November 30, 2013
[According to Aristotle, a famous philosopher of ancient Greece, the knowledge of Philosophy is sought for its own sake. I studied and taught that Philosophy in my early life. Now I write only on those subjects that have practical benefit. I am an old man. I have only a limited time of life available to me, hence I cannot waste my time on useless matters. The following article is an exception. The reader will see a touch of philosophy in this writing. [We Muslims are required to utter a word of praise when we mention the name of Allah (e.g., subhanahu ta’ala), and invoke Allah’s blessings when we mention the name of Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alaihis salam) and other spiritual leaders (e.g., alihis salam, radiallahu ‘anhu).]
Most of our knowledge is rational. Reason or intellect plays an important role in the acquisition of this kind of knowledge. There is also a kind of extraordinary knowledge. This kind of knowledge cannot be explained by reason. I shall call it supra-rational knowledge. The goal of this article is to analyse the nature of both rational and supra-rational knowledge.
In ordinary life most of our knowledge is acquired through what we call perception. We have five windows of the body—the eyes, ears, nostrils, tongue and skin—through which we receive sensations especially during the waking hours of our life. We select some of these sensations and interpret them through reason for the perception of a thing. For example, assume that I am sitting in my office. I am bombarded with all kinds of sensations: touch of the chair on which I am sitting, sounds of music on the radio, and so on. I ignore all those sensations and focus my attention on a piece of chalk on my desk. Now the question is: how do I know that it is a piece of chalk? I see its form, the colour, its length, and roundness. If I touch it I feel its smoothness. I can put it on my tongue and receive the sensations of some kind of taste. What has happened is that I have received sensations of some qualities of the thing called chalk. These qualities can belong to many other things: hence they do not enable us to perceive the thing as chalk. To perceive it as a chalk my reason has to interpret those qualities as those belonging to a thing called chalk. That is, in perceiving the thing as chalk, there has been a contribution of my sense organs which provided the sensations of qualities, and my reason supplied the idea of a thing called chalk. These two elements combined have produced my perception of the piece of chalk.
Just as there are right perceptions, there are wrong perceptions resulting from wrong interpretations of sensations. I see a banana plant outside my house in a moonlit night and perceive it as a woman standing there. In this case my reason has interpreted the sensations wrongly and I perceived the banana plant as a woman. This kind of wrong perception is called illusion.
A second kind of wrong perception is called hallucination. In this perception there is no sensation provided by my sense organs. The entire perception is manufactured by my reason. While sitting in my house in Montreal if I perceive the presence of a Royal Bengal Tiger in front of me, I must have been hallucinating. Many mental patients experience hallucinations.
There is another kind of rational knowledge in which reason draws an inference on the basis of a perception. For example, I see smoke on the horizon. My reason right away concludes that there is fire that is producing that smoke. The process of finding a cause from an effect or an effect from a cause is rational.
Scientific knowledge is rational knowledge. This knowledge is acquired through two processes: inductive and deductive. The scientist observes many cases of malarial fever and finds that in every case there were mosquito bites. He then formulates a general principle that all cases of malarial fever are caused by mosquito bites. This process of arriving at a general principle on the basis of particulars is called inductive reasoning.
Now when a doctor finds someone with malarial fever he knows that it has been caused by mosquito bites, and treats the patient accordingly. This process of arriving at a particular case from a general principle is called deductive reasoning. Scientists use both the inductive and deductive reasoning in the advancement of their knowledge.
There is another kind of knowledge which transcends reason. This knowledge is above and beyond reason. I shall divide this knowledge into four categories: Wahi (revelation), ilham (major intuition), minor intuition, and spark of wisdom. I shall attempt to analyse these one by one.
Wahi is special knowledge given only to Messengers of Allah. This knowledge is Allah’s own knowledge which He gives to His chosen ones. Our Messenger Muhammad received wahi from Allah for a period of 22 years from 610 to 622 AD. From time to time he fell into a semiconscious state of mind, and received messages from Allah in that state. Once he regained full consciousness, he told his followers what he had received from Allah. These messages were compiled in a Book called the Quran. What is important is that we Muslims believe that every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and every chapter of the Quran is in Allah’s own words. Wahi cannot be obtained by human effort. Allah chooses some people from among mankind and sends wahi to them. The recipients of wahi in turn communicate it to people for their guidance.
Ilham, on the other hand, is the result of a great deal of human effort. The Sufi experience of ma’rifah (mystical knowledge of Allah) which results from his experience of the oneness of the Divine is ilham. In an ecstatic state of the mind the Sufi ‘experiences’ Allah’s oneness. The following example will show how belief in wahi, rational knowledge and ma’rifah are different from each other.
