Archive for the ‘Epistemology’ Category

my dear friends

seth, usama, sohaib

where are you now

what is life like for you

we are still here on earth

and your names still cross our lips

and i can still see your faces

in my minds eye

but i feel so distant from you

i cannot hear you

i cannot see you standing over there

i cannot put my arms around you

so that we can embrace

as we once did

there is no body left for you

that i can perceive

and so i type these words onto the screen

and i hope you just received

the Fātiḥa and Āyat al-Kursī I sent

as a gift

we are still debating and building and giving

worshipping our Lord in community

deeds without recompense

but you are where

there is only recompense and no deeds

so i hope your past deeds give you comfort there

but i also hope my gifts make a difference

and the day that i enter the world where you are

i will know

just as you have known

what i did right and what i did wrong

but you must know now more than you ever did before

and so it would be great if you could come teach me

a little bit about what you have learned

i learned from all of you while you were alive

it would be great to learn from you again

now that you are dead

for Allah is al-Mumīt

and Azrael has scheduled my appointment

so if you can

beseech our Lord

to help me make the most of the time i have left

i would deeply appreciate it

love you all

see you soon

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“The prayer (al-ṣalāt) is the ascension (miʿrāj) of the believer.”

There was a night unlike any other night in the last 2000 thousands years. The night that the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family, journeyed through the heavens and earth. It is known as “The Night Journey and the Ascension (al-isrā wa’l-miʿrāj).”

In the month of Ramadan, when we are focused on our prayers (al-ṣalāt), we are constantly putting ourselves in touch with this special night. This was the night the 5 daily prayers of the Muslims was made obligatory. But it was more than that. It was the moment when the veil was lifted for one of us so that they could see everything we cannot.

Our daily lives in this world sometimes lead us to feel that this Earth is all there really is for us, and that the best we can hope for in the future is Elon Musk’s rhetoric about Mars. But someone has already gone far further. Ayatollah Ja’far Subhani has captured this eloquently in his book on the prophetic biography (sīrah) and I recreate it here (with various edits) for our reflection.


The darkness of night had spread in the horizon and silence reigned over the face of nature. The time had arrived when the living creatures take rest and sleep so that they might recuperate for their activities on the following day. The Prophet was also not an exception to this law of nature and he wished to take rest after offering his prayers. However, he suddenly heard a voice. It was the voice of the Archangel Jibreel who said to him: “This night you have to perform a very unique journey and I have been ordered to remain with you. You will have to traverse different parts of the world mounted on an animal named ‘Buraq’.”

The Prophet commenced his grand journey from the house of Umm Hani (sister of the Commander of the Faithful) and mounted on Buraq proceeded to Baytul Maqdis, situated in Jerusalem, which is also called Masjidul Aqsa. After a very short time he dismounted there and visited different parts of the mosque as well as Bethlehem which is the birth place of ‘Isa and also saw various other places associated with different Prophets. At some of these places he also performed two rak’ats of prayers.

Thereafter he commenced the second part of his journey and proceeded from that place to the skies. He then observed the stars and the system of the world and conversed with the souls of the previous Prophets and also with the angels of the heavens. He saw the centers of blessing and torture (Paradise and Hell) and also saw the places of the dwellers of Hell and Paradise from close quarters, and consequently became fully aware of the secrets of creation, the extent of the Universe and the signs of the Omnipotent.

Then he continued his journey and reached ‘Sidratul-Muntaha’ (the Lote Tree of the Utmost Boundary) and found it fully covered with splendour, magnificence and grandeur. At this time his journey came to an end he returned through the way he had gone. During his return journey also he first came to Baytul Maqdis and then proceeded to Makkah. On the way he met a trading caravan of Quraysh who had lost a camel and were making a search for it. He drank some water from a container of theirs and threw the remainder on the ground and according to another narrative placed a cover on it.

It was before daybreak when he dismounted in the house of Umme Hani from the animal which had taken him to the heavens. She was the first person to whom he related this matter and on the day following that night he made it known to the assemblies of Quraysh as well. The story of his ‘ascension’ and grand journey which was considered by Quraysh to be something impossible spread from mouth to mouth in all centres and made the chiefs of Quraysh all the more perplexed.

