"The epistemology of the truth in modern Islam," Philosophy and Social Criticism 41, no. 4-5 (2015): 473-86.

The Epistemology of the Truth in Modern Islam

By Khaled Abou El Fadl[1]





There is a serious problem with arguing that God intended to lock the epistemology of the seventh century into the immutable text of the Qur’an, and then intended to hold Muslims hostage to this epistemological framework for all ages to come.  Among other things, this would limit the dynamism and effectiveness of Divine text because the Qur’an would be forever locked within a knowledge paradigm that is very difficult to retrieve or recreate.  The author argues for the recognition of three critical categories in Islamic theology: haqq, ma‘arifa, and hikma.  While haqq connotes the objective and constant truth, it is not reachable without hikma.  Hikma is the balance (mizan) of truths in every historical moment with all of its contingencies.  Ma’arifa is the epistemology or the way to searching the objective and constant truth as well as the search for the hikma appropriate for each stage in human consciousness. The author contends that it is contrary to the very nature of a merciful and compassionate God to leave Muslims with a Revelation that is not fully equipped to deal with the altered states of consciousness, and perceptions that are inevitable in every stage of human development.





The problems of modernity, alienation, and identity are hardly unique to Muslims. Fundamentally, alienation and rootlessness in modernity is about the construction and anchoring of identity at a time in which globalization has made the maintenance of cultural particularity and uniqueness a real challenge.  In meeting this challenge, it is reasonable to expect that each culture would draw upon its own unique sense of history, and cumulative normative traditions—upon its evolved sense of memory and meaning, and its particular epistemological history of self-perception and self-invention in the process of negotiating its sense of identity.  But the Muslim predicament is complicated and aggravated by a number of paradoxical realities related to the fact that Islam embodies a very contextually diverse historical legacy as well as a set of normative ideals and aspirations.  Furthermore, although the forbearers of a once great and powerful civilization, most Muslim states today are part of the disempowered and dominated subaltern world. Colonialism and Wahhabism coalesced rather un-providentially to disrupt and expunge Muslim memory, and at the same time, these same forces preserved and furthered notional memories and mythologies of a conflict between an imagined Islam and an imagined West.


Broadly speaking, the problem of social alienation in the modern world has to do with the lack of rootedness and the absence of a consciousness anchored in purpose and meaning.  As Charles Taylor points out in his most recent book, the individualization and relativity of knowledge and epistemology has led to a deeply embedded reality of social alienation and uprootedness.[2]  Phenomenologically, the dynamic is not difficult to understand—in essence, it is a simple one. If everything is valid in principle, then it becomes difficult to find particularity of meaning or even affirmation of a truth. In this process, it becomes quite easy to lose the meaning of social anchor and social foundation.  But yet, at the same time, as all post-enlightenment thought, and particularly thought of the humanitarian-liberal orientation, has emphasized, toleration is founded on the basic concept of the willingness to accept the truth or the potential truth of others.


At the outset, I want to emphasize that I do believe that in the age of epistemic anxiety and disorientation, the Islamic tradition can play a critical role in anchoring and rooting contemporary Muslims.  The role of the Islamic tradition goes well-beyond functioning as a temperate instrument of preservation and restoration.  The Islamic tradition can serve as a catalyst for hope and moral progress, and it can play a dynamic role in treating the social ailments that afflict the collective Muslim psyche.  But of course, this all depends on the meaning, or kind of Islamicates (or Islamiyyat) that are understood and pursued by contemporary Muslims.


Muslims bear a responsibility not just towards themselves, but also towards humanity and the world.  This is a critical point because Muslims are charged with the burden of bearing witness not just for or against themselves, but for or against all of humanity.  It is a basic theological premise in Islam that if one fails to bear witness for God and against what is wrong and immoral (al-munkar), then one becomes an accomplice to this wrong.  This is the basic and quintessential doctrine of shahada (to testify belief in God) in Islam.  In the same way that nothing remains of iman (faith) if one does not believe in the covenantal bond with God, nothing remains of Islam as a religion if one does not accept the duty of shahada.  Sacrosanct and venerable Islamic theological tenets such as the obligation to pursue goodness and resist wrongfulness, and also jihad (struggling for just causes) grow out of the basic covenant of shahada.  Furthermore, the pivotal and sublime virtue of ihsan (to do what is more virtuous and beautiful in all circumstances), which is deontologically interlinked with the very nature of Islam, is inextricably an expression of shahada.  


