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Knowledge: Who Defines it, God or Plato?

The ideas of Socrates as explained profoundly by his student, Plato still dominates the religious world. Regardless of the distinctions that exist among world religions, the idea that knowledge is not empirical as it is based on divine insight are found in religious literature and sermons given in synagogues, churches, temples and even in Masjids.

Knowledge does not come from learning, observation or study, argued Socrates, Plato’s teacher, because knowledge is a matter of recollection. He views with contempt the idea that human beings can grasp the reality based on their senses because reality is beyond the reach of senses. Invisible world is the most intelligible and the visible world is the least knowable, he concludes. The physical world is a “shadow” of its ideal or perfect forms and would disappear like a shadow.

This theory of metaphysics has influenced the history of Western philosophy and religions in general including Islam.

The Quran challenged this notion. The divine message as preserved in the last testament, the Quran, demolished the Socratic-Plutonian concepts when it said: “We have not created heavens and the earth and all that is between them, without any purpose. This is the surmise of only those who deny the truthfulness of Our guidance, and the result of such ideas is nothing but destruction. (38:27) or “Allah has created the heavens and the earth with truth, in order that each person may be recompensed what has earned, and they will not b wronged. (45:22) or “to Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, that He may requite those who do evil with that which they have done and reward those who do good what is best. “ (53:31)

Thus in the words of the Quran, those who held the world as unintelligible and unworthy of exploration were described as unbelievers. In contrast, believers were identified as those who make efforts to understand the world and contemplate on the creation: “Allah created the heaven and the earth with truth. Verily, therein is surely a sign for those who believe.” (29:44) “And We did not create the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, for mere play.” (44:38)

The Quran commanded believers to follow a methodology to comprehend and use the creation. “And follow not that of which you have no knowledge, verily the hearing and the sight and the heart shall have to answer in regard to the question of whether knowledge was acquired about the concerned matter. (17:36)

Those who do not use these rational faculties to acquire knowledge were described irrational beings: “And surely, We have created many of the jinn and human beings for Hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, and they have eyes wherewith they see not, and they have ears wherewith they hear not. They are like brutes, nay even more astray than those. They are the heedless ones.” (7:179)

This methodology of applying rational faculties to discover the truth spread around would lead people of knowledge to find the purpose of things created by Allah. “And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and Allah has power over all things. In the creation of the earth and the heavens and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for those who understand (people of knowledge). These people keep Allah’s guidance in mind whilst standing, sitting or reclining. After reflecting upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, they cry out, “O our Sustainer! You have not created this Universe in vain. Glory to You. Grant us the respite from suffering.” “O our Sustainer! Grant that our efforts in this world are not wasted, for those whose efforts are rendered waste lead an ignoble life and these wrongdoers have no helpers. We had heard the voice of a caller calling us to believe in You and we have believed. So, our Sustainer! If we falter, grant us protection and remove the ill-effects of our deeds. Grant us the companionship of those who have secured real freedom as a result of adhering to Your guidance. O our Sustainer! Grant us all that You have promised us through Your messenger and do not put us to disgrace on the Day of Reckoning. We have a firm belief that you do not go back on Your promises.” (3:189-194)

This is how the true believers are advised to conduct their lives: “Verily, in the heavens and the earth are signs for the believers. And in your own nature, and in [that of] all the animals which He scatters [over the earth] there are messages for people who are endowed with inner certainty.” (45:3-4) Or,

“And in the succession of night and day, and in the means of subsistence which God sends down from the skies, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and in the change of the winds: [in all this] there are messages for people who use their reason. These messages of God do We convey unto thee, setting forth the truth. In what other tidings, if not in God’s messages, will they, then, believe?” (45:5-6)

This process of exploration and contemplation would lead to the understanding of the majesty, authority, grandeur and power of Allah as is explained in the following verse:

“It is God who has raised the heavens without any support that you could see, and is established on the throne of His Almightiness; and He [it is who] has made the sun and the moon subservient [to His laws], each running its course for a term set [by Him]. He governs all that exists. Clearly, does He spell out these messages, so that you might be certain in your innermost that you are destined to meet your Sustainer.” (13:2)

The Arabic expression liqa Rabb does not only mean that one would meet Allah personally in the life hereafter. It may also mean that people develop a sound understanding of their Creator in this world because the Quran also reminds us “No human vision can encompass Him, whereas He encompasses all human vision: for He alone is unfathomable, all-aware. (6:103)

Those who do not explore, understand and reflect on His signs are the ones who are denied of His blessings as explained in the following verse: “And [thus it is:] they who are bent on denying the signs of God’s messages and of their [ultimate] meeting with Him - it is they who abandon all hope of My grace and mercy: and it is they whom grievous suffering awaits. (29:23) This could mean losing his blessings in this world as well as in the world hereafter.

