The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Beyond the Limits of Reason & Rationality

space-cube-by-dan-luvisiLast year I wrote a series of blogs about Islam, the Qur’an and rationality. Like others who have discussed faith & reason in recent times, I too was motivated by the desire to address a popular fallacy: that religion, or religious belief, is irrational. It wasn’t the only reason why I felt to write about these matters, but it was a significant motivator.

The first of these postings was entitled: Reason, Revelation, Religion. Of its two major assertions is that ‘aql (reason, rationale), far from being at odds with religion [Islam], actually complements it. Classical jurists, like Ibn Taymiyyah, argue: ‘The messengers came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to. They never came with what reason deems impossible.’1 Its second assertion is that contrary to the dogma of the New Atheists, that any belief not grounded in science or rationality is clearly false, is itself false. For in the real world there are many beliefs and values which transcend what science and rationality can prove (like the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Can it justifiably be said that to put stock in such a belief is false or irrational?)

The second, Islam’s Rational Monotheism, sought to show the Qur’an’s use of rational arguments and sound reasoning to justify its core theological truths; presenting five Quranic examples of such a rationalist discourse.

This was followed by a discussion as to how the Qur’an rationalises and vindicates its claim of being God’s Word. How the Qur’an Justifies Itself deployed five arguments as to why this is so. In the blog’s conclusion I insisted that this, and the previous articles on this topic: ‘serve to show the rationality of the Qur’an, and that it is one which is grounded in self-evident matters and everyday experience; accessible to all who care to reflect or pay heed.’ I finished this discussion by stating: ‘Nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of its fundamental theological principles. Rather, it urges, it cajoles; demands even, that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a leap of faith, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too.’

One drawback with rational arguments is that the human creature isn’t just a rational being; and the skeptical mind is, as the Qur’an points out, given to endless argument. Indeed We have displayed for mankind in this Qur’an all kinds of examples. But man, more than anything, is contentious. [18:54]

One way to deal with religious skeptics is to go beyond the rational: to appeal to the entirety of human experience: mind, heart, soul, emotions and lived experience. Thus classical arguments for the existence of God, along with the inimitable nature of the Qur’an; the moral order and fitrah; the fine-tuning of the universe; the life, character and predictions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him; as well as experiential knowledge arrived at through works of faith and spiritual illumination, act in concert to form compelling reasons that Islam offers for belief in the existence of God and of heeding His call. Their messengers said: ‘Is there any doubt about God, the Maker of the heavens and earth? He calls you that He may forgive you your sins and grant you respite till an appointed time.’ [14:10]

Al-Bayjuri, one of the most highly accomplished jurist-theologians of Egypt in his age, spells out the nature of faith (iman) and its related levels or types. He states that faith is of five ascending levels:

1 – Faith via trust-based acceptance (taqlid): which is where faith arises out of taking it from an authority one trusts (as a child trusts a parent or teacher), without knowing the formal proofs for it. This characterises the faith of the lay people, in general.

2 – Faith through knowledge (‘ilm): this is where faith results from learning formal proofs and discursive arguments for one’s belief. This is the faith of the learned, in general; and the theologians, in particular.

3 – Faith vis-a-via inner spiritual sight (‘ayan): it is where faith is the result of the heart having a constant and abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of God. This is the faith of those who have attained to the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). Vigilance refers to a profound “watching over” one’s heart and deeds, and a profounder sense of being watched over by God.

4 – Faith based on spiritually witnessing God (mushahadah); which is where the heart witnesses God as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun (gnostics, knowers of God); those blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). One hadith says that ihsan, the spiritual excellence sought of Muslims, is: ‘To worship God as though you see Him, and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’2

5 – Faith through witnessing only God. This is where faith reaches the level where no existence is seen save God, and the believer is devoid of all feeling of self or and other than God, and is lost in contemplation of Him. This is the Station of Annihilation, or fana’; a state of “passing away” from all but God.

