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Page last edited on 22 April, 2003

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

Arguments from Religious Experience

Chapters in this essay

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

There have been arguments presented for the existence of God which are non-analytical, and do not rely an purely logical or empirical premises.  

There is a strong strand within classical Islamic philosophy, beginning with Al-Ghazzali, to strongly put forth this view, and at the same time deny the legitimacy of the purely theoretical arguments for God’s existence.   Muhammad Iqbal will also defend this view, however, he attempts to provide reconciliatory possibilities of reason with religious experience in concert with his organic world-view.

The principles for an Islamic epistemology are laid out in the Quran as it defines three avenues for knowledge (Wan Daud  65).   These are namely,
1. Certainty by Sense-Perception (ain al-yaqin) or empirically derived knowledge
2. Cognitive Certainty (ilm al-yaqin) or knowledge by pure reason
3. Absolute Experienced Certainty (haqq al-yaqin) or knowledge by intuition.

These are sometimes called modes of knowledge.  A Muslim Sufi (mystic) philosopher explains,
“The sensory mode is experienced through we eat and smell, the cognitive is through knowledge, whether self-evident or acquired, while the intuitive is similarly divided:  It can either be self-evident or acquired.  However, he who has access to intuitive, which is to say divine knowledge, knows instinctively what other must acquire through the exercise of their cognitive faculties.”  (Awliya 160-161)

It is this last form of knowledge, the intuitive, that the arguments from religious experience aim at.    There is some disagreement on the significance of intuitive knowledge and even if it is necessary, is it sufficient for an Islamic epistemology of metaphysics? Ghazzali argues in the affirmative, however modern philosophers Iqbal and Al-Attas assert that intuitive knowledge must work in concert with other ‘modes’ of knowledge as well.


The first major critic of philosophy in the Islamic tradition was Abu Hamid ibn Muhammad al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 CE).  Ghazzali felt that no formulation of an epistemology based on human reason could possibly account reasonably for the metaphysical existence of God.

He was an influential Islamic scholar and became interested in philosophy after studying various quarreling Muslim intellectual movements.   He then decided to embark on a project to determine, what is certain knowledge? And is it possible by humans?  (Fakhry 218, Sheikh 85, Sharif 583)

To accomplish his goal Ghazzali,  much like Descartes, engages in a methodological doubt.   Unlike Descartes, however, Ghazzali reaches a much more radical conclusion about our ability to have “certain knowledge.”    He begins by defining what he means by “certain knowledge,”  He writes:
“The search after truth being the aim which I propose to myself, I ought in the first place to ascertain what are the bases of certitude.  In the second place I ought to recognize that certitude is the clear and complete knowledge of things, such knowledge as leave no room for doubt, nor any possibility of error.”  (Sharif 588)

Thus, the kind of knowledge Ghazzali is seeking is such that the object of knowledge is known in a manner which precludes all possibilities of doubt.  (Fakhry 218)

There are only two sources of knowledge that are available to us, and those according to Ghazzali are: sense-perception, and pure reason.   He writes:
We cannot hope to find truth except in matters which carry their evidence in themselves, i.e. in sense-perception and necessary principles of thought; we must, therefore first of all establish these two on a firm basis.”  (Sharif 589)

As a first step he concludes that the only knowledge that could qualify as “certain” would be of the kind that would fit the above description, i.e.  knowledge of sense-perception or self-evident or necessary truths.   (Freedom and Fulfillment-Ghazzali)

Next Ghazzali examines the extent of knowledge allowed via these avenues.   He quickly realizes that sense-perception cannot be a source of certain knowledge since it is often not trustworthy.  For example, he observes shadows appear to be stationary, whereas they move, and planets appear to be coin-sized whereas astronomical evidence points to the contrary.

Having discarded knowledge of the senses, Ghazzali now moves towards knowledge of necessary truths.   He thinks that this is not a credible source of knowledge either.    If he could not trust one kind of knowledge, why should he trust the other?  He thought he had no reason to prefer one over the other.   (Fakhry 219).   One of the issues that made him doubt the utility of necessary principles were questions such as, is 10 more than 3?  Can something be and not be at the same time?  Can something be both necessary and impossible?   He thought reason alone, could not provide a satisfactory answer to these questions.   (Sharif 589)   Hence, making an analogy between the two, Ghazzali denies knowledge of necessary proposition as well.   (Fakhry 219).   His argument here is quite controversial, and Iqbal strongly criticizes Ghazzali on this count.

