Reason and Revelation in Islamic Thought
One of the singular distinctions of Islam is the balance maintained between ‘aql and naql, that is, between human rational thought and revealed scripture.
Certain people admit the intellect alone to be the source of knowledge, whether in the realm of the manifest or the hidden. Others hold transmitted or revealed knowledge alone to be the font of all truths. Others yet take a position between these two, granting each of them an authoritative status. Given that we will expound on these relationships at length, it behooves us to first note some terms and delimit their scope.
The dictionary al-Mu’jam al-wasit, published by the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, defines reason as what responds to the natural instincts; what enables thought and reasoning and composition and illustration and attestation; and what distinguishes the beautiful from the repulsive, good from evil, and truth from falsehood. The term is derived from the root ‘ayn qaf lam, its essential meaning being prevention. It so named because reason prevents its bearer from what does not correspond to it, unlike beasts, which act according to their appetites.
The dictionary al-Qamus al-muhit defines reason (‘aql)as knowledge, that is, of the qualities of good and ill, perfection and imperfection, the ability to recognize the best of goods and the most evil of evils, or matters in general.
A precise and clearly delimited definition of the intellect is difficult, as it is a disputed term in the lexicon of Islamic thought: the philosophers, mutakallimun, legal theorists, and others all held different conceptions. The philosophers, for just their part, offered a wide variety of sometimes contradictory opinions. Their concern was focussed on the very existence of the intellect, which is a question that cannot be understood as a matter of fact, being rather a mystery among the Divine mysteries, like the existence of the soul. Each effort to seek a clear definition of the intellect was itself affected by a broader theoretical background and method. Thus the intellect was held to be sensible, according to the mutakallimun, legal theorists, and jurists; subtle and esoteric, according to the sufis; and both, according to the philosophers. The grand debate on the conception of the intellect and its implications among Muslim thinkers included such questions as the status of the intellect, the difference between intellect, self, and soul, and the distinction between intellect and knowledge, among others.
It is evident that this definition of the intellect is active, not substantial. Hence we may say that it is the power that enables distinguishing between good and evil. The author of the Qamus offers further definitions, including that it is a spiritual light by which the self perceives the necessary and theoretical disciplines and that it has embryonic origins and develops until maturity (others say: until the age of forty).
Al-Raghib al-Asfahani defined reason in his Mufradat al-Qur’an as the power that enables knowledge.
The commentator on the Qamus observes: People differ regarding the intellect: does it have a reality? If so, is it essential or accidental? Is its locus in the head or the heart? Are intellects equal or unequal? Whether power or substance, it is the immaterial degree by which God distinguished humans from beasts. Through it, humans reckon and contemplate, internally and the world around them; understand discourse and attain knowledge; begin new things and criticize old ones; understand and relate to the past, live and develop the present, and anticipate and plan for the future; distinguish good from evil, virtuous from vicious acts, correct from mistaken positions, and true from false creeds; distinguish the better of good options and the worse of bad options; compare and contrast things and characters and thoughts; and reflect on their lives and afterlives. Or we might say, through reason humans ponder the origins and ends of existence, and our existence with it, and the prophecies we have received. In other words, reason searches out satisfactory answers to the enduring questions that humans have asked since time immemorial, namely: who am I? And where am I going? And why?
This term can fruitfully be compared to reason. It is the knowledge that emerges from Divine revelation or a Prophetic source. This knowledge is inherited through the generations, being transmitted by one to another; it cannot be attained through empirical observation or experience or theoretical reasoning or deduction. It is passed from one to another, through solid chains of transmission, even unto its Divine revelation to the Prophet. Those who transmitted it affirmed its holy origin and embraced its incontrovertible foundations, even while they had the right to use their rational faculties in understanding, commenting upon, and explaining its derivation. There is no doubt that the greatest minds of the Umma worked in its service and sanctification, due to whose efforts we now have the various disciplines of exegesis, hadith, fiqh, sufism, theology, and theoretical sciences necessary for these such as legal theory, the principles of commentary, and hadith methodology.
This domain of revealed knowledge is sometimes synonymously known as that of “obedience”, “divine legislation”, “religion”, or “textual sources”, while the domain of the rational faculties is sometimes known synonymously as that of “wisdom” or “philosophy”. Much of these matters are encompassed in such complementary formulations as “law and wisdom” (as employed by Ibn Rushd in his Fasl al-maqal fi ma bayn al-shari‘a wal-hikma min al-ittisal) or the phrases “religion and philosophy”, “creed and thought”, and “ratiocination and obedience”. The complementary and intended meaning of each of these phrases is clear.
The Two Meanings of Revealed Knowledge (Naql) in Islamic Thought
- The general meaning, denoting simply the primary sources of Islam: the Qur’an and Prophetic practice
- The specific meaning elaborating on these sources, which is the focus of much debate in Islamic thought. Indeed, most of the polemics between the different methodologies and schools hinge on how to interpret revealed knowledge, including on the issues of the createdness of the Qur’an among the Mu‘tazilites, the gnostic elements of Sufism, the active intellect of philosophy, and the Imamate of the Shi‘is.
How to understand the Prophetic practice was more widely disputed than how to understand the Qur’an. It can be broadly delineated into the Sunni and Shi‘i approaches, for their varying methodologies and authorities in establishing and investigating even what comprises the Prophetic practice.
Positions on Rational and Revealed Knowledge
There are three broad approaches to the relationship between rational and revealed knowledge.
1) The rationalists
This group exaggerates the importance of reason almost to its sanctification, considering it alone to be the source of truth in all realms material and spiritual, an impeccable proof, reliable guide, and just scale.
Some rationalists hold that reason makes revelation and prophecy unnecessary, for the light of reason alone can guide humanity in the pursuit of happiness. This position is refuted by Imam Muhammad ‘Abduh in his Risalat al-tawhid, as he decisively and logically establishes the human need for the divine message—for just as the empirical senses need the corrective of the intellect, so too the intellect needs a guidance greater than it (namely, revelation).
