Monday, February 15, 2010

Typology of Knowledge in the East and the West

Prof. Dr. Muin-ud-Din Ahmad Khan

Science and religion are knowledgeable subjects. Knowledge is basic to the understanding of both science and religion. Far more than speculative thinking, both science and religion demand varying degrees of rational judgment and ratiocination. Rather, for successful score in any of the two, higher learning is called for and ever readiness to accept the objective truth and factual evidence is prerequisite.

Yet, the basic viewpoint of religion is holistic, whereas the underlying attitude of science is annalistic which needs be elemental, partitive and smallest possible unmixed single-cum-simple material objects. Moreover, in the process of judging both religion and science, the capacity of the subjective element has to be taken into consideration, because, human mind, like the minds of other animals, is discursive in behavior, which requires of religion to proceed from wholeness of the holistic standpoint to the partitive concrete situation involving analytical exposition of its doctrines for proper understanding. Likewise, science is required to proceed from partitive experiential or experimental findings through generalization towards estimation of the wholeness for proper understanding since human understanding is dependent on the conceptual process of knowing that requires in its turn a conjoined meeting point or clicking of the particular and the universal for the comprehension of anything whatsoever. Science being thus somewhat centripetal in gait and religion resembling a sort of centrifugal force, the two can neither be mutually conjugated nor can be fused with one another.

Nevertheless, for the survival of the human life on the earth and for the progress and development of human society, science is indispensable; so also, for the peace and happiness of the human spirit and for the well-being of the human entity in the next world, in the life after death through eternity, religion is essential. The two, therefore, ought to be mutually adjusted and suitably balanced for the well fare of human life. In fact, religion proposes to accomplish the task of balancing science and religion on ethical morality, and science proposes to do it through proper education. In presence of this educational perspective, we propose a basic discussion on the typology of knowledge.

In the East, particularly amongst the Hindus, Buddhist and Muslims, knowledge is sharply distinguished from learning. `Knowledge’ to the Aryan Hindus and Buddhists is gnana (জ্ঞান), which stems from `gn’. Like as gn of Greek gnosis. Similarly, the opposite terminology of `gnana’ is `aggna’ and that of Greek `gnostic’ is `agnostic’. Both sets of terminologies carry deeper meaning and significance verging on spirituality.

Gnana and gnostic refer to creative learning, that emanate from deeper realization as against ordinary learning which is acquisitive and largely imitative and emulative. This latter category of acquisitive learning is called `bidya’in the East , meaning `learning’. As such, in the English language, the terminology of `knowledge’ generally comes to mean `bidya’, equivalent to the verbal sense of learning: whereas the Sanskrit term `gnana’ is  

often referred to in English as `higher learning’. Thus, the word `knowledge’, which stems from `kn’ like `gn’ (Greek) and `gna’ (Sanskrit), in reality gives the meaning of the opposite pole of deeper knowledge.  However, philologically considered, to know is deeper than to learn; so also, knowledge could have been placed higher than learning. But in the conventional English usage `higher learning’ seems to stand above knowledge. In other words, in the substantive sense, knowledge seems to conventionally mean learning (bidya) and learning (qualified with `higher’ ) means knowledge.

Nevertheless, in the East, knowledge is classified into four typological gradations. Such a classification is common amongst the Aryan Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. These may be roughly described as perceptual, conceptual, reality and spiritual or divine.

Bangla:      anubhuti        jukti/ tatva        satya        dibya
Hindu:       vyashanar      taijasa              pragna     turiya
Buddhist:   bibhu             tayjasa              pragna     turja

Islamic:     mahsusat       maqulat            haqaiq      ma’rifat

These four types are closely interlinked gradation of knowledge tending from lower to the higher, from the bottom to the top, such as `touch’ leading to `thought’, `thinking’ to `realization’ and meditation to spiritual inspiration and ultimate revelation.

The four types of knowledge are demarcated into two categories, external or exoteric comprising perceptual knowledge and conceptual knowledge and internal or esoteric which includes the knowledge of reality and the divine knowledge, which may be designated as intuitive knowledge and the knowledge of divine inspiration and revelation.