At various stages and contexts in Islamic history, the doctrine of shahada provided the dynamic impetus that led Muslims to explore and integrate traditions and cultures as diverse as the Greek, Persian, Roman, Indian, Chinese, Berber, Kazak, Kurdish, Turkic, Habashi or Ethiopian, Tajik, Uzbek, Malay, Javanese and many more.  Of course, as in the case of all human endeavors, many abuses and excesses where committed in the pursuit of, and in the name of the ideals of tawhid (Divine unity) and shahada.  But at the same time, it must be recognized that this same dogma gave Muslims a sense of mission, or what can even be called a manifest destiny, that served as the catalyst for building a dynamic normative movement that produced one of the world’s main civilizational experiences.  In this context, Muslims established new paradigms furthering human thinking about tolerance, individual accountability, procedural and evidentiary justice, gender politics, and scientific thinking.  What, at the time, Muslims offered the world was comparatively more humane, fair, just, civilized, and beautiful than what prevailed in the various cultures of the world, and this made Islam an irrepressible moral force.[3]  It is important to remember that Muslim luminaries such as al-Kindi (d. 256/873), Abu Nasr al-Farabi (d. 339/950), al-Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 415/1025), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (d. 428/1037), Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 513/1119), Ibn Baja (Avempace) (d. 533/1138), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (d. 595/1198), Ibn Tufayl (Abubacer) (d. 581/1185), Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (d. 587/1191), Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210), Farid al-Din ‘Attar (d. 617/1220), Ibn ‘Arabi (638/1240), Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 672/1273), Ibn Battuta (d. 770/1369), Hafiz of Shiraz (d. 791/1389), Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406), and many others, made contributions that transcended narrow denominational contexts, and that greatly enriched the collective civilizational heritage of humanity. These luminaries, as diverse and different as they are, do not represent Islamic orthodoxy, or the average Muslim scholar, nor do they symbolize the freethinking outliers to the Islamic civilization.  They do represent, however, the dynamic culture and momentum of the Islamic civilization.  The recurring emergence of intellectuals who have made critical paradigm-shifting interventions in the cumulative order of human norms is demonstrative of the zeitgeist of the civilizational culture from which they emerged.   It takes hundreds of ordinary or above average intellectuals before someone of the caliber of Ibn Rushd or Thomas Aquinas emerges, but the normative culture of the civilization to which a truly brilliant thinker belongs must be conducive to such a momentum or trajectory.


The key point that I wish to get across is that there is considerable evidence that Islamic concepts, such as tawhid, shahada, and ihsan, sparked many movements that coalesced into normative projects that engaged humanity at large.  For instance, if one reads the early Islamic apologetics responding to existing systems of belief such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, or Stoicism, one is definitely struck by the sheer confidence and certitude found in these texts.  But even more striking is the fact that this sense of certitude did not dilute the sophistication of the responses or descend into an aloof arrogance towards the other.  Whether a particular apologetic effort is deemed persuasive or successful is beside the point.  What is key, however, is that the civilizational culture set in motion by Islam created an impetus, or what might be called a normative velocity in which scholars felt driven to fully engage their intellectual milieu as part of engaging questions material to humanity.


The same is underscored when analyzing the anatomy of cultures, or the normative constitution of the cultures, that led to the massive translation movement that preserved and augmented the Greek philosophical tradition, or that gave rise to numerous prestigious colleges in medieval Islam, or that led to the sprouting of grand libraries from Baghdad to Timbuktu.[4]  But what is more telling are the discourses that surrounded the birth, or followed from the birth, of particular moralistic traditions in Islam.  Consider for instance a tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad stating: “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”[5]  It would already have required a particular level of sophisticated moral sensibility to generate, preserve, and develop this tradition.  But beyond its origins, a considerable interpretive discourse grew around this tradition in which aesthetic value was philosophically linked with ethical obligations and other normative duties. Moreover, this interpretive culture investigated the nature of creation in relation to the nature of virtue and obligation.[6] These interpretive discourses were all part and parcel of exploring the meaning and mandates of the Shar‘.  I use Shar‘ here to mean the conceptual category of the path that leads to and follows from Godliness.  Shar‘ or the path of Godliness was not just the text of the Qur’an or the technical manuals of fiqh (derived legal rulings).  It is the pietistic ideology and drive leading to a phenomenical impetus exploring Divinity through humanity and humanity through divinity.


