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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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