The Issue of Knowledge in Islamic Philosophy

prof. Ayatullah Seyyed Mohammed Khamenei


 The issue of knowledge has been one of the most important philosophical issues within the recent centuries. Its problems and its ways to reach to reality have caused many western thinkers to go astray to the extent that philosophy itself as well as human thought and its historical achievements have been questioned as it has been the case that, on the one hand, Kant and German idealism and on the other hand neo-skeptics and even sensualists have helped this negative movement. 

In Islamic philosophy, particularly in Mulla Sadra’s school of thought, the issue of science and knowledge has occupied an important status. That is why philosophy and the metaphysics have gained a firm position in this school.

The main problem of the issue of knowledge in the modern western philosophy lies in a kind of diversity of ideas and wandering which stems from a lack of information of one or a number of basic elements of knowledge. Those who are empiricists view sensuous perception only through authenticity and reality of the five senses. They approximately ignore man’s internal senses approved by psychology.

Hume, who is the representative of this group of thinkers, believes merely in what is perceived through senses. According to Islamic philosophy, this school is in the beginning and the first step of knowing man and it is not capable of getting to any end.

Idealists, contrary to the above-mentioned group, have not accepted the external reality and, in a sense, have interpreted it in as that which is created by human mind. Although Kant accepts some vague, crude and formless realities in the external world, he takes human knowledge as arising from mental clichés called phenomena.

The theory of knowledge in Islamic philosophy is realistic and is based on man’s achieving to real information. One of the important foundations of realism of this school and the accuracy of knowledge in it, and its correspondence with external object is external existence which is either totally neglected in the west or, as in the case of Husserl’s phenomenology, has been dealt with imperfectly.

In order to understand the theory of Islamic philosophy, particularly Mulla Sadra’s school, it is necessary to know some concepts:

A. Mental Existence

According to Islamic philosophy, existence is not confined to external and objective existence of things, but rather existence has levels and hierarchy which should not be ignored.  One of the levels of existence is mental existence because every individual naturally accepts that there have come into existence certain things in his mind which did not exist before. There are certainly many differences between these two types of existence, i.e. objective and subjective because the external being has some effects, consequences and requirements which do not find their way in mental being.

Islamic philosophy takes into account this significant difference and calls the external being “object” or “reality” and labels the mental being as “form” or “knowledge”.

B. Quiddity

Islamic philosophy admits two aspects for external reality: one with respect to its existence, and one regarding its whatness. Therefore, any external reality is composed of existence plus quiddity, as far as knowing is concerned. In this regard, “existence” causes the actualization of objects and “quiddity” deals with its logical explanation and definition which distinguishes it from other objects.

In fact, quiddity of any object is a total and complete manifestation of its realty and it is the form man depicts of any external object. It is not separable from existence and follows it as a shadow does and can be a criterion for knowing the external reality.

In order to define quiddity, philosophers have said that: the quiddity of any object is the answer given to the question “what is this being?” For example, in response to the question concerning the reality of a tree, it is said “This is a tree.”

In Islamic philosophy, quiddity is an important element is epistemology; therefore, it should receive ample attention. Isutsu, the Japanese professor, has understood the important function of quiddity in Islamic philosophy and says:

“The actual presence of objects is the same as their existence. On the other hand, however, those objects are not in the form of pure existence; there are differences and variations between them and other objects. The differences which cause us to call them ‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘stone’, ‘table’, etc. This aspect which distinguishes objects from one another is ‘quiddity’.”

Any object in merely its self and is totally different from other objects, but shares ‘existence’ with them. It is this point from which Islamic philosophers, in order to express the distinction between existence and quiddity, which in fact are one single concept and actually are united in objects, say that anything which is ‘possible’ (and we call it existent) is composite of existence and quiddity, i.e. existence + quiddity of the existent.

In his perception of external and concrete objects, man can only perceive their quiddity, i.e. their logical and analytical boundaries, and not their real existence, for if he could perceive the external existence of objects, for example ‘fire’, along with their quiddity, there should be the external existence attributes of things, for example burning and heat, in his mind whereas this is not actually the case.

The important point for us is to know when man perceives the philosophical quiddity of objects, he, in fact, attributes a mental existence to those objects and as the nature of anything both in the mind and in the real world is the same, according to this theory, man can perceive real objects existing in the outside world exactly as they are. If this has not been the case, man can never acquire knowledge and various sciences. Human knowledge, called known-by-essence, corresponds and is united with external object, i.e. known-by-accident. In this way, the issue of correspondence between mind and the external world is justified and resolved.

As an illustration, the table which is before you is a reality independent of human perception. It does not make any difference whether a person is sitting at it or not, that table exists by itself and for itself. However, when it comes to man and his senses as well as his perceptions, and his analyst and perceiving mind sees it, he encounters two united things which is composed of two principles: firstly, a body which has dimensions, color and other features and secondly, its being in that place. A philosopher assumes the first one its quiddity and the second one its existence.

