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How the Qur’an Justifies Itself

a (7)In a previous posting about Islam’s rational monotheism (which can be read here), we saw how the Qur’an utilises a rationalist discourse to substantiate some of its main theological doctrines. As for how the Qur’an vindicates itself and rationalises its claim of truly being the Word of God, it deploys the following line of argument:

Firstly, it states that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was an unlettered Prophet [7:157]; that is, he was unable to read or write, and most certainly uneducated in the modern sense of the word: And you did not used to recite any book before this, and nor did you write it with your right hand. For then the seekers of falsehood would have had misgivings. [29:48] Say: ‘Had God so willed I would not have recited it to you, neither would He have made you aware of it. I have lived among you a lifetime before this [came to me]. Will you not use your reason.’ [10:16]

Secondly, it asserts its miraculous nature – described by Muslim scholars as its i‘jaz or “inimitability.” The Qur’an, as Muslims believe, has no equal: as hard as someone may try, they will not be able to match it in terms of its sheer eloquence, beauty, cadence, wisdom and internal consistency. Speaking about its literary style, Turner said about the Qur’an: ‘Indeed, the Koran is written in a language wholly divergent in syntax and structure from any other, including the ‘secular’ Arabic literature of pre-Islamic times. Many experts in Arabic literature will attest it is distinguished by excellences of sound and eloquence, rhetoric and metaphor, assonance and alliteration, of onomatopoeia and rhyme, of ellipsis and parallelism. So sublime were they that certain Arab poets of the day would fall in prostration at the inimitable eloquence of the Muhammadan message, while the first recipients of the Divine message were moved to deem it miraculous.’1

It is not just in form that it is miraculous, but in content too: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an. If it had been from other than God they would have surely found therein many contradictions. [4:82] Thus, to those who are prepared to consider it carefully (free of ideological or political agendas which blinker the heart’s receptivity from the outset), the Qur’an reflects a perfect consistency, spiritual beauty and a complete absence of error and inaccuracy which suffice as proof for its Divine origin. In fact, its wisdoms, prophecies, lack of scientific errors, historical narratives, self-assertions and unique literary style – in that it does not fit any of the known rhythmic metres (bihar) of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry (shi‘r), nor the rules of rhymed prose (saj’), nor straightforward speech (mursal) – make it impossible for the Qur’an to be an actual product of human authorship.

Thirdly, the Qur’an challenges its skeptics and deniers to produce something similar to it: Do they say: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [52:33-34] The above verse is one of the so-called tahaddi or “challenge” verses which sets out to prove the divine nature of the Qur’an. Another verse seems to have lightened the challenge: Do they say: ‘He has forged it?’ Say: ‘Then bring ten forged chapters like it, and call [to you aid] whomsoever you can, other than God, if what you say be true.’ [11:13] The final passages on the matter eases the challenge still more: If you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a chapter the like thereof, and call your witnesses other than God, if you are truthful. But if you cannot, and you will not be able to, then guard yourself against a fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers. [2:23-24] Now the reasoning here is clinical. If it truly was written by a man, another man should be able to author something similar; even if it be just a chapter (the shortest chapter, or surah, of the Qur’an consisting of just three verses). Yet this challenge remains unmet until today – a sure proof of its miraculous origin. Rationally speaking, then, once doubt is dispelled, one ought to take steps to follow the Quranic message and accept its truths and teachings, and thus guard against the Hellfire.

Ibn Kathir makes the following point: ‘Many scholars have said that God sent each prophet with a miracle that was appropriate for the people of their time. Thus, in the time of Moses, peace be upon him, sorcery was prized and sorcerers highly regarded. So God sent him with a miracle to bedazzle the eye and confound every sorcerer. When they became certain the miracle was from [God] the August, the Compeller, they surrendered to Islam and became righteous. As for Jesus, peace be upon him, he was sent in an age of physicians and those who studied the natural sciences. So he came to them with miracles that were beyond the doing of anyone, save one who is aided by He who revealed the Law. For how could a physician be able to give life to clay, or cure the blind and heal the lepper, or raise to life he who was in his grave awaiting Judgement Day? Similarly, God sent Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a time of eloquence of speech and accomplished poets. So he came to them with a Book from God which, if all men and jinn gathered together to produce the like of it, or the like of ten chapters of it, or the like of a single chapter of it, they wouldn’t be able to do so; even if they were to help one another. For it is none other than the Word of God, which no human speech can replicate.’2

The examples in the earlier blog, and this blog piece, 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. 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. Says the Qur’an: 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]

1. Colin Turner, Islam: the Basics (Great Britain: Routledge, 2006) , 52.

2. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 1:373.

