InsightMarch April 2007

Rationalism In Islam

Prof. Mohammed Rafi

Piety of soul, purity of heart and intention and the sincerity of comprehension are recognized as the essential of truth by eminent scientist and enlightened intellectuals. Rationalism is the philosophical view that reason is the sources of all knowledge, a view attributed to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. It is in contrast to empiricism which believes that all knowledge is derived form experience. If reason is the source of all knowledge then every thing that can be known, including God and natural world, must be intelligible and rationally explicable. Some rationalists like Huxley, believe in a religion without revelation or God.

Islam is concerned with the broad aim of life and the programme of action by which hat aim can be attained. It is meant for a free independent and intelligent person who has the courage to think, judge and act for himself. It encompasses rationality and experience and rejects blind faith “Those who, when the revelations of their Rabb (nourisher) are presented to them, do not fall thereat deaf and blind” (25:73).

The search for rational foundations in Islam may be regarded to have begun with the Prophet himself. His constant prayer was; ‘God! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things’. During the last 500 years religions thought in Islam has been practically stationary. There was a time when European thought received inspiration form the world of Islam. The most remarkable phenomenon of modern history however is the enormous rapidity with which the world of Islam is spiritually moving towards the West. There is nothing wrong in this movement for European culture on its intellectual side. According to Iqbal “The main purpose of the Quran is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold manifestations with God and the universe. Islam is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual! It is the vivid sense of God’s directive force and unflinching working of his laws. It relates to a hearty participation in this upward progressive trend and movement of life.” Islam views the world as an expression of God’s creative force. It gives broad principles as guidance to man in all works of life which enable him to attain the goal of self realisation and social welfare. These principles are for all times and adjusted through mutual consultation according to the needs of time. A few basic laws remain unchanged. The principles are not to be followed blindly, but applied with intelligence and forethought. The Quran Says, “Those who do not use their faculties of thinking, reasoning and deliberating are not human beings, they are living their lives on the animal level, even worse than that. These are the cursed people “(7:179).

Presently we are witnessing violent reactions against reason. The Quran sets forth a sustaining practical programme in which human reason, acting in the light of Divine Revelation, leads to the right path. The Quran enjoins man to believe in God, to follow His laws, to believe in one’s own self, to love and serve his fellow beings, to act in a virtuous manner so as to develop and express the best in them. The process of thinking, reasoning and action, with the passage of time, is responsible for the evolution of man to a higher level of existence. This makes him superior to all other creations of God. Any person or species that shuns struggle (Jihad) for a better future remains at that stage and does not evolve any further. The Quran calls this state ‘Jaheem’ (Hell’ in common terms).

The capability to rationalise is a human trait. Animals do not have this capacity, they use their instincts. The cave dwellers of the past and the moon conquering humans of today belong to the same species but different in their intelligence and wisdoms. The Quran repeatedly exhorts man to think and think hard. Those who use their reason are held in admiration. “The blind and deaf ignorant and the seeing (knowledgeable) are not equal. Will you not then reflect on this? (6:50, 11:24) “Are those who know equal with those who know not? But only men of understanding will pay heel” (39:9).

IN the early period of Muslim history the Mutazilites, the rationalists, upheld man’s freedom of thought and action and hence his responsibility for whatever he does. They rejected the fatalism of the later Ashaarities. Due to the peculiar circumstances of that time, they lost their case to the orthodox Ashaarites in the 4th and 5th centuries. However the rationalist trend continued through philosophers, thinkers and reformers in all Muslim countries.

The purpose of Divine Revelation is to activate and regenerate the human intellect and develop its field of activity positively. The Quran constantly appeals to reason and experience. It says, ‘These people do not ponder and reflect on the Quran.It seems as if their minds have locked themselves up from the inside so that nothing can get into them (47:24). It also does not accept as Momineen (Believers) who readily believe without questioning or thinking over it.. True believers are those who do not accept without scrutiny and deliberation (25:73). ‘Allah brings forward the clues and hints in such a fashion thereby enabling you to reflect on this life and the hereafter’ (2:219). The true concept and practice of Islam has been long forgotten, rather lulled to sleep by the clerics and religious obscurantist who consider the intellectual development and achievements of a particular period in history as the benchmark and have ruled out any further thinking, re-evaluation and the progress of the thought process. Following in the footsteps of one’s forefathers as the purpose of life and allowing no change is called conformity or blind following (Taqleed). The word ‘Taqleed’ is derived from ‘Qaladah’ meaning the collar which keeps animals under control to lead them as desired. Even criticism of this stagnation of knowledge and thinking is not allowed and may amount to heresy. The great thinkers of the last century have all spoken against ‘Taqleed’. A scholar or scientist discovers a new thing and is sentenced to death on the grounds of heresy. European history is a history of this conflict between knowledge and religion. Progress came with an end to religious interference and emancipation from obscurantism..

