Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Faith and Reason: A Qur’anic Perspective

The basic harmony of faith and reason is also manifested in the Qur’an through a series of exclusions which seek to clarify the correct from the misleading means and avenues of knowledge. These are manifested in at least four contexts, which may be summarized as follows:

(a) Rejection of conjecture (al-zann) vis-a-vis certitude (al-yaqin)

This is a basic guideline that the Qur’an advocates not only in religious disputation but also in the context of learning, testimony and adjudication, and indeed in most other areas of human relations. Although certainty remains the ideal standard of knowledge, conjecture that inclines toward probability is nevertheless accepted as a basis of judgment in practical human affairs (mu’amalat), such as in court decisions that are often based on zann, for want of certainty, in order to facilitate resolution of disputes among people.

The Qur’an precludes conjecture and probability as a basis of belief, as faith must be based in conviction, which precludes zann. To this effect the text takes its deniers to task, for their blind faith in what is no more than conjecture: “... they follow not aught but conjecture, and surely conjecture avails nothing against the truth” (al-Qur’an 53: 28). Conjecture in this verse, as in many other verses of the Qur’an (al-Qur’an 10: 36; 6:116), is used in contradistinction to knowledge (‘ilm, yaqin), and it is ‘ilm acquired through hearing, seeing and reason that command acceptance. This is what the believers are instructed in another verse to “...follow not that of which you have no knowledge ('ilm). Surely the hearing and the sight and the heart are all accountable” (al-Qur’an 17: 36).

(b) Rejection of passion and untrammelled desire (hawa’)

Qur’anic references to hawab occur in contradistinction to correct guidance and truth. Thus it is provided in an address to the Prophet-King David: “O David! We made you a vicegerent in the earth so that you judge among people with truth, and follow not the passion that sways you away from the path of God” (al-Qur’an 38: 26).

Confusion that can be caused by passion, whether consisting of love, hatred or anger etc., can be so powerful as to obfuscate rational judgment. The basic message of this verse is that the best qualified of judges, even prophets, are not immune to the influence of hawa’. Equally clear is also the point that knowledge and truth must be pursued and vindicated through reasonable methods that are not influenced by personal sentiment and passion. The extensive influence of hawa’ is elsewhere indicated in the Qur’an, which provided in an address to Prophet Muhammad: “Have you seen (the predicament of) one who chooses for his god his own passion? Would you then be a guardian over him?” (al-Qur’an 25: 43).

Passion can dominate a person’s outlook totally in which case truth and reason can have but little place in his order of priorities. The Prophet Muhammad has been repeatedly warned as to the little or no impact his teachings could make on such persons. This evidence sustains the conclusion that rationality is a means to knowledge, discovery of truth, and justice only when it is not tainted by the vagaries of hawa’.

(c) Rejection of blind imitation

Islam’s outlook on reason is also based on its intrinsic merit that is inspired by nothing less than conviction, as opposed to blind imitation of the custom and legacy of the past. The objectivity of reason is to be ensured by its independence from conventional practice which does not necessarily provide correct knowledge and guidance. The past must be judged in the light of reason and rejected if it is found misleading. To this effect, the Qur’an has recounted the attitude of its deniers and the typical response they have given to the Prophet Muhammad: “Nay, we follow the way of our ancestors- even if their ancestors did not know nor were they rightly guided” (al-Qur’an 5:104; also 2:170). This was also the response that Prophet Abraham and many other prophets received from idol-worshipers but the text retorted it in such terms: both you and your ancestors were clearly misguided (al-Qur’an 21:52; 7:70; 11:87). These references to past events and prophets are made with a view to underline certain continuity of values, and in this instance, also to confirm that knowledge and truth stand on their own merit independently of custom and convention of the past.

(d) Rejection of oppressive dictatorship

The Qur’an takes to task those who indiscriminately obey arrogant dictators who are themselves averse to enlightenment and truth. Thus it is provided that the plea of those who say on the Day of Judgment: “O our Lord! Surely we obeyed our princes and great men, but they misled us” (al-Qur’an 33: 66) will have no merit. This is because, as the text explains, they rejected the correct guidance when it was conveyed to them. In another verse, the text refers to the Pharaoh who misled his people: “We sent Moses with our signs and clear evidence unto Pharaoh and his chiefs, but they followed Pharaoh’s command which failed to give the right guidance” (al-Qur’an 11: 96). In another verse it is stated that the Pharaoh persuaded his people to make light (of Moses), and they obeyed him. They were none other but a wanton folk (al-Qur’an 43: 54).

People are thus advised to use their own judgment and distinguish between guidance and misguidance in the light of reason. This is because they themselves, and not their self-styled leaders, would ultimately be held responsible. The intrinsic value of truth and knowledge must therefore remain unaffected by the indulgent claims of oppressive men who often seek to subjugate others for their own selfish interests.

Muhammad ‘Abduh (d.1905) held that there is no necessary conflict between religion and science. Both are founded in reason, and both study natural phenomena, albeit from different angles. Since the Qur’an encourages the Muslims to study and investigate the universe, Islam should be considered as a friend, not the enemy, of science. ‘Abduh also observed that there was nothing against true Islam in modern civilization and science, provided that Islam was rightly understood and rightly expressed.

In saying this ‘Abduh emphasized those Islamic tenets and principles which are fundamental to Islam and are not meant to be of local and temporary application.

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