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Theory of Knowledge

Reconstruction of Qur’anic Thoughts with an Attempt to Unify Rationalism and Empiricism

By S.M. Zakir Hussain (Bangladesh)

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3. The Theory



In the theory developed in this section, attempts have been made to unify the views held by rationalism and empiricism, and thus solve the relevant analytical problems and dissolve the underlying contradictions. The theory embodies a series of concepts and propositions arranged in ascending order of importance.

Definition-1: Reality


Reality is the totality of whatever exists, seen or unseen, the seen being observed by sense-perception and described in terms of signs known as logical propositions, and the unseen being inferred through the objective process of logical deduction or induction from those propositions.


Elaboration: An unambiguous ostensive definition of reality has been given by the philosopher-logician Wittgenstein (1889-1991) as: “The total reality is the world (Wittgenstein 1981: 39).” He again says, “The world is everything that is the case (Wittgenstein 1981: 31).” But all philosophers have argued that reality as it is cannot be identified except in its representation in thought. To do this, man uses his sense perception, which is different for different people. Thus, it is argued, reality as perceived cannot be objective. But we can dissolve this controversy by concentrating not on the process and subjective nature of sense perception but on what is represented after what has been perceived has been logically constructed. Though sense perception involves subjectivity, logical representation does not. It may again be argued that if the sense perception is subjective, then the logical construction of the content of such perception is bound to be relative. We can again dissolve this controversy by saying that subjectivity and relativity are not the same thing. As Einstein showed in his Special Theory of Relativity, subjective perception of the objective reality gives rise to relativity. Now it can again be argued: “How do we know that reality is objective?” In answer we must say that reality is not only objective, it is also non-relative, and, because it is fixed and unchanging, every observer with his or her subjective method of observation finds it relative and sensitive to the method used in observing it. If the reality were not non-relative, its subjective observation would not prove to be relative in a uniform way. In other words, uniformity in a changing pattern implies the fixedness of the source of the pattern. For example, the series:

          1, 4, 8, 13, 19, 26…

is changing in a uniform pattern. It is the uniformity of the pattern that leads us to the discovery of the fixed base that generates it. We can discover this fixed base only after having identified the changing pattern, which, in this case, is:

4 – 1

8 – 4

13 – 8

19 – 13

26 – 19

= 3

= 4

= 5

= 6

= 7

And again:

4 – 3

5 – 4

6 – 5

7- 6

= 1


= 1

= 1

Thus the fixed base is 1.
Albert Einstein explicitly identified reality in the conceptual space of thought by saying that:

the first step in the setting up of a ‘real external world’ is the formation of the concept of bodily objects of various kinds (Quoted in Feyerabend 1994 : 205).

The logician-philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), in trying to find an isomorphism between reality and thought, comes up, after a rigorous analysis of various concepts of reality and mind, with the conclusion that:

     The physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure; features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the physical world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind (Russell 1992:240).

But Wittgenstein has categorically equated reality to its propositional representation in the logical space. He in his classic book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus says that (Wittgenstein 1981):
     Propositions can be true or false only by being pictures of the reality (p : 71).

     Reality must therefore be completely described by the proposition (p : 67).

     The proposition is a picture of reality (p : 63).

     What is thinkable is also possible. We cannot think anything unlogical, for otherwise we should have to think unlogically (p : 43).

In the above citations Wittgenstein differentiates between the method of thinking and the product of thinking, implying that the structure of thought is isomorphic to the structure of reality, though the product of thought, when it is not supported by facts, may be false. And there is no denying that the logical structure of thought is universal, for if it were not then logic would lose its meaning.