Another group of rationalists believe in revelation but believe reason to be its peer or even have priority. Among these are the philosophers who took reason to be primary and revelation to follow. Certain of these, known as the Islamic peripatetic school, adhered to the notion of intellect inherited from Greek philosophy. They took its theories to be foremost and all else to conform to it, even if it be the text of the noble Qur’an or the practice of the magnificent Prophet. This is the group, including al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and others, that ensconced Aristotle as the font of their ideas and philosophical positions, calling him “the first teacher” and defending his methods. This is the group whose views al-Ghazali summarized in his work Maqasid al-falasifa and refuted in his Tahafut al-falasifa, critiquing them on seventeen counts and anathematizing them on three; Ibn Rushd the grandson (the philosopher, doctor, and jurist, d. 595 AH) defended them by repudiating al-Ghazali’s critique in his work Tahafut al-tahafut.
Whatever the differences between the philosophers, and whether or not they went beyond the pale of Islamic creed, there is no disagreement between the students of philosophy and intellectual historians that the philosophers known as Islamic did not completely emancipate their natural philosophy (as our teacher Dr. Muhammad al-Bahi notes in his al-Janib al-ilahi min al-tafkir al-Islami). For all the while, they were fascinated by the luminaries of Greek thought—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and especially entranced by the latter. They did not allow the first principles of this philosophical system to be examined and critically questioned, its natural and theoretical aspects (which now fall under the scope of science) to be critiqued from a metaphysical perspective. They adopted this Greek framework, albeit modifying it slightly, and repudiated any alternate argument, even if supported with a revealed text.
The Islamic philosophers gave their intellects priority over the divine law, explaining away a number of the Islamic creeds and supernatural elements—even those firmly rooted in the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition, garnering communal consensus, achieving the status of necessary knowledge, and not admitting such interpretation (because such speculative interpretation of decisive knowledge amounts to tampering with their status). For example, they held that the God they believed in (the Necessarily Existent) is not the creator of the world who generated it ex nihilo; rather, they held the world to be uncreated and eternal. Nor did they believe him to be the orderer of everything therein, great or small (Q 57:4: He knows all that enters the earth and that emerges from it and what descends from the heavens and what ascends therein; and He is with you wherever you may be. And Allah is Seer of what you do; Q 6:59: Not a leaf falls but He knows it, not a grain in the darkness of the earth, and nothing wet or dry but that it is (inscribed) in a clear record), for they believed the Necessarily Existent did not possess knowledge of the particulars of this imperfect world. According to Aristotle, he has knowledge only of essences, and so does not know the things of the world nor direct them. Will Durant exclaimed: “Poor Aristotelian God! He is like the British king—he reigns but does not rule!” Nor did they believe in the resurrection quickening crumbled bones, returning them to the one who created them in the first place, returning people to their Lord as they were created, barefoot, naked, and uncircumcised (all of which are attested in revealed scripture). Nor did they affirm a sensory bliss or physical torment (in the grave), nor true paradise or hell. Rather they held these to be symbolic representations of spiritual meaning, expounded for the common people in this fashion to encourage and intimidate them to righteousness! Nor did they affirm the corporeal Prophetic ascension to the highest heaven, for they held the physical heavens did not admit penetration or passage; the ascension for them was rather purely spiritual. Nor did they affirm the angel descending with Divine revelation to the heart of the Messenger, which they held rather to be an imaginative image—and so on in speculative interpretations. Ultimately, they constantly privileged reason over revelation, and even in this a Greek philosophical rationality (historically embedded in paganism) rather than an Islamic rationality (embedded in strict monotheism).
They deemed these matters incontrovertible, thereby allegorizing away the pillars of Islam or considering them imaginative illustrations. Some of them held the creed itself to be fabulous—what is this but the brink of perdition! They were not content with the received Greek natural and empirical philosophy, refining it through experience and observation, but failed to take the same diligence with the metaphysical aspects of this philosophy. For just as the vision of water in the desert may in fact be a mirage, so the exclusive claims to pure truth do not preclude the possibility that it may be mixed with falsehood, monotheism with paganism, transcendence with denudation, and so forth—almost undermining its entirety. Ultimately, it must be emphasized that the rationality upheld by Greek antiquity was not pure, instead being limited by its pagan imagination.
The Islamic jurists were correct in accusing them of blasphemy, for they did not manifest the bearing of guidance and true religion that came with Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings upon him). Although Imam al-Ghazali far extended the scope of legitimate interpretation (especially in his work Faysal al-tafriqa bayn al-Islam wal-zandaqa), it is impossible to admit these philosophers therein due to their explicit opposition to the absolute fundamentals of Islam and the pillars of creed. Thereby they fell into loss, and their religion with them.
The essence of their philosophy, the experts explain, was the essential unity of religion and philosophy, that is, between law (shari‘a) and wisdom (hikma); and this was their undoing. For their universal method was to claim religion conformed to the dictates of philosophy, privileging the logic of the latter over the logic of the former and raising the words of humans over the words of God. Their philosophical efforts thus ended in disappointment. Their “loss” with respect to religion is figured in the Muslim reluctance to embrace them, and the broad scholarly agreement as to their having gone beyond the pale of Islam (despite the general prudence in matters of blasphemy). They lost their wager and came away empty-handed: They are those who purchase error at the price of guidance, so their commerce does not prosper, neither are they guided (Q 2:16). The Muslims are weary of such philosophers, adherents to the Peripatetic school, in their weak metaphysics.
