Reflections on the Scope of Knowledge in Islam: The Interdependence of the Spiritual and Material Dimensions

By Ghulam Abbas Hunzai

The Holy Qur’an’s encouragement to study nature and the physical world around us gave the original impetus to scientific enquiry among Muslims. Exchanges of knowledge between institutions and nations and the widening of man’s intellectual horizons are essentially Islamic concepts. The faith urges freedom of intellectual enquiry and this freedom does not mean that knowledge will lose its spiritual dimension. That dimension is indeed itself a field for intellectual enquiry.

I cannot illustrate this interdependence of spiritual inspiration and learning better than by recounting a dialogue between Ibn Sina, the philosopher, and Abu Said Abul-Khayr, the Sufi mystic. Ibn Sina remarked, ‘Whatever I know, He sees’, to which Abu Said replied, ‘Whatever I see, He knows’.

(An excerpt from the speech delivered by His Highness the Aga Khan at the inauguration of the Aga Khan University in Karachi on November 11, 1985)


The ‘Scope of Knowledge’ is only one aspect of the vast subject of Islamic epistemology which includes the origins, nature, forms, means and validity of knowledge. The article seeks to focus mainly on the ‘scope of knowledge’ in Islam. The discussion on knowledge is followed by certain observations which will locate the subject in its historical context. The discourse leads to certain conclusions pertaining to knowledge and education.

Islam firmly believes in the possibility of the attainment of valid knowledge, therefore scepticism can be dismissed at the very outset. Once the possibility of knowledge is established, the next logical step, perhaps, is to determine its boundaries or scope. The major source to attain the understanding of the ‘scope of knowledge’ in Islam is the Holy Qur’an and its subsequent authentic interpretations. The following discussion is, therefore, based mostly on these sources.

The framework for the perception of knowledge is the presence of the knower, the knowable and the means (senses) through which the knower knows the knowable. We shall look into the Qur’an keeping this primary frame of knowledge-situation in mind.

A proper reflection on the Qur’an convinces the reader that it emphatically appeals to the human faculty of cognition to reflect, observe, consider, comprehend, meditate, contemplate and realise. The seat where this reflective activity takes place is called the heart (qalb) or (rational) soul (nafs). Thus the rational soul is the knower or recipient of the knowledge. The Qur’an appeals to the faculty of understanding to reflect and understand, for, if this faculty is not activated man plunges himself into an emotionally destabilised state. And emotionally guided perceptions do not give the true picture of things as they exist.


The Qur’anic emphasis on the act of reflection encourages the intellect to be inquisitive and prepares it to accumulate, assimilate and integrate all forms of knowledge. In such an inquiring mode the believer humbly but earnestly supplicates to Allah saying: “Lord, increase my knowledge.” (Holy Qur’an, 20:112).

The inquiring intellect (knower – aqil) comes into contact with the creation (knowable – ma’qul) through the senses (hawas). The Qur’an does not brand empirical knowledge as illusive, unreal or deceptive; rather it exhorts the believer to fully utilise it in comprehending Allah’s signs (ayat Allah) in the creation. In this regard the Qur’an says, “And We had endowed them with the (faculties of) hearing, seeing, heart and intellect.” (Holy Qur’an, 46:26). Allah declares about those who either misuse or do not use the senses, “They have hearts yet they cannot understand; eyes yet they do not see; ears yet they do not hear. They are like beasts (anam), indeed they are less enlightened, such are the heedless.” (Holy Qur’an, 7:179). These verses clearly establish the significant role of the senses in the Islamic notion of knowledge.


The third aspect of the epistemological hierarchy is the knowable or the intelligible — that which can be known. This factor seems to be crucial in determining the boundaries of understanding — ‘the scope of knowledge’.

According to the Qur’anic teaching there are three major areas which can be ‘intellected’. They are (1) the creation or nature (khalq or fitra); (2) revelation, i.e. holy scripture (wahi or kitab); and (3) the soul (nafs) which includes intellect as well. This means that the intellect is potentially capable of comprehending everything including itself except its Originator – Allah. These three realms constitute the existence as such and are formed of the divine signs. The signs indicate to their common Origin, Allah, and also indicate to each other confirming and substantiating each other’s existence.

First Realm: Creation

Allah says in the Qur’an “Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding.” (3:190). In the following verse reflection on creation has been described as the specific characteristic of those who constantly remain in prayers. The verse states, “Those who remember Allah, standing, sitting and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the creation in the heavens and the earth, (saying): ‘Lord, You have not created these in vain.” (Holy Qur’an, 3:191).

The knowledge of creation taken in itself, constitutes empirical science; when it is seen in relation to the spiritual world it becomes a part of gnosis (ma’rifat) in the recipient’s mind. The Qur’anic declaration of man’s mastery over the universe clearly establishes human capacity to discover and control various phenomena in the creation.

