Below is a summary of thoughts I shared on the MEISGS list and thereafter developed.
I start off by asking, ‘what does it mean to know?’ My position is that to know is to acknowledge and to acknowledge is to admit. Knowledge is an observation that you cannot escape from even if you desired to. I contrast that with belief/faith which is an observation that you sustain by your passion and desire.
At the heart of this distinction between knowledge and belief/faith is the former’s ability to impose itself on us despite our rejection. An example of knowledge is that ‘fire will burn my hand.’ To attempt escaping from this observation will inflict a significant level of pain and discomfort that will compel you to immediately admit and concede. That ‘fire will burn my hand’ is not dependent on my desire or passion to uphold it, but is able to assert itself during this worldly life.
Contrast that to another observation that is not of knowledge; the existence of a Fire in the Afterlife. This observation is not of knowledge as you can escape from acknowledging it if you desired to. Rather, it is a belief that you sustain by your passion and desire. The Fire of the Afterlife cannot impose itself on you in this worldly life if you do not acknowledge it.
That is how I start off.
However, to speak of an observation’s ability to impose itself or not, is to speak of a person’s susceptibility to imposition. For example, to say, “a person cannot survive for more than 5 minutes without air,” is not only to speak of the “knowledge of air’s indispensability” imposing itself, but also to speak of a person’s susceptibility to such imposition and readiness to acknowledge such observation.
To speak of a person’s susceptibility to the imposition of “knowledge” is to speak of a person’s endurance of pain. To deny the imposition of ‘a would-be knowledge’ is to endure the pain of denial. This pain can either be a result of harm inflicted by the rejection or a result of loss of pleasure that would have been attained.
To say that to know is to acknowledge and to acknowledge is to admit, is to speak of a person’s ability, capacity and resilience in denying (or willingness and readiness to accept?). Thus the borderline between knowledge and belief may shift according to each individual.
As human beings with certain features, there are observations that we are generally willing to acknowledge in order to avoid the enormous pain inflicted when denying them. The same contingency of knowledge on the avoidance of pain exists for civilizations, cultures, groups, families and individuals. You know only what you acknowledge and you acknowledge only what you are unable to deny. Thus knowledge is contingent on personal ability to endure the pain of denial.
If that is knowledge, then what is belief? Belief is what occurs when the mentioned contingency of knowledge is exposed and challenged. When a person knows something and then realizes that withdrawal of that acknowledgment will not inflict undue pain or hardship, they are left with two alternatives. Either they may reject that which they no longer acknowledge, or still accept it. To accept that which is not-imposed-on-you-by-virtue-of-your-limited-capacity-to-endure-denial, is not knowledge, but rather belief.
Belief is to impose yourself on an observation rather than an observation to impose itself on you. Thus belief is not sustained by your inability to deny it, but rather by the unwillingness to deny. Belief or faith is a form of loyalty to a truth which is sustained by the personal desire.
However, this seeming contrast between inability and unwillingness (to deny) is an illusion. For inability is due to the pain inflicted upon attempt, but so is unwillingness. To want to remain loyal to an observation is to value that observation and desire to preserve that which is valued. The prospect of losing that which is valuable is a form of pain that prevents you from letting go.
If that is the case, then what is the difference between knowledge and belief? In terms of worth and value, one cannot discern any difference. However, in day to day life, there is a difference. Knowledge, I would say, is that which is shared by the majority and goes unchallenged. Belief on the other hand, is that being challenged by the majority while its proponents resist the temptation of abandonment. Thus knowledge and belief are two terms to describe the popularity of an observation.
To say that knowledge and belief are both contingent on pain, is to say that knowledge and belief are both contingent on our humanness. One may go further upon reflecting on animal behavior, and speak of knowledge/belief being contingent on our livingness. One may say that knowledge/belief is contingent on reducing pain during life. However, I will leap and claim that it is perhaps more suitable to say that knowledge/belief is contingent on the pain of existence in general.
Knowledge/belief is an attempt to reduce the pain of our very existence.
Thus, not only is ilm (Knowledge/Belief) derived from the qalam (Pen. see 96:4), but also from alam (Pain). The relatedness of these words as well as that of wujud, wajd, waja3 and sahl, mahl and jahl are the topic of a future post inshaa Allah.