Discourse on Knowledge and Beliefs

Discourse on Knowledge and Beliefs


Discourse on Knowledge and Beliefs: Annotated Translation of a Section on Epistemology from Abū Rashīd Nisābūrī's al-Masā'il fī al-Khilāf bayn al-Basriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīn (1)

This paper presents an annotated translation of a section on epistemology from al-Masā'il fī al-Khilāf bayn al-Basriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīnby Abū Rashīd Nisābūrī (d. 1068).[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 Shuyūkh (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, particularly vis-à-vis imitation (taqlīd), and presents an in-depth discussion with an imagined interlocutor to explain and critique opposing viewpoints. Central to understanding this discussion are concepts as hāl,[2] tawlīd (generation, particularly of notion, belief or knowledge) and sukūn al-nafs (intellectual contentment). Abū Rashīd discusses the aspects on the occurrence of which knowledge is generated (tawlīd) rather than its existence (dhāt) without (extraneous to) the hālof the knower ('ālim). Knowledge, therefore, is not an entity (dhāt) existing somewhere outside/extraneous to the hālof the knower. It will be by a certain hāl(aspect or circumstance that occurs upon/act by the knower) of the knower, that is a person doing rational consideration or recalling rational consideration or acting upon a belief/notion on the basis of the former two. It will be when one of these aspects/circumstances occurs that knowledge will be. And the occurrence of one of these aspects (as rational consideration for example) will effect or generate knowledge (tawlīd) and will afford the knower intellectual contentment (sukūn al-nafs). If none of these three aspects/circumstances (nazar, tadhakkur al-nazar or fi'l al-'ālim bi'l-mu'taqad) occurs, tawlīd of knowledge will not be. If neither hāl nor tawlīd (of 'ilm) occurred but sukūn al-nafs (intellectual contentment) is there (as might be in a case of imitation [taqlīd]-based belief, especially if it is confirmed later by rational consideration), it is then not because this was knowledge (from the beginning) but because this intellectual contentment resulted on the basis of a presumption (zann) that was not challenged by any other agent of change (sārif) or perturbed by any other prompt (dā'ī).[3] Knowledge, on the other hand, will require not just intellectual contentment on a notion/belief (i'tiqād) but also its tawlīd by the occurrence of rational consideration or recalling of rational consideration or act upon the notion that is truly knowledge by a person who is truly a knower.[4]

Different situations of application of this principle are discussed in the later part of the text. Even if this definition of knowledge is accepted, it is possible that there might be a difference of opinion on an instance of rational consideration (whether the instance is rational consideration or not) or recalling of rational consideration or an act on knowledge by the knower. Some of the questions emerging out of these differences have been discussed here. As already mentioned, of particular import in these questions is the issue of a notion/belief based on imitation (taqlīd), especially when, ceteris paribus, it seems to afford intellectual contentment as well. If imitation could be knowledge ab initio (even if it is confirmed later by rational consideration etc), it would be based on presumption (zann). Presumption, on the other hand, wavers on occurrence of other prompts. Therefore, to Abū Rashīd, imitation in itself is ignorance because in it the process of occurrence of any of the three aspects (as rational consideration etc) does not even begin nor is it apparent within despite the fact that imitation is from amongst the categories of knowledge. What is really knowledge ab initio is necessary knowledge as belief in God. Imitation cannot be equated with it. On the other hand, if imitation is effected by rational consideration etc and that occurrence is not manifested directly (rather than emerging gradually), it would be incorrect to argue that such an occurrence (of rational consideration) would have been so instantaneous so as to be unnoticed. And if rational consideration did occur as it does, then imitation would not be "imitation" any longer as it would be the same as knowledge. Therefore, imitation cannot be equated with knowledge even though as a knowledge item it belongs to the category/genus of knowledge.

The core issue, therefore is that an instance of knowledge is knowledge when it occurs in a specific aspect circumstance: that is, it occurs primarily as (1) rational examination/consideration (yakun wuqu'uhu 'an nazar) or that it occurs (2) by recalling that rational examination/consideration or (3) by the act/action on such knowledge belief of the one who has knowledge. Belief founded upon knowledge leads to intellectual contentment. Instances or acts of knowledge may not be knowledge even though they can belong to the same class as a thing which at a moment is an instance of knowledge. Taqlīd is not an instance of knowledge because it does not occur on any of the aspects mentioned above (or on any logical extension of these aspects). Its existence alone or any other attribute does not define it as knowledge as existence in itself is not a sufficient or necessary condition for definition of knowledge. Arguments that taqlīd also can lead to intellectual contentment and safeguard it from rest against prompts by some other belief acting as a possible agent of change are fallacious.

Discourse regarding knowledge and beliefs:[5]

95 - The issue regarding whether knowledge could be knowledge in itself or whether it is knowledge on its occurrence on a specific aspect:

Our Master (Abū H~āshim) opined that knowledge could not be knowledge in itself and that it is knowledge when it occurs on a specific aspect.[6] And it is more likely that this difference –regarding whether knowledge is knowledge in itself or not – occurred only in terms of a statement because, surely, Abū al-Qāsim meant by his statement "Verily, knowledge is knowledge in itself" that knowledge is not knowledge merely by manifestation of a particular property or attribute.[7]

And we also say the same thing that knowledge is not knowledge on account of a specific attribute/property, and our difference occurs regarding the question of attribute/property; when we argue that knowledge is by virtue of its occurrence on a specific aspect from the aspects as we have already mentioned, this assertion prevents us from accepting the statement "knowledge is knowledge in itself" (without qualification).

On the other hand, as far as the statement of a person who says regarding knowledge that "knowledge is knowledge in itself and within itself " and at the same time intends what we intend in a statement that "blackness is blackness in itself," then we have an issue with it because if knowledge were knowledge in itself in this sense, it would entail that all knowledge be homogenous,[8] and it would entail that it not be accepted that what is from the same class/genus as a particular knowledge [but not in reality knowledge] not be regarded as knowledge,[9] and it would be necessary to state that it is not possible that there is a knowledge item that exists but is not knowledge; whereas it is indeed possible that there is a knowledge item that exists but is not knowledge as we shall, God willing, explain in the problem discussed after this one.[10]

Appendix on some terms:

Ījī divides knowledge into two categories: tasawwur (conception/perception) and tasdīq (ratification). He defines tasawwur as al-idrāk mutliqan (cognizance/perception/ understanding in the absolute) referring to knowledge in which a negative or positive cannot be proposed (for example cognizance of the Sun). Tasdīq is defined as huwa al-idrāk almuqārin li'l-hukm(perception/conception/cognizance requiring [negative or positive verdict]): for example, "the sun is rising." Tasawwur then again is divided into two kinds: i) darūrī/badīhī (necessary/self-evident) for example cognizance/perception of hotness and coldness and ii) nazarī /kasbī as the conception of a human or animal. Tasdīq also is divided into two categories: i) darūrī and badīhī as "Fire is hot" and ii) Nazarī and Kasbī (as al-'ālam hādith wa al-Sāni' mawjūd: "This universe happens and "the Creator is present/exists").[11]Nazar/fikr (rational consideration) is understood as giving order (tartīb) to matters to be known (umūr ma'lūmah) in a way that this order or proportion makes the person doing nazar/fikr reach a known (ma'rūf)from unknown/ambiguous (majhūl).[12] It is regarded as the pinnacle of human ability to know the essence of different things to the best extent possible.[13] It is nazar/fikr, therefore, that makes a human reach the ultimate objective of knowledge and makes him/her prove religious creeds as knowledge of God.[14]


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