Islamic Answers to Philosophical Questions


Dr. Jaafar Shiekh Idris



It is probably true that the thing that philosophers have in common is the problems they grapple with, not the solutions they propose.  So it is a mistake to ask about the answers of philosophy to a given question, since the number of answers may equal the number of philosophers, or at least the number of schools of philosophy.


            Therefore, true Muslim philosophy - if one must ascribe philosophy to Islam - is the Qur'an and the Sunnah, to those philosophic questions.  A true Muslim philosopher is, then, one who relies upon those sources: he delves deep into the texts of the Qur'an and Sunnah, searching for those answers; he ponders their meanings, explains them, defends them and argues with those who dispute them, using a style of reasoning and language understandable to the people of his era.


            The sources of Islamic philosophy are nor, then, the writings of those thinkers who have become famous under the label of "Muslim philosophers", such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), because they took many of their axioms from Greek philosophy, even if they sometimes - by virtue of their Islamic cultural environment - contradicted it, even in certain fundamentals. 


            The true representatives of authentic Islamic thought were the scholars and jurists with deep knowledge of the Qur'an, Sunnah, and the statements of the earliest generations of Muslims, the Salaf.  They were the staunchest opponents of the philosophers because of what they perceived in their thinking that contradicted what they new to be Islamic realities established in the Qur'an, Sunnah and statements of the Salaf.


            Philosophy in their time was synonymous with the thinking derived from the norms of polytheistic Greek thought.  We find in the writings of Muslim scholars condemnation of it and advice to the people to stay away from it.  However, if we employ a more general understanding of the term "philosophy" to mean the attempt to answer the fundamental questions associated with existence, the mind, morals, and knowledge, I see no harm in calling the Islamic answers to these fundamental issues "Islamic philosophy", as there is no point in arguing about words as long as their meanings are clear.


            The following is a brief exposition of some of those answers, which I have condensed from various writings and lectures I have delivered on different occasions through the years.  I prepared it in response to repeated requests to discuss the Islamic view on philosophy.  It is a difficult subject to treat adequately in a single article, but as our scholars used to say, "That which cannot be fully achieved should not be fully abandoned."


The Theory of Knowledge

            Perhaps the central preoccupation of philosophy is with questions connected with knowledge, the answers to which are called "the theory of knowledge."  The most important questions asked in this area may be: What is the definition of knowledge?  Is knowledge possible?  Is there some knowledge which precedes birth, or is a baby born like a blank slate?  How do we know?


What is Knowledge?

            It appears from certain Qur'anic verses that Islam supports the view that knowledge is a statement or a conceptualization that corresponds with reality.  Some Arabs used to believe that an intelligent man had two hearts.  One might, if he got angry at his wife, tell her, "You are like my mother."  He would then consider her as such and would not treat her the way one treats one's wife.  Another of them would adopt someone else's son or daughter and attribute the child to himself as if he were the biological father, just as people do now in the West.  Allah declared these claims to be nothing more than words in contradiction to reality.  The Exalted said:  Allah has not assigned unto any man two hearts within his body, nor has he made your wives whom you declare (to be your mothers) your mothers, nor has He made those whom you claim (to be your sons) your sons: this is but a saying of your mouths.  But Allah says the truth and He shows the way. [Al-Ahzab, 33:4]


Is Knowledge Possible?

            If we take this question literally, we find it contradictory, because when a person asks about the possibility of knowledge it presupposes that he knows what knowledge is, and if he knows what knowledge is, then he knows something.  However, the point of the question is: how can we know whether that which we believe to be real actually corresponds with reality and is not merely imagination or delusion?  The Noble Qur'an indicates that knowledge is one of the blessings of Allah which requires gratitude.  Allah the Exalted said: Allah brings you forth from the wombs of your mothers knowing nothing, and gives you hearing and sight and hearts that you might give thanks. [Al-Nahl, 33:78]


This verse is definitive in answering this question in the negative.  Knowledge, then, is acquired entirely after birth.  But does this mean that the mind is a blank slate upon which the senses write what they want?  No!  We read in a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh), "The mother of every person gives him birth according to his true nature (fitrah). It is subsequently his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Zoroastrian." [Reported by Muslim]


This hadith indicates that although the human being is born knowing nothing, he is not born with an empty mind; rather, in his mind are the seeds of knowledge which will grow as he grows and reach completion with his maturity.  However, this knowledge which is originally planted in each human being may be overridden by external factors, even if they don't have the power to completely extinguish it.