The sophisticated interpretive explorations that developed around the tradition that God is beautiful and loves beauty, and many other traditions like it, would not have been possible without a richly nuanced literary culture.  Considering that these discourses flourished around the third/fourth or ninth/tenth centuries, the normative trajectory or velocity of the culture that nurtured these discourses was clearly conducive to making contributions that greatly benefited and elevated humanity.  Of course, this Prophetic tradition, and others like it, is still a part of the Islamic heritage, but contemporary Muslims have not attempted to accomplish anything even approximating the accomplishments of their ancestors.    


I am absolutely certain that if Puritanical-Salafism[7] with all its unwavering creedal dogmatism and epistemological absolutism had the type of influence upon Islamic culture that it has today, Muslims would not have built a civilization and they would have contributed nothing to humanity.  Today, the moral and aesthetic lead has been taken by democracy, pluralism, and human rights, and the inescapable and challenging question that confronts all religious traditions is: What can they offer that could constitute moral progress in a postmodern world?


What is critical to emphasize is that Islam is already an embedded and inseparable part of the epistemological and normative culture per which Muslims are compelled to confront postmodernity.  But beyond this, attempts at ignoring or excluding the normative role of religion in Muslim societies will only lead to deeper ruptures and further traumatic extirpations, and without any real advantages or gains.  Democracy and human rights will flourish in Muslim societies by anchoring their principles and processes in Islamic normativities, and not by clashing with embedded Islamic norms.  Nevertheless, the greater challenge that Muslims, as the bearers of the shahada, must tackle is how to add goodness or Godliness to the world by making it more just, beautiful, and fair.  Beyond myopic relativism, particularism, and exceptionalism, it is possible, and indeed imperative, to make universal moral contributions that constitute advancement in beauty and ethics.  But to do so requires critical reflection and serious ethical thinking—the difficult realization is that for Muslims to make a universal contribution mandates a move away from focusing on political struggles and functional opportunism to becoming fully engaged in ethical thought and adherence to moral principle. 


The morally oppressive fact is that before being in a position to contribute to the moral growth of the world, Muslims must first deal with the problem of ugliness or the deformities generated by those who claim to speak for an absolutist and exclusivist Islam.  After the many extreme acts of ugliness that have become associated with the words “Islam,” “Islamist,” or “Islamic” the question is: Can Muslims return to the proverbial Islamic without falling into the fold of Puritanical-Salafism?  Many of the abuses of Puritanical-Salafism are perpetrated by exploiting the dogma of submission to God and using it to validate absolute, exclusivist, and authoritarian claims to the truth.[8]  In my view, if one wishes to respond to Puritanical-Salafism, it is necessary to revisit the very aspirational idea of submission to the Infinite Divine.


Submitting to Infinite Divinity


It is well known that the word Islam means submission, and the basic Islamic demand is that human beings submit themselves to God, and to no one else and nothing else.  Human beings should struggle to defeat their weaknesses, control their urges, and gain mastery over themselves.  Only by gaining mastery over the self can that self be meaningfully submitted to God.  If the self is controlled or mastered by the ego, urges, fears, anxieties, desires, and whim, then attempting to submit this highly compromised self is not very meaningful—one cannot submit what he does not control in the first place.


Furthermore, according to the Qur’an, human beings are God’s viceroys and agents on this earth.[9]  They possess a divinely delegated power to civilize the earth (ta‘mir al-ard), and they are commanded not to corrupt it.  Human beings are individually accountable and no human being can carry the sins of another or be held responsible in the Hereafter for the actions of the other.  Since human beings are directly accountable to God, their submission to God necessarily means that they submit to no other.  Surrendering one’s will or autonomy to another human being is like reneging on the relationship of agency with God.  Every person, as a direct agent of God, must exercise his or her conscience and mind and be fully responsible for his or her thoughts and actions.  If a person surrenders his autonomy to another, in effect, such a person is violating the terms of his agency.  Such a person would be assigning his agency responsibilities to another person and defaulting on his fiduciary duties towards God.


