The Koran As A Miracle?

May 5, 2021 Category: Religion


As we’ll see, Islam’s holy book is riddled with glaring mistakes.  This does not bode well for those who insist on taking every word of the book as infallible; and proclaim that it is the ultimate source of knowledge.  But what about the book’s (apparent) touting of “knowledge”?

The Koran makes use of the term, “ilm”, which is typically translated as “knowledge”; as if it were just as simple as that.  After all, if the book encourages the pursuit of knowledge; it can’t be all that bad.

However it is more accurate to say that “ilm” means an acute awareness of Islamic doctrine.  That is to say, it is knowledge in a narrow sense: knowledge of god’s word (and of MoM’s teaching).  Thus “ilm” is not knowledge; it is familiarity with–and fealty to–the Sunnah.  In Islam, doctrinal acumen is referred to explicitly “hikmah” (commonly translated as “wisdom”), which is seen as concomitant with the Koranic sense of “ilm” (commonly translated as “knowledge”).  The equivalent to this in ancient Greek thought was “doxa”; and in Judaic thought as “da’at[h]”.  This is NOT what the Greeks referred to as “episteme” / “sophie” [knowledge]; or what was known in Classical Hebrew as “yedi’at”.

Indeed, even thinking ITSELF (what the Greeks often dubbed “phronesis”) was not so straight-forward.  For there was the immediate apprehension of concretes (“noesis”); but there was also critical reflection (“dianoia”).  Thus the distinction was made between simply understanding instructions versus the higher functions of abstract thinking.  Religious “knowledge” is predicated on the former while actively discouraging the latter.

If one wants to see what a text means by X, it is instructive to see what it means by lack-of-X.  So, a way of ascertaining what is meant by “ilm” in Islam’s holy book, one needs only see what is meant by “ignorance” (i.e. lack of knowledge).  The Koran’s use of “ilm” is best exemplified by the term used for un-belief, “jahiliyyah”.  As it turns out, “jahiliyyah” is (conventionally) taken to mean “those in a state of ignorance”.  In other words, Faith is equated with knowledge, whereas LACK OF Faith is equated with ignorance.  Lo and behold: “jahi” [“ignorance”] is not ignorance in the modern sense (absence of erudition); it means ignorance of the god’s word (and of MoM’s teaching).  Hence “ilm” simply means AWARENESS OF something very specific, with the implication that awareness is concomitant with acquiescence. {13}

Meanwhile, a lack of FAITH is synonymous with a lack of KNOWLEDGE.  This quirky taxonomy is more theology than epistemology.

And so it went: Those “with knowledge” cannot possibly refer to non-believers (who’s wrong-headedness is relentlessly castigated throughout the Koran).  For those “with knowledge” are simply those who adhere to the Sunnah.  The people who have “ilm” (the so-called “uwtuw al-ilm”), then, are people who are PIOUS: those who exhibit doctrinal fidelity (“ibadah”)…who correspond to those who most embody “iman”.  Hence the promotion of “ilm” is none other than the promotion of familiarity with doctrine (the Sunnah).

Passages like 29:49 tell us that “ilm” is something we are GIVEN, not something that we acquire for ourselves.  It is quite telling that “ilm” is seen a function of “wahi” [revelation].  In other words, as far as the authors of the Koran were concerned, being well-versed in Islamic doctrine (itself a function of revelation) is all that “ilm” is.  More to the point, “ilm” is something allotted to each of us as god sees fit to allot it.  Indeed, 17:85 emphasizes the fact that the knowledge being conveyed to mankind by this Final Revelation is strictly circumscribed: “You are not given aught of ‘ilm’ but a little.”  So “ilm” is not something one cultivates by one’s own devices; it is something rationed by god.

The point cannot be emphasized enough; so let’s recapitulate it.  In a strictly Koranic sense, “ilm” entails the recognition of certain dogmas; not “knowledge” as understood in the post-Enlightenment sense.  (For more on how knowledge is advanced, see Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” and Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.  This will help one cultivate a way of thinking about the scientific credence of Islam’s holy book—especially when it comes to putting it into the historical context of mankind’s advancements in knowledge.)

