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THE LIMITATIONS OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE

In the chapter Al-Isra’ (the Night Journey) of the Qur’an there is a verse that concerns the art of thinking. The translation of this verse is as follows: They question you about the Spirit. Say, ‘The Spirit is at my Lord’s command, and you have been granted but little knowledge.’ (17:85)

This Qur’anic verse enshrines a very important principle regarding the theory of knowledge: that man was created with certain limitations, due to which he cannot apprehend everything. To accept this limitation is the greatest wisdom, for it opens the door to all possible knowledge. Philosophy has a long history, but it has failed to provide any clear-cut knowledge about human life. In fact, all the philosophers of the past and present have been purveyors of confusion. On the contrary, scientists have been able to provide us with fruitful knowledge. Indeed, modern civilization is a gift of the scientific community. Why is there this difference between the two disciplines? The reason is that philosophers have failed to accept human limitations, while scientists have accepted them.

Acceptance of limitations opens the door to all kinds of genuine knowledge. It is good to think about the things around us, but it is bad to try to think about everything. A wise person is one who differentiates between two lines of thinking. He tries to gain knowledge about the things around him but refrains from jumping into those fields where it is impossible to draw conclusions due to a lack of data. To differentiate between the two kinds of disciplines is an important principle of knowledge. If you want to know about the physical world, that is something that is comprehensible with the aid of telescopes and microscopes. But there is a world that is beyond all telescopes and microscopes.

Taking a leap into the realm of these inaccessible phenomena is characterized by the well-known saying: ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ For example, you can find an introduction to the Creator in the creature and in nature, but if you try to see the exact being of the Creator with the eye as it is at present, you will fail. There is no doubt that the Creator is understandable, but the Creator is not observable. Differentiating between understanding and observing is wise thinking.

Let us take another example. If you want to gather knowledge about the pre-death period of life, you can, but if you try to obtain knowledge about the post-death period of life, you will fail. In the first phase of life, you can achieve direct knowledge but as regards the second phase of life, only inference is possible. Here you must content yourself with inferential knowledge. According to the Qur’an, this is the true basis of epistemology. This Qur’anic epistemology is based on one basic principle: Differentiate between what is comprehensible and what is not comprehensible. You have to apply your mind to those fields in which the required data is available and not to fields where the availability of data is doubtful. This is the same wisdom that has been adopted by all scientists. They have accepted the limitations of science and this acceptance has opened all the doors of the modern sciences.

President

The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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