The first categories of exoteric knowledge arise from touch and thought, from sense perception and intellectual thinking which is ifso facto imaginative that elevates it through logical ratiocination and methodological reasoning into rational knowledge. Mark you! The perceptual knowledge is a tangible knowledge whereas the conceptual knowledge is intangible abstract knowledge, logical, universal and subjective. Which tops up at rationalism. We have seen in a previous discourse (Dispensation of Justice in the East and the West, pp. 36-37) that Roger Bacon had classified these two types of knowledge as `inferential’ over and against `experimental’ knowledge; he wanted to discard inferential principles and adopt experimental methodology in the curricula of theological education.

To illustrate the point, we may reproduce relevant passages from the Dispensation of Justice (Renaissance Foundation, Dhaka, 2006), pp.36-37.

“The terminology of `scientia’ [the original term of science] and its plural `scientiae’ brings us face to face to the greatest medieval European scientific mind, Roger Bacon (1214-1292 A.D.), who wrote his Encyclopedic work: Opus Majus pleading for drastic change in the mode and methodology of theological education by providing more thorough grounding in scientific researches. In this voluminous work, he wrote a chapter on ‘experimental sciences in Arabic style and called it `scientiae experimentalis’ in exact

translation of  al-ulum at-tajribiyah” (cf. Paul Edwards ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967,vol.1-2, pp.240-242).

“Nevertheless, factually considered, Roger Bacon was the real progenitor of the scientific spirit and modernism of the West by dint of his exact translation of `al-ulum at-tajribiyah’ as `scientiae experimentalis’, which was latterly rendered into English as `experimental sciences’ and his advocacy of exchanging the existing `inferential system of education’ by `experimental scientific system’, and his insisting on adopting Arabic numerals and mathematics as the basic academic principle. Frank Thilly says that ,  he was a “curious mixture of the medieval and modern scholar”, and regarded him as the most original and independent figure amongst those who cultivated mathematical and physical sciences in England during the 13th century A.D. (A History of Philosophy, p. 185)  . 

In the East, perceptual and conceptual knowledge are designated as anubhuti and jukti or tatva gnan and are regarded as learning or bidya (বিদ্যা) and not the real knowledge, gnan (জ্ঞানper se. Gnan in the real sense comprises two higher categories of knowledge, namely satya gnan (সত্য জ্ঞান), knoledge of reality and the dibya gnan (দিব্য জ্ঞান), knowledge of divinity.

The significant point between the two lower and the higher categories of exoteric and esoteric knowledge is that, the first category begins with sense perception and the second category starts with internal sense of meditation. The rational knowledge being an abstraction of sensual knowledge is not counted in the East as objective, real and concrete knowledge; rationalism is regarded as a methodology of knowledge, as a means and not as end, designated as jukti vidya (যুক্তি বিদ্যা), logical learning. In fact, the perceptual knowledge is partly perceived and partly imagined; whereas conceptual knowledge is abstract and completely imaginative. Hence none of them are fully objective and factual knowledge.

To elucidate the point, let us consider the paradigm of knowledge in the process of knowing; we `learn’ by touch, `understand’ by thinking and `know’ by conception. In the paleographical format `kn’of knowledge stands for `gn’ of Greek gnostic/ agnostic and similarly gn of Sanskrit stands for gnana (জ্ঞান), all meaning higher learning and theoretical knowledge, fall far short of Eastern Pragna (প্রজ্ঞা) wisdom or the knowledge of reality, the third higher grade of knowledge. The dibya or oishi gnan (ঐশী  জ্ঞান) is the fourth highest degree of the knowledge of divinity, divine inspiration and revelation. The last two higher degrees of knowledge, that is, the knowledge of reality and the knowledge of divine revelation are absent from the current usage of Western modern languages. West is playing with mere learning, the elementary stage of knowledge and not with knowledge (জ্ঞান) itself, knowledge per se, which leads to wisdom (প্রজ্ঞা). Both are completely absent in the arena of modern Western knowledge.

In the yardstick of Eastern measurement, therefore, the modern West’s quest for knowledge is a half way house, however brilliantly flooded with pervasive light outside, it is irretrievably plunged into a total darkness inside, arrogantly casting ignoramus aspersion saying in the dictionaries: `the moral majority’ of the Westerners as the largest groups of people in a society considered as having very traditional ideas about moral matters, religion, sexual behavior etc.’ (Oxford Dictionary). What foolish remark in condemning moral majority of the Christian society. Religiously considered, isn’t it points to moral degradation of Western Christian society!

