Exploring Reason as an Innate Ability to Recognise Moral Truths: Part 2

Malick Elias

Is it possible that there are other conceptions of rational choice behaviour that do not see maximizing one’s interest in ‘a zero sum game’ as the object of human endeavour?  According to the Holy Quran, Adam (pbuh) fell from grace after being promised that by eating from a tree forbidden for him he would have immortality and power. [Pickthall commentary of chapter 20, verse:120] Elsewhere, it states that humans were created in the “best of statures”. [Pickthall on chapter 94, verse 4] Moreover, there are verses which also cites that man is neither by nature good nor bad, but has the potential to recognise both and choose between them. What is the dialectic here? Is man by his very nature evil or good; or  potentially both? Ok, how then can we understand the Aristote’s claim that ‘man is a rational animal’ in the context of this duality? Furthermore, of what benefit it is to us to have answers such as these?

The proposition that man is neither good nor bad by nature, but has the potential to be both, does not, on its own, tell us what he is inclined to be or what action he is likely to take in non conflicting and in conflicting relations. We can still assume that people will choose what best suits their own interests so we are left with essentially with a Machiavellian view of human nature, which only highlights the erroneous and the dark in human nature. I am not proposing that I can resolve this old philosophical debate, but to pursue the meaning of reason and what it means to be rational.

Human nature and rationale, not suggesting that they are both the same, have fired and continue to fire the imaginations of in classical and modern political Realists and Idealists across human civilisation. Anyone observing and commenting on human behaviour is likely to have been influenced by external events which shaped their perception of the world around them. For Machiavelli it was Florence, Italy, during a time of great turmoil. On the other hand for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) born nearly a year after Mecca, the city of his birth place, was attacked by foreign forces intent on destroying that city’s holiest shrine and a place of pilgrimage for nations and tribes of the region; the young Prophet to be would have grown up listening to the narratives. It is highly inconceivable that events just before his birth and those  still unfolding in regional wars between the Roman and Persians empires had no impact upon  both his post as well as pre-revelation cognition. Muhammad (pbuh) did not spontaneously become a Messenger of God, he was prepared for it from childhood depending upon how far one would like to take the cosmological argument. The point I am alluring to here is external factors in the shaping of human reasoning and rational not just an innate disposition, which I will soon explore further here in this article.

Simply put, realists follow in the tradition of its founding fathers such as Machiavelli until today are likely to espouse a ‘naked truth’ approach towards explaining human behaviour  seeking to explain rational choices by means of a scientific method. That is, in trying to keep to the tradition of empiricism which Machiavelli introduced in his observations of state relations. At the most basic level advocates of realpolitik and behaviorist operating within that tradition, namely rational choice theorists view the nature of human and interstate relationships, as a ‘zero sum game’ where all players are trying to maximise their own interests at the cost of all other actors. In that world view, religious or moral motives are not viable factors to be considered in the analysis of individual or collective choices. In Muslim movements, especially when in opposition or during times of conflict this view of human behaviour and of the world actors themselves tends to be appealing. Optimism is exchanged for pessimism and depending upon the political experience of the actors involved reason or the exercise of rationality is defined by concepts such as Taqeyah, al-Mudaarah and al-Mudaahanah (engagement with perceived enemies in a friendly manner while hiding ones true intentions), which are all legitimate Islamic forms of behaviour founded upon Quranic statements such as: “O you who have believed, do not take as intimates those other than yourselves, for they will not spare you [any] ruin. They wish you would have hardship. Hatred has already appeared from their mouths, and what their breasts conceal is greater. We have certainly made clear to you the signs, if you will use reason. Here you are loving them but they are not loving you, while you believe in the Scripture – all of it. And when they meet you, they say, “We believe.” But when they are alone, they bite their fingertips at you in rage. Say, “Die in your rage. Indeed, Allah is Knowing of that within the breasts.” [Sahih International translation of verses 118-119 from chapter 3] To the Believer this is a moral choice and the exercise of sound reasoning and judgement, but to his antagonist this is deceitfulness.

