Thursday, 7 November 2013

Islamic epistemology

Exam the day after tomorrow, so I'm being as concise as possible on some thoughts on Islamic epistemology. Most of them resulted from a conversation with a friend.

As I see it, there are five things are relevant to acquiring knowledge (defined as justified true belief) about the truth of Islam:

1. The natural human constitution or Fitrah
2. Rational laws embedded in human psyche
3. Observation
4. Scriptural evidence
5. Guidance from God.

This is one way the five of them could interact.

Because of his fitrah, a person is able to know the existence and Lordship of God even prior to any evidence being presented to him. The fitrah doesn't enable one to come to know about the details of the Islamic creed (much less law), however. That's the function of the messengers: to delineate these concepts to people. Men with clear fitrah would recognize these truths on face value. Does this "pure fitrah" scenario preclude the use of observation or rationality? That's a tough question, I think. Ibn Taymiyya was probably of the view that fitrah works even without instigation from external signs (observations, rational proofs about God and His religion). Or maybe, the pure fitrah works on the instigation of external signs and evidences, in which case rationality and observation would not only be relevant but serve as a premise for the fitrah's functionality.

However, things are rarely this simple in the real world, because most of the time the fitrah is corrupted by this or that factor, most common of them perhaps being ignorance (this is equivalent to the epistemological results of the Christian doctrine of The Fall, I think). This is why God sends Messengers to make people know about the existence of God and proofs of His existence, as well as the proofs for the specific religion. This is where the rationality and observation really comes in. For someone with clouded fitrah, it may not be intuitively obvious that God exists and Islam is true straight off the bat. However, after some sincere rationalizing and observation, he would definitely come to this conclusion.

In the case of Islam, the proofs for the existence of God are chiefly the allusions to the cosmological and design arguments in the Qur'an, while the proofs for Islam are the Prophet's sincerity complexed with the Qur'an's literary inimitability, among others. So someone with working rational faculties, upon being exposed to these rational evidences would be expected to become a Muslim.

However, expectations often go contrary to reality, and this is where the hidayah factor comes into play. There is no such thing as "sledgehammer apologetics", when we're talking about truths of a worldview. What I mean by this can perhaps be illustrated with an example. Abu Jahl saw the moon being split as a miracle of the Prophet (pbuh). Now this is as strong as evidence gets. Did he accept Islam, or even feel somehow rationally compelled to do so? Nope, he just added an extra assertion to his anti-Islamic worldview- magicians are also able to do it. Truth to tell, one can never refute a worldview, one can only show that worldview X has better explanatory scope than worldview Y. Was the Aether theory ever "refuted" conclusively? No, we just found a far superior intellectual substitute and thought it rational to go along with that. The point being, just the evidence and callings of your fitrah cannot "force" you to become a Muslim. That would run contrary to the whole idea of this life being a test. You need to have a degree of sincerity to choose the true hypothesis over the false one. This is perhaps the level at which Allah's guidance steps in- it creates additional motivation for the sincere person to accept Islam. In this way, it is made sure that the people Allah guides to Islam are not only intellectually capable people, but are good, virtuous, sincere people.

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