Part 1b

The Study of The Law

by Averroes Icon

The science which needs most examples from other sciences is that of Law.

For the study of jurisprudence cannot be completed except in a very long time. If a man today would himself learn of all the arguments discovered by the different disputants of diverse sects, in problems which have always excited contentions in all the big cities, except those of Al-Maghrib, he would be a proper object to be laughed at on account of the impossibility of the task, in spite of the existence of every favourable circumstance.

This is similar not only in the sciences but also in the arts. For no one is capable of discovering by himself alone everything which is required. And if this is so in other sciences and arts, how is it possible in the art of arts—philosophy?

This being so, it becomes us to go[22] back to the Ancients, and to see what observations and considerations they have made into the universe, according to the tests of inference. We should consider what they have said in this connection and proved in their books, so that whatever may be true in them we may accept and, while thanking them, be glad to know it, and whatever be wrong, we should be warned by it, be cautioned, and hold them excused for their mistake.

From what has been said, it may be taken that a search into the books of the Ancients is enjoined by the Law, when their meaning and purpose be the same as that to which the Law exhorts us. Anyone who prevents a man from pondering over these things, that is, a man who has the double quality of natural sagacity and rectitude in the Law, with the merit of learning and disposition—turns away the people from the door by which the Law invites them to enter into the knowledge of God, and that is the door of observation[23] which leads to the perfect knowledge of God. Such an action is the extreme limit of ignorance and of remoteness from God.

If, by studying these books, a man has been led astray and gone wrong on account of some natural defect, bad training of the mind, inordinate passion, or the want of a teacher who might explain to him the true significance of things, by all or some of these causes, we ought not on this account to prevent one fit to study these things from doing so. For such harm is not innate in man, but is only an accident of training.

It is not right that a drug which is medically useful by its nature should be discarded because it may prove harmful by accident. The Prophet told a man whose brother was suffering with diarrhea to treat him with honey. But this only increased the ailment. On his complaining, the Prophet said: “God was right and thy brother’s stomach was wrong.”

We would even say that a man who[24] prevents another fit for it, from studying the books of philosophy, because certain worthless people have been misled by them, is like a man who refused a thirsty man cold and sweet water, till he died, because some people under the same circumstances have been suffocated by it and have died. For death by suffocation through drinking cold water is accidental, while by thirst it is natural and inevitable.

This state of things is not peculiar to this science only, but is common to all. How many jurists there are in whom jurisprudence has become the cause of worldliness and lack of piety? We should say that a large majority of jurists are of this kind, although their science should result in better action than other sciences which only lead to better knowledge.

So far, then, the position is established. Now, we Muslims firmly believe that our Law is divine and true. This very Law urges us and brings us to[25] that blessing which is known as the knowledge of God, and His creation. This is a fact to which every Muslim will bear testimony by his very nature and temperament.

We say this, because temperaments differ in believing: one will believe through philosophy; while another will believe through dogmatic discourse, just as firmly as the former, as no other method appeals to his nature. There are others who believe by exhortation alone, just as others believe through inferences.

For this reason our divine Law invites people by all the three methods, which every man has to satisfy, except those who stubbornly refuse to believe, or those, according to whom these divine methods have not been established on account of the waywardness of their hearts. This is why the mission of the Prophet has been declared common to the whole world, for his Law comprises all the three methods leading men towards God. What we say is quite clear from the following saying of God:[26] “Invite men unto the way of the Lord, by wisdom and mild exhortation, and dispute with them in the most condescending manner.”[9]

As this Law is true and leads to the consideration of the knowledge of God, we Muslims should believe that rational investigation is not contrary to Law, for truth cannot contradict truth, but verifies it and bears testimony to it. And if that is so, and rational observation is directed to the knowledge of any existent objects, then the Law may be found to be silent about it, or concerned with it.