Dr. Muhammad al-Bahi notes (again in his al-Janib al-ilahi min al-tafkir al-Islami): “The Muslim Peripatetic philosophers of the east did not achieve their aim to establish the existence of God from bare existence, the proofs of religion alongside those derived from the existing world. This is a result of their accepting the Greek notion of the Necessarily Existent, which is incommensurate despite their rational exertion to harmonize Islam and philosophy. It is this concept whose effects caused problems in this philosophical system, specifically in attributing God with his attributes as relayed in the noble Qur’an and in the matter of his knowledge of what occurs in his dominion. In conclusion, their philosophizing was not a valid foundation for religious guidance…because it does not accord with the nature of religion as religion; nor does it provide a valid foundation for rational guidance, infused as it is with a host of contorted and distorted arguments—a result of its infusion by multiple regimes of thought. Would that the Muslim Peripatetic philosophers had been aware of the true nature of Greek thought, that it was not entirely free of fable and myth and that these affected its specific logic… and would that they recognized the result of their admitting the opinions of Plato and Aristotle in their understanding of creed, on theology qua theology, in abandoning the noble Qur’an as the sole way—as it is—to the hearts of the trustworthy and people’s sincere intellects.” These are the words of the lifelong specialist, author, and historian of such philosophy. None can inform you like him who is aware (Q 35:14). The philosophic litterateur and philosopher of the litterateurs Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi notes, in his al-Imta‘ wal-mu’anisa, the words of a Shaykh to whom were brought certain treatises of the Ikhwan al-Safa. The Shaykh looked through for a few days and then explored them at length, and then, in returning them, said: “They exhausted me to no benefit, they wore me out to no profit, they glow red-hot but do not yield, they eulogize but do not gratify, they weave a flimsy garment… they speculate as to what is not and cannot be… to infuse philosophy in the Shari‘a and include the Shari‘a in philosophy… this was attempted earlier by a nation that offered arguments to this end, and brought forth reasons, but did not achieve what it sought… they achieved instead a repugnant langor, a shameful stupidity, vile consequences, and weighty burdens.”
Mu ‘tazilite Rationalists
A group that is less ultra-rationalistic in outlook than the philosophers and which took greater care in interpreting divine scripture (even if they did rely on rationality more than was justified) is the Mu‘tazilites (also known as the Qadariyya), who were a faction of the mutakallimun. They believed in the Qur’an, and as a whole believed in the Prophetic practice, but in cases of conflict prioritized the results of rational over scriptural inquiry. They clove to five articles: Divine unicity; Divine justice; the rank between two ranks; enjoining the good; and forbidding the evil.
After the Mu‘tazilites came the Ash‘arites and Maturidites. These are groups that, although they differed from and indeed repudiated the more extreme Mu‘tazilite positions that contravened the orthodox creed of Ahl al-Sunna, did not entirely banish the intellect from their epistemology. Indeed, they employed rational arguments on a great number of matters, especially in their polemical context of counterargument and refutation. Finally, however, they would privilege revealed knowledge over rational speculation.
The emergence of the Mu‘tazilites in the broad forum of Islamic thought was earlier than that of the philosophers; they coalesced around the time of the Followers. They defected from the circle of the famous Imam al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 AH), when his student Wasil b. ‘Ata’ disagreed with him on a great creedal matter. He announced his disagreement to al-Hasan, who replied: “Leave us (i‘tazalna), Wasil!” Sharing Wasil’s perspective was his companion ‘Amr b. ‘Ubayd, and the two of them were thinkers and preachers with their own students. They differed on this matter from the general consensus, but initially the Mu‘tazilite disagreement was straightforward and internal to the broader community; as it deepened and grew, it expanded into other issues and they came to hold positions closer to those of the philosophers. This occurred especially at the hands of Abu Hudhayl al-‘Allaf (d. 235 AH), Ibrahim al-Nizam (d. 231 AH), al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH), and others less meticulous in approaching scriptural interpretation, and specifically that of the Prophetic traditions (against certain of which—those they deemed to oppose rationality, the Qur’an, science, or reality—they leveled a sustain campaign of ridicule and critique). A major Sunni scholar, Imam Ibn Qutayba (d. 276 AH), who had the stature among the orthodox like that of al-Jahiz among the Mu‘tazilites, advanced a refutation of the latter and a defense of the hadith in his book Ta’wil mukhtalif al-hadith. The Mu‘tazilite approach to exegesis of the noble Qur’an interpreted verses and sentences inconsistently with regard to their essential principles and beliefs, and even then with much strain and convolution. Perhaps the most authoritative Mu‘tazilite exegesis is that of the famous ‘Allama al-Zamakhshari titled al-Kashshaf, which clearly exhibits its sectarian leanings in regard to such contentious issues as the nature of the beatific vision in the hereafter; the divine enactment of everything, including sins; and the interpretation of divine attributes such as knowledge, power, will, and so on.
What most distinguished the Mu‘tazilites from other sects and tendencies of Islam is their reliance on reason to the furthest extent, such that in their discourses and interpretations they even gave rational proofs priority over those of revelation, subjecting the latter but not the former to greater scrutiny. They may have been influenced by or reacted against certain Hashwiyya anthropomorphists, but they did not limit themselves to the ambit clearly expounded in the texts; they speculated therein based on their limited reason and their knowledge bounded by their context and their era, claiming to propound the results of purely rational inquiry although it was not so, and despite their efforts at impartiality.
And for this reason certain of them denied the jinn, despite their existence being explicitly established in the Qur’an and mass-transmitted Hadiths; likewise certain denied the interrogation in the grave and what it discloses of bliss and torment; likewise certain denied the strait Bridge over which believers must pass to enter paradise and the Scales finally weighing all deeds; and they all of them denied the beatific vision of God in the hereafter. The underlying reason for all this had to do with their imprisoning themselves in a specific theoretical framework by which what is common and habitual is rationally necessary—yet breaches of habit are possible, as established by the Prophetic miracles. This claim is what Imam al-Shatibi disputed in his incisive al-I‘tisam, noting that it is intellectually valid to admit such breaches of habit, for the generally habitual would not be properly habitual without such breaches. There can be no rational refusal of such argument. The Creator has chosen certain over others, while the intellect cannot differentiate between one creation and another.
