A child may dislike the prospect of receiving a vaccine, for what he fears is a needle passing through his skin, unaware and uncaring of the benefits that he will be receiving due to it. We may as well be in the position of the child with respect to Allāh, the difference being that His Wisdom is unfathomable by anyone but He.1
Such is not the case for humans. Christopher Hitchens writes, “We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”2 Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with New Atheist rhetoric would not find such a statement particularly surprising, but would also be aware of their hypocrisy concerning the very rationality they celebrate. Despite the hypocrisy, however, the attack for once in our history can be taken seriously, given the loss of our intellectual heritage and our current intellectual status. It is not the case either that their emphasis of rationality is always an exaggeration. Our celebration of reason by no means implies our agreement to worship the intellect. Nor does it, on the other hand, indicate that this tool of reason is one that we will treat lightly.
The presence of the ʿaql is a precondition for the reception of the naql (revelation). In other words, possessing reason is necessary if the categories of taklīf3 (defining law) are to apply (hence the treatment of the insane as ghayr mukallafīn4). If the naql is to be comprehended, the ʿaql is necessary, which makes it all the more absurd to dismiss reason. Those who do so would in one form or another be resorting to the Münchhausen Trilemma, which would itself fall, as in order to prove that no truth can be proven, one would be required to himself engage in logical reasoning and rational justification and himself be making a proposition, the value of which can either be true or false, keeping the Law of the Excluded Middle in mind.5 It would merely lead to absurd self-contradictions and rational inconsistencies if one is to take this extreme with regard to reason.
Pseudo-Traditionalists often attack reason, forgetting the importance that it holds in the very same Tradition they claim to uphold. Reason is, as al-Juwaynī defines, “the reflection that seeks that which establishes either certain knowledge or the preponderance of conviction.”6 The tripartite division of the modes of existence into the necessary, possible, and the impossible was a form devised by the Greeks, with Aristotle having been the first to formulate such a division in his de Interpretatione.7 He had also been the first to formalize logic and syllogistic reasoning, which our Tradition has inherited thereafter. Despite such contributions, however, the Greeks had also been responsible for the development of ideas in direct contradiction with Islamic principles. And even such ideas, unsurprisingly, were inherited by the Muʿtazilites and the falāsifa.
The same tools, however, had been utilized by the Ashʿarīs and the Māturīdīs — the most prominent theological schools in our history — to both rationally defend Orthodox doctrines and refute Heterodox ones. To arrive at a truth and to defend it from falsehood, one must use his reason. Such applies even more so presently, given the reverence of reason has risen in the West and elsewhere following the Enlightenment. While there are many who embrace Islam due to positive behavioral traits of the Muslims they encounter, there are also those who find the beauty of the dīn in its rational coherence and defensibility. Even for a Muslim, being able to rationally defend one’s faith grants him a form of contentment inaccessible via other means. And indeed, it is the case that one, before attaining spiritual fulfillment, may need to resolve his doubts through rational means before striving to establish a firm spiritual connection with his Creator, for the establishment of such a connection rests on conviction.
Reason is a tool — a guide that we use to arrive at a truth. The foundations of our religion itself is based on reason. However, this by no means implies that it cannot be biased, for although we may speak of employing reason, whatever action a human commits is based upon two fundamental factors: incentives and impulses. No man commits an action except that he intends to achieve something by it. Even if an individual commits an action randomly (say, he waves his hand for no justifiable reason other than that he felt the need or the urge to do so), it cannot be said that there is no incentive involved in his case, for it is clear that his incentive was to satisfy his impulse.
The same applies when the application of reason is concerned. For reason is not what we employ in every single regard, but rather it is a tool that we employ in regards in which our personal interests are concerned. One may quite well be not preoccupied with the reasoning behind the Theory of Relativity, but may be a brilliant philosopher concerned with morality and moral reasoning. Thus, even if he is given a lackluster reasoning that he may easily be able to refute, he will not necessarily engage in such due to his lack of concern for the subject. In other words, he does not have an incentive as to why he should engage in it to begin with.
Rational inquiry may be divided into two categories in terms of honesty: inquiry which is honest and inquiry which is not. If the mode of inquiry to begin with is dishonest, or such is the mode of reasoning, then the inquirer or the reasoner will find himself, by definition, being inconsistent in his principles and applications of reason. The point once again ties back to the human tendency of acting on incentives and impulses, for one does not engage in even honest reasoning and inquiry without a motive, let alone in its dishonest counterpart.