Beyond this level of faith, certainty and illumination, writes al-Bayjuri, is the faith of God’s prophets and messengers. This is the station that is unveiled to none except the prophets of God, and for which no words may describe the reality of.3

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

2. Muslim, no.80.

3. See: Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

Single Post Navigation

7 thoughts on “Beyond the Limits of Reason & Rationality

  1. Reblogged this on ilmsharif.

  2. charlotten2 on said:

    The Compassionate One / has taught the Qur’an. / He cre- ated man, / teaching him [coherent] speech. / The sun and the moon follow a reckoning, / and the grass and the trees prostrate. / And He has raised the heaven and set up the bal- ance, / [declaring] that you should not contravene with re- gard to the balance. / And observe the weights with justice and do not skimp the balance. (Al-Rahman, 55:1-9)

    The words of comfort and love during lifetime difficulties to regain that foot in front of the other, walking slowly getting to that door….which will open!x

    • Ah yes, the comforting words of the Qur’an. In it the Spirit finds a healing message of a caring and compassionate Lord, who tends to this fragile human creature called Man; nurturing in him a realisation that the source of all goodness is One; inspiring in him loving duty to the One; indemnifying him in the love of the One; so that he may ultimately be brought into the Majestic Presence of the One.

  3. Atif Jung on said:

    Can you kindly explain the statement “where no existence is seen save God”. How is the station of ‘fana’ to be seen in light of the great misunderstanding surrounding this concept/ Does a person become one with God or is it a realisation of God being the only True reality and existence, everything being completely dependant upon Him? Finally were the Prophets and Messengers beyond level 5? JazakumAllahukhairan

    • Thank you for the question. The brief reply for now is that the idea of being “lost” to oneself, in one’s remembrance or contemplation of God, has been explained in a number of ways. What the scholars all agree upon is that at no point does the human creature “indwell” or physically “unite” or “become one” with the Creator. The servant always remains the servant and the Lord always remains Lord. To believe otherwise would be clear-cut blasphemy or kufr.

      Instead, fana is where the will of the servant becomes utterly at one with the will of God, in that the servant loves and desires only what Allah loves and desires, and loathes only what Allah loathes. Fana is also where, as you rightly mentioned, the heart of the servant witnesses only Allah, and is oblivious to all else – it is where the servant is, as per the hadith, “worshiping Allah as though seeing Him.”

      I’m just finishing off the next blog entitled, Nurturing Presence of Heart with God. There, using the words of al-Ghazali and Ibn al-Qayyim, further light is shed on the the matter of fana and of spiritually witnessing Allah (mushahadah)..

      And Allah knows best.

  4. “One way to deal with religious skeptics is to go beyond the rational”. No. There is no “beyond the rational” precisely because we know that humans are largely irrational and dream up all kinds of things. Sceptics are only interested in what can be shown to be true, not what is felt to be true or asserted to be true or what lots of people believe to be true.

    Also the universe isn’t fine tuned; our models of how the universe works are consistently inaccurate and so we have to include standard corrections to make them work.

    Regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these are rationally derived from nature, just as the laws of physics are; hence they are called natural rights, which needless to say contrast with Islam’s conception of human rights as outlined in the Cairo declaration.

  5. Ustadh, I would appreciate your thoughts on to what extent you agree with Baggini’s outline of how to present a case for anything in his “A Very Short Introduction to Atheism.”

    Is this a good starting point?

    One makes a case by a combination of i. argument ii. evidence and iii. rhetoric.

    Arguments can be good or bad.

    Evidence can be strong or weak.

    Rhetoric helps in presenting a case but does not determine its validity.

    “The key general principle is that evidence is stronger if it is available to inspection by more people on repeated occasions.”

    If a man witnesses a dog burst in flame without cause this does not mean it evidence for the spontaneous combustion of dogs. That is because the larger amount of observations of dogs show that this does not occur. Also human beings can misinterpret their limited observations. This does not mean the man is a liar in what he saw but we can be sceptical about his conclusion that spontaneous combustion of dogs do really occur. It would require a greater number of observations of dogs bursting into flames for us to consider the possibility of spontaneous dog combustion.

    The principle “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is not necessarily true.

    Is there butter in the fridge? If you don’t open the door and look inside that would be considered an absence of evidence but this would not amount to evidence of absence. Only after we open the fridge and have a thorough look and still not find the butter can we claim an evidence of absence.

    The latter kind of absence of evidence really is strong evidence for absence.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: