The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Reason, Revelation, Religion: How Do They Fit Together?

oxford-uniThe Qur’an undoubtedly requires human beings to accept the authority of religion for whatever lies beyond the scope of reason or ‘aql. It never demands that he accept what is against reason. ‘The messengers,’ said Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to: never did they come with what reason deems impossible.’1

Islamic theology has long taught that human convictions can be grouped under three catagories: (i) hissi – those beliefs and ideas that are established by “sense perception” and empirical observation; (ii) ‘aqli – those that may be confirmed via “rationality” and logical arguments; (iii) shar‘i – that which cannot be proven by the above means, and are only known via revealed knowledge from God.2

The first category relates to what can be known reliably vis-a-via the natural sciences; the second, to what can be proven through rationalisation. The third, those values and beliefs that have shaped human culture and given it direction and purpose, yet cannot be proved by science or reason.

The idea that some things simply lie beyond the scope of science and reason is utterly repugnant to the cherished convictions of New Atheism’s cavaliers (its charge against religion currently led by the “Four Horsemen” – Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchins). For them, any belief not grounded in evidence and rationality is false.

Despite their parochial narrative-cum-dogma, reality shows us there are many beliefs and values that transcend what science and rationality can prove. Take the following example as case in point, courtesy of McGrath. In 1948, he wrote, the United Nations reaffirmed their faith in human rights. The statement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ or ‘They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood’ cannot be proved logically, nor scientifically. Neither can the belief that democracy is better than fascism, or that oppression is evil. ‘But many noble and wise people make upholding such things their life’s work, trusting that they are, in the first place, right, and in the second, important. Nobody thinks they’re mad for doing so.’3 Such a universal declaration about Man cannot be justified rationally nor verified scientifically. In this sense, it is unprovable. Yet it is not unreasonable to hold onto such a belief or put stock in its truthfulness. Many have argued that such is the case for belief in God.

Historically, the rationalist faction in Islam tended to put reason (‘aql) over revelation (naql). Which is to say, they deemed reason to be the main tool to arrive at religious truths, preferring it over the texts of the revelation in dealing with theological matters; particularly when it was thought there was a conflict (ta‘arud) between the two.

For traditionalists (representing the voice of orthodoxy), reason determines good and bad in the absence of revelation; for God gave us reason before sending us revelation. But once we have revelation, we must choose to be guided by revealed knowledge. For revelation is a surer guide: the human mind errs, but God does not. ‘To be sure,’ writes Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘reason is a precondition to comprehend knowledge, and rectify and perfect actions. By it, knowledge and actions are refined; but it is not sufficient in and of itself. For it is an instinct and potency in the soul, much like the faculty of seeing by the eye. For when it receives the light of faith and the Qur’an, it is like the eye when it receives light from the sun or a fire. Left to itself, reason is not able to discern things it is unequipped to know by itself.’4

To be perfectly clear, it isn’t that traditionalists jettison reason and rationality, or that they favour irrationality. Instead, it is the degree to which they employ reason and the place they assign to it in the overall scheme of things. In fact, on the eclectic canvas of traditionalism, one may observe different colours and tones:

There is, for example, what some have termed “unreflective traditionalism”; typical of the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudamah, and of the Athari school, in general. This is where, in theological matters (especially concerning the Divine Attributes), it is a case of simply submitting to the scriptural texts, without attempting to fathom the intent. Thus, Ibn Qudamah wrote: ‘For we have no need to know the meaning of what God intended by His attributes; as no course of action is required by them, nor any obligation attached to them, save to believe in them. For it is possible to believe in them without knowing their intended meaning. Indeed faith, with incomprehension, is sound.’5

Now contrast this with the arena of positive law (fiqh) where Ibn Qudamah is a jurist, highly accomplished in the exacting art of logic and reason-based inference. Towards the end of his essay censuring kalam, or discursive theology, Ibn Qudamah insists it is in the sphere of fiqh, maths and the like where reason should rightfully roam, recover and reveal.6 As for metaphysical or ghaybi (lit. “unseen”) matters, reason is expected to humble itself to the revealed texts; for it has no way of rationalising what is beyond its reach.

Then there are traditionalists with rationalist agendas, attempting to validate and to corroborate revealed truths with rational arguments; like al-Bayhaqi and the Ash‘ari school, at large. In the ‘aql-naql debate, Ash‘aris see themselves as the centre ground; the Atharis beg to differ. The polemics between the two camps has raged for almost a millennium, and is still on-going today.

There is also a faction, such as the Hanbali Ibn ‘Aqil and Ibn Taymiyyah, who add this subtle nuance: ‘Reason agrees with revelation, and nothing in revelation contradicts reason.’7 For both these polymaths, sound reason (al-‘aql al-sahih) and genuine texts of revelation (al-naql al-sarih) are always in agreement. The notion is profound, and one that Ibn Taymiyyah fleshes out over the course of his intense eleven volume Dar’ al-Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql – “Averting the Conflict between Reason and Revelation.”