According to their old habit Quraysh decided to refute him and said: “Even now there are some persons in Makkah who have seen Baytul Maqdis. If what you say is correct then give an account of its structure”. The Prophet not only described the structure of Baytul Maqdis but also mentioned the incidents which had occurred between Makkah and Baytul Maqdis and said: “On my way I met the caravan of such and such tribe who had lost a camel. They had a container full of water which was a part of their equipment. I drank some water from it and then covered it. At another place I met a group of persons whose camel had run away and had broken its leg”. Quraysh said: “Tell us about the caravan of Quraysh”. The Prophet replied: “I saw them at Tan’im (a place from where the ‘Haram’ commences). A brown camel was going ahead of them and they had placed a litter on it and are now entering Makkah”. Quraysh became very much excited on account of these definite news and said: “We shall now come to know about your truth or falsehood”. However, it was not long before Abu Sufyan, the leader of the caravan, appeared and people made known to him in detail what the Prophet had said.

The above account is a gist of what has been stated in the books of exegeses and traditions.

The event of the miʿrāj of the Prophet in the heavens has been mentioned clearly in two surahs of the Qur’an and has also been alluded to in other surahs. We give here briefly the verses which clearly make a mention of the miʿrāj. In Surah al-lsra’ it has been said: “Glory be to Him Who made His servant go by night from Masjidul Haram to Masjidul Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. He alone hears all and observes all.”

سُبْحَنَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِۦ لَيْلًۭا مِّنَ ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْحَرَامِ إِلَى ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْأَقْصَا ٱلَّذِى بَرَكْنَا حَوْلَهُۥ لِنُرِيَهُۥ مِنْ ءَايَتِنَآ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ هُوَ ٱلسَّمِيعُ ٱلْبَصِيرُ

This verse apparently mentions the following points:

1. In order to tell us that the Prophet travelled through these worlds in a short time, not with human strength but through Divine strength, the Almighty commences His statement with “Glory be to Him!” which points to the fact that Allah is free from all defects and needs. He has also not contented Himself with this and has introduced Himself as the Agent of the journey by saying ‘Asra’ (Allah made him perform the journey). This favour was bestowed upon him so that the people might not think that the journey was performed according to natural laws and with usual means, and might, therefore deny its possibility. It has therefore, been clarified that it was undertaken through Divine Will and special favour of the Allmighty.

2. This journey was undertaken at night.

3. Notwithstanding the fact that this journey commenced from the house of Umme Hani, daughter of Abu Talib, the Allmighty has mentioned its starting place to be Masjidul Haram. This is perhaps due to the fact that the Arabs consider all of Makkah to be the House of Allah and as such all its places are treated to be ‘Masjid’ and ‘Haram.’ Hence, Allah’s saying that: “He made him journey from Masjidul Haram” is perfectly in order. According to some narratives, however, the journey started from Masjidul Haram itself.

4. The Prophet performed the journey with his body and soul together and not with his soul only. The words ‘to His servant’ bear testimony to this, because the word ‘servant’ applies to ‘body with soul’. In case the miʿrāj had been only spiritual the proper words to be used would have been ‘to His servant’s soul.’

5. The object of this grand journey was to make known to the Prophet the various aspects of the existence of the great Universe. We shall elaborate this point later.

The other surah which clearly mentions the event of is ‘Surah al-Najm’ and the verses which you will read below were revealed in this connection. When the Prophet told the Quraysh that he had physically seen the Archangel Jibreel, when he brought the first revelation, they disputed with him. The Holy Qur’an replies thus to their objection: “Why do you contend with the Prophet about his having seen Jibreel? He beheld him once again near Sidratul Muntaha which is in the proximity of Paradise, which is the abode of good ones. It was when Sidratul Muntaha was covered with grandeur. His eyes did not wander, nor did they turn aside, for he saw some of his Lord’s greatest signs”.

The exegetes and the traditionalists have quoted many things about the miʿrāj and the things observed by the Prophet but all of them are not final and indisputable. The great Shi’ah commentator and expert Qur’anic exegete, the late Allamah Tabrasi, has divided these narratives into four groups:

1. One group of the narratives is final and indisputable, for example, the fact of the miʿrāj and some of its particulars.

2. The reports which have been quoted in a correct manner but have not reached the stage of finality, although they conform to the principles and verdict of wisdom, for example, survey of Paradise and Hell, journey in the skies and conversation with the souls of the Prophets.

