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Unassailable Knowledge
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi
(Tr. by:Dr. Junaid Hassan)

Knowledge has traditionally been categorised into badīhī (immediate)[1] and naẓarī (mediate). Immediate knowledge is considered to be spontaneously acquired without thought and contemplation, whereas mediate knowledge is said to be derived, through thought and contemplation, from immediate knowledge.[2] Consequently, the latter is regarded as the source and everything else as following from it. Philosophy began with the (rational)[3] investigation (as opposed to mythological explanations) of the external world. Later, when the reality of what we perceive came under discussion and immediate knowledge was deemed fundamental, it was understood to be the knowledge no one disagrees with. But man is such that he can disagree with anything, so doubts and suspicions started to emerge. Now the situation is that (out of four major schools of, so to speak, sceptics), one[4] insists that all our knowledge is based on sense perception, which is the foundation. All thoughts and ideas originate from what we understand through our senses. Our brain is a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate in that prior to sense perception, nothing is inscribed on it. A second school[5] claims that knowledge is a mental phenomenon, and except our cognizant mind, we are not certain of any other existent. A third school[6] claims that nothing is certain except sense-impressions. A fourth school has declared that both the faculty of sense and that of reason are untrustworthy; therefore, there is no such thing as certainty or absoluteness.

What is the outcome of all such discourse? The first school has negated reason[7], the mind, God, and the hereafter; the second does not believe in the external world; the third disagrees with them both and does not affirm anything except mere knowledge (‘ilm-e-maḥḍ)[8], whereas the fourth categorically denies knowledge and certainty and is not ready to accept any of the aforesaid entities.[9] In the postmodern era, the same ‘sophist’ mind-set wants to assert its scepticism through the dissolution of language. It claims that no sign or word (signifier) indicates the meaning of any particular entity (signified), for no signified has any definitive existence. The meaning of each word is determined with the help of other words present in a sentence. If you add or subtract a word, the meaning of the whole sentence would alter. Thus, meanings are neither located in words nor sentences; they are (essentially) nowhere. No word in a sentence fully contains meaning; therefore, it defers the meaning to some other word(s). Thus, with the help of various words, meanings take shape; the context of a passage continuously keeps changing them; they are never certain and definitive. Therefore, values associated with them are also meaningless; they too cannot be definitive (For details, see deconstructionism).[10] Such is the account of those who pursued truth without divine guidance. Iqbal (d. 1938) was not wrong when he remarked:

ہے دانش برہانی حیرت کی فراوانی11

In contrast to this, the argumentation of the Qur’ān is based on fiṭrī (natural) knowledge, divinely revealed to the human mind.[12] This knowledge is the foundation of all human knowledge and activity, and thought and reasoning. No doubt, what immediately catches the eye is immediate knowledge; therefore, presuming it to be the foundation, man starts his intellectual quest. He does not realise that it is, in fact, his natural knowledge that leads him to immediate and further to mediate knowledge. Immediacy, mediacy, reasoning, none would be possible without natural knowledge. That is because what is received from the external world are merely objects (mawḍū‘āt); their judgement (ḥukm)[13] does not come from the external world, but is intrinsically present within the human mind.[14] The mind pronounces this judgement and keeps reorienting or reconstructing the (known) objects into new objects to pass new judgement(s) about them.[15] Taste and perception are manifestations of natural knowledge, where taste is the source of action and perception the source of knowledge. It is also our natural knowledge that enables us to discriminate between a being/substance and its essential properties, subject and predicate, action and its effect(s), good and bad, beauty and ugliness, perceivable and unperceivable, and substance/being and its accidental[16] properties. From the effects (stimuli) reaching our mind through our senses, the very knowledge makes us spontaneously infer the effecters – this is what gives us conviction in the existence of the external world.[17]

As long as we are human, we cannot reject the verdicts of natural knowledge, for it reigns supreme over the human mind. It is, therefore, not something optional, but man is as helpless to accept the verdicts of this knowledge as he is to the urge of his most basic instincts. One may argue, ‘When man can deny anything, why can he not deny natural knowledge?’ No doubt, he can do so verbally, but whenever he does, his actions and the human condition[18] resoundingly falsify him. Thus, it becomes evident to every right-minded person that this denial is a manifest obstinacy. That is why Imām Hamiduddin Farahi (d. 1930) referred to it as iẓṭararī (ineluctable or unassailable) knowledge and correctly remarked that the human mind possesses a divinely-inspired organ, which should be called the locus. Therefrom emerges the sphere of knowledge we should call natural. Thereafter come immediate and mediate knowledge. Therefore, knowledge ought not to be divided into these two categories only, but into jaddihrī (innate)[19], fiṭrī (natural), immediate[20], and mediate, respectively, as this is what the facts demand.

