Islam and Reason
The issue of modernity and religion has been central to the thesis of Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim in his article God save us from ‘religious’ laws. He has given the western views of relationship between the two. According to that paradigm, on the one hand, modernity is based on rational thought, as we have seen last week. Religion, on the other, is seen as formed on belief in the supernatural and its laws. To fuse the two is something that is seen impossible by western social scientists. To them, what is true about Christianity, whether in doctrine or in history, is true about any other religion.
The question here is: could Islam prove to be different and thus be successful in accepting modernity? Would giving the shariah a mandate over secular matters not stifle our development and return us to stagnation, similar to that of the Dark Ages of Europe?
To answer this question we need to ask other questions. Can Islam afford to imbibe the properties of modernity like structural differentiation and cultural secularization? Could it come into terms with rationality, allowing human reason a space in the realm of social and political territories of its societies which, as western social scientists assume, are like any other traditional society that is based on absolute fatalism?
These were the same questions that the famous father of modernizing Islam, the late Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, had to contend with. In the end his views had tremendous impact in the formation of modern Egypt. He tried to reconcile between revelation and reason and was convinced that the former really has had a place in Islamic doctrine, culture and history.
No one would doubt Abduh’s Islamic scholarship, being a graduate and professor in the celebrated al-Azhar. We always remember his famous hyperbole when he was asked to describe his experience in Europe after his first visit. He said: “I have seen Islam where there are no Muslims!”
Nor would anyone doubt his conviction about Islam since most of his theological views belong to the ultra-puritanical school of Wahabism. But perhaps both his adversaries in the religious establishment and his allies among the colonialists misunderstood him. He lost his professorial seat in Azhar. And as is pointed out by Peter Mansfield in a recent book, The Arabs, Lord Cromer, who believed that in the impossibility of modernizing Islam, felt that Abduh had, at a time, lost his faith.
Nevertheless, Abduh, ever confident like his teacher, Afghani, did pursue his conviction. He established the famous Dar-al-Ulum. There, he set the stage for shifting the opinion of Muslims from the traditionalist ground of the conservative establishment to a one that would put the Muslim world in harmony with the socio-political ideas of the contemporary West.
His efforts did yield results, though decades after his death. Dar-al-Ulum produced or attracted two categories of scholars; both of them versed in Islamic and western culture. On the one hand were those that called for an all-out embrace of western culture as a means of developing the Muslim world, people like famous novelist and literary critic, Dr. Taha Husein. On the other hand it produced scholars and reformers like the founder of Muslim Brotherhood, al-Banna and its chief ideologue, Syed Qutb. The last category rejected the adoption of western culture and imperialism but strongly harmonized the methodology and results of empirical science with Islamic tenets. Their views today have become predominant not only among the literati in secular specialties but also in the conservative circles, including the very al-Azhar that rejected them in the days of Abduh.
There have been other attempts in other parts of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent that were concurrently running along the Egyptian one explained above. The result has been the same. Islam, it is now believed, could re-launch itself back into politics without necessarily undermining the progress of humanity. Indeed it has the potential for immense contributions today as it did earlier. In my small judgement, the ongoing clamor for shariah in Nigeria is a manifestation of this belief.
However, I also strongly believe that despite the above attempts, we need to revisit the issues that defined modernity. This is important because there are some schools of Islamic philosophy still held in esteem among Muslims whose views contradict the tenets of empirical discourse. The remaining part of the article will address the issues of reason and fatalism.
Islam and Reason
In Christianity, both in doctrine and in history, as we have seen in previous articles, it has proved difficult to reconcile between the secular and the divine. In fact the experience of Europe in its early attempt to do so was bitter. But that is now history.
We can however say with the greatest degree of certainty that such a separation and conflict between the secular and the divine is improbable in Islam. But since rationalization has been considered as central to the secularization thesis, it is essential to briefly see what Islam says about reason.