Ghazzali is now in a position where he has convinced himself, that the only two avenues of knowledge open to him are not reliable.   He is confused and considers the possibility that life could be a dream.   He was in a state of continuos doubt and unable to ground anything in truth and existence, he suffered from this like a real sickness.  Until he realized a, “light which God infused into his heart, which is the key to most species of knowledge.”  (Fakhry 219)  This he considers similar to how the Prophet Muhammad (saw) describes it, “the dilation of the heart, whereby it becomes prone to the reception of Islam.”   He, therefore was able to transcend everyday experience and realize the ultimate reality via a spiritual experience.    What Ghazzali is suggesting is a, “possibility of a form of apprehension higher than rational apprehension, that is, apprehension as the mystic’s inspiration or the prophet’s revelation.”  (Sharif 590)   This new form of knowledge is what he calls intuition.   It is distinct from knowledge by the senses or the intellect, in that in intuitive knowledge is only possible via divine facilitation.

Ghazzali and Descartes both agree that knowledge by sense-perception is unreliable, but Ghazzali makes the further claim that knowledge by pure theoretical reason alone is also unreliable.  Descartes, on the other hand, had built his entire epistemology on the basis of the viability of knowledge by pure reason.


Muhammad Iqbal is also critical of Ghazzali’s characterization of knowledge.  He thought that Ghazzali was mistaken in giving up reason and thought and embracing mystic experience as the only exclusive way the totally infinite could be revealed to an individual.   Iqbal writes:
“He failed to see that thought and intuition are organically related and that thought must necessarily simulate finitude and inconclusiveness because of its alliance with serial time.  The idea that thought is essentially finite, and for this reason unable to capture the Infinite, is based on a mistaken notion of the movement of thought in knowledge.”  (Iqbal 5)

For Iqbal, there is no inherent difficulty in a finite being grasping the reality of an infinite one.   Thought is dynamic and is revealed via a temporal vision over time.   He further explains how the infinite can come into the comprehension of a finite being. Using a Quranic metaphor, the infinite according to Iqbal is,
“a kind of ‘Preserved Tablet’, which holds up the entire undermined possibilities of knowledge as a present reality, revealing itself in serial time as a succession of finite concepts appearing to reach a unity which is already present in them. It is in fact the presence of the total Infinite in the movement of knowledge that makes finite thinking possible.”

Thus, the continuos revealing of the infinite over a temporal period allows the finite to grasp the essence of the infinite God.    It is not that at any point the finite intellect will be able to fully comprehend the limitless and infinite, but rather that it is the potential of thought to be itself without limit, that allows it to have an understanding of the limitless, at least in principle. Dr. Naquib Al-Attas, a contemporary Muslim philosopher and disciple of Al-Ghazzali’s school, explains the concept of intuition as understood by him:
We maintain that all knowledge of reality and of truth, and the projection of a true vision of the ultimate nature of things is originally derived through the medium of intuition.  The intuition that we mean cannot simply be reduced to that which operates solely at the physical level of discursive reason based upon sense-experience, for since we affirm in man the possession of physical as well as intelligtential or spiritual powers and faculties which refer back to the spiritual entity, sometimes called intellect, or heart, or soul, or self, it follows that man’s rational, imaginal and empirical existence must involve both the physical and spiritual levels.

Here he reaffirms both physical (material) and spiritual (metaphysical) levels as necessary for intuition.  However, special emphasis is placed upon the spiritual.  This concept of intuition is a major theme both within higher Islamic philosophy and mysticism.   It holds that the ultimate reality can be directly and spontaneously experienced and truth can become self-evident with complete clarity.

Iqbal is trying to point out that, intellectual reason and intuition are inseparable, and that in the act of comprehending something by intuition, the intellect plays an indispensable role, which cannot be discounted.  He thus thinks that Ghazzali was mistaken in his claim that reason and intuition could not interact and were incompatible.   Iqbal saw both of these avenues as complimentary, towards ultimate knowledge.


Iqbal gives his account of the possibility of religion in the last lecture in the reconstruction entitled, Is Religion Possible?   For Iqbal, religion is not something that is isolated from philosophy.   He advocates an integration of the two, sometimes suggesting that the science of psychology has not reached an advanced enough level to be able to incorporate spiritual experience as part of a scientific theory of knowledge.   Iqbal thinks, given adequate methods, the ultimate reality is within human grasp.  He writes,
 “The truth is that the religious and the scientific processes, though involving different methods, are identical in their final aim.  Both aim at reaching the most real.  In fact, religion… is far more anxious to reach the ultimately real than science.”   (Iqbal 155)

One of the major objections to proofs from religious experience has been that, religious experience is incommunicable and as such has no value as ‘evidence’ since it is not transferable from one person to the other.   That is, person A may see the truth of a proposition whereas person B may not, and there is no way for person A to demonstrate to person B, how he came to believe a certain thing.    Iqbal does not think that this is a problem.    Rather precisely this “problem” is the foundation of his worldview.   He had an organic view about the universe as a whole and people as we encounter them.   In our everyday life we see other individuals as mere functions, and only deal with them in so far as their conceptual relation to us is concerned.   We do not pursue them any further for any ultimate reality.    Thus when seeking the divine we cannot and do not rely upon “others.” The clue to the ultimate reality must be contained within the ego (person).  The individual self must then be the only way to certain knowledge.

