Epistemology (Ma‘rifat Shināsī, Naẓarīyyat al-Ma‘rifah)
Unfortunately, despite its importance, epistemology is typically not formally taught within seminaries at the introductory level, although it may be taught in specific institutes or those doing certain specializations in the seminaries during their masters. Even though this subject is not taught formally, many teachers of logic and philosophy will highly recommend studying this subject at some point in order for students to develop a more critical approach to the rational sciences. There are ample opportunities for students even in their first few years to attend private or public classes where introductory epistemology is covered. Sometimes these classes may have to be set up with a teacher, or at times they are being held in certain institutes where students may be able to attend. One has to look out for these classes in Qom if they are interested in them, or else they will never be exposed to these discussions, and they can complete a good decade in the seminary without ever going through a basic text on it.
It should be noted that epistemology is a relatively new subject in the Islamic seminary, in so far as it is only recently that independent literature has been written dedicated to this topic. One of the earliest works about epistemology accessible to most seminarians is ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s Uṣūl e Falsafay va Ravish e Realizim (The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism). This is not to say epistemology was not discussed by Muslim scholars, in fact, classical books on logic and philosophy are rife with such discussions. It is just that, the consolidation of such discussions into a single topic within the Islamic seminary is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Most books on epistemology focus on answering questions whose answers will affect sciences such as logic and philosophy, but also theology, legal theory, and law. For example, such books will address whether it is possible to know something. They will discuss whether reality exists and what truth and falsehood mean. Some books may discuss the concept of universals and the different types of universals. Other works may offer a critique of other modern epistemological theories. The discussion on sources of one’s knowledge and the value each source has in relation to getting one to the truth is one of the most crucial discussions in epistemology. What is the value of the intellect, transmitted reports, mystical visions, induction, memory, knowledge by presence etc.? What do you do if there is a conflict between two pieces of information that have been acquired through two different sources of knowledge? Many introductory works in Persian will also expose students to hermeneutics as it is also one of the crucial discussions seminaries are having to deal with in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in relation to Quranic exegesis and hadith interpretation.
Perhaps the most important point that a student of epistemology can pick up and understand is that the mainstream body of Muslim philosophers have been proponents of foundationalism. That is, they believe there are certain axioms and conceptions that are self-evident and do not require any sort of proof, and all knowledge is built upon these axioms. Such axioms and conceptions are evident to every human being, regardless of their experiences and are thus a priori. An example of such axioms are the following: “I exist”, “Something cannot both be and not be” (the law of non-contradiction), “Whatever is, is”. These axioms and conceptions serve as the foundations for philosophical thought and reasoning for Muslim philosophers. They attempt to start with such axioms or in some cases conceptions and then proceed to work their way forward from there. The reason for this is because they believe these axioms are the most certain and though one can be fooled by their senses, however, they cannot deny that they exist. The goal of Muslim philosophers is to start with a foundation based on certainty so as to reach other axioms with certainty. This foundation that serves all of the rational sciences is defined in epistemology.
Main Works in this Science
As mentioned before, this science has only been recently consolidated into singular works. Students may find many epistemological discussions in classical works on logic such as in the section of Burhān in al-Shifā by Ibn Sīnā. Many epistemological discussions are referred to throughout works such as al-Manṭiq by al-Muẓaffar which strong teachers will typically make a point to discuss and analyze. As the seminary predominantly ascribes to the Sadrian school of philosophy, most immediate works on epistemology accessible for students will be based on the Sadrian school. In terms of contemporary works, students may refer to Shahīd Muṭahirī’s commentary on ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s, Uṣūl e Falsafay va Ravish e Realizim. They may also attempt to gain familiarity with some of Shahīd Ṣadr’s views which he discussed in al-Usus al-Manṭiqīyah lī al-Istiqrā (Logical Foundations of Induction), and are later expanded on by one of Ṣadr’s great students, Shaykh ‘Ammār Abū Raghīf, in numerous works.