Second Realm: Scriptures

The second realm wherefrom man derives knowledge is the Holy Scripture. Allah states in the Qur’an about the Prophet that he recites Allah’s verses to the believers, he purifies them and teaches them the Book and the wisdom or hikmah (Holy Qur’an, 3:169). The Prophet (SAWS) and after him his appointed Imams unveil the meaning of the Qur’anic verses through the God-given knowledge (‘ilm-i ladunni). Human intellect can attain the profound meaning and wisdom from Qur’an when it reflects on Qur’anic verses in the light of the teachings (ta’lim) of the guide. Through this esoteric knowledge the believer finds out that the essential form (surat) of revelation and creation is the same – he discovers a transcendental unity behind their apparent diversity.

Third Realm: The Self or the Soul

The Qura’n also makes it imperative for man to reflect upon himself; in other words man has been guided to attain knowledge about himself. This self-knowledge enables him to realise his essential nature, the purpose of his life, from where he has come and where he will return. This knowledge also enables him to understand his exact position in the scheme of existence, particularly his relation to Allah and His creation. Before the attainment of the self-knowledge, the soul remains restless, but this knowledge brings with itself perfect peace and satisfaction.


The foregoing discussion indicates to the contours of the Qur’anic concept of knowledge which in its broadest sense is all-inclusive. In other words, it covers both spiritual and material aspects of existence. This also establishes the fact that the entire field of existence is open to human intellect for reflection and discovery. Any conception of knowledge which excludes either of the above aspects cannot be, in the true sense, Qur’anic or Islamic. Ignoring one aspect will be tantamount to ignoring the signs of Allah without which the picture of reality remains incomplete. The misunderstanding of the underlying Qura’nic scope of knowledge may render tawhid (the doctrine of the ‘Oneness of Allah’) superficial for the profound knowledge of tawhid is attainable through the proper appreciation of all dimensions of Being.

If the Qur’an is not regarded a fecund source of profound principles, there is a strong possibility of the Qur’an becoming a source of frivolous polemics, the necessary consequence of which is disputes and divisions that are diametrically opposed to the Islamic spirit of unity, which reflects the Unity of Allah.


When, in the light of the foregoing discourse, the history of Islamic epistemological development is analysed, it becomes fairly clear that one of the chief causes of the problems experienced by Muslims was the misrepresentation of the profound scope of knowledge given in the Qur’an. Muslims advanced rapidly in all aspects of life in the earlier centuries of Islam. This was due to the fact that they understood the spirit of Qur’anic concept of knowledge. They not only absorbed all available forms of knowledge, they also contributed substantially to its collective growth.

In the wake of the thirteenth century of Hijra (i.e from the latter part of the 18th Century), the tendency became dominant in Muslim society according to which science and philosophy were not truly Islamic because they were not allegedly available in the Qur’an. This narrow vision immensely damaged the profound spirit of the Qur’an which stimulates profound reflection and inquiry.

When a nation’s spirit of inquiry weakens, it undergoes a psychological change and acquires a state whereby it becomes either fatalistic or emotional. Such a nation starts looking for wrong causes for its genuine problems. The intellectual vision becomes myopic and consequently it becomes intellectually crippled. Thus the Muslim downfall seems to be co-extensive with the actualisation of the dangers implied in the narrow interpretation of the Qur’anic notion of knowledge. The splits and sometimes conflicts between religious and secular institutions of education in modern Muslim society are another serious consequences of this narrow interpretation.


In the light of the preceding discussion one can conclude that Muslims today should try to resolve the epistemological crises that began centuries ago. The solution lies in finding out and enforcing the Qur’anic scope of knowledge in both the material and spiritual realms as explained so well in the above excerpt from a speech delivered by Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini Hazar Imam, the current Imam of the Ismailis.

In practical terms this can be done through evolving a philosophy of education which should take into account both scientific and spiritual aspects of knowledge. The education system based on this philosophy will create individuals and institutions capable of accepting the ever increasing new forms of knowledge without sacrificing the fundamental principles of Islam. They will have the willingness and courage to contribute towards the growth of human consciousness. The awareness of spiritual dimension can provide moral foundation and a sense of direction to the society, otherwise the  exclusive and unadulterated pursuit of material progress can lead to pride and engender an evil vacuum of destructive forces.

Publication date: November 7, 2010




1. The Holy Qur’an.
2. Arif Tamir, Jam’at al-Jami’at, Beirut.
3. Nasir-i Khusraw, Zad al-Musafirin, ed. BazI aI-Rahman, 1924, Berlin.
4. Nasir-i Khusraw, Jami’ul-Hikmatyn. ed H Corbin.
5. Hamid al-Din Kirmani, al-Aqwal al-Dhahabiyyah, ed. Salah al-Sawy, Tehran, 1973.

Article adapted from Ilm, Voulme 11, Number 1 (December, 1986), published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom.


For author profile and to read his poem delivered at The Festival of Poetic Expressions please click “O The Light of Imamat” by Ghulam Abbas Hunzai

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