The Place of Sensuous And Intellectual
Knowledge In Islam

By Majid Ali Khan Ph.D. (Aligarh)

Sources of Knowledge

Knowledge is an intense and close communication between the knower and the known. We get all of our knowledge, whether it is about material things or non-material things, living beings or the non-living, human beings or animals, from four main sources:

  1. Sensory Organs,
  2. Intellect,
  3. Intuition, and
  4. Inspiration or Revelation (i.e. Wahy).

Sensuous Knowledge

Sensory organs are the greatest source of acquiring knowledge. We know ourselves and the world of nature by inner reflection and sense-perception, respectively, and as a matter of fact we cannot be sure of anything except that which is perceived through our sensorial reactions. Through sense-perception we can establish a direct connection between us and the object perceived. We have, indeed, discovered this world and derived benefit from it through senses. The only ground of knowledge of a person of a conscious being before him is the physical movement similar to his own, from which he infers the presence of a conscious being. The test of presence of a conscious self is response for which the Holy Qur'aan also speaks:

"And your Lord saith; Call Me and I respond to your call" (xl. 62).

Primitive man, when prompted by the immediate necessities of life, was driven to interpret his experience, and out of this interpretation gradually emerged "Nature" in our sense of the world.

(a) Sense-Perception as a Source of Scientific Knowledge:

Empirical sciences deal with the facts of experience, the sense-experience. A scientist begins and ends with the phenomena perceived by the sense without which he cannot verify his theories. But to explain hi experiences, a scientist has to postulate imperceptible entities like genes. Moreover, through the sources of senses a scientist could only study the material world. The mental processes, involved in the study, and similarly the aesthetic and religious experiences are excluded from the scope of empirical sciences for the obvious reason that science is restricted to the study of the material world due to the only source of its knowledge - the sense-perception. It is obvious that only the qualities of material things, perceived by the sense, could be studied and interpreted as a result of sensuous knowledge. The Holy Qur'aan also recognises this:

"And He taught Adam the nature of all things;" (ii, 31).

But does the empirical science also consider the secrets of the material world - of course, the spiritual and the revealed secrets, towards which the Holy Qur'aan points out as follows:

"He said: 'O Adam! Tell them their natures'. When he had told them, He (Allaah) said: 'Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?' (ii, 32).

Objects are the genuine phenomena which constitute the very substances of Nature and which we know as they are in Nature. They are not something subjective states which cannot be perceived. On the other hand, matter, to the modern physics, it is not a persistent thing with varying states but a system of inter-related events. According to Professor Whitehead,

"Nature is not a static fact situated in a dynamic void, but a structure of events possessing the character of a continuous creative flow which thoughts cut up into isolated immobilities out of whose mutual relations arise the concept of space and time."

So the scientific view which considers Nature as purely matter is associated with the Newtonian view of space as an absolute void in which things are situated.

Thus we see that the scientific experiences refer to two domains: mind and matter. This demands that science should consider the problems which it had ignored at its early stage.

(b) Reality and Scientific Knowledge:

Let us now consider whether the view formed of Reality through the expositions of sense-perceptions is essentially different from the one given by religion. The scientific theories, no doubt, because of their verifications through sensuous knowledge, are quite trustworthy but side by side, it should be kept in mind that science is not a single systematic view of Reality. In the words of Dr. Iqbal,

"It is a mass of sectional views of Reality - fragments of a total experience which do not seem to fit together."

Scientific knowledge could be grouped under three main categories:

  1. Biological Sciences - the sciences of life,
  2. Physical Sciences - the sciences of matter and its physical or chemical properties, and
  3. Psychological Sciences - the sciences of mind and intellect. Though the natural sciences deal with matter, life and mind, yet they cannot show how matter, life and mind are mutually related, due to their sectional character.

(c) Religion and Sense-perception

As against science religion takes into account the whole of Reality and as such it must occupy a central position in any synthesis of all the data of human experience. For the obvious reason it should not be afraid of any sectional view of Reality. Natural sciences, because of their sectional character, based on sense-perception, cannot set up their theories as complete view of Reality. The concepts we use in the organisation of knowledge are, therefore, fragmental and sectional in character and their application is relative to the level of experience to which they are applied. A true religion supplements this sectional knowledge with a complete apprehension of Reality. As a matter of fact, it does not discard or deny the facts based on the sensuous knowledge; rather its role is that of guidance - guidance to the real path, guidance towards the concrete. In the words of theHoly Qur'aan:

"(O Allaah) Guide towards the right path." (I: 6)

(d) Qur'aanic View regarding Sensuous Knowledge.

