Thursday, November 23, 2017 - 5 Rabi' al-Awwal 1439

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Does Revelation Abolish the Role of Reason?

Does Revelation Abolish the Role of Reason?


Some might say: if Islam is a divine system set forth for people by their Lord, does this not mean that the role of human agency and reason is extinguished in the face of that system? And that its efforts are absolutely negated, for all that is asked is accepting the message, implementing it, and submitting to it—all without asking why or how? There is then no parity between reason and revelation—if the revelation is understood as Divine speech, what then is left reason but to comply and submit?

Divine decree does not extinguish the role of human will or agency in the universe, even with the hand of God therein and the lack of parity between Divine and human will or between the powers of the creator and the created. In similar fashion, Divine revelation does not extinguish the role of human reason and its scriptural imperative, its purposes of derivation and deduction that fill out the matters on which scripture is silent. The presence of a holy text does not obstruct the flight and creativity of reason, for it leaves the latter various realms in which to exercise and establish itself.
What Revelation Leaves Reason in the Realm of Creed

In the realm of beliefs, revelation leaves reason the task of being guided to the greatest truths of existence.

- The first of these is the existence of God and his absolute singularity. A sound nature (al-fitra al-salima) can be guided to knowledge of the existence of God if exercising sincere considerations and right reason—no wonder that the Qur’an advances proofs for the existence of God (Glorified and Exalted) from the universe and human nature: Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the difference of night and day are tokens [of God] for those possessing insight (Q 3:190) and Or were they created from naught? Or are they the creators? / Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Nay, but they are sure of nothing (Q 52:35-36). These rational proofs are followed by specific mention of the Divine unicity: If there were gods therein beside God, then verily both had been disordered. Glorified be to God, the Lord of the Throne, from all that they ascribe [unto Him] (Q 21:22) and Or have they chosen other gods besides Him? Say: bring your proof (Q 21:24). And at another place, it says Say: If there were other gods alongside Him, as they say, then had they sought a way against the Lord of the Throne. Glorified is He, and high Exalted above what they say! (Q 17:42-43) and God has not chosen any son, nor is there any God beside Him; else would each god have championed what he created, and some of them would assuredly have overcome others (Q 23:91).

- The second of these establishes revelation, prophethood, and the message. The intellect sets forth both the hypothetical possibility and the actual occurrence of each of these, and is their final arbiter given the absence of any independent traditional source. (For how could tradition provide evidence for what precedes it?) Thus the scholars of Islam say that the intellect is the basis of tradition. That is, after the intellect is satisfied with the existence of God Most High, his perfection, and his transcendence, it then comes to know that the wisdom of the Most Wise and the compassion of the Gracious would not in vain cast his created servants adrift on the sea of ignorance and blindness, when He is capable of guiding and bringing them from darkness to light by conveying to them a way. Even after the intellect recognizes this condition of existence, it does not immediately acknowledge everyone claiming to be a Messenger from God; rather, it tries to substantiate this claim beyond its own proclamation, that the messenger does not represent himself but the will of the God who sent him.

Here the intellect seeks as proof miraculous signs that would be impossible unless the work of God Most High. It distinguishes between truly miraculous signs (which would not manifest except at the hand of a true messenger of God) and illusory tricks and quackery (which manifest at the hand of magicians and charlatans). The intellect recognizes the significance of a miraculous or extra-ordinary event as manifested by God at his hands, which is a Divine affirmation of the Prophetic call, as though He says, “My slave has kept troth in what he conveys from Me.” Of course, God does not affirm falsehood, for that would itself be falsehood and thereby impossible of God Most High. All of these premises are purely rational and are essential for the claim to revelation to be accepted. Likewise, the intellect examines the biography of every claimant to prophecy, considering his qualities and character, his words and deeds, and his origin and end, in order to ask whether he exhibits the attributes of those chosen by God (and so to be accepted and followed) or those otherwise (and so to be rejected and refused).

For these reasons, the Qur’an calls reason to independently examine the messengership of Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace. It says, with rigor and clarity: Say: I exhort you to one thing alone: that you awake, for God’s sake, in pairs and singly, and then reflect: There is no madness in your comrade. He is but a warner in the face of terrific doom (Q 34:46) and, the Messenger speaking of the Qur’an: Say: If God so willed, I should not have recited to you nor would He have made it known to you. I dwelt among you a lifetime before it. Will you not then reason? (Q 10:16).

