Some thoughts on religious knowledge

August 8, 2009 at 1:08 pm (Islam, philosophy)

Islam places great emphasis on knowledge, which I’ve always found comforting and satisfying in comparison with Christianity’s emphasis on the more subjective “voice” of God. Islamic theology is simple and holds up well in an argument, which is probably why Christians revert to the subjective to verify their theology every time.

In most religions, a degree of knowledge at least is necessary. You can’t believe in a religion if you don’t know about it. But how do we authenticate our knowledge?

I was thinking last night about how completely different religious knowledge is from scientific knowledge, because there is no broad consensus. In science, there is enormous consensus on matters that are well established, because enough observations have been made to prove them beyond reasonable doubt. Religion is not like that. Religious claims cannot be verified by running more experiments or gathering more data.

In the absence of a living prophet, the source of knowledge about a religion is always in historical texts. (In fact for most of us, our knowledge is second-hand because we are not able to go directly to the historical texts.) And so the gathering of knowledge in religion – did this really happen, was this really said – is more akin to the discipline of history than that of science.

(Of course there is more to deciding about the truth of religion than just establishing what is historically authentic. A decision about truth in terms of divine inspiration goes beyond knowledge. But knowledge is what I am concentrating on here.)

The religious texts are so old that historical research methodologies are naturally going to struggle to bring about consensus. For example, Christians believe that the gospel documents authentically demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic prophecies. But if that were proveable beyond reasonable doubt, there would be no Jews today who reject Jesus as messiah. How can a lay person possibly decide?

And this is where I start to wonder… if God wanted the world to know things, why is it so difficult? Why would God tie necessary knowledge to history, whereby the fallible human processes of transmission and replication make it impossible to be sure of it, and whereby lay people are rendered utterly dependent on fallible scholars to extract the truth? What of people like my mother-in-law who is illiterate – where is she to get knowledge from? What of people living in remote parts of the world with no connection to any prophetic tradition? Are we meant to ensure that everyone gets access to truth by equipping everyone to read and analyse the sources of knowledge? Even if that were achieved… does truth stand out clearly from error?

Maybe there is another type of knowledge that is written in our hearts… an understanding of right and wrong… a natural cause-and-effect where that which is bad leads us to ruin, and that which is good brings us contentment and peace.

In that case, did God really need to send prophets and messengers? If God did, is the message detailed and specific, or is it simple and general? I feel that I have to go with simple and general, complementary to our natural knowledge. The details, which differ from one religious tradition to another, are difficult to choose between in a rational way. Perhaps they just existed to make people feel secure. Perhaps they were never meant to be universal.

I find it hard to believe that my mother-in-law’s prayer would be greatly enhanced by a detailed knowledge of the fiqh of prayer.

Where does that leave me… I guess, looking for inspiration in scriptures. Looking for truth beyond knowledge.



  1. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    I think having both types of knowledge is a gift, but unfortunately, like you said, not everyone has access to both.
    Of course your MIL’s prayer is just as valid as someone who has extensive knowledge of Islamic fiqh – I don’t think God counts one prayer above another. However, I think what is dangerous is when someone blindly believes the words and ideas of another human being. This is the problem I have with hadith – they have been transmitted and interpreted by humans, and thus could be wrong. That’s why it annoys me when some Muslims take the hadith over the Qur’an.
    Maybe what God wants is for us to always strive for knowledge. If we are illiterate we should try to learn to read and write. If we do not know which hadith are true and which aren’t, we should try and find out. This constant striving to better ourselves will also give our lives more meaning.

    • Sarah said,

      The idea that God wants us to strive for knowledge is certainly a common one within Islam, but how effective is it to learn more when you are learning from unreliable sources (as you describe the hadith)? Does it do us good to become well-versed in fiqh and know in minute details how to perform our worship? Or if we focus on learning about the “science” of hadith, is that a worthwhile use of our time? I am certainly spending a lot of time on learning about religion, but sometimes I wonder if it is doing me any good, or if I am just postponing actually getting on with submitting my life and my self to God. Sometimes I think keeping it simple might be more beneficial to me.

      • Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

        I think that at the beginning keeping it simple is a good idea. But after you say the shahada etc, I think you’ll naturally want to pursue knowledge in certain areas. You can’t know everything about everything in the whole Qur’an. Personally I am interested in gender & Islam, as well as the history/science of hadith, and so I choose to strive for knowledge in those areas. I have certain sources I trust, but this of course depends on your own background and disposition. I prefer more liberal sources, whereas someone else might prefer more conservative ones. Who is wrong? Neither of us, I would say – they are different types of knowledge. God knows we can’t all interpret the Qur’an the exact same way.
        I would like to think God focuses more on the fact that you are trying to become more knowledgeable, rather than the specific type of knowledge you are acquiring.

