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Discourse on Knowledge and Beliefs:  Annotated Translation of a Section on Epistemology from Abu Rashid Nisaburi’s al-Masa’il fi al-Khilaf bayn al-Basriyyin wa al-Baghdadiyyin (Part II)
Asif Iftikhar


Part of an annotated translation of a section on epistemology from al-Masā’il fī al-Khilāf bayn al-Basriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīn by Abū Rashīd Nisābūrī (d. 1068) is presented here.1 The section depicts internal differences and debates between the Basrī and Baghdadī Mu‘tazilah on some core issues as a response to a number of criticisms by Abū al-Qāsim al-Balkhī (d.931) of the Baghdādī school. Abū Rashīd, as a student of al-Qādī ‘Abd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), also defends or responds to criticisms on/questions regarding views and opinions of Basrī Shyūkh (Masters) Abū ‘Abd Allāh al-Basrī (d.980) and Abū Hāshim ibn Abī ‘Alī (d. 933). The  section for translation, taken from Problem 95, delves into how knowledge is defined and categorized.


Is it necessary that knowledge be knowledge when it occurs upon an aspect? It is a matter that is established on the basis of what we have explained later; as far as imitation (taqlīd) is concerned, it belongs to the same category as a particular instance of knowledge but is not really knowledge. When it is possible that something is found present as belonging to a particular class of knowledge but is not knowledge, then it is necessary that it become knowledge (only) when there is an occurrence on a specific aspect for it from possible occurrences/matters.  This is because if there were not a specifier specifying it for this characteristic [that is an occurrence on a specific aspect making knowledge], then it would not be possible for one item to be more appropriate in being regarded as knowledge rather than what is other than knowledge [that is a knowledge item which cannot be regarded as knowledge].2 And that matter is nothing else except appearance upon an aspect/circumstance; this is because there is no doubt that this matter/affair cannot be its [that is of knowledge] “existence” or its “coming into existence” because [in this respect] the entity of taqlīd is like the essence of knowledge and [in that sense] it also has “existence” and “coming into existence.” And it is [of course also] not possible that it be knowledge in the absence of a property/attribute as the absence of an attribute/property will be an impediment to its being knowledge. And [at the same time] it is [also] not knowledge [just] by the presence or absence of an attribute/a property as (the presence or absence) of an attribute/a property (ma‘nā) is not something that distinguishes it from imitation (taqlīd).3 So, an attribute/a property (ma‘nā) is not a factor that is effective in making a knowledge item more appropriate to be knowledge than it is effective in making imitation (taqlīd) knowledge because if a property/an attribute from properties/attributes were absent or present, or a knowledge item did not occur upon an aspect/circumstance from the aspects/circumstances that we have mentioned, it would not be possible for it to be knowledge. And when a knowledge item will occur on any of these aspects/circumstances – regardless of whether the property/attribute mentioned by the questioner is absent or whether the property/attribute that he has considered is present –, it will be necessary that it be considered knowledge. And the same will be our statement regarding the fact that an item does not become knowledge merely by virtue of someone acting upon it,4 because if the seeker intended to obtain it on the basis of this principle (that we don't agree with), it would mean that an item could be knowledge or without its having occurred upon an aspect/a circumstance from aspects/circumstances; and, this is something which is manifestly invalid. And if this principle (with which we disagree) were to hold, it would be appropriate for one of us to be incriminated for commencement of an act on the basis of mere conception (without knowledge) and an item would become knowledge without it having occurred on the aspect/a circumstance from these aspects/circumstances. And we already know the invalidity of such proposition. Therefore, it is necessary that an item be knowledge upon its occurrence upon an aspect/circumstance. And this verdict is based on the principle that imitation (taqlīd) is not knowledge even though it can sometimes be from the category of knowledge; and if it can be knowledge in one case and not knowledge in another, it is necessary that knowledge would be distinguished from what is not knowledge on the basis of a factor/matter from amongst the factors/matters.  And we shall just explain in what comes ahead that imitation (taqlīd) is not knowledge and also explain that it is nevertheless from the category of knowledge.

So, as far as the third principle (of the ones that we have discussed above) is concerned, the already described that we shall explain it later.

Now, the question is what are those aspects/circumstances that make a conception/notion knowledge upon the occurrence of one of them? It will be said to the one who has this question that our two Masters said that there must be at least one of these three aspects/circumstances: which is to say that a knowledge item must have occurred upon rational consideration (yakun wuqu‘uhū ‘an nazar) or recalling of that rational consideration (tadhakkur al-nazar) or upon the act on his belief by one who has knowledge (min fi‘l al-‘ālim bi’l-mu‘taqad).5 And Shaykh Abū ‘Abd Allāh in his Kitāb al-‘Ulūm (Book of Sciences) said that a notion/belief can be knowledge upon two other aspects:

The first of these two is when it is known that, by having an attribute, something must have another attribute, and it is known that something else has that first attribute, it is necessary for us to come to the belief that the second attribute will also be present (in the something else). (This belief too is knowledge). And this is like an example where it is known that wrong/oppression (zulm) is despicable (qabīh). When we know that something else in itself has the same attribute of zulm, we then obtain from it the knowledge that it (too) has the attribute of being qabīh.