Thus, the first obligation of a Muslim is to gain control and mastery over himself; the second obligation is to insure that he does not unlawfully surrender his will and autonomy as an agent to another; and the third obligation is to surrender fully and completely to God.  However, this act of surrender cannot be grudging or based on desperation and cannot arise out of a sense that there is no alternative but to surrender.  To surrender out of anxiety or fear of punishment is better than defying God, but it is a meaningless and empty submission.  Submission must be anchored in feelings of longing and love.  Submission is not a merely a physical act of resignation and acceptance.  Rather, genuine submission must be guided by a longing and love for union with the Divine.  Therefore, those who submit do not find fulfillment simply in obedience but in love—a love for the very Divinity from which they came. 


Needless to say, the Puritanical-Salafi orientation in the process of militarizing Islam portrayed the act of submission as if it is an act of obedience by lowly soldiers to the orders of a superior officer.  Furthermore, because Puritanical-Salafism imagined that submission is a process of order and obedience, they were compelled to reduce God’s discourse to a set of commands.  The Qur’an, in the Puritanical-Salafi imagination, became as if a military manual setting out the marching orders of the high command.  The violence done to the Qur’an and Islam from this militarized orientation has been nothing short of devastating.  But considering the Puritanical-Salafi preoccupation with power, it is not surprising that the sublime text of the Qur’an was transformed into a text that is primarily concerned with the dynamics of power, not beauty, and that submission to God also became an exercise in power, not love. 


The Puritanical-Salafi approach to the Qur’an and to the theology of submission necessarily meant the projection of egotistical human needs onto God.  Instead of our relationship with Divinity becoming a path towards expanding the human consciousness into the realm of the sublime, Divinity was made subservient to the mundane—instead of the temporal guiding the mundane, the mundane dominated the Divine; and instead of endowing humanity with Divinity, Divinity became humanized.  Insecure, threatened, and anxious about indeterminacy, Puritanical-Salafism projected the limitations of the physical world upon God and thus, it limited the potentialities offered by Divinity.  The tendency towards anthropomorphism in puritan beliefs is a symptom of this problem.


To love God and be loved by God is the highest form of submission—the surrender of love is the real and true surrender.  However, in order to love, as numerous classical scholars pointed out, it is important for the lover to love the truth of the beloved.  Meaning, the lover ought to guard against projecting onto the other a construct and then falling in love with the construct instead of the truth of the beloved.  Take for example a married couple—it is a common problem that, instead of genuinely knowing one another and loving the real character and traits of the other, each spouse would construct an artificial image of the other, and then fall in love with the constructed image.  The least one can say about this common problem is that each person does not necessarily love the other, but loves the construct invented of the other.  In the case of God, as a matter of faith, Muslims assume that God has perfect and immutable knowledge, and therefore, God knows the truth about the beloved.  As to the human being, the challenge is to know the truth about God without projecting himself onto God.  By critical self-reflection, the worshipper can come to know himself, and by knowing himself, struggle not to project his own subjectivities, limitations, and anxieties upon God.  In seeking to love God, the challenge and real struggle is not to use God as a stepping-stone towards self-idolatry.  As importantly, one’s submission to God cannot be transformed into a relationship in which one uses the Divine as a crutch to assert power over others.  As explained earlier, the highest form of jihad is the struggle to know and cleanse oneself.  This self-knowledge and critical engagement with the self is necessary for loving the truth of God, but aspiring to control others or seeking the power to dominate others is a failure of submission to God.


There is, however, an even more fundamental issue implicated here, and this is: What does it mean to submit to the Divine Who is infinite?  If a human being submits to another, we know what that means—the will of one is made subservient to the will of another, and submission is achieved when one person obeys the other.  But when a human being submits to the Omnipotent, Immutable, and Infinite, how is the relationship defined?  It seems to me that to say the human being is to obey God is insufficient and unsatisfactory.  To even say that the human being loves God by itself, tells us little.  In submission, the human being does not obey or love a quantifiable sum or a limited reality that can be reduced to a set of injunctions or emotions.  To love God is like asserting that one loves nature, or the universe or some unquantifiable reality like love itself.  In many ways, when a human being loves God, a human being is in love with love—in love with infinite virtue and illimitable beauty.  If one submits to God solely by obeying commands, unwittingly one has quantified God and rendered the Divine reducible.  This is so because it is as if one has made the act of submission to God fully represented by the reductionist act of obedience.  Instead of being in love with God, one is in love with a distilled and limited construct called the commands of God.  