What Revelation Leaves Reason in the Realm of Law
Revelation leaves room for the exercise of reason in two legal domains. The first of these is understanding the sources, deriving proofs from them, connecting them one to another, relating their branches to their roots and their apparent meanings to their objectives, arriving at the general aims of Islam, guiding absolute texts by those of more restricted scope and specific ones by general ones, and clarifying summary texts with expansive ones. This is the expertise of rationality, to distinguish between positions based on tradition, opinion, the literal meaning and the principled objective, and between the lenient and the rigorous, the practice of God in creation.

The second domain is that where no scriptural warrant obtains. This is a felicitous role fully intended by the Lawgiver. It speaks to what we have called a “scope of grace” as found in the marfu‘ Prophetic hadith narrated by Abu al-Darda’: “Whatever God has permitted in his Book is permitted; whatever He has proscribed is forbidden; and whatever He is silent upon is pardoned, so receive what God has pardoned. For surely, God is not remiss in attending any thing.” Then he recited: and your Lord was never forgetful (Q 19:64). This domain teems with intellectual exertion, including logical inference from what did receive scriptural stipulation, the propounding of juristic preference, the setting forth of guidelines to employ considerations of public interest, concern for custom, and other such efforts. Here the scholar strives to extrapolate ancillary rulings from principles, infer others from ancillary rulings, derive judgments, set conditions for occurrences, found maxims, convene public interests, repel corruption, remove difficulty, achieve ease, appropriately gauge necessities and requirements, consider custom, and attend to context.

It is no wonder, then, that such divergent backgrounds, varied schools, and different opinions proliferated by the exercise of Islamic rationality in the light of revelation. This massive trove of jurisprudence has high rank in the world’s legal heritage; indeed, it is unparalleled (whether among religious or non-religious communities) in its propounding principles and evidence, its application and diversity, and its scope and reach.

What Revelation Leaves Reason in the Realm of Ethics
Revelation here leaves reason room to consult its deliberations in a host of issues, as when good and evil are intermingled and what is permitted resembles what is proscribed. It is not overlooked, alongside revelation, as a source of moral obligation and a measure of ethical judgment. The law itself, after clarifying what is expressly permitted and proscribed, leaves open the domain where the qualities of each are intermingled and judgments are suspected. It there leaves every individual to consult his heart and act therein what would satisfy his soul per precautions and prudence. This is what the Prophet enjoined when he said: “The permitted is clear; the proscribed is clear. Between them are ambiguous matters of which many do not know. So whoever is wary of these matters, he has preserved his state and his religion.” And he said: “Consult your heart and your soul. Righteousness is what affords the soul and heart tranquility. Sin is what disturbs the soul and what wavers in the chest.”

What Revelation Leaves Reason in the Exploration of the Universe and of Life?
Revelation leaves reason room to explore the universe at will, reaching high to the heavens and deep into the earth, and contemplating the self. Say: observe what is in the heavens and the earth! (Q 10:101) and And in the earth are portents for those whose faith is sure / and in yourselves. Can you not, then, see? (Q 51:20-21). And likewise to reach into the passage of history: Have they not traveled through the land, and have they hearts wherewith to feel and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the hearts that grow blind but it is the hearts, which are in the bosoms, that grow blind (Q 22:46) and Systems have passed away before you. Do but travel in the land and see the nature of the consequence for those who did deny (Q 3:137). Reason is left to explore the manifest layers of existence to the extent it is able, and render of it what is in its power, for all of it was rendered subservient to him by God for his benefit: And has made of service to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth; it is all from Him. Lo! herein verily are portents for a people who reflect (Q 45:13) and Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth, and causes water to descend from the sky, thereby producing fruits as food for you, and makes the ships to be of service unto you, that they may run upon the sea at His command, and has made of service unto you the rivers; / And makes the sun and the moon, constant in their courses, to be of service unto you, and has made of service unto you the night and the day / And He gives you of all you ask of Him (Q 14:32-34).

Revelation leaves reason room to invent and innovate habits of life and worldly matters as it wills, remaining within the limits of truth and justice as per the Prophetic report, “You know best your worldly affairs.” And do not forget your share of the world (Q 28:77). Likewise reason benefits from the experiences of others and the heritage of those who lived earlier: So learn a lesson, O you of vision (Q 59:2); Have they not traveled through the land, and have they hearts wherewith to feel and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the hearts that grow blind but it is the hearts, which are in the bosoms, that grow blind (Q 22:46); Bring me a scripture before this, or some vestige of knowledge, if you are truthful (Q 46:4); Ask the followers of Remembrance if you know not! (Q 16:43); and the Prophetic report “Wisdom is the lost possession of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he has a right to it.”

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