The second aspect/circumstance is when knowledge is obtained by recalling knowledge. For example, if it is described that someone knew that Zayd was in the house at that time, and then he acts (later) upon this belief that Zayd was in the house at that time, then this belief too is knowledge as it occurs when knowledge is recalled.

(Abū Rashīd says that) Another aspect which (may) come out (in the opinion of some opponent) from the view of Abū Hāshim is that when someone does taqlīd of another on that other’s knowledge that “Zayd is in the house” and then persists in that belief until he is himself able to observe the object of knowledge, this belief too becomes knowledge.6

So, the next issue (says Abū Rashīd) is that (if this last point were accepted and) if (if it were said that) this notion/belief had occurred upon an aspect ab intio, it would be necessary (for whoever argues for validity of this opinion) that it be accepted that some prompt had beckoned a person towards that notion/belief, and (it be accepted that) the prompt towards it would not be anything except his presumption (zannhu) because he obtained in it intellectual contentment.7 Therefore, (if this kind of notion were knowledge) it would be necessary that with this presumption and with recalling of rational consideration, the person not adopt the notion while he has belief of wrong/harm in it (the notion) because this notion (if it were knowledge) should be effective in it (in not causing any wavering in belief).8 And this we have already understood that is not possible that other prompts cause wavering in it (in a notion that is knowledge in reality). Therefore, (since the notion based on imitation is susceptible to wavering by a prompt9 from another notion), how would it be permissible to say that the aspect/circumstance rendering it knowledge occurred upon it ab initio? This is because what inclines us to action must necessarily be something we find within ourselves whereas we do not find this presumption in ourselves.10 Therefore, how is it possible that this kind of presumption (based on imitation) be a prompt?11 And this (kind of presumptive) prompt is like the case of one of us who, for example, believes that there is a harm as well in some relief12 and benefit for him with reference to a particular situation. And we have already understood that in such situations it is not necessary that his state in this regard would continue on one aspect. This assertion is based on the fact that if, in this notion of his, there were a pure prompt (that is one not susceptible to doubt or wavering) related to the believed benefit, (particularly) when there was no agency to divert that aspect, it would have been necessary for this person to be under no burden (of wavering). And, if there is an agent of change/diversion even apart from the presence of doubt, he’ll not refrain from avoiding the act despite the recalling of rational consideration and presumption of intellectual contentment because of the placement of that agent of change/diversion even if no doubt has occurred upon that notion . And this we already know that he will not divert from his notion unless some doubt enters upon it whether that doubt be separate from argumentation (munfasilah ‘an al-dalīl) or it be in the place of something else that rejects it based on his apprehension of harm through it by acting upon it and on his apprehension that he would not remain safe from ignorance by it even though might consider it good despite the state (of possibility of qubh or jahl) in it that we have described above.13 So, (even after all that we have described, says Abū Rashīd), can you still escape questioning soundness of taqlīd (as knowledge in reality)?14

However, (in response to this last question), you (an opponent) could raise this point that this (taqlīd based) notion was based on certain (other, similar) matters/factors15 that the person claiming knowledge on the basis of imitation (taqlīd) was informed of and made aware of, and he knows that what prompts him towards that notion is similar to those matters/factors, and, therefore, feels safe from his notion being ignorance.

(If you [the opponent] said that, then) it would be said to you that he (the one who had imitation-based knowledge) thought he had intellectual contentment even before he was in a state of knowing; and, so, there is no escape from the conclusion that intellectual contentment was not necessitated in whatever act he did – unless, of course, you (the opponent) argue that that he is16 already aware that he had intellectual contentment – and (says Abū Rashīd) it is known that intellectual contentment can in reality not be without knowledge –; so, (we’d say, says Abū Rashīd, that what you are suggesting means that), this person is as someone who is aware of his knowing even from before and so gains knowledge at that point. And this then will not be another aspect different from what Shaykh Abū ‘Abd Allāh has already mentioned.17





1. Sa‘īd ibn Muhammad ibn Sa‘d Abū Rashīd Nisābūrī, al-Masā’il fī al-Khilāf bayn al-Basriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīn, ed. M. Ziyādah and R. al-Sayyid (Tripoli, 1979).

2. In other words, taqlīd, for example, would have been the same in terms of being knowledge. For example, if, to be defined as a student of a certain professor, a student in his class must have submitted a paper to him, the mere coming into class as a student will not categorize a student as “the student” by that definition. Similarly, it is necessary that knowledge be specified by some matter/affair – and that matter/affair, Abū Rashīd says, is none other than its occurrence on a specific aspect/circumstance.