In all honesty, at the grassroots this remains a compelling view but it still does not provide a conclusive answer to the question as to what is the true nature of human reasoning. If reason be the pursuit of one’s own interest at a minimum cost to oneself, such an action cannot be said to be bad or good in itself, but only in contrast to the competing interests and or perspectives of the others involved in the contention. Hence, if the interests one seeks conflicts with those of others producing harm for them and removing harm from himself, then we will classify the selfish pursuit of that interest to be bad and the opposite is also true.

This type of deterministic approach towards understanding and interpreting human reason and behaviour was criticised heavily by Friedrich Hayek an Idealist and notable Western liberal economist. He objected to the maximising conception of rationality. “Reason,” he argues “meant mainly a capacity to recognise truth, especially moral truth, when one met it, rather than a capacity of deductive reasoning, from explicit premises. (F.Hayek,1964,84 mentioned in Brandon Harnish’s 2010 article Alasdairy MacIntyre and A.F.Hayek’s Abuse of Reason) In the idealist view humans have to ability to make sound judgements through the exercise of reason and the use of the mind. Man is not bounded by the flaws in his nature. It is ironic that it was Adam Smith, the author of the Wealth of Nations, who according to (Dr Andrew Walters, 1996) inclined towards the realist tradition that became the more famous of the two. Walters citing Smith from his ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)’

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.’ [Macfie and Raphael, 1976 edition] At the least Smith is seen by many commentators of his works as attempting to bridge realists and idealist views of human interests but in the aforementioned quote he is clearly stating that those who we may be grateful towards because of their services to us, upon which we have come to rely on are not performing that service out of love for us but out of the pursuit of their self interest.

In the Holy Quran too, on the one hand, it does not disqualify the idea of maximizing in human behaviour, in fact its explains that this is the reason for the down fall of Adam, the first man: “But Satan whispered to him and said: “Shall I lead you to the Tree of Eternity (that if you eat of it) and possession that will not deteriorate?” [Sahih International translation of 20:120] And as I have previously cited it asks us to be cautious when dealing with those who do not have our interest at heart.

However, this is only one side of the dual nature of the human species. We were not left alone in a game of the survival of the fittest, humans are capable of making moral decisions both selfish and selfless in nature. The theodicy of man’s nature is an allegory of his perfect creation; his ability to err or intentionally commit the most heinous acts does not diminish God’s beauty within him nor his ability to settle for less so that his neighbour too can be satisfied.  In the verse of the fitrah another side of human nature is mentioned: “So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.” [Sahih International translation of 30:30] This verse is understood by many Quranic commentators to be highlighting an innate human inclination towards goodness, denoting that through the exercise of will (determination), humans can rise above their potential inhumanity. This understanding correlates with the aforementioned idea put forward by Hayek, namely, reason also meant that ability to recognise ‘moral truth’ when one met it. But does he chooses to act in the interest of truth to what is morally correct for himself or for the collective?

Human behaviour is highly complex and no single model of rational choice or games theory can accurately predict outcomes. Humans can be selfless when we expect them to be selfish and selfish when we expect them to make sacrifices for the greater interests of others. If we know this, then of what use of discussing ‘Dual Nature theory, Fitrah theory or Rational Choice’ theories at all? My view is that since we know that human behaviour and choice cannot be predicted to the point of eradicating uncertainty, human choice needs a third agency to help it make reasoned choices which both maximise individual and the interest of the collective. Epistemologically, that third agency for Muslims is the Holy Quran and a range of Islamic traditional texts and sources which shapes their social and political imagination of the world. There are other agencies or intelligences at play too; so there may be a third, fourth and fifth and so on … But strongest amongst those agencies would be the religious, cultural and social forces that shape human perception and at the most basic level ‘religious forces’ have to come to common ground: “Say, “O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.” But if they turn away, then say, “Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him].” [Sahih International translation of 3:64]

Today, as we witness the drama of Secularists in Muslim societies aggressively pursuing the imposition of their ‘liberal views’ and versions of ‘modernity’ upon the collective conscience – or perhaps, depending upon from where you are standing – the Islamists demanding a return of Islam to the public spaces; both have to understand the rationalities at play and return to common terms.

