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-Baṣriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīn III

Part of an annotated translation of a section on epistemology from al-Masā'il fī al-Khilāf bayn al-Baṣriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīnby Abū Rashīd Nisābūrī (d. 1068) is presented here.[1] The section depicts internal differences and debates between the Baṣrī 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-Qāḍī 'Abd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), also defends or responds to criticisms on/questions regarding views and opinions of Baṣrī Shyūkh (Masters) Abū 'Abd Allāh al-Baṣrī (d.980) and Abū Ḥāshim ibn Abī 'Alī (d. 933).The section for translation, taken from Problem 95, delves into how knowledge is defined and categorized

When a person is aware that he had knowledge, then it is not possible that any detached doubt[2] that occurs prompt him towards ignorance (that is dissuade him from knowledge). We also know that when someone becomes conscious from sleep, he could become ignorant by detached doubt (ignorant of the certitude of intellectual contentment that he was a knower). On the other hand, if he knows that he was a knower in a state of intellectual contentment regarding his awareness, what shall we say about this kind of knowledge: is it necessary (ḍarūrī) or is it acquired (muktasab)?[3]

So, if you said that this kind of knowledge is necessary, it would be like saying that just as he knows compulsorily (iḍṭirāran) that God is because it is only knowledge of God compulsorily that makes him know that he has intellectual contentment. But if he became knower by inference (istidlāl), then it will be necessary for you to say that he did rational consideration and inference after (regaining) awareness (intibāh) because it is only after this reasoning and argumentation that he will know in this case that he is knower in a state of intellectual contentment. In that case, he should find in his self that he is rationally considering or inferring. But the fact is that he does not find any such thinking process within himself.

Another issue is that if that (view[4]) is accepted, what will be the escape from Abū 'Alī's statement that the person obtains this knowledge item on rational consideration but this rational consideration is very brief rather than long and that it is for this reason that he does not find/see in himself this aspect (of rational consideration).

(However) The problem (asserts Abū Rashīd) is that if he gained this knowledge item by inference, it is only gradually that he'd know that he was before that a knower of all his notions/beliefs in a state of intellectual contentment. And, it would be necessary that this state of intellectual contentment then appear in him, and it would be necessary that he did not take this knowledge that he knew before he became awake/aware except after a long period of time.

So, if the knower thinks that he is in intellectual contentment, what will be the indication/sign of this presumption? And why does this presumption based in an earlier prompt continue until the person is faced with what competes against this presumption? And this much you know that when the knower acts upon his presumption and then it (the act) becomes burdensome/difficult or he is faced with something that makes it difficult, his state in that act starts becoming different, and it becomes possible for him to sometimes continue his action based upon that presumption and also to sometimes not continue it; for example, a person who thinks that the journey might benefit him, do you not see that sometimes he takes the journey and sometimes not?

So, if you say that when the prompts are strong, the knower (by presumption) will change his act just as he's driven to eat in hunger.[5] Then, it will be said to you that this argument is correct only in cases where he reaches the extent of coercion. As far as the acts in which he just faces difficulty are concerned and in which the prompts are varying, it would not be correct to say that that his state (of variation) will continue in this manner because of the placement of one of the prompts (that do not coerce as such).

And what you said regarding notions/beliefs in necessary knowledge -- that they are knowledge because they are from the act of the knower of the notion/belief -- this too is not correct; because this is like saying what the Mujabbirah say that the state of the actor (one who takes the action) becomes effective in the state of the act itself.[6] Whereas his being knower of the notion/belief is related to something else.Therefore, how is it possible that it would be effective in this matter?

So, as far as what Shaykh Abū 'Abd Allāh proffered of the two other aspects that you do not regard as correct because the first of these aspects is as if one of us knows that oppression is bad and knows that a particular thing is bad in itself; then it would be necessary for him to be knower of its badness by the third knowledge which he adopts instead of the first two instances of knowledge and this that you have rejected in Abū Ḥāshim's statement that the person knows its badness by the first knowledge and that this (first) knowledge was not related to the thing and then (later) would obtain the relationship; and the second instance of knowledge will be the condition for its connection.[7]

Now, if there were a third instance of knowledge that a person adopted on the basis of the prompt, it would not impede him from not adopting it when he believes that there is a great harm upon him in acting upon it; and this would clarify that this notion (that there is a great harm in it) is in the place of coercion to not act upon it. And, this you know that a verdict on knowledge cannot be established on the basis of the prompt related to coercion. And we also know that along with the evidence of these instances of knowledge, it is necessary that the person know of its badness; even if he believes in the notion that there will be a great harm to him because of the badness in this thing itself.

