Posted on July 27, 2015

SELF: Knowing the Unknowable


I have always had an interest in philosophy, although my knowledge of this area is almost non-existent. But one of the issues in philosophy that I have thought about a lot is that of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge.

It seems to me that most modern philosophers contend that knowledge at its best can only be “justified true belief”. According to Nietzsche there is no such thing as truth, only interpretation.

Since we cannot “know” anything except by basing our assumptions on our fallible senses and earlier ideas, we can never know for certain whether anything we know is actually correct or not. So all we are left with are beliefs which we can do many things with to ensure as much as possible that they are true and justified.

According to the majority of philosophers, truth must be arrived at by the strictest rationality and the use of the highest mental faculties. This is the case, I believe, both outside of Islam and also from within the philosophical traditions of Islam.

This is a wonderful pursuit, and one which I have spent much time on. An example of this is the life of noted athiest Anthony Flew, who lived his life by the Socratic principle of “follow the argument wherever it leads”.

This led Flew to leave his Christian upbringing into Athiesm before finally returning him back into belief in God. I admire Prof. Flew not because he ended up believing in God, but because he was willing to pursue truth wherever it lead.

But he could easily have died before reaching the final conclusion! Would that still make him noteworthy? In my mind yes! How many other seekers of truth have passed away before arriving at some point that we feel is correct?

How can we know whether any truth that we follow is The Truth, as opposed to justified true beliefs, which can change?

This is something I have struggled with for a long time. I firmly believe that there are things that we can know to be truths, that do not require rationality of thought and mind, that in fact transcend rationality, but have never been able to come up with a good answer.

A talk given by Mohammad Rustom at the Ibn Arabi conference some years ago does a wonderful job of unveiling the larger issue at play here. The talk centres around a letter sent from Ibn Arabi to Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, one of the most noted theologians and learned men in his era, and some would say, in Islamic history.

In it, Ibn Arabi invites al-Razi from learning about God, to learning from God. In essence this seems to me to be the distinction between trying to understand the truth to Knowing The Truth.

One situation Ibn Arabi cites concerning this is a story about al-Razi himself. Where one day a friend of both men passed al-Razi crying and asked what the matter is, to which al-Razi reponded:

‘A position to which I have adhered for the past thirty years has become clear to me thanks to a proof which has just dawned upon me. [It turns out that] the [truth of the] matter is contrary to my previous position. So I cried and said to myself, “perhaps that which has occurred to me is also like the first position!”’

This story to me is a testament to the wisdom of al-Razi. He had held a position for 30 years, but still tried to find the truth in it, and after that time decided that he was wrong.

Instead of just changing his position on the matter and believing himself correct this time, he was humble enough to recognize that he still had not found the truth, and that he will never know the truth.

The same position is given by most philosophers today. In answer to this, Ibn Arabi says (paraphrased) that the faculties of human rationality are limited. In trying to understand God through rationalization we limit Him as He is both rational and irrational, and thus can never be fully understood through our efforts. The only way to fully understand God is to have Him reveal Himself to you.

That is, in order to understand God we must surrender our rationality to attain what was attained by one about whom God said:

“[a servant] from among Our servants whom We had granted a mercy from Us and whom We had taught knowledge from Our Presence.”– 18:65

Rustom goes on to discuss the importance of this surrendering of our rationality, and quotes the Hadith Qudsi:

“My servant can only approach me with that which i do not have. And what I do not have is poverty”.

He interprets this to mean that we cannot become close to God with our rationality as that is something that we possess and think valuable. This concept of poverty is prevalent in sufi texts and even Rumi is quoted as saying:

“Of all the forms of knowledge on the day of death, it is the science of poverty that will provide provisions and lead the way”.

This really struck home to me as it was exactly what I had been struggling with for many years: how can our limited rationalities ever understand God? And here Ibn Arabi is saying that it cannot, so do not bother. Instead, approach God himself through the means given by the Prophet and be given knowledge directly from Himself.

This reminds me of another of the Hadith Qudsi where God says “The heavens and the Earth cannot contain me, but the heart of my faithful servant can contain me”. Again, the emphasis is not on the mind but on the heart.

I am not saying at all that rationality has no place in Islam – to the contrary it is absolutely vital to our day to day living, but when it comes to the individual spiritual connection to God, then it is limited.

There was one final part of the letter which really spoke to me:

“An intelligent person should only seek to know that through which his essence is perfected and which will depart with him when he departs. And this is nothing but knowledge of God by way of bestowal and witnessing.”

This reminds me of a dua the Prophet used to make:

“O Allah, benefit me from that which You taught me, and teach me that which will benefit me, and increase me in knowledge.” (Hadith)

Please forgive me for any mistakes!

– Muneer 🙂

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1 Comment

  • Reply Emi July 27, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Awesome post. Definitely something to think about. So often we have no qualms in thinking that we are right without having the humility to entertain the idea that we may be wrong. Thanks for the reminder!

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