The Qur`an and reason: two poles apart?
The Qur`an and reason: two poles apart?
It is a serious matter to claim that the entire Islamic intellectual tradition, one that has been passed on from one generation to another until present, is incompatible with reason. It therefore needs to be re-examined and rebuilt on a rational basis. This is because it not only overlooks several salient features of the tradition, but also responds to a claim of one extreme with another kind of extreme. It also reduces the entire Islamic tradition to a theological aspect, disregarding other sciences and fields such as logic, math, rhetoric and others.
Reason is central to Islamic tradition and is one of the qualifying aspects for the acceptance of Islam and its legal system. In other words, one must be a sane male or female and in possession of one’s full mental faculties before their shahadah (testimony of faith) is accepted. This same condition applies to all other aspects of religion such as court testimony, fasting, praying, and any other act of worship. All only apply to or are only accepted from those who possess full mental faculties. The message of the Qur`an was accepted by people throughout the ages as it challenged them to think differently. There are hundreds of Qur`anic verses that are punctuated with rhetorical questions such is "Will you not reflect", "Will they not reflect the meanings of the Qur`an", etc. Reason was used by the scholars of Islam to understand and deduce meaning and rulings from the Qur`an and Prophetic texts. The Qur`an's message was not one only of miracles and wonders but was imbedded with layers of meaning that needed to be understood by a well-trained mind. Hence, the various Islamic sciences evolved as human constructs based on metaphysical realities found in the message of the Qur`an.
Imam Mawardi wrote in his book Adab Al-Dunya wal Din, "Know that every virtue has a source and that every etiquette has a spring; the source and the spring of all etiquette is reason which Allah has made a pillar of life and religion.” He goes on further to demonstrate that there are areas in Islamic law that necessitate the use of reason and other areas where reason is permissible to use and thus serves as a pillar. To reinforce this, Imam Mawardi narrates that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "Man has not obtained the like of reason to guide and protect him." The use of reason was always seen as an integral part of Islamic tradition and not an opposing force.
The discussion of reason versus revelation is a product of the West. It has been an issue that continued to plague intellectual discourse and endeavors for over a millennium. The primary understanding of Western intellectuals is that religion is based on faith alone and that the natural sciences belong to the realm of reason. This created a duality which led intellectuals who came after Descartes to look beyond religion for meaning, not only in the natural world but also in the moral, and this became the categorical imperative of Kant and the existential reality of Sartre. This duality of reason and revelation never existed in Islamic history. This was not only reflected by the hundreds of scholars who demonstrated the use of reason in their work but is also the claim made by the Qur`an. The Qur`anic verses on the human intellect are numerous. In sixteen verses, the Qur`an talks about ‘the lub’ i.e. the seat of human intellect; in two verses it talks about ‘the people of nuha’ i.e. of reason; in twenty nine verses it talks about contemplation; in twenty verses it talks about ‘fiqh ltafaquh’ or detailed knowledge of the Qur`an; in nineteen verses it talks about ‘hikmah’ i.e. wisdom; and in one hundred and thirty two verses the Qur`an talks about the heart as the source of man's intellect. Apart from this, many verses are about knowledge, seeking knowledge and teaching which number over eight hundred verses. Therefore, the Qur`an, which is the quintessential aspect of Islamic tradition, extols reason as the human tool to understand the revelation and apply God’s injunctions to the conditions of man.
However, the Qur`an does not posit that reason is the only tool for learning and understanding the Divine Message as this would limit knowledge to a horizontal plane. The Qur`an also discusses metaphysical realities and truths, which represent the vertical plane. This is why, according to the Qur`an, man cannot do without tradition and revelation, which are his only access to the vertical realm.
Abu Hamid Al- Ghazali (450-505 A.H./I058-1111 C.E.) is one of the scholars of Islamic tradition who discussed the issue of reason and revelation. Al-Ghazali, who is quoted extensively by St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote that the scholars of Sunni Islam are in agreement that there is no inherent contradiction between transmitted sacred knowledge and rational truth. He maintained that those who hold the necessity of making taqlid (following scholarship) blindly and of adhering only to the outer form of the law which has led to a state of stagnation, have only concluded this due to their weak intellect and limited perception. Also those who have engrossed themselves in rational thought to the point of colliding with and contradicting the boundaries of Islamic Law, have only done so out of the sickness of their conscience. Both groups lean toward the extreme; both are far removed from cautiousness and religious righteousness. The example of intellect is like that of sound vision free of any diseases or defects and the example of the Qur`an is like that of the illuminating sun. Should any seeker of truth rely on one at the expense of the other, there would be no difference between him and a blind man. Therefore, intellect combined with Divine Law is light upon light.6
This is the same relationship between reason and revelation as understood by another Muslim scholar, Abu Walid ibn Rushd (520-654 A.H./1126-1198 C.E.) who wrote, "We know decisively that no rational inference can contradict Divine Law since truth does not contradict truth but increases and affirms it.” 7
According to Islamic tradition, the door for the use of reason is wide open when it comes to the empirical world and it serves as one of the bases upon which law and its understanding and application is based. However, there are areas in which the use of reason alone does not suffice and in others where it leads to no sound conclusion. These are the areas of metaphysical truths, the unseen, and some of the esoteric meanings behind certain legal rulings. In some areas, the "apparent" contradiction between reason and revelation is only "a contradiction between reason and the outward meaning of revelation, in others it represents the areas in which reason is limited. The relationship between reason and revelation is as Ghazali says, "light upon light" and any discussion of inherent contradictions between one and the other is foreign to Islamic tradition.
Religion deals with the profane and the sacred, talks about beneficence to neighbors and parents and also about the Beatific Vision in Paradise. Religion brings the vertical plane to the horizontal and gives man the ability to experience both. Reason has its place in religion, as mentioned above, but it also has its limitations. Ibn Rushd wrote that it is not permissible for philosophers to discuss or argue fundamentals of religion by asking questions on the existence of God, virtue and morality. Such a person deserves severe discipline, which is why the apostate, according to Divine Law, deserves the death penalty. Everyone must submit to the principles of religion as these are from God and surpass human reason. To deduce these principles and laws is beyond the man’s ability. Accordingly, man must submit to them without questioning their origin.8
Using reason in religion means recognizing these limitations and using direct rational discourse and the intellect according to the principles and injunctions of Islamic tradition. Any religious tradition needs rational thought since it is part of man’s constitution. Not everyone was meant to be a saint or sage but everyone can and must cultivate their rational faculties and intellect which Islam views as one of the greatest gifts of God to mankind. The point is that reason must be guided by revelation to prevent man from succumbing to his desires and whims and make him submit to the will and order of God.9