Many works on this topic are published by Shaykh Miṣbaḥ Yazdī’s institute, Muassiseh Imam, by authors such as Shaykh Ḥusayn Zādeh, who is known to be one of the foremost authorities on epistemology, as well as Shaykh Mujtabā Miṣbāḥ who has published his Ph.D. thesis on epistemology entitled, Iḥtimāl e Ma’rifat Shinākhtī which also contains a critique of Shahid Sadr’s ideas on induction. The former has a very decent introductory set of books on epistemology, part one of which has been summarized in English as Required & Sufficient Knowledge in Religion, and as well as many other books that have now all been digitized and are available on a CD. Shaykh Miṣbāḥ also has an independent section on epistemology in the first volume of his introduction to philosophy entitled, “Āmūzish e Falsafay”. Lessons of Shaykh Ghulām Riḍā Fayyāḍī on epistemology have also now been published and an English translation of one of the introductory books is also complete.
In terms of non-Sadrian philosophers, works of scholars such as Shaykh Ayman al-Masri, and even exposure to university professors such as Dr. Yahya Yasrebi are important for those who are looking to study and understand other perspectives, particularly those that critique Sadrian ideas on epistemology. Dr. Yahya Yasrebi is a philosopher who was a proponent of theoretical and practical mysticism, and a teacher in the seminaries, but later distanced himself from it and has written a number of thought-provoking critiques on Sadrian philosophy. Both Shaykh Ayman and Dr. Yasrebi tend to severely critique the notion and implications of knowledge by presence which is a key idea in the philosophical thought of Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā.
Method and Benefits of Studying
Seeing as epistemology is a rational science, it is often more than enough for students to get a general idea of epistemological discussions and thereafter spend their time thinking about and debating such discussions. On the other hand, it may also be beneficial for students to become familiar with epistemological theories proposed by philosophers outside of the Islamic philosophical tradition such as philosophers in the West. Iran is currently a hotbed for discussions on epistemology, both within and outside of the seminary.
In terms of benefits, being familiar with epistemological discussions will definitely contextualize the mode of thinking that many Islamic scholars have within the rational sciences. More than that, it will allow students to start constructing their own foundations for philosophical and rational thought. Furthermore, it will facilitate the development of the ability for students to pick apart different lines of reasoning based on their epistemological foundations. In hindsight, the importance of epistemology was humorously explained by Shaykh Ḥusayn Zādeh to me during a meeting in 2015, by giving an example of Tom and Jerry. There are scenes when Tom runs up a ladder to chase Jerry, only to get to the top and realize that the ladder is not leaning against a wall, which leads to his fall on the ground face-first. Epistemology thus is the wall that is required, for one can spend decades investigating matters of religion, even becoming a jurist, but one day, only to realize that their entire framework of thought was not leaning on anything solid.
Logic is one of the most important sciences studied in the Islamic seminary, primarily because of the benefits it can have for all sorts of people, regardless of whether they want to pursue it further than the basic texts that are studied for it. The Islamic seminary, to this day, focuses on Aristotelian logic along with the modifications made to it by Islamic logicians. Logic is typically divided into three parts, each part being home to a multiplicity of discussions.
The first part begins by talking about knowledge and its divisions. Acquired knowledge is discussed and divided into conceptions (taṣawwur) and assents (taṣdīq), the different types of ignorance are discussed as well as the reasons for why someone may deny something that is self-evident. This part goes onto some discussions centered on language and the relationship between words and meanings, the whole point of which is to outline what types of words can be used in definitions. The next discussion is usually the concept of universals and the five different types of universals. These are what must be used within definitions.
The summation of the first part is in identifying how to properly define a quiddity. Classical logicians, in accordance with Aristotelian logic, believed that the optimal way to define a quiddity is by its essence which is considered to be a type of intensional definition. Furthermore, they believe that such a definition must consist of the genus and differentia of the thing being defined. For example, the definition of a square would be, “a plane figure with four straight sides and four right angles”, a plane figure constitutes the genus of the definition whilst everything else constitutes the differentia and is what separates a rectangle from other plane figures. Another example is the definition of a triangle which is, “a plane figure with three straight sides and three angles”. Once again, there “a plane figure” constitutes the genus of the definition whilst everything else constitutes its differentia and is what separates triangles from other plane figures.
The second part of logic discusses propositions and their properties. This part will focus on different types of propositions such as the contra-positive and discuss the conditions for these propositions to be true. It will also discuss different types of reasoning such as deductive reasoning versus inductive reasoning and the truth value of each.
The third part of logic is important because of two discussions. It discusses the type of content and form that any sort of reasoning needs to result in a proposition that will be undeniably true. This is the summation of logic in the Islamic world and is referred to as burhān. The whole study of logic is meant to lead to burhān and developing an understanding of how to acquire it within one’s reasoning.