3. The reports which are not apparently acceptable but are capable of interpretation, for example, the Prophet’s conversation during the night with the dwellers of Paradise and Hell which can be explained away by saying that he observed their phantoms, figures and qualities.

4. Exaggerated reports coined and circulated by the liars. For example, it is said at times that the Prophet sat that night with the Almighty or that he heard the sound of His pen.

Though it was appropriate that this grand event should have been properly recorded in all respects, yet, for some reasons, differences have risen about it and one of them is about the date of its occurrence. Two great historians of Islam (Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham) say that this event occurred in the tenth year of the Prophet’s prophethood. The renowned historian Bayhaqi believes that it took place in the twelfth year of his prophethood. Some say that it occurred in the early days of his prophetic mission, whereas others say that the time of its occurrence was the middle period of the prophethood. And at times, in order to add up all these statements, it has been said that the miʿrāj of the Prophet took place more than once. However, we are of the view that the miʿrāj in which daily prayers were made compulsory took place after the death of Abu Talib which occurred in the tenth year of the prophethood of the Prophet.

We conclude this, because it is one of the established facts of history and tradition that during the night of miʿrāj the Allmighty ordered that the Prophet’s followers should offer prayers five times a day and it is also learnt from history that prayers had not been made obligatory till the death of Abu Talib, because when he was on his deathbed the chiefs of Quraysh approached him to settle the dispute between them and his nephew and to prevent him from his activities and to take whatever he wanted as a recompense for it. The Prophet who was present there addressed the chiefs thus: “I don’t want anything from you except that you should confirm that there is no god but Allah and give up worshipping the idols”. He uttered these words and did not at all mention ‘salat’ (prayers) or other articles of faith. This in itself shows that prayers had not been made obligatory till then, for, otherwise, mere declaration of faith devoid of a compulsory action like prayers would have been useless. And as regards the fact that he did not mention his own prophethood, it was because witnessing of monotheism implicitly means confirming of his prophethood...

Those who think that the miʿrāj took place earlier than the tenth year of the prophethood of the Prophet are very much mistaken, because from the eighth up to the tenth year he was economically boycotted and sought refuge in the ‘Valley of Abu Talib’ and the pitiable condition of the Muslims did not make it expedient that they should have been subjected to an additional responsibility like ‘prayers‘…

The quality of the miʿrāj of the Prophet has been a subject of discussion for long and much has been said about its being physical or spiritual, although the Qur’an and the traditions clearly state that it was physical. However, some scientific notions have prevented a group of persons from accepting this reality. Consequently they have resorted to their own interpretations and considered the miʿrāj of the Prophet to be purely spiritual and have said that only his spirit travelled through all the worlds and then returned to his sacred body. Some have gone a step further and say that all these events were a vision and the Prophet saw different places and travelled through them in a dream. The statement of the last group is so distant from logic and reality that it should not at all be considered as a part of the traditions and opinions relating to the miʿrāj. The reason for this is that when Quraysh heard that Muhammad had claimed that he had travelled through all these places during a night they became very uneasy and got up seriously to give him the lie, so much so that this event became the subject of discussion in all the assemblies of Quraysh. In the case that his traveling through these worlds had been only a vision there was no point in Quraysh rising up to refute him and to create all the tumult. This is so because if a person says that one night, while asleep, he has dreamt this and that it cannot become an object of dispute and strife, for a dream is after all a dream and many impossible things can be seen in it…

Spiritual miʿrāj means meditation about the things created by the Almighty and observation of His Grandeur and Beauty and absorption in thoughts about Him and glorifying His name and eventual freedom from material ties and worldly interests and crossing through all possibilities and entering into internal and non-material stages. And after going through all this process a special proximity to Allah is acquired, and it is not possible to define it. If spiritual miʿrāj means meditation about the Grandeur of the Almighty and the extent of the creation, such a miʿrāj is undoubtedly not peculiar to the Prophet of Islam as many Prophets and other enlightened and pure-hearted persons have also enjoyed this position, whereas the Qurtan mentions his miʿrāj as something peculiar to him and an extraordinary distinction for him. Furthermore, the Prophet had been in the aforesaid condition during many nights whereas the miʿrāj has been proved to be related to a particular night...