To say the least, these are extremely nostalgic words, which clearly indicate that the medieval Christian phases of Western culture were and still is virtually sandwiched by the pagan classical Graeco-Roman culture on the one hand and secular modern Western culture on the other, which must have thrived in moral and spiritual exuberance in between the classical and modern phases as a conservative ideological tradition that was morally well-behaved sacrosanct Christian religious culture, which is now being disowned by the modernist, dominant minority of the Western Graeko-phile secularist nations.

Whatever may that be, to come to our main point, it may be plainly stated that enchanted by the miraculous revelation of the holy Quran and enthralled by the Prophetic tradition (saying of prophet Muhammad) bidding the Muslims to seek after knowledge from the cradle to the grave, the sagacious Muslims of the early times brought forth one novel stream of knowledge at the ground of the third stage, the knowledge of reality, satya gnanhaqiqat, or haqaiq, as we have mentioned in the index, which is the experimental science. Which stands not on the material basis of things ( ashya), but rather on the basis of the reality of things (haqaiqul ashya).  The Islamic theory is ‘haqaiqul ashya thabitutun’, that is, realities of things are established.   

On the one hand, they tried to explore the divine technique of creation in the physical nature of the world and on the other hand, they tried to sift the truth of the information narrated by the Companions and their followers from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). The former brought forth the physical sciences and the latter brought into being the sciences of prophetic tradition, designated respectively as ulum-at-tajribiyah and ulum-al-hadith, the experimental sciences and the sciences of Prophetic Tradition,

To gauge the semantic of `knowledge’, let us turn once again to the West. As advocated by the Greek sage Socrates, the Greeks and Romans would say: `knowledge is conceptual’ and the modern Westerners are likely to contend that `knowledge is empirical’. Because the modernists are seemingly prone to avoiding `rational philosophy’ which is far from objective and its material womb `conceptual knowledge’.

There is no denying the fact that, the Westerners are presently enamored in sciences. Science and the West have now become synonymous. The West has now found a brand newer life in ‘the potency of scientific technology wedded to political power.’ It has enkindled in the Western mind an indomitable ambition for global domination. Subjugation, imperialism, colonialism, new colonialism have become worn out conceptions like as conceptual knowledge and rationalism that stand clearly apart from the objectivity of scientific knowledge. So, in this intellectual firmament, knowledge and science have become pretty identical; so that, presently all thriving knowledge in the West are some branch of sciences. But, in the medieval times there was no science in the West. Westerners were either steeped in arts or ignorance.

But those days are now gone. Science has given the West knowledge and power, so much so that, the Easterners have no way open before them except following the West in quest of knowledge, wealth and power, even if it amounts to running behind the horse.

Nevertheless, on purely intellectual grounds, it may be pin-pointed that the Western mental frame being bounded by the two categories of sense perception and thinking stance of conceptual knowledge within the limitation of human experience, the Westerners often fall into a fix in locating the real standing or objective stance of scientific knowledge. They habitually call it `empirical knowledge’ and explain it as “based on ‘experiment or experience’ rather than on ideas or theories. They further elucidate that empirical evidence, knowledge, research need to be tested empirically (Oxford Dictionary).

The question at once arises as to what makes up the exact meaning of `empirically testing’; by what process: experientially or experimentally? Because, experimental testing would be objective and the experiential testing would be subjective; and in that case, the empirical testing would be combining both subjective and objective, which is logically absurd. It draws us to the same old question of Roger Bacon’s `inferential’ versus `experimental’ knowledge, wherein he wanted to discard the former and adopt the latter.

Mark you! In Roger’s scale inferential knowledge is subjective and experimental knowledge is objective; so that, he wanted to drop the subjective and adopt the objective methodology of knowledge. Could anybody analyze the root word of empiricism and prove that it yields objective knowledge? This seems to be a legitimate question of the East for proper understanding of the scientific mindset of the West.

Mind you! Whatever is conjugated with `ism’ is bound to be subjective; because it inevitably gets tagged with `opinion’ of some mind. `Experiment’ produces `evidence’ and neither experiment nor evidence can be conjugated with `ism’; because both are objective expressions.