And as far as the other aspect which he has mentioned is concerned, it is from what a person does on recalling of his being a knower of something; so it would be knowledge because it is from the act of the one who recalls knowledge. And it will be the recalling of knowledge that would be the prompt for him towards it. Even that is not correct because if it were recalling of his being knower of the prompt towards it, it would be possible despite this recalling that he not adopt it by virtue of his belief that there is harm for him in it. And then it would be possible that he turn from whatever he does on the basis of the prompts despite the presence of those prompts so that he may part from what (harm) is attached to them (particularly when/) because he knows that this act is related to his discretion.

So as far as what was derived from the opinion of Abū Ḥāshim is concerned, (if it were correct) it would be then necessary to say that badness sometime becomes good on that it would not be possible that what remains (from the aspects in which badness is not good) occur on an aspect; so it will not be correct with these two principles that you people say that imitation can become knowledge.

The answer regarding it is that it will be said that the one who does rational consideration is effective in his act of rational consideration without any other cause.[8] And there is nothing to make the attribute of the one who is able to do the act refrain from being effective in the verdict of his act.[9] It is like when we say that are being of volition becomes effective in the occurrence of our statement as information. And it is on two aspects of the act we do that this volition separates (from that effectiveness) in its not being connected to that act:[10]

The first of these two is when it is possible for it to be related to the act; as far as the cases in which this relationship is not possible, it is not necessary. [11] And the second is that is necessary when the act occurs on an aspect in a way that it is appropriate for it to occur upon another aspect.[12] It is then that it will necessarily be effective in the act to which it is related; whereas we already know that, when this notion occurs on rational consideration, it is necessarily knowledge.[13] Therefore, it is not necessary for the one who does rational consideration to be connected/related to it to be effective in this principle.[14]

So if it is asked that if the state of someone doing rational consideration is not there, could this rational consideration in itself make the notion knowledge upon its occurrence, it would be said that it is more likely that it would produce the notion but will not be effective in obtaining the object of this principle (that is knowledge);[15] because that is not the share (what it obtains) of the cause (sabab) in itself; the share of the cause is the issuance of the caused (musabab). And it would be possible to say that the cause has been effective in it.[16] The proof of this is that if God had created within us any sign (dalīl) regarding rational consideration and, consequently, that person had become a knower of that sign in the aspect on which that sign takes effect, then knowledge would have been effected.[17] But it would still not be possible that it be said that the state of one of us is effective in dispensation of God's act.[18]

And as far as what the questioner has asked regarding recalling of rational consideration that, if it can be effective (in making a notion knowledge), then the knowledge of the sign as it occurs on an aspect should also be effective, the answer to that is that we have decreed rational consideration as effective because it is not possible to relate a person's being a knower to any other aspect. But it is not possible regarding knowledge of a sign upon the aspect which effects it.[19] And this is because we know that when one of us gets to know a sign on aspect that effects it, he does not become a knower of what it signifies until he contemplates its case/state, and he knows that if he neglects himself from consideration even not be able to reach knowledge and he reaches it only in the state of rational consideration when he is informed of it.[20]

Now, as far as the third question is that the question raised is concerned, our answer regarding it is that the agent of change that he mentioned,[21] it will not be effective in causing disruption in this notion/belief, and the only thing that is effective in it is doubt. An example of this is that when a person comes to know that a certain kind of apparel is specific to a certain people, and he sees a person wearing that particular dress, even strongly presume him to be from amongst those people; and it would of course be necessary for him to make this presumption in the presence of such sign even if he believes that there is some harm in making this presumption;[22] so, similar is the case regarding what the questioner asked.

