In pursuit of Reason and the Rational: Part 1

‘It is the small creative minority of men who really matter; the men who create works of art or of thought, the founders of religions, and the great statesmen. These few exceptional individuals allow us to glimpse the real greatness of man. But although these leaders of mankind know how to make use of reason for their purposes, they are never men of reason. Their roots lie deeper – deep in their instincts and impulses, and in those of the society of which they are part. Creativeness is an entirely irrational , a mystical faculty…’ (K.Popper, 1995)

The age of the great Prophets, the founders of “religions,” has been assigned to the pages of antiquity and never again to be repeated in human history. However the spirit of prophecy lives on in each of us awaiting appropriate conditions to manifest itself and change some aspect of our social environment forever. It lives on in the aspirations of social reformers (Mahdiyuun), scholars and scientists (Ulamaa). And it throbs in the hearts of the righteous (Saalihuun) and those giving their lives to upholding truth and justice (Shuhadaa). The legacy of prophecy continues in the great humanitarian achievements of men and women who leave their impact upon human history.

Prophecy – for the want of a better word – may not be the best way to describe continuos human achievement in advancing man’s knowledge about the Universe, the world and his social environment. Perhaps human wisdom, enlightenment, knowledge and even inspiration are better terms to describe our accomplishments as a species. Why I find prophecy an apt and purposeful description here is; despite God has stopped speaking to man in the manner known to us from the scriptures and religious records He has never ceased inspiring the thoughts and ideas that constantly change our world. It has been said in Muslim tradition that “The (good) dreams of a believer is a branch of the forty-six parts of prophecy,” and even in waking consciousness some extraordinary people continue to be inspired even though they were not Prophets.  

Any Muslim is bound to face the wrath of those who cannot venture beyond the apparent asymmetry of the above claims made so far. In fact, any such response is expected when one tampers with “the world” as we know it to be. What I aim to do here is twofold: one, to briefly map the development of Islamic intellectual thought and its quest for Muslim Rationality; and two, to sketch a popular framework for understanding the dynamics of reason and revelation, which was at the heart of the quest for bringing about an intellectual revolution.

It is still widely believed that there is a limited role for reason or the use of it in understanding or determining the meaning of Islamic doctrines. The Quran is the indisputable word of Allah and His servants are obliged to follow its dictates without understanding the causality behind the ordained. This type of reactionary-conservatism has survived in Islam throughout its historical development and has been to a great extent responsible for decline and extinction of the Muslim scientific and intellectual achievements. In answering the question: ‘Why didn’t the Scientific Revolution happen in Islam?’ One of the five distinct causes, which Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy (1991) offers as an answer was Muslim attitudes towards philosophy. Explaining this reason, he states: “The acquisition of positive, rational knowledge – or, what is more or less the same thing, the pursuit of science – is determined to a great deal by the overall idea system which prevails at a given time in society. Overall idea systems – by which is meant beliefs, attitudes, social mores, general assumptions, and specific religious and ideological positions – are of the most profound in human history… The notion of rationality – which is so crucial to science – exists within every idea system although the importance assigned to it may vary.”

Building upon the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of Rationality, which Hoodbhoy sees as crucial to the growth of science, he adds, ‘the will to power’; the urge to have control over the events of the outer-world, stripped of it humans become mere buoys that float on the waves. Why some societies manage to nurture science to a greater degree than others? He answers, “if science is viewed as a consequence of man’s ‘will to power’ it is to the extent that that society posses this inherent drive.” Rationality ‘the search for causal connections,’ as he understands it, will become less intense once it is admitted that God’s Will, forms part of the matrix of connections. In that, once this belief is taken to fatalistic conclusions fewer individuals will be motivated to expand the boundaries of human knowledge.

Hoodbhoy is careful not to say that the Muslim belief in Qadr has been responsible for the lack of impetus needed to bring about an intellectual and scientific revolution in Islam. He asserts that Islamic society in its heyday was not a fatalistic society. The early debates which took place between the Qadarites (voluntarists) and the Jabarites (determinists) and the popular acceptance of the former testifies to this. He blames the ascendancy, in later periods, of Asharite theology, that rejected any connection between cause and effect and or secondary causality for mortally weakening the ‘will to power’ in Islamic societies. The factors that Hoodbhoy mentions in his book, that can be attributed “to discouraging learning for learning sake”, are well-founded arguments. However, it would be erroneous to understand his arguments to be promoting the philosophical method and disparaging the theology of Muslim dialecticians (Muttakalimeen) or any methodology above the other for that matter – providing that it was not inherently fatalistic.