        • Sarah said,

          Sara – well, apart from anything else, acquiring knowledge is just a fascinating process, so why wouldn’t you want to do it! I feel liberated to seek knowledge since I gave up clinging to shallow beliefs I’d never really internalised, and it’s great, if a little overwhelming at times. I think it probably is getting me somewhere, even though perhaps I still have more questions than answers. Opinions are forming on some things. I think that will put me in a good position whatever direction my journey takes… I won’t be buffetted around by other people’s opinions quite so much.
          I find it hard wrapping my head around the idea that varying interpretations are OK. I know that makes me sound like a rigid hardcore extremist, but I do have those tendencies on occasion! 😉 LOL. I just wonder where you would draw the line that’s all… I wonder if Jews, Christians and Muslims are all OK to believe what they believe out of the mass of historical evidence? Clearly they are all viable positions, so maybe.
          Thanks for commenting!

    • Aynur said,

      I agree. I guess that’s the way of many people, they follow like sheep. If a scholar says something, they follow it.
      And actually that was how I was when I was growing up in the Lutheran church, and then when I converted to Islam. I just accepted all the teachings in a big package.

  2. susanne430 said,

    Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God and verses 3 and 4 tell us:

    3 There is no speech or language
    where their voice is not heard.

    4 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

    Additionally in Romans 1:20 we learn:

    “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

    So I think people who haven’t heard about God still can know of Him by merely observing His awesome creation. It’s interesting that even on remote islands where missionaries have later gone, there IS already a religious practice in place. I believe this shows that humans innately know there IS a Higher Power and/or the desire to worship something greater than ourselves is written on our hearts. Just as the Ethiopian eunuch was reading the book of Isaiah and desiring to know what it was teaching, I think God will send people to tell those who truly want to know Him. (see Acts 8:30ff)

    As for knowledge, yes, it is fine, but God also wants us to have faith and to trust Him. Hebrews 11 tells us that without faith it is*impossible* to please God. And Jesus told Thomas that he believed because Thomas had seen the risen Lord, but blessed are those who have NOT seen, yet believed. Knowledge is fine, but don’t let it become an idol. Realize the importance of faith. If we could prove everything about God, no faith would be necessary. For some reason God greatly desires us to trust Him. Notice how Abraham had great faith and left his home not knowing where he was headed. (Genesis 12 & Hebrews 11:8-10).

    Just a few things that came to mind as I read this post. 🙂

  3. susanne430 said,

    As for God sending prophets and messengers … Old Testament prophets generally were sent to warn the children of Israel to return to God because they had started worshiping the false gods and idols of the surrounding nations. If you read through the OT, you will notice the messages of the prophets mostly were to return to God and warning of coming judgment for their faithlessness.

    I think the message is simple — God created a perfect world and had fellowship daily with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

    Adam and Eve sinned and this broke that perfect fellowship.

    However, God – in His great mercy and love – made a way for this fellowship to be restored. He was the only One who could do this because sinful people cannot clean themselves good enough for God’s perfection and holiness.

    His justice demanded payment for our sins.

    The OT Jewish practices of sacrifice foreshadow the coming Lamb of God who would die for the sin of the world. So the message is simple: Jesus is the Way…God’s way to restore fellowship and put us in right relationship with Him.

    All the rules of Mohammad’s hadiths are simply ways to put people back under the bondage of the Law from which Jesus fulfilled and freed us. We are freed by Jesus to love and serve others.

    Interesting post.

  4. Sarah said,

    Thanks for commenting, Susanne.

    I find it an interesting idea that we have some innate knowledge or sense of there being a creator God. I think it could be the case. I’m aware that this idea exists in Christianity and also in Islam, actually.

    “As for knowledge, yes, it is fine, but God also wants us to have faith and to trust Him.”
    Of course, there is more than just knowledge, and I think that where faith comes in is in believing that a historical event – such as the origin of a scripture – came about by the hand of God. But believing that that historical event happened at all, that I don’t think is primarily the domain of faith, but of historical research. Otherwise we could just have blind faith and believe that anything we wanted had happened – like that humans are an alien life form that came to earth from elsewhere in space, for example (!). But I agree with your point, that we can’t prove anything about God because for some reason God has chosen not to allow us to do so. Maybe this life is a test.

    Thanks for your insights about Old Testament prophets, my OT knowledge is quite lacking so that was really interesting!