Human perception along with his senses helps man to extract a form of the existence of that table in his mind which is much more than a photograph. Man can imagine all aspects of its existence except its actual being in the real world and therefore he can create knowledge in his mind. In other words, the objective quiddity of anything is known through its quiddity, that is, the sum of all its logical features which is called species or nature. As quiddity accompanies (or in terms of Islamic philosophy, it intermingles with) existence in the external world, it can accompany mental existence and the external existence can be taken away from it.

However, as the criterion for existence is quiddity and the external quiddity manifests itself in man’s mind, therefore man can possess a knowledge correspondent with the external world with the help of mental existence. As it was discussed earlier, this correspondence, however, does not mean the transfer of the very object into the mind. This picture should represent the external object; otherwise, nothing in the external world can be conceived. As a result all man’s sciences, experiences and experiments would false and unreal; therefore, we have to put an end to science and scientific explorations. Here, the concept ‘discovering” should be pondered upon:

C. Discovering

This discovering is not what sensualists or materialists believe and say senses, for example the eyes, perceive exactly what exists in reality and the external world because human senses and the physical or chemical operations of the eyes and the ears transmit some electronic codes and signals to the brain. From philosophical point of view, however, these codes and signals cannot be considered the same as the very external reality. Because, even if we assume that a real and actual picture in depicted in the eyes or the mind, it is not its quiddity but it is its picture (or according to Islamic philosophy, its image) as, particularly, it has been proved that all senses make some mistakes and there are some forces called faculty of estimate from wrong analysis of the sense data stem and lead to mistakes.

Discovering, meaning the real manifestation of the objectivity of the external world, happens when human perception (a perception which is distinct from the substance of the brain and the nervous system and stems from an abstract non-material soul) creates it in a way that human mind and soul (non-material) has initiated its example and has made in the mind a form which is exactly the same real quiddity existing in the external world.

This theory is based on two other philosophical-mystical principles which, in order to understand this process easily, should be taken into consideration. 

D. Man’s Creativity

Man is equipped with a power called creativity which is related to his mind and soul. Some Islamic mystics have said that the domain of imagination for mankind is similar to the world for God and as God can create whatever He wants, man is also capable of creating in his mind whatever he wishes (this is called mental existence)[1].

E. Intuitive Knowledge

Apart from the knowledge man is able to achieve through his five senses, there is another kind of direct knowledge of the external object in man which is intuitive and the five senses play no role in it. An example of this knowledge in man’s knowledge of his “self”, his mind, and his inner self which was completely present and clear even in the absence of senses. It has been established in mysticism that this type of inner intuition is not confined to knowing self but rather its advanced forms can perceive other objects. This type of knowledge is concerned with the “existence” of the external object and not with its quiddity as if it is that very object or exists within it and embraces it or has it in his hands. This kind of knowledge is technically called “intuitive knowledge”[2]

With respect to the preludes raised, human knowledge is a compound process with a number of stages:

The First Stage: This stage is the feelings man has through his five senses which are reflected in his mind. Although this stage is necessary for knowledge, it is not sufficient; it is the first step.

The Second Stage: It is man’s intuitive knowledge of the products of his mind and the output of his sensation because human soul has a direct and intuitive knowledge of its reflections and internal moods. This stage has two other features, i.e. ‘attention’ and ‘awareness’ which are two internal forces of human soul.

Attention is not a physical activity; rather, it is a psychological one through which man concentrates his psychological and perceptual forces on a specific point (either sensible or intelligible). Without utilizing attention and concentration, man cannot perceive hundreds of things around him which his eyes see and his ears hear although these organs do transmit messages to his mind. Following attention, awareness happens and this is what we call the presence of the quiddity of something in the mind.

The Third Stage: This stage is when human man designs things in his mind. Employing its creative power, human soul reconstructs the essence and quiddity, that is, subjective and objective common features, of the external object. Consequently, man is capable of creating in his mind the real form and whatness of the external phenomenon which also corresponds to it[3].

The essence and the quiddity which the mind creates is similar to the concept “universal”. It is better to say that it is neither universal nor particular[4] and the mind never claims what it has discovered is exactly what there is in the external world because the quiddity created in it lacks the features of the object.

According to this theory which is that knowledge is not the output of the signals transmitted by the five senses rather it is the result of the activity of the human mind and the creativity of the soul, thereby it is its creation, science or knowledge is a kind of man’s creation and his deed. In terms of Islamic philosophy, it is ‘emanating’ and not passive and a reflection of the external world or, technically speaking, immanent.

Using this reality, Mulla Sadra takes science and knowledge as a part of the transcendental movement of the soul and also identified with the perceiver and calls it ‘identity of the knower and the known’. With a little bit of contemplation and inner thought, anyone can perceive and experience this theory of the process of knowledge in man. By intuition man can understand that in perceiving the external objects man has not been deceived. He knows that he has been dealing with real objects and can touch and feel their effects; skepticism and being skeptical are against human innate disposition. For example, it is observed that everybody, no matter dogmatist or skeptical, hold back from a wild animal or fire, they make use of fire when it is cold and go towards what seems enjoyable to them. This has been the case for human life throughout history; the difference of a normal person and one who suffers from skepticism lies in this fact.

The interesting and important point which lies in this issue and has received ample attention in Islamic mysticism of Mulla Sadra is the harmony between mind and object, that is, between ‘The Macro-Man’ and ‘The Micro-Man’.