The great irony today is that, the pioneers whose methods were once criticised, for being the antithesis of Islam, continue to be a source of pride for Muslim scientific achievements. In an imperfect world no one is perfect and determined failures should not be seen as a testimony proving the complete falsity of the propositions and assumptions of past theories offered. Neither should we falsify a theory on the basis of the personality involved and on grounds of mere prejudice to a group or a cause. Reason and knowledge do not grow without mutual criticism. As Popper so rightly puts it, adding that the only way to plan the growth of knowledge is to develop those institutions, which safeguard criticism and the freedom of thought.

Reason, or the use of it, in early Islam was understood to be an analytical process that was based upon derived at principles of the Quran and the prophetic traditions. This rudimentary system of extending the applicability of the law to newly-undocumented circumstances was known as ar-Ra’y (personalised opinion) by applying the Qawaa’idil ‘Aamah (general principles) of the Shari‘ah or body of law. Umar Ibn al-Khataab in one of his settlements between disputing parties applied the general principle in the hadith: “Laa Darar wa laa Diraar (Harm or inconvenience (to oneself and others is disallowed),” to resolve a dispute between Muhammad Ibn Salamah and his neighbour concerning an agrarian water passage passing through Muhammad’s land providing water to his neighbour’s garden. Umar (ra) is reported to have allowed the canal of his neighbour to pass through Muhammad’s land since it was of benefit to his neighbour and did not harm or inconvenience Muhammad. Thus, in comparing the general principle of the permissibility of sharing a mutual benefit without inconvenience, as in the case of Muhammad, was the principle upon which Umar based his judgement. Arguably, this was not viewed as R’ayi meaning Qiyaas (analogy) as such, since the latter only became an established source of evidence in the later developments of the Muslim schools of jurisprudence. However it provided the basis for the development of al-Qiyaas and the extension of other deductive methods of analysis that had its basis in the exercise of human reasoning (Ra’y). Other types of subsidiary sources used for adapting revelation to new social circumstances were collective decision making such as consensus, (al-‘Ijmaa) the use of custom (al-‘Urf), equitable judgement (al-Istihsaan) and judgements made upon the considerations of public interest (al-Maslahah)… Each of these analytical and evaluative processes, undoubtedly represented a rational basis that operated alongside the interpretation and implementation of revelation (Quran) and divine wisdom (Sunnah). The application of these methods is what reason or the use of it meant in the early period of the development of the sources of the Islamic Shari’ah.

Another irony is that, despite what both Revelationalists and Traditionalists say about the validity of the use of reason in Islam, these sources not only establish the role of human reasoning in Islam, but also indicated the extension of divine knowledge by rational methods. Given that statement being true, one will then understand the role of revelation, acting as guide to the human rational or intellection ‘Aql or Ta’qqul,’ a kind of ‘Islamic rationality’ – In this book there is certainty and guidance for the conscious of doing good. (2:1) Revelation therefore, did not intend to impinge upon the human capacity to organise and manage his environment, but only to guide it. After all, it is a widely held Muslim belief that man is God’s vicegerent or Khalifah of the earth. Is it not evident that reason or the use of it, is but an extension of God’s Will manifested through the human spirit and rational.

Human reasoning was also central to the idea of human responsibility as in all legal systems that without the capacity to use it one cannot be judged under the law itself, or deem to have full legal personality. Reason or the act of reasoning cannot be merely intuitive in origin. It is both intuitive, a product of our social and intellectual environments, nurture as well as resulting from nature; our human capacity to infer and deduce by necessity. The act of reasoning is also seen as the antithesis of being irrational, (al-Jahl) and, in Arabic, it is also analogous to limiting ones experiences (al-Man’u).

Reason therefore has a restricting quality to it a sense that it requires a framework from which to one appears to be rational. If this makes any sense, it suggests that there are competing rationalities at play. Not only from the context of sounding sensible, but also from the complex nature of the social practices, customs and symbols reflected in our communication that determines the character of our rationale. This is clearly so because we can sense that our knowledge of ourselves and our environments are in some way the production of the societies and the collectives from which we are a part. Hence, the greater our exposure to the world around us the deeper and expansive our intuitive and imaginative faculties are likely to become. Even so, to another people untouched by our experiences we too can be perceived by them to be irrational!