And this does not pertain only to the case of the inquirer. The speaker himself is not absolved of the responsibility to rectify his motives and suppress his impulses. He must keep in mind the ḥadīth that “actions are [judged] by intentions,” and must not respond to inquiries to appear knowledgeable, especially when the most cognizant of individuals have never shied away from saying “lā adrī” (“I don’t know”) even in the presence of great audiences. Imām Mālik himself had never issued a legal opinion until he was authorized by seventy of his teachers to do so.
The principle of tawaqquf8 is most often associated with Imām Aḥmad, who had exercised it heavily in his responses. Ibn al-Jawzī cites a multitude of reports to this effect, writing that al-Marrūdhī, one of the Imām’s pupils, said, “More times than I can count, I asked Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal about something and he said, ‘I don’t know.’”9 He cites al-Yamāmī, who said, “I heard Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal say, ‘Many times I’ve waited three years before knowing what to think about a problem of law.’”10 He also cites al-Athram, who recounted,
I often heard Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, when someone asked him a question, say that he didn’t know. He would say this even when he was aware of what had been said about it. When asked to give the answer he preferred, he would note that there was a difference of opinion. What he meant when he said “I don’t know” was that he didn’t know which view to choose. I often heard him say “I don’t know,” and then start citing opinions.11
What may begin as a simple question may transform into a debate between the parties involved, and should that be the case, adab must not be lost by the speaker. Debating was in many cases avoided by the salaf, for they knew that arguments were not what most engaged in to pursue the truth but to uplift the ego. Although argumentation neither necessarily entails reprehensible motives, and nor is a necessary entailment thereof, it nonetheless possesses the potential for such, and the actualization of that potential consequently hardens the heart. What one preoccupies himself with during an argument is proving his opponent wrong, and forgets that the reason his engagement to begin with should be motivated by the desire to seek the pleasure of Allāh (ﷻ).
Given the current climate, arguments will, of course, be inevitable. In the Classical Period and throughout all of Islamic History, debates have occurred. It is necessary to a considerable degree if minds are to develop, and the development of minds are crucial to the developments of traditions and civilizations. When one, inevitably, does engage in such, he must purify his motives and intentions and not let himself be carried away by his impulses.
Al-Ghazālī writes, “Reason knows the way to safety, while human instinct (al-ṭabʿ) urges one to travel that route. For the love of self and disdāʿīn of pain is ingrained in every human. Thus, you have erred in stating that reason (al-ʿaql) is a motivator (dāʾīn). Nay, reason is only a guide (hādin), while impulses and motives (al-bawāʿith wa al-dawāʿī) issue from the self (al-nafs), based on information provided by reason.”12 If the motive, thus, is corrupt, so will be the reasoning. As such, before beginning to question oneself on the strength of one’s reasoning, it would be helpful if it is subsequent to an inquiry into one’s motives so as to determine whether one intends to seek the truth or justify a presupposed conclusion.
- As al-Ghazālī writes, concerning His Name al-Ḥakīm, “Al-Ḥakīm — the Wise — is the one who possesses wisdom. Wisdom is equivalent to knowledge of superior things through the highest modes of knowing. But the most sublime thing of all is God — may He be praised. And we have seen that no one other than He can truly know Him.” See al-Ghazālī, “The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God,” The Islamic Texts Society, pp. 127-128.
- Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great,” Twelve Publishing, pg.5.
- The categories of taklīf governs a man’s liberty of action, and is generally divided into five separate categories: wājib (obligatory), mustaḥabb (recommended), mubāḥ (permissible), makrūh (detested), ḥarām (prohibited).
- Those who are not held accountable, i.e., those upon whom the categories of taklīf do not apply.
- The Law of the Excluded posits that for every proposition p, either p or its negation must be true, and both cannot be true or false simultaneously.
- Al-Juwaynī, “Kitāb al-Irshād,” pg. 3, Garnet Publishing.
- Anthony Kenny, “Ancient Philosophy,” pp. 130-131, Clarendon Press.
- Exercising silence in the event that one is not convinced about the answer.
- Ibn al-Jawzī, “Virtues of the Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal,” NYU Press, Vol. 1, pg. 507.
- Al-Ghazālī, al-Mustaṣfā min ʿIlm al-Uṣūl al-Fiqh, 2 vols. (Cairo: al-Āmirīya Press, 1332/1904), 1:61.