As far as Islam is concerned, it wants to discover a basis for a realistic regulation of life. The Holy Qur'aan, at many places, has directed man to observe the universe and, through sense-perception, account and reckon the Reality. The Holy Qur'aan points out the signs which are embedded in Nature. A critical observation, according to the Holy Qur'aan, of the universe and the force around it is a great step towards complete recognition of the Reality:

"Verily in the creations of the heavens and the earth, in the succession of the night and of the day, are signs for men of understanding, who, standing, sitting and reclining, bear Allaah in mind and reflect on the creation of the heavens and of the earth, they say: O our Lord! Thou has not created this in vain" (iii. 198).

Thus the Absolute and the Only Reality, Allaah, could be recognised through the apprehension of His wondrous signs among which is the unity of design in the widest diversity of Nature. The signs could be taken from the features of beauty, power and utility to man himself leading to an appeal to man's own intelligence and wisdom. The most striking everyday phenomenon resulting from the inner relation of the heavens and the earth is the alternation of the day and the night. Thus for obvious reason, the Holy Qur'aan has pointed out this at many places:

"Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the Night and the Day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean fro the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allaah sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; - (here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise" (ii. 64).

            At another place the Holy Qur'aan says:

"Allaah causeth the day and the night to take their turn; verily in this is teaching for men of insight" (xxiv. 44)

Thus the Holy Qur'aan calls man to observe Nature and this observation should not merely be based upon perception through sense but must be supplemented with an insight, reading of the universe. The immediate purpose of the Holy Qur'aan in this reflective observation of Nature is to awaken in man the consciousness of that of which Nature is regarded as a symbol.

"The Qur'aan, recognising that the empirical attitude is an indispensable stay in the spiritual life of humanity", says Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, "attaches equal importance to all the regions of human experience yielding knowledge of the ultimate Reality which reveals its symbols both within and without."

The Holy Qur'aan recognises the fact that man is related to Nature. This relation must be exploited in the nobler interests of a free upward movement of spiritual life.

In order to achieve the complete vision of Reality the sensuous knowledge must be suspended with the perception of what the Holy Qur'aan describes as Fuwad or Qalb (the heart).

"Allaah hath made everything which He hath created most good; and began the creation of man with clay; then ordained his progeny from germs of life, from dirty water; then He fashioned him and breathed into him of His spirit; and gave you hearing and sight and hearts. Small thanks do you give!" (xxxii. 7-9).

The heart is also related to a kind of inner intuition or insight, besides its usual physical relation to the body, and thus brings us into contact with aspects of Reality other than those open to sense-perception.

Limitation of Sensuous Knowledge:

A large group of philosophers considers the senses as a weak, doubtful and unreliable medium for the acquisition of knowledge. Nicolas Malebraniche (1638-1715) expounds this view in his book Recherche de La Verita .3 He says that the main reason for our mistake in this regard is the erroneous belief that the senses, which have been given to us to serve practical ends, are capable of revealing to us the nature of things.

Another philosopher, Miche De Montaigne (1533-92) puts forth the view4 that the knowledge of man is extremely important and his senses are uncertain and erring. We can never be sure that what they impart to us is always true. They nearly show us the world as conditioned by our own nature and circumstances. Not external objects, but merely the condition of the sense organs appears to us in sensuous perception. In order to be able to place implicit faith in the senses we must possess an instrument that can control them and then a means of controlling this instrument, and so on.

            Maulana Abul-Hassan 'Ali Nadwi says,

"In fact, our sensory organs are to subserve life and they confine themselves to the limitations inherent in this life itself. They cannot provide an answer to or affirm or deny anything outside the field of their powers. At the most, they can deny of having perceived something but cannot deny its existence." He further says, "Sensory perceptions are likewise ill-suited to furnish a reply to the question about the reality of cosmos. Sensorial observations can only comprehend different objects, they perceive, parts of the world or conceive the reality in fragments." 5

It is hard, therefore, to conceive the essence and motive power behind the well-balanced cosmic order through the methodical equipment of human senses. We could discover some physical laws on the basis of our sense, but are they able to discover the experience about the moral behavior? It is easy to find out the heat and its effect by the tactile senses, but could they discover the harm of cruelty, falsehood or misappropriation? The answer, of course, is "No". These problems could be solved only by an ethical intuition, religious faith and a deep feeling of spiritual security.

Therefore, for a clear and overall comprehension of reality, for gaining full satisfaction, we have to supplement the knowledge of sense-perception with the knowledge which could solve our ethical, moral and spiritual needs as well, and that knowledge comes only through Revelation or Inspiration.