Main Works in this Science
There are many important works in the field of logic, many of which are classical. Schools may start off with shorter works such as Talkhīṣ al-Manṭiq, Shahīd Muṭṭahirī’s Introduction to Manṭiq or Manṭiq Yik by Muntazeri Muqaddam. After that, they typically progress to al-Manṭiq by al-Muẓaffar. Students who wish to pursue advanced studies in philosophy may study al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt by Ibn Sīna later on. Studying the book on Burhān within al-Shifā by Ibn Sīnā is popularly considered a must for students who want to study philosophy seriously.
There are many other important classical works, many of which are glosses or commentaries on other works. For example, Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī and Khawjā Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī are both well known for their commentaries on Ibn Sīna’s al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt. ‘Allāmah Ḥillī wrote a commentary on ‘Khawja’s book of logic entitled, Jawhar al-Naḍīd fī Sharḥ Manṭiq al-Tajrīd. Sharḥ al-Shamsīyyah is also a very well-known work, Jurjānī and ‘Allāmah Ḥillī have both written commentaries upon it. The list of classical works on logic is very long. One should note that since logic is amongst the intellectual sciences, reading and referring to books is given less value in relation to thinking of problems on your own. This is why you may find many strong teachers of logic who may not have read as many books on logic as some students have.
On the other hand, there are a host of newer critical works on logic that are being published in different institutes in Qom. Many efforts are being put to take critical and revisionist approaches to discussions and debates that the classical scholars had in logic. Some such works are Mi‘yār e Dānish by Sulaymānī ‘Askarī Amīrī, or his other work summarizing Shaykh Miṣbāḥ’s views in different logical discussions entitled, Manṭiq wa Shinākht Shināsī az Naẓar e Miṣbāḥ Yazdī. Another work that takes a very critical approach to classical works is Qabasāt al-Yaqīn by one of my own teachers Ustadh Abū al-Ḥasanī. These works are generally very good at clarifying concepts, offering criticism, and developing further questions for students to ask about the subject matter.
Method of Studying and Benefits
As mentioned before, logic is primarily an intellectual science as opposed to a textual science. It attempts to deal with general principles and rules. As such, it requires more thinking as opposed to reading. The best practice for logic is to take the time out to think about the discussions that are being presented. Many discussions require this sort of effort. I also found it very beneficial to go through the work that we are studying and pick out the author’s reasoning and put it into the form of premises. Some books of logic that are typically studied, particularly al-Manṭiq by al-Muẓẓafar, provide a lot of opportunities for the student to offer criticism and find logical flaws within the discussions. The best way to study logic is simply to think about and discuss the different topics that are covered. Another decent work for practicing logic is Mantiq dar Ayeneh-ye Ma’arif-e Islami coauthored by Muhammad Dhawqī, ‘Alī Fatḥī, Sayyid Muḥammad ‘Ālimī, and ‘Alī Aṣghar, which contains hundreds of practice questions from Quranic verses and the hadith literature.
In terms of benefits, students will typically not see any practical applications of logic for a long time within the seminary. Logic is solely studied so as to be used within philosophy. Yes, you will run into a lot of logical jargon that will be applied within other sciences. One general immediate benefit of all of these sciences is learning the jargon that is used within them and then being able to understand the jargon being used by Muslim scholars in other fields and other works.
The main benefit that students can yield from studying logic is to apply it to their own thoughts and discussions. Students will find many books, even books of logic, that have been written in illogical manners. To apply logic to one’s thoughts and studies can be very beneficial. To constantly draw divisions as they come up in books, to be on the lookout for the usage of equivocal terms (al-mushtarak al-lafẓī) etc. All of these are applications of learning logic and can help a student greatly.
This is perhaps one of the most sought-after sciences within the Islamic seminary, particularly for students coming from the West. Philosophy is a very equivocal term. It can often be associated with multiple meanings. Perhaps it would be helpful if you were to be told that Islamic philosophy deals primarily with metaphysics. However, once again this is a vague term. A quick search would yield results explaining that meta is the Greek word for “after” and that this science was called metaphysics because Aristotle’s book on the topics discussed in this science was placed after his book on physics, thus meta (after)-physics.