In the former case no dispute arises, as it would be equivalent to the absence of its mention in the Law as injunctory, and hence the jurist derives it from legal conjecture. But if the Law speaks of it, either it will agree with that which has been proved by inference, or else it will disagree with it. If it is in agreement it needs no comment, and if it is opposed to the Law, an interpretation is to be[27] sought. Interpretation means to carry the meaning of a word from its original sense to a metaphorical one.

But this should be done in such a manner as will not conflict with the custom of the Arabian tongue. It is to avoid the naming of an object, by simply mentioning its like, its cause, its attribute, or associate, etc. which are commonly quoted in the definition of the different kinds of metaphorical utterances. And if the jurist does so in many of the legal injunctions, how very befitting would it be for a learned man to do the same with his arguments. For the jurist has only his fanciful conjectures to depend upon, while a learned man possesses positive ones.

We hold it to be an established truth that if the Law is apparently opposed to a truth proved by philosophy it admits of an interpretation according to the canons of the Arabic language. This is a proposition which a Muslim cannot doubt and a believer[28] cannot mistrust. One who is accustomed to these things divine can experience for himself what we have said. The aim of this discourse is to bring together intellectual and traditional science. Indeed, we would even say that no logical conclusion will be found to be opposed to the Law, which when sifted and investigated in its different parts will be found in accordance, or almost so, with it.

That is why all Muslims are agreed that all the words of the Law are not to be taken literally, nor all of them given an interpretation. But they vary in verses, which are or are not to be interpreted. For example, the Asharites put an interpretation upon the verse of Equalisation[10] and on the Tradition of[29] Descent,[11] while the Hanbalites take them literally. The Law has made two sides of these—exoteric and esoteric—because of the differences of human nature and minds in verifying a thing. The existence of an opposed esoteric meaning is in order to call the attention of the learned to find out a comprehensive interpretation.

To this the following verse of the Quran refers: “It is he who hath sent down unto thee the book, wherein are some verses clear to be understood—they are the foundation of the book—and others are parabolical. But they whose hearts are perverse will follow that which is parabolical therein, out of love of schism, and a desire of the interpretation thereof; yet none knoweth the interpretation thereof except God. But they who are well grounded in[30] knowledge say: We believe therein, the whole is from our Lord, and none will consider except the prudent.”[12]

Here it may be objected that in the Law there are things which all Muslims have agreed to take esoterically, while there are others on which they have agreed to put an interpretation, while there are some about which they disagree. Is it justifiable to use logic in the interpretation of those which have been taken literally, or otherwise? We would say that if the agreement is positive there is no need to apply logic; but if it be conjectural there is. For this very reason Abu Hamid (Al Ghazzali) and Abu Ma’ali and other learned doctors have ordained that a man does not become an unbeliever by forsaking the common agreement and applying the principle of interpretation in such things. It will certainly be agreed that complete consensus of opinion is not possible in metaphysical questions, in the manner in[31] which it is possible to establish it in practical things.

For it is not possible to establish unanimity of opinion at any time, unless we confine ourselves to a small period and know perfectly all the learned doctors living in it, that is, their personalities, their number and their views about any question to be quoted to us directly from them without a break in the chain. With all this we should know for certain that the doctors living at that time are agreed that there is no distinction of exoteric and esoteric meanings in the Law, that the knowledge of no proposition should be concealed from anybody, and that the method of teaching the Law should be the same with all men.

But we know that a large number of people in the early days of Islam believed in exoteric and esoteric meanings of the Law, and thought that the esoteric meanings should not be disclosed to an ignorant person who cannot understand them.

For example, Bukhari has related on the authority of Ali that[32] he said “Talk to men what they can understand. Do you intend to give the lie to God and His Apostle?” There are many Traditions to the same effect related from other people. So, how is it possible to conceive of any consensus of opinion coming down to us in metaphysical questions when we definitely know that in every age there have been doctors who take the Law to contain things the real significance of which should not be disclosed to all men? But in practical affairs it is quite different. For all persons are of opinion that they should be revealed to all men alike. In these things unanimity of opinion can be easily obtained if the proposition is published, and no disagreement is reported. That may be sufficient to obtain unanimity of opinion in practical things as distinct from the sciences.