Islam’s Rational Monotheism in a Nutshell

oxforduniShaykh Abdal Hakim Murad explains: ‘In the Western milieu, converts to Islam claim that they are attracted to what they regard as its clear, rationally-accessible teachings, unobscured by elaborate mysteries. It is not only insiders who wish to take this view. Non-Muslim academic accounts … now frequently draw attention to the central role of reason in Islamic theology.’1

He cites Leaman in his The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, saying: ‘The Qur’an does indeed display an unusual commitment to argument and logic in its self-explanation.’2

Earlier in the same volume, Leaman says that whereas Judaism is strongly linked with ethnicity, and Christianity with a leap of faith, Islam, he says, has successfully grown by stressing its rationality and evidentiality.3

With that being said, let us now consider a few examples of how the Qur’an employs a universal rationalist discourse – especially in terms of its theology and its invitation to monotheism:

1. One of its rational arguments confronts atheism. Here the Qur’an interrogates the belief of atheists by asking: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? Or did they create the heavens and the earth? No, they have no certainty [52:35-6] Thus, either we created ourselves: which is inconceivable; or we were created from nothing: another impossibility. Logic just leaves us a third possibility: that we were created by a creator. This simple argument doesn’t only posit a creator, but given the remarkable diversity and complexity of life and the universe, this creator must possess power, will, knowledge, wisdom and intent. That is, creation must have a wise, intelligent and purposeful Designer.

One detects the sheer eloquence and potency of the original Arabic (undoubtedly, lost in translation) in the conversion story of Jubayr b. Mut‘im. He says that he once heard the Prophet, upon whom be peace, recite the chapter containing this verse during the sunset prayer. When he reached the actual verse, Jubayr said, kada qalbi an yatir – ‘I felt as if my heart would fly out [of my chest].’ He then went on to embrace Islam.4

2. Another logical argument the Qur’an uses is: Have you not heard of he [Nimrod] who argued with Abraham about his Lord, because God had given him the kingdom? Abraham said: ‘My Lord is He who gives life and death.’ He replied: ‘I give life [by sparing people] and death [by executing them]!’ So Abraham replied: ‘God causes the sun to rise from the east, so cause it to come from the west!’ Thus was the disbeliever confounded. [2:258]

Nimrod initially feels smug in his response to Abraham that he too has power over the life and death of his subjects. Hence, having seen the way Nimrod is prepared to twist the issue, Abraham takes the argument to another level by challenging him to alter the movement of the sun as it courses through the sky. Nimrod is silenced and stupefied; his pretences shattered; and he is made to realise that divinity cannot be claimed merely by having sovereign power over a people in some tiny corner of God’s earth.

3. In addressing the Christian claim of Jesus’ divinity, the Qur’an says: The Messiah son of Mary was no more than a Messenger, before whom other Messengers had passed away. His mother was a saintly woman. They both ate food. See how We make the signs clear for them; then see how they are deluded from the truth. [5:75]

The ordinary human life which Christ lived has troubled those who wish to make him into a deity, in spite of evidences to the contrary in the Gospels. The Qur’an’s logic is clear. Food is eaten to satisfy an unquestionable physical need. Whoever needs to eat earthly food cannot, therefore, be a true deity possessing absolute perfection and thus be worthy of worship. The saintly Mary and her son, Jesus, both ate; thus they cannot be divine.