After a certain point in time, one of the fundamental and primary metaphysical issues that Muslim philosophers discussed and dealt with is that of the primacy of existence or quiddity. The philosophers mention two concepts, existence and quiddity. They say that existence cannot be defined, it is the most evident concept that exists. As for quiddity, they assert that the quiddity of a thing is what is responded to when answering the question “what is this?” From here on, the philosophers bring about proofs for their respective views as they attempt to understand whether reality is constituted by existence or quiddity. Some philosophers seem to indicate that they believe that quiddity has primacy in relation to existence. This is what Suhrawardī, al-Shaykh al-Ishrāq, seems to indicate. However, after the advent of Mullā Ṣadrā, who himself believed in the primacy of quiddity for a large portion of his life until he switched views, the predominant position in the seminary today is that of Ṣadrā, and hence much of the philosophy students will be exposed to is Sadrian philosophy.
As such, upon proving the primacy of existence and rebutting proofs on the primacy of quiddity, Islamic philosophers go on to discuss the qualities of existence. They come to determine principles such as, “there is no other to existence”, “existence is not a constituent of anything” and “existence does not possess any constituents”. After this the philosophers move into other matters, they discuss the relationship between our minds and external reality. They analyze the types of existences, as some types of existences are necessary whilst others are impossible. They go on to analyze quiddities and divide them into categories. Furthermore, they discuss time, space and movement.
This is all but a brief summary of some of the matters that were classically discussed in philosophy, but these are the primary discussions that students will engage in for many years when beginning philosophy.
Main Works in this Science
It is difficult to attempt to even graze the surface of thinkers and works that have pervaded the field of Islamic philosophy. There are so many philosophers who may hardly be mentioned in any sort of classroom environment. One of the foremost philosophers of the Islamic world was al-Fārābī (d. 339 A.H.), famously known as the “second teacher”, whereas Aristotle was the first. He is famed for numerous works such as al-Manṭiqīyyāt. After him, there was Ibn Sīnā (d. 428 A.H.), who was famed for his al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt and al-Shifā. While some of these works might be considered more logical than philosophical, many of the commentaries and glosses written on these works contained many philosophical discussions. Many philosophers of the Islamic world such as Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī, Khawjah Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī and Quṭb al-Dīn Rāzī are famed for their commentaries on al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt.
Shaykh al-Ishrāq (d. 587 A.H.) was also a very important figure. While some would say Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy is dry and abides too much by the blunt and binary rules of logic, Shaykh al-Ishrāq’s philosophy is more elaborate and deeper as it leans towards mysticism. In fact, Shaykh al-Ishraq was known to have revisited some of the rules of logic and critiqued them heavily, which allowed him to then accommodate some of his own philosophical views and tendencies. Mantiq wa Ma’rifat Dar Andishe-ye Suhrawardi by Mahdī ‘Aẓīmī is a great work published just two years ago in which the author has elaborated in-depth on the views of Suhrawardī in logic and his criticisms on the Peripatetics. Suhrawardi is famed for Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq as well as his Al-Talwīḥāt al-Lawḥīyyah wa al-‘Arshīyyah upon which a commentary was written by the famous Jewish philosopher, Ibn Kammūnah.
Another important figure who was previously mentioned is Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606 A.H.), sometimes famously referred to as “Imām al-Mushakkikīn (Leader of the Skeptics)”. He was a polymath, with works on rhetoric, exegesis and many works related to the rational sciences. One such famous work was al-Mabāhith al-Mashriqīyyah fī ‘Ilm al-Ilāhīyyāt wa al-Ṭabi‘īyyāt. His commentary on al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt was so significant that Khawjah Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī spent significant portions within his own commentary on addressing points that Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī had made in his.
One of the most important Islamic scholars whose works have had numerous commentaries and glosses written upon them was Khawjah Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 672 A.H.). One of his most significant works was Tajrīd al-‘Itiqādāt. This work was of the utmost significance to the extent that many philosophers who came after him had written commentaries upon it and would be recognized on this basis. Scholars such as Lāhījī, ‘Allāmah Ḥillī and an ‘Asharī scholar, Qūshijī amongst many others have written voluminous commentaries on this work.