If it be maintained that one does not become an unbeliever by ignoring consensus of opinion in interpretation, as no unanimity is possible in it, what shall[33] we say of such Muslim philosophers as Abu Nasr (Al Farabi) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna)? For Abu Hamid (Al Ghazzali) has charged them with positive infidelity in his book: The Refutation of the Philosophers, in regard to three things: The eternity of the world; God’s ignorance of particulars; and the interpretation concerning the resurrection of bodies and the state of the Day of Judgment. To this we should reply that from what he has said it is not clear that he has charged them positively with infidelity.

For in his book Al Tafriqah bain’al Islami w’al Zindiqah he has explained that the infidelity of a man who ignores the consensus of opinion is doubtful. Moreover we have definitely pointed out that it is not possible to establish a consensus of opinion in such matters, especially when there are many people of the early times who have held that there are interpretations which should not be disclosed to all but only to those who are fit for[34] them and those are men who are “well grounded in knowledge”[13], a divine injunction which cannot be overlooked.

For if such people do not know the interpretation in these matters they will have no special criterion of truth for their faith, which the common people have not, while God has described them as believing in Him. This kind of faith is always produced by the acceptance of the arguments, and that is not possible without a knowledge of interpretation. Otherwise, even the common people believe in the words of God without any philosophy whatever. The faith which the Quran has especially ascribed to the learned must be a faith strengthened with full arguments, which cannot be without a knowledge of the canons of interpretation. For God has said that the Law admits of interpretation which is its real significance, and this is what is established by arguments.

Yet though this is so, it is impossible to establish[35] any well grounded consensus of opinion in the interpretations which God has ascribed to the learned men. That is quite evident to anyone with insight. But with this we see that Abu Hamid (Al Ghazzali) has made a mistake in ascribing to the Peripatetic Philosophers the opinion that God has no knowledge of particulars. They are only of opinion that the knowledge of God about particulars is quite different from ours. For our knowledge is the effect of the existence of a thing.

Such knowledge is produced by the existence of a thing, and changes with changes in the thing. On the other hand the knowledge of God is the cause of an existent thing. Thus one who compares these two kinds of knowledge ascribes the same characteristics to two quite different things—and that is extreme ignorance. When applied both to eternal and to transitory things the word knowledge is used only in a formal fashion, just as we use many other words for objects essentially different. For[36] instance the word Jalal is applied both to great and small; and sarim to light and darkness. We have no definition which can embrace both these kinds of knowledge, as some of the Mutakallimun of our times have thought. We have treated this question separately at the request of some of our friends.

How can it be supposed that the Peripatetic Philosophers say that God has no knowledge of particulars when they are of opinion that man is sometimes warned of the coming vicissitudes of the future through visions, and that he gets these admonitions in sleep, through a great and powerful Director, who directs everything? These philosophers are not only of opinion that God has no knowledge of details such as we have but they also believe that He is ignorant of universals. For all known universals with us are also the effect of the existence of a thing, while God’s knowledge is quite other than this. From these arguments it is concluded that God’s[37] knowledge is far higher than that it should be called universal or particular. There is therefore no difference of opinion concerning the proposition, that is, whether they are called infidel or not.

As to the eternal or transitory nature of the world: I think that in this matter the difference of opinion between the Asharite Mutakallimun and the Ancient Philosophers is for the most part a verbal difference, at least so far as the opinion of some of the Ancients is concerned. For they are agreed on the fact that there are three kinds of creation—the two extremes and a medial one. They again agree on the nomenclature of the two extremes, but they disagree as to the medial one. As to the one extreme, it has come into existence from something other than itself, or from anything else—that is from a generative cause or matter—while time existed before it. All those things whose existence is perceived by the senses, as water, animals, vegetation, etc., are included[38] in this. All Ancient and Asharite philosophers are agreed in denominating this creation Originated.