Even materialist philosophers have equated reality to the thought structure in a somewhat disguised language. The Marxist philosopher Ilyenkhov, for example, ascribes all thought to Nature in the following language:

In man, in the form of man, in his person, Nature itself thinks, and not at all some special substance, source, or principle instilled into it from outside. In man, therefore, Nature thinks of itself, senses itself, acts on itself. And the ‘reasoning’, ‘consciousness’, ‘idea’, ‘sensation’, ‘will’, and all the other special actions that Descartes described as modi of thought, are simply different modes of revealing a property inalienable from Nature as a whole, one of its own attributes (Ilyenkhov 1977:34).

In the Qur’an, God identifies Himself as the only thinking Being, and thus the Only Knowing Entity (Al ‘Alim), the Only Hearing Entity (As-Sami’), the Only Seeing One (Al-Basir), and the Guide (Al-Hadi), and equates Himself with Reality (Al-‘Haqq):

Say:… Who controls the hearing and the sight (10:31)?

He knows what is before them and what is behind them, while they do not comprehend it in knowledge [That is, man cannot comprehend God’s knowledge in his knowledge] (20: 110). 
God is the Truth (Reality) (22:62).

He (God) is the First (Al-Awal) and the Last (Al-Akhir), the Most High and the Most  Near (57:3).

He is the Manifest (Az-Zahir) and the Hidden (Al-Batin).

…the heaven and the earth subsist by His command.(30:25).
The commandment (Laws holding dimensions and elements of the reality) is wholly God’s. (13:31).

So when scientists and philosophers objectively refer to Reality, they in fact refer to no other than God Himself, as God is the All-Embracing (Al-Wasi’).God Himself says this in the Qur’an in many verses such as the following:

And if you ask them: Who created the heavens and the earth? They would most certainly say: The Mighty, the Knowing One has created them (43: 9).

It is very important to note here that God identifies Himself in the way that non-believing scientists and philosophers tend to identify the Source of all creation, that is, not by giving Him a name, but by pointing to an impersonal, objective possibility. The mystery of this way of God’s Self-identification will be clear from the following verse:

And if you should ask them Who created them, they would certainly say Allah. Whence are they then turned back? (43:87).

It is common knowledge that those who do not believe in Allah never identify the Source of life and reality as Allah; then why does God say that they call Him Allah, and still blame them by saying that they do not believe Him? In fact, here God clarifies that to whatever One Source a knowledgeable person refer objectively and scientifically, the reference completely goes to Him, because He is the Only Reality. Thus God also clarifies that even when those who do not believe in the Qur’an talk of the Ultimate Source of creation, they unwittingly refer to the Real Source Allah, whether they pronounce this particular name or not. Here God implies: What you are referring to without uttering any specific name is no other than Me. What you are referring to by your objective and scientific knowledge is The Truth. Your identification is correct. Why don’t you then believe in what your knowledge has identified as The Truth? Some other verses such as (10:31) and (43:9) also support the above interpretation. If the Qur’an says so, then it is no surprise if what a non-believing materialist philosopher says about thinking and reality happens to be true in light of the Qur’an. In light of the above discussion, we see that our definition of reality is acceptable from the point of view of both rationalism and empiricism: it unifies them both.

Definition-2: Thinking

Thinking is linking.

Elaboration: Thinking is an activity. “Thinking is not the product of an action but the moment of its performance, just as walking, for example, is the mode of action of the legs, the ‘product’ of which … is the space walked (Ilyenkhov 1977:35).” Thinking, therefore, is the process of activity of building a relationship between two events in the memory, which may or may not be two corresponding events of reality. If they are two events of a certain aspect or aspects of reality, the product of such thinking is a thought, which is a “picture of the fact (Wittgenstein 1981:43).” If, on the other hand, the two events that are related in the memory in the thinking process cannot be verified as being two corresponding events of one or two dimensions of reality, still then the process is called thinking, and the product thought, but in this case the thought is not true, that is, it is not a fact.

Definition-3: Logical Space

Logical space is the totality of logical possibilities in the human mind, which is isomorphic to the structure of the reality.