Let us proceed in the light of the above discussion:

The Qur’ān tells that it is the nature of creatures to acknowledge their Creator.[21] Their very being is such that it necessitates a creator. To affirm His existence, no logical argument is required, but only reminding and drawing a person’s attention to it. Thus, it is a fact that (if not externally manipulated) no creature denies its Creator; instead, when reminded, it leaps at the idea with a similar zeal with which a bone-dry man leaps at water. The Qur’ān (7:172-74) narrates that, in the spiritual realm, when God gathered the entire humankind and asked, ‘Am I not your (Creator and) Sustainer?’ all unequivocally replied, ‘Verily, you are!’ Nonetheless, in this worldly life, man sometimes refuses to acknowledge God. This is mere obstinacy. Thus, on the one hand, he denies the existence of God but, on the other, he remains eager within his scope of knowledge to seek an actor for every action, a willer for every will, a character for every characteristic, an effecter for every effect, and a knowledgeable and wise organiser for every organised system.[22] All his (discursive) knowledge is a product of such pursuance. This is how the actions of such a person belie him and fully unveil the obstinacy behind his denial of God.

Same is the case with the sense of good and evil. The Qur’ān (e.g., 91:7-8) states that the human mind is innately inspired with the ability to discern good from evil and to appreciate good as good and evil as evil. Nonetheless, man sometimes denies the existence of morality. That, again, is nothing but obstinacy because, while denying, if he himself becomes a victim of some evil, he shows no hesitation in identifying it as evil and protesting against it. Not only this, but if some good is done, he expresses respect and gratitude for it, and whenever he forms a society, he definitely sets up a system of justice within it. His laws, courts, and international institutions, all bear witness to his innate sense of morality.

The question whether words can accurately signify our intended meaning is no different. The Qur’ān (17:42; 25:1) proclaims that it is revealed as the criterion to distinguish truth from falsehood (in religious matters) and as the authority to settle (religious) disputes. It goes on to say that it has communicated its message with such definitiveness that, on its basis, mankind will be held answerable on the Day of Judgement, and people will either be destined to Paradise or Hell (See, e.g., 26:193-95 and 39:28). This proclamation of the Qur’ān is based on the innate certitude man has always had in his power of speech and in the definitiveness of what he communicates through it. Thus, scholars of ḥadīth and Islamic jurisprudence state the following as an established principle:

ماثبت بالکتاب قطعی موجب للعلم والعمل23

Nonetheless, the Kalamists – lost in the labyrinths of philosophy – do not accept this principle. They insist that words signify dubious and uncertain meanings; therefore, instead of the words of the Qur’ān, rational arguments[24] are the criterion for distinguishing the truth from the falsehood. If carefully analysed, this also turns out to be outright haughtiness because to communicate their viewpoint, they make use of the same words, without showing any hesitation whatsoever that their viewpoint will not reach their audience with full certainty. More so, while listening to others and reading their texts, no such uncertainty afflicts them. When it comes to arguing and debating, their each and every word bears witness to their full faith in words. This is the testimony of the human soul against itself; no other testimony can be greater than this.