The other extreme is that which came into existence from nothing, not out of anything, and time did not precede it. The two parties are agreed in calling this Eternal. This extreme can be reached by logic. This is God, the Creator, Inventor, and Preserver of all.

The medial kind of creation is that which has neither been made from nothing, “matter,” nor has time preceded it, but it has been created by some generative cause. In this is included the whole world. Again they all agree on the existence of all the three categories of the universe. The Mutakallimun admit, or they ought to admit, that before the universe there was no time, for according to them time is contemporaneous with motion and body. They are also agreed with the Ancients that future time and creation have no end, but they differ as to past time and[39] its creation. The Mutakallimun are of opinion that it had a beginning.

This is the belief of Plato and his disciples, while Aristotle and his followers are of opinion that it had no beginning, just as the future has no end. It is clear that the last mentioned kind of creation resembles both the originated and the eternal creation. So one who thinks that in the past creation there are more characteristics of the eternal than the originated takes it to be eternal and vice versa. But in reality it is neither truly originated nor eternal. For the originated creation is necessarily subject to destruction while the eternal is without a cause. There are some, for example, Plato and his followers, who have called it infinitely originated, for according to them time has no end. There is not here so great a difference about the universe, for it to be made the basis of a charge of infidelity. In fact, they should not be so charged at all, for opinions which are worthy of[40] this are far removed from ours, those quite contrary to them, as the Mutakallimun have thought them to be in this proposition. I mean that they take the words originated and eternal to be contrary expressions, which our investigation has shown not to be the case.

The strange thing about all these opinions is that they are not in agreement with the literal sense of the Law. For if we look closely we shall find many verses which tell us of the creation of the universe—that is, of its originated nature. Creation and time are said to be without end. For according to the verse: “It is He who hath created the heavens and the earth in six days, but His Throne was above the waters before the creation thereof”[14] it is clear that there was a universe before this one, and that is the throne and the water, and a time which existed before that water. Then again the verse “The day will come when the earth shall be changed[41] into another earth and the heavens into other heavens”[15] shows equally when taken literally that there will be a universe after this one. Again, the verse: “Then He set his mind to the creation of heaven and it was smoke”[16] shows that the heavens were created from something.

Whatever the Mutakallimun say about the universe is not based on a literal sense of the Law, but is an interpretation of it. For the Law does not tell us that God was even before mere non-existence, and moreover, this is not found as an ordinance in it. How can we suppose that there could be any consensus of opinion about the interpretation of verses by the Mutakallimun? In fact, there is much in the sayings of some philosophers which supports what we have quoted from the Law, taken literally.

Those who differ concerning these obscure questions have either reached the truth and have been rewarded; or have[42] fallen into error and have to be excused. For it is compulsory rather than voluntary to believe a thing to be true, the proof of which has already been established; that is, we cannot believe or disbelieve it as we like, as it depends upon our will to stand or not to do so. So, if one of the conditions of verification be freedom of choice, a learned man, and he alone, should be held excused, if he makes a mistake on account of some doubt. Hence the Prophet has said that if a magistrate judges rightly he receives two rewards, and if he makes a mistake he deserves only one. But what magistrate is greater than one who judges the universe, whether it is so or not. These are the judges—the learned men—whom God has distinguished with the knowledge of interpretation.

It is this kind of mistake of insight which learned people are quite apt to make when they look into those obscure questions the investigation of which the Law has imposed upon them. But the[43] mistake the common people make in these matters is sin pure and simple, whether in theoretical or in practical things. As a magistrate, ignorant of Tradition, when he makes mistakes in judgment, cannot be held excused, so likewise a judge of the universe when not having the qualities of a judge is also not excusable, but is either a sinner or an unbeliever. If it be a condition that a magistrate shall have capacity of arbitration concerning the lawful and the forbidden, that is, knowledge of the principles of Law and their application through analogy—how much more befitting it is for an arbitrator of the universe to be armed with fundamental knowledge of the mental sciences, and the way of deducing results from them.