            What is this knowledge whose seeds are implanted in the fitrah of a human being?  The hadith treats fitrah as being something different from Judaism, Christianity or Zoroastrianism, which means that fitrah is Islam.  Obviously the meaning is not that a person after the development of his mind finds himself knowledgeable about the details of the Islamic religion.  Rather, two things are meant; first, each person is born with the seed of tawhid in his mind, that is, the affirmation that no god deserves worship except the sole Creator.


            Second, this person is born with a nature which is not suited to beliefs and conduct other than the realities and laws brought by Islam.  For that reason Allah described the religion which He revealed to His Messenger (pbuh) as being the pristine nature on which Allah created his servants.  Allah the Exalted said: So set your face for the religion as one by nature upright - the pristine nature (framed) by Allah on which He has created man.  There is no altering (the laws of) Allah's creation.  That is the right religion, but most people do not know. [Al-Rum, 30:33]


            When a person's mind and disposition are designed so that nothing but the realities and laws of Islam suit them, he will feel no contentment or spiritual peace unless he has surrendered himself to be a worshipper of Allah.  Those who believe and whose hearts feel content with the remembrance of Allah.  Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest. (Al-Ra'd, 13:28]


How We Attain Knowledge

            There are three issues which people frequently mix up when trying to answer this question.  I hope the reader will distinguish among them: What is the source of knowledge?  What are the means by which knowledge is acquired?  And what is the method which must be followed to acquire knowledge?  The source of knowledge is, as the name indicates, the place where knowledge may be found.  This means are abilities and instruments which Allah has placed at our disposal for acquiring knowledge from its source by those means.  The sources of knowledge for a Muslim are existence and revelation.

            Its means are the senses and the mind.  As for the method, it varies according to the type of knowledge and its source.  It is a mistake, then, for us to say - as to some religiously minded people - that the sources of knowledge or its means are the senses and the revelation, or that the scientific method is restricted to empirical sciences.


Acquiring Knowledge

            The verse mentioned earlier establishes that a human being is born ignorant, and that Allah the Exalted provides him with hearing, vision and intellect.  This makes it clear that it is not possible for a human being to acquire knowledge - whether it is religious or worldly - except by way of the senses or the intellect.  Why do I say the senses when the verse only mentions hearing and sight?  Because the other sense are mentioned in other verses.  This verse singles them out for mention because they are the most important senses for acquiring information.

            The senses are - as is well-known - connected to the brain and by way of it to the mind.  The mind is what converts the material arriving through the sense into things that have meaning for the person.  The sense which is most closely affiliated with the intellect is hearing.  A person hears sounds arising from natural things like thunder, wind, birds, animals and insects.  But he also hears speech which is sounds that indicate meanings.  Hearing is usually referred to in the Noble Quran to mean this second aspect. The one who doesn't understand speech or benefit from it is compared by the Quran to an animal which hears nothing more of speech that its sounds. Speech is affiliated with intellect in another way, that is, some speech is true and some is false, and there is no way to distinguish the true from the false by the senses alone; logic must be applied as well. It determines whether the speech is internally contradictory or consistent.

    If it finds it contradicting itself it rules that it is false. If it finds it internally consistent it examines the meaning: is it in accordance with the reality it refers to or not? Deciding whether there is accord or disparity might be a simple operation. If, for instance, someone says "The sun has risen," all one needs to do is look up. If you see the sun, you judge the statement to be true, and if you can't see it, you judge it to be false. Judging the truth or falsehood of a statement may, however, be a long, complex operation, such as confirming the authenticity of a scientific theory like Relativity.

The Sources of Knowledge

            All realities, whatever type they may be, have two sources only, with no third category: existence and revelation, or, let us say, the creation of Allah and revelation of Allah.  If a person makes a claim without supporting evidence from one or both of these sources, his claim is false.


