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Islamic Evidentialism and its Improvement, Moderate Evidentialism

This article examines how Al-Farabi's moderate evidentialism improves upon Al-Kindi's evidentialism by addressing the flaws in Al-Kindi's approach and proposing a more refined framework. Evidentialism, which concerns the ethics of belief and the justification of beliefs through evidence, is explored in the context of religious beliefs and the search for truth. The Mu’tazilite movement played a major role to Al Kindi in conducting a rational approach towards Islam and evidentialism. Al-Kindi, influenced by the ideas of the Mu’tazilites, sought to reconcile Greek philosophy with Islam in relation to active intellect, faith, and reason. However, limitations arise when considering the authenticity of truth and the verification of prophetic knowledge within Islamic dogma. Al-Farabi's moderate evidentialism is presented as a solution, introducing logic and providing conditions of certainty for evaluating the credibility of a prophet through syllogisms and demonstrative proof.

Figure 1. A fragment of a Quran manuscript (Nicholls, 2015)

Evidentialism and Its Implications

Evidentialism focuses on the ethics of belief, addressing what we should believe and how we can justify those beliefs with sufficient evidence. According to Tony Booth, “A Subject S is justified in believing any proposition that p just in case S has sufficient evidence for believing that p”(2018). This means that beliefs should be supported by direct experience and evidence, such as seeing a white swan, to believe that swans are white. Evidentialism rejects beliefs that lack evidential and non-epistemic reasons. W.K Clifford (1877) argues that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" but rationalism applies to religious beliefs, requiring adequate reasons to believe in God. To elaborate, the state of "shahada" is to accept God as the only god, to which Muhammed is the messenger of God; for one to believe the “shahada”, one must believe the correct reasons as these beliefs are epistemic. Additionally, beliefs can also be expressed through behavior, where one's actions align with their beliefs. A Neo-Wittgensteinian perspective suggests that belief is best explained by the actions it generates, that S displays the correct behavior with respect to p if S believed that p. To illustrate, exogenous forces in nature such as a monsoon could be attributed as divine intervention in times of drought.

Figure 2 . Al-Kindi (TotallyHistory, 2020)

Al-Kindi's work, "On First Philosophy," attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy (Falsafah) with Islam during a period of austerity. Evidentialism serves as the foundation of his work, uniting faith and reason. Al-Kindi argues that two justified beliefs cannot contradict each other, allowing for the appreciation of truth from different cultures. He views any Greek philosophy compatible with Islamic beliefs as true. This perspective leads to the belief that the value of a belief lies in its alignment with truth. For example, the order in which one puts on clothes doesn't matter; what matters is being dressed. Similarly, the Quran and Falsafah are valid vehicles toward the ultimate goal of truth and should correspond with each other.

The Mu’tazilites, a group influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, rejected blind adherence to tradition and advocated for the use of reason and rationality in religious matters. They differed from the prevailing Sunni belief in God's eternal omniscience. Instead, the Mu'tazilites believed Evidentialism to occur under doxastic metaphysics, referencing the occurrence state of our beliefs in which if “I have the belief that p, I am in the doxastic state of believing that p”(Pence, 2000); that one must have an interior belief, or attempt a “leap of faith” (Kierkegaard, 2019). This ties in with the Mu’tazilite belief that our eudaimonia is to find the truth, whereby a human's relative understanding in time and space is essential in conjunction with the faculty of reason presented to us by a just God. Al-Kindi utilizes the Mu’tazilite belief with concepts, such as the active intellect, to develop theories about God's influence on free will and the Quran's concept of the Day of Judgment.