This is further demonstrated by the fact that Sunni theology is often referred to as “ilm al-kalam”.  The rubric is typically used as a euphemism for apologia (“kalam” effectively means rhetoric).  Once we understand religious dogmas as memetic narcotics, we see that edification is the LAST thing with which religious apologists are concerned.  Their charge is to defend sacrosanct “truths” with pedantic flourishes; not to elucidate Reality.  Indeed, like Christian apologia, “ilm al-lalam” demonstrates that dogmatism serves as a surrogate for wisdom–an insight that goes back to Socrates’ indictment of sophistry.

To be “in the know” was simply to accede to whatever doctrinal positions were being prescribed.  The point was to SURRENDER to dogmatism, not to resist it.  If anything, genuine knowledge was a CASUALTY of “ilm”, not its aim.

Such obtuse thinking was illustrated by the (cartoonishly absurd) treatment of “ilm” by the so-called “Dars-i Nizami” [houses of Nizam], an Islamic fundamentalist movement founded in the 18th century (named after its founder, “mulla” Nizam ud-Din As-Sihaalwi).  Salafis (esp. Deobandis) prized what they referred to in their own dialect as the “Dar al-Ulum” [house of knowledge], effectively an indoctrination facility (i.e. Salafi madrasah).

Other dead give-aways of the nature of (what was meant by “ilm”) include the buzz-term “ilm al-rijal” [knowledge of men], which refers to Islamic religious studies that deals with which Hadith are to be deemed more / less credible.

Suffice to say, “ilm” does not correspond with the post-Enlightenment conception of knowledge, as we now use it.  In fact, it is the polar opposite of what the ancient Greeks (notably, Socrates) referred to as “episteme” / “sophie”.  Re-labeling dogmatism (or a familiarity with sacred doctrine) “ilm” does not change what it is.  It is plain to see that the Koranic “ilm” is not comparable to what the ancient Greeks dubbed “episteme” / “sophie” (in the scientific sense) or “gnosis” (in the spiritual sense); nor is it comparable to the Syriac, “mandata”; nor is it comparable to what Hindus dubbed “abhijna” / “gyan” / “jnana” / “vidya”; nor what Dzogchen Buddhists refer to as “rig-pa”.  As it turns out, it is more comparable to what is referred to as “da’at[h]” in Judaism–which primarily has to do with familiarity with–and fealty–to Mosaic law.  Note, for example, Hosea 4:6, which reads: “My people are destroyed for lack of ‘da’at’.”

Theology is the handmaiden of religious apologetics.  It is–by definition–not about knowledge; it is the craft of concocting rationalizations for pre-established dogmas.  Indeed, theology is the ANTITHESIS of a discipline that is genuinely concerned with knowledge (i.e. philosophy / science; which is based on the AVOIDANCE / DEBUNKING of dogmatism).  The Islamic term for an apologist is thus “mu-ta-kalim”.  Mutakalimun are people who specialize in the peddling of (Mohammedan) superstition under the auspices of “scholarship”.  Such pretense perverts the notion of erudition.

Alas, this blinkered epistemology underlies any discussion of “reason” in the Koran.  As it turns out, “reason” is something ANYONE would encourage.  That the authors of the Koran insist that they are using reason is therefore unsurprising.  Isaiah 1:18 in the Hebrew Bible invites readers, “Come now and let us reason together”; yet only the most deluded would suggest this enjoinder was really prescribing “reason” in the Enlightenment sense–as with the German “wissenschaft”.

