everything built upon it is also true by virtue of verification with the foundation or the level below. But it also means that if the foundation is weak and false, the rest of the hierarchy will be weak and false, and hence, crumble. Coherentism; which unlike Foundationalism, states that every justified belief receives its justification via evidential weight provided from other beliefs in its immediate vicinity, like a web. This means that for something to be classified as ‘true and justified’, it must have links to other truths by virtue of verification with every link. It also means that if there is a link or more that are weak and false, then the entire web will be weak and false, and hence, crumble. Secular epistemology argues that both Foundationalism and Coherentism are flawed in their own respects, because an individual’s foundation may be falsely justified, crumbling the structure, or the web may have weak links, also crumbling the structure. With due respect to that analysis, secular epistemology cannot elaborate why either of these structures are weak. And if so, is there an alternative? No, according to secularism, there is no stronger argument. Why? Because secularism does not believe in an objective truth or an absolute truth. The entire structure of secularism is based purely on speculation along logical and rational analysis, which subject to change based on human perception. This, then, is the flaw. If the truth itself is subjective, how can the structure be strong? Secularism hence believes that all knowledge is comprised only of worldly knowledge (material and physical, tangibly perceivable). There is no other source of knowledge. It relies on five source origins; Perception; The Human senses of sight, sound, hearing, taste, and touch. Introspection; The capacity to inspect one’s thoughts. Memory; The reliance on what can accurately be recalled. Reason; Through logic and rationality. Testimony; Through the citation of others. Again, do you see the flaw? Let us now examine Religious Epistemology. Religion acknowledges that both Foundationalism and Coherentism are strong in their own respects, because religion itself has a strong foundation and a strong link to two sources of knowledge. Worldly knowledge and Spiritual knowledge. For when Nabi Musa (A.S), endowed with worldly knowledge, sought out Al-Khidr (A.S), endowed with spiritual knowledge, history witnessed the unfolding of something truly divine. That despite the Prophet’s immense wealth of fortified knowledge and wisdom, there was yet another realm unexplored which also contained knowledge and wisdom. In his quest, he discovered, and through him Almighty Allah revealed to the world, something metaphorically described as Majma’ul Bahrain مجمع البحرين (Kahf 18:60), the junction where two oceans meet, creating a balance and a harmony between the physical knowledge of the material realm, and the metaphysical knowledge of the spiritual realm. From this junction, we can now begin to understand how religious epistemology unfolds. Material knowledge is derived from the five above-mentioned source origins. Basically through human intellect. Where the intellect plays the role of conscious integration with information input, computation by the brain, and information output. The human ‘self’, the Nafs, is the conscious element that harbors human thought, intellect, decisive argument and action, as well as emotion. With the use of physical sense, introspection, recall from memory, reason through logic and rationality, and testimony from those who know, the human being can either derive from ‘known’ knowledge, actively build on preexisting knowledge, or ‘know’ something unknown before. This is the knowledge of the material and physical world, with everything tangible in it. Spiritual knowledge, without much deliberation, is derived from a source divine. It is knowledge that exists in essence, sublimity, and intangibility. God Almighty reveals what He wishes to reveal unto man through whatever intermediary He selects. Be that wholesomely through Scriptures, through Messengers and Prophets, or even on an individual level through insight, intuition, inspiration, dreams or visions. This is a knowledge that comes from the unseen realm, the unknown realm, whether from a dimension parallel in Time to ours, or from a Time yet to come from the same dimension. As He made known to the Angels and all who were present; إِنِّىٓ أَعۡلَمُ غَيۡبَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَأَعۡلَمُ مَا تُبۡدُونَ وَمَا كُنتُمۡ تَكۡتُمُونَ ‘I know that which is Unseen of the Heavens and the Earth, and that which you reveal and that which you conceal’ (Baqarah 2:33) These two categories of knowledge are such; ‘that which is Unseen of the Heavens and the Earth’, including knowledge of the past, present, and future in Time, all unseen and unknown or ‘not revealed’. ‘that which you reveal and that which you conceal’, being the knowledge endowed to Creation, both of which the Creation makes known and what the Creation chooses to keep secret. In that sense, He then says ٱللَّهُ نُورُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ‌ۚ ‘Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth’, meaning only He can shed Light on what He wishes to reveal, as Light by its inherent property reveals that which is concealed and makes known that which is unknown. And then He says, يَهدِى ٱللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَن يَشَآءُ‌ ‘Allah guides untoward His Light whomsoever He wills’, which then elaborates that source of Knowledge Divine only endowed to whomsoever Allah wishes to endow. (Nur 24:35) Now we can see the monumental flaw in secular epistemology, and the tremendous strength in religious epistemology. Where Religion is itself grounded in truth, and if the believer grounds his faith in that truth, then his structure and ascension in knowledge becomes justified on every level. Likewise, when the believer’s link is strongly attached to the truth, then his belief becomes justified with every other belief linked to the truth. The epistemology of the believer must therefore always be built on a foundation of religious truth and belief in it. For one who does not recognize that Knowledge is Light, and Light is from Allah, his path to enlightenment will always be obscured. This is, and always will be, the only correct methodology of attaining knowledge, whether it is done through inductive reasoning or through deductive reasoning (both of which we will explore further). Where one must first ground themselves in a foundation of truth and faith, and every path taken to seek knowledge must be verified with an absolute source of truth, which in our case, as Muslims, is the Holy Qur’an and the Prophetic Hadith. This rule must be adhered to at all times, irrespective of what the individual’s personal logic, rationality, or reason may state. The flow must always be hierarchical in that the foundation must always be the Qur’an first, then the Hadith, and never the other way around. No one should ever use other sources of knowledge to argue or verify these foundations. No one should ever assume the role of an ‘objective reasoner’ for ‘the sake of argument’. As we delve further into philosophy, we will come to see how fine a line we will be treading in our quest to learn. It is upon the intellectual to always be consciously aware of that fine line, because on the other side of it lies the dark void. May Almighty Allah guide us along the right path. Ameen.