So as far what the questioner mentioned fourthly is concerned, our response to it is that when one of us finds himself doing rational consideration and regards himself as a knower, it is not likely to leave his presumption that he is in intellectual contentment from before (from the beginning); so, the state in which he was before will prompt them to continue in it. And this is like a person knowing that he has the presumption of living in the future, and so he prepares for what he is responsible for even if that presumption is not apparent to him or parts from him,[23] and (therefore) is not even possible that it be said that all the prompts that take effect are always apparent to us.

So now(supposing a prompt is there), if it is asked how this prompt continues despite the fact that what it prompts us towards is extremely difficult/hard, that is, for example, how would it be possible that the presumption of benefit in trade continues as a prompt towards it despite the trade being extremely hard or harmful; then it would be said: the difficulty knowledge is only that a person keeps himself from doubt approaching him; so when we consider this state of our self and consider the situation, we see that is only this aspect by which difficulty is related to knowledge. And what you have mentioned regarding going to trade is totally different from this because trade in itself has become difficult/hard.[24] So, in that case it is not prohibited that he take the option of relief at one point and turn down the opportunity to travel, and, at another point, take the option of difficulty/hardship in travel out of his desire for benefit.

So, if it is said that a person is responsible for that in which the prompts are not wavering, then it would also be possible to say that the one who has been coerced also be responsible, it will be said in response that the prompts that we mentioned waver because it is possible that doubt occur in what the person believes,[25] and despite that his states in intellect and awareness for rational consideration be sound; but the possibility of his wavering in prompts is still there (in because of the possibility of occurrence of that doubt). If this were not so, you (the opponent) should have said that one of us is not coerced that he not kill himself at this time just because this possibility is there that his state in the future might change and he might obtain this belief/notion that giving will make them reach some benefit, and the possibility occurrence of this doubt in him will make him in this regard wavering in prompts and take it out of the ambit of coercion.[26] So, the one who makes this objection will be told that that person was not now under coercion to kill himself with his knowledge that this killing is destruction of his soul and will take him from life to death, that doubt will not prompt him towards killing; and he in his belief is convinced neither of any harm greater than killing nor of any benefit that one who feels himself and has such and such state will be at the pinnacle of his intellect. He will surely be inclined to give himself only when he believes that the harm it has gone away or he believes that doing that will make them reach a benefit similar to the one considered in the belief of people of Indus (India).[27] So, this is the kind of prompt that might take him from the state to that state because of the possibility that such doubt has occurred in him that makes him go to that extent.


[1]. Sa'īd ibn Muḥammad ibn Sa'd Abū Rashīd Nisābūrī,al-Masā'il fī al-Khilāf bayn al-Baṣriyyīn wa al-Baghdādiyyīn, ed. M. Ziyādah and R. al-Sayyid (Tripoli, 1979).

[2]. Munfasilah 'an al-dalīl(detached from the argument), that is an extraneously affecting doubt. It's the same idea that was mentioned earlier: And this we already know that he will not divert from his notion unless some doubt enters upon it.

[3]. That is the kind of notion 'alā wajh al-ibtidā' (at the first instance, for example right after sleep), which notion/knowledge item is not perturbed by shubh munfasilah -- if it is not based on naẓar, or tadhakkur al-naẓar, or fi'l al-'ālim bi'l-mu'taqad – could it be called ḍarūrī or is it muktasab?

[4]. That it is necessary knowledge because a person does not find himself doing rational consideration or making inference on obtaining awareness after sleep to regain this knowledge.

[5]. That is it will be the "coercion" of a strong prompt (as danger or hunger) that will cause the change not an inherent change in the presumption.

[6]. In other words, that would be like what the Jabariyyah say regarding state (ḥāl) of the fā'il (actor) – who is 'ālim (in the case of 'ilm ḍarūrī, God) is effective in the act (fi'l). This would be contradictory to the ikhtiyārī position of the Mu'tazilah.

[7]. When he knows that this thing is ẓulm too (the second instance of knowledge). First: "Ẓulm is bad"; second: "This particular thing is Ẓulm." Third: "This thing is bad."