Submitting to God is submitting to limitless and unbounded potentialities.  Obedience to what one believes is God’s will is necessary, but the Will that one believes is God’s cannot be made to fully represent the Divine.  Obedience to what a believer sincerely believes is God’s Will is an essential but elementary step.  God is not represented by a set of commands or by a particular set of identifiable intents or determinations.  God is limitless and thus, submission to God is like submitting to the unlimited.  This makes submission a commitment to unlimited potentialities of ever-greater realizations of Divinity.  Take, for instance, if one is in love with beauty.  Submitting oneself to beauty necessarily means submitting to the various possibilities of beauty—not submitting to a single and definite expression of beauty.  To bring the concept closer to mind, imagine if one is in love with classical music, and this love reaches a point that a particular person wishes to submit himself to this music.  Such a submission might very well mean accepting, learning, and obeying certain forms of expression of music.  The lover might understand and follow music in the form of a symphony, concerto, sonata, and so on.  However, music is a larger reality than the forms that express it, and it is certainly possible to discover new forms that allow for a better and more perfect understanding of music.  However, to be in love with classical music means to be in love with the potentialities and possibilities offered by this music, which far transcend any particular set of forms.


This understanding regarding the nature of submission in Islam is of core significance to the reclamation of the Islamic message to humanity.  As explained earlier, Muslims have a covenantal relationship with God pursuant to which they are to bear witness to moral virtues such as justice, mercy, and compassion.  These virtues, according to the Qur’an, are part of the goodness and beauty of God.  Submission to God, in my view, necessarily means discharging the obligations of the covenant by seeking after a loving relationship with God.  But God’s beauty is not expressed simply in abstract terms or undirected theoretical constructs.  It is crucial to appreciate that God’s beauty is expressed, among other things, in terms of kindness and goodness towards human beings.  The object of justice, compassion, and mercy, for instance, is not an unidentifiable abstraction—the object of these virtues is humanity.  Therefore, the Prophet, for example, is reported to have said: “A true Muslim is one who refrains from offending people with his tongue or hands.” One’s relationship with God means the pursuit of greater levels of perfection of beauty.  The beauty of submission is not in empowering oneself over people—it is in putting oneself in the service of people.


The approach explicated here presumes a process of moral growth.  In my view, to be in love and submit to God necessarily means a constant, never-ending pursuit of beauty.  In my view, a relationship with the Divine must offer endless possibilities of moral growth, and such a relationship cannot mean stagnation in a set of determinable laws.  If God is beauty, how can a relationship with God be but an exploration of beauty?  I describe it as an exploration because the mundane can never perfectly realize the supernal—the mundane can only seek after the supernal and seek to become in the process more sublime.


God’s path offers potentialities that are limitless, but there is a tension between the notion of a path that leads to numerous possibilities of growth and the determinable law of God.  If the Divine’s beauty is limitless and infinite, and if human beings seek the Divine but can never assume to have fully realized it, doesn’t this, in effect, negate any basis for an absolute truth in Islam?


Haqq, Hikma, and Ma‘arifa: The Epistemology of Reasonableness


In response to the challenges of modernity, and the oppressiveness of doctrinal absolutism, a number of Muslim reformers have gravitated towards theories that focus on the instrumentalities of knowledge and law.  By instrumentalities of knowledge and law, I mean theories that function on the idea of overlapping consensus as a way of establishing truth and reaching determinative results.  Others have focused on empowering autonomy and personal agency while emphasizing communal pluralism. Still others emphasize cumulative communities of interpretation and tradition as an instrumentality to devising a way out of the problems of modern alienation and relativism.  Other theorists have adopted pragmatic and positivist approaches where they place a great deal of emphasis on shared public interests or the public good.   


The main issue that I have with these various theories, and especially with theories that emphasize overlapping consensus in the Rawlsian sense, is that all of these approaches are instrumentalities for a functional solution to the problem of knowledge and truth; however, they are philosophically and intellectually non-responsive.  Basically, these theories use sociology and some form of functionalism as a method for answering the question “is everyone wrong or is everyone right,” and ultimately the answer they yield is “we do not and cannot know! Hence, whatever we can agree on, we will pretend is correct and whatever we disagree on [and quite often religion is placed in the category of what cannot be agreed upon], we can set aside as a private matter.”  These kinds of responses offer functional solutions to the problems of relativism, but at least from an Islamic philosophical perspective, these approaches are not entirely satisfying.