If the scholars of the past have said something on account of their belief in ancient astronomy, they can be excused and are not much to blame, but it is not proper for us, during the present times, to ignore the Qur’anic realities on account of a hypothesis which has been refuted by contemporary science. Some of those interested in natural sciences, who are anxious to fix a natural cause for every event and a physical agent, for every phenomenon, have chosen to deny the very basis of the miʿrāj and think that modern natural and scientific laws do not confirm to the miʿrāj of the Prophet…

But the Prophet of Islam went on the miʿrāj with the blessing of Allah to Whom the entire creation belongs and Who is the Creator of this wonderful system. It is He who has given gravity to the earth and cosmic rays to the sun, and has created different layers in the atmosphere. And He can take these things back and control them whenever He likes. In the event that the historical journey of the Prophet was accomplished under the command of Allah all these laws decidedly surrender before His absolute Will and are in the grip of His power every moment. In these circumstances, what difficulty should there be if the Lord who has given gravity to the earth and cosmic rays to the heavenly bodies should take His chosen servant out of the centre of gravity with His unlimited power and without any apparent means? Allah who has created oxygen can certainly create air for His chosen Prophet in the areas where air does not exist.

The efficacy of a miracle is basically different from that of the natural causes and the strength of man. We should not consider the strength of Allah limited like our own. If we cannot perform a job without means we should not say that the Omnipotent cannot also perform it. From the point of view of difficulty and its solution the bringing to life of the dead, the transformation of a rod into a snake, and keeping Prophet Yunus alive in the belly of a fish in the depth of the sea, the events which have been confirmed by the Heavenly Books and have been narrated for us, are not unlike the miʿrāj of the Prophet of Islam. In short all the natural causes and external impediments are controlled and conquered by the Will of Allah. His Will does not concern only that which is an impossibility, but besides that He can do whatever He likes, whether or not man possesses strength for it or not…

A person asked the fourth Imam: “Is there a particular place for Allah?” He replied: “No”. The man said: “Then why did He make His Prophet journey through the skies?” The Holy Imam replied: “He made him ascend so that he might become aware of the expanse of the Universe and see and hear wonderful things, the like of which had not been seen and heard by the eyes and ears before.”

It is no doubt necessary that the last Prophet should enjoy such a position that he should rely on this vast information and should be able to send a message to the people of the 21st century, who are still thinking of traveling to Mars, that he did this journey without any means and his Creator was kind to him and made him fully aware of the system of creation.

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all i have are words

words that rage against the darkness

spit my self onto the page

to remind me that i am still real

i’d rather get on a plane

and carve my presence into some other place

but i know i would just be running

from the angel

watching and waiting

behind the curtain

where my friends are

where my children’s grandparents are

if i could just hear you say salam

if i could just see your face again

if the Prophet Muhammad

blessings and peace upon him and his family

would just come and tell me everything will be okay

i wouldn’t take refuge in words

and i used to write songs

but songs don’t have the purity of the pain

the hopefulness of faith

the hopelessness of suffering

the hope for this

the love for this

the yearning for this

the breaking through to a world beyond death

where Imam Husayn stands

upon him peace

where there are no scars left on his neck

because I am not a Doubting Thomas

you are my bloodied Imam

the undying Abrahamic sacrifice

and so even though Muharram is gone

you remain in my heart

bridging the gap between

the silence of my dead friends

and my dead in-laws

and the promise of God

the promise that makes everything whole

the promise that makes life out of death

turns sadness into bliss

but doesn’t shy

from the blood

and emaciated bodies

racked by disease

and the injustice and cruelty

that goes on every day

that I don’t have the power to destroy

but I try to destroy it in my self

until I feel dead inside

because I would rather die

then let loose pain on the world

and yet 72 bodies pile up in Kunduz

fathers and brothers and lovers and kids

and there is nothing I can do

but send my Hail Muhammad

the Lord bless thee

and the fruit of Khadija’s womb

as protests into the unseen

believing but not yet knowing

with the eye’s certainty

how the Divine Algorithm works

that takes prayers from this earthly mess

and rewraps it

into gifts for the world between

California and Resurrection


i am still here

and i have the time to write

on this day

in this place


i don’t know

i always thought i would die young

i planned my journey as triage

but here i am

old and weak

a would be poet with the youthful heart of a wanna be warrior

in a world that keeps moving

while I hold the dead close

and type words on a screen

for al-Muḥyī al-Mumīt

because it is not my choice

when i live

or when i die

so let me make the most of this day

and the day after that

until my last day in this world

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Imam al-Naqī عليه السلام once went to visit one of his companions who had fallen sick. The fear of death had robbed him of all tranquillity and calm, so the Imam addressed him as follows:

“O servant of God, you fear death because you do not understand it correctly. Tell me, if your body were soiled with dirt so that you were pained and discomforted and afflicted with running sores, and you knew that washing in the bathhouse would rid you of all that filth and pain, would you not wish to avail yourself of the bath house to cleanse yourself of the dirt? Or would you be reluctant to do so and prefer to remain in your polluted state?”

The sick man replied:

“O descendant of the Messenger of God! I would definitely prefer to wash myself and become clean.”

To this the Imam responded:

“Know, then, that death is exactly like the bathhouse. It represents your last chance to rid yourself of your sins and to purify yourself of evil. If death embraces you now, there can be no doubt that you will be freed of all sorrow and pain and attain everlasting happiness and joy.”

Hearing these words of the Imam, the sick man changed completely and a remarkable tranquillity appeared on his face. Then in dignified fashion, he surrendered himself to death, in the shroud he had drawn around himself, full of hope in God’s mercy. He closed his eyes which had now seen the truth and hastened to his eternal abode.

[related by Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari in the book “Resurrection, Judgement and the Hereafter”]

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Dear God

i guess You created me in a time where writing on a computer would be the way that I speak to You so often

it would be so much more romantic if i had a quill and inkwell, sitting by candlelight, as i wrote my munājāt in beautiful calligraphy

would You like me more if i sat cross legged on the floor as i do this?

would it be more authentic?

or is it okay that i am sitting on the couch?

i have to believe that You are more interested in the substance than the form

all i have to give You is my faqr

that raw, sheer need for You

that aching desperation that only You know

and i am nothing

i hate being responsible for myself

i hate having to be the one who has to decide

i just want You to lay it out for me

“write your dissertation about this topic!”

ok, if You say so

“follow this historical intellectual tradition!”

sure, good to know that is the one You prefer

“raise your children this way!”

allright, let’s do it

but instead it is me, with my books, and my blog posts, and my searching out critical discourse

listening to other fuqarāʾ like me

hoping for an insight

seeking the way

but how can i actually complain to You

how can i not feel like You have answered my prayers

that seems like the height of ingratitude

but am i never not in desperate need of You


there will never come a time

no matter how learned my mind becomes

no matter how pious my body can be

no matter how sincere my heart is

where i am still not a beggar after Your Mercy

You are my mother


You are so much my refuge

that i seek refuge in You for the wellbeing of my own mother

the one who nursed me

the one who has shown me love my whole life

only You i beseech to give her eternal happiness

and only You can grant it

there is no god but You, transcendent You are, surely i am from the oppressors

there is no where to turn, except You are there

and so i turn once again

seeking everything i have always sought

willing to change for You

over and over again

i know i can change for You

i have left that which i have loved

i have left those whom i have loved

i have come to Your doorstep because

how can i do otherwise

the one who has caught a glimpse of You

tasted one drop of the nectar of Your ḥamd

reached the mental point of ḥayra

and understood a bit of You as al-Ghanī al-Mughnī

how can there be any going back

but there is one thing i do ask of You

i ask what your Prophet reportedly asked

do not leave me to myself

for i know i am not the authority

You are

and i cannot find my way

if You do not guide me to You

yā Ḥayyu yā Qayyūm

bi raḥmatika astaghīth

wa min ʿadhābika astajīr

aṣliḥnī shaʾnī kullah

wa lā takilnī ilā nafsī wa lā ilā aḥadin min khalqika

tarfata ʿayn

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We are already sacred.

When we think of the foundational ritual of our religion, it is the ṣalāt.

It is nothing but our bodies, the land and water.

The land upon which we live.

The water that we need to survive.

The bodies through which we have this human experience.

The ritual that our Creator call us to perform every day is rooted in the ever-present sacredness of us and our surroundings.

It requires nothing else but that which is already there as the foundations of human life on Earth.

We are already sacred, and the ṣalāt is a reminder of that reality.

We can forget.

We can temporarily unpurify our bodies, the ground and/or the water.