Al-Kindi's Evidentialism: Merging Greek Philosophy and Islam

Al-Kindi parallels Aristotle's De anima by integrating Evidentialism and demonstrating Falsafah. He interprets the concept of the active intellect to illustrate God's influence on their faculty of thought. Al-Kindi embraces the Mu'tazilite belief in the justness of the Muslim God, who grants humans the faculty of reason to attain correct beliefs for salvation. He draws inspiration from Theophrastus' notion of the active intellect as "Noesis Noeseos" (thought thinking itself) (Booth, 2018), reflecting the Aristotelian concept of Emanation. According to this view, the first intellect (God) leads to subsequent intellects, including the active intellect acquired by the potentiality of the soul. Epistemic knowledge serves as a catalyst for change, transforming intellectual potentiality into actuality through the force of the active intellect. This positivist approach allows one to gain representational knowledge of a subject's form and essence through "univocal" representation, akin to "writing in the writer" (Booth, 2018).

Figure 3. Socrates and his Students (Bridgeman, n.d.)

John Philoponus challenges this notion by suggesting that the active intellect is not God but the interaction between humans. According to Philoponus, necessary knowledge is acquired through the guidance of a teacher, such as Socrates. Yet, this perspective fails to address the eristic paradox, as human interactions are limited; necessary truths cannot solely rely on such interactions. Al-Kindi addresses this dilemma by reconciling Greek philosophy with Islamic teachings and incorporating the concept of anamnesis and heaven's first epistemology. This concept of anamnesis is exemplified by Plato's recollection theory as demonstrated in the dialogue of Meno. In Meno, Socrates engages with a slave boy who lacks academic background and asks him to identify geometric truths. Through this interaction, Socrates illustrates the idea of inborn knowledge, suggesting that the soul recollects knowledge it possessed before entering the physical body. Al-Kindi recognizes and incorporates Plato's concept of anamnesis, in the "first principles" which represent fundamental propositions that cannot be derived from experience alone but are rooted in undeniable truth.

By incorporating anamnesis into his work, Al-Kindi emphasizes the notion that human beings have innate knowledge or understanding that transcends mere sensory experience. This aligns with the broader aim of reconciling Greek philosophy and Islamic teachings, as it allows for the recognition of shared truths that exist beyond cultural or religious boundaries. Hence, Al-Kindi seeks a middle ground, he posits that a transcendent force awakens the active intellect, allowing truths to be extracted from our souls. However, the question remains as to how one can verify the authenticity of an expert like Socrates or the prophetic knowledge in the Quran in order to attain truth.

Limitations of Al-Kindi's Approach

Al-Kindi's Evidentialism has raised certain challenges when it comes to acquiring knowledge, whether it be from Falsafah or the Quran. The primary issue lies in distinguishing between true belief and knowledge, with knowledge being considered more significant. Plato, in his work Meno, argues for the superiority of knowledge over belief, suggesting that true Islamic beliefs require a leap of faith or a genuine belief in Islam, as opposed to merely knowing the truth of Islam. However, it appears unattainable for an ordinary person to obtain true knowledge in contrast to the unique epistemic function of a prophet. Prophets are believed to acquire knowledge through divine intervention, without the "need for study or human methods" (Adamson, 2007). This implies that true knowledge can only be accessed through prophets.

Figure 4: Abu Nasr al-Farabi, branded the Islamic Aristotle. (Planton.Asia, 2020)

Regarding the revelation of the Quran in Arabic, it might be reasonable to assume that the fundamental structure of thought and language originates from the grammatical rules of Arabic. However, Al-Farabi presents an opposing view, asserting that logic serves as an idealized language that reveals the profound foundations of human thought. He suggests that there exists an isomorphism between the structure of language and the world. In line with the perspective of logical positivists, it is justifiable to dismiss the emphasis on Arabic grammar as it is culturally bound. Al-Farabi considers philosophy and logic to be superior to theology in uncovering religious truths, advocating for philosophy as an independent form of inquiry that deals with timeless logical truths. Thus, Al-Farabi addresses the issue of the prophet's authenticity and presents his improvement upon evidentialism through the framework of moderate evidentialism.