I will outline what I believe is a plausible approach to Islamic epistemology in the modern age that avoids the twin evils of standardless relativism and intolerant and despotic absolutism.  In the semiotics of the Islamic heritage, there are three critical categories: haqq, hikma, and ma‘arifa.  I define haqq as the true nature of things or the inherent truthful nature and essence of things. Fundamental and indeed inherent to the meaning of hikma is righteousness as to the relationships between the true natures of things.  It is the true measurement or, as expressed in the text of the Qur’an, the  (, which is the righteous balance between the nature of things. So hikma, which is normally translated as wisdom, is truth, not simply from the perspective from what the essence is, but truth in relation to each other and the way that competing truths harmonize with one another (mizan al-haqa’iq).  Ma’arifa is the way to knowing the relationship of the true nature of things.


Restated, haqq is at a level of understanding that requires juhd (striving and struggle)—a serious form of intellectual jihad; hikma is a broader perspective of haqq in its totality; and ma‘arifa is the instrumentalities and the mechanics of knowing. It is philosophically defensible to assert that haqq, or the true nature of things, is constant and non-shifting; hikma, however, is not constant and is shifting because we cannot understand the true relationship of things before we receive a certain level of awareness and consciousness about what actually exists.  For instance, if we consider the hikma, or the righteous relationship of things within the ma‘arifa, or the epistemological mechanics, of the twelfth century compared to that of the sixteenth century, and then compared to that of the twenty-first century, we quickly see that the mechanics of hikma become ever more complex and varied as we move through time and space.


However, there is an essential mathematical logic that does not ever break down and does not vary. The equations necessary to realize this hikma become ever the more inventive and ever the more complex, and sometimes require new approaches to revealing the relationship of things.  For instance, imagine the description of the relationship of things when the extent of a person’s consciousness is that things are either made of fire, wind, water, or earth; then imagine a description that breaks down the true nature of things into subatomic particles; and then compare that to one where there is an awareness of dark matter and anti-matter.  Ma‘arifa, or knowing, is the study of consciousness required to comprehend the haqq and evaluate hikma, and because human consciousness is constantly shifting and evolving, the constituent elements of hikma are constantly changing and evolving as well. Ma‘arifa, by its nature, cannot rely on naql, or transcription and transmission, but is, by its nature contingent and dynamic.  


Let me give a concrete example, which I hope will serve as a metaphor for what we find in religious texts in the Islamic tradition. Let’s assume that we have a narrative in which a father is speaking to his children and the father tells his son something to the effect of “honor my memory when I am gone by being fair to your sister!”  Assume that in the context in which the words were spoken, being fair to the sister involved allowing the sister to own her own horse and marry the person she loves.  Within the consciousness of that space and time, the ma‘arifa required for understanding the ultimate hikma and truth that the father is trying to achieve can be imagined in particularized terms. Now let’s imagine that we take the same narrative of fairness in a context in which we do not have horses and we do not have simply the issue of who to marry, but consciousness itself has shifted, and being fair to your sister now means allowing your sister a full development as an autonomous being, or allowing your sister a full realization of her dignity and self respect.  The haqq, which in this case is the true nature of the objective of justice or fairness, is the same; however, the hikma, the relational dynamics of truth, becomes more complex as our consciousness, which is a function of our human psychology, becomes more complex, and human needs have dramatically altered.  The epistemology of knowing these higher elements (ma‘arifa) has to radically change otherwise it will completely undermine both the hikma and the haqq.


In many ways, in the dynamics of contemporary Islam, which we see repeated again and again, the narrative is taken in a transmission or transcription sense at the level of ma‘arifa. But the way this ma‘arifa is unpacked ignores a very critical element and that is the element of an ever-changing and contingent human consciousness—the human ways of perceiving and understanding  require innovative conceptions of hikma if there is any hope of reaching or fulfilling the objectives of the haqq itself. As we see in many of the dynamics of modern Islam, if we take the narrative of the father telling the siblings to let their sister use the horse and reproduce that historical moment within our own time and space, it becomes entirely devoid of any meaning and undermines the entire enterprise of the journey towards hikma and haqq in the first place.