3. For example, it goes without saying that “existence” is necessary for knowledge to be but, at the same time, it is not in itself the condition that separates/distinguishes it from what is not knowledge.

4. For example, someone who does not have knowledge (ghayr ‘ālim) but is just acting upon it as an imitator (muqallid).

5. ‘Ālim here is one who has knowledge in reality through either of the two aspects given above. This aspect is different from the act/action of the muqallid [which act, regardless of the seeming sukūn al-nafs, does not belong to these wujūh].

6. That is it becomes knowledge retroactively. The two additional points by Abū ‘Abd Allāh are clearly just logical extensions of the first three. From this sixth particular point that might be deduced from the statement of Abū Hāshim, Abū Rashīd seems to withdraw himself as he says later:

“So as far as response to the objection on the sixth aspect that was deduced from the statement of Abū Hāshim is concerned, it obligates only on someone who is convinced of it, and our object in mentioning it was that Abū Hāshim’s doctrine on this point entails this sixth point as well, and we have not said anything as such about the veracity of this doctrine that it be an obligation upon us that we defend it or respond to the objection.” (p. 300).

7. That is no intellectual dissatisfaction (idtirāb).  The question is whether this belief (taqlīd later becoming knowledge by nazar or tadhakkur al-nazar) -- if it is an instance of real knowledge – will be considered to have occurred as knowledge retroactively (‘alā wajh al-ibtidā’. Another question raised later is whether such instance of knowledge, if it becomes knowledge retroactively, could be considered as darūrī or muktasab.

8. That is the prompts (dawā‘ī ) leading to intellectual contentment should not waver. In other words, the continuity of intellectual contentment in the notion based on presumption of validity of imitation is obviously not disrupted until confirmation by later observation or rational consideration. However, will this be the case when a prompt based on another notion disrupts it? In the first notion were knowledge in reality ab initio, it would not waver by disruption from another prompt. Therefore, is it not that the continuity of intellectual contentment in this case is sometimes only because of the absence of disruption from another prompt rather than because of its being knowledge. For example, if my taqlīd of Abū Hanīfah in not doing rafa‘ al-yadayn (raising hand – additionally – in prayer) is an instance of knowledge from the outset (before later nazar) and my recalling of this knowledge is with rational consideration, then all the 70 or so ahadīth confirming rafa‘ al-yadayn and the verdicts warning of Hell (the darar) for not adopting it would not have the possibility of shaking the prompts that led to this knowledge even during the period that was before later nazar etc.  This is because the second belief (hadīth based) will become effective in bringing about a change or wavering in the prompts only if the first instance of knowledge (based on taqlīd) was not knowledge in reality. Therefore, if the second belief is effective in this way, how can you ever say that the first one occurred as knowledge from the beginning?

9. That is a prompt based on rational consideration rather than on imitation.

10. That is the kind of presumption which is based on rational consideration and which emanates from within ourselves, not the presumption which continues merely because there is absence of disruption by another prompt based on rational consideration.

11. That is a prompt which would have caused knowledge ab initio.  Therefore, the mere fact that belief based on taqlīd might have continued in a certain instance until its confirmation later by observation of the knowledge object or by rational consideration does not mean that the presumption on which it was based was one that emerged from within the intellect of the muqallid because this kind of belief can continue even before confirmation, especially when there is an absence of a second belief of any harm in acting on it. Mere continuity of action on belief based on taqlīd therefore does not make it knowledge retroactively. Because even if there was no doubt in the muqallid’s mind, a sārif (another belief/notion as an agent of change – threatening harm in the first belief ) can burden him to the extent of  wavering the prompts that led him to the first belief

12. I think the word here should be istirāhah rather than istirwāh; nevertheless, “relief” I think might be suitable as a translation for either.

13. In other words, some agent that threatens of harm or that be in the place of that which rejects it so that the muqallid is not certain of whether he will remain safe from some badness (qubh) or ignorance (jahl) by acting upon what his belief is on the basis of taqlīd despite the fact that he might still see some goodness in that continuity of acting on taqlid based belief.

14. When this change-agent does impedes continuity, we know that it could not have happened without the occurrence of doubt (whether that be separate from argumentation etc or not). In other words, what is/can be affected by a sārif can be zann but not ‘ilm.

15. For example qarā’in (aspects of circumstantial evidence).

16. I think kānā is implied here too: “was knowing at that time…”

17. That is the two aspects mentioned by Shaykh Abū ‘Abd Allāh. This then means that, with the conditions you (the opponent) have spelled out, the (imitation based) notion is in reality not imitation. In other words, if any factor/factors (for example, some qarā’in) in any way had granted the person intellectual contentment, then his notion was knowledge ab initio but, then, it was not imitation. And, therefore, your assertion that imitation can be knowledge again stands disproved.

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