Mistake in the interpretation of the Law is thus of two kinds—a mistake which can be excused in one fit to look into the thing in which it has been committed, just as an expert physician is excused if he commits an error in the[44] application of his science; or a magistrate when he misjudges, and a mistake which is inexcusable in one not fit to investigate a thing. But the error which cannot be excused for anybody, and which, if it happens to show itself in relation to the very principles of the Law, is infidelity, and if in universals is an innovation, is that error which is committed in those things which have been settled by all arguments and so the knowledge of them is possible for everybody, for instance, the acknowledgement of the existence of God, of Prophecy, and of the happiness or the misery of the next world.

This is so, because all these three principles are proved by those three methods, the justification of which a man cannot deny by any means, that is exhortative controversial and argumentative proofs. A denier of such things, which are the very root of the principle of the Law, is an unbeliever, a retrograde with his tongue and his heart, or through negligence, on account[45] of his denying them in spite of proofs. For if he be a man believing in arguments, he can verify them through these or if he believes in controversy, he can verify through that; and if he believes in religions admonitions he can well justify them through these. And hence the Prophet has said: “I have been commanded to fight with men till they say: ‘There is no God but Allah’ and believe in me” that is, by any of these three means of attaining the Faith.

But there are things which, on account of their obscurity, cannot be understood by inference. So, God has favoured such of his creatures as cannot understand logic, either on account of their nature, habit, or lack of mental training, by quoting examples and parables of such things and has urged them to testify as to their truth through them. For everyone has mental capacity enough to understand them by the help of dogmatic and exhortatory argument which are common to all men. This is why the Law has[46] been divided into two kinds: exoteric and esoteric. The exoteric part consists of those examples which have been coined to express certain meanings; while the esoteric is the meanings themselves, which are not manifested except to the learned in philosophy.

These are the very four or five kinds of methods of knowing reality mentioned by Abu Hamid (Al Ghazzali) in his book called Al Tafriqah bain al Islam wal Zindiqah. If it so happens as we have said that we can know of a thing by any of the above mentioned three methods, then we do not stand in need of any examples for understanding them. Such things should be taken literally and interpretation should find no place with regard to them. If these things form a part of the principles of the Law, one who puts an interpretation upon them is an infidel. For instance, if a man believes that there is no happiness or misery in the next world, and that the teaching is only an artifice to safeguard[47] the life and property of the people from one another and that there is no goal for men other than this life, then he is certainly an unbeliever.

When this has once been established it will become clear to you that interpretation is not lawful in the exoteric part of the Law. If the canon of interpretation be used in the principles of the Law, it is infidelity, and if used in general things it is an innovation. But there is also a certain exoteric law which requires an interpretation from learned men. It is not misbelief for them to take it exoterically, but it is so or is at least an innovation in religion if ignorant men try to interpret or explain it.

Among these is the verse of Equalisation and the Tradition of Descent.

A Negro slave girl told the Prophet that God was in heaven. The Prophet replied: “Emancipate her, for she is a believer.”

There are persons who cannot believe a thing except through their imagination, that is, it is difficult for them to[48] believe a thing which they cannot imagine.

Among these may be classed men who cannot understand a thing except with a reference to space, and hence believe in God as though physical, notwithstanding that these are the very persons who have dealt very harshly with those mentioned above.

They should be told that things of his character are parabolical, and that we should pause and consider the saying of God: “Yet none knoweth the interpretation thereof except God.”

Learned men agree that these are to be interpreted. But they differ in the interpretation according to their knowledge of principles of philosophy.

There is a third part of the Law which occupies an intermediate position, on account of some doubt about it. Some say that it should be taken exoterically, and that no interpretation should be allowed in it; while there are others who say that they have some esoteric meaning, and should not be taken exoterically by the learned.[49] This is on account of the obscurity of their meaning. A learned man may be excused if he makes a mistake about them.


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