There are verses (5:3; 16:89) that signify that God has in the Quran given an “exposition of all things.” When some of our learned preachers explain such verses, they give “all things” an absolute meaning. In doing so they often leave us – their students and listeners – with the impression that Islam has no room for human reason. In my view, and with all respect to their scholarship, this may not be precisely correct.
First, God has chosen human reason to be the tool through which conviction, the pre-requisite of belief and faith, is achieved. It refers to it with various names and in various places as akl, fikr, lubb, etc. The appeal to reason is so routine in the Quran that one could confidently say that without conviction (which can only be arrived at through reason) there could be no faith.
Reason, as Abduh argued, is a creation of God since man himself is created. Revelation, if truly divine, is a message from the same Creator. The two are therefore not suppose to conflict. By implication, whatever man would discover in the world of nature should not be different from what revelation has said about it. Thus early scientists like Galileo that developed their disciplines through empirical methods would not have found any obstacle under an Islamic civilization.
This does not mean that there will never be an instance when a perceived conflict between human empirical observation and revelation. Where the two varies, early scholars have held that such a conflict could occur only under one or more of three circumstances: the observation could be wrong, the revelation may not be authentic, or both could have been misunderstood.
But reason is not limited to empirical observations alone. Abstract concepts are also product of reason and are what largely makes human beings different from animals. This is the realm in which man is most likely to err because there are greater constraints to his perception. It could concern the past that may be too remote to recall, or the present that is covered by obscurity, or worse still, a future that is uncertain. Yet man is expected to maneuver his life amidst that remoteness, this obscurity and those uncertainties.
But human reason has limitations. Even in science, it is difficult and impossible, as Hawking said in his A Brief History of Time, for man to perceive time before the Big Bang. Neither can our brains comprehend the size of the universe. Social matters are often more complicated. The undercurrents that precipitate them are too numerous to disentangle meticulously. Ideas that will guide societies are not easy to arrive at. Tocqueville was honest when he said,
“Only minds singularly free from the ordinary preoccupations of life, penetrating, subtle and trained to think, can at the cost of much time and trouble sound the depths of these truths that are so necessary. Fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable to men for the conduct of daily life, and it is daily life that prevents them from acquiring them.”
It is in this context that the laws in the Quran come in handy, “as a mercy on mankind.” They have saved man the “much time and trouble” for arriving at fixed ideas. But we should note that the intervention of God has come at two levels: the fundamental and the detail. Generally, the fundamental covers everything from rituals to politics. Man is expected to develop ideas based on the framework of the fundamental according to his situation, experience and advancement. Take politics for example. Principles like shura (consulatation) and khilafah (vicegerency) are form the framework for the development of different political systems. Whether it is monarchy or democracy, the nation decides for itself.
The essence here is the essentiality of what Tocqueville would call the need for fixed ideas that do not waver with variations in human conditions. The concept of shura, adl (justice), and birr (virtue) for example will forever remain universally valid irrespective of history and geography. The basis has been formed for reason to build on.
Beyond this level of fundamentals, the Quran has gone further on certain issues which will be impossible for man to settle meticulously, or for which it is too dangerous to for the society to be left at the mercy of human shortcomings to tackle. Here God went into details. These issues are not restricted to rituals but also to some matters in economics and sociology. We have seen God prohibit usury and eating of swine. He has discussed details of inheritance, zakat distribution and marital relations. Here the scope of development is certainly limited for human reason.
Later scholars have thus found it important to redefine the relationship between revelation and reason as defined above by Abduh. For example, Syed Qutb saw the stand of Abduh as one equating revelation with reason. He moderated it by saying that revelation is firm and absolute while reason is flexible and inconsistent between times and people. It is only logical therefore to make reason subject to confirmation by the revelation or at least a variant of its interpretation. This has remained the predominant view today.
In Islam therefore, reason is not seen as being in competition with revelation. That is why science and literature flourished unhindered throughout Islamic civilization. And since the Quran is undoubtedly divine, empirical science has not to date disputed its assertions about creation. Neither could its values, principles and laws, when carefully studied and understood, be described as invalid or antiquated. In many areas, humanity, despite what is considered as its achievements, is yet to attain the heights of Islamic social values.
