An Introduction to Epistemology

Epistemology – the nature of knowledge.

This is perhaps the most important topic in apologetics and of the Islamic Sciences. The nature of knowledge, its forms, uses, qualities, benefits, differences, etc. How do you acquire knowledge? How does one benefit from this knowledge? What is knowledge? Do these questions seem odd to ask? Unfortunately, most secular schooling does not teach us about epistemology, so while we do have some idea of what these questions are asking and what their answers should be, it’ll be difficult to thoroughly answer them. There is however, quite a great number of works available on this topic to help you catch up to speed:

  • ‘Kitab al Ilm’ by Imam al Ghazali is available in most languages and can be found for free online. It’s a very short work which is a great primer on the topic and contains no complicated language, concepts or theories, it’s pretty straightforward and most people would be able to read it through in an hour minutes. That doesn’t mean that one should try to read it in less time, or exactly 60 minutes, the time taken to read the work does not matter. What truly matters is your ability to understand the book. What’s the use in speed reading, if you can’t comprehend what you’ve read?
  • ‘Ta’lim al Muta’allim Tariq at Ta’-allam’ (The Instruction of the Student: The Method of Learning) by Imam Zarnuji is readily available in both English and Arabic and can be found for free online. At the time of this article’s writing, Seeker’s Guidance is offering a free course on the book. It’s a step beyond Kitab al Ilm, but it is necessary for a Muslim to fully understand this field before they engage in apologetics and this work is the best classical work that a Muslim can study to appreciate epistemology in Islam. The English translation is poor in some areas, so the course by Seekers Guidance is one’s best bet for learning this text. However, it would still be beneficial for one to read the translation.
  • “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler is also available in English and can be found for free online. While this work isn’t by a Muslim author, what it teaches falls into line with Islamic thought. Many Muslim scholars actually encourage the reading of this book and have given lectures on it. See Lecture 1 and Lecture 2 by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

The Seeker’s Guidance page on Imam Zarnuji’s book, mentions several topics in Epistemology from an Islamic perspective, they are as follows:

  1. The Reality of Knowledge and Learning;
  2. The Purpose and Intentions of Seeking Knowledge
  3. What to Study
  4. Respecting Knowledge and Its People
  5. Qualities of Seekers: Resolve, Focus, and Determination
  6. How To Study: What to begin with, amount, time, and organization
  7. Reliance on Allah in Seeking
  8. When To Study
  9. Sincere Concern in Seeking: Serving Teachers, Assisting Seekers
  10. Key Means in Successful Seeking of Knowledge
  11. Renunciation (zuhd) as Key in Seeking
  12. Memory and How to Retain Knowledge
  13. Seeking Knowledge and One’s Livelihood

The role of epistemology in apologetics cannot be emphasized enough. Once one trains himself in the field of epistemology, they’ll know how to approach difficult questions, how to resolve complicated arguments and most importantly how to process knowledge in a systematic, efficient and rational manner, which would then grant them the ability to understand Islam and its beliefs at a deeper intellectual level. Without educating one’s self in epistemology, attempting to engage in apologetics would be a fruitless endeavor.

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