But daily connection with the sacred is intention–>water–>body–>land.

It is the foundational truth to which we return again and again.

The stark confrontation with the real.

Land. Water. Bodies.

الله الله الله

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We were sitting in the New York University prayer room, overlooking Washington Square Park.

Across from the fountain and arch, there are large apartment buildings that we could see from our 5th floor view.

Our teacher that day, Shaykh Khalil, had a message for us that I will never forget.

“One of the mercies that we do not always perceive is the mercy of the veil.”

What was he getting at?

“There are so many thing happening around us all the time, and we do not even know, but Allah knows. You see that apartment building across the park? Perhaps someone is being raped in there right now. Perhaps a child is being abused. Perhaps a murder is taking place. And we are veiled from all of it.”

I felt my heart sink. It was true. In a city like New York, beneath the veneer of nice restaurants and quirky street performers lay something sinister. One could feel it.

“But Allah does not ask you to confront all of it. Because you can’t handle it.”


I think about that day a lot. The cruelty of the world overwhelms me, what little of it I can comprehend. I have witnessed things that have changed me forever. But I still have hope in eternal meanings that help me to reconcile it all.

I don’t know what the future holds. Like many, I am sometimes filled with anxiety and worry. But I am thankful for the fact that Allah is gentle with me. I am still a recipient of the mercy of the veil.

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Ayatollah Mutahhari was one of the most profound ‘ulama of the 20th century. Here follows a summary of some his views on knowledge. The numbers are references to page numbers in The Theory of Knowledge: An Islamic Perspective, trans. Mansoor Limba (published in 2011 by ICAS Press in London on behalf of an Iranian institution called “Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies”).

Both individuals and groups have “worldviews,” and those worldviews give rise to “ideologies” about how individuals and groups should live. In classical terminology, these were referred to as “theoretical wisdom” and “practical wisdom.” [2-3] A worldview is built on knowledge, which is either correct or incorrect. [4] Various thinkers explored the limits of doubt, but the fact that one believes one can distinguish true versus false perceptions is proof enough that knowledge is possible. [5-11]

The Qur’an exalts knowledge in the story of Adam, and encourages humanity to seek deeper knowledge of all things. [12-21] Both the senses and the intellect are required to generate sound knowledge [28-32], and the Qur’an upholds this view. [32-37] The heart also plays a role, and this is acknowledged by the Qur’an. Each has their own sphere and proper functioning. [38-46]

Nature itself is a source of knowledge, and the senses are the tools to access it. The intellect and heart are also sources of knowledge, and philosophical thought and refinement of the self are the tools to access these sources respectively. [54-8] History is also a source of knowledge. [69-73] The Qur’an denies false distinctions between outward objective reality and inward subjective reality. [58-63]

There are varying views of the stages of knowledge, but the main point is that the senses take in particulars from nature, and the intellect derives more general insights from analysis of these particulars. In this regard there are two fundamental stages of knowledge: perception and analysis of those perceptions. [77-103] Attachment based on love and aversion based on hatred can color our perceptions of reality. [117-121] Knowledge itself is not experienced through direct perception. It exists as an immaterial symbolic reality, which pushes us toward greater awareness of the immaterial realm. [124-130]

The normal operations of the mind exist on the basis of the unconscious mind, which is far vaster. [134-140] The existence of the immaterial unconscious mind is analogous to the immaterial unseen realm upon which this universe is built. Abraham, upon him peace, followed this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, that there was only One unseen Creator of all that is perceptible. [142-147]

Focusing on whether or not knowledge can be put into action – for example, the way an engineer uses her knowledge to make a smartphone – is only one criteria of validity. The answers to many questions, such as the origin of the universe, are not actionable, and therefore their validity is not determined by their usefulness. [157-166] The widespread acceptance of a view, even by the learned, is not a proof in and of itself. [173-8] For example, the widespread acceptance of a view, combined with the focus on putting knowledge into action, is not foolproof. Ptolemaic observers of the heavenly bodies could accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses, and their views were widely accepted. [189]

Leaving aside a quest for true knowledge turns knowledge into a tool for wielding power. [204] Even focusing on putting knowledge into action is a type of search for true knowledge and preferable to a political nihilism that sees knowledge as nothing more than an instrument of power. [205-7] Putting knowledge into action is the foundation of all higher knowledge, and thus has its own intrinsic value. [208]

ربي زدني علما

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد


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4 types of knowledge

I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow intellectual sojourner yesterday, and I realized that I had a very particular “personal theory of knowledge.” I saved my friend from a detailed explanation of it, but resolved that I should write it down, to make my own subjective thoughts available for public consumption and critique. It is often not until we have exposed our ideas to critique that we discover their true worth or unexpected flaws.

