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Qur'anic Epistemology
Apr 1, 1996

By Qur’anic epistemology, we mean how the Qur’an describes knowledge and the way to seek it. But you may ask, why look for an epistemology different from that of modern science? Doesn’t technology prove the effectiveness of modern science? It would appear that as the technology which brings people so many worldly benefits is based on modern scientific knowledge, that knowledge must he right. That is the reason why science is so popular.

We all know there are laws in creation and everyone can benefit from them. However, man has been given the freedom to interpret them as he wishes. What is wrong is not the laws or the benefit from them, but the materialistic interpretation of those laws - modern science is a materialistic interpretation of the laws and of phenomena. Indeed, it never alludes to God or His existence. The method of materialist science, the so-called scientific method, is deterministic. It is based on causality. That is, it claims that things are causally related to each other, i.e. that causes produce their effects. However, in order for a cause to produce an effect it has to be able to produce the whole universe in which that effect takes place. For, an effect cannot exist without the whole universe being there first to enable it. Materialist science speaks about causes as though they were creative agencies or ‘gods’. Belief in causality is the antithesis of the belief that ‘there is no god but God’, which is the core of the Qur’anic world-view.

In order to begin to develop an appropriate method of inquiry, we need first to define the general goals of the Qur’an, to understand how it instructs us in its basic aims such as the Divine Unity, prophethood and resurrection, and how it teaches us to look at creation.

The Qur’an does speak about the natural phenomena around us. For instance, it mentions water about 60 times, the heavens 310 times, and the earth 451 times. Drawing attention to the countless benefits and purposes in the creation of each entity, the Qur’an reminds us that such benefits and purposes can only proceed from absolute knowledge, will, power, and mercy.

While causes are adjacent to their effects, in reality causes and effects are both created. The Qur’an leads our attention from causes to the Creator of causes. It calls us to read the signs of His wisdom in the universe, leading us to knowledge of our Maker with all His Beautiful Names. In short, the Qur’an teaches us that none other than Him, no thing, no cause, can be an object of worship, that all thanks and praise are due to Him alone. It makes us understand that we have been created to be worshippers.

The aim of Islamic science, corresponding to the aims of the Qur’an, is to make known the Creator with all His Beautiful Names and to confirm Divine Unity, resurrection and prophethood.

Materialist science on the other hand studies entities for themselves, in order to master (and exploit) their properties. By contrast the Qur’an speaks only briefly of the nature of entities and their material properties, but dwells at length on their duties of worship, i.e. how and in what respect they point to their Maker’s Names there is nothing but extols His limitless glory and praise (17.44).

Indeed, when Muslim scientists, thinking Islamically, look at the universe around them, they understand that they are glorifying their Maker, reciting and revealing His Names, hidden behind the veil of causes.

Resisting epistemic tyranny

Muslims must choose either the Qur’anic method or the scientific method, since the two are incompatible. That does not mean reading the Qur’an and neglecting study of the universe. It means studying the universe under the guidance of the Qur’an and not studying it, as materialist scientists do, only under the guidance of unassisted human reason.

For strictly materialist scientists, any hypothesis that does not argue according to the scientific method and accept its authority is to be disregarded. The extreme version of this position, expressed in Eddington’s famous remark - ‘What my net won’t catch isn’t fish’ - is an attitude that can only be described as epistemic absolutism.

Muslim scientists should not submit to this tyranny; if they do, they are bound to become imitators of scientism. Muslims know that materialist science does not produce knowledge of God, yet they dare not question it. They proclaim that they accept revelation as the basis of knowledge but, in practice, they test it for consistency with the scientific method. They seem not to realize that a scientific method that does not yield knowledge of God cannot be acceptable to Muslims.

Only when we take Revelation as our point of reference and follow the Qur’anic method do we begin to see how biased and illogical the scientific method of justification is. Consider this example:

Take two plants, both exposed to normal sunlight. Water one regularly; do not water the other. After some time, we see that the plant which has not been watered wilts. This is supposed to demonstrate that water is one of the causes of normal plant growth. In fact all that we observed was this:

In the absence of water plants do not grow. This is altogether different from saying that water is among the causes that make plants grow. The growth of plants depends on innumerable factors. The absence of only one of these factors is enough for a plant not to grow. The experiment does show that plants do not grow in the absence of water. It is logically unjustifiable to leap from there to the conclusion that ‘water is an agent or cause of the growth of plants’.

