In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Especially Compassionate,
Previously, I had explained why the best translation for the Arabic term aql is consciousness. I also detailed the change in the meaning of the Latin term intellectus to its modern English connotation of being solely related to the rational mind. I am assuming you understand this and I will be using the words consciousness, aql, and intellect (in it’s Latin sense) interchangeably throughout all my future posts..
Today the topic I’d like to discuss is the different means through which our consciousness gains knowledge and in doing so, explain exactly what knowledge is. I had slightly touched upon this in my earlier piece, but I would like to delve further. Due to the length of this topic, I have broken it into a series. This can be considered the second, with the post on the aql being considered the first.
The Modalities of Knowing
There are different ways in which your consciousness ascertains knowledge of reality. Generally this happens through the a certain “organ” which God has created for a certain kind of knowledge that we are privy to. Not all of these methods are equal. For the less important methods, I will just offer just a brief sketch.
This is pretty obvious, but you gain knowledge of things that you can see, hear, touch, taste, etc. This mode of knowing is sometimes given to error, and must be corrected by the rational mind.
Ever have a gut feeling? The body allows us to gain knowledge not just of other people, but also of ourselves. The body allows us to feel lust, physical pain, and various other emotions. These emotions are themselves a kind of direct knowledge of the self that intrudes into our consciousness (i.e. that I am in pain, or that I desire so and so), but also gives us knowledge about the world by inference (i.e. that this object is dangerous, or that that person is attractive.)
You may notice that there are Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist meditative techniques which allow one to get in touch with their body. These consist of things like breathing techniques, techniques allow one to relax certain body parts, to move energy (chi) around the body, and more. To my knowledge, not much emphasis has been placed on this in Islam, probably because it is extrinsic to true happiness and spirituality. Once one is able to focus the Divine Reality within the heart, things like “breathing meditation” become superfluous because inner peace has been found.
The Rational Mind
Our General Experience of It
Most people tend to think of their rational mind as themselves, rather than as an organ that their consciousness uses. This is because the rational mind by its nature produces a torrent of thoughts that directly affect our consciousness on a nonstop basis and to which we are constantly focused on. It is not unlike the shadows in the Plato’s cave – our consciousness is so focused on our own thoughts that we often forget that our conscious experience consists of more than just thoughts. The solution is to learn how to separate our deeper selves from the torrent of thoughts intruding into our consciousness.
The previous organ explored, namely the body, should at least help this make sense, albeit only partially. Even if you are not in touch with your heart yet (which is when you’ll really be able to dissociate from the mind), you’ve no doubt experienced moments where your consciousness was so totally focused on your body, that your mind – for a moment at least – fell silent. This kind of “meta” experience should help you realize that your consciousness is deeper than the constant and random thoughts which occur in your mind.
Another reason we attach ourselves to the rational mind is not only because are focused on it, but also because it has been chattering for as long as we can remember. An example I can give to help illustrate this is; suppose throughout your entire life you felt a numb pain. Chances are, you wouldn’t even realize that you’re not supposed to be feeling that – you would just assume that this is a normal part of conscious experience. Likewise, if all your life the sun never went down, you would not know darkness. Because the rational mind is always speaking, we think that it is us, when it is only an organ like our eyes, ears, or heart. You see through your eyes, but “you” are not your eyes. Likewise, you think through your rational mind, but you are not your rational mind. Your rational mind is on the surface of your being, “you” are actually deeper than that.
I will detail in future posts exactly how this (mis)identification with the rational mind damages your happiness level, inshaAllah. For now, however, suffice it to say that the rational mind is able to connect to a concept of God, but unable to connect to the reality of God; He who is closer to us than our jugular veins and Who’s Mercy encompasses all things. The reality of God can only be seen with the heart. God being the source of all good, joy, being, beauty, truth, and happiness directly emanates these things into the whole of our beings, through our hearts, once our hearts remember Him. This is known as dhikr, and it is the most important aspect of all of Islamic spirituality.
Here is a diagram to illustrate the basic idea I have detailed here. The heart is faded out because it will be discussed in a future post.
Here are some verses and hadith to back up the claims I’ve made here:
من عرف نفسه فقد عرف ربه
The Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) said: “Whoever knows himself [alt. his self] knows his Lord.”
Everyone knows their rational mind, therefore the deeper self must not be the mind only otherwise this hadith would be banal; yet it is regarded as one of the most important hadiths in the entire Islamic canon.
Furthermore, there have been many great atheist philosophers who knew the human mind better than 99.99% of believers (just see David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). Yet these atheistic philosophers had no understanding of their Lord precisely because they lacked knowledge of the self, the heart, and consciousness as a whole as understood apart from the rational mind. If the self was the rational mind only, then these atheistic philosophers would have recognized their Lord. Because they knew the rational mind, but not their Lord, we can conclude that the rational mind is not the meaning of “self” being referred to in this hadith.
The Lies we tell ourselves
بَلِ الْإِنسَانُ عَلَىٰ نَفْسِهِ بَصِيرَةٌ وَلَوْ أَلْقَىٰ مَعَاذِيرَهُ