Elaboration: Man does not know reality; he only knows its reflection in his mind. If man's mind did not have a potential for representing the whole structure of reality, he could not know any part of it at all, just as an equation in the complex plane (the field of complex numbers, that is, the complex field) could not be solved if the set of all possible complex numbers did not form a complete field in the mathematical sense. Or, for example, a TV set could not show a program if it did not have all possible arrangements (logically complete, of course) needed to capture and reproduce the pictorial transformation of the program. Hazrat Ali (May God be pleased with him) said that man contains the whole universe. Hazrat Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said : Whoever has known himself has known God. God says that, having created Adam, the first man, He programmed in him the picture of the whole universe, with which even the angels were not acquainted:

And He taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the angels. Then He said: tell me the names of those if you are correct (in your knowledge). They said: Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except that which You have taught us. Surely You are the Knowing, the Wise. He said: O Adam! Inform them of their names. Then …he…informed them of their names… (2: 31-33).

Presumably, what Adam was given was not knowledge as such; rather, it was the foundation or structure or potential of knowledge¾an epistemological orientation and exposure to the nature of things. This implies that man contains the whole structure of reality. The Qur’an also signifies this in various other verses such as the following:

If the truth followed their low desires, surely the heavens and the earth and all those that are therein would have been upset. (23:71).

This verse implies that there is an essential one-to-one connection between every point of the universe and man’s physical as well as psychological reality, for which a disorder in man’s conduct creates corresponding disorders in the universe. Not surprisingly, research findings in the discipline of psychobiology also indicate the same fact. Researchers have, on the basis of empirical research, hypothesized that there is likely to be a one-to-one relationship, or isomorphism, between the brain (the hard storehouse of the picture of the universe) and the mind (the soft picture of the reality founded on freewill):

We can visualize the world of brain knowledge as consisting of two universes with an interface between them. One universe is that of the physical properties of the brain cells… this universe follows the laws first discovered by the physicists and chemists: the so-called physical laws of the universe. The second universe is that of the mind…It is usually assumed that this second universe also follows the physical laws of the universe (Hoyenga and Hoyenga 1988; p-458).

Definition-4: Thought

Thought is a certain structure in the logical space that has a content.

Elaboration: Here content involves data or information that may be realistic or imaginary. In the words of Wittgenstein, as has already been referred to, "The logical picture of the facts is the thought (Wittgenstein 1981:43)."  So a thought should not be confused with logic or the foundation or structure of thought, a mistake which has clouded the views of rationalists about knowledge.

Definition-5: Fact


A fact is an event in the reality expressed in thought.


Elaboration: According to Wittgenstein, "The picture presents the facts in logical space" and "The picture is a fact (ibid:39)." Obviously, such a picture is representative of reality, not of the voluntary creation of the mind. In the words of Russell, "Everything that there is in the world I call a fact. . . I mean by a 'fact', something which is there, whether anybody thinks so or not (Russell 1994:159)".Because a fact refers to the reality, it is by definition true. A special aspect of the above definition is that here something in the reality has been called a fact on condition that it has been logically represented. If, on the other hand, an event of the reality is presented in a statement not logically consistent, then it did not add value to knowledge even if it were called a fact, because it could not be used in any process of knowledge development.
Definition-6: Idea


An idea is a thought with a content, where the content may or may not have a reference to reality.


Elaboration: In the case of an idea, the idea itself is the purpose; that is, unlike belief, it has no external reference, as we will shortly see. According to this definition, an idea is not just a structure, but some information set in a structure. The source of the content is the memory or the sense perception, which, of course, is fed to the structure through the memory. So there must be a content for a logical structure to be an idea. The content must come from reality, whatever the time distance between them. The concept of Innate Ideas propounded by Descartes (1596-1650) has only instigated controversy and not helped man to acquire knowledge because it only refers to the structure but not to the validity or usefulness of the content. According to the doctrine, "Many ideas are . . .  imprinted in us from birth: for example, the ideas of God, cause, substance, logic, and mathematics. They are not derived by generalization from experience, nor do they come from empirical evidence (Levine 1989:105). "Descartes failed to understand that the content of his so-called Innate Ideas is itself a logical structure, not a fact. For example, there is nothing like an idea of God; there is only a tendency of the logical structure towards infinity, a tendency of its opposing itself and extending beyond any specified or localized dimension at the point of contradiction. Ideas or knowledge can only manifest the attributes of God and cannot either prove or capture or disprove Him in the totality of His attributes, because God is transcendent or the All-Pervading (Al-Muhit).

Again, "God" can be an idea only when a real God is referred to by logic in a definition in which logic itself will admit that it cannot capture Him in the totality of His attributes in a logically valid way, that is, without creating a contradiction, That is because if there is to be a God at all, then He must be the source of logic itself. If there was any idea (i.e., thoughtwith a content) of God in the mind, logic would not seek it, because then He Himself would be the content of the logic. And it goes without saying that nothing needs to seek its own content, because it is already there: it could not be a thing without it. That God is transcendent  is a proof that the God Islam refers to is the real God, and not a logical construct. The American philosopher-mathematician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) first proved this fact in 1931. He mathematically proved that: "a mathematical system always contains statements that can be neither proved nor disproved within the system (The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science 1996:198)." Such statements can only be proved in a system which is at a higher plane. In other words, the 'why' of a phenomenon lies on a plane higher than the plane on which the 'what' lies, because the 'why' has always to be inferred from the 'what' in a logical process. To give a specific example, some equations (ie, questions) of the type ax(squared) + b + c = 0 can be formed in the Real plane (the plane of real numbers) but cannot be solved (ie, answered) in that plane; they can be solved only in the Complex plane (the plane of complex numbers). Thus God as the source of logic cannot be contained in any logical structure. If logic is valid, then only that concept of God which can be mathematically or logically proved to be beyond any logical proof can be logically declared as the True God. But, paradoxically, if such 'proof' has to be called a proof at all, then the word 'proof' ceases to have its scientific denotation.

However, though empiricists have validly attacked the doctrine of Innate Ideas, they have not been able to clarify the vagueness of the idea, nor have they been successful in demarcating the dividing line between logical space and its content, nor have they even fully realized the true value of Gödel’s discovery.

Innate Ideas, however, may be present in the mind as an inheritance resulting from the biological as well as psychological evolution of man. But they are undoubtedly already part of the mind, and so it is senseless to say whether they enrich man's knowledge base or not. A theory of knowledge is useful only when it defines knowledge and shows the way of creating it.
Definition-6: Imagination


Imagination is a thought mixed with emotion in such a way that it may not have a logical foundation in its totality, because in this case it is the totality that is important with its visual characteristics, not the logic.


Definition-7: Meaning


Meaning refers to the apparent logic of a thought or expression of thought, whether the thought is a fact or not.


Elaboration: An example can be cited from Russell.

I know the meaning of 'man' and 'wing', but if I talk of 'a winged man', the phrase will still be meaningful [italics added] to me as it would be to any other person who knows what the words 'man' and 'wing' refer to, though, however, nobody, not only I, can testify to have seen such a horse".

Thus "meaning develops out of" a "relation" (Russell 1992:166), and it may be associated with either a fact or a non-fact. This implies that something may be meaningful though it is false. In other words, all facts are meaningful, but all meaningful statements may not he facts.

Russell's example equates meaning to logicality and fact to reality. It shows that the gamut of man's logical structure stretches beyond the possibilities of the structure of reality as observed at any particular point in time.

Definition-8: Belief


A belief is a thought with an external reference, which, even if an attempt has not been made to verify its truth or falsehood, leads to action.

Elaboration:' Belief' is a very important concept in the theory of knowledge. According to Russell, "One characteristic of a belief is that it has external reference (Russell 1992:161) ." But reference is a purely logical word. What is its psycho-physiological equivalent? How does a mental reality like belief make a reference to the external reality? The answer is: by creating a stimulus to activity. This implies that belief is not a mere logical phenomenon; rather, it is a psychological phenomenon involving the logical and emotional dimensions of the mind, which is why a movement in thought, as far as a belief is concerned, produces a movement in the body toward a specific action or non-action. This is another way of saying that belief involves volition or will. In the words of Russell, “When you believe a car is coming, your belief consists in a certain state of the muscles, sense-organs, and emotions, together perhaps with certain visual images (Russell 1992:161)."

Thus belief is a prelude to knowledge, because it leads one to activity, which gives him or her an opportunity to verify the effect or perhaps the truth of the belief and thereby leading him or her to the way of knowledge. Belief has a great potential in creating knowledge because it links thought to reality. What is more, belief must not be confused with ignorance. If, for example, a child is seen to touch the flame of a candle without hesitation, then this does not necessarily imply that it believes fire to be harmless; rather, it may imply that it is totally ignorant of what fire is. While ignorance has no external reference, belief has. Belief creates an intention that may lead one toward the wrong direction, but ignorance is not associated with any such intention. Again, associated with belief is truth.

Truth is a property of beliefs. . . Truth consists in a certain relation between a belief and one or more facts other than the belief. When this relation is absent, the belief is false. A sentence may be "true" or "false" even if no one believes it, provided that, if it were believed, the belief would be true or false as the case may be (Russell 1992 : 164ff).

However, belief has some properties of ignorance though truth is one of its properties too. A belief tends to limit choices, which is why when what is believed proves to be true, it becomes senseless to call it a belief any more; it becomes knowledge and the choice(s) becomes certain. The Qur’an also says so, as we will see in a following section.

Definition-9: Truth


Truth is the correspondence of a proposition (or belief) to reality.


Elaboration: “Propositions can be true or false only by being pictures of the reality (Wittgenstein 1981:71)." So the process of verifying truth is an activity of establishing relationships. Again, truth is not necessarily associated with thought, idea, or meaning, because these psychological processes have no external reference. Nor is truth externally associated with fact, because truth need not be ascribed to it from outside, since it is based on truth. The Qur’an says so, as we will see in a following section.

Definition-10: Knowledge


Knowledge is a belief proved true.
Knowledge is fact structured in thought.
Knowledge is information arranged in thought representing (a) certain aspect(s) of reality.


Elaboration: According to the Marxist philosopher Afanasyev, "Knowledge is active, purposive reflection of the objective world and its laws in man's mind (Afanasyev 1980:151)." By the term reflection the author clearly indicates that he believes that man can know only what his mind can reflect. Reflection is possible only when the reality and the mind both have the same logical structure - otherwise a one-to-one relationship between the object and the image would never be possible. Thus it becomes clear that the logic structure or logic space of the mind, together with the senses, otherwise called Innate Idea by Descartes, is not knowledge; rather, knowledge is what is mirrored in it - that is, the facts of the reality captured in the web of objective logic structure. Man’s logical capability and knowledge have been referred to in the Qur’an in different ways:

The fact that belief has an external reference proves that it underlies some purpose, which is a direction of will¾man's ability to make a reference. No philosopher so far has been able to successfully define will, even freewill, but the Qur’an says that all will is energy coming form the Will of God:

Our Word for a thing when We intend (will) it, is only that We say to it BE, and it is (16: 40).

The above verse says that God’s will is energy, because it has the power of creating anything.

And you do not will except that God wills, the Lord of the worlds (81: 29).

This verse says that God’s will is the source of man’s will.

The discussion of this subject calls for more discussion, which will not be done here. Here we may only emphasize that being true belief, knowledge tends to produce a unity among the body and the mind and lead them to action toward the direction of the will. That is why knowledge has been termed 'active' in the above-mentioned definition.

But all true beliefs are not knowledge, contends Russell. According to him, knowledge is "a sub-class of true beliefs: every case of knowledge is a true-belief, but not vice versa (Russell 1992:170) ." He gives a number of examples in support of his claim, one of which is as follows:

There is a man who believes, truly, that the last name of the Prime Minister in 1906 began with a B, but who believes this because he thinks that Balfour was Prime Minister then, whereas in fact it was Campbell-Bannerman (Russell 1992:171) .
Russell has misinterpreted this interesting example. He says that as the man’s belief is false, his knowledge is also false, though he has happened to point to a fact correctly. But Russell wrongly verifies the first letter of the full name by referring to the man’s belief about the first letter of the last name. Actually, in this case the man's belief is knowledge as far as we are concerned with the letter. We, to be precise, cannot talk of the full name of the president because the belief was not concerned with it at all. So, Russell has made the mistake of verifying a belief by something that was not its content before it was verified. Therefore, we must accept the definition that knowledge is true belief. The Qur’an says in many verses that knowledge follows belief. God instructs man to take the challenge of the hypothesis that the Qur’an is true, and then endeavor to prove it: it shows the inevitability and necessity of doubt, then invites man to form hypotheses and then to use his reasoning power to overcome the doubt:


… and those … are most surely in disquieting doubt concerning it (the Qur’an) (42: 14).


Say: Have you considered IF it (the Qur’an) is from God, and you disbelieve in it, (THEN    what will happen to you?) (46: 10)

This hypothetical approach has in fact been followed by all the prophets, and also to present other types of persuasive reasoning, which has been alluded to in the Qur’an.  Let us see some examples:

Say (O Muhammad): O mankind! If you are in doubt of my religion, then (know that) I do not worship those whom you worship instead of Allah, but I worship Allah Who causes you to die, and I have been commanded to be of the believers. (10:104) 

He (Noah) said: O my people! Have you considered, if I rely on a clear proof from my Lord and there has come to me a mercy from His presence, and it has been made obscure to you, can we compel you to accept it when you are averse thereto? (11:28)

He (Saliah) said: O my people! Have you considered if I am (acting) on clear proof from my Lord and there has come to me a mercy from Him, who will save me from Allah if I disobey Him? You would add to me nothing except perdition. (11:63)

He (Shu'eyb) said: O my people! Have you considered if I am (acting) on a clear proof from my Lord and He sustains me with fair sustenance from Him (how can I concede anything to you)? I do not desire to do behind your backs that which I ask you not to do. I desire nothing save reform so far as I am able. My welfare is only in Allah. In Him I trust and to Him I turn (repentant).  (11:88) 


He says that it is the most reliable source of knowledge, which is why man should think about it deeply:

Is it then that they do not think deeply about what is said (i.e., the Qur’an) (23: 68)?

 Do they not then reflect on the Qur’an (47: 24)?


He again inspires man to conduct empirical research to verify its truth:

It is nothing but a reminder to the nations. And most certainly you will come to know about it (the Qur’an) after a time (when you will be able to verify its TRUTH) (38:87-88).

And We have set forth in this Qur’an similitude of every sort so that they may think (39: 27).
He again says that belief in this reliable source gets transformed into knowledge:

God is the Guardian of those who BELIEVE. He brings them out of the darkness (of IGNORANCE) into the LIGHT (of KNOWLEDGE) (2: 257).

And certainly We have brought them a Book which We have made clear with KNOWLEDGE, a guidance and a mercy for people who BELIEVE (7: 52).

…he said: I KNOW (because I have BELIEVED) that God has power over all things (2: 259).

This propositional approach to knowledge creation has much to learn from. As is obvious, this approach starts from doubt, advances through the scientific process of hypothesis formation, and at last results in knowledge, an approach typical of the scientific method of knowledge creation.


Continued ...



Author of:

Secret Knowledge of the Qur'an