For believers in Allah the ontological and imaginative flavour of Tawheed epitomizes the unity, equality and brotherhood of Believers. This however, is complicated on the ground that secularists living in Muslim countries are Muslims themselves albeit by name or cultural entitlement and whether Believers like it or not they are in the same boat with their (Cultural) Muslim counterparts and therefore have to find a common space for peaceful coexistence. Liberal Secularists will not be perceived as brothers but hypocrites within the ranks. Only Allah can determine the truth of that matter of course, but if we were to explore the epistemological sources which shaped the Islamic perception of self, the world and others, from as early as the Meccan period of the Prophets life, revelation in opposition, polarized society between a class of believers on the one hand and rejecters of the call to Islam, on the other. It referred to one class by such names as: al-Mala’ (ruling clique), al-Mustakbirun (the arrogant and proud), al-Musrifun (the extravagant and wasteful), al-Mutrafun (the affluent); and the class of Believers, by names such as al-Mustad’afun (the oppressed and the deprived), an-Naas (mankind, the people), al-araadhil (the vile and outcast). As Islam expanded its adherents and momentum, during the late Meccan and Medinan years, the ontological flavour and dialogue changes and develops, thus the ruling clique and upholders of the old order – the Mushirkoon or Multi-theist  borrowing the term from  Ali Shari’ati – becomes the Kaafir.

Before the advent of Islam, KAAFIR literally meant a farmer; from the root KAFARA (to conceal), which kaafir, the verbal noun was derived. Later it comes to represent a new idiomatic and axiomatic sense – one who denies the logical truths and arguments presented by the Quran and the Prophet, by deliberately concealing the soundness of it claims.  In a similar context was the word Mushrik; literally this means an associate. Since the ideo-religious system of Mecca was Multitheistic, this later came to denote one who was opposed to Tawheed (Islamic Transcendental Monotheism), that links power to moral responsibility, replacing Shirk (Multi-theisism) as an ontologically impenetrable justification of power. Shirk is the noun derivative from Mushirk the active participle, literally one who associates falsehoods with Truth as presented by God – be it another deity representative of an unjust belief system that enslaves humanity to themselves or a desire to withhold from embracing truth when facing it.

The sum of it all is that the Quran (divine revelation) and the Sunnah (divine wisdom) provide the epistemological background of both intuitive knowledge (Ilm Dururi) and speculative knowledge (Iml Nazari, Iktisabi) in the formation of Muslim rationality. In explaining the Muslim episteme both sources of knowledge are interdependent upon each other and are even difficult to demarcate between; as intuition is impossible to separate from experience in understanding the human mind and consciousness. Having said this, one must bear in mind is that the reference here is primarily to ‘Believers’ and those who have made a conscious choice to live their lives based upon Revelation. This is necessary so as to distinguish between those having an attachment to Islam as a culture or religion and base their rationality and raison detre purely upon secular laws and lifestyle. Those who are merely Muslim by name but having made deep and conscious affiliation to various rational choice systems.

There are also another set of claimants to belief; those who take up the task of harmonising their ideals with reality, by dedicating their lives – as true scientist would – towards striking an accord between the expressed will of God through revelation and His practice becoming manifest through the human reasoning and choice. Those who want to understand the intricacies of choice, culture, ideology, human thought and actions in the  universal divine will of the creator. Those whose deepest aspirations are to bridge the gap between the multiplex of rationalites that keep humans divided across cultures and belief systems, they are those who relentlessly circumspect their decisions in the pursuit of justice and winning Allah’s pleasure. Which brings us to one of the most important definitions of rationality; rationality as criticism, in part 3.

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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.