A core premise of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Dar’ is that whenever there is any conflict between reason and revealed knowledge, the proof with the higher degree of certainty must be preferred, regardless of whether it is rational or transmitted. Uncertainty in a rational argument may arise in the case of conjectural or weak reasoning. Uncertainty about revealed knowledge arises in the case of fabricated or poorly transmitted hadiths (but not the Qur’an, as it is textually authentic in its entirety), or if a verse of the Qur’an or text of a hadith is conjectural in terms of their meaning. He writes:

‘If it is said that two proofs contradict each other, be they revealed or rational, then it must be said that either both are certain (qat‘i), or both are conjectural (zanni), or one is certain and the other conjectural. As for both being certain – be they rational or revealed; or one rational, the other revealed – then their contradicting each other is impossible … Whenever one finds a seeming contradiction between two proofs which are thought to be certain, then it necessarily follows that both proofs or at least one of them, are not certain; or that the two indicated meanings do not [actually] contradict each other … But if one of the contradicting proofs yields certainty, then according to the consensus of people of reason, its priority is necessary regardless of if the proof is revealed or rational, since conjecture does not override certainty.’8

Another tenet of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Dar’ concerns the limits of reason and what it may independantly discern of metaphysical truths. Reason, he insisted, can arrive at basic theological truths, but only revelation can furnish the details. Thus reason can discern the existence of God and that He possesses attributes of perfection, and that He must be the sole object of worship. It also affirms, in general, the necessity for prophets and that there has to be a resurrection and requital of actions so that justice is fulfilled. But it is revelation which offers specifics about God, His attributes, His will and His rules; only revealed knowledge gives us the details of resurrection, accountability, Paradise, Hell, the unseen world of angels and jinn and their interplay in the visible realm, and the particular forms and expressions of worship.9

Before concluding, mention must be made of a more murky tone that has appeared in recent times on the otherwise vibrant canvass of traditionalism. A mindset has raised its extremist head over the course of time that is narrow, belligerent, dismissive of the rational sciences as they developed in classical Islam; having the shallowest footing in knowledge and the intellectual activities of true Islamic scholarship. In fact, their link to traditionalism is that they too hold that ‘aql must be steered by naql. However, their blinkered, reptilian reading of the texts has made such people extreme, intolerant and hostile: violent, even. The description of them being “naql-heads” seems wholly apt, if not spot on.

Parking the resurgence of Khawarij-like mentalities for now, and the retreat from the naql-based intellectualisation which continues to impoverish contemporary Muslim discourse, our focus must be to first affirm our rich intellectual tradition and to then urgently work to reverse our current intellectual stagnation.

The post-modern world is in a crisis. Whatever good came out of the Enlightenment continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Its Christian heritage seems long unable to supply the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. Human fulfilment is unlikely to be achieved in predatory capitalism; and nor does it seem it will be offered by the Cross. The hunger of the human heart seems likely only to be answered by the Crescent. Indeed, Islam’s reasonable and rational monotheism, that pays reverence to the ‘aql, is starting to do just that.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:339.

2. See: al-Safarini, Lawmi‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 2:440, where he terms the third catagory sam‘i – knowledge that comes via “hearing” revealed knowledge or truthful reports.

3. A. McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 59.

4. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:338-39.

5. Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1990), §.55.

6. Cf. Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, §.99.

7. Ibn ‘Aqil, Funun, 509 – cited in Makdisi, Ibn ‘Aqil: Religion and Culture in Classical Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 97.

8. Dar’ al-Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Riyadh: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyyah, 1979), 1:79.

9. ibid., 1:88-280.

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12 thoughts on “Reason, Revelation, Religion: How Do They Fit Together?

  1. Maa shaa’ Allah, jazaakallaahu khairan for an excellent article,

  2. Ahmed on said:

    ASA The Qur’an undoubtedly requires man to accept the authority of religion for whatever lies beyond the scope of reason or ‘aql. It never demands that he accept what is against reason. ‘The messengers,’ asserts Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to: never did they come with what reason deems impossible.’
    This is a profoundly significant post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. ahmed on said:

    sorry to go off topic, in your talks on Qadr I had a thought..

    do you think that because everthing is decreed in our lives and in creation is due to Allah honouring his creation? I mean Allah has created such a wonderful existence and has also honoured Man and to leave it to randomness isnt doing so he is ever watchful and in control of all affairs.

    With an islamic eye view randomness doesnt exist.

    • The reason that matters are measured out and decreed is simply to do with the nature and perfection of Allah; He is All-Knowing, All-Wise, All-Powerful, the sole Creator and all things are bound to His Will: what He wills, happens; what He does not, doesn’t happen.