Two Points of Principle
One: Not to take reason as unrestricted arbiter, which is the role of revelation. Indeed, it is incumbent to prioritize what has priority (revelation) over what does not (rational speculation), as it is unsound (both rationally and scripturally) to prioritize what is deficient over what is perfect. Such a course is unjustified and runs opposed to all proofs. To this end it is said, take revelation in your right hand and reason in your left, taking care not to prioritize the latter over the former.
Two: If the apparent sense of revelation contradicts a habitual and commonly-held truth, it is inappropriate to deny it flat-out. Rather, pursue one of two courses:
1) affirm revelation as it is stated, and entrust its further knowledge to those who know it better. This is the apparent meaning of Q 3:7: And those firm in knowledge say: we believe in it; its entirety is from our Lord. That is, the literal meaning is authoritative and the ambiguous is adulterated. Close knowledge of this matter is not obliged, and if it were there would be a means to attaining it; else it would require something beyond one’s capacity.
2) alternately, one might otherwise interpret this contradiction in such a way as to yet affirm the apparent meaning of revelation and thereby maintain the possibility of a breach of the habitual course of things.
2) The traditionalists
Those who give predominant weight to reason were naturally opposed by those who gave inordinate weight to transmitted tradition, meaning that they refused to intellectually strive or grant reason the right to understand, discover, or critically engage; they took up particular traditions without subtlety in their application; and they refused to relate traditions to their broader principles. They are those who are variously known as the new literalists, although they did not truly grasp these meanings of revelation. This was manifested in their arch-representative Abu Muhammad Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH, author of al-Ihkam, al-Mahalli, al-Fasl fil-milal wal-nahl, and others, who was one of the most brilliant minds of the Islamic tradition. Yet they understood revelation in its inflexible literal sense, and non-literal interpretation to be impermissible tampering; they rejected logical analogies and contextual adaptation in toto, and thereby too considerations of the broader objectives of the law and its practical rulings. They named themselves and were named by others the ‘Folk of Hadith’ (ahl al-hadith), that is, those who sought to restrict themselves in their scriptural reasoning to the Prophetic reports, and rarely resort to the Noble Qur’an. They were not meticulous in establishing the soundness of the Prophetic reports, still less of their content, and did not give consideration to the reports’ concordance with reason.
We have learned that the foremost authorities of hadith sciences did not accept a purported hadith as sound except as they met certain conditions, which were all the more stringent in the case of those hadiths by which one might derive legal rulings establishing permissibility and impermissibility. This is the case, for instance, in the legal guild of Malik, God be pleased with him, which was methodologically developed with reference to hadith and tradition (as enumerated by Shaykh Abu Zahra in his work Fuqaha’ al-ra’y) in such a way that interests were secured, the practice of the Medina community was upheld, and hadiths were admitted only after intense scrutiny. For this reason it is said, Were it not for Malik, the path would have straitened. Another figure in this vein is Imam Ahmad, from whom ten or more opinions are transmitted on a single issue. This could only have occurred due to his care in answering questions contextually. Likewise Imam al-Bukhari, the approach of whose own legal school students can perceive in his famous work, in his often original opinions on such matters as divorce (where he tends to a restrictive understanding, holding that it is ineffective when pronounced by one inebriated, wrathful, heedless, joking, mistaken, or unwitting).
In stark contrast, those known as the Folk of Hadith (ahl al-hadith) in our own age do not follow the example of Malik, Ahmad, Bukhari, and their fellows, those foremost scholars and adepts who combined knowledge of hadith with understanding of jurisprudence, and refrained from casting these Prophetic reports about in their quarrels. No, those who claim the title today abuse it in their constant bickering, declaring that the truth resides solely with them and falsehood with all others. They do not utter with the verifying scholars of old, What we hold to be correct may be mistaken, and what we hold to be mistaken may be correct—indeed, they arrogantly insist on the opposite, pressing polemically against their opponents and incapable of bearing criticism. Their simplistic method proclaims that their opinion is based on the hadith, a scriptural and Divine source, while all others are based on mere human deliberation, which ultimately has no probative value against revelation, as noted by the Indian sage Wali Allah al-Dihlawi (d. 1176 AH) and others. Yet surely even if the hadith is a scriptural source, their eminently human understanding of it is not; likewise, even if rational deliberation is limited by its finite scope, it is not universally proscribed. Moreover, they establish the position of Islam on truly weighty issues (questions related to women in Islam, non-Muslims, asceticism, trust in Divine providence, and others) upon hadiths that cannot bear the weight of such arguments, for the Prophetic reports they bring forth are related to specific jurisprudential matters while what is required in considering the broader issues is general principles.
Fundamental Traits of Those Overemphasizing Tradition
- A concern for form over content, and with appearance over essence
- A recourse to particular texts at the expense of general principled objectives
- Greater attention paid disputed questions over those held in common
- Disregard for the ranking of actions or the jurisprudence of priorities (fiqh al-awlawiyyat), such that they often concern themselves more with supererogatory actions than with obligations, and with disliked things over those outright prohibited, and with ancillary rather than core issues
- Related to the preceding, that they concern themselves more with the Sunna than with the Qur’an, and moreover are unconcerned with understanding the Sunna in the light of the Qur’an
- Likewise, they rarely consider scriptural texts alongside one another so as to avoid internal contradiction in their interpretations—although, as the Qur’an says, the words of God interpret one another: Q 4:82: Had it been from any other than God, they would have found therein much incongruity.
- They vastly amplify prohibitions, for they proscribe matters based on weak hadiths, and if strengthened through multiple chains although that is no argument as to its application, or based on only implied proscriptions they deem more explicit than warranted—because they grant probative value to express texts that are not sound, and to sound texts that are not express. Thus they tend to forbid everything, even photography (which is technically an inverted image of a mirror and so not an idolatrous fabulation), television, and film; singing, all the more so when involving instrumentation and specifically with female singers; women revealing their faces (which they consider ‘awra and so to be concealed, merely covering the hair and neck being insufficient and sinful according to them); and men cutting their beards.