Intellectual knowledge or reasoning or conceptual knowledge

Intellect has been considered an important source of knowledge. The difference between animals and human beings, in a number of civilisations, is accountable mainly to intellect or reason. Reasoning involves logical concepts. Logical knowledge is obtained through the process of analysis and synthesis. The data supplied to us by perception are analysed and the results of the analysis yield a more systematic knowledge of the subject perceived. As the conceptions are always based on perception, the logical knowledge or reasoning is indirect and symbolic in its character. Moreover, the conceptual explanations alter with the growth of experience and analysis, because they are dependent on our perceptions, our interests and our capacities. Because of its dependence on the perceptual knowledge, conceptual knowledge or reasoning is also recognised as inadequate to the real which it attempts to apprehend. As the objects revealed by logical knowledge are not always exactly those which we perceive, so it is sometimes urged that the perceived object is more real than the conceived one. In case of conceptual knowledge, due to the supervenience of intellectual activities, the immediacy of the objects we perceive in sense-perception (or sense-experience) is lost and as such no amount of conceptual synthesis can restore the original integrity of the perceived object.

(a) Bradley on Conceptual or Logical Knowledge.

Bradley and Bergson insisted on the symbolic character of logical knowledge. They are of opinion that intellect goes about it and about an object, may it be physical or non-physical, materialistic or non-materialistic, but does not take us to the heart of it. According to Bradley, the intellectual analysis is a falsification of the real because in that it breaks up its unity into a system of separate terms and relations. Thought and reality are distinct from each other because the abstract character of reality cannot be perceived merely by thought; the thought lives in the distinction between the reality of "that" and the abstract character of "what". However wide the "what" may extend, it can never embrace the whole existing reality. Intellectual symbols are no symbols for perceived realities.

Moreover, thought cannot comprehend the feelings and emotions of life. The delights and pains of flesh, the agonies and raptures of the soul remain outside of thought. The unified structure of reality is revealed more in feelings than in thought. So far comprehension and the nature of reality, one's effort should be creative and distinct from more intellectual one. Bradley says:

"We can form the general idea of an absolute experience in which phenomenal distinctions are merged, a whole become immediate at a higher stage without losing any richness". 6

(b) Bergson on conceptual knowledge.

Bergson also agrees on the fact that conceptual analysis does not yield the component parts of the object but its expressions. It does not give us a split sunset which has its own beauty, but a conceptual notation that it has qualities of gold light, etc.

"We really persuade ourselves", he says, "that by setting concepts we are reconstructing the whole of the object with its parts, thus obtaining, so to speak, its intellectual equivalent. In this way we believe that we can form a beautiful representation of duration by setting in line the concepts of unity, multiplicity, continuity, finite or infinite divisibility, etc. There precisely is the illusion. There also is the danger. Just in so far as abstract ideas can render service to analysis, that is, to the scientific study of the object in its relation to the other objects, so far as they are incapable of replacing intuition, that is, the metaphysical investigation of what is essential and unique in the object. For, on the other hand, these concepts, laid side by side, never actually give us more than an artificial reconstruction of the object, of which they can only symbolise certain general, and in a way, impersonal aspects; it is therefore useless to believe that with them we can seize a reality of which they present to use the shadow alone." 7

Thus Bergson substitutes intuition for intellect as the proper organ of absolute knowledge.

(c) Croce's View on Conceptual Knowledge.

Croce is of opinion that logical knowledge takes us away from the individual and the actual into a world of abstractions, while intuitive knowledge gives us an insight into the individual. No says:

"Knowledge has two forms; it is either intuitive knowledge or knowledge we inquire by intellect; knowledge of individual or knowledge of the universal; knowledge is, in short, either productive of images or productive of concepts. Imagination and thought act on different lines. By imagination only individual things can be shaped, whereas the thought relates images in universal concepts. Imagination corresponds to artistic activity and the artistic activity apprehends the living, palpitating reality though the artist does not know that he is apprehending." 8

So Bradley, Bergson and Croce urge in different ways that intellect succeeds in stiffening life and binding it in concepts.

            According to Dr. Radhakrishnan:

"If the conceptual analysis gave us real parts, then perhaps we might try to fit them together as to obtain the original objects, but such a procedure is impossible with a mere notation. Intellect finds it easy to distinguish and separate, but when it synthesizes it is artificial in its methods and results. It gives us a patch work and not a harmony… Reality is life, movement, duration, concrete continuity, and logic givens us concepts which are timeless, immobile, dead. If all knowledge were of this kind, truth lies not only beyond the grasp of human mind, but beyond the grasp of omniscience itself." 9

(d) Emphasis of Greek Scholars on Critical Intelligence.