      Thus: We have created all things according to a measure. [54:49] And: Allah created you and what you do. [37:96]

      Thus Allah has measured all things, and all that He creates proceeds from His wisdom and perfect knowledge. Thus, you are right, from that angle nothing is fortuitous or happens by chance. All happens according to His will and plan.

  4. Abu Hamza on said:

    Salaamulaikum. I had to read this several times for the brevity to sink in. I really enjoyed it.

    My heart is very content with acknowledging the limits of my rational thoughts, e.g. vis-a-vis Allah’s attributies. There have been numerous instances of ‘coincidence’ in my life where I could only sigh and marvel at the intricacy of detail which which Allah plans everything. To try and appreciate and understand that level of knowledge is simply not possible except by believing that Allah swt is indeed the All-Knowing.

    Did many other scholars of orthodoxy adopt the nuances suggested by Ibn Taymiyyah? I completely agree on the level that aql can give you a notion of divine truths and you need revelation to furnish the details. However, the next level of differentiating between certainty in aql and naql must be something only the most learned of scholars could attempt!

    Jazakallah khairun.

    • May Allah reward you well for your perseverance, Abu Hamza.

      I do vaguely remember reading somewhere that a number of other scholars – including al-Razi – also held the same view. But Allah knows best.

  5. Rami on said:

    Jazaaka Allahu Khayran,
    I loved the post, it touches on an ongoing (probably endless) debate. But at the end I found a rather disappointed statement:

    “Human fulfilment is unlikely to be achieved in predatory capitalism; and nor does it seem it will be offered by the Cross. The hunger of the human heart seems likely only to be answered by the Crescent.”

    While Christianity was always associated with the Cross, and Judiasim was symbolized by the Star of David, using a crescent to refer to Islam is not something that the Prophet (Sallah Allahu Alayhi wa Sallam) or his companions used to do, it wasn’t on their banners (The banner of the prophet had the Testimony on it), it wasn’t mentioned in Quran or Hadith. The use of the crescent to refer to Islam just surfaced in the past few years in order to subject Islam to the western concept of religion, where a religion must have an emblem or a totem.

    Now I can’t really make a fatwa of whether this practice is Haraam, I’m not really qualified, but I find it worrying as Muslims are increasingly using the crescent to refer to Islam, while the crescent is simple the timing mechanism of determining the beginning of the month in the lunar calendar (which is also used by Jews as well as Chinese).

    Thanks a lot


    • While I understand your concerns about associating the crescent with Islam, Rami, you may wish to bear in mind the following:

      Firstly, The crescent as a symbol associated with Islam is older than you might expect. Though you are completely right about the crescent not being a symbol used by the Prophet, peace be upon him, or the early Muslims, it was used by Muslim rulers and empires as early as the 14th or 15th century; and also by the Ottomans in the 17th century onwards. Thus its origins are not borne out of subjecting Islam to a Western concept of religion. (The idea of flags, banners and symbols is certainly not Western; although the idea of nation states and national flags is).

      Secondly, the crescent as A symbol (but not THE symbol) for Islam has long been used in Western literature (both positively and negatively – though mostly the latter). It is still used today. I merely used it as a literary device to contrast a point. The intent was not to suggest that this is some type of sacred religious symbol for Muslims.

      Thirdly, I am not aware of any jurist that has forbidden the use of the word crescent as a literary substitute for the word Islam (at least, if used occasionally). Come to that, I am also not aware of any jurist that has objected to crescents (or swords, for that better) being on Muslim flags – except one or two scholars in very recent times.

      Finally, as you may have observed, my writings and themes are directed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I am aware of a number of non-Muslims who regularly read my blog, mashallah.Therefore I find little problem with using the word “God” instead of His actual name, “Allah”, in my writings. The same holds for certain other concepts (such as occasionally referring to Islam as the Crescent, or Muslims as “Saracens”!) They are not meant to be absolute terms of definition; rather literary references. I do passionately believe that, as long as language is not hijacking or distorting shari’ah concepts (theological, jurisprudential or spiritual), there will be some leeway as to how language is used to convey religious truths and notions.

      In the light of this, I hope this brief response has helped reduce your initial objection and perhaps even healed (to some degree) the literary wound you have felt.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to voice your concern. I hope you will continue to do so in the future.

      In conclusion, I believe that using the word “Crescent” is, at least, an area of flexibility and legitimate differing; and one must consider the context in which it is being employed.

      And Allah knows best.

      • Jazaaka Allahu khayran for taken readers’ comments seriously, reading them, and responding to them, highly appreciated.

  6. Barakallahu fikum Rami. May Allah increase you in knowledge and goodness. It is the reader’s right that their questions and concerns be responded too.

    Readers’ questions are also a means whereby I can better learn and improve my writings and discourse.

    Your brother; and at your service,

    Surkheel Abu Aaliyah.

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