- Just as they amplify prohibitions, so too they are overzealous in obligations: just as they did proscriptions, they impose additional obligations based on weak hadiths, hadiths that are open to contestation, and hadiths which are sound yet do not provide express evidence of an obligation. Thus they require every man shorten his wrap, tunic, or robe to the mid-calf and regard everything extending below that to be in Hellfire, based on a sound hadith to that effect—yet ignore its context, which indicates that it is directed at one who does so haughtily. The principle they ignore here is that what is absolute bears restriction. (We might otherwise logically argue that the rigor promised such a person (in the hadith declaring that God will not gaze toward him on the Day of Judgment, will not purify him, and will not speak to him, and that a grievous punishment awaits him) is only due one who has far transgressed, in such a way that cuts to the heart of religion—as for instance is the result of pride, one of the enormities afflicting the heart.) In much the same way, they insist that women don the niqab.
3) The median between the rationalists and traditionalists: those who harmoniously combine the two sources of knowledge
One of the most important characteristics of one who pursues this middle path is that he establishes methodological guidelines for employing religious texts (whether Qur’an or Sunna). These guidelines strike a just balance between the weight accorded reason and revelation. We have composed two foundational books on this topic, namely: How Should One Engage the Mighty Qur’an? and How Should One Engage the Prophetic Sunna? In these two texts, we propounded several guidelines for comprehension and interpretation, and warned of the pitfalls that can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretation, or misrepresentation. To a similar end, I wrote my earlier books Contemporary Ijtihad, Between Discipline and Decadence and Fatwas, Between Discipline and Indolence. Throughout these works, I emphasized the importance of familiarity with the revealed texts and contextual knowledge (against the inertia of tradition).
a) The categorical status of the Qur’anic text
The first methodological precept unreservedly refuses any opinion or argument contesting the Qur’anic text, which in its entirety is categorically established without a glimmer of doubt and mass-transmitted with certainty. For the Companions received it from the mouth of the Messenger of God; their hearts preserved it, their tongues recited it, their hands transcribed it, and they taught it to their students among the Followers, who passed it on to those who followed them. Thus the generations of the Umma received it, one after the next, reciting it aloud and in private. None might have added a single word to the Qur’anic text, nor omitted one from it. It was transmitted both verbally and textually. There is no book in the world that is recited as is the Qur’an, by the Prophet upon whom it was revealed and his Companions, preserved to its very styles of recitation as we know in the discipline devoted to that art. As for its textual transmission, it was transcribed and established in the epoch of ‘Uthman, the third caliph, in a form supported by him and the Companions and that disseminated across the world and lasted through today.
b) Validation of sound hadiths
The authenticity of hadiths requires validation with reference to scholarly criteria. These criteria are articulated according to a sound method, but mistakes may arise if they are not applied with rigor and nuance. According to the authorities of hadith, a report is authentic if is narrated by a just and reliable transmitter through the course of its transmission, from the beginning of its chain of narrators to its end, and free of hidden defects. Certain scholars sometimes accept reports that are not entirely transmitted by narrators of established virtue, or by narrators who are less reliable though of attested virtue. Diligence is further required, as a report may appear to have a continuous chain of transmission but upon further scrutiny come to unravel, as there may be a gap in the middle or at one end. This is cause to demote the evidentiary weight of the report. Likewise, there may be reports whose chains of transmission are continuous and their narrators all upright and meticulous, yet the report itself is not secured against hidden defects, whether in its text or its content. These and other matters reveal themselves to those of insight. It might be that the cause to discredit the authenticity of the hadith lies in its contradiction of an established rational truth, or historical certainty, or decisive element of the Qur’an or Sunna; but in any case the knowledgeable would not accept this hadith, as stated by Imam Ibn al-Jawzi: If you encounter a hadith that contravenes rationality, differs from revelation, or contradicts principles, know then that it is fabricated.
This precept is what has led us to pause at certain hadiths narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, and other compilers of hadith compendia, for certain of them appear to differ from the import of the Qur’an. For example, the hadith narrated by Muslim in his Sahih, “Verily, my father and yours are in Hellfire”—yet his father, peace and blessings upon him, held to a primordial faith that his Prophethood did not oppose, unlike the pagans whose polytheism incurred Divine punishment and regarding whom the Qur’an states: Q 36:6: That you may warn a folk whose fathers were not warned, so they are heedless and Q 34:44: Nor sent We unto them any warner before thee. Likewise the hadith narrated by Abu Dawud, “The slayer of the girl-child and the slain are in the Hellfire”, which directly negates Divine justice and the apparent meaning of the Qur’an. For the slayer may be in Hellfire due to his crime of infanticide, but what of the slain girl-child? God Most High says: And when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked / for what sin was she slain? (Q 81:8-9).
Shaykh al-Ghazali countermanded the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “Were it not for the Children of Israel, flesh would not rot,” because putrefaction is a habitual process belonging to the natural order, occurring both before and after the Children of Israel! But we do not refute hadiths if it is possible to explain them in such a manner that they bear correct meanings, for instance through metaphorical or other figurative interpretations. An example of this is the hadith “The Nile and Euphrates [spring] from Paradise.” Certain people went to the extent of refuting this report, because the sources of both rivers are well-known; but Ibn Hazm and the Zahiris held that such hadiths do not denote what the ignorant deem them to, that these rivers descend from heaven. Instead it could mean that the blessings of these rivers could be from Paradise. Ibn Hazm said in this regard: The clearest evidence is from the Qur’an, and sensible necessity dictates that it cannot mean what it first appears to.
