Islam: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai on the Knowledge of Allah (1)

In Shi’ite Islam, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (hereafter ASMHT) attempts an argument for “The Necessity of God” through natural theology (123). There are many different understandings of what exactly natural theology is and what it actually accomplishes, but in this particular passage ASMHT attempts to prove the existence of the Muslim god Allah through a simple, straightforward natural theological proof (123). This attempt is made at the very beginning of a chapter on the knowledge of ASMHT’s god, so it is clear that the argument he presents is pre-dogmatic in nature and possesses even an apologetic function. Since Islam is so heavily based upon the assumption of the existence of Allah, a failure to be able to demonstrate that he exists, whether such demonstration is carried out with respect to the Muslim or to the person outside of the religious tradition, entails serious difficulties for Islam as a tenable worldview. Islam stands or falls with the existence of Allah. An inability to know whether or not Allah exists constitutes an inability to justify adherence to the Muslim metaphysic and hence the Islamic worldview as a whole. It is crucial that the Muslim apologist be able to present a sound argument for the existence of his or her god.

ASMHT launches his argument from “The World Seen from the Point of View of Being and Reality” (123). Note that ASMHT is not presupposing an authoritative revelation of his deity in terms of his methodology and argumentation. Rather, he initially appears to begin with the world. But upon closer examination, it is not the world that ASMHT is really starting with in his argument, but a particular point of view. To be clear, ASMHT is narrowing in on being and reality, both of which he takes to be particular perspectives on the world, and that is most likely what he means by “Point of View,” however, the language of seeing the world through a point of view cannot be divorced from a recognition of the subject of knowledge. ASMHT is hence offering a rational argument that takes the subject of knowledge as its most basic assumption.

If this egocentric presupposition is not clear from the title, ASMHT removes all doubt in his first line where he writes that, “Consciousness and perception, which are intertwined with man’s very being, make evident by their very nature the existence of God as well as the world” (123). This is an exceedingly bold assertion. Granted, the average onlooker will find nothing objectionable in ASMHT’s statement, ASMHT still needs to provide a philosophically rigorous demonstration of his god if he is to be honest with himself and others in attempting to justify his belief in Allah and, ultimately, his adherence to Islam. Does ASMHT’s statement stand up to criticism?

No. Let’s break his statement apart. There are actually three claims in the assertion from ASMHT. The first is that consciousness and perception are inherent to human beings (123). The second is that these faculties of consciousness and perception naturally evidence the existence of Allah (123). The third is that these faculties naturally evidence the existence of the world (123). ASMHT thus speaks of three objects of knowledge in the very first sentence of his argument for Allah. These three objects of knowledge are human beings, god, and the world.

Now remember that ASMHT proceeds to start with knowledge only of the self. That is, ASMHT begins with the subject of knowledge. The possibility of knowledge of the self will be granted for the sake of argument, but this is by no means as obvious as many suppose. Even granting that knowledge of the self is possible, ASMHT faces insurmountable difficulties. ASMHT must connect the subject of knowledge with the objects of knowledge.

Picture a triangle. At the bottom left corner of the triangle is the subject of knowledge. At the bottom right corner of the triangle is the world, an object of knowledge. At the top corner of the triangle is ASMHT’s god, an object of knowledge. ASMHT is trying to move from the bottom left corner of the triangle to the top of the triangle. But he does not provide any means whereby one may make such a move. There is no line along the left side of ASMHT’s triangle. The same is true of the bottom line of the triangle which runs from the subject of knowledge to the object of the world. There is no reason to think that there is a line on the right side of the triangle either, for if the subject of knowledge is not connected with either of the objects of knowledge, then the subject of knowledge cannot know anything about a connection between the objects themselves. Finally, the subject of knowledge cannot even know whether there are other subjects of knowledge!

If what has been presented thus far is correct, then ASMHT is a long way from proving that his god exists, and thus a long way from needing to explain anything in Islam to his readers. But have I been fair? Where are the arguments for accepting the disconnected triangle illustration provided above? In the next post on this topic I will address those arguments and defend them against a few objections.

Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, Shi’ite Islam, 2 ed. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1979.


3 Comments

Josh B.

” Since Islam is so heavily based upon the assumption of the existence of Allah, a failure to be able to demonstrate that he exists, whether such demonstration is carried out with respect to the Muslim or to the person outside of the religious tradition, entails serious difficulties for Islam as a tenable worldview.”

Isn’t this same charge leveled against us Christians?

“Finally, the subject of knowledge cannot even know whether there are other subjects of knowledge!”

Isn’t this a problem for everyone?

I’m looking forward to your next post!

C.L. Bolt

Great questions Josh. The short answers are “yes” and “no” respectively, but I do plan to address your concerns in a later post. I’m not sure that people are used to seeing this type of response to other worldviews, and I anticipate that there will be some more questions of like nature.

Islam: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai on the Knowledge of Allah (2)

[…] C.L. Bolt on May 4, 2012 In my previous post on Islam I began to address the attempt that Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (ASMHT) makes to argue […]


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