Knowledge and the Parable of Mirror
Science as it is understood, explicated and propagated by modern man has been part and parcel of life for quite some time. This, perhaps, poses no problem to a purely modern man. But are all citizens of this so-called modern age ‘modern’ in every respect without a trace from the past? How’s about a Muslim living in such an age, encountering or dealing with science so understood, explicated and propagated? Maybe, there is no clear-cut answer to such a question. Or is there in fact a satisfying one? I think, the right approach for a Muslim to deal with such issues is not so much to understand science from the Islamic perspective, as it is to understand knowledge itself. For not only is science simply one important dimension of human knowledge but also a fair understanding and application of it by a Muslim can only be realized within the larger Islamic perspective of knowledge. So, let us avail ourselves of this limited space to say something meaningful about knowledge.
No one of sound mind will be opposed to the claim that knowledge in its broadest sense is a sine qua non of human life. In fact, as far as Islam and the intellectual tradition that it gives rise to are concerned, true and beneficial knowledge has always been likened to water; just as the physical water gives life to the human body, such knowledge gives life to the spirit of man. Yet, the life the latter gives, due mainly to its immaterial nature, is something our five external senses cannot perceive; hence, man by and large has a strong tendency to relegate such life, and what indeed brings spiritual and intellectual vitality, to a secondary status at best.
Despite all these, and for the sake of man’s salvation, he still needs to be reminded of this other intangible dimension of his life. It is here somehow that a dilemma arises. On the one hand, we need to convey something crucial to the people at large and, on the other hand, this very something by its very nature is abstract such that the people in general hardly grasp it since the easiest way for them to get to see something is through any of the five external senses. In addition, this something has to be conveyed using whatever is understood by the people and more often than not, what they know is what they unwittingly regard as concrete, not abstract, and ought to have been classified within the range of ordinary perception and experience.
One way out of this dilemma then is to get the message across by means of analogies, parables, metaphors and stories. In fact, in most cases of abstruse ideas, all these are the only means left at one’s disposal. Yet, in spite of the educational and didactic utility of all these means, one needs to be always cautioned that the symbols used are not to be mistaken for the real things which are being explained. Nor should one for that matter deem that each symbol has exhausted almost everything about the actual things. No wonder then that insofar as the masses and novices are concerned, the past intellectual tradition of Islam is rich in parables that, taken as a whole, point to almost everything essential and important about knowledge, aspects that one cannot but be aware of at least as a concerned and responsible Muslim.
One such parable which was frequently used by numerous great scholars of Islam is ‘the parable of mirror.’ The use of this parable as a pedagogical tool was then extended to a number of issues pertaining to knowledge, issues which in the philosophical jargon are called ‘epistemological problems.’ What exactly is this parable? And in what way does it point to knowledge or help one understand knowledge better? Let us first have a grasp of the parable itself, something that is common experience to us all, and later, proceed to see how the authoritative Muslim scholars for instance, al-Ghazzali – relate it to knowledge and knowing.
In any normal situation, when an object say, a tree is facing a mirror, it will then be reflected in the mirror. Yet, what is in fact reflected in the mirror is not really the tree, but something resembling it. In other words, what is reflected therein is simply the image of the actual tree but not the tree itself. The real tree, despite its image being reflected in the mirror, remains existent outside the mirror and is indeed existentially different from either the mirror or its image as reflected therein. The image, in turn, though different from the tree and existentially secondary or subsequent to it, is similar to it and in fact points to it. In short, the tree a huge one perhaps remains where it is and does not move into that mirror which, due to its size, would have been unable to contain it.
Similarly, al-‘ilm or ‘knowledge’ is not existentially the same as anything actual and existent that becomes al-ma’lum, ‘the-object-of knowledge,’ or ‘what-is-known,’ or simply, ‘the-known.’ Yet, although the former is different from the latter, it is still referentially related to the latter in an intimate manner. Sounds complicated and confusing, doesn’t it? Perhaps not if one were to resort to our favorite parable above. The object-of-knowledge is like the tree in the parable and the human mind or soul is like the mirror. Just as the image of the tree will be reflected in the mirror so also will knowledge be reflected in the mind if one properly attends to the object-of-knowledge.
Yes, true knowledge is a faithful reflection in one’s mind of the reality, whatever the reality is. And what is reflected in the mind, in order to be true, must correspond to what is outside the mind. Yet, what is reflected therein is only the form of the real object, not the object in its totality. For the actual object as a whole still exists outside man’s perception. Only something of it that is, its form is grasped by the man when he gets to know or understand something. As the readers may have noticed, the form is only an aspect of a physically real object, the other aspect being represented by its matter. Hence, the formal is different from the material and, understood as such, the formal is immaterial. Nevertheless, none of the objects in the physical realm are purely form, but such objects are instead hybrids, albeit mysterious, of form and matter. Hence, any mental ‘grasp’ of what is ‘formal’ with regard to a tangible object has to start with the mental act of abstracting the form from not only the matter but also anything material.
It is therefore clear that there is something else about knowledge that is also conveyed by this parable. And that something else may best be summarized as the following; the process of knowing is a process of abstracting. In other words, the result of any real process of human knowing is that man finally reaches the height of apprehending abstract notions, ideas or concepts. As a matter of fact, many scholars in the Islamic intellectual tradition have understood pure ideas or concepts as always being abstract or immaterial. This ‘abstracting,’ which constitutes the normal process of human knowing, simply means the mental process of separating the form of an actual object from the object as such the object as such comprising also its materiality so that what is at last inscribed on the human mind pertains simply to the formal aspect of the object, almost like the image of the tree its shape, colours, etc.ï¿½that is being reflected in the mirror while the tree remains where it is.
This part of the epistemic process is what, to my mind, is originally meant when one uses the word ‘inform’ in the sense that in-form-ation is a necessary condition in any real process of knowing though one’s possession of it alone cannot be a sufficient condition to qualify one as knowledgeable. In fact, as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Latin original, informare, (a compound verb based on forma ‘form’), primarily connotes ‘shaping’ via ‘forming an idea of something.’
It is also interesting to note that the common understanding among Muslim scholars, based on their grasp of the Qur’an, Prophetic teachings, and human experience and experiments, is that intellect is something spiritual or immaterial in man, and knowing as well as understanding pertains to this spiritual dimension of man. The form of a thing, as we have just seen, is also something immaterial. Knowing, in this respect, is none other than the union of the immaterial with the immaterial!
Let us now end our short discourse here with a few words of caution. What is somehow captured by the above parable does not reflect everything one can learn about knowledge. In fact, it serves more to highlight both the passive side of man’s noetic activities and the correspondence factor; as if knowledge is a resemblance of an object that becomes inscribed on the human soul from an external source, such a soul merely acting as its passive recipient. Yet, knowledge itself is more than just this. And to appreciate fully its other dimensions, one may well need to learn all those interesting parables which contribute to the richness and depth of our intellectual tradition.