Epistemology of the Quran: Elements of a Virtue Approach to Knowledge and Understanding

 deals with the Quranic concepts of perceptual, rational, and revelatory
  • Book Title:
 Epistemology Of The Quran
  • Book Author:
M. Ashraf Adeel
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Deriving Epistemic Virtues from the Qur’ānic

Conception of Ignorance

The Arabic words for ignorance (Jāhiliyyat), belief (ẓann), and knowledge (‘il’m ) are derived from the roots jīm hā lām (j-h-l) in the first case and ẓā nūn nūn (ẓ-n-n) and ‘ayn lām mīm in the second and third. According to Lane’s Arabic Lexicon, ẓann can mean thought, opinion, supposition, or conjecture (Lane 1863).

It can, therefore, mean “belief” insofar as an opinion can be taken as an expression of a belief.9 These terms, therefore, roughly correspond to Plato’s tripartite division of cognitive powers in Book 5 (476 E 4) of the Republic, i.e., agnosia or ignorance, doxa or opinion/belief, and episteme or knowledge.

Let us look at the way the Qur’ān uses variants of the root j-h-l so as to get an understanding of the concept of ignorance in the Qur’ān. This root occurs 24 times in the Qur’ān in six forms.

The following attitudes or ways of mind are character-ized as ignorance in these usages: refusal to accept (even overwhelming) evidence in favor of an idea (6:111), adopting others’ customs thoughtlessly (7:138), inabil-ity/refusal to see the worth of people because of their (lowly) station (11:29), satis-fying desires unnaturally (27:55), lack of openness to evidence combined with arrogance (46:23), thinking other than the truth about God (3:154), false vanity (of tribalism) (5:50), showy behavior (33:33), zealotry (for wrong causes) (48:26), accepting reports of unrighteousness without investigation (49:6), taking unprece-dented moral risk beyond one’s capacities (at the time of creation) (33:72), lying on behalf of God (2:67), taking the poor to be self-sufficient, i.e., social insensitivity (2:273), misplaced impatience for results (6:35), asking for a favor for your family (from God) without knowing its real meaning (11:46), falling prey to temptation (12:33), harming your brother out of jealousy (12:89), aggressive attitude and arro-gance towards the humble (25:63), vain talk or ill speak (28:55), and attributing partners to God (39:64).

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There are four other verses where the Qur’ān uses variants of the root j-h-l. One exhorts us to keep away from the company of the ignorant (7:199). The other three speak about the acceptability of repentance for actions done in ignorance (4:17,….

The Qur’ānic Hints about Epistemic Responsibility: An Analysis of Etymological Variants of ‘i-l-m in the Text

As in the case of j-h-l, the Qur’ānic verses that employ etymological variants of the root ‘i-l-m, trilateral root for the Arabic word for knowledge, presumably presup-pose or imply a certain set of hints about the nature of knowledge. One can glean some elements of or hints about a possible conception of knowledge by analyzing these verses in the light of contemporary epistemological approaches.

These verses divide into a number of groups ranging from verses about God’s knowledge to human knowledge based on inference, experience, memory, rational analysis, and revelation. The question before this chapter is: what are some of the elements of this conception of knowledge that run through all of the verses about human knowl-edge? I argue below that these Qur’ānic verses are best understood as hinting at ways of defining knowledge in terms of certain natural and acquired epistemic dis-positions or virtues. I look at these verses from a virtue-theoretic perspective and argue that knowledge for the Qur’ān seems to involve effective exercise of our per-ceptual, rational, or intuitive competencies or faculties as well as acquired disposi-tions or virtues.

Perceptual Knowledge

Let us look at perceptual knowledge first. It is based on sensory stimulation. Many of these stimuli simply come upon us, while others are actively sought by us.1 We are rather “passive” recipients of the first kind while the second kind involve our “deliberate” effort. Perceptual knowledge can be had based on the percepts formed on the basis of both kind of stimuli.

Contemporary discussions in virtue epistemology sometimes take ordinary perceptual knowledge to be what is called “passive” knowledge (Pritchard 2016, 30), claiming that as epistemic agents we do not deserve any credit for such knowledge. This idea is sometimes used against credit theory of knowledge as a counterexample.2 The claim is that there is nothing that the epistemic agent does in attaining ordinary perceptual knowledge, for example through vision or hearing, and, hence, she cannot be credited with attaining true beliefs through passive perception.

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To put the matter in a slightly different way, the argu-ment is that since the epistemic agent does not exercise any virtue in attaining such knowledge and it is gained only through more or less automatic functioning of per-ceptual faculties, we have no grounds for crediting the agent with attainment of such knowledge. However, both virtue responsibilists and virtue reliabilists have argued that the epistemic agent deserves credit for perceptual knowledge because she attains it either by exercise of acquired virtues or by reliable functioning of her perceptual faculties.

 In fact it has been argued by Stephan Napier (2008) that an epistemic agent must perform acts of virtue to attain perceptual knowledge and, hence, even a reliabilist position about knowledge actually has a responsibilist element to it.

If this line of thought in virtue epistemology is right, it becomes easier to see why the Qur’ān holds epistemic agents responsible for the exercise of their faculties and blames those who fail to do so. There are several places where the Qur’ān criticizes those who fail to see or hear, etc., despite having the relevant faculties. It states, for example:

And We have certainly created for Hell many of the jinn and mankind. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are the heedless. (7:179)

Those who are being criticized here are in a state of “heedlessness.” What that seems to mean is that despite having the ability to understand3 they do not exercise it; despite having the ability to see, they do not exercise it; and despite having the ability to hear, they do not exercise it.

Obviously the verse does not mean to suggest that such people have shut their minds, eyes, and ears literally. The idea seems to be that such people do not exercise these faculties responsibly or with proper attention. This is a great epistemic failure in the eyes of the Qur’ān and, hence, it declares such people to be worse than livestock in being astray.

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Hence, people are responsible, as far as the Qur’ān is concerned, for the exercise of their perceptual and intellectual dispositions or faculties. Failure to do so makes one epistemically heedless or un- conscientious. This attitude is deeply blameworthy for the Qur’ān in a moral sense as well.

From the point of view of our concerns here, it appears that attentive exercise of perceptual and intellectual abilities is a matter of responsibility and we gain knowl-edge through such an exercise. Otherwise we end up in a state of heedlessness, where we are more astray than animals.

Therefore, as far as perceptual knowledge is concerned, the Qur’ān seems to take it to be a product of exercise of our perceptual faculties in an epistemically consci-entious way.

That experience in general is a source of knowledge for the Qur’ān is further corroborated by the following verses:

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