Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World
by Dr. William C. Chittick
Compilation of my notes (work in progress):
“Much of the book develops implications of a distinction between two ways of knowing that is basic to the great religions under a variety of nomenclature, though it is typically ignored in discussions of contemporary issues. Islamic sources speak about it in a variety of ways. Here I focus on a standard differentiation that is made between “transmitted” (naqli) and “intellectual” (‘aqli). Transmitted knowledge is characterized by the fact that it needs to be passed from generation to generation. The only possible way to learn it is to receive it from someone else. In contrast, intellectual knowledge cannot be passed on, even though teachers are needed for guidance in the right direction. The way to achieve it is to find it within oneself, by training the mind or, as many of the texts put it, “polishing the heart.” Without uncovering such knowledge through self-discovery, one will depend on others in everything one knows…
Transmitted knowledge depends on hearsay. It is by far the most common sort of knowledge in any culture or religion. Buddhists may know that enlightenment is an experience that transcends all conventional forms of knowing, but, until they achieve it, they have received what they know about it by way of transmission. Muslims know that God requires them to pray five times a day, but they take this knowledge from the ulama, those who have become learned in the Qur’an and the Hadith. They cannot discover what God wants from them without the transmission of the revealed sources. So also for the rest of us: transmission and hearsay provide us with language, culture, opinions, worldview, and practically everything we think we know. In contrast, intellectual understanding is what we know with complete certainty in the depths of our souls. But such knowledge is rare.
The search for intellectual knowledge in Islamic civilization was undertaken in two broad fields of learning, each of which developed many branches and underwent numerous historical vicissitudes. For simplicity’s sake, I am calling them philosophy and Sufism. Philosophy built on the logical and rational methodologies systematized by the Greeks, and Sufism based itself on the contemplative techniques received from the Prophet. The two fields frequently overlapped, especially from the thirteenth century onward.
Philosophy and Sufism diverged sharply from the transmitted sciences by acknowledging explicitly that the meanings of things in the world cannot be found without simultaneously finding the meaning of the self that knows. Certainly, one studies the world to achieve the understanding of phenomena, but understanding is an attribute of the soul, of the knowing subject. Masters of the intellectual approach recognized that meaning hides behind the “signs” (ayat) of God, that all phenomena point to noumena, and that those noumena can only be accessed at the root of the knowing self.”
“Let me say up front that the intellectual approach about which I am writing has been moribund for over a century. A few people still speak for it, but their voices go largely unheard. The economic, political, and social forces that drive activity in the rest of the world have not left Muslims behind. Those who are able to gain an education normally do so with pecuniary goals in mind. The technical and practical fields, which can be mastered rather quickly and offer relative assurance of a comfortable life, attract the best students and dominate the universities. The traditional educational institutions, which used to ask students to dedicate their lives to the quest for knowledge and virtue, have almost totally disappeared. In their places have grown up “theological” schools that churn out zealots and ideologues.”
Intellectual understanding: “Actual Intellect”; highest pinnacle of human selfhood
This understanding cannot be relied on adequately in the lower realm of expression, language and thought, which is an example of transmitted knowledge, not understanding.
The crisis of the modern world lies in the lack of understanding the distinction between these two realms.
The intellectual tradition in Islam has included God, the cosmos, the soul (three foundations of reality as we perceive it) and interpersonal relationships (the insight learned from the first three and applied into human activity).
Transmitted knowledge is merely the pointer towards the understanding that all seekers must taste.
Taqlid (imitation; following authority) is transmitted knowledge. Role of ulama is to preserve this.
Tahqiq (realization) is intellectual knowledge/understanding. Basis of intellectual sciences.
Tawhid: Making things one, the prime principle of the truly intellectual Islamic world
Takthir: Making things many, the prime principle of the modern world.
“The process of increasing takthir becomes clear when we compare the general course of Islamic thought over history with that of European civilization. Up until recent times, Islamic thought was characterized by a tendency toward unity, harmony, integration, and synthesis. The great Muslim thinkers were masters of many disciplines, but they looked upon them as branches of the single tree of tawhid. There was never any contradiction between astronomy and zoology, or physics and ethics, or mathematics and law, or mysticism and logic. Everything was governed by the same principles, because everything fell under God’s all-encompassing reality.
The history of European thought is characterized by the opposite trend. Although there was a great deal of unitarian thinking in the medieval period, from that time onward dispersion and multiplicity have constantly increased. “Renaissance men” could know a great deal about all the sciences and at the same time have a unifying vision. But nowadays, everyone is an expert in some tiny field of specialization, and information increases exponentially. The result is mutual incomprehension and universal disharmony. It is impossible to establish any unity of understanding, and no real communication takes place among specialists in different disciplines. Since people have no unifying principles, the result is an ever-increasing multiplicity of goals and gods, an ever-intensifying chaos.
Everyone worships some god or another. No one can survive in an absolute vacuum, with no goal, no significance, no meaning, no orientation. The gods that people worship are those points of reference that give meaning and context to their lives. The difference between traditional objects of worship and modern objects of worship is that in modernity, it is almost impossible to subordinate all the minor gods to a supreme god, and, when this is done, the supreme god has been manufactured by ideologies. It is certainly not the God of tawhid, who is the absolute and supreme reality, next to whom nothing else is real. However, it may well be an imitation of the God of tawhid, especially when religion enters the field of politics.
The gods in a world of takthir are legion. To mention some of the more important ones would be to list the defining myths and ideologies of our times – freedom, equality, evolution, progress, science, medicine, nationalism, socialism, democracy, Marxism. But perhaps the most dangerous of the gods are those that are the most difficult to recognize. They have innocuous names like care, communication, consumption, development, education, information, standard of living, management, model, planning, production, project, resource, service, system, welfare.”
Intellectual knowledge is tahqiq (realization of God)
There is no such thing as ijma in intellectual matters, as every realizer has a different experience.
4 Domains of Realization:
Imitative knowledge is attained from experts
Most of modern science is transmitted knowledge