Muhammad Amin Astarabadi’s Argument Against Probativity of Intellect in Non-Necessary Matters of Religion

In a previous post we looked at the general critique Shaykh Anṣārī (d. 1864) hurls at the Akhbārīs, in his treatise on certainty (qaṭ’). Thereafter, he begins to cite passages from a few major Akhbārī scholars, namely Astarābādī (d. 1623-24 or 1626-27), Sayyid Jazāirī (d. 1701) and Yūsuf Baḥrānī (d. 1772) and offers his critique on them. What follows is Anṣārī’s citation of one of Astarābādī’s argument from his al-Fawāid al-Madanīyyah against the probativity of the intellect in religious matters. After the translation of the text, we will give a brief explanation regarding Astarābādī’s argument.

Translation from Shaykh Anṣārī’s work:

I have just come across – right after mentioning this1 – the words of al-Muḥaddith al-Astarābādī which have been conveyed in his al-Fawāid al-Madanīyyah. He says – while enumerating the various arguments for restricting evidence in non-necessary matters of religion to what is heard from the Ṣādiqayn (a):

The ninth argument is based on a noble precise preliminary which I came to know of with the tawfīq of Allah and that is:

Reflective knowledge is of two types:

A type which terminates at matter which is close to the senses. From this type is the knowledge of geometry, arithmetic and many of the chapters of logic. No difference occurs in this type between the scholars nor any error in the conclusion of one’s reflection. The reason for that is because an error in reflection is either from the perspective of form or from the perspective of matter. Scholars do not fall into error from the perspective of form, because the knowledge of the forms is from the clear matters in the right minds. Error from the perspective of matter is inconceivable in this knowledge, due to the closeness of its matter to the senses.

A type which terminates at matter which is distant from the senses. From this type of knowledge is metaphysics, earth sciences, theology, legal theory, the reflective matters of jurisprudence and some principles mentioned in logic. Hence, differences and disputes have occurred between the philosophers in metaphysics and earth sciences, and between the scholars of Islam in legal theory and matters of jurisprudence and theology. The reason for that is because the principles of logic are only protective from error from the perspective of the form, not from the perspective of matter. There is no principle in logic by which one can know all specific matter present in any division from the divisions. From the known matters is the non-occurrence of the establishment of such a principle which would be responsible for that.

Thereafter he resorts to some justifications as an affirmation of what he mentioned, and then says afterwards:

If you say: There is no difference between the intellectual and transmitted knowledge and the contextual indicator for that is what we witness in terms of the many established differences between the people of religion in the principles of religion and its jurisprudential branches.

I will say: Those are rooted in the attachment of an invalid intellectual premise with a transmitted speculative or certain premise.

And from the indicators of what we have mentioned – which is that there is no principle in logic by which one is protected from error in the matter of reflection – is that the Peripatetics claim self-evidence that when water from a pot is separated into two pots it is the non-existence of its instance and the creation of two other instances. Upon this preliminary, they prove (the existence of) prime-matter (al-hayūla). Whereas the Illuminationist claim self-evidence that it is not the non-existence of the first instance, rather a quality from its qualities is diminished and that is (the quality of) conjunction.

Then he says:

If you have understood what we have proposed with this noble precise preliminary, then we will say:

If we hold on to their (as) speech, then we will be protected from error, but if we hold on to anyone other than them (as), we will not be protected from it – end of his words.

What is inferred from his words is that intellectual perceptions are not probative in non-empirical matters and that they are (probative) when its matters are close to the senses.2


In his major work al-Fawāid al-Madnīyyah, Astarābādī brings a number of arguments to defend his position that religious knowledge should only be taken from the Imāms (a). What Anṣārī cites above are excerpts from his 9th argument.

As one can see, Astarābādī’s argument cannot be understood if one is not familiar with subjects such as logic and philosophy. As such, it shows his well-grounded knowledge on the discussions within and his ability to use that knowledge to argue for his position.

In classical logic and philosophy, acquired knowledge is divided into self-evident and reflective knowledge. Reflective knowledge is any proposition that requires one to contemplate, reflect and ponder over. In other words, one needs to produce a deductive argument in order to arrive at a conclusion. It is here where Astarābādī divides reflective knowledge into two.

He says, these knowledge propositions are either close to the senses, or far away from the senses. Subjects such as geometry, maths, and many issues within logic are from the former. As an example, even though the equation 2 + 2 = 4 is an instance of reflective knowledge, but it is known to us just as immediately as we know we are looking at a screen right now with our eyes. On the contrary, subjects such as metaphysics, legal theory and even some issues within logic are not immediately known by us and are far away from our sensory knowledge.

Astarābādī makes a point here saying we do not normally make mistakes in reflective knowledge which is close to our senses. This is because a mistake in deduction can occur in two ways, either in the form of the deduction, or in the premises that populate the form. A mistake in the form of deduction does not take place, because the form is from the self-evident matters3 whereas mistakes in premises do not take place since they are just like the knowledge we gain from our senses.

In addition, Astarābādī wants to drive home the point that all reflective knowledge whose premises are not close to our senses, they will always be prone to error. If someone were to say that religious knowledge is just as prone to mistakes and an abundance of opinions, Astarābādī also pins those errors back to a premise that is rooted in the reflective intellect whose premise is distant from what is immediately known to us.

To back up his argument, he brings an example from a famous dispute between the Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophers on the issue of bodies being comprised of hylomorphic prime matter (al-hayūla). In order to understand this discussion, one needs to be familiar with the discussion on Categories in philosophy.4 According to Muslim philosophers, if quiddity was to exist, then it either exists on its own, or it exists within something. If it were to exist on its own, they refer to it as substance (jawhar), whereas if it were to exist in something, they refer to as an accident (ʿaraḍ). Famously, the accidents are considered to be 9, although there have been differences of opinion on it.

However, when it comes to substance, many philosophers hold the view that substance itself can be divided into five. One of these divisions is that of body (jism) which itself can be divided into a mathematical body or a natural body. The example being given by Astarābādī concerns that of a natural body.

Partial Division of Categories

The question is as follows – if water – a natural body – from a cup were to be taken and split into two other cups, would that mean the water from the original cup ceased to exist and that we essentially “created” two new instances of water? Or is it simply the fact that the quality of conjunction (ittiṣāl) which existed in the first cup of water, ceased to exist.

The Peripatetic philosophers claimed self-evidence for the first case and in fact, would use this example to prove the existence of prime-matter. Their argument is as follows:

1) The water in the first cup ceased to exist and two new instances of water were created.

2) These two new instances of water did not come into existence from non-existence. Instead, there has to be something unique to these two new instances of water and the water which was inside the initial cup. That something is what we call prime-matter which remains in all instances of water we see, but it is the form that changes.

This is all the while Illuminationist philosophers claim self-evidence on water being a simple entity, not comprised of prime matter and form. Rather what they believe occurs is that an accidental quality of conjunction ceases to exist in the first instance of water and hence two new instances of water are seen.

Astarābādī cites this example to demonstrate how reflective rational propositions can result in such contradictory conclusions that there is no reason to rely on them.



  1. He is referring to what he has mentioned in the previous paragraph, whose translation and observations were posted earlier.
  2. Farāid al-Uṣūl, Shaykh Anṣārī, vol. 1, pg. 52-54.
  3. For those familiar with classical logic, this is a reference to form one of deduction (qiyās).
  4. For more information, refer to Aristotle’s Categories on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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