Islam, Reason & Rationality
Are all religions (and thus, Islam) irrational? Does the Qur’an seek to stifle the human intellect? How reasonable is it to insist that Islam is against reason? And perhaps just as importantly, what do we mean by the words “intellect” or “reason”?
The Qur’anic term used for “intellect” or “reason” is ‘aql. In his Dictionary of Quranic Terms, al-Raghib al-Asbahani glosses the lexical root of ‘aql thus: ‘The root of ‘aql is: restraint (imsak) and seeking to prevent (istimsak), as in: “he hobbled the camel with the harness” (‘aqal al-ba‘ir bi’l-‘iqal).’1
In their works on ethics, scholars sought to define what they meant by ‘aql – “reason,” “intellect”, “rationality” – proffering several definitions current at the time. For some, reason is an intuition (gharizah) by which knowledge is acquired and understood. For others ‘aql is a kind of necessary knowledge (darb min al-‘ulum al-dururi): knowledge that a hearer has no choice but to accept when it is presented to his mind. Some say it is a simple substance (jawhar basit); some, a transparent body (jism shaffaf); for others still, it is simply light (nur).
Ibn al-Jawzi, having listed these definitions, went on to describe it as: ‘an intuition, as it were, a light cast into the heart, enabling matters to be comprehended; the possible and impossible to be known; and the consequences of things to be grasped. This light may be strong or weak. If it is strong, it overcomes desires (hawa) via the realisation of their consequences.’2 The position of most scholars, he adds, is that the seat of reason is the heart; not the mind.3 He then quotes the following verse of the Qur’an to justify the assertion: Have they not travelled in the land, and have they not hearts to comprehend with? [22:46]
‘Aql, as the Qur’an regards it, is understood in a moral context as a harness of desires and passions: it isn’t a tool for mere dialectic or a pretext to philosophise away belief or obedience to God. When the faculty of reason is used to reign in our tendencies to sin, or guides it to the need for repentance after sin, it honours man. It follows, that if reason is too feeble or weak to restrain man from giving himself over to his whims or to the dictates of his ego; if it makes him turn a deaf ear to the divine call, he ruins and debases himself. As such, he can hardly be called intelligent; a person of sound reason: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [67:10]
In this sense, ‘aql is bound with the Qur’an’s greatest ethical imperative: taqwa (piety). Both terms embody the idea of restraint and self-control, and both serve to regulate proper behaviour with God.
In fact, when the Qur’an uses the phrase afala ta‘qilun – “will you not then reason,” or ulu’l-albab – “people of intelligence,” or it’s one time usage of ulu’l-nuha – “people of discernment” [20:128], it is always in terms of knowing God, knowing our relationship with Him, and knowing how to behave towards Him.
One hadith will be cited to illustrate this: ‘Uqbah b. ‘Amr said that the Prophet, peace be upon him, would tap our shoulders before the prayer, saying: ‘Straighten your rows and do not stand unevenly, lest your hearts be at odds! Let those who possess maturity and discernment (ulu’l-ahlam wa’l-nuha) follow me.’4 So here, intelligence is equated with observing the instructions for the correct bodily position during prayer.
Wahb b. Munabbih, a celebrated pietist of the second Islamic century, said: ‘God, mighty and majestic is He, isn’t worshipped by anything better than reason.’5
‘Amir b. ‘Abd Qays, another of Islam’s early renuncients (zuhhad, sing. zahid), avowed: ‘When you reign in your intellect from what does not befit it, you are intelligent.’6
Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah, the imam and exemplar, had this to say: ‘The intelligent one is not he who recognises good and evil. Rather the intelligent one is he who recognises good and follows it; and recognises evil and refrains from it.’7
‘After faith in God,’ said ‘Ubayd Allah, ‘a person is given nothing better than reason.’8
And finally, the Companion (sahabi) ‘Urwah b. al-Zubayr declared: ‘The best of what is given to people in this worldly life is reason; while the best of what they can receive in the Afterlife is God’s acceptance.’9
To conclude: In Islam, ‘aql is that faculty given us which allows us to comprehend and recognise matters; particularly their consequences. It is a God-given gift (much like sight, hearing and the other senses) to be utilised, above all else, to discern the divine purpose in creation and to act by its demands and consequences. The truly intelligent ones are those who apply their reasoning to the created order, so as to arrive at the revealed truths sent by Heaven, seeking to live out those truths in their daily lives. Those lacking intelligence are the ones who fail to reign in their tendencies for self-deception, remaining blind to the divine purpose, and living lives in varying degrees of heedlessness and hedonism.
1. Raghib al-Asfahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus & Beirut: Dar al-Qalm & Dar al-Shamiyyah, 2002), 578.
2. Dhamm al-Hawa (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyyah, 1998), 24. My translation of the passage is adapted from J.N. Bell, Love Theory in later Hanbalite Islam (New York: State University of New York Press, 1979), 14.
3. ibid., 24.
4. Muslim, no.432.
5. Ibn Abi Dunya, Kitab al-‘Aql wa Fadlihi (Beirut: Dar al-Rayah, 2004), §.22.
6. ibid., §.35.
7. ibid., §.59.
8. ibid., §.17.
9. ibid., §.18.