Knowledge: Its Nature, Validity And Limitations

Hospitality And Generosity
March 5, 2023
Aims And Objectives of Islamic Education
March 5, 2023

– Mahar Abdul Haq

About ‘knowledge’ the first question that has been asked, but never satisfactorily answered by people during the past centuries, is whether we can acquire real knowledge of things at all. Among the doubters prominent are the pragmatics who hold that only that Knowledge is worth acquiring which is practically useful whether it is true or false. The second question of interest about knowledge concerns the relationship between cognitive experience of man and the objects of knowledge. The last question is about the sources of knowledge and their limitations. Some say that sense-perception is the only reliable source; some say it is experience. Some stress the importance of reasoning and some attach value to intuition. And, lastly, there are some who advocate mysticism, upholding the possibility of a spiritual-vision, which can neither be described nor passed on to others.

As commonly understood knowledge means: ‘familiarity of a person, thing or fact gained by experience. It is a person’s range of information or the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject or language etc. ‘Cognition’ in philosophic terminology means an action or a faculty of knowing, perceiving and conceiving, as opposed to emotion and volition. It is a perception, sensation, notion, or intuition. ‘Cognizance’ is being award and ‘recognition’ is the acknowledgement of the validity, or genuineness, or character, or claims, of the existence of something; it is to know again or to identify as known before. From this it may be inferred that ‘knowledge’ is just synonymous with consciousness, awareness and familiarity, and it is based upon experience or actual observation of facts.

The Holy Qur’an has used many words to express ideas connected with ‘knowledge’ and each word has a shade of meaning different from the other. In the Arabic language there are two words for information: (l) Khabar and (2) Naba. Khabar means information about common happenings and Naba is information about some very important matter. For ‘recognition’ the root-word is ‘al-arf -u’ meaning sweet smell. Things that happen too often give us no alarm; they are routine happenings and we recognize them just as a matter of course. Irfan has in it the idea of succession, satisfaction and hence recognition. As compared to Ilm this word is of a much lower import.

Another word is ‘sha’ur’ which is generally translated into English as ‘consciousness’. Intellectual moorings, philosophic thinkings and abstract concepts were foreign to the Arabs to whom the Holy Qur’an made its first address. So they did not include these abstracts in sha’ur or consciousness. For them poetry was the highest form of expression for all delicacies, hidden secrets of the heart and fineness of wit and humour or even sarcasm.

The Holy Qur’an opposes poetry not because it fovours any particular mode of expression but because it gives importance to the subject matter which is to be expressed to the masses and not to style. Moreover, its view about Poetry is that it does not present things in their true perspective; it conceals in its metaphors and similies the hard facts about Reality, and, it idolises human passions alone that lead human beings to nowhere:

“We have not instructed the (Prophet) in poetry, nor is it meet for him: This is no less than A message and a Qur’an making things clear. That it may give admonition to any (who are) alive, and that the charge may be proved against those who reject (Truth). (6:69-70)

“And the Poets,- it is those straying in Evil who  follow them. Seest thou not that they wander distructed in every valley–? and that they say. What they practise not—? (26:224-226)

‘The poet’s way of life is, indeed, not befitting for a true Messenger of Allah or his followers who have to revolutionise every concept about a vain, meaningless life of vile passions and selfish desire. The Holy Qur’an exposes the concrete realities of life in a purely scientific way which is readily accepted by an unbiased intellect. For this reason poetry which is opposed to a realistic, factual knowledge cannot have of the Holy Qur’an.

The Holy Qur’an very emphatically denies that anyone has the power to ‘know the unseen’ with the help of his innate faculties. It draws a very clear line of demarcation between human faculties and Revelation. It declared unambiguously that ‘realities’ are revealed and true knowledge is given only directly to the Messengers through Wahy (a quick signal) and not by any other means or self-acquired proficiencies.