In order to achieve ma’rifah, a Sufi has to observe a rigorous discipline on what is called the Sufi path. It should be pointed out, however, that human effort alone cannot lead one to the experience of ma’rifah. At the final stage of the journey it is Allah who grants ma’rifah to His friends (awliyah, singular wali) out of His grace (lutf). The following example will show how belief in wahi, rational knowledge and ma’rifah are different from each other.
A number of us are sitting in a room when a man comes to inform us that there is a fire in the neighbourhood. We all know that this informer is a trustworthy person; he would never tell a lie. Hence we all accept his statement to be true, and believe that there actually is a fire in the neighbourhood. In the same manner, we all Muslims believe that Allah is One because Allah and His trustworthy Prophet told us so. Now suppose that some people in our gathering want to be more certain about the existence of the fire. Accordingly, they go outside and look at the sky in the direction from which the fire is supposed to be burning. They see smoke in the sky. Hence they are confirmed about the existence of the fire. Reason tells them that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. All the people of the gathering accept the statement of these people. Our mutakallimun (theologians), the people of reason and understanding, not only believe that Allah is One, they also have ‘proofs’ for Allah’s oneness. There is one person in the gathering who believes in the first informer and accepts the verdict of the intellectuals, yet he wants to be absolutely certain about the existence of the fire. Hence he walks to the location of the fire and sees the burning fire with his own eyes. This person represents the position of the Sufi who has a direct and immediate knowledge of the divine which is called ma’rifah.
Poets and seers experience what I have called minor intuition. My uncle Abdul Latif, the famous lyricist, composer and singer of Bangladesh, told me a year or so before his death that from time to time he felt that he was being squeezed very hard by someone so that he had to sit down with paper and pencil to write whatever came to his mind. The feeling of being squeezed continued until he completed writing whatever he received from an unseen source. No wonder then, that he wrote, composed and sang his famous song shona shona bole loke bole shona, shona noy toto khati all in 30 minutes. It is not that he sat down with paper and pencil to write a patriotic song, then thought of the ideas of the above song one by one and finally wrote them on a piece of paper. Instead, the song just flowed in his mind and he only acted as an instrument in putting it on a piece of paper. Accordingly, I am quite sure that the enormous number of writings of Rabindranath Thakur and Kazi Nazrul Islam was also the result of this kind of intuition.
Now I come to a kind of supra-rational knowledge which I have called spark of wisdom. I am sure that every adult has experienced this knowledge sometime in life. Assume that my friend Commander Abdul Majid is in Bangladesh at this time. Suddenly I hear the door-bell of my house in Montreal ringing. For no reason whatsoever I feel that Commander Majid is at my door. Then I open my door. Lo and behold, it is Commander Majid! Reason cannot explain how I knew that it was my friend at my door.
We receive many long-distance telephone calls in our house. The ring-tone of all long-distance calls on our telephone receiver is the same. Yet my wife will run to the telephone receiver sometimes because she knows that our son is calling us at those times. Her knowledge comes true. I should mention that our son does not call us at specific days or times. She also somehow knows from a distance when a close relative of ours is sick or has died.
Our son Hamid is also endowed with this kind of intuitive knowledge. I shall give two of many examples that I know.
The Bangladeshi community of Montreal gave him a citizens’ reception in 2009 for his achievements. While my family and I were getting ready to go to the reception hall, Hamid said, “I shall be back in a few minutes” and went to my office room on the second floor of our house. In 10 minutes He came back to our kitchen where I was waiting and delivered to me a printed copy of his short speech at the reception that evening. I was very much surprised that he wrote and printed his speech—all in 10 minutes. I can state that the people in the gathering of that evening were very happy about the speech, and a number of young people requested him to give them its copies. That speech is available on my website bangladeshicanadian.com
The second example convinces me even more than the first that Hamid makes many decisions on the basis of what i have called a spark of wisdom. Harvard University sometimes invites outstanding physicians to diagnose extraordinarily difficult cases of disease publicly, in the presence of the medical doctors and students. The purpose of this exercise is to teach Harvard doctors and students how very difficult cases are diagnosed. Sometime ago the University invited Hamid to perform this exercise. Harvard took a long time and the expertise of many doctors to diagnose the disease of a particular patient.
The event started in the morning. Doctors and students filled a large auditorium of Harvard and Hamid examined the patient on the elevated podium. He described what he was doing step by step in the investigation of the case. The doctors and students asked him questions about the various steps that he was taking. As far as I remember this process lasted the whole day.