    • Aynur said,

      I agree, this life is a test. You can’t “prove” that God exists for someone who doesn’t believe it. I saw it described somewhere it’s like as if there’s a one-way mirror, where God can see us but it appears to us that we’re alone.
      I personally believe that people are born with a sense of right & wrong, and it can become corrupted by their parents or environment.

  5. desertmonsoon said,


    I don’t think that it is true that all Jews would be Christians, even if it was as Plain as Day that Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies. Human beings can be very stubborn and even blind to the truth when they want to be.

    An example of this, not related to religion, is my Great Grandmoter who hated to see beards on men. My father had a beard, every time he visted her, she would refuse to kiss him until he shaved it off. She would always tell him “Peter, shave that awful thing off, the men in our family don’t keep beards” and then to tease her (he always would shave it off out of respect for her eventually) he would bring out old family photo albums from the Civil War that showed men in our family with beards practically down to their belly buttons. And even though those albums were her prized possessions, she would still look straight at those pictures and refuse to acknowledge that any man in our family ever had a beard. A lot of people when they get an idea in their heads blind themselves to the truth – even if it is as plain as day. In short people believe what they want to believe for whatever reason they want to believe it, because they are used to it, because they are comfortable with it, because they like how it makes them feel, etc. Them rejecting a truth doesn’t make it any less true just because they have refused to acknowledge it.

    And a lot of people when they buy into a religion they accept it hook line and sinker and the view every other religious viewpoint from the perspective of that religion (not with a truly open mind). People don’t usually only just accept a book as their guide they accept several centuries of religious dogma, rituals, etc that have been built up around which ever scripture they choose and then they measure everything else according to this, and this affects what they accept or don’t accept.

  6. Sarah said,

    Aynur – yes, a lot of people follow like sheep as they either don’t have the means, or the interest, to investigate for themselves. I’m not sure if that’s OK or not. And yes, you can’t prove God exists, but to someone who believes, it seems obvious from looking at the world around them.

    desertmonsoon – that’s a very good point; we all have a huge personal bias and that bothers me too because I want to be as unbiased as I can. People do often seem to believe simply because they want to, as you say, and that seems unsatisfactory to me. What’s worse is that the same people will then view themselves as somehow superior or more enlightened due to their belief, even though this belief was based on such arbitrary foundations. I find that viewpoint really unpalatable. Thanks for commenting.

    • susanne430 said,

      “What’s worse is that the same people will then view themselves as somehow superior or more enlightened due to their belief”

      I agree that this attitude is bad. I think it’s part of pride that is innate to us. According to what I understand from the Bible, none of us have reason to brag because we are dead and spiritually blind to God and His goodness and mercy. It’s only because of ***God*** giving us light to see and life that we can know Him. This is why Paul writes that it is the GIFT of God and not of our works lest any of us should boast. We cannot brag that *we* have this great enlightenment or knowledge of God because, simply, it’s not because of anything *we* did. Only God’s great mercy.

      As for the Jews not believing … back in Jesus’ day they were expecting their Messiah to deliver them and their country and holy city from the occupying Roman forces. They expected a conquering Savior NOT one who claimed to save them from themselves! (Their sins) And most definitely not one who *died* to these same occupying people! Oh the horror! But it you read Isaiah 53 especially you will note that Jesus’ death was prophesied. The Jews -unable to come to grips that their Messiah would be not save them from the Romans PLUS the fact that they didn’t see themselves needing salvation from their sins- made most of them dismiss Jesus as the one sent from God to save them. Many of the religious Jews still believe their Messiah is coming and is going to set up his kingdom in Israel. This is what the Jews 2000 years ago were looking forward to and why most of them rejected Jesus as the Christ.

      Perhaps it was partly pride… afterall who wants a Savior who died for sins (*gasp* I have sins bad enough for THAT?!) instead of freeing people from occupation?

      We see outside freedom as being of more importance whereas God saw inward freedom (from sin and the affects of sin — separation from Him) of far more importance. He would rather save us from ourselves and have a relationship with us for eternity than free us temporarily in this life.

      • Sarah said,


        Maybe it is pride. I realised after I wrote that, that it could have sounded like a blanket statement, as if all people who choose to be religious are that way. Perhaps it was my own pride speaking, pride in my own humility, if you will.

        As you say, religion tells people to acknowledge that all they have, faith, reason, etc., is from God. I think we can feel good about our efforts, the decisions we make to take the right path, while still thanking God for utlimately showing us the way. But failing to sympathise with a person who is not in the same position should not be a consequence, although it’s easy to happen.

        I may feel a lack of sympathy for people who are blindly indoctrinated, because I have made the choice not to be. Why can’t I be sympathetic? The reason is because I feel threatened by them. I feel uncomfortable when people speak with too much forthright confidence about religious matters that seem to me to be open to question. By the same token, I guess they might feel threatened by me. They maybe feel uncomfortable when I ask too many deep questions.