بَلِ الْاِنْسَانُ عَلٰی نَفْسِه بَصِیْرَةٌ، وَّلَوْ اَلْقٰی مَعَاذِیْرَه25

Thus, Ibn Qayyim (d. 1350) writes:

من ادعی انه لا طریق لنا الی الیقین بمراد المتکلم، لان العلم بمراده موقوف علی العلم بانتفاء عشرة اشیاء فهو ملبوس علیه ملبس علی الناس؛ فان هذا لوصح لم یحصل لاحد العلم بکلام المتکلم قط، وبطلت فائدة التخاطب، وانتفت خاصیة الانسان، وصار الناس کالبهائم، بل اسوأ حالاً، ولما علم غرض هذا المصنف من تصنیفه، وهٰذا باطل بضرورة الحس والعقل، وبطلانه من اکثر من ثلاثین وجهًا مذکورة فی غیر هذا الموضع. (اعلام الموقعین۳/۱۰۹)

 ‘Those who claim that we have no means of acquiring the intended meaning of a speaker with full certainty – arguing for this on the basis that the knowledge thereof is only possible if we first negate several facts[26] – are not only muddled themselves but want to muddle others, too. If what they claim were true, then the information within the speech of a speaker could never be acquired; talking would have become meaningless; nay, man would have lost his distinguishing feature, and people would have become worse than animals. Even what this writer intends to achieve through this writing could not be known. Therefore, common sense and reason, both suggest that this claim is utterly wrong. There are more than thirty arguments that refute it, which I have already mentioned elsewhere.’[27]

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Danish Hamid and Razi Allah Lone for their careful editing of the text and useful suggestions. – J.H.

[1] Badīhī can also be translated as self-evident, first principle, or axiom. – J.H.

[2] Another pair of terms for badīhī and naẓarī may be a priori and a posteriori, respectively. However, according to the post-Kantian definitions, the two are demarcated on the basis of experience: a priori knowledge is independent of whereas a posteriori knowledge is dependent on experience. – J.H.

[3] All parenthetical additions are mine. – J.H.

[4] Empiricism – J.H.

[5] Solipsism – J.H.

[6] Humean school, named after David Hume (d. 1776) – J.H.

[7] This is said in the context of the empiricism/rationalism debate. – J.H.

[8] Implying that, although, it is a fact that something is in our knowledge but what it is, we do not know; we have no means to analyse it. It is just a state of knowledge we find ourselves in. Neither do we know who the perceiver is, nor do we know what is being perceived, nor do we know of anything (if at all) in the external world (Pers. comm. with Ghamidi, Apr. 14, 2012). – J.H.

[9] When Descartes (d. 1650) professed, Cogito ergo sum*,’ he, after Socrates (d. 399 BCE) and Plato (d. 348 BCE), once again attempted to rescue knowledge and philosophy from such scepticism.** But this attempt could also not be decisive because he, like his predecessors, did not base his argument on the fundamental source of immediate premises within the human nature. Thus, Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), first and foremost, criticises Descartes’ tradition based on the metaphysical status of existence and insists that even ‘my own existence’ has no reality because it too (like everything else) has no absolute meaning.

* ‘I think; therefore, I exist.’

** In the original article, this sentence appears in the main text, but I have moved it here to improve the flow. – J.H.

[10] Proponents of this view fail to realise that such argumentation itself expresses their belief in the soundness of thought and argumentation. The fact is that a belief cannot be refuted but by another higher belief; this is man’s compulsion. Thus, the result of any attempt of negating something is affirming another, but man’s tragedy is that he ignores facts in the heat of emotions. Individual freedom and individualism, fervently advocated by these sceptics, is also a value, so the negation of all values comes down to nothing but the affirmation of yet another value. The situation is thus نہ جاے ماندن نہ پاے رفتن (neither a place to stay, nor a foot to go).

[11] Proof-seeking* intellect (on its own) is a sea of bewilderment – J.H.

* Adopted from International Iqbal Society’s translation

[12] For simplicity, here, the author has synonymously used the term fiṭrī (natural) knowledge for jaddihrī (innate) knowledge. In the next paragraph, however, it is elucidated that the potential knowledge divinely placed somewhere in the mind should be called innate knowledge; its manifestation produces actual knowledge, termed natural knowledge (See footnote 14). – J.H.

[13] In logic, ḥukm is defined as follows: ‘A proposition, i.e., a logical judgement expressed in a sentence. It is an assertion or statement of the relation of agreement or disagreement between two terms, one of which is called the predicate (maḥmūl) and the other the subject (mawḍū‘) of that predicate.’ (M. Saeed Sheikh, A Dictionary of Muslim Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture), p. 54)

For example, consider the proposition ‘Sugar is sweet’, where the whole proposition is a judgement, sugar the subject, and sweet the predicate. These concepts, however, are adopted in this translation with some nuance: 1) Since a predicate may be termed judgement for obvious reason, this liberty is taken to facilitate the discussion. 2) Mawḍū‘āt (sing. mawḍū‘) is translated as ‘objects’, which is more appropriate because in epistemology, ‘subject’ refers to the observer (mind) and ‘object’ to the thing observed. – J.H.