            Allah the Exalted said, Say: Have you seen your partner-gods to whom you pray beside Allah?  Show Me what they have created of the earth!  Or have they any share in the heavens?  Or have We given them a scripture so that they act on clear proof therefrom?  Nay, the evildoers promise one another nothing but delusions. [Al-Fatir, 35:40]


            The worship of those people which they directed to other than Allah contains the proposition that they are arbab (pl. of rabb).  A rabb must necessarily be a creator.  Knowledge that someone is a creator may be known either by witnessing what he created in the universe or by revelation from the deity who has been established to be a creator.  If this claim has no support either in the observable universe or in the word of the deity who is the creator, it is necessarily false.


            The Islamic conception of the sources of knowledge differ, then, from the conception of materialistic atheism, which makes existence its only source and cannot conceive of a methodology of knowledge except that by which the realities of the physical universe became known.  However, it also differs from the other religious metaphysical conceptions.  The pivotal difference between it and these other systems is that the latter establishes proofs from the observable universe for its claim that there is a second source of knowledge, i.e. revelation, while the materialists deny this reality, which is indicated by the source of knowledge they acknowledge, which places them in contradiction; the proponents of other religious metaphysical conceptions believe in sources for which they possess no trace of proof for their authenticity.


            When Muhammad (pbuh) spoke to his people among the Arabs - and they were very intelligent people - many of them raised objections to his claim, using every objection a person could muster.  They left no new objection for a person after them to employ.  However, Muhammad (pbuh) answered all those objections with evidence and proofs which were the epitome of logic and rationality. 


Here are some examples:


            Some said they didn't believe in his prophethood because they didn't believe the universe had a creator.  The answer was: The how did you come into being?  From pure nothingness?  That is impossible.  Or did you create yourselves?  However, this is also impossible.  No other possibility remains except that you have a Creator Who was not created nor did He beget nor was He begotten.  Were they created from nothing, or are they the creators?  Or did they create the heavens and the earth?  Nay, they are sure of nothing. [Al-Tur, 52:35-36]


            Some said they believed in the existence of the Creator, but didn't believe in the possibility of resurrection after death.  The answer was: If you believe that Allah created the human being after a time when he didn't exist, how can you deny His ability to restore him after death, even though that would be easier?  Moreover, you see in this universe before you tat Allah the Exalted brings the earth to life with vegetation, then causes it to die with drought, then He brings it to life again another time.  The One Who revives the earth after its death, how could He be incapable of reviving the human being after his death?


            And they say:  When we are bones and fragments, shall we really be resurrected at a new creation?  Say: be you stones or iron, or some created thing that is yet greater in your thoughts.  Then they will say: Who will bring us back to life?  Say: He Who created you in the first time.  [Al-Isra', 17:49-51]


            Furthermore, if you believe in Allah, then you no doubt believe that He possesses all the qualities of perfection and is free of every flaw, and you believe that He is eminently Wise and that He doesn't do anything pointless.  However, this wise Deity sent messengers to guide the people to the path of good and warn them against taking the path of evil, and He ordered humanity to obey them.  Some people believed in them and took the path of good; others rejected them and took the path of evil.  Do you think wisdom dictates that both parties end up the same?  This world we live in is not the place of due reward, as we witness.  How many good, kind people have lived hard lives or been killed unjustly?  How many evil persons have lived in luxury and died after a long life?  If there were no life after this life in which those who did good receive the reward of their deeds and the evildoers receive the punishment of their evil, then the creation of humanity and the sending of prophets would be pointless.


            Did you figure that We created you in play (without any purpose), and that you would not be returned unto Us?  So exalted be Allah, the True King!  None has the right to be worshipped but He, the Lord of the Throne of Grace.  [Al-Mu'minun, 23:115-116]


            Or do those who earn evil deeds think that We will hold them equal with those who believe and do good deeds, the same in life and death?  Bad is their judgment.  And Allah created the heavens and the earth with truth, and that every soul may be repaid what it has earned.  And they will not be wronged.  [Al-Jathiyah, 45:21-22]


            Some of them said - they happened to be Jews - that they believed in Allah but they didn't believe in the message of Muhammad because they didn't believe that Allah sends messengers.  The answer was that one who believes that Allah doesn't send messengers has not given Allah His due consideration, because if he had known Allah the Exalted and estimated His power and nature with the estimation due Him he would have realized that it would not be possible for Him to create humanity and bestow upon them all that their bodies require of food, drink, clothing, earth, air, the sun and moon, and then fail to provide them with what their souls require of guidance, but instead leave them confused, groping, disagreeing and anxious.  Moreover, if you don't believe He sends a person as a messenger, how do you believe in Moses (pbuh) as a messenger?  Who sent the scripture he came with?