Consciousness and the evolution of consciousness are made necessary by the reality of an ever creative and creating God, a constant flow of what we call mawjudat (existence) and mukhluqat (creation)—a constant flow of contingencies and new realities that challenge the human consciousness and, in fact, wire our brain constantly so that the equations that were sufficient to achieve wisdom in one age become radically inadequate in a different age. If one can imagine that the equations of hikma for one age become inadequate for another, you can then say this applies ten-fold or even a hundred-fold to the instrumentalities (ma‘arifa) of reaching this hikma. Theologically speaking, Godliness means an ever-present creator and an ever-present inventor—one who invents and creates in partnership with human beings. As human beings enter into this partnership with the Divine, whether knowingly or not and whether acknowledging the Creator or not, they are challenged by the magnanimity and graciousness of this partnership.  They are challenged in the words of the Qur’an by the ethics of Godliness (rabaniyya or becoming ‘ibadan rabaniyyun).  In my humble view, it is a sad form of kufr (ingratitude) towards this Divine partnership to deny the reality and imperative of a constantly shifting and reconstructed epistemology.


The Wisdom of Reasonableness


Reasonableness is a virtue, but it rests on perhaps an obvious assumption. When God commands people to pursue ethical values such as justice, mercy, compassion, kindness, or faithfulness, I assume that these words have meanings.  If they did not have meaning, then God would be speaking frivolously, which is theologically impossible.  Furthermore, I assume that God knows that the only way these words will have meaning for us as human beings is through the way we use language—through the tools used in semiotics and hermeneutics.  Moreover, I assume that all Divine commands regarding doing what is good and beautiful are made with the full expectation and knowledge that the only way we human beings can make sense of semiotic communications is through what we now call epistemology—our knowledge structure and its system.  The same Creator who created the intellect also gave that intellect volition and choice.  This fact, in and of itself, sets numerous moral boundaries because creation is sacrosanct.  So, for example, the Qur’an exclaims:  “If your Lord would have willed, all people on earth, without exception, would have believed.  So would you compel people to become believers?”[10]   In this instance, the text confirms what is accessible to a believer through rational insight, and that is, one cannot undo, by human law, what was created by God.  This belief in human volition is not a libertarian position.  A truly libertarian position would necessarily have to accept that the world is perfectly intelligible without an assumption of a Creator and Law Giver, and as a believing Muslim, this I do not concede.  But does the fact that there is Divine law mean that our rational faculties can only be used hermeneutically in interpreting revelation and nothing else?  No, I do not believe that this follows either.  Usually, the argument goes something like this: If one believes in an immutable, omnipotent, and all powerful God who is the Law Giver, then it follows that Revelation defines what is right or wrong.  In other words, there is no inherent right or wrong—something is right because God allowed it or something is wrong because God forbade it.  If so, the argument goes, if God would have willed, God could have commanded whatever God pleases—God and God alone could determine what is good or bad, and our sole role as human beings is to submit. In this argument, all right and wrong comes from the sheer will of God, and if God so willed, God could have made what is wrong right, and vice versa.  God could have ordered us to disbelief, be unjust, tell lies, and murder, and it would have been fair and good because God said so.[11] But this line of thinking is flawed because it argues the impossible.  It is akin to arguing that if God would have willed, God could have made us cockroaches, and that because of this possibility (or impossibility) such and such follows.  The fact is that as human beings, we are subject to the laws of humanity that are etched into our very being—these laws are embedded in our cognition and consciousness, and are as stable and unwavering as the laws of mathematics or the logic that defines material reality.  These are laws of rational elements that allow us to have a shared language about justice, ethics, values, happiness, misery, and beauty.    


The Divine text repeatedly and persistently refers to ethical concepts, and invokes intuition, memory, and rational insight as means to access what is embedded and inherent in and to humanity.[12]  Does the fact that the Qur’anic text makes consistent references to ethical concepts as if they have an embedded and inherent meaning help us avoid the debate as to whether natural law preceded Divine law, or resulted from it?  I am not sure.  But I do believe that Revelation or Divine speech has to make sense, and if God spoke in a language that is entirely self-referential, this would create an insurmountable theological problem.  If I say to my son, “Be fair to your sister!” that does suppose that I am assuming my son has some understanding of fairness.  Now, I might tell my son, “Be fair to your sister, and do not monopolize the computer!”  If my son assumes that as long as he shares the computer, he is free to torment his sister as much as he wishes, it would be fair to conclude that my son is either mean spirited, or an imbecile, or both.  Moreover, if upon my death my son gives his sister the computer (which by then is quite outdated), and upon forging my last testament steals the family estate, I think it would be safe to conclude that my son has not honored my instructions to be fair to his sister.  Alas, when I told my son to be fair to his sister, and share the computer, I was counting on my son having both common sense and also a moral compass so that he would not subvert the ethical message behind the lesson I sought to impart.


