What is knowledge, and how do we know? How do we come to know what we know.
Each civilization has arrived to conclusions on these matters, some give weight to certain answers over others.
To understand the intellectual atmosphere in the world of Classical Old Islam you should understand a basic distinction between two modes of knowledge recognized in the Islamic world. Otherwise it will be difficult to grasp much about the intellectual past and history of Islamic civilization.
Why should I bother writing this? Not for intellectual masturbation or self aggrandizement. How we know what we know is important. Islam plays a certain role in the world today and its conflicts, and has helped mold the world today, so to better understand the world today, its conflicts and tensions, you have to understand where and how Islam has conditioned, and been conditioned by, history.
Not only is a basic grasp of Islam’s intellectual history, and its intellectual interaction with the West, important and fascinating, but the questions and tensions raised in this intellectual history echo in Western Civilization’s intellectual-scape. The unique conclusions of the former, may be interesting to look at from the later. Without such understanding one can hardly be taken seriously if one tries to speak on connected topics. By our looking at a distinction defining Islamic intellectuality, we see things that are reflected in Western Civilization (Christian and post-Christian) and Eastern Civilizations. Epistemology is universal because knowledge is universal.
Classical Islam saw two types of knowledge and sciences (ulum) – “transmitted” and “intellectual” – in Arabic “naqli” and “aqli“. This distinction is based on their modes of acquisition.
In arguments there are two types of proofs, “adilat naqli” and “adilat aqli“. A dalil naqli derives from a textual source, taught and transmitted to the one making the argument, a dalil aqli derives from formal or informal logic, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, or other modes of intellection.
Aqli theorems ultimately rest on basic assumptions and premises that may have been transmitted in a naqli way, however what distinguishes the two is the locus of authority.. for a naqli theorem the source is the authority itself, for an aqli theorem the process of induction or deduction from the basic assumption, and the soundness of the logic used, is the source of authority.
Some branches of knowledge displayed both naqli and aqli sides. For example, poetry, or the arts of love-making. The martial arts, and physical culture are mixed arts, partial transmission and partial intellectual and physical self-cultivation
Most, however, fit into one or the other category.
A Naqli science or knowledge is thus known because it needs to be transmitted from one generation of scholar to student. The only possible way to learn it is to receive it from someone else, or as the phrase goes “from heart to heart, from breast to breast”.
In actual practice it is possible to receive a naqli branch of knowledge through self-study and erudition, however it is very difficult to do so because, at the lowest levels the complexity of the subject matter and the subtle nuances involved require an experienced master to impart the finer subtleties of this knowledge. The self-studying student will always be deficient unless he or she be possessed of a monstrously strong intellect and a sort of willpower that tends to be rare.
History, grammar, verbal morphology, general language, Sharia and law were all examples of transmitted knowledge. Also knowledge of Scripture – Quran and Hadith (traditional narrations) is naqli since the subtleties in their interpretation were taught by the Prophet and passed down in an unbroken chain to fit recipients who were rigorously examined and tested. This chain of narration and transmission (sanad) is a guarantee of authoritative mastery of the material.
More Secular branches of knowledge were regarded as somewhat exempt to this.
You could, bysupreme act of will master a language with access to enough dictionaries and textbooks on grammar, morphology, and rhetoric. It would take years but self study is possible. being taught is easier. History as well, though a mastery of the sources and knowing which sources to weigh and accept, which to reject, and being able to discern between propaganda presented as historical fact and actual fact in narrations, knowing where subtle contradictions lay in source material, etc., really required several good instructors.
Sure, you could sit around and read books all day long but at the end of the day, put a decade of self-study into it and you will still be deficient in many ways to a student who spent a couple years of intense study with a competent instructor. Less secular materials, such as Quran and hadith, were a different matter. Anyone can read the Quran, but your interpretation of its verses would not remotely be accepted unless you had been well schooled directly.
“I read the Quran” is not a valid base upon which to use it in an argument.
In religion, too much monkey business is possible by wily nily interpreting scripture left and right. Since education and literacy were more widespread in the Islamic middle ages than in the Christian middle ages and generally anyone moderately schooled had enough Arabic to be able to read the Quran for her own private devotions, the necessity to put a damper on multitudes of wily nily self-interpretations was dire.
