Concerning Probativity of Certainty Acquired Through Intellectual Premises – Shaykh Ansari’s Response to the Akhbaris

Translation of the words of Shaykh Anṣāri (d. 1864):

You are aware that there is no difference in certain knowledge which is a mere uncovering, with respect to the causes of that knowledge.1 However, it has been attributed to more than one of our companions from the Akhbārīyīn, that certainty attained from intellectually certain preliminaries which are not self-evident is unreliable, due to the great number of mistakes made through them. Hence, there can be no dependency of anything upon it.

If what they intended by their words is the impermissibility of depending on it after attaining certainty, then that is not rationally conceivable from the perspective of certainty being an uncovering. If it was possible to attest the lack of reliability for it, then it would also be allowed to do so in certainty that is attained through legal preliminaries.

If what they intended is the impermissibility of focusing too much on intellectual matters in order to acquire legal matters, due to the occurrence of many errors and mistakes – then if it was to be taken for granted that the intellect makes many mistakes, and the many mistakes that also occur in understanding legal evidence is to be put aside – then there is a justification for their opinion.

In that case, if a person embarks on it2 and arrives at certainty which is not in accordance with reality, they are not excused, due to their negligence in the preliminaries of what was acquired. Except, the discussion is in establishing that the numerous mistakes are greater than what occurs in understanding legal evidence.

Except, the discussion itself concerns proving the great number of mistakes (by the intellect), more so than what occurs in understanding from sources of legal evidence.3 


In the second admonition of his treatise on certainty (qaṭ’), Shaykh Anṣārī begins addressing the important critique of the Akhbārīs regarding the probativity of certainty acquired through intellectual and rational premises.

In this section, Shaykh Anṣārī first provides a general response to the Akhbārīs, which is what was translated above. Thereafter he quotes three significant Akhbārī scholars – namely Muḥammad Amīn Astarābādī (d. 1623-24 or 1626-27), Muḥaddith Jazāirī (d. 1701), and Yūsuf Baḥrānī (d. 1772) – and critiques them one by one. Perhaps in a later post we will look at his rebuttals to them as well. His general critique is concise and hardly fills up a page as can be seen above. In order to get a better understanding of what Shaykh Anṣarī is trying to say, a few preliminaries will be outlined and his text will be explained below.

When a jurist intends on deducing a law, they either have to resort to transmitted legal sources (loosely speaking, the Qurān and Sunnah), or rational evidence which they arrive at through the intellect. If the transmitted sources result in certainty, there is no difference amongst Muslim scholars that these sources are probative and need to be acted upon. When it comes to transmitted sources which are speculative, a lengthy discussion dating back to the 2nd-century hijrī occurs and it is this discussion which makes up a large portion of discussions within legal theory. It is here where topics such as the binding force of solitary reports (ḥujjīyyah khabar al-wāḥid) are addressed. As an example, some jurists may arrive at the conclusion that a solitary report of a trustworthy person is probative only when they are an Imāmī, even though it results in speculation, whereas a solitary report of a person who is not an Imāmī is not probative.

When it comes to rational evidence or propositions, once again they can either result in certainty for a jurist or speculation. Evidence which results in certainty is either a self-evident axiom or it is reflective. The dispute between the Akhbārī and Uṣūlī scholars takes place in cases where rational evidence results in certainty, but it is reflective in its nature.

As can be seen in the diagram above, rational evidence which results in speculation is not considered probative by any traditional Shī’ī jurist.4 In order to understand when responsibility becomes probative – and more importantly inculpatory (munajjiz) – it is necessary to know under what presumptions Shaykh Anṣārī is conducting his discussion. There are three main views5 on the criterion for responsibility becoming inculpatory:

  • Shaykh Anṣārī and popular view today: Certainty is the criterion for inculpatoriness.
  • Shahīd Ṣadr and some of his students: Mere probability of there being a responsibility is a criterion for inculpatoriness.
  • Akhbārīs: Certainty that is acquired through transmitted legal sources is the criterion for inculpatoriness.

With respects to the above views, there are two further major notions6 regarding the inculpatoriness of certainty:

  • Popular View: The inculpatoriness of certainty is essential (dhātī) to certainty. God, Himself cannot interfere with this inculpatoriness. This is the view of Shaykh Anṣārī in his treatise and it is also the predominant view today amongst Shī’ī legal theorists.
  • Akhbārīs, Sayyid Kāẓim Yazdī, ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī7: The inculpatoriness of certainty is accidental to it and it is a convention (i’tibār). Of course, the difference between the Akhbārīs and the other figures who were Uṣūlīs is that the Akhbārīs would believe God has interfered with certain types of certainties and has made only that type of certainty inculpatory which is acquired through transmitted legal sources. Whereas, someone like Sayyid Kāẓim Yazdī or ‘Allāmah in practice end up with the same conclusion as those who say the inculpatoriness of certainty is essential since they believe all types of certainty are inculpatory even if it is a convention.