Here’s the thing: EVERYONE thinks they are being reasonable; this does not make everyone a champion of (actual) Reason.  The value of using REASON goes back to the Sanskrit notion, “yukti”.  Yet the Koranic use of “A-Q-L” [typically translated as “reason”] is in no way comparable to what the Ancient Greeks dubbed “nous” [the capacity for understanding], which involves (critical) deliberation / reflection.  Nor is it comparable to the Syriac “binta”.  It is plain to see that “yaqil-una” / “taqil-una” is not employed as an exhortation to engage in critical thinking.  Rather, it is used as a way of referring to those who think in the correct manner (as in: those who are pious).  Translating this reference as those who REASON is therefore misleading.

As mentioned, the Koran also refers to something called, “hikmah” (e.g. 2:129), which is commonly translated as “wisdom”, as it is simply a variant of the antecedent Semitic root, “H-K-M[a]” (typically rendered “[c]Hokmah” in Aramaic).  What does this term actually mean?

The Koranic conception of “wisdom” is: Thinking in a pious way (i.e. in the way we say you’re supposed to think; a.k.a. “correct thinking”).  In other words: NOT wisdom.  Hence, failing to think in this manner is decried as LACK OF “hikmah” (e.g. 2:171), which is effectively the same as sacrilege.  This does NOT correspond with what the Greeks referred to as “arete” / “phronesis” [wisdom]; nor even what was referred to in antecedent Semitic languages as “[c]Hokmah” / “Hak[h]mah”.

The conception of “wisdom” as subservience goes back to the beginning of the Abrahamic tradition.  According to the Judaic treatment of the term, we might ask: Who qualifies as “wise”?  Proverbs 10:8 explains: It is one who obeys commands.  In Proverbs 3:5, we are admonished not not rely on our own understanding.  Even worse, throughout the Hebrew Bible, wisdom (qua piety) is rendered a function of FEAR [“yir’at”].  This is made especially clear when the vengeful god of the Torah commands respect by threatening to DESTROY.  Most infamously, Proverbs 1:7 states that “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”

Meanwhile, throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is a disdain for the pursuit of GENUINE wisdom–that is: when it is conceptualized in terms of knowledge in the Enlightenment sense [“yedi’at”] rather than knowledge in the sense of doctrinal awareness [“da’at”].  In the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read–in the concluding verse–that “in much wisdom is much vexation; and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.”  This can only be taken as contempt for intellectual curiosity.  It is no wonder, then, that such an attitude predominated in much of the Abrahamic tradition.  After all, critical inquiry is the death-knell of institutionalized dogmatism.

The distinction between worldly wisdom (that is, wisdom in the modern sense) and “wisdom” qua piety is illustrated in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (3:19): “The wisdom of the world is foolishness with god.”

Here’s the thing.  According to the Koran, “hikmah” is a mark of “iman” [Faith].  That is to say, it is a function of “ibadah” (fealty).  The key, then, is piety rather than probity; devotion rather than erudition.  This myopic conception of “wisdom” is purely a matter of “fitra”: the recognition of good and evil (per the Manichean worldview being propounded).

Such blinkered thinking was nothing new in the Abrahamic tradition.  Even in the early Christian church, the vague notion of enlightenment was conflated with salvation via the Koine Greek term, “soteria”.  In other words, enlightenment was strictly a matter of “seeing the light” in the religious sense.  To be enlightened was to be saved; and vice versa.

Thus “hikmah” is not comparable to what the ancient Greeks referred to as “arete” / “phronesis”; or what is referred to in the Eastern tradition as “pragya” / “prajna” / “jina” (rendered “panna” in Pali).  Such concepts refer to an insight into the true nature of Reality.  Such insight is gleaned not via subservience (and CERTAINLY NOT through dogmatism), but rather via the human powers of intuition / apprehension. {14}

Importantly, Eastern traditions tend to emphasize a healthy dose of skepticism (“vicikitsa” in Sanskrit) rather than dogmatism; and so encourage precisely what is discouraged in Islamic thought.  Also, in the Buddhist tradition, the notion of an enlightened mind (“bodhi-citta”) is a function of compassion [“karuna”] FOR ALL SENTIENT BEINGS (what the Ancient Greeks dubbed “agape”).  This means expressing loving-kindness [“maitri”] toward EVERYONE; which involves a principle known as “ahimsa”: never causing harm to any sentient being.