I do not intend to discuss under this section the secular in relation to religion in Islam, as that must have been clear from previous discussions in the series. What I intend to do is to discuss the secular in relation to fatalism (kadr), something that classical western scholars regard as the main feature in the worldview of traditional societies and adverse to the modern.
To begin with, fatalism as a doctrine of belief in the ability of God to influence our lives is the sixth element of Islamic faith (iman). This cannot be disputed. However, there have been two divergent opinions that vary only in the extent to which God exercises this influence. Some say it is total, leaving man both helpless and hopeless. They have their basis in the primary sources of Islamic faith. This group has a large membership over the centuries especially with the influence of Greek philosophy on Islamic thought. It is not possible to rationalize their stand. We better not attempt it.
I am more inclined to the second group. It believes that God has His traditions (sunan) and one of them is the freewill He offered mankind. Another tradition is that people are created on fitra (nature) that enables them be an organic part of the universe. Still another divine tradition is the provision of a code that is charged with guiding man to use his intelligence and freewill to live in peace and harmony with other people, the universe and God.
So the decision to obey or disobey is ours, not God’s (2:38-39; 90:10; 91:9, etc.). If God were to make the choice, then some injustice is perceivable. He would have then been seen to give freewill by one hand and turn round to cease it by the other. Exalted is He above injustice! He said in this regard, and His saying is true, that “whoso doeth right it is for his soul, and whoso does wrong it is against it. And thy Lord is not at all a tyrant to His slaves.” Effect here is unambiguously made a direct function of human cause.
I find this important to my life and as contributing positively to its quality particularly in this material world. The effort man puts is a pre-requisite to the assistance and blessing of God, as the Hausa adage would put it. Thus two of the twelve words of wisdom written in the testaments of Abraham and Moses was: “And that man hath only that for which he maketh effort. And that his effort will be seen.” (53:39-40).
So the attitude of people has an impact on their lives, positive or negative. If they wrongly subscribe their laziness and shortcomings to God, they will forever remain backward and their problems – social, political and whatever – will never be solved. If on the other hand they rise up and investigate the causes of their problems and attempt to overcome them, God will assist them and progress will be their fate. God has created the world a virgin. The crop we cultivate thereon is what we shall always reap. The fatalism therefore ascribed to traditional societies has no basis in the Muslim society, if seen from this angle.
Before moving further, let me hasten to say that there are situations that could be regarded as exceptions to this rule. There are instances when God may choose to intervene directly in our affairs. He may afflict us with a misfortune deliberately to test our faith (2:155; 29:2), to correct us (6:42; 30:41) or to punish us (6:43) for a wrong committed. He can also recall His servant when his time is due. But on all other occasions man is responsible for his death. It could be himself as in the case of suicide; or someone, as in the case of murder; or the society, as in the case of a poor condition of living. That is why life indices like infant mortality rates and life expectancy can be practically proven to be related to conditions of living. Thus God prohibited self-destruction (2:195) and made suicide (4: 29) and murder (4:93) great crimes that attract His greatest punishment and wrath in this world and in the Hereafter.
What is the implication of this thought to the material development of the Muslim society? What we said so far clearly illustrates that the Muslim World has the potential of advancing in science and technology without sacrificing its faith, unlike the situation in Europe and unlike what the western social sciences believe.
Throughout the series we have tried to explain the peculiarities of Islam that make it difficult for the practical Muslim to adapt western concepts and laws. In an attempt to do so, we have explored the theoretical foundation of the shariah for our mutual benefit.
I believe it is now clear that the issue of shariah to the Muslims is indeed a fundamental matter. During colonialism Muslims might have conceded to secular laws under force. However, their silence over it has continued to create more problems than it could solve. The situation is daily deteriorating. With democracy as a game of choice, compelling Muslims to continue with secularism is like asking them to “exchange that which is higher for that which is lower” even though we have agreed to live in a federation. They have chosen the higher and prayed that God save them from the lower.