This sort of reasoning reminds us of the incident in the life of the Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, when he faced the tyrant Nimrod (Qur’an, 2.258). Nimrod argued with Abraham and claimed that he could give life as well as death. To prove his claim, he asked for two prisoners to be fetched, ordered the death of one and spared the life of the second. Nimrod’s reasoning was that if he had had the second prisoner killed, he would not be alive. Therefore, he had given him life. This is similar to how the scientists argue that if there is no water, plants will wilt and die: therefore water gives life to plants.

The reason is that materialists take the conjunction of events for causality. That is, if two events coexist, they imagine that one causes the other. And in their determination to deny the Creator they make claims like: water causes plants to grow. They never ask how water knows what to do, how it does it and what qualities it has that enable plants to grow.

Asking positive questions

The Qur’an teaches us to ask questions, to lift the veil of causes and investigate the reality behind. It asks us to look, for example, at the endless benefits found in water and in the growth of plants and food so vital for life. Then it instructs us how to ask positive questions like:

Does water possess the knowledge and power to grow plants? Does it know the laws and properties of the formation of plants? Does it know their structures and have authority over them? Indeed water acts in a masterly way in all living organisms. Without its help we would perish. Yet, how can we claim that water possesses such qualities as power, knowledge, will, compassion?

Water is an unconscious entity; it has no will, knowledge or power. It can only be the submissive servant of One who has the power to create it and all plants and food, who knows all living beings and their needs. That is, the Creator and Disposer of water knows everything and has control over everything. His mercy and compassion encompass all things. Water must be in the employ of the One whose knowledge, will, power and compassion are all- comprehensive, absolute.

Consider a flower. How does its beauty come about? Can the unconscious seed, or soil or sunlight produce it? Do they have the knowledge, the power or the will even to make a flower, let alone make it beautiful? A flower can only exist with the whole universe in place first: to produce one single flower, therefore, one must be able to produce the whole universe in which it exists, that is, have absolute power, knowledge and will, which are the attributes of God alone.

In short, when we ask positive questions like ‘Can water cause the growth of a plant?’, ‘Can soil or sunlight produce a flower?’ belief in causality collapses. From this, we conclude that the scientific, or rather the materialistic, paradigm of knowledge, does not constitute sound knowledge.

Qur’anic method: the staff of Moses

The efficacy of the Qur’anic method may be likened to the staff of Moses. It swallows all the deceptions of materialist science.

And (then) We inspired Moses, ‘Throw down your staff!’ And lo! It swallowed up all their deceptions: Whereupon the truth was established, and vain was proved all that they had been doing. (7.117-8)

Materialist scientific knowledge cannot meaningfully explain the phenomena around us. Rather, it conjures up the idea that, for example, water is a strange entity that can mysteriously achieve miraculous things. Such distorted descriptions cannot fulfil our need for knowledge and understanding. Indeed, to attribute absolute knowledge, will and power to an unconscious entity is nothing more than superstition.

By using technical words like photosynthesis, mitosis, etc., to describe events, materialist scientists ‘cast a spell’ on people’s minds so that they appear to have given them a wholly satisfactory explanation:

And when they threw down (their staffs), they cast a spell upon the people’s eyes and struck them with awe, and produced mighty sorcery. (7.16)

In fact, the ‘mighty sorcery’ of materialist science is no more than that: They follow nothing but surmise and their own wishful thinking (53.23).

Whereas materialist science seeks mechanical advantages over the phenomena of nature, knowledge following the Qur’anic paradigm seeks understanding and meaningfulness. It tells us about things in order to make known their Creator with His Attributes and Names. It produces new knowledge, the knowledge of God. As if a molecule of water were saying in its own way ‘Look! I am unconscious and powerless, but I perform infinite duties which require absolute knowledge and power. Do you not see that I am acting at the command of the Possessor of Absolute Knowledge and Power?’ For this reason, a Muslim scientist is not merely an expert, but essentially a worshipper, an ‘abd, one who should not imitate the modern-day sorcerers of the Pharaoh but say, instead:

‘God’ and leave them at play with their vain talk (6:91).

To Muslims, study of the universe is desirable and acceptable because (and if) it yields knowledge of God and belief in God.

An Islamic science must work hand in hand with Revelation and proceed under its guidance. Otherwise it will fail to explain anything; it will fail to produce sound knowledge. It must seek out the wisdom and mercy in the creation, and thereby improve human beings’ understanding of themselves, the universe and the Creator. Bare information about natural phenomena can be transformed, using the Qur’anic method, into knowledge of God and wisdom (hikma). In this way, the purpose of creation, which is the worship of God, is fulfilled:

And I have not created the jinn and men to any end other than that they worship Me (51 :56).