            They did not estimate Allah with an estimation due Him when they said: 'Allah sent nothing (of revelation) to any human being.'  Say: Who then sent down the Book which Moses brought, a light and a guidance for mankind, which you (Jews) have put on parchments which you show, but you hide much (thereof) and by which you were taught that which neither you nor your fathers knew.  Say: 'Allah,' then leave them to play in their vain discussions.  [Al-An'am, 6:91] 


            Some of them said, "We believe Allah sends messenger, but we wonder why Allah would send to humanity a messenger like us.  Why doesn't He send us angels?"  The answer was that angels are only sent to angels.  What is appropriate for human beings is to have a human being like themselves sent to them, to address them in their own language and provide them with an example.  If an angel were sent to them who did things which they found difficult, then he ordered them to do those things, they could argue that he is an angel who is capable of things they are incapable of.


            Say: If there were upon the earth angels walking secure, we would have sent down for them from heaven an angel as messenger.  [Al-Isra', 17:95]


            Moreover, one of the greatest indicators of the truth of his prophethood was Muhammad's (pbuh) life.  They knew him to be a truthful, trustworthy person.  He wouldn't have refrained from lying to people for forty years and then tell lies about Allah the Exalted.  They also knew he was illiterate, being unable to read and write.


            Neither did you (Muhammad) read any book before it nor did you write with your right hand.  In that case the followers of falsehood would have been suspicious.  [Al-'Ankabut, 29:48]


            He informed them that he wanted no worldly reward from them in exchange for what he was calling them to, and they saw him living among them impoverished but generous, merciful and humble; and they saw him making more sacrifices that they, and not showing the least interest in what other people possessed.


            I do not desire to do behind your backs that which I ask you not to do.  I only desire to reform, so far as I am able.  My guidance cannot come except from Allah; in Him I trust, and unto Him I repent.  [Hud, 11:88]


            Say:  I ask you no reward for it; it is only a reminder to His creatures.  [Al-An'am, 6:90]

            He gave them proofs for the veracity of his prophethood from the scripture he brought, since it was a book which reached a level of internal consistency not possible in human speech.


            Will they not then consider the Qur'an carefully?  Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein numerous contradictions.  {Al-Nisa', 4:82]

            It is also extraordinarily eloquent; it challenged the Arabs of its time, who had reached the pinnacle of eloquence, to match it or come close to it, as it was in their own language.


Or do they say he forged it?  Say, 'Bring ten forged surahs like it, and call upon whomever you can besides Allah, if you are truthful.'  If they do not answer you, then know it (the Qur'an) is sent down with the knowledge of Allah and that nothing has the right to be worshipped but He.  Well you then submit (to Him)?  [Hud, 11:13-14]


It is also extraordinary in the guidance it provides in acquainting humanity with their Lord by discourse they will not find in books of philosophy, nor in the scriptures of other religions, in explaining other ways they should worship that authentic Deity, in explaining the morals they should observe in their interactions with one another, in instructing them in the types of transactions, food and drink that will help them achieve spiritual excellence; these it ordered them with; and those which detract from human dignity and reduce people to the level of animals it prohibited them from.


It is also extraordinary in prescribing a complete system of life: from beliefs and concepts to worship and ethics, to a social system addressing the individual, the family, and the society, to a political system, to relationships with non-Muslims.  It calls to all of that with a balanced approach which is responsive to the requirements of logic, physical needs, and spiritual longing.

We say, then, that belief in a source of knowledge other than physical existence, whose authenticity is attested to by logical evidence, doesn't open the door for every claimant of transcendental source who doesn't provide a logically acceptable proof for its authenticity.  Many western writers forget this reality and place all transcendental claims in a single category.  They gather magic, astrology and false religions on one side as opposed to scientific, physical realities on the other side.  Islam denies the validity of those aforementioned sources, considers them false, and considers one who resorts to them as having committed a sin deserving punishment from Allah the Exalted.



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