Over the years, I have teased out a few particular strands of knowledge, each of which has a different “taste.”

  1. Knowledge as Entertainment: This type of knowledge is gained easily and casually. Even if the subject is of a serious nature (Islamic history, for example), it is not gained for anything other than the pure pleasure of learning. For me learning has a particular type of pleasure, just as food, sex, rest, and power/influence have particular types of pleasure. It is because of this pleasure that I can spend days lost in books, with little human contact. This type of learning is not a means to an end – it is an end in and of itself.
  2. Knowledge as Interpretation: This type of knowledge can also be pleasureable, but it is more serious in nature. I have a complex question that I want to answer, and so I may forgo other learning which is more pleasureable because I know that I need to spend time learning certain things in order to justifiably answer a question that I have posed to myself (for example, how Islamic law developed the way that it did). This type of knowledge requires equal parts curiosity and mental discipline, primarily because it is highly synthetic – it is made up of many different types of information brought together for their collective usefulness in answering a question. It is also cumulative and communal – any answer to the question is based on the writings of other people who have attempted to answer the same question or related questions. This is the type of knowledge that leads people to write long and complex books, and then admit that for all their decades studying the subject, they are still unsure of many things. As such, it requires a great deal of intellectual humility before the vastness of knowledge.
  3. Knowledge as Problem Solving: This is the most practical type of knowledge, in worldly terms. It involves a lot of the second type of knowledge, but it is not interested in interpretation – it is interested in action. It is not interested in any more depth than is necessary to do something in the here and now, and is ultimately more concerned with the action upon which knowledge is built than the knowledge itself. For example, when I have some money to invest, ultimately all I really want is the maximum return on invesment that I can get, within the limits of law and ethics. So I spend some time doing research in order to make a decision about where to invest my money – whether I was right or wrong is determined solely by whether or not I make money on my investment. The sophistication of my research means little if it does not have its intended impact in “the real world.”
  4. Knowledge as Self Rectification: This type of knowledge is the type that I believe is the most important. Al-Ghazālī states that this type of knowledge, “increases your fear of God Most High, improves your ability to discern the faults of your ego, makes you more cognizant of how to worship your Lord, reduces your desire for this world, increases your longing for the next world, and opens your spiritual insight to the disastrous defects of your actions so you can avoid them.” (taken from Bidāyat al-Hidāya [The Beginning of Guidance]) This knowledge, although at times containing elements of the previous three, is built on a unique premise about which the other three are essentially unconcerned – that I will eventually die and be judged on how I spent my life. As such, this type of knowledge revolves around a concept of otherworldly priorities – what can I study today that will matter most should I die tomorrow. This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life. In the meantime, if one is intellectually gifted, one can do tons of learning for entertainment, interpretation, and problem solving – all the while still struggling to live up to that one line.

I recognize that I have been blessed more than most human beings in the history of the Earth to have the time and luxury to study and think and discuss. And my main conclusion so far is that the first three types of knowledge must be subordinate to the fourth type of knowledge. Knowledge as Self Rectification can be immensely pleasureable, but that is not its purpose, only a secondary benefit. At times, it can actually be incredibly gut-wrenching, because it exposes me to the worst of my own self and demands that I change. Knowledge as Self Rectification can involve matters of complex interpretation – for example, I needed to gain a fair degree of literacy in Muslim history and the Islamic intellectual tradition before I was able to truly benefit from the historical legacies of Islamic law, theology, and Sufism. Even after much study, I know that my perspective is not the only justifiable one – it is a constantly evolving process which can always be improved based on more knowledge. Knowledge as Self Rectification can also involve problem solving, such as trying to make as much halal money as possible in order to fund further studies! Ultimately, though, Knowledge as Self Rectification provides the lens through which all of knowledge acquisition makes sense in light of the most important fact I know (that I will die) and the greatest idea that I have ever committed to (that God will be waiting for me when I do).

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