There are two more Qur’anic words connected with knowledge that require an explanation. One of these is ‘Kashf’ and other is “Ilham’. Kashf means to lift up a curtain, to unveil, to remove from the scene, to open, etc. To the meaning of unveiling or lifting up the curtain the Holy Qur’an refers in the following verse: 

(It will be said:) “Thou wast heedless of this: now have We removed the veil, and sharp is your sight this Day.” (50:22)

With regards Ilham as a source of knowledge, it may be said that this word has not been used by the Holy Qur’an in that sense. One of its derivative ‘alhama’ occurs in one verse only, where the meaning is not knowledge but an innate faculty of the human soul. Here is the verse:

“By the Soul, and the proportion and order given to it; and its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right;- (91:7-8)

Some mystics say that the knowledge they get from their experience is Ilham and the knowledge which the Holy Messengers receive is Revelation. This, however, is not borne out by the Holy Qur’an as explained above. The experience that the mystics have is not communicable, and that which is not communicable cannot be categorised as knowledge. So, from the True Guidance which has finally been revealed to the Last of the Holy Messengers, Muhammad (Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and Preserved word for word in the Holy Qur’an there is no other source of knowledge of the unknown type. Anything short of Wahy (Revelation) cannot itself be true knowledge; at best it can be a successful effort to understand what true knowledge means. It is a perception of Reality through the medium of the Holy Qur’an and not direct or independent of it.

Mysticism is development of one’s insight and of mind’s power of apprehension. As such it is of greater value than the knowledge acquired through the five senses. Explaining the acute psychological difference between the prophetic and mystic types of knowledge Iqbal says: ‘The mystic does not want tö return from the repose of his unitary experience; and even when he does return, as he must, his return does not mean much for mankind at large, The  prophet’s return is creative. He returns to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history and thereby to create a fresh world of ideals. For the mystic the repose of ‘unitary experience’ is something final; for the prophet it is the awakening, within him, of world-shaking psychological forces, calculated to completely transform the human world. The desire to see his religious experience transformed into a living world-force is supreme in the prophet. Thus his return amounts to a pragmatic test of the value of his religious experience. In its creative act the Prophet’s “will” judges both itself and the world of concrete fact in which it endeavours to objectify itself. In penetrating the impervious material before him the prophet discovers himself for himself, and unveils himself to the eye of history. Another way of judging the value of a prophet’s religious experience, therefore, would be to examine the type of manhood that he has created and the cultural world that has sprung out of the spirit of his Message.

The Arabic word ‘Ilm, translated into English as knowledge, has wider sense than contained in awareness, consciousness and recognition or familiarity. The Arabs used the word ‘_Alim or Aleem for Allah but not Sha’ir or ‘Arif. Irfan or Ma’rifat (Recognition) is perception of reality after a thorough consideration of its signs, traces and other relationships; for ‘Ilm’ this is not necessary. Ma’rifat is mostly used for the recollection of a concept that has gone out of consciousness, but for ‘Ilm this cannot be the case. The example of ‘Ilm’ that cannot be acquired by reason, thought or contemplation is Revelation.  

The root-meanings of ‘Ilm are: a mark, a sign like the country’s flag, or a signpost, or a track-mark etc, with which things are distinguished or recognized. It means, therefore, to know something in all its details, to cognize, to perceive reality, to have faith, to realise, to have sure and definite knowledge.

Senses give us perceptions and the qualities of the head and the heart turn these perceptions into conceptual knowledge with the added strength of feelings in the background. Knowledge that keeps changing or that which oscillates between Truth and Falsehood is not real knowledge.

Similarly knowledge based upon passions cannot be true knowledge. Passions are imaginary concepts or transitory beliefs with absolutely no element of performance or constancy in them. They have no firm ground of a sound reason or argument to stand upon. On account of this fickleness of theirs the Holy Qur’an describes them as ‘conjectures’, quite opposite to true knowledge. Revelation, on the other hand, does not change its character. ‘Wahy’ or Revelation is the most perfect and truest form of knowledge and no other knowledge can reach the heights of its veracity, exactness and accuracy.

Limitations of Human Knowledge

       The realities of things are very often so different from what they appear to us according to our imperfect lights. And, how much the interior of a thing differs from its exterior; the outer from the inside reality; how incomprehensible and enigmatic are the mysteries of the Universe; but man is hotheaded enough to claim that his knowledge compasses all, the secrets of man as well as of universe, down to their core and inner-most realities.

       At first sight Khidhr appeared to be away from apparent realities and his actions were the look of meaningless moves. But, to the end of the chapter, we find him more realistic and acting more wisely. The story illustrates that life is ever on the move, presenting us with situations and new realities in every age from its inexhaustible store of secrets and mysteries. The episode also elucidates that knowledge is limitless, beyond the scope of human comprehension.

       And over every word of knowledge there is one more knowing.”

  (Yusuf: 76)