This perspective weakens some hadiths that many accepted as authentic yet which contradict the logic, spirit, and principles of Islam. For example, the hadith “I was appointed, the Hour imminent, with the sword in my hands until God alone is worshipped with no partner” was authenticated by great masters of hadith studies (for example, Shaykhs Ahmad Shakir, al-Albani, and al-Arna’ut) but it is rationally unsound. This hadith caught in my throat for it contradicts the Qur’an, which repeats that God sent the Prophet with guidance and right religion (Q 9:33), not with sword or spear. Upon further research I found its narrators were contested, including among them ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Thabit b. Thuban. It is unacceptable to derive from such a hadith the general attitude of Islam as being either peaceful or warlike.
Likewise is the case of the hadith, “The Umma (Muslim community) will divide into seventy-three sects, all of which but one are in Hellfire.” I stopped before this report, unable to find for it a single chain of transmission that was free of criticism, and recounted certain misgiving opinions about it (especially the addendum, “all of which but one are in Hellfire”). Ibn al-Wazir cautioned against this hadith, stating that it was a machination of heretics. Likewise is the case of the hadith reported by Bukhari from Anas, “There does not come an age but that the one following it is more evil than it,” which plainly contravenes reality; for instance, the age of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was surely better than the preceding one of al-Hajjaj. Yet I was able to find an acceptable interpretation of this hadith, namely that it was directed specifically at its addressees, while one overhearing it thought it had general import for the Umma as a whole. When you find an appropriate interpretation of the hadith, do not still seek to refute and discard it—especially if the hadith is to be found in one or both of the Sahih collections.
I did not seek to reject the hadith of ‘adult suckling’, which was well-known to the Companions and invoked by a few, such as ‘A’isha, Mother of the Believers. The other wives of the Prophet and most of the Companions deemed it had a specific and exceptional application to the case of Salim, client of Abu Hudhayfa and his wife Suhayla, who had become like a son to them both. For, before Islam forbade legal adoption, he had been raised to maturity in Abu Hudhayfa’s house. Suhayla complained that she felt uncomfortably constrained with Salim in the house (as he was no longer considered her kin)—whereupon the Prophet said to her, Suckle him five times and he will become unmarriageable to you. The meaning of “suckle” here is not to give him her breast to suck and swallow its milk, which the Prophet could not conceivably have intended. Rather it means to express the milk into a cup and provide it him to drink.
I also hold the position, unlike the majority of hadith scholars, that weak hadiths can be indulged when noting the merit of deeds, in encouraging people from righteous actions and discouraging them from sinful ones, and such matters. I have expounded this opinion and its conditions in the introduction to my book, al-Muntaqa min al-targhib wal-tarhib.
c) Particular proof-texts accord to principled objectives
This methodological guideline relates particular scriptural proof-texts (whether the Qur’an or Prophetic reports) to principled objectives and general purposes. We have clarified this procedure in our book Dirasat fi fiqh maqasid al-shari‘a. There are three ways of doing so, two at either end of a spectrum and one median course between them.
o The literalists ignore the broader objectives altogether, taking no care to ensure that legal rulings can be reasonably justified—no matter if relating to various affairs of life, whether the family, community, or state; economics, politics, or society.
o Those who minimize the role of scriptural texts in law (as opposed to in theology, as did a group of old) are entirely opposed to the literalists described above. If the former ignore broader objectives, these ignore particular texts, whether Qur’an or Sunna, claiming that they already understand the spirit of Islam (or its purposes) and so have no need to refer to actual scripture. Yet they deliberately exceed the limits set by those texts, in the name of public interest, progress, keeping up with the times, globalization, modernity, or otherwise—and they even claim as precedent ‘Umar b. al-Khattab, God be pleased with him, who suspended scriptural warrant in the name of public interest! We have refuted this claim regarding ‘Umar al-Faruq, both with firm logic and as supported by textual evidence, in our book al-Siyasat al-shari‘a.
o Between these two approaches is the median course that gives each side its due, weighting both the particular scriptural text and the general objective, and not giving one predominance over the other.
d) No contradiction between sincere rational argument and authentic textual proof
This methodological guideline notes that you will not find an authentic textual proof contradicting a sincere rational argument; rather, they will always accord. The reason for this is that reason is a bounty from God, just as is revelation; they are, each of them, the result of Divine grace and compassion. What God effects does not contradict itself, nor is it inconsistent. Rather such inconsistency occurs in the finite human understanding. Some people might consider certain matters essential to religion, dispute about them, and accuse their opponents, but under investigation it be clarified that these matters themselves have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. The opposite may likewise occur, as when some people consider certain hypotheses or scientific claims to be truths verified by reason and supported by evidence, while they are nothing more than theories, interpretations, or inferred conclusions (for example, the theory of Darwin as propounded by the neo-Darwinists, or the theory of certain ancient philosophers as to the shape of the universe). Ibn Taymiyya composed in this regard a work in ten volumes, titled Dar’ ta‘arud al-‘aql wal-naql, clarifying that true ratiocination will never contradict true scripture.
e) Faith in Divine habits and rejecting inordinate affirmation of the supernatural and fantastical
One manifestation of a rational outlook in understanding scripture is taking a median course in one’s absolute faith in the ways of God in the universe and human society, for these Divine habits neither alter nor vary. These include respect for a system of causes and effects according to which God established this world and everything that exists therein. Recognizing this allows us to dispense with exaggerated claims to the supernatural and adherence to fancy, that are not based on supporting knowledge, verified revelation, or observed occurrence. These include claims that a jinn has entered a human body and now controls it, for this denies the divine ennoblement of humanity, when he placed humans on earth a vicegerent and caused the skies and earth to be subservient to them, and as he informed us that Satan will say to the people on the Day of Judgment, And I had no power over you except that I called unto you and you obeyed me (Q 14:22) and likewise the verse Lo! My (faithful) bondmen—over them you have no power (Q 17:65). Thus we may refute the innovations that are popular and promoted in some circles, including Qur’anic healing and the establishment of clinics claiming to heal with the Qur’an. Neither the Companions nor the Followers nor their followers performed such practices, nor the Muslims through the classical age; rather they practiced medicine proper, becoming the leading physicians and scientific authorities of their era. Among their ranks too were those who combined deep knowledge of religion and knowledge of medicine, such as Ibn Rushd, al-Fakhr al-Razi, and Ibn al-Nafis (the discoverer of pulmonary transit and one of the leading Shafi‘ite jurists Ibn Subki included in his biographical dictionary Tabaqat al-shafi‘iyya al-kubra).