Suffice to say, the Islamic mandate to submit has little to do with what is now normally understood to be “enlightenment”.  There is nothing resembling “arete” / “phronesis” addressed anywhere in Islamic scripture; and for good reason.  Such mental acuity would have only undermined the effort to engender “iman” via SUBMISSION.

We might also juxtapose “hikmah” against the notion of “moksha” in Eastern traditions.  “Moksha” is a function of LIBERATION, not submission.  (It is a matter of bringing one’s soul into alignment with the divine; and so is a matter of synchronicity rather than of obeisance.)  It is achieved via one’s own devices; and does not require the simpering / groveling of idolatry.  (As the Buddha exhorted: “Be your own lamp.”)  In other words, “moksha” involves what Kant would later call autonomy.  According to this conception of wisdom, Truth itself serves as one’s light.  It is something to be found within all of us.  This diverges sharply with “hikmah”, which is a function of subservience (i.e. servility to a cosmic master).

Consequently, the translation of “ilm” (as it occurs in the Koran) as “knowledge” is markedly inaccurate–based as it is on an inverted epistemology.  In the Islamic context, “ilm” effectively means “familiarity with doctrine”–a quality that is diametrically opposed to what the Ancient Greeks referred to as “arete” / “phronesis”.  Ergo proselytes described as “those with ilm” are simply those who have been properly indoctrinated.

Bear in mind that the theme of FEAR permeates the entire book.  So we should not be surprised to learn that the Koran’s authors equate fear of god with wisdom.  This is nothing new.  Indeed, it is in keeping with, say, Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10 of the Hebrew Bible, in which we are told that FEAR OF THE LORD is the beginning of wisdom.  Thus we are asked to suppose that “arete” is predicated on dogmatism; and even on neurosis.  This would be a gross perversion of the term. {15}

Alas, such a neurotic state is the basis for “hikmah”–nay, of piety in general–was codified in the exalted term “taqwa” [fear of god].  The harebrained notion that wisdom is somehow a function of FEAR is not unique to the Koran…as those in the West have been well-acquainted with the fire-and-brimstone brand of Christianity.

And so it goes: Once one has been inculcated with the appropriate set of beliefs, one can boast that one has “ilm”; and aver that one’s convictions–whatever they might be–are synonymous with WISDOM.  Not only does such sacralized dogmatism have nothing to do with knowledge; it is the OPPOSITE OF knowledge.  The so called “fard al-kifayah” regarding “ilm” is the mandate for all Muslims to convince themselves of certain things (namely: that of which they have been instructed they should be convinced).  That is: It is the duty of each supplicant to ensure he has been thoroughly indoctrinated.  This is comparable to the (spurious) Roman Catholic obligation to become well-versed in the catechism.

The instantiation of habits of thought is exactly what knowledge is NOT.

Another revealing indication that “knowledge” is conceptualized in a queer manner in Islam’s holy book is the duel meaning of “aziz”: teacher and authority.  That is, to teach is to command.  Rather than “aziz” referring to a pedagogue who helps people LEARN (qua think for themselves), it refers to a master (whom we are obligated to honor) who dictates.  Edification is thus rendered a matter of obeisance.  Meanwhile, “hakim” [wisdom] is equated with deference to the authority of god.

In 49:9, the Koran encourages the pursuit of “ilm”, but links this to an awareness of god (and his “justice”).  This myopic conception of “knowledge” is hardly consummate with the use of the term in the modern world.  In this sense, “knowledge” is simply reverence for whatever the Koran says.  According to this interpretation, the typical Salafi is BRIMMING with “knowledge”.  This is hardly consummate with what the ancient Greeks called “arete”: the Enlightenment sense of erudition known in German as “Aufklärung”.

So now let’s look at what happens when “knowledge” is conceptualized in such an obtuse way.

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