Shaykh Anṣārī says that the Akhbārīs claim certainty acquired through intellectual certain premises which are reflective (and hence, not self-evident) are prone to many mistakes. Something that is prone to mistakes, cannot be relied upon for anything. After citing their argument, Anṣārī himself suggests this claim could mean two possible things.

The first possibility is that what the Akhbārīs are saying is this certainty cannot be relied upon once it has been acquired. His response to this is that this is inconceivable and will result in a contradiction which is a self-evident axiom. In other words, if one were to somehow attain certainty through rational means that the morning prayers is obligatory upon them, and that this certainty is inculpatory, but at the same time they tell themselves this certainty is not inculpatory, this is an instance of a real contradiction which is impossible.

Shaykh Anṣārī continues on to say, certainty is nothing more than an uncovering of reality, just like the transmitted sources themselves are nothing more than a means for us to uncover reality. Hence, if certainty acquired through rational means can be deemed unreliable, then certainty acquired through transmitted legal sources can also be deemed unreliable. This is while no one agrees with the second possibility.

Shaykh’s response here does not resolve anything, rather it is trying to indicate that if one applies consistency in one instance, then they should also apply it in another instance. However, in both cases, the Akhbārīs could respond to Shaykh Anṣārī. Anṣārī is presuming that the inculpatoriness of certainty is essential to it, whereas the Akhbārīs believe it is conventional. In other words, God can make certainty acquired through the intellect unreliable.

The second possibility that the Shaykh entertains is that perhaps what the Akhbārīs intended by their words is one should abstain from relying on the intellect too much due to it being prone to error. If one relies on it and their conclusion happens to be erroneous and not in accordance with reality, then they will not be excused for it.

This second possibility is on the side of exculpatoriness (mu’adharīyyah). Over here, Shaykh Anṣārī says we will agree with what the Akhbārīs are saying if we presume two premises:

1) That the intellect does make a lot of mistakes

2) That the mistakes that are made in understanding the sources of legal evidence are negligible

If we presume both of these premises to be true, and one acquires certainty after relying on intellectual premises and they happen to be wrong, they will not have an excuse. One important thing that needs to be highlighted here is that Shaykh Anṣārī – like most scholars – does not believe that exculpatoriness of certainty is essential to it (unlike inculpatoriness). This means God can interfere in different premises and make some of them exculpatory and others not.

Hence, Anṣārī explains why this certainty will not be exculpatory – given we presume those two premises mentioned above. This is because the individual relied on premises to attain certainty and that knowledge was not in accordance with reality, while those premises were not considered reliable by God. In reality, this is not certainty, but rather ignorance. This ignorance is considered to be rooted in an inadequate effort and negligence (jahl taqṣīrī), as opposed to ignorance that comes despite one’s effort (jahl quṣūrī).

The criterion for differentiating between this false certainty (i.e. ignorance) due to negligence and despite one’s effort is by looking at the preliminaries. Examples of arriving at a false certainty despite one’s effort are those where the reliability of these preliminaries have been established (such as if one attains certainty through a few solitary reports of a trustworthy person, or through consensus and popularity of a ruling, or the prima-facie of a text etc.). On the contrary, there is no evidence to suggest that the reliability of intellectual premises – under the two presumed conditions mentioned earlier – is established even if we arrive at a false certainty.

However, in conclusion, Anṣārī mentions that those two conditions mentioned earlier are not proven. Firstly, there is no evidence to suggest that the intellect makes many mistakes, and even if it does, there is nothing to suggest that it makes more mistakes than the mistakes that occur in one’s understanding of the sources of legal evidence.


  1. Meaning, as a primary principle, all certainty no matter how it was attained, be it through a dream, through demonstration, through a Prophet’s statement etc. will be probative on from the perspective of its inculpatoriness (munajjizīyyah).
  2. On utilizing intellectual and rational premises.
  3. Farāid al-Uṣūl, by Shaykh Anṣārī, vol. 1, pg. 51-52
  4. This however, is being challenged today by some scholars, especially those who grant probativity to knowledge based on the practice of the common people (‘uqalā). They argue probativity of knowledge is gradational and dependent on what the common people give probativity to. Probabilities entertained by the common people of society is what is considered inculpatory and this is what most humans base their lives off of.
  5. What follows is simply one way in which the discussion can be divided, otherwise, other divisions are also possible.
  6. The division that follows is simply meant to be a general overview. Otherwise, there are too many distinct views and minute discrepancies proposed by different scholars. For example, Imām Khomeinī also believes that inculpatoriness of certainty is not essential, however, he also does not claim it is a convention. He offers another explanation for it which would require an article of its own.
  7. Ḥāshīyah ‘ala Kifāyah al-Uṣūl, 2, pg. 178.

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