        This seems like a timely realisation for me, so thanks! I just feel really grateful that there are religious believers who can relate to my questions and come on this blog to leave comments, despite how mercilessly I deconstruct religion at times. So thank you all!

  7. shahadashy said,

    Hi All,

    Enjoyed the post and the comments, some very interesting conversations.

    In your original post you wrote:
    “And this is where I start to wonder… if God wanted the world to know things, why is it so difficult? Why would God tie necessary knowledge to history, whereby the fallible human processes of transmission and replication make it impossible to be sure of it, and whereby lay people are rendered utterly dependent on fallible scholars to extract the truth?”

    You really just condensed and put into words one of my biggest questions. If God is God (and by definition omnipotent and all that jazz), and not sadistic just setting up humankind to fail, then why isn’t it simpler? And yes, I totally agree that there are levels or pride and stubbornness in humanity that can obscure the obvious, but there is still alot in all the religious texts which is vague. Personally I think the vagueness can be a good thing, allowing flexibility so that context can shape what the “straight path” means in any given situation. But there is still this doubt. Why seal the prophets so long ago? Why not, somehow, make it all crystal clear. I mean we’re talking about GOD. If anyone would have the ability/power to create a message that is clear in all times and places wouldn’t it be God?

    I have fond memories of being told repeatedly while traveling in the Middle East “Islam is simple”. And it can be. But it can also be frustratingly complicated and unclear 🙂 So thanks for the post, it’s got me thinking!

    • Sarah said,

      I think the vagueness can be good, too. Maybe God’s commands are only as detailed as we demand them to be – the story of the Jews and the cow in Sura Baqarah comes to mind.
      And so maybe the complicated, detailed stuff just comes from people’s insecurity and their need to feel hemmed in by rules to know they are on the right track. Maybe God would prefer we use our brains and hearts more.
      Maybe it’s more about engaging all our faculties in a journey towards God than about being handed a well-defined doctrine on a platter. There is always more to explore and think about, and I kind of like that in a way.
      Maybe the message has survived history, despite becoming more convoluted along the way, and it’s possible for us to determine its truth based on its own merits, without reference to history. This was suggested to me by someone on another forum.
      And I think the message is paradoxically simple and not simple at the same time. I see a basic message across many religions, about worship of one true creator God, which is simple. But we will never fully understand God and God’s will, so working out what it means in our lives is too complex to be pinned down even in detailed laws, I feel.
      Thanks for commenting!

  8. FGxx said,

    Sarah, what a tremendous journey you are embarking on here (!)

    The answer to the question: “Why?”
    “So that you would ask”

    Every experience we have is guiding us to where we need to be going: it doesn’t always make sense. Like in “The Matrix” when the oracle tells Neo he is not the one (when he is). If she never told him he is not the one – he would not have offered his life to rescue Morpheus, and gone after him with such haste and discovered that he is, indeed, the one.

    Therefore, every question and answer, every experience that we encounter will lead us to our destination and nurture our love and will to get to that destination.


    • Sarah said,

      Very profound insight, FGxx. In asking “why?”, and searching for the answer, we gain more than we would have if we’d never had to ask. And maybe that’s the whole point.

  9. Achelois said,

    Seeking knowledge in Islam is a two edged sword. But before I say anything I also want to point out that it is only recently that I have heard people say that Islam is big on knowledge – religious knowledge. I never thought that way and never heard that before.

    Early Muslims wanted to know a lot and wanted to learn but when they didn’t understand something they didn’t question it; they merely said Allah and His messenger know best. I feel that really hinders your quest for knowledge when you give up and are scared to question.

    And today it is claimed that no one’s opinion matters because the Ulema of many centuries ago have discovered whatever there was to discover about Islam so you shut up and listen. There is no room for self-explored knowledge in modern Islamic circles. There is no room fro critical-thinking. The “unanimous consensus” (Yasir Qadhi’s pet phrase) has been reached.

    • Wrestling said,

      Muslims talk of learning their deen, whereas Christians talk of growing in God. I see courses being promoted all the time where people can go and learn 40 hadiths or things like that. In Christianity the courses were more like pop psychology than anything so scholarly.

      Critical thinking is a whole other matter! I guess in the golden age of Islam, Muslims believed they were supposed to think critically. They did all the science and maths and astronomy of that time. I still have no idea whether that was all motivated by their understanding of Islam. I can’t reconcile it with the insecure, nit-picky, disengage-brain type of stuff in the hadiths that were passed on and and the scholarship that preserved it and condensed it. I can’t see how it all fits together.

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