[14] A simple example of such a judgement is good/bad or beautiful/ugly. The latent concept thereof is revealed to the human mind as jaddihrī (innate) knowledge. As we come across an external object, this potential knowledge enables us to judge it as, say, beautiful or ugly. Such a judgement produces actual knowledge, termed natural knowledge here (See the diagram).

Consider a child, for example. We do not (and cannot) teach her how to distinguish beauty from ugliness; it is her inherent property to appreciate the two and distinguish one from the other. Thus, as we point to something beautiful while uttering, ‘Beautiful!’ we only give a word to her innate sense (i.e., latent knowledge) of beauty. That is why, after a few such demonstrations, she starts applying this word by herself to other objects, whose beauty is appreciated by her mind. Similar is the case of our judgements regarding, for example, time, spatial concepts (near, far, top, bottom etc.), geometrical shapes, sizes, taste (bitter, sweet, sour etc.), colours, and so on. The manifestation of these judgements (natural knowledge) would have been impossible if the potential knowledge, enabling us to appreciate all these concepts, were not innate within our minds (Pers. comm. with Ghamidi, Apr. 14, 2012 & Apr. 13, 2016). – J.H.

Natural Knowledge.tif 

[15] Suppose you find an animal (object) in the external world, make certain judgements about it (e.g., about its colour being white), and name it ‘cat’. Then, as you find a similar object but in a different colour (say, black), your mind reconstructs its known object (white cat) into a new object, ‘black cat’. Later, you come across yet another similar object but in a much bigger size and reconstruct your known ‘black and white cat’ into a ‘big cat’. Thus, each time your mind reconstructed its conception of a cat, it made a new judgment about cats and, thereby, became more knowledgeable about them. This is how our natural knowledge proceeds (Pers. comm. with Ghamidi, Oct. 18, 2016). – J.H.

[16] I.e., non-essential or contingent – J.H.

[17] No paragraph-break here in the original text. – J.H.

[18] Human condition is a term defined as ‘the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.’ (Wiktionary) – J.H.

[19] See footnote 14.

[20] The following example may help illustrate innate, natural, and immediate knowledge:

Immediate proposition: All triangles have three sides.

Natural knowledge: Awareness of, at least, the following: (i) discrete objects in the external world, (ii) difference between the essence and properties of objects, and (iii) geometrical shapes

Innate knowledge: Potential to acquire the awareness of (i), (ii), and (iii) – J.H.

[21] Our innate knowledge enables us to discern the created from the Creator.* Thus, as we perceive our self, we inevitably judge it to be a creature. Our eyes, ears, tongue, innate knowledge, brain, intellect, limbs, heart-beat, respiration, due proportion, and so on, all carry a strong impression of creatureliness. Since the creator is not found within ourselves, we are compelled to seek an external creator. This, so to speak, intuitive reasoning is so natural and spontaneous that we need not consciously develop any logical argument for it. The same affirmation of the creator takes place as we perceive the external world, since it, too, gives a strong impression of being made. That is why when the concept of God is passed down to us as a common heritage of man, we feel predisposed to embrace it as the answer to our natural and most basic inquiry: who is our creator? The Qur’ān (2:34-37) tells that it has become our heritage because God was an empirical reality for our earliest ancestors; thus, starting from them, the knowledge of His existence has been handed down to us generation after generation. Unlike the flat or the young-earth hypothesis, spontaneous creation of man, and other myths handed down to us, we have no reason to reject the concept of God. Quite the opposite, it satisfies our intellect and is corroborated by empirical evidence. Advancements in science and technology has made it ever so clear that the awe-inspiring dispositions (powers) of matter and energy are not self-explanatory. The unfolding of these powers has shaped a universe exhibiting thorough planning, diligence, deep wisdom, meaning, beneficence, beauty, harmony, mathematical order, control, self-sustainment, and so on. All this is impossible without knowledge, intellect, wisdom, will, and volition, but matter and energy are void of these. Hence, the universe ought to have an external mind behind it – the mind of an all-wise and all-powerful creator (For further arguments and evidence for the existence of God, see Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Mīzān, 11th ed. (Lahore: Al-Mawrid, 2016), pp. 85–200). – J.H.