In Western systems, importance has been given to Critical Intelligence. Socrates is credited by Aristotle with two things; inductive arguments and universal definitions. 10 Aristotle invented the science of logic. Logic for Greeks is not so much a science of discovery as one of proof. For Aristotle man is preeminently a rational animal.

In Greek systems more prominence was given to the expression and communication of thought than to its discovery and growth. Hence the tendency to stereotype thought in conventional ways.

            But according to Dr. Radhakrishnan:

"The canons of formal logic would be of excellent use, when all truths are discovered and nothing more remained to be known, but logic cannot dictate or set limits to the course of nature and progress of discovery, and as such Platinus and Neo-Platonists were convinced that logical knowledge alone was inadequate."

(e) Reasoning in Scientific Methods:

Natural science is one of the most important sources which have changed our world and made it so different from what it was. As far as scientific methods are concerned, they require us to believe a proposition only when we are in a position to prove them Science demands induction from facts and not deduction from dogmas; it insists on the reign of law.

Though scientists believe in causality, yet when they are not able to reconcile and understand completely a certain thing, they put forward theories. This means that there are facts whose laws we have not yet been able to discover and as such further work of exploration is necessary. At this stage we also can say that such facts may be an ultimate exception to the concept of the reality of the real and for these no law applies because they have no nature of their own.

So at a stage for the recognition of the Real, causality even in scientific methods fails. Studies of psychoanalysis reveal that conscious reasoning plays an important role even in highly advanced beings and the most fundamental activities of human mind are non-rational.

(f) Reasoning in Religion:

          (i) Reasoning plays an important role in religion. It attempts at a reasoned solution of a problem, but this solution is in the form of personal experience or spiritual intuition and exists directly only for the person who obeys the laws of religion or indirectly for those who, though they do not have any personal share in the experience, have sufficient belief that the experience does occur and is not illusory.

          A real religion is based on sound reasoning but reasoning in religion is based upon spiritual intuition. Thus it is not possible to apply the purely rational methods of philosophy and science to religion, because the spirit of philosophy or science is one of free inquiry and it suspects all authority.

"The essence of religion, on the other hand," says Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, 'is faith; and faith, like the bird, sees its 'trackless way' unattended by intellect which, in the words of the great mystic poet of Islam, 'only waylays the living heart of man and robs it of the invisible wealth of life that lies within.' "12

          Whitehead describes religion as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended. The essential aim of religion is the transformation and guidance of man's inner and outer life. It is, therefore, obvious that the general truths which a religion embodies must not remain unsettled. A true religion, in view of its functions and role, stands in greater need of rational foundation of its ultimate principles than even the dogmas of science. But the rationalization of religion is based upon the first-hand experiences on the one hand and upon revealed guidance on the other, and not merely upon intellect.

"The search for rational foundations in Islam may be regarded to have begun with the Prophet himself", says Dr. Muhammad Iqbal. "His constant prayer was: God! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things!" The work of later mystics and non-mystic rationalists forms an exceedingly instructive chapter in the history of our [Islamic] culture, inasmuch as it reveals a longing for a coherent system of ideas." 13

          (ii) Al-Ghazali's view on Intellectual Knowledge or Reason:

          According to Ghazali, knowledge results from the functioning of intellect or reason ('aql) which is the innate rational faculty of man, the faculty which distinguishes him from animals, because it is the source of the kind of knowledge of which animals are incapable. 14 Ghazali sometimes use Qalbfor 'Aql; both are used by him for the percipient mind.

According to Ghazali, intellect and knowledge develop with age. Through experience and intuition intellect leads to the growth of knowledge. He divides reason into two categories.

          (a) The Theoretical Reason (al-'Aql an-Nazari). It is concerned with the understanding of the phenomenal and the spiritual realities. It apprehends, generalises and forms concepts. It goes from the concrete to the abstract, from the particular to the general, from diversity to unity, embracing wider and still wider fields under one principle as it advances. It is this theoretical reason that looks towards the transcendental world and receives knowledge from it - the knowledge of the Only and Ultimate Reality - Almighty Allaah - the Eternal Reality.

According to him, intuition is nothing but theoretical reason working at a higher plane. Therefore according to Ghazali, theoretical reason is different from critical intelligence described by Greek scholars. Actually it is higher than Intelligence. The mode of its operation, however, seems to be different in the region of the transcendental world. Theoretical reason, according to Ghazali, has given us various systems of knowledge called philosophical sciences (Hikmah) 15

Practical Reason (al-Aql al-'Amali):

It is the Handmaid of theoretical reason. It receives from theoretical reason its ennobling influence. But its active function lies in the domain of human conduct. It gives direction to voluntary individual acts. An individual act of a saint or a patriot or an artist is guided by ideals conceived by theoretical reason which influences the practical reason in most of its decisions in individual acts. Moreover, in opposition to reason which works for construction, there is in the self a satanic element which works for destruction. It is, therefore, essential that all human faculties should remain under the absolute sway of practical reason, for if it loses its supremacy over him, character is wrecked. 16

According to Ghazali, intuition and practical reason are synonymous. It would be discussed more elaborately under intuition and mystic experience.