Thus the Quran explains that the knowledge is gained through using one’s senses and the responsibility of human beings is to acquire the knowledge of the creation because this would ultimately lead one to develop a sound belief in the reality of the Creator. The Quran explains this in this verse “In time We shall make them fully understand Our messages [through what they perceive] in the utmost horizons [of the universe] and within them­selves so that it will become clear unto them that this [revelation] is indeed the truth. [Still,] is it not enough [for them to know] that thy Sustainer is a witness unto everything? (41:53)

Thus in Quranic terminology true scholarship develops when believers develop a true understanding of the universe, as created by Allah, through reflections and contemplation, use the knowledge gained to serve Allah’s creation and world. In Surah Fatir, the Quran explains: “Are you not aware that God sends down water from the skies, whereby We bring forth fruits of many hues - just as in the mountains there are streaks of white and red of various shades, as well as (others) raven-black and (as) there are in men, and in crawling beasts, and in cattle, too, many hues? Of all His servants, only such as are endowed with [innate] knowledge stand [truly] in awe of God: [for they alone comprehend that] verily, God is almighty, much-forgiving.” (35:27-28)

Thus the Quran invites believers to study His universe in depth. This is called scientific inquiry. All those references in the verse are about a knowledge that we have categorized in several scientific disciplines. Their study helps true scholars realize the majesty of the Almighty. The study of all these sciences ultimately leads to the reality that there exists the knowledge, beyond all that is available in the name of knowledge that is known only to the creator.

Our dilemma is that we have divided the knowledge created by Allah into the worldly and religious sciences with the notion that religious knowledge is superior to the worldly knowledge or scientific knowledge. This is not a distinction given to us by the Quran. Knowledge is indivisible because whatever we want to know about is all created by Allah.

We discover the creation and the purpose of the creation through two distinct methods. Empiricism is one such method that helps us discover the laws our Creator implanted in our physical creations. When we study botany or human anatomy or neurosurgery or orthodontics or zoology or biology, we study those laws that were implanted in the objects by Allah because He is the source of all creation.

Revelation or Wahi is the other source of knowledge. This knowledge is given to human beings through Prophets only. Thus we believe that the Quran is the Wahi that was revealed to the prophet from Allah, the Almighty. This Wahi invites us to study the creation of the universe outlines the purpose of our creations, explains the code of conduct that we should have in our life, defines the nature of the relationship that we should have towards the universe and the fellow human beings and admonishes us to use the knowledge that we acquire through senses to serve the purpose as determined by Allah.

Thus in the divine scheme of things, there is no distinction between the worldly and religious knowledge. The confusion comes when one group gives superiority of one over the other or negates one over the other. The Quran reminds us that we should not create this false division. As explained by the Quran: “…. Do you, then, believe in some parts of the divine writ and deny the truth of other parts? What, then, could be the reward of those among you who do such things but ignominy in the life of this world and, on the Day of Resurrection, commitment to most grievous suffering? For God is not unmindful of what you do. (2:85)

In our religious literature and writings, while we place emphasis on the revealed knowledge, we often ignore the importance of the acquired knowledge that we are commanded to have through using our senses. Sometimes we are even told that the knowledge of social or natural sciences is contrary to our concept of knowledge because this world is a thing of play, a Platonian idea strongly challenged by the Quran.

The negligence of the knowledge of the creation of Allah spread in the universe is the reason that 56 Muslim majority of countries with about 20 percent of the world population generate less than 5 percent of the world’s scientific knowledge. In between 900 and 1200 CE, the Muslim world accounted for the hundred percent of the world’s scientific knowledge. The decline came when we conveniently ignored the totality of the divine guidance and created the false divisions between the secular and religious knowledge ignoring the fundamental belief that everything is created by Allah and we only discover whatever exists out there based on our capacity created by the divine.

Ask yourself a simple question: When was the last time you heard a sermon (khutbah) in your masjid on the importance of acquiring scientific knowledge as part of your religious obligation? When did you last read a book or article circulated in your masjid or Islamic Center focusing on the importance of scientific knowledge essential to complete your deen?

Thousands of our young men and women, sincere in their belief in Allah and committed to serving Him are constantly taught Platonian ideas within the garb of Islamic theology forcing them to change the focus that Allah wants them to have.

Who is responsible for this debacle and who is to be held accountable for this ignorance of the Quranic message. The answer is with us. Either we follow the Quranic understanding in matters of knowledge or give primacy to Socrates whose ideas were idealized by Plato.

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