InsightJuly August 2007

Reason And Faith In Islam

Prof. Abdul Ali

The Our’an is believed by Muslims to be the Book revealed by Allah to the unschooled Prophet Muhammad as well as kept preserved in its original form for all times to come. Obviously, faith is an important element of the religion of Islam. Initially, it insists on a few basic articles of faith such as Unity of Allah, Prophethood of Muhammad, divine origin of the Qur’an, life after death, accountability of the individual for his deeds, etc. Beyond these articles of faith it leaves the mind of Muslims free to observe, contemplate, assimilate and draw inferences. Moreover, the faith the Our’an builds in men is not at all blind or arbitrary. It is rather sought to be substantiated by the dictates of reason and intellect. From this particular point of view the Our’an itself is a unique blend of faith and reason, religion and philosophy. Consider, for example, the following verse:

The Qur’an was revealed in the month of Ramadan as a guidance for mankind along with clear proofs in support of its being the guidance as well as the criterion of right and wrong.1

It is evident from the above that when we approach the Our’an with our faith in it as a source of guidance, we are in the realm of faith. But when we investigate in it the proofs of its being the guidance, we deal with reason, philosophy and science. That is the main reason why the matter of relationship between reason and faith has always been an important issue in the intellec­tual history of Islam.

It is with the explicit purpose of instilling in man the spirit of worshipping Allah with full awareness of His existence that Islam has put the greatest possible emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge and learning. It is described as one of the unavoidable injunctions of Allah that are incumbent upon man. That is the main reason why cultivation of knowledge is described as a sacred act of worship to Allah. Both the Qur’an and Traditions of Prophet Muhammad, the two main sources of Islamic thought, are fu11 of such expressions as emphasize the importance of knowledge and intellectual thought in the life of man on the one hand and stimulate him to cultivate it on the other.

A careful study of the Qur’an reveals that it has taken various measures to enable man to promote his critical acumen and intellectual capacity for the constructive purpose of not only understanding his position vis-à-vis the universe and its Creator, but also doing good to humanity by advancing the cause of knowledge and learning. First, it seeks to purge the human mind of all sorts of superstitions, delusions and prejudices that kill its vitality. It has denounced conj ecture, illusion and empty guesswork in the following words:

(And they have no knowledge thereof. They follow but a guess, and lo! a guess can never take the place of the truth).2

(And they say: If the Beneficent One had so willed, we should not have worshipped them. They have no knowledge of whatsoever of that. They do but guess).3

It is clear from the above verses that the Qur’an does not permit blind imitation of unhealthy practices and traditions irrespective of whether they have been inherited from one’s own parents and forefathers or from others.

Secondly, man is repeatedly asked in the Qur’an to assert his reason and intellect to attain knowledge. This is evident from the fact that the word ilm and its derivatives have occurred 805 times; the word albab (minds) 16 times; and the word aql and its derivatives 49 times in the Qur’an.4

Thirdly, the Qur’an exhorts man time and again to observe and investigate natural phenomena with a view to getting acquainted with the laws of nature operating in the universe. There are about 750 verses in the Qur’an – about one-eighth of the Book- that not only emphasize ref lection on natural phenomena, but also contain scientific signs which are becoming more and more manifest with the advancement of science. Consider, for example, the following verses:

Do they not look?
At the sky above them?­
How we made it
And adorned it,
And there are no flaws in it?
And the earth –
We have spread it out
And set thereon mountains
Standing firm, and produced
Therein every kind of
Beautiful growth (in pairs).
To be observed and commemorated
By every devotee Turning (to God). 5

Do they not look at the camels?
How they are made?-
And at the Sky,
How it is raised high?­
And the mountains,
How they are fixed firm?
And at the Earth,
How it is spread out …? 6

Obviously, the call for observing the natural phenomena as maintained in the above and like verses does not mean mere casting a superficial look at them, but rather it is implied that man should try to understand and ascertain the universal laws of nature operating in them by developing and applying the exp e raiment I method of research based on the faculties of reason and perception, with which he has been endowed by Allah.

By referring to various objects of nature and natural phenomena, the Qur’an not only stirred man’s intellectual curiosity, but also greatly advanced his scientific knowledge. There are a number of passages in the Qur’an that catapulted man to the utmost heights of scientific knowledge by disclosing some secrets of nature which science has taken hundreds of years to verify and establish. Thanks to the discoveries and inventions of modern science, the intellectual and rational foundations of the Qur’en may now be adequately illustrated with examples drawn from such diverse branches of knowledge as cosmology, physics, biology, and medicine.

A few such illustrations are mentioned below.

I n the following verse the Qur’an teaches man pure science by alluding to the rotation of the earth and other celestial bodies at a time when all kinds of superstitions had been dominant upon the minds of the people about this vital scientific fact:

And He (Allah) it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They swim, each in an orbit.7

Another startling scientific discovery made in the recent past regarding the comets of ice clearly brings to light the scientific significance of the information contained in the following Qur’anic verse:

He sends down from the sky mountains wherein is hail… 8

It is clear from the above verse that mountains of ice or comets of ice are being sent down regularly from the sky (space). towards the earth. Scientists were totally ignorant of this phenomenon until 1986. It was scientifically confirmed only in 1988. According to this discovery, heavy snowballs or comets of ice weighing about 100 tons each and measuring about 30 feet across are constantly falling from unknown places in the space into the earth’s atmosphere at the rate of 10 million a year. Finally, they break into hail due to tidal waves in the atmosphere, end join the earth’s water cycle. 9

The Qur’an is full of such scientific miracles. A few more instances of the miraculous nature of the Book from the modern scientific viewpoint are given below with a view to further highlighting the rational and intellectual foundations of the Qur’an.

