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Philosophy of knowledge and science in Islam

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The quest for knowledge and truth is recognized to be among human primitive dreams and desires as Socrates believed that "the highest virtue is knowledge-seeking".[1] The significance of gaining knowledge has been also emphasized in Islam when one reads in Quran "Are those who know equal with those who know not?"[2]

Acquisition of knowledge according to some Islamic traditions is better than one-year worship of God or struggling on His path; it is a sacred affair which can be sought even from non-Muslim territories: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr"; "Seek knowledge even in China" and "An hour's contemplation or study of nature is better than a year's worship of God".[3]

Philosopher Mehdi Golshani has noted that "in the Holy Quran, the word ‘ilm (knowledge) and its derivatives are used more than 780 times". But the word ‘ilm can be interpreted by exegetes in many different ways and carries various connotations such as "scientific knowledge", "religious knowledge", and "knowledge of God". Given the fact that a wide range of meanings can be used for the concept of knowledge one must seek what this term refers to in prime Islamic sources. Some meanings are applicable in social and practical life of people, but others are used in religious teachings and instructions. Golshani believes that, contrary to religious beliefs, the concept of knowledge does not apply only to religious contexts. He rejects the traditional classification of knowledge that it is either religious or non-religious. He also points out that the term knowledge has come in the most common sense in Quran. In addition, he argues that in the Prophetic hadith "seek knowledge even in China" the Prophet could not have been recommending Muslims to learn religious knowledge from Chinese people. Golshani concludes that the Quran uses the word ‘ilm for both the "human sciences" and the "natural sciences".[4]

According to Iranian cleric Murtaza Mutahhari the comprehensiveness of Islam as the last divine religion requires that any knowledge that is useful to Islamic society be regarded as part of the "religious sciences".[5]

Ziauddin Sardar, British-Pakistani scholar, supporting the universal philosophy of knowledge in Islam, writes that great scholars such as al-Biruni and al-Jahiz are just few examples in Muslim history and civilization as many prominent scholars belong to Islamic civilization in the past. And this reveals "the homogeneity of Islamic philosophy of science" and its emphasis on a variety of methods to launch "interdisciplinary investigations".[3]:66

In relation with the philosophy of knowledge one of the principles Quran puts emphasis on it is that man has the capacity to learn and understand, and that is why man is represented as God's deputy or "viceroy" on Earth. Indeed, "reasoning" has been mentioned 49 times in Quran not as an abstract idea but as a human ability with multiplicity of forms. Thus nature can be understood and the study of nature is also recommended in Quran: "Say: Consider what is in the heavens and the earth".[6]

Al-Battani, a Muslim astronomer, believes that man by looking at "astronomical phenomena" more understands the power and wisdom of the Creator.[7] Any kind of claim, al-Biruni emphasized, must be justified and substantiated as one reads in Quran "that he who lives might live by clear proof, and most surely Allah is Hearing, Knowing".[8] Avicenna (980–1037), a contemporary polymath to al-Biruni, attaching double significance to the need for proof, explains: "He who gets used to believing without proof has slipped out of his natural humanness".[4]:126

Interpreters have noted that various levels of knowledge can be inferred from Quran; these levels are expressed in different terms such as "believing, doubting, thinking, understanding, envisioning, and realizing", each of which carries a special meaning and connotation. French author Maurice Bucaille, holding a similar view, reiterates that Quran uses different vocabulary each time it calls on man to pay attention to divine signs and revelations in nature. Canadian-Pakistani Islamic scholar, Muzaffar Iqbal, citing the Quranic verse "That was the way of Allah in the case of those who passed away of old, and you will not find for the way of Allah any changes"[9] argues that Divine laws regarding the Creation are "unchangeable" and beyond human knowledge. In his view, the entire world is governed by immutable laws that can be discovered by exploring nature. Likewise, Muhammad Iqbal, 19th century Muslim poet and philosopher, considered the method and epistemology of the Quran to be "empirical and rational".[10] Abd al-Jabbar, a Mu'tazilite theologian, also stated that God governs the world according to the "rational laws".[11]

Quran in several verses asks Muslims to express evidence and require proof both in "matters of theological belief" and in "natural sciences". Ghaleb Hasan, a Muslim thinker, explains that proof in this context means "convincing evidence or argument", which is "clear and strong" not relying of course on tradition:[12] "O mankind! Verily there hath come to you a convincing proof from your Lord: For We have sent unto you a light (that is) manifest".[13] In this way, known as the Quranic method, God "exposes His Signs in detail for those who know"[14] and argues to convince the unbelievers.

See also[edit]

  • Epistemology
  • Ilm (Arabic)
  • Islamic studies


  1. Brickhouse, Thomas C.; Smith, Nicholas D. (2010). Socratic Moral Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 153. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  2. [Quran 39:09]
  3. 3.0 3.1 Guessoum, Nidhal (2009). "Science, religion, and the quest for knowledge and truth: an Islamic perspective". Cultural Studies of Science Education. 5 (1): 55–69. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Golshani, M (2003). The holy Qur'an and the sciences of nature: A theological reflection. New York: Global Scholarly Publications. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  5. Mutahhari, Murtaza (1922). Farizeh 'Ilm (The duty of knowledge). Tehran: Goftar-e Mah. p. 137. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  6. [Quran 10:101]
  7. Mujahed, M (2004). Usus al-Manhaj al-Qur'aniy fi Bahth al-'Ulum al-Tabi'iyyah The bases of the Qur'anic methodology in the study of the natural sciences. Jeddah: ad-Dar as-Su'udiyya li n-Nashr wa t-Tawzi'. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  8. [Quran 8:2]
  9. [Quran 33:62]
  10. Iqbal, M (2007). Science and Islam. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  11. Campanini, Massimo (2005). "Qur'an and science: A hermeneutical approach". Journal of Quranic Studies. 7 (1): 54–55.
  12. Hasan, G (2001). Nazariat al-'ilm fi-l-Qur'an (The theory of knowledge/science in the Qur'an. Beirut: Dar Al-Hady. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  13. [Quran 4:174]
  14. [Quran 10:5]

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