The Macro-Man

Islamic mysticism and a number of ancient Iranian and Greek theosophers used to take all animals as one single real being called Macro-Man the members of which are all the beings in this world. Man is a small specimen of this macro-man which used to be called microcosm. These two macro-man and micro-man (or two Cosmos) are assumed to be identical in all respects and there are certain rules, such as the rule of correspondence, have been proposed for them.

One of the universal rules in this issue is the affirmation of the similarity between the forms of these two worlds and it is this similarity between the form and behavior of these two which causes man’s ‘real knowledge’ of the universe because the condition of correct knowledge is that the perceiver and the perceived should be similar and identical in their forms. The experience of modern sciences, similar to past mystical experiences, has led man to believe that there is an order in the whole universe and that this universe is a coherent system in which there is a mathematical and geometrical relationship among everything in it, from an atom to galaxies, and there exists a kind of harmony and similarity among all beings and the essence of it[5].

Accordingly, as man is a part of this universe and meanwhile is a small and independent specimen in the universe and has transaction and, sometimes, contrast with it, there is a kind relationship and even resonance between man and the universe. The occurrence of some actions and extraordinary happenings in man such telepathy or other miracles observed in religious histories and even certain ordinary things are examples of such interaction and relationship.

Man’s knowledge, in case it is a real one, and the ability of man to create quiddity or a real model of things and phenomena in the external world (which according to phenomenologists, happens through man’s intentionality) is a result of that harmony which enables micro-man to acquire a real knowledge of the facts existing in the macro-man[6].

In this transaction, man is similar to a mirror and when he is in the position of attention and awareness and has utilized his relevant forces, he can recreate in his mind shapes similar to the external object using the facts that have affected his mind through his five senses. In terms of Islamic philosophy, he creates the quiddity of the external object, which represents the identity and personality of the object, in his mind. This is, by and large, totally different from projecting a photograph on a sheet because the picture of objects is not mental existence. In classification of existence and its degrees in Islamic philosophy, it is lower than mental existence by two degrees.

The problem inherent in Husserl’s theory lies in that he had completely isolated knowledge which is obtained through attention and awareness. Using his own words, he had put it in parentheses while, according to Mulla Sadra, knowledge is what is present in the mind and it is a second-hand existence and possesses a share of existence and being real. Basically, quiddity always accompanies existence. If we take objective existence as cosmos existence, mental existence will be a human existence which totally similar to and correspondent with cosmos existence.

In sum, the importance perception and knowledge in reaching real and scientific realism lies in the correspondence between man and external objectivity and in Islamic philosophy, this issue has been resolved in a way that in which the correspondence between mind and essence has been testified. That is, the criterion of correspondence among objects is the unity of quiddity between object[7] and subject[8] and the guarantee for the unity of correspondence is the mind’s discovering of the external object. It should known, however, that the quiddity of the object in the external world is not reflected in the mind through the five senses. This is a non-scientific and an optimistic theory that empiricists insist on because our senses transmit a two-dimensional picture of objects and not their quiddity. Moreover, according to empiricists, knowledge has a passive mode, but Mulla Sadra takes science and knowledge as man’s action and not his reaction. Knowledge which happens through the five senses without the active interference of mind cannot be rightly justifiable for the correspondence and correctness of our knowledge and belief. The theory of knowledge in Mulla Sadra’s philosophy is not only more in line with human nature and history but also it seems more perfect than other theories proposed on the explication of knowledge. Because, the theory offered by sensualists, which takes the sense perception the same as the simple output of the five senses, is not only a elementary, superficial and non-philosophical, but also it has not attended to other phenomena existing in the mind. Besides, it has ignored mental existence and intuitive knowledge.




[1]. al-Asfar, Vol 1, Chapter on ‘Mental Existence’. A Hadith has also been narrated from the Holy Prophet in this regard.

[2]. The difference between these two kinds of knowledge is that acquired knowledge is 1) deficient, 2) indirect, and 3) passive and reflective, but intuitive knowledge is not the reflection of the external object, it is encompassing it, or, in fact, reaching to its reality and having it in his presence. Acquired knowledge means knowing the quiddity and concept, whereas intuitive knowledge is knowing the existence of something. Although knowledge is a bridge for passing through to get to philosophy, it is not an existence by itself. It can, however, be considered as one of the issues in ontology which accompanies human existence and is a this-worldly phenomenon. Mulla Sadra noticed this delicate point and proved that existence is of two kinds: external existence and mental existence.

[3]. This can be compared to what an architect does, the difference being that an architect makes a larger-scale model of his mental picture in the external world while our mind creates the external quiddity of objects in a smaller scale.

[4]. Universal in philosophy is a specific type and difference from universal in logic.

[5]. This issue has also been narrated from ancient philosophers and the acceptance of a kind of hierarchy in nature is closely related to this reality.

[6]. This has been called ‘father’ in the illuminationist and Plotinian philosophy. 

[7]. In Islamic philosophy, it is called “known-by-accident”.

[8]. It is “known-by-essence” in Islamic philosophy.



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