In fact, based on the likes of this verse, many theologians went on to rationally define a true deity, or ilah, as: ‘One who is independant of all needs beyond Himself, while all else is totally in need of Him (mustaghni ‘an kulli ma siwahu wa muftaqir ilayhi kulli ma ‘adahu). Now this is less a definition of ilah  – which is unanimously defined as al-ma’bud, or “that which is worshipped” – as it is the least common denominator which would rationally qualify something to be worthy of being the true deity.5

As for condemning the attitude which deifies Jesus – see how they are deluded from the truth – can this be a justification for Muslims to not respect the beliefs of others? Well that all depends upon how we define respect. Respect can mean to admire, honour or approve of a thing. It may also be used in the sense of being polite, civil, courteous and considerate. If a belief is blasphemous or idolatrous (which for both Jews and for Muslims Jesus’s alleged divinity is), it is inconceivable that believers could respect it in the sense of honouring, admiring or approving it. If, on the other hand, respect refers to a call to tolerate other peoples’ beliefs – along with civility, courtesy and dignified engagement, whilst remembering that faith must be freely chosen, since: There is no compulsion in religion [2:256], then this must surely be the mandate.

We may not respect a particular belief, but we must be respectful of those who hold it. Call to the way of your Lord, asks the Qur’an, with wisdom and kindly exhortation and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [16:125] And speak kindly to people [2:83] is another Quranic prescription.

4. The Qur’an employs the “logic of Lordship” to clarify to the pagan Arabs (mushriks) the folly of idolatry – of worshipping gods alongside the One true God. It says: If you were to ask them: ‘Who is it that created the heavens and earth, and subjected the sun and the moon?’ they will say: ‘God!’ Why then are they lying. [29:61] Another verse declares: Say: ‘Who is it that provides for you from the sky and the earth? Or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? Or who is it that brings forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living?And who is it that directs all affairs?’ They will say: ‘God!’ Then say: ‘Will you not then fear Him?’ [10:31]

Thus, having affirmed the role of God as sole Lord, Creator and Sustainer, the Qur’an demands that the pagan Arabs take the logic of this Lordship to its logical conclusion: that nothing else must be worshipped besides God. Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘The pagans who worshipped others along with Him affirmed that God is the sole, autonomous creator of the heavens and earth, sun and moon, alternating night and day; and that He alone is the Creator and Provider of His servants, meting out for them their livelihoods and life spans … Despite this being so, why worship others, or depend on others? For just as dominion and sovereignty is exclusively His, then likewise, He alone deserves to be worshipped.’6

5. One final example of Islam’s rational invitation: Hasn’t man seen that We created him from a drop of sperm, then he becomes an open opponent? And he makes comparisons for Us, and forgets his own creation, saying: ‘Who can revive dry bones after they have rotted away?’ Say: ‘He who created them the first time will again give them life!’ [36:77-79] The Qur’an is eager to demonstrate the plausibility of the resurrection to many of the Arab idolators who rejected the actual notion, by simply reminding them of “the first creation” of man. The fact that every individual has been brought into existence once before by the Creative Will of God, should be proof in itself that the same Creative Will is capable of doing so a second time: Do they not consider how God begins creation, then repeates it? That is easy for God! [29:19]

The Qur’an also alludes to how the phenomenon of resurrection is prefigured in this world. “Mini-resurrections” take place all the time in the natural world: flowers and foliage die partial deaths in winter, only to be brought to life again in spring.

The Qur’an also gives the simile of a desert whose scorched dead earth springs to lush green life with each merciful drop of rain: He it is who sends the winds as glad-tidings to herald His mercy, till, when they bear a cloud heavy with rain, We drive them to a dead land and then cause the rain to descend, thereby bringing forth fruits of every kind. Thus shall We raise up the dead. Perhaps you will remember. [7:57]

The above are a few samples of how the Qur’an uses a rational discourse to vindicate its key theological truths, without having to revert to a circular argument (i.e. it is true because the Qur’an says so). So whilst the Qur’an does insist upon it being the revealed truth and the Word of God, and that it should be accepted as such, it permits a defence to be made of itself and its core metaphysical claims based on rational arguments and sound reasoning. As for how the Qur’an vindicates itself, that shall be the concern of a future posting; God-willing.

1. Reason as Balance (CMS Paper 3), 2, at www.cambridgemuslimcollege.org – drawing from Anne-Sophie Roald, New Muslims in the European Context (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2004), 116-24.

2. Leaman, The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 2008), 65.

3. ibid., 55.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.4573; Muslim, no.463.

5. Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 208. As for its agreed-upon definition of ma‘bud – “that which is deified,” it can be found in: Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:128; al-Suyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 2002), 33; al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 82.

6. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 3:431.

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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