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Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

islam from inside ☰

What Do We Know?

Illumination and Error

Added September 07, 2005

Distorted mental perceptions
“O You who are enwrapped in your mantle....” (Qur'an 74: 1, 2)

Each person carries within themselves their own reality-distortion field - this consists of all the layerings of experience, opinion, tendencies, habits, desires, genetic dispositions, physical structure, psychological structure, societal and parental imprinting, media influences, educational influences, religious background, information and mis-information, knowledge and ignorance, proclivities, traditions, interpretations, encounters, and internalized worldviews that have accumulated within the individual and have over time left their traces and marks and given a shape and contour to that person's outlook - this is their internal landscape and it is one that may shift and change and assume new contours over time as an interactive feedback loop occurs between the individual and all the varying layers and levels active in the societal worlds with which they interact and in the complex interworking of their internal world. [1]

This interaction happens as a matter of course - our internal landscape is an ever-present invisible background which filters, organizes, rearranges and interprets that which reaches us - so our acceptance or rejection, our adoption or casting aside, our understanding of what reaches us is colored by myriad factors. The shimmering wall of our thoughts, our ongoing internal dialogue (of thought, image, emotion, mood) is like a wavefront which creates an interference pattern that simultaneously receives and reshapes, however subtle that re-contouring may be. So each person is, in a sense, a relativity - each contains a unique internal universe, that generates distortions, alterations, and relative re-shapings in understanding of the many relative realities that surround us.

The interference pattern generated by the interaction between the individual and the world is that person's self-generated reality - a complex combination of external information and internal state - each acting on the other in a feedback loop that generates our filtered perception.

For the most part these filters, these shapers of thought are invisible. Most of them operate on the fringes of, if not below, the threshold of consciousness - subtle but pervasive. How can you know the shape of your thoughts without examining the very thoughts themselves? How can you know how the contents of your mind affect the way you perceive the world through which you move, unless those contents are altered, changed - and then the sudden shift in perception may bring home the extent to which we modify reality as it filters into our minds - even though the shift may simply take us to a new set of filters, an altered interference pattern - a slightly different curtain.

That ever-present curtain accompanies us wherever we go, whatever we do - it hangs, heavy, between a person and their experiences. It is wrapped around us, enveloping and cloaking, veiling us from direct perception and direct understanding. We are creatures wrapped in mantles of limitation and boundary.

In the external, material world, what we know, we know through the faculties available to us - that is, through the various senses, the ability to think and reason, to discern patterns and connections. Even the ability for these senses, such as the sense of sight, to function, is dependent on the system and laws through which the world operates. Sight is dependant on the existence of light, and vision is limited to a narrow range of the full spectrum of light. All our information derived in this world is severely restricted and incomplete, just as our senses provide us only a limited and incomplete view of the material world we live in and our reason can carry us only so far in overcoming these limitations. Even when we expand the range and sensitivity of these senses through technology, limits apply through the restrictions inherent in the technology and through our ability to use, interpret, and understand the information gathered. We are limitation wrapped in limitation.

Knowledge and information in this world is partial knowledge, since as limited beings we are restricted to seeing things from one perspective or the other. We have trouble reconciling opposites as our perspective is circumscribed by the fact that we ourselves are delimited in so many ways. No one has complete knowledge of anything, and if they were able to gain it, their ability to process and completely and perfectly inter-relate that knowledge would face inherent limits.

Total illumination in which there is no error, and in which all seeming opposites are reconciled is only with God. “God embraces all things in knowledge...God is knower of all things....” (6:59, 4:176) Creation only experiences a limited light – it is a night in which created beings stumble about in the darkness of their own boundaries and their own finite knowledge. To the extent that we rely solely upon what we create and what we invent, we will be in error since our inventions, ideologies, and systems are suffused with the same constraints which we have – they are the product and reflection of limited creatures drawing upon their own fenced-in understandings. [2]

“...the created things encompass nothing of His knowledge, except what He pleases....” God’s knowledge alone is perfect and complete and no one knows a thing in every respect except God “...who encompasses everything....” (Qur'an 65:12)

The Qur’an says: “Nothing is like Him.” (Qur'an 42:11) After God there is nothing but creation. Since only God is absolute knowledge, everything created, everything at a level other than God, is to some extent, error. “Say...Who encompasses the hearing and the sight....And Who regulates the systems....and what is there after the Real but error....” (10:31, 32)

If everything at a level other than God is, to some extent, error, so also does it, to some extent (since the existence and sustenance of all things is from God and so points towards God), direct towards truth. Through virtue of their connection and dependance on God, and inasmuch as they are signs of God, the things of this world can direct towards God. To the extent that things are taken as completely independent and unconnected with anything but this world, they can lead to delusion and error concerning the full depth of reality. The human task is to discern between the two - through means of the two forms of guidance, the two types of guiding signposts, the two forms of error correction provided to humans - the external and the internal guidance. “We shall manifest our signs on the horizons and within the souls, until the truth becomes clear to them....” (Qur'an 41:53)

“...surely there will come to you a guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve....” (Qur'an 2:38)

The curtain between our minds and the world, between our existence and the invisible realities that support our existence, is a cloak, a mantle that limits and conceals. It is also an invitation to recognition of our limitations, a movement toward humility through acknowledgment of them, and a turning towards the possibility of correct guidance from the unlimited Being within Whom all knowledges coincide and unite - the possibility of unwrapping the cloak which shrouds and enwraps us.

“O You who are enwrapped in your mantle...arise....” (Qur'an 74:1-2)



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  • 1 – Related Articles

    Intellect in Islam

    Shards of Knowledge

  • 2 – Knowledge and Limitation

    “The Qur’an, which is the instructor of tawhid, holds that the reason for man’s forgetfulness of himself is his forgetfulness of God. It warns man of this by saying, “And be not like those who forgot God, so He made them forget their own souls: these it is that are the transgressors.” In a tradition of Muhammad Baqir (a.s.), there is talk of the precedence and priority of the knowledge and awareness of God to the knowledge of the self and even its priority to the awareness of all things. The tradition says, “None can know another but by God.” (from Shuja Mirza's translation of “Existence and the Fall.”)

    “Everything that can be known in itself (bi-nafsihi) is fashioned (masnu). All that stands apart from Him is an effect (malul)....and the argument (hujjah) for Him is established by (man's) primordial nature (al-fitrah).

    God's creating of the creatures is a veil between Him and them. His separation (mubayanah) from them is that He is disengaged from their localization (ayniyyah). That He is their origin (ibtida') is proof for them that He has no origin, for none that has an origin can originate others. That He has created them possessing means (of accomplishing things) is proof that He has no means (adah), for means are witness to the poverty of those who use them.

    So His names are an expression (tabir), His acts (afal) are (a way) to make (Him) understood (tafhim), and His Essence is Reality (haqiqah). His inmost center (kunh) separates (tafriq) Him from creation, and His otherness (ghuyur) limits (tahdid) what is other than He.” - (hadith transmitted by Muhammad Baqir)

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