At the end of the day when all the people were anxious to hear the diagnosis, Hamid gave his verdict that shocked most of the people present in the auditorium. The symptoms that the patient had and the test results that were available did not warrant the kind of diagnosis that Hamid made. But the important thing is that Hamid’s diagnosis was correct. He was then asked how it was possible for him to arrive at the conclusion that he did. He answered, “It was my gut feeling.” To me it was Allah’s gift to him. Reason by itself cannot explain this kind of phenomenon.
The entire proceedings of the day were broadcast on the closed circuit TV of Harvard University for the benefit of the people who could not be present in the auditorium and were later published in the reputed New England Journal of Medicine.
As for myself, I made most of the major decisions of my life on a demonstrably non-rational basis. I can report to you that ma sha Allah all those decisions proved to be correct. In buying a building in Canada, especially when a building consists of many apartments, buyers usually have it inspected by experts to make sure that the structure, plumbing, electrical system and the roof are in good condition. I have bought many buildings in Montreal during the last 30 years or so, but never engaged an expert to inspect them. I simply entered a building, had a good feeling about it and made an offer to buy it. In one case a Jewish friend of mine who owned many buildings in Montreal and initiated me in the real estate business was very much against my buying a reasonably large building near McGill University. I bought the building against his advice. That building became my most profitable real estate investment in Montreal. In another case I negotiated the price of a three-unit building on the telephone and bought it without seeing the inside of that building. This building also proved to be very profitable. I should also mention that I do my work very fast. In many cases I completed visiting a building, negotiating its price and getting the offer accepted by the vendor—all in one hour or so. One may say that what I do is reckless, but the results of my decisions have proved otherwise.
My Philosophy Professor at B. M. College in Barisal was Prof. Nurul Huda. He was like a tiger to his students. His students were very scared of him. No student ever came close to him. One day I received a message asking me to see him. I immediately felt that he was going to ask me to move to his house to live with him and his family. My feeling came to be true. I lived at his house which was part of the building of Mr. Abdul Wahab Khan, former Speaker of the Parliament of Pakistan and the grandfather of the famous Salman Khan of the Khan Academy.
The matchmaker of my marriage told me only the following words about a female student of the University of Dhaka: she is a golden girl, her father is a Professor and a saintly man, and among her brothers one was working at the Dhaka College and another two were students of the University. Later on, I had a quick glance of the young lady on the campus of the University from a distance. I had absolutely no other information about her or her family. Yet I instantly decided to marry her. You may think that I was crazy to make an important decision like marrying a girl on the basis of scanty information given by a matchmaker who is known to make exaggerations and a glance at the girl from a distance. Yet I felt that she was a good girl and marriage with her would be a good one. I can say to you now that I made the best decision of my life by marrying Aishah in November 1959. We have had an excellent life together for the last 53 years. Indeed, I have been a blessed husband. She has also been an ideal mother and an ideal grandmother. I have never heard of a complaint against her from anyone in the North and the South, East and the West. Recently I wrote in my book that the matchmaker was slightly wrong when he said to me that Aishah was a ‘golden girl’. Actually I have found her to be a ‘diamond girl’.
Since March 25, 1971 East Pakistan was burning. Thousands of Bengalis were being killed by the Pakistani army every day. It is our good luck that we were not killed on the nights of March 25 and 26. We knew nothing about what was happening to the Bengalis living in West Pakistan. Someone who saw what was happening in East Pakistan could easily conclude that all the Bengalis of West Pakistan had been massacred. Yet on April 6, 1971 the very first day that the PIA resumed its flights between Dhaka and Karachi I decided to go to West Pakistan with my family. A rational man would say that I was crazy in taking that decision. I must say however that many good things that have happened to me and my family after April 6, 1071 — our son’s medical studies at McGill, our financial solvency in Canada, high quality education of our grandchildren in North America, etc. – might not have been possible if we had not left Dhaka on that fateful day.
Philosophers and Psychologists will agree with me on my analysis of perception and inference. As for what I have called supra-rational knowledge psychologists have their own explanations. A psychologist, for example, will say that what I call spark of wisdom results from the work of our unconscious mind. I can understand the psychologist’s position. Science is confined to perceptions, experimentations and inference. It does not admit of supernatural agencies to explain natural phenomena. As a believer in Allah, however, I have a different point of view. I do believe in Divine involvement in natural events, and I have tried to express my views in this regard in the paragraphs above.