[8].When rational consideration takes any belief/notion as its object, it does not require any other prompt to be effective.

[9]. For example related to the All-Powerful.

[10]. That is it is in two aspects that volition is not effective in the act of the actor.

[11]. For example (in Mu'tazilite thought), God's knowledge vis-à-vis my act based on it may not be always connected.

[12]. For example if a professor did an act to make me read and did another to make write, the volition in first act will be effective in the second only if it is connected/related to it.

[13]. Here, the issue of connection/relation is not relevant because with occurrence on this aspect of rational consideration it is always knowledge.

[14]. For the one who does rational consideration it is not necessary that the volition/act of God that is behind this person's act be connected to this persons act to be effective. (This is the main point here). When we have a case where the belief/notion rational consideration commences (there is one who begins doing rational consideration) this in itself becomes effective. In other words, in this rational consideration of a person, the hāl of God is not necessarily effective per se.

[15]. Because this is not the function of sabab (cause); the function of sabab in itself is just the issuance of musabab. That function belongs to the musabib (causer/occasioner).

[16]. That it is possible for us to say that the cause has been effective to the extent of issuance of the caused.

[17]. And if God had created in one of us rational consideration regarding a sign and that person had become and were knower of the aspect in which the sign takes effect, it would have effected knowledge.

[18]. That is in His act of creating our rational consideration. Abū Rashīd adduces this analysis shows that "the compulsion" that the Jabariyyah talk about has nothing to do with his opinion. In other words, al-ulum al-ḍaruriyyah remain acts of God ('ālim bi'l-mu'taqad) and, at the same time, do not cause any jabr (compulsion) in a person's (knower's) rational consideration (naẓar). The objection was that can our states (ḥālāt) not be termed as acts of God as well. Abū Rashīd says that the volition of God (His being Murīd) will be effective in the same way as our volition but it does not mean that the act of rational consideration that we do will be effective in the act of God thereby making God responsible for our act. Our act will remain independent of God's act of making it occur in us. God's making them (necessary knowledges) occur in one of us makes it knowledge, but this knowledge comes to me through rational consideration. So, knowledge items that become my knowledge will become knowledge through rational consideration or recalling of rational consideration etc, but the knowledge effected by the act of God has become knowledge. And our becoming knower of the sign (dalīl) is the consequence of our use of rational consideration.

[19]. Knowledge of a sign/circumstantial evidence in itself does not make a person a knower ('ālim)

[20]. For example I may be aware of the sign/evidence of God's existence as the sign/evidence becomes effective in producing knowledge but until my rational consideration of the sign/evidence on that aspect, I can become knower of what it signifies (that knowledge). Or, supposing I am aware of an opinion of Abū Ḥanīfah and am also aware of the reasoning on which it is based, but unless I have considered it on the aspect on which it occurred, I don't become a knower and knowledge as my state doesn't occur.

[21]. Which prompts the order of the belief/notion by the possibility of harm (ḍarar) to waver in his presumption (ẓann).

[22]. Harm (ḍarar) can be an impediment to an act (fi'l/ 'amal), but it cannot be a disruption in the notion (unless there is a doubt, which is what creates the disruption.

[23]. So, although he doesn't see the presumption emerging, yet his act (fi'l/'amal) begins on the basis of knowledge of the presumption. Therefore, if intellectual contentment on the presumption continued by rational consideration later, it is not necessary that the emergence of presumption manifest itself to the person holding a notion/belief before it becomes knowledge by rational consideration.

[24]. It is the act (fi'l) itself that has become difficult/hard not that the knowledge about the benefit in it has been disrupted.

[25]. In our example, says Abū Rashīd, we never said that the prompts cannot waver. The one who holds a belief/ notion is nevertheless susceptible to doubt.

[26]. Abū Rashīd is using argumentum ad absurdum in the example that the personis forced at this moment not to kill himself and the possibility of some benefit in the future in killing himself should lift that coercion from him because the person who is coerced will not be wavering in his prompts; and, what you (opponent) are saying is that a doubt in the future will take even him out of coercion.

[27]. Referring to the Hindu belief in reincarnation.


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