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Reader's Reflection: Essentials of Islamic Epistemology

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The book Rethinking Islam and the West by Ahmed Paul Keeler discusses the Part/Whole problem – the Mereological principle which encapsulates the axiom 'the whole can contain the part, but the part cannot contain the whole'. In the realm of epistemology, we see the Mereological principle being tested again. Western society, especially post-Enlightenment society, has framed the whole endeavour of knowledge as a scientific pursuit. And by the term 'science' they mean only the systematic study of the physical; what can be sensed, measured, and calibrated. For societies grounded in tradition and religion (including Islam), knowledge of the physical is only a part of the whole of knowledge. A worldview dominated by the science of the physical necessarily diminishes the rational, moral, and spiritual dimensions of man. There is certainly no discourse about Man as 'abd (servant), as khalifa (vicegerent), and as microcosm. Man's existence is circumscribed. He is a biological creature whose time is limited to this life on earth. This leads to a materialistic outlook that takes the physical world as the only reality. There is no Hereafter.

The physical sciences have certainly brought humankind far ahead in terms of progress. The danger is in thinking that science is the only way to get to truth. The danger is in taking it to be the whole of knowledge, and not the part.

What other parts of knowledge are there? What other ways to truth? Well, Professor Mulyadhi Kartanegara in his book Essentials of Islamic Epistemology reminds us that in addition to science there is philosophy which is based on logic and rational reason, and there is religion which is based on revelation. Taken together, reason and revelation open doorways to ideas and possibilities, as well as to the ordered cosmos, man's place in it, his soul and the eternal life. There is so much more than what we can sense in the physical world.

Another idea that Professor Mulyadhi (re-)introduces is the idea of hierarchy of existence. In our materialistic outlook, we have the understanding that what we can sense immediately around us is ontologically most significant – that what we can see and touch is 'most real'. Following this logic along a trajectory, what we cannot see lacks significance and is 'not real'. God is thus not real because of the lack of materiality or physicality. In Islam, this paradigm is flipped over. God is the First Cause and the Necessarily Existent (wajib al-wujud). He is the Most Real. Everything else is dependent on His act of creation and the existence of created things are merely Possibles (mumkin al-wujud).

All this should give us some pause. We should interrogate our assumptions about how we understand knowledge, especially when almost all of us have to operate in a materialistic context.

Considering how slim this work actually is, Professor Mulyadhi covers quite a lot of ground, spanning from sense perception to intuition, from ontology to methodology, from objectivity to the mystical experience, from the secularisation of knowledge to the Islamisation of knowledge. A more concise and more readable introduction to the theory of the foundations of Islamic knowledge does not, to my knowledge, exist.


Essentials of Islamic Epistemology
Mulyadhi Kartanegara
University Brunei Darussalam Press

 

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