Quranic Epistemology and Challenges in the Contemporary Era

Quranic Epistemology and Challenges in the Contemporary Era
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By BILAL AHMAD

Epistemology is derived from the two Greek words “episteme” knowledge and “logos” science; it means the science of knowledge. Qur’anic epistemology means Qur’anic theory of knowledge or the Qur’anic concept of knowledge. It discusses the nature of knowledge, its sources, objectives and scope, its types and branches, which branch of knowledge is useful and should be acquired, which one is harmful and should better be avoided, what is possible to know, and what is simply not possible to know, how can knowledge be acquired and so on. By Qur’anic epistemology, we actually mean how the Qur’an describes knowledge and the way to seek it.
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 Prophet-hood.
Materialist science, on the other hand, studies entities for themselves, in order to master (and utilize) 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, that is, 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.
Therefore, 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.
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. A Muslim scientist is not merely an expert, but essentially a worshipper, an ‘abd.
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).
Challenges:
There are many factors which impede the growth and development of Qur’anc Epistemology thereby limiting its scope and application in the contemporary era. Some of them are as under:
1. Division of knowledge
One of the formidable challenges faced by Qur’anic epistemology is the distinction made between the ‘religious sciences’ (al-Uloom al-Shariyah) or ‘traditional sciences’ (al-Uloom al-naqliyyah) and the ‘rational or secular sciences’ (al-Uloom al-Aqliyyah or ghair shariyah).
The late Fazlur Rahman, one of the leading Muslim scholars of the twentieth century, in his book Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, says that the division of the sciences in question was “the most fateful distinction that came to be made” in the intellectual history of Islam. This has harmed the cause of popularizing the Qur’anic Epistemology and its significance for humanity at large.
2. Sectarianism
The differences within Ummah have also caused stagnation in Qur’anic Epistemology. The diversity of intellectual schools with their respective epistemologies is either a blessing or a curse. It would be a blessing if it leads to their unity, meaning the affirmation of Qur’anic epistemology. However, it would be a curse if it leads to sectarian conflicts when each school thinks it alone possesses the truth and it alone presents the true teachings of Islam and others do not. In a climate of intense epistemological sectarianism, it would be the universal elements of Qur’anic epistemology that tend to suffer, because sectarianism tends to highlight differences at the expense of similarities and unifying elements. Sectarianism would only breed more sectarianism.
3. Lack of Ijtehaad
The emergence of the degenerative trend of Taqleed (blind following of any school of thought) resulted in the dropping of all forms of Ijtehaad. This in turn resulted into stagnation in Muslim thought process impeding ways for evolution of Qur’anic Epistemology.
4. Dearth of resource persons/ Centers
In contemporary era, there is dearth of research centers and groups dedicated to the rediscovery and recovery of classical Islamic ideas of perennial value that have been lost or forgotten. The absence of resource persons and centers who can Islamize the present branches and terminologies of contemporary sciences is among the challenges faced by Qur’anic Epistemology in the contemporary era.

—The author holds PG in Islamic Studies from IUST, Awantipora. He can be reached at: bilalrashid1924@gmail.com

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