f) Understanding the Sunna in light of the Qur’an
It is universally agreed that the Qur’an is the primary source of Islam, its creed, ritual worship, everyday transactions, ethics, values, and concepts; and that the Sunna expounds and clarifies these. The Qur’an remains the axis around which the Sunna revolves; it does not contradict it in any fashion, for the clarification does not oppose what is clarified. The Qur’an states, And We have revealed the Remembrance to you that you may explain to mankind what has been revealed to them (Q 16:44). Imam al-Shafi‘i held that the Sunna is what the Prophet, God bless him and grant him peace, extracted from the Qur’an. For example, the Sunna prohibition of at once marrying a woman and her aunt (paternal or maternal) is a logical inference from the Qur’anic prohibition of marrying two sisters at once. If we find a proof-text from the Sunna truly contradicting the Qur’an, that is grounds for suspecting its veracity. For that reason, as noted above, I do not accept the authenticity of the hadith “The slayer of the girl-child and the slain are in the Hellfire,” even though masters of hadith have authenticated it (such as Shaykh al-Albani in Sahih al-jami‘ al-saghir wa ziyadatih)—because it opposes the Qur’an, which says: And when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked / for what sin was she slain? (Q 81:8-9). The import of the verse is that there is no sin upon her for which she be killed. How then does she arrive in Hellfire? Moreover, the murdered infant has not even reached maturity, so cannot be responsible and thereby incur divine reward or requital.
g) Relating scriptural proof-texts to one another
This is an important methodological guideline. One part of the Qur’an affirms another, and one part explains and interprets another: Had it been from other than God, they would have found therein much incongruity (Q 4:82). It is thus imperative to relate to each other Qur’anic verses on a single topic in order to glean a complete picture, such that the absolute text is restricted, the general text is specified, and the summary text is expounded. Likewise in the case of Sunna reports, and Qur’an and Sunna texts together: it is impermissible to consider only one of the two scriptural sources at the expense of the other, for this leads the scholar into error despite his best intentions. In this way, moreover, ambiguous texts turn to definitive ones, speculations turn to certainties, particulars turn to principles, and ancillary matters turn to fundamentals, until one is secured from faulty, nonsensical, and defective positions.
h) Communal infallibility from error
Finally lies a guideline of great importance, namely, that the religion of the community as a whole is divinely protected from dissipation and dissolution. Because it is the final Umma, its Prophet the seal of the prophets, and its scripture the final divine revelation, God Most High has protected this community from collectively agreeing upon error. God has undertaken its preservation and maintenance, such that it will not change or waver: Lo! We, even We, reveal the Reminder, and Lo! We verily are its Guardian (Q 15:9). Incumbent upon protecting the Qur’an is God’s preserving the community that bears it and conveys it to others. Nor does this preservation entail merely ensuring its historical continuity; rather, it means preserving it in the more meaningful sense as the bearer of its Message, protector of its Shari‘a, conveyor of its invitation. This occurs through the existence of communities dedicated to it and of it, with a distinct identity: And of those whom We created there is a nation who guide with the Truth and establish justice therewith (Q 7:181). Hadiths further establish the continued existence (until God’s command falls!) of such a group cleaving to the truth. They are named the Victorious Faction.
Now, certainly: the earlier centuries of this community were better, for they were in closer proximity to the Prophetic age and the illumination of his lights. And there is communal unanimity that those early centuries must be accorded the proper respect for their achievements in creed, worship, conceptualizations, ethics, and decisive rulings. They shaped the parameters of this religion, such that those seeking to reach independent positions through ijtihad (being capable of practicing that art) must do so within the framework so established. But there come people bereft of religious and linguistic knowledge who seek to impose unjustified rulings upon us, rulings that contravene the religion of the Umma as imparted by the Book of its Lord and the practice of its Prophet. They claim to come with new readings of the Qur’an, readings that propound nearly a new religion and law—unknown to ‘Umar and ‘Ali, developed from no insight of Ibn Mas‘ud or Ibn ‘Abbas, indeed none of the Companions or Followers, and not considered by any of the imams of the Umma. This is what today requires systematic refutation, for it renders religion a soft dough to be kneaded as they choose. Thereby it is possible to conceive a distinct religion for every age, for every land, indeed for every society or even individual a distinct and disparate religion. In such a state a unified Umma is impossible. For this reason, our scholars affirm that the community is, as a whole, protected from altogether agreeing upon error. Each scholar must consider and account for this.
Variant Textual Proofs
Textual proofs (whether of Qur’an or Sunna) are what bear interpretive differences and yield multiple perspectives. This is the battlefield of variant understandings and the treacherous slope, wherein extend opinions, disputes, appeals, and vehemence between the adherents of different schools and disparate perspectives. Disagreements here may rest on a intellectual basis (as we clearly see in the case of the literal scripturalists and their import-focused opponents) or on a psychological basis (as when one approach tends to offering dispensations and another to strictness—the two approaches historically represented by the lenience of Ibn ‘Abbas and the rigor of Ibn ‘Umar, God be pleased with them both).