          (iii) The Holy Qur'aan on reasoning: According to the Holy Qur'aan, knowledge must begin with concrete. It is the intellectual capture of and power over the concrete that makes it possible for the intellect of man to pass beyond the concrete.

"O company of jinn and men, if you can overpass the bounds of the Heaven and the Earth, then overpass them. But by power alone shall ye overpass them." (lv. 33).

          But in order to overpass the bounds of the definite, the mind must overcome serial time and the pure vacuity of perceptual space. Not only this, but also the Holy Qur'aan puts limit and declares:

"And verily towards thy Allaah is the limit."

"This verse suggests" according to Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, "that the ultimate limit is to be sought not in the direction of stars, but in an infinite cosmic life and spirituality. 17

          The Holy Qur'aan has called man to think and reason, and if he has a true insight he will follow the guidance;

"Say: 'Can the blind be held equal to the seeing?' Will ye then consider not?" (vi. 50).

"If any will see, it will be for (the good of) his own soul; if any will be blind, it will be to his own (harm): I am not here to watch your doings." (vi. 104).

          Logical knowledge, according to the Holy Qur'aan, enables us to know the conditions of the world in which we live and then ultimately to recognise Allaah. The >Holy Qur'aan mentions of those who contemplate:

"And contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought)" (iii. 191).

We cannot act successfully without knowing properly. But if we want to know things in their uniqueness, in their indefeasible reality, we must transcend discursive thinking as the Holy Qur'aan has given guidance in the above verses.

As such reasoning in Islam has been considered as an important source of knowledge in getting guidance (Hidayah) from Almighty Allaah in solving our day-to-day problems and in viewing the insight of the universe for the cause of man.

"Do ye not see that Allaah has subjected to your (use) all things in the heavens and on the earth." (xxxi. 20).

But at the same time, as discussed above, reasoning in a true religion, and as such in Islam, is based upon revealed guidance which can be obtained only if a person truly follows the laws of religion and struggles in the path of Allaah. The Holy Qur'aan says:

"And those who strive in (our) cause, - We will certainly guide them to Our Paths: for verily Allaah is with those who do right" (xxix. 69)

Conclusion: Islam as a true and the last revealed religion guides man towards factual approach. It does not discard the sensuous and reasonable solution of our day-to-day problems, rather it encourages us to rationalise our thoughts. It is a fact that our senses and thoughts do not always act in a right direction. They may be misguided and misled. We cannot rely on them fully. Our senses and the impressions gained through them do not help us to discover the whole of Reality. Some basic questions facing man. e.g. the beginning and the end of the universe, the life after death and likewise, cannot be solved by senses of intellect. Man's efforts to solve these problems through these sources have been proved futile. For these reasons man stands in need of Divine Guidance. Therefore, the experiences gained through our senses and intellect must be tested in the light of revealed Guidance.

  1. The Reconstruction of Religious Thoughts in Islam London, 1954, p. 41-42
  2. The Reconstruction of Religious Thoughts in Islam, p. 41
  3. Dr. Harold Hoffding,
  4. A History of Modern Philosophy, Vol. 1, (London, 1924, Vol. 48, 248).
  5. Ibid., Vol. I, 28.
  6. "Religion and Civilization" Lucknow, 1970, p. 16.
  7. Dr. Radhakrishnan, An Idealistic View of Life, (London, ly. Allen and Co.) p. 106.
  8. Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics (1913), E.T., p. 15-17.
  9. Wildon Carr, The Philosophy of Croce', p. 59.
  10. Radhakrishnan, op. cit., p. 107.
  11. Aristotle, Metaphysics, M. 1078, p. 27.
  12. Radhakrishnan, op. cit., p. 102.
  13. Iqbal, op. cit., p. 1.
  14. Ibid. p. 3.
  15. Ihya, Vol. I, p. 76.






Qur'aan: Meaning & Explanatory


Ethics in Islam

The Prophet's Sermons

Selected Khutbat

Sayings of The Prophet (S.A.W.)



Islamic Poems

Islamic Quizzes

Colour Me

Other Islamic Links

About Us

Contact Us