The worst thing that can happen is when ignorance enters the fold of social life and politics and takes the law into its hands., The recent past has seen a great deal of this phenomenon at work ,consequently the society is suffering its ill-effects. There is no need to despair. The Quran points out that such a phase is always temporary. With the passage of time they are bound to whither away and “Neither heaven nor earth will shed a tear over their demise”(44:29)Nations using their intelligence and knowledge keep gaining strength while the so called Muslim states have become weak to the point where they cannot even defend themselves. Islam stresses the importance of this world as well as the hereafter “The heavenly bodies and earth have been brought under control for you (Human beings) by Allah. There are signs in them for those who think and reflect” (45:13). The entire universe works in accordance with the Divine Laws of Nature. These can be discovered through intelligence, knowledge and hard work for the benefit of mankind. Similarly the hidden forces and energies can be brought under control. When the Malaika bowed to Adam, it was precisely in recognition of Adam’s hidden capacities of knowledge and intelligence which are far superior to all other creations of Allah including the Malaika (usually translated as ‘Angels’). Sir Syed calls them the forces of nature. The great philosopher and scholar of medicine and social sciences Al-Kindi believed that the highest existence was Reason and Intellect which proceeds from God by way of emanation and that our soul is an uncompunded, imperishable essence which was in the world of reason before its descent to the sensuous world. Thus it can have both sensible and rational knowledge. Al-Farabi also stressed the acquisition of knowledge of all things in the universe; its main ain being to realise God.. Ibn-e-Sina contended that intellect enables man to know God. It is incumbent upon man to polish his intellect, acquire knowledge and develop his reasoning abilities so that he may ennoble his soul and make it perfect and may become a rational scientist and get the capacity of eternal bliss in the hereafter.

The rejection of religious interference in state affairs in the West has had its negative effect too. Too much secularisation of thought and action has led them to reject the hereafter and hence they feel that they are not answerable to any supreme authority for their worldly actions. The Law of Retribution and Requital has no place in their thought process. Islam on the other hand is a ‘Deen’ of balance in all walks of life. It stresses that all emotions should be controlled by reason and reason should be guided by Divine Revelation through a set of permanent values. These values do not favour anyone, least of all theocracy. They stand for the establishment of a social order in which all its members act as independent agents striving to make this world more liveable and fit for further evolution to higher form of life in the ‘Akhirah’.

More than a thousand verses of the Quran relate to nature and its working and in these verses human beings are asked to pause, see, ponder, reflect and act. It is the duty of every Muslim to use his mental faculties and acquire knowledge. The Quran says, ‘Have you ever pondered the system that brings rain? What are the laws governing the various crops and flowers and fruits of different colour ? The structure of the mountains. They point towards an evolutionary system’ (35:27,28)

Even the Ulama in Islam are not those who have religions knowledge and lead prayers in mosques. In the light of the following verse the word Ulema can only be translated as scientist “The Book of nature is for everyone, but only those who submit to the awe – inspiring grandeur of its laws, who think and reflect upon these in the light of knowledge and discernment are the people entitled to be called Ulema” (37:27,28). Ibn-e-Tufail a great rationalist of the 12th century came to emphasize that man should always observe God through His creations and not to be negligent of Him even for the twinkling of an eye, for only in this way can man hope to feel happy and satisfied.

Inactivity in exploring and studying the world around us and taking advantage of the bounties of nature has led the present day Muslims to a life which is miserable’ poor and meaningless. This will ultimately make them losers in the hereafter. It has to be realised that the laws of nature are not man made, they are made by Allah; these can be discovered through hard work, thought and experiment. The Divine Values are permanent and have been provided to the human through his Messengers. The method through which the code of Religious Law (Sharia) has to operate in different times and societies is called the Ijtihad in which changes are made through intellectual mutual consent (3:158, 42:38) by the use of thought and reflection. Allama Iqbal says, “Turning now to the groundwork of legal principles in the Quran, it is perfectly clear that far from leaving no scope for human thought and legislative activity,the breadth of these principles virtually acts as an awakener of human thought….The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation guided but unhampered by the word of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems”. Commenting on Pakistan’s creations, he said, “A newly created state will have to erect its own laws of this Islamic law will be rewritten to fulfill the needs of modern time while simultaneously ridding itself of the laws under un-Islamic influences brought by Arab Imperialism.

No one knows how long the shackles which are being put on the Quran and human intellect will keep crippling the nation; but certainly this cannot last forever. To what extent Islam will be twisted during this period is beyond imaginations. Referring to the second Caliph, Dr. Iqbal says, “The first critical and independent mind in Islam who at the last moment of the Prophet (SAW) had the moral courage to utter these remarkable words “The Book of Allah is sufficient for us”.

Not with standing the forces of exploitation the Eternal Truth is ultimately bound to prevail. ‘Man shall have only for which he strives’ (53:99).

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