The Place of Reason in Islam
No Muslim is unaware, at minimum, that Islam celebrates the intellect, vaunting its worth and considering it a focus of every religious obligation. Only the intelligent are addressed by religious rulings and are obliged to fulfill them; whoever is incapable of mature intellection, whether because of youth or insanity, is not responsible before the religious law. Likewise, the Qur’an is the sole scripture to exhort “those of insight” and “those of discernment,” that is, those who exercise reason. Islam is a religion that constantly enjoins reflection and pondering, and Qur’anic verses often include or end with such formulas as, will you not, then, consider?...; will you not, then, ponder?...; will you not, then, remember? The Qur’an includes many other formulations (some of which are reproduced below) that are unprecedented in the texts of earlier religious communities.
We have composed an entire book expounding the value accorded by the Qur’an to the intellect and its fruits in knowledge. The most important matter we clarified there was that the Qur’anic teachings and guidance work toward a rational, scientific project that can yield a true renaissance, build a civilization, and found disciplines of knowledge. This is the exact antithesis of the credulous intellect that accepts everything it hears. The Qur’an bases this rationality upon seven pillars that we shall briefly reiterate here:
1) Refuse conjecture in the face of certainty, as God Most High says denigrating the pagan approach: And they have no knowledge thereof. They follow but conjecture, and lo! conjecture does not avail a whit against truth (Q 53:28) and Say: Do you have any knowledge that you might adduce for us? Lo! you follow naught but conjecture, Lo! you do but guess (Q 6:148).
2) Refuse the influence of fancies, and the guidance of emotions, for these affect rational and objective considerations. God Most High says: They follow but conjecture, and lo! conjecture does not avail a whit against truth (Q 53:28) and and follow not desire, that it beguile you from the way of God (Q 38:26).
3) Refuse blind imitation of one’s forefathers and ancestors. God Most High says: And when it is said to them: Follow that which God has revealed, they say: We follow that wherein we found our fathers. What! Even though their fathers were wholly unintelligent and had no guidance? (Q 2:170).
4) Refuse intellectual dependence on leaders and elders. God Most High says: And they will say, Our Lord! Lo! we obeyed our princes and great men, and they misled us from the Way (Q 33:67). The Qur’an levels the responsibility for such dependence: but they did follow the command of Pharaoh, and the command of Pharaoh was no right guide. / He will go before his people on the Day of Resurrection and will lead them to the Fire; and wretched is the place where they are led (Q 11:97-98).
5) Invite consideration and reflection on the universe and on humanity (or, on the cosmos and the soul). God Most High says: Say, consider what is in the heavens and the earth (Q 10:101) and Do they not consider the dominion of heavens and earth, and what things God has created (Q 7:185).
6) Require establishing evidence for any invitation: scriptural proofs for shari‘a matters—Has God permitted you, or do you invent something about God? (Q 10:59)—and rational proofs for the appropriate matters—Or have they chosen other gods besides Him? Say: Bring your proof (Q 21:24) and And they say: none enters Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. These are their own desires. Say: Bring your proof, if you are truthful (Q 2:111)—and witness testimony for what is sensible or observable—And they make the angels, who are the slaves of the Beneficent, female. Did they witness their creation? (Q 43:19).
7) Attend the habitual ways of God (i.e., invariable processes) in the universe and society. God says: 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) and You will not find for God’s way of treatment any substitute, nor will you find for God’s way of treatment aught power to change (Q 35:43). Due to these the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, denied magic, the occult, the practice of amulets, the blessing of trees and stones, and everything that does not fall under the established system of causes and effects. These are all based on illusion and falsehood.
The Intellect as the Foundation of Revelation
The scholars of Kalam (also known as usul al-din) held that the intellect is the basis of revelation, in the sense that revealed scripture is affirmed through rational means. For it is the intellect that indicates the possibility of divine revelation and establishes its wisdom and its having actually occurred. It further provided evidence to validate the prophethood of Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace, and to verify his message. Had we doubted its veracity through our reason, the traditional arguments too would have broken down. Yet after having propounded these decisive proofs for the prophethood of Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace, that he is truly the messenger of God and that the scripture he came with is truly of divine provenance, the intellect is left little to do except receive that message, preserve it, and convey it to others. Al-Ghazali noted something similar for its fate after receiving the Divine notices regarding the realities of existence and the realm of the unseen, just as it did the Divine rulings (injunctions and proscriptions): It does not become a believing man or woman, when God and his messenger have decided a matter, that they should [then] claim any say in their affair (Q 33:36).
The Qur’an’s Attending the Intellect as an Action or Power
Certain scholars believe the Qur’an attends to the intellect as a verb or an action, not a substance or a power. In truth this is a flawed conclusion, for the Noble Qur’an refers to the intellect in both ways, the latter specifically when (at sixteen occasions) it refers to “the possessors of insight” (ulu al-bab, the term albab being the plural of lubb (lit., kernel), that is, intellect). It is as though the Qur’an refers to the intellect as the core of the human, and the body its outer shell or covering. (We have discussed this further in our book Reason and Knowledge in the Qur’an.) The Qur’an likewise often refers to the intellect as the “heart” (al-fu’ad), as in the verse And God brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers knowing nothing, and gave you hearing and sight and hearts (al-af’ida) that perhaps you would be grateful (Q 16:78). This means that God gave humans the tools of perception and experimentation, and the “heart”—that is, the intellect—is the instrument of logical reflection and deliberation. Follow not that whereof you have no knowledge. Lo! the hearing and the sight and the heart (al-fu’ad)—of each of these it will be asked (Q 17:36) and And assigned them ears and eyes and hearts (af’ida), but their ears and eyes and hearts availed them naught since they denied the revelations of God (Q 46:26). Sometimes the Qur’an refers to the intellect as the heart with the term qalb, as in the verse Have they not traveled in the land, and have they hearts (qulub) 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). Regarding the folk of Hellfire, God Most High says: having hearts (qulub) wherewith they understand not, and having eyes wherewith they see not, and having ears wherewith they hear not. These are as cattle—nay, but they are worse! These are the neglectful (Q 7:179). And the Qur’an refers to the intellect or intellects with the term al-nuha in Q 20:54: Lo! verily herein are portents for those of thought (uli l-nuha).
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.”