Thomas Khun (1970) argued that every scientist has an emotional commitment to his theory; that scientists will continue to work on their theories, finding ways to fit suppositions that do not harmonise with their paradigms or particular scientific communities. Popper, in contrast to Khun, postulated that the true scientist falsifies his theories by testing them against experience and observation and should not have any emotional commitments to them. What both of them agree upon, and is what interests us here, is that knowledge begins from a set of assumptions made about what is truth and falsehood – that it is theory-laden. This espouses that the experiences of each community produces its own ‘rationality’ – its own explanations of phenomena – and universally at any one time there may be more than one rationality in operation.

The idea of there being a multitude of rationalities is not foreign to the Quranic ethos. “And We have not sent a Messenger except in the language of his people so that he could make things clear to them…”  (14:4) Although the general reference here is to language it does not exclude the wider implication of a Prophet being sent from amongst a particular people so that he could identify their ills and recommend to them change from within the background of their own social and cultural experiences. Reference to a law, as in a system or regulating human behaviour (al-Minhaaj), is expressed in other parts of the Quran as al-Furqaan, or as a ‘criterion’: The ability of a community to ascertain or determine what is equitable and just for it. Even reference to that ability being obtainable to any believer has been mentioned. “O you who believe!  If you are always conscious of Allah, He will grant you a Criterion, cover your mistakes and short comings, and forgive you.  Allah is full of grace and virtue. ” (5:48) One obvious meaning is: He will cover your mistakes and short comings when ascertaining the right from wrong providing the intention is to do justice and bring about harmony to people existence. As in the case of the Mujtahid (thinker, scholar, scientist) in the exercise of human reasoning: “If he is wrong he is granted a reward for his efforts and if correct he receives the reward for his effort and another for arriving at the truth.” (Hadith)

The role of history and of society, the cultural and lingual aspects which impact upon evolution of a people’s perceptions of the world cannot afford to be ignored in the analysis of the meaning of a people rationality. Though humans are imperfect and probably because of their innate sense of competitiveness we still have to be careful not to give full preference for some law like scientific models of understanding the human complex rationale.  If the rationale itself being –  that “individuals seek to maximise power, or at least to satisfy, certain values or gains at the lowest possible costs to themselves – what is the use of understanding virtuosity?” And why some chose to end their life for a “just cause.” The world of humans cannot only be about a greedy species of conscious power maximisers as some would like us to believe.

Malick Elias

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Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.

One thought on “In pursuit of Reason and the Rational: Part 1”

  1. Your thoughts that we might be ‘inspired’ to truths (conscience, hunch, brain-wave), and that Post-Muhammad (saw) with the demise of traditional revelation from God to man, this ‘inspiration’ which is a lesser form of revelation, might be accessible to each of us, is interesting. Given that the Prophet (saw) instructed us at his final sermon to deliver the message of Islam to the far corners of the earth, there is some correlation with the ‘sharing’ in the Prophetic mission. I guess we must be extra vigilant that this does not then open the door to alterations of the religion itself (a note to our selves, our egos, and our earnestness to be true, and true to the Prophet’s mission).

    In terms of why a ‘scientific enlightenment’ didn’t happen in the Muslim world – well I actually believe it did: the so-called ‘golden age of Islam’. The real question is really about power. Why weren’t Muslims able to colonise their ‘enlightenment’ to the rest of the world? Answer 1: political instability against Mongols, crusaders. Answer 2: political instability when Muslim emirs, sultans lose focus on notions of unity and the ‘bigger picture’ and waylay themselves to tribal backwardness (asabiyya) and struggle instead for worldly gain for their in-group and self interest. (They fight themselves.) I may even lump sectarian conflicts into this category too (ottoman and mughal versus safavids etc). Answer 3: Political instability that results in the loss of significant intellectual centres (Baghdad via Mongols; Cordoba et al via Reconquesta) and subsequent weakening of critical thinking. The turbulence and insecurities thereof, politically, render intellectuals to rehash rather than be critical; they support powers-that-be who require allegiance at such times, rather than the other way around: powers-that-be should support intellectuals to be critical. And answer 4: Europeans – out of their own turmoil – became masters of war (a point conceded by S Huntingdon in his ‘Clash of Civilisations’ – that is to say, civilisationally, they were not any ‘better’ than others of the time; rather, they were simply the best in the arena of war.) Their powers-that-be LEARNT to support their intellectuals to ensure their intellectuals used every critical faculty to undermine ‘the other’ (other Europeans to other civilisations ripe for colonisation) for the benefit of their in-group’s powers-that-be.

    Anyway must dash. More thoughts later, inshallah. I’m enjoying your posts btw. Take that for granted bro.

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