Intellectual knowledge cannot, by contrast, be fully passed on by an instructor. it requires the active use of the intellect, at the lowest levels by rigorous employment of conventional logic and reason, by induction and deduction, reflection, and rigorous contemplation, and at the highest levels a degree of intellection that is best described as “enlightenment” or “illumination”
In other words, only by rigorous training of the mind can one discover the subtleties of these types of knowledge by self-discovery and intellection. Scholars and instructors can at best point the way to such knowledge, or their books could serve as mnemonic devices, helping the student remember important points. The bulk of the intellectual work, however, has to be done by the seeker. If this is not done, then your mind will remain permanently crippled and dependent on others and their formulations.
Aqli knowledge is, essentially, “DIY” – Do It Yourself, after of course, a suitable basic foundation in the brief outline of the sciences and knowledge had been obtained.
Mathematics is a prime example of an Aqli knowledge, the classical Muslims believed that you could not competently be taught mathematics, you must work out a comprehensive understanding of higher mathematics yourself, through rigorous exercises, deduction, and logic – the entirety of one’s intellect had to be honed and trained. Since the intellect is able to recognize truth, by God’s justice and will, the ability to understand math must be innate to the human mind and only need rigorous exercise. You cannot depend on authority, rather authority can teach basic postulates and premises but the mind must develop the ability to work out its own proofs as guided and shepherded by scholars.
Logic is another example, related to mathematics. I separate logic “mantiq” from philosophy “hikmah” or “falasifa” because formal logic as a methodology is part of philosophy, but ultimately derives from mathematics and language itself. Philosophy is built on top of logic and reasoning, they are, however, two distinct sciences.
Philosophy is another, related, example. They are related through logic. You cannot be taught philosophy, philosophy is an exercise of the mind. The teacher points the direction, teaches you the past masters (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) and teaches you the contemporary understandings of their teachings and methods, but then you were expected to intellect, to quite literally think. Hard. Often while walking. And to discourse, to argue, to defend, and to arrive to your own conclusions. With some of the philosophers forms of mental and physical exercises – types of acesis – were used to hone and develop the discipline and mind.
Purification of the Mind and “Heart” and cleansing both of their diseases, acquiring praiseworthy attributes and virtues, and ridding oneself of blameworthy and despicable habits and attributes, is the “science” known as “tassawuf” or “sufism“, or with the Shia, “irfan” (gnosis). A master can teach the basics of these sciences but it is up to the student to apply and exercise and the unfolding of subtle knowledge and awareness of an inner nature, “illumination” or “enlightenment” cannot be taught, it must be acquired by the exercise of your own intellect. The basic foundations of this knowledge, however, MUST be taught and transmitted for if not you have no real basis to proceed forward. After all if you knew where to go, would your life be the shambles of unhappiness, discontent, and disappointments that it is?
The teacher points the direction to the way and teaches you basic tools, usually formulations and meditations upon the Quran or Hadith, and specific exercises designed to develop intellectual and spiritual discipline. Memorizations, recitals, fasts, forms of acesis. Then the rest is up to you
In Mathematics, Philosophy, and Spiritual wayfaring, and other similar disciplines, the mind was expected to be used rigorously after a small foundation of basic knowledge and practices were acquired. The observation of the world and its phenomena were the props upon which observation and cultivation of the inner properties of the intellect (aql) proceeded. The study of the external world and its phenomena was done to understand the world as a method of understanding the self, and then through the self arriving at a deeper understanding of the world again.
Phenomena are signs (ayat) behind which meaning (mana) resides. All are regarded as props, meanings set up in images and forms, one who could understand the abstract behind the formal and concrete was regarded as a man of discernment, one who could only understand the concrete and not the abstract as well is a half educated one, and half simpleton. Perfection (Kamaliyat) comes in understanding both the abstract and concrete, and in the wedding of the two.
This attitude is concisely and tersely articulated by William Chittick: “all phenomena point to noumena .. noumena can only be accessed at the root of the knowing self.” (from Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul)
Those studying naqli knowledge were not taken seriously and were generally ignored or derided if they had not put in the work to acquire the knowledge from teachers of known competence.
Those claiming aqli knowledge were not taken seriously unless it was known that they had undertaken rigorous development of the mind and self and – in the case of mathematics – could bloody well demonstrate that they knew how to add 2 plus 2, and then some.
Both naqli and aqli knowledge, proofs, and theorems, have their places. Knowing where and when to employ one or the other is regarded as a part of intellectual maturity and discernment one who realizes this and acts accordingly is regarded as “Hakim” – wise. In other words.
To each tool its place and role.