It is now fully established by science that everything exists in pairs as male and female including the rock crystals and electricity. The same fact was revealed in the Qur’an in the following words.

Praise be to Him Who created all things in pairs, of that which the earth grows, and of their own kind, and of kinds which they know not. 10

Secondly, now it is a firmly established scientific fact that ever since its creation the universe has been expanding at an accelerating rate, with galaxies zooming away from each other. The same phenomenon is almost literally described in the Our’an as follows;

We have built the firmament with might, and we are certainly expanding it.11

Similarly, modern astronomical researches clearly point not only to the birth and death of the sun and the solar system, but also to the vanishing away of the existing firmaments. It is indeed amazing to know that these science-based vaguely described possibilities and conclusions have got a clear mention in the following verses which talk of the said possibilities as predestined realities with the full vigor of certainty:

When the sun is folded up; and when the stars fall, losing their lusture.12

The Day that We roll up the heavens like a scroll rolled up for books. Even, as We produced the first creation, so shall We produce a new one: a promise We have undertaken; truly shall We fulfill it.13

The above observations are only a few specimens of the intellectual and rational foundations of the Qur’an. As rightly held by the distinguished French surgeon and scholar Maurice Bacilli in his book The Bible, the Our’an and Science, there is not even a single statement in the Qur’an which may be assailable from a modern scientific point of view. The rational and intellectual approach adopted by the Qur’an revealed to the unschooled Prophet over fourteen hundred years ago in the age of superstitions and blind faith, need to be studied more seriously with the aid of science as an effective tool of study and research with a view to further sharpening and aiding man’s understanding of the letter and spirit of the Book.

It is worthy of mention in this context that so long as the followers of Islam were inspired by these and like Qur’anic verses, they were not only filled with the spirit of scientific enquiry, but also developed a keen sense of intellectua1 curiosity and a voracious appetite for learning. They also travelled far and wide in search of knowledge, and contributed a great deal to human thought and progress by pursuing and patronizing study and research in all branches of learning_ As a result, they soon became in possession of the philosophical, medical and mathematical works of Greek, Persian and Indian scholars. In this way they assimilated in a remarkably short span of time what had taken the ancient civilized world centuries to develop. Arabic now became the language of natural sciences, medicine and philosophy, while the Arabic-speaking peoples served as the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilization across the world. They not only preserved the ancient sciences and intell­ectual legacies of Greece, Iran and India, but also enriched and transmitted the same to the West, which made possible the renaissance of Western Europe.

On the contrary when the later followers of Islam stopped asserting their rational faculties, they became lethargic, dogmatic and backward. It is not at all surprising to know that their downfall coincided with the predominance of narrow traditiona1ism over enlightened rationalism in them, following which the intellectual leadership of the world shifted from the East to the West. This phenomenon in turn made the spiritually starved materialistic West power-drunk with dangerous consequences for the entire globe, as it is bent upon maintaining their domination over the world by hook or by crook by throwing to the winds all norms of democratic and human values.

In summing up it may fairly be said that in Islam both reason and faith or rationalism and traditionalism are interlinked and interdependent. They are also found to be supportive of each other. None of the two can be separated from the other without causing untold suffering to humanity. It was mainly because of this balanced combination that Islam as an educational force not only inspired Muslims to cultivate knowledge and learning, but also infused in them the spirit of scientific enquiry which is the very life and soul, of modern sciences. Their lofty achievements in various branches of knowledge as well as their concept and practice of enlightened moderation are the results of their having been closer to the spirit of Islam. Finally, Islam as a religion and civilization is fully in agreement with the opinion expressed by the renowned scientist Albert Einstein “Religion without science is blind; while science without religion is lame”.

1. The Qur’an, 11:185
2. The Qur’an, LIII:28 ( tr. By M.M. Pickthell)
3. The Qur’an, XLIII:20 (tr. M.M. Pickthall)
4. Prof. Darwesh Mustafa:”Terikh al-‘Ulum f-il-Hadaret al-Islamiyah” in the Journal Manar al-islam January, 1977, p.87
5. The Qur’an, L:6-8 (tr. by A. Yusuf Ali)
6. The Qur’an,LXXXVIII:17-20 (tr. by A. Yusuf Ali)
7. The Qur’an, XXI:33 (tr. by M.M.Pickthall)
8. The Qur’an, XXIV:43
9. Ibrahim Bin Syed: “The Qur’anic Revelations on Comets of Ice” in The Muslim World League Journal, Saudi Arabia, Vol. XVI, Nos.1&2, pp.10-11
10. The Qur’an, XXXVI:36
11. The Qur’an, LI:47
12. The Qur’an, LXXXI:1-2 (tr. by A. Yusuf Ali)
13. The Qur’an, XXI:104 (tr. by A. Yusuf Ali)

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