Moderate Evidentialism

Moderate evidentialism tackles the central problem of Al-Kindi's evidentialism, which revolves around verifying the authenticity of a prophet without negating its unique epistemic function. This problem pertains to the expertise required to differentiate between contingent and necessary truths as communicated by a prophet. Alvin Goldman refers to this as the "novice/expert" problem, which involves discerning between a layperson and an expert, and the "expert/expert" problem, which arises when two experts hold conflicting views.

Al-Farabi proposes a solution by employing esoteric and exoteric expressions to distinguish between a sophist (a skilled debater in rhetoric) and a prophet. Esoteric claims belong to the realm of expertise, while exoteric claims are understandable to the layperson either at the time of assertion or later. By utilizing rhetorical and dialectical superiority, which involve ostensive rebuttals to counter-evidence, the prophet can be identified amidst a group of sophists. This leads to Al-Farabi's refined version of moderate evidentialism, stating that for subjects (the epistemic elite) and propositions, belief should be based on sufficient evidence. Those with the requisite intellectual ability should believe based on demonstrative proof, while laypersons without such capacity can believe for non-epistemic reasons, such as allegory.

Figure 5. al-Farabi on the currency of the Republic of Kazakhstan. (Wikiwand, n.d.)

In the context of moderate evidentialism, Al-Farabi introduces a systematic criterion called "Sara it al-yaqin" (The Conditions of Certainty) in his book "Kitab al-burhan" (Book on Demonstration). This criterion focuses on explaining the knowledge of first principles, which are unquestionable intellectual truths that serve as the foundation for syllogisms and demonstrative proof. The six conditions of epistemic certainty can be deconstructed as follows (Black, 2006):

  1. The belief condition: Believing that something is as it is or is not.

  2. The truth condition: Agreeing that a belief corresponds to external existence and is not opposed to it.

  3. The knowledge condition: Knowing that a belief corresponds to external existence and having direct epistemic contact with the object known.

  4. The necessary truths condition: Recognizing that it is not possible for a belief to be opposed to the corresponding truth.

  5. The eternity condition: Ensuring that there is nothing opposed to the belief at any time.

  6. The non-accidental condition: Establishing that these conditions are not obtained by accident but essentially.

These conditions allow for the acquisition of first principles, enabling individuals like prophets to establish further knowledge conditions that necessitate demonstrative proof in explanation. However, it should be noted that according to Black (2006), Al-Farabi can be considered a "reliabilist," acknowledging that there is epistemic luck and veritic luck in the apprehension of first principles. Hence, it is challenging to determine how one attains infallible beliefs about first principles. The non-accidental condition ensures that necessary and prophetic knowledge is not merely a matter of luck. Consequently, understanding how souls acquire the intelligible provides the prophet and others with the ability to establish additional knowledge conditions that demand demonstrative proof.


In conclusion, moderate evidentialism, as proposed by Al-Farabi, represents an advancement over traditional evidentialism. By addressing the central problem of verifying prophetic knowledge and providing conditions of certainty, Al-Farabi offers a refined framework that allows for the discernment between sophists and prophets. These conditions facilitate the distinction between absolute certainty and less absolute kinds of certainty while acknowledging the significance of Al-Kindi's harmonization of universal truths. Additionally, moderate evidentialism aligns with Islamic beliefs, emphasizing the role of reason and a priori knowledge in conjunction with space and time.

Bibliographical References:

Adamson, P. (2007). Knowledge of Universals and Particulars in the Baghdad School. Documenti E Studi Sulla Tradizione Filosofica Medievale, 18, 141-164.

Black, D. (2006). Knowledge (‘ilm) and Certitude (yaqin) in al-Farabi’s Epistemology. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 16 (1), 11-46. Booth, A.R., (2018). Analytic Islamic Philosophy. Springer. Goldman, A. (2001). Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63

(1), 85-110 Kierkegaard, S. (2019). Concluding unscientific postscript. 5524. Princeton University Press. Matheson, D. (2005). Conflicting Experts and Dialectical Performance: Adjudication Heuristics for the Layperson. Argumentation 19, 145-158 Pence, G.E. (2000). A dictionary of common philosophical terms. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Joseph Norris

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