As a matter of fact, for the transformation of `conceptual’, including rational knowledge, into the knowledge of `reality’, the Muslims devised a new type of logic besides the Aristotelian inductive cum deductive logic of syllogism, and called it

`evidential logic’, in Arabic paradigm: `burhan’ as designated by the holy Quran: saying: `haatu burhanakum in kuntum swadiqin’- bring your evidence if you are truthful (Quran: al-Qasas 28: 42-45).

Mark that, `ism’ in ‘syllogism’ carries it over to the sphere of subjective opinion and mark that, scientific “theory” which is not `ism’, but Theo = God, ry = word, that is, the word of God, is ifso facto objective and reflects closely 6230 ayat or sentences of the holy Quran which are designated as ‘ the sign of Allah’ (= ayat) in the Islamic paradigm  , which represent the objective truth . 

To the Muslims, therefore, there are two types of sciences, one is the divine science of Allah’s creation, which is the `exact’ original divine science and the other is the human estimation of the divine creative technology underlying the material world that constitutes an `approximation’ of divine science. The words of the Quran as expounded by Quran itself are regarded by the Muslims as words of Allah. In the Quran, Allah is speaking through Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), who is the medium of transmission and propagation of the divine truth.

Thus the Quran provides a bird’s eye view, a descriptive glance of the divine science of creation, where the author of the creation is speaking `what and how and why and for what’ He created this material world, which is, therefore, an exact science. It reflects the divine technology of creation.

In order to estimate it with limited human capacity of knowing, the Muslims devised an `Evidential Logic’ vis-à-vis the Aristotelian syllogistic logic. It may be noted that Aristotelian syllogistic logic of major-minor-consequence begets theoretical knowledge rooted in imagination or analogy after the model of geometrical calculation. It fell much short of the exactitude of the Quranic evidential knowledge. So, in order to cope with the Quranic burhan or evidential objective knowledge, the Muslims devised a four-digital or quadruple process of definition called hadd, to replace the syllogistic triadic, three digital process of definition. This is requisite for turning the imagination-based subjective perceptual as well as conceptual (as such also inferential, rational and empirical) knowledge into objective factual truth-based evidential knowledge of burhan.

As we have mentioned above, this was elicited from the third category of `reality’ in the fourfold classification of knowledge. This is a unique invention of Muslims apart from peoples of other countries, religions and civilizations of the East and the West.

The quadruple process of evidential logic of hadd devised by the early Muslim scientists were designated as: riwayat-dirayat-tajribah-ta’dil which stand for (a) factual description of the collected materials (b) correct intellectual assessment of the data so described (c) experimental testing and examination of the data called tajribah or experiment and (d) justifiable synthesized formulation or theorization of knowledge so gained.

This tajribah or experimental methodology of science, was developed in close collaboration with the parallel development of `information technology’ of sifting the genuine Hadith or information narrated by the Companions and their followers from Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) in the form of saying, teaching, instruction, prohibition, silent consent and description of his public and private behavior. The Hadith sifting methodology was also quadruple digital process designated similarly by the Muhaddithun, the hadith collectors as riwayat-dirayat-jarah-ta’dil  - meaning: narration-intellection-testing examination and calculated judgment.

The keyword in the information technology of the Muhadditheen for sifting the narration emanating from the sayings of the holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) is jarah , which literally means ‘wounding’ or surgery for testing objectivity of the truth . It is comparable to the modern medical practice of blood testing for diagnosing disease. By this means the Muhadditheen determined the correctness of the Hadith, the piece of information narrated from the Prophet by a continuous chain of narrators and thereto assigned ta’dil, the just or rectified opinion or judgment of complete objectivity of the sahih or correctness of the information. This is called ilm-ul-hadith, the science of prophetic tradition and different branches of it together as ulum-al-hadith, the sciences of hadith.

Similarly, the keyword of the quadruple process of sifting the realistic traits of the material objects is tajribah, which literally means surveying, testing and technically
 “ experiment”. It is principally applied to material objects and may be applied to animals and human beings only analogically with approximation and not with precision. Hence experimental sciences are precisely applied to material objects alone. Ibn Sina says that the real function of the logic lies on carrying a thinking person to hadd and burhan, that is, to the evidential logic.

To briefly elucidate the matter, it may be said that the physical urge of human being can be satisfied with two dimensional speculative logic which is designated as Arts, and mental urge is satisfied with three dimensional syllogistic rational logic, and realistic practical urge in satisfied by the four-dimensional logic comprising riwayat - dirayat - jarah / tajribah – ta’dil , that is to say , (a) collection and description of materials ( b ) intellectual analysis and computation of materials into data ( c ) experimentation through testing and examination in quest of objective reality ( d ) a well balanced formulated objective judgment through theorization.  .

Although in the fourfold category of knowledge the Muslims share equally with Aryan Hinduism and Buddhism, yet the far- reaching extension of the third category of realistic or intuitive knowledge into ulum at -tajribiyah or experimental sciences, was a novel invention of the Muslims, which neither the East nor the west had ever contemplated or thought of. In this innovative venture the Muslims were prompted by the Quranic spirit of burhan or evidential logic; so that, the measurement of hadd and burhan, the evidential logic and upon its bases the ulum at-tajribiyah, the experimental sciences were a special gift of the holy Quran.

The Westerners knew nothing about it during the classical and medieval ages. We have seen in our previous discussion on the Islamic cosmology that the effort of the Roger Bacon (1214-1292 A.D.) in the thirteenth century C.E. to introduce ulum-at-tajribiyah as scientiae experimentalis was sharply rejected by the Western clergy; so that, the word `science’ as a part of `science of God’ from the colloquial paradigm of English priesthood, which showed up for the first time in 1340 C.E. to mean merely the `sign of God’, was adopted by the scientists of the West as `experimental science’ in the middle of the nineteenth century C.E. though they began cultivating the Muslim sciences since.

Sometimes earlier in the name of `natural philosophy’, in order to avoid the wrath of the clergy. We have, however, demonstrated that philosophy is a three dimensional syllogistic based knowledge whereas experimental science is four-dimensional burhan based knowledge, showing thereby that, still the Westerners do not grasp the spirit of experimental sciences. In order to place it in proper perspective, we have to pass on to our next discourse on the historical aspect of the transmission of experimental sciences from the East to the West, a succinct reference for that may be made to the writer’s book entitled “ The Origin and Development of Experimental Science”, published by the Bangladesh Institute of Islamic Thought, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

We may sum up our arguments as follows

  1. Both science and religion are knowledge-based subjects. Both cover similar fields of activities pertaining to decision-making. But religion being pensively holistic proceeds from the wholeness of universal judgment to the partitive or particular human activities for proving its truth; whereas science as an experimental device, proceed from partitive experiment through generalization to the theoritical whole for establishing the truth of its findings.

  1. Hence science and religion cannot be mutually identified or fused, but need be adjusted and balanced for the well being of human life.

  1. In the East, Hindus, Buddhist, and Muslims classify knowledge into four categories, such as, anubhiti jukti, satya and dibya. These are again grouped together into two kinds, such as, exoteric and esoteric. But in the modern West knowledge is classified into two categories, such as, perceptual and conceptual and the Westerners are not acquainted with the remaining two higher categories of knowledge.

  1. The two western categories of knowledge are equivalent to the first two categories of Eastern knowledge, which are designated in the East as bidya or mere learning and not knowledge per se. Hence the Western knowledge as compared to the Eastern strands as a halfway house of  knowledge.

  1.  The term empirical knowledge as applied to the experimental science turns out ambiguous between experiential and experimental as stated in the Western dictionaries. Empirical knowledge is called empiricism, whereas science cannot be conjugated with ism.

  1. Experimental science was devised by the Muslims drawn from Quranic sources, which was borrowed by the West from the Muslims as evidenced by the researches of Roger Bacon, probably that is why, his role is being relegated to the background.

  1. Learning produces arrogance and may lead to power consciousness, as the Westerners are prone to think; whereas knowledge, in the true sense, produces humbleness, as Socrates wanted to say; and humbleness produces wisdom. Wisdom is a western terminology, but it is not applied to the western knowledge, such as English wisdom, French wisdom, German wisdom etc. though it is widely applied to the East, such as, Oriental wisdom, Chinese wisdom, Indian wisdom etc.

[***The author is a Retired Senior Professor of Islamic History and Culture, Chittagong University, former first Director General, Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, Dhaka; ex-Vice Chancellor, Southern University Bangladesh, Chittagong and presently Research Scholar in Residence, Southern University, Chittagong.]

source: A. Farid and N. A. Khan (eds.) 
2008. 21st Century Challenges For The Global Muslim Community
Renaissance Foundation for Human Resource Management. (RFHRM)


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