Perhaps the culmination of classical Islamic philosophy took place with Mullā Ṣadrā who, amongst many other works including exegesis of the Quran and commentary on Uṣūl al-Kāfī, wrote al-Ḥikmat al-Muta’ālīyyah fī al-Asfār al-‘Aqalīyyah al-‘Arba’ah. He is said to have fused the strict logical approach of Ibn Sīnā with the mystical approach of Shaykh al-Ishrāq and Ibn ‘Arabi. Many philosophical works that were written after the time of Mullā Ṣadrā were written in line with the same order of discussions that Ṣadrā initially presented. For example, Bidāyah al-Ḥikmah and Niḥāyah al-Ḥikmah by ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī are both written in the same order as al-Asfār and are meant to serve as an introduction for it.
Contemporarily there are many philosophers in Qom who are making new efforts to further discussions in Islamic philosophy such as Shaykh Miṣbāḥ Yazdī, Shaykh Jawādī Āmulī and Shaykh Ḥasanzādeh Āmulī (d. 2021). One of the most significant contemporary philosophers in Iran is Shaykh Ghulām Riḍā Fayyāḍī who is credited with determining a new view in the century-old debate on the primacy of existence or quiddity. An institute related to him is currently printing a series of books documenting his discussions and views named, Justārhāī dar Falsafay Islāmī. He has also written a gloss on Niḥāyat al-Ḥikmah which has been printed in 5 smaller-sized volumes.
A lot of contemporary work is also being done by Shaykh Miṣbāḥ Yazdī’s institute, Muassaseh Imām Khumaynī. Scholars in this institute such as Rasūl ‘Ubūdīyat are working on writing works that take very critical approaches to classical philosophical discussions. As evident, the names of many important philosophers and their works have been left unmentioned. Scholars such as al-Ghazzālī, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Mīr Dāmād, Mullā Hādī Sabzawārī and Shaykh al-Aḥsā’ī are all important figures whom it would behoove a student to look into.
What has been described above is the general atmosphere within the seminary of Qom which more or less ascribes to the Sadrian school. However, this is not to say critical voices do not exist. For example, the seminary of Najaf or Mashhad are not generally fond of philosophy and have particularly spoken against it. In terms of philosophers themselves who have critiqued Sadrian philosophy, Shaykh Ayman al-Miṣrī is a prominent figure within the seminary of Qom who ascribes to the Peripatetic school.
Method of Studying and Benefits
As is typical, because philosophy is a rational science, the onus is on the student to spend time thinking about matters discussed in philosophy. Students must debate and discuss these matters. It is typically said that in the seminary there are many historians of philosophy whilst there are very few philosophers. That is, there are many students who can quote the views of Ibn Sīnā, Mullā Ṣadrā and other philosophers on a variety of matters, but very few who can think about such views, offer criticism, or perhaps even offer their own views. This is something that goes for every science but is exceptionally evident in philosophy.
One reason why many students are immediately put off by philosophy is because of the heavy application of logic within many discussions. This typically serves as a wake-up call for many students that they may not have studied logic very proficiently earlier or had taken it too lightly. Furthermore, even for students who may be proficient in logic, they will realize that they still need to go back to more advanced books of logic to understand its applications within certain discussions.
In terms of benefits, philosophy can be beneficial for many purposes. First and foremost, learning philosophy can be an end in itself if it leads to a better understanding of theological matters. It can perhaps also be important to understand narrations within the hadith corpus. Many philosophers wrote extensive commentaries and are contemporarily still delivering extensive commentaries on parts of the hadith corpus that require a philosophical understanding. Kitāb al-Aql wa al-Jahl may provide a good example along with the numerous commentaries upon it by philosophers such as Mullā Ṣadrā, Sayyid Khumaynī and even contemporary philosophers in Qom such as Shaykh Ḥamid Parsānia, Shaykh ‘Ābidīnī and others who deliver commentaries on al-Kāfī, or teach from Mullā Ṣadrā’s commentary on it.
A final note that should be mentioned here regarding works that students can look into for further research and information:
Iranian scholarship – inside and outside the seminary – produces and publishes thousands of research papers each year in different fields. With respect to disciplines studied in the seminary, hundreds of research works are published in journals, and oftentimes a lot of interesting discussions in the field of logic, epistemology, or philosophy will be found only in these published articles, not in books. This is something seminary students should be aware of and they should get accustomed to doing research properly and learn good research habits in order to locate relevant articles. Researching is a skill set of its own, and unfortunately, research methods and methodologies are not taught comprehensively in the seminary so many students will struggle to do research even after spending many years in the seminary.
In the next part of this study guide, we will be exploring the field of Uṣūl al-Fiqh (legal theory), a subject that everyone in the seminary must study.