My point is that not only do all linguistic communications assume an epistemological context, but also that specified instructions negotiate meaning within that broader context.  So when the Qur’an, for example, invokes ethical and moral terminology, it necessarily assumes a pre-existing epistemological context in which it operates and a moral trajectory that it seeks to engage and negotiate.  When the Qur’an sets out specific instructions about a particular situation or issue, these instructions must be analyzed in terms of the moral purpose and trajectory that elicited the instructions in the first place.




It is my belief that what enabled the prescriptions of Islam, as a system of faith, to inspire an entire civilizational phenomenon that flourished in so many parts of the world (a phenomenon that some have called the Islamicate) was its openness and flexibility.  The Islamic path to and from God was for most of its history understood, constructed, and articulated within the prevalent epistemological parameters of its age.  It is naïve and misleading to believe that it is possible to avoid or to ignore the epistemological parameters allowed by each cultural age.  A text will invoke an extremely wide range of responses and reactions from readers that more or less share the epistemological universe of the author and readers.  But when the gap between the time and context of the writing, and the circumstances of the reader is ever more different or far more removed, it takes a great deal of learning and training on the part of the dedicated reader to try to master an epistemology that belonged to the author at the time of writing, but is no longer accessible to the reader.  However, when the author of a text is Divine, we end up with a very different dynamic.  According to Islamic belief, God is immutable and beyond human limitations, and so it cannot be claimed that God is subject to any epistemological constraints.  However, although the Divine author is not limited by an epistemological understanding, God may indeed choose to embrace a historically bounded epistemology as the one epistemology valid for all times and places.  There is, of course, a serious problem with arguing that God intended to lock the epistemology of the seventh century into the immutable text of the Qur’an, and then intended to hold Muslims hostage to this epistemological framework for all ages to come.  Among other things, this would limit the dynamism and effectiveness of Divine text because the Qur’an would be forever locked within a knowledge paradigm that is very difficult to retrieve or recreate.  But even more, it would stand to reason that since the author of the text is Divine, this author would have foreknowledge about the dramatic shifts and evolutions that are going to take place in human epistemologies and methods of knowledge.  As Muslim theologians would have put it, because God has foreknowledge of coming changes and challenges, then God’s mercy and compassion would necessitate that God would enable Muslims to have the tools and means of effectively dealing with this challenge.  Furthermore, it would stand to reason that God would produce a text that is immanently negotiable and dynamic.  In essence, knowing that human beings will achieve major advances in the technology of acquiring, retrieving, and storing data, and that doing so will alter their state of consciousness, perceptions, comprehensions, and sensitivities, it is inconceivable that God would leave Muslims with a Revelation that is not fully equipped to deal with these defining challenges at every age. 





[1] Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA.


[2] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), esp. 423-535.


[3] On the temptation to join the perceived superior culture by converting, see John V. Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 85-86, 97.


[4] For a powerful example on the effect of intellectual culture and the pervasiveness of the Muslim intellectual tradition in the medieval world, see George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: University Press, 1982); Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1983).


[5] Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Husayn al-Bayhaqi, al-Jami‘ li-Shu‘ab al-Iman (Riyad: Maktabat al-Rushd al-Nashir wa al-Tawzi‘, 2003), 8:257.


[6] For instance, see the discussion on this tradition in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Fawa’id al-Fara’id, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1988), 181-86.


[7] I use the term “Puritanical-Salafism” to refer to the bonding of the theologies of Salafism and Wahhabism. On the Puritanical-Salafi episteme, see my most recent book Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari‘ah in the Modern Age (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 251-81.


[8] My two books And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001) and Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oxford: OneWorld, 2003) are primarily concerned with this phenomenon.


[9] For example, see Qur’an 2:30; 6:165; 7:74; 10:14; 38:26.


[10] Qur’an 10:99.


[11] See Abu Muhammad ‘Ali bin Ahmad bin Sa‘id Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1984), 1:19-20, 52-57; 3:272, 478; 4:377. 


[12] For example, see Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002).