Epistemology & the Islāmic Form of Transmission
By Muhammad Bilal Khizar (5th Year Alim Student, DarusSalam Seminary)
Epistemology, which may be referred to as the theory of knowledge, is the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. Epistemology, along with metaphysics, logic, and ethics, is one of the four main branches of philosophy. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the word epistemology comes from two Greek words: episteme and logos. Episteme may be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance. And logos may be translated as account, argument, or reason.
The study of epistemology focuses on how we acquire knowledge and how we differentiate between truth and falsehood. Modern epistemology generally involves a debate between rationalism and empiricism. The rationalists believe that knowledge is acquired using reason. On the other hand, the empiricists assert that knowledge is gained experientially. The study of epistemology is crucial to understanding how we acquire knowledge, how we rely on our senses, and how we develop concepts.
In Islām, the major sources of transmitted knowledge are the Qurʾān and the Prophetic Traditions. In the preface to Kubrā al-Yaqīnīyāt al-Kawnīyah, Shaykh Būṭī (d. 1434) expounds on the methods of research employed by both Muslim and westerner scholarship. He mentions that if the truth is realized through definitive evidence, the procedure used to attain this realization must also be definitive.
Būṭī then analyzes how transmitted reports are authenticated. He explains that there are a plethora of special protocols, procedures, and techniques that are not be found in all of human history except for in the Islāmic ethos. The science of hadīth terminology, hadīth authentication and classification, and the biographies of narrators are exclusive to Islāmic academia. A transmitted report is only considered to be authentic, when it is firmly established, by way of exacting analysis, research, and verification to confirm that the chain of narrators is connected; from the one narrating it all the way back to its source, each of the narrators is confirmed to have heard the tradition from his teacher. And this transmission is accurate; there is no defect in the report, be it identified or potential.
Transmitted reports are divided into two types: (1) the mass-communicated report and (2) the singular report. The scholars stipulate three conditions for a definitive mass-communicated report. They are:
(1) So many people narrate the report that their transmitting an error cannot be conceived.
(2) The multitude of narrators remains consistent throughout each level of transmission.
(3) The report is based on sensory observation or revelation.
And they stipulate five conditions for a singular report:
(1) (ʿAdālah) The chain’s narrators must be upright. The scholars explain that being upright is when one has an innate quality that compels him to avoid sins and maintain proper behavior. This includes none of the narrators having been proven or accused of lying about the hadīth of the Prophet (PBUH).
(2) (Ḍabṭ) The narrators accurately retain what they heard, whether that is by memorization or documentation.
(3) (Mutaṣṣil al-sanad) The chain is free from missing links.
(4) (Ghayr muʿallal) The transmission is free from defects.
(5) (Ghayr shādhdh) The transmission does not contradict a higher authority.
All these conditions and prerequisites serve as a filter to sift out anything which is not authentic, thereby guarding the dīn from interpolation and corruption.
The importance of a sound chain of narration is a commonly discussed topic amongst the earlier as well as the latter-day scholars. Many extrapolate the emphasis on authenticating reports from the following Qurʾānic verse:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنْ جَاءَكُمْ فَاسِقٌ بِنَبَإٍ فَتَبَيَّنُوا أَنْ تُصِيبُوا قَوْمًا بِجَهَالَةٍ فَتُصْبِحُوا عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلْتُمْ نَادِمِين
O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.
In his tafsīr, Imām Qurṭubī (d. 671) mentions that this verse is a proof for accepting a singular report provided the narrator is upright. Abdullah b. Mubārak (d. 181) said:
الإسناد من الدين ولولا الإسناد لقال من شاء ما شاء
The chain of narration is a part of the religion. Without it one could say whatever he wants.
Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161) said:
الإسناد سلاح المؤمن فإذا لم يكن معه سلاحه فبأي شيء يقاتل
The chain of narration is the believer’s weapon. When he does not have a weapon, what will he fight with?
And Allah knows best.
 “Epistemology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 14, 2005, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/.
 Austin Cline, “What is Epistemology?” December 13, 2006, https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-epistemology-250526.
 Ibn Hajar, Nuzhat ul-Naẓar, 58.
 Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 12.