“It maybe that what we call the external world is only an intellectual construction, and that there are other levels of human experience capable of being systematized by other orders of space and time—levels in which concept and analysis do not play the same role as they do in the case of our normal experience.”  (Iqbal 144)

The incommunicability of religious experience is an essential part of what makes it different from ‘normal experience.’

Strictly speaking, the experience which leads to this discovery is not a conceptually manageable intellectual fact; it is a vital fact, an attitude consequent on an inner biological transformation which cannot be captured in the net of logical categories.  (Iqbal 145)

 Intution then is a valid form of knowledge yielding experience.  This does not, however, mean that it is divorced from reason.   Iqbal explains, although real, we do not have the tools at our disposal to evaluate this process of “inner biological transformation.”   The sceintific method we have today is not sufficient to apply to these kinds of experiences, since scientific “concept and analysis” may not be applicable to this sort of experience as they are to physics.  Dr. Al-Attas advoacting a similar view states,
Belief has cognitive content; and one of the main points of divergence between true religion and secular philosophy and science is the way in which the sources and methods of knowledge are understood.  (Anees)

At this level of experience, “the act of knowledge is a constitutive element in the objective reality.”  (Baharuddin).   He thought, God could not be removed from his creation.   Not in the pantheistic sense, but in that the ultimate reality cannot stand as an ‘other’ to the universe or person (as Avicenna thought).   Rather, they are interlinked, and in looking within ourselves for this higher level of experience, the ultimate reality would be revealed unto the individual.   As Iqbal explains, this higher level of experience is not at the sensational or representational level, rather it is better described as a feeling rather than concepts.    He writes,
It is rather a mode of dealing with Reality in which sensation, in the physiological sense of the word, does not play any part.  (Maruf)

 This for Iqbal is the mystic experience, that leads to ultimate certain knowledge.    This knowledge is,
 Irresistible and like bright sunshine forces itself immediately to be perceived as soon as the mind turns its attention to it, and leaves no room for hesitation, doubt or examination, but the mind is perfectly filled with the clear light of it.  (Hasan)

 It should be mentioned that, although Iqbal offers the above explanation of the way in which an individual may access the ultimate, he draws his inspiration from Einstien and Nietzsche.   Einstien’s theory of relativity gave him hope, that his theory about the way the finite and the infinite are related is possible.   Relativity shattered tradional notions of space, time and thus matter.   The line between the physical and metaphysicial had been blurred or rather interconnected.   Hence, there is great philosophical debate at the frontiers of modern physics over what happens in extreme situations on the cosmological scale.

Nietzsche’s emphasis on individuality, deeply impressed Iqbal, who thought that Neitzsche was on the right track, if only he had not been distracted by naturalistic theories of Schopenhaur, Darwin and Lange mistakenly explaining away the existence of God.    Hence, Nietzche was a failure.   But he had realized an essential truth.  That is, ultimately what matters is the ego, self, and nothing else.   Thus it is not significant if reality is not transferable from one to another.  What matters is the “me” and not the “other.”

It is also significant that Iqbal thought, that if a sufficient understanding of the ‘mental’ was achieved it would indeed be (at least theoretically) possible within the science of psychology to gain a better sense of the kind of deeper experience Iqbal is referring too.  This maybe relevant to the concept in philosophy of Mind known as Anamolousness of the Mental.  It states that there are no causal laws that relate to mental events.   This explains the difficulty of science and psychology in grasping these concepts.  Iqbal, however, thinks that it is at least theoretically possible to be able to achieve a working understanding of mental events.

The theories of knowledge advocated by the proofs from religious experience maybe considered externalist accounts.   Externalism is the view that some of the justifying factors of belief need not be cognitively accessible and maybe external to the mind of the individual.    That is, a person can be justified in holding a belief even if they are not aware that they are in possession of all the reasons that make the position justified.     Iqbal is advocating a similar view, in that the reasons, although they may objectively exist, are difficult to determine by the individual.

Externalism often rests on the premise of reliablism.   That is, one way to know that something is true, without knowing all the reasons, is if the knowledge is received from a reliable source.  For example, we may consider our vision and senses to be a reliable source to affirm the existence of the external world.  In the same way Iqbal and Ghazzali describe the experience of the divine in terms of the sense.  If this experience is reliable and originating from God, then we could affirm the knowledge without knowing all the reasons that justify God’s existence.    It appears, however, that what Iqbal wants to say is that the reasons for the justification of God are in theory accessible to humans, but in practice are much more difficult to determine compared to the direct mystic experience of the divine entity.    This is consistent with the views of Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi on this issue.
 Iqbal also advocates another proof for the existence of God based upon the Quranic emphasis upon history.   This can also be considered a reliablist account, however, it has not been considered in this paper.

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Last updated on 22 April, 2003

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