* As a corollary of this innate revelation, we are also able to immediately recognise the things created by the worldly minds, for example, a vehicle, a nest, a web, an ant-mound, a beaver-dam, and so on (Pers. comm. with Ghamidi, July 01, 2017).

[22] Here, one may argue that this is not always the case. For example, the Atheist-Darwinists do not seek any wise organiser for the organisation present in a living cell; instead, it is attributed to ‘chance’ and ‘blind, random, purposeless, and unguided’ processes, working over long periods of time. This, in fact, is the very contradiction the author intends to point out here. Nowhere else in their lives would they be intellectually satisfied without finding an actor for even a simple action, such as theft, murder, or even a few symbols found on a cave’s wall. One may argue, and rightly so, that the human agency or mind is sought therefor simply because these are empirically known actions of intelligent beings. Let us use the same argument to analyse, for example, DNA of the cell. Each DNA molecule contains complex specified information – a feature not simply analogous but identical to language. Since the only source of any language is intelligence, we ought to infer a mind behind DNA (See John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? 2nd ed. (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), pp. 135–192).

[23] ‘What is mentioned in the Qur’ān is absolutely certain, necessitating belief and practice.’ – J.H.

[24] But post-modernist thinkers are striving to snatch away this foundation of certitude, too, from man. After this, nothing would remain with us except meaninglessness and extreme doubt, the agony of which is beyond imagination.

[25] ‘Man himself is a witness against his own soul, no matter how many lame-excuses he may invent.’ (Qur’ān 75:14-15)

[26] I.e., negate such facts about words (which hinder us from taking them in their original meaning with certainty): homonymy, figurative use, alteration in their meaning over time, a use too abstract or vague to signify the meaning without further explanation, an apparently general use but implying something specific, and such a use that makes a text contradictory to some logical premise (for example, in ‘My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge’, it would be fallacious to take ‘rock’ literally; thus, we ought to take it in a figurative sense).* For details, see ‘Alī ibn Muhammad al-Jurjānī, Sharḥ al-Mawāqif, 1st ed., vol. 2 (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Saʿāda, 1907), p. 51.

* According to sceptics, the historical transmission of lexicon (words and their meanings) is initiated by individual reporters, such as lexicographers, grammarians, and other linguists. Since it is established about individuals that their transmission cannot be beyond doubt, this compromises the reliability of meanings signified by words. On the contrary, Ghamidi insists that words signify absolutely certain meanings because, in a living language, words and their meanings are transmitted side by side through the most reliable mode of historical transmission: unanimous consent of and continuous mass-transmission by all generations of its native speakers. Individual lexicographers and grammarians merely acknowledge this consent while compiling dictionaries and grammars, respectively.

Furthermore, to determine the meaning of a word in a text or a speech, we ought to consider all the aforestated facts, i.e., homonymy, figurative sense, metonymy, and so on. The sceptics claim that knowledge of all these, like that of lexicon, is dependent on the historical transmission of individual linguists and, hence, is also uncertain. If so, then how can the determination of meaning, based on such uncertain knowledge, be certain? Ghamidi, on the other hand, insists that the understanding of all such uses of words is also certain for it, too, travels from generation to generation through continuous mass-transmission and is a common heritage of man in all languages. A person, Ghamidi argues, may indeed falter in determining, say, the literal and the figurative in ‘Lion is the king of the forest’ and ‘He is a lion’. But the collective understanding of man can never falter in this regard, and that is what enables us to correct such a person (See Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Mīzān, 11th ed. (Lahore: Al-Mawrid, 2016), pp. 26, 32–33). – J.H.

[27] Abū ‘Abdullah Shams al-Dīn Muhammad ibn Abī Bakr ibn Sa‘d ibn Qayyīm, A‘lām al-Muwaqq‘iīn ‘an Rabb al-‘Ālamīn, vol